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Go Beyond the Wall with editor James Lowder

Posted on July 10, 2012 by Flames

Beyond the Wall is Smart Pop Books’ latest essay anthology. This book covers George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (from A Game of Thrones to A Dance with Dragons) and features a foreward by New York Times bestselling author R.A. Salvatore. Editor, James Lowder is here with his take on the book, and putting together anthologies in general.

Exploring George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire

    Original essay anthologies are a chaotic business, at least for me. Despite what anthologists may want to pretend, there’s really no way to tell when you start a book where it will end up or how, precisely, it will hold together. And there’s usually a point, after someone has missed a deadline or turned over a submission that’s completely different from what you’d solicited, when you find yourself wondering if it will hold together.

    Anthologies are something of a leap of faith for the contributors, too. As a writer, you know the details of your contribution and what you hope readers will take away from it. At some point during the book’s review process you’ve probably seen the table of contents for proofing or PR purposes, so you’re at least aware of the titles of the works surrounding yours. Maybe you’ve even read one or two of the other essays in draft form, if the editor felt you should see how someone else was handling a subject. Typically, though, you’re going to have to wait for the printed book to see the full context in which your work is presented.

    That context matters. Plucked from an anthology, an individual contribution derives its meaning largely from its own contents. Encountered in the book, it carries additional meanings brought about by its consonances or dissonances with everything else presented between the covers. An anthology is not merely a collection of separate and distinct works slapped together, but a creative statement in itself, with a theme and a structure all its own. At least, it will be if the anthologist takes the job of building it seriously.

    I’ve seen anthologies described as literary mix tapes, and there’s some truth to that. There’s a certain amount of High Fidelity’s Rob Gordon in every anthologist. We all have our own rules for pacing a book and selecting the component parts. But there’s more to the process, particularly with original anthologies. Through the book’s submission guidelines, the editor shapes the form and length and topic of the individual works and links them, at least loosely, in a shared purpose. The resulting pieces express each writer’s vision and style, but within the book’s overarching framework. In this, they function more like solos within a larger jazz composition than a sequence of individual songs.

    An experienced anthologist selects the soloists to jam on the project’s theme to maximize the possibility for interesting resonances and enlightening discords. At least that’s how I approach choosing authors for a project such as Beyond the Wall.

    Like the rest of the anthology creation process, this is not a precise science. The book’s table of contents includes some names that should be obvious to fans of the Ice and Fire series, such as Daniel Abraham, who is well known for his comic book adaptations of the novels; A Game of Thrones RPG designer Jesse Scoble; and Westeros.org founders Linda Antonsson and Elio M. García, Jr. The other writers found their way onto my call list by various routes, some fairly straightforward, others quite circuitous. I’d had the pleasure of working with a few of the contributors before, such as Gary Westfahl on his excellent Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and I knew they would have something interesting to offer. I’ve long admired the work of both Caroline Spector and John Jos. Miller and jumped at the chance to include them. Matt Staggs and Alyssa Rosenberg had written compelling commentary about the series, and I hoped to have them explore the subject further for Beyond the Wall. And then there were the wild cards, the writers whose work I might have been familiar with before the project, but who ended up pitching potential essay topics to me because of their connections to other writers or to other anthologies published by BenBella. I take it as a sign of an anthology’s vitality when the editor includes at least some selections by people he or she has never worked with before. In the case of Beyond the Wall, that’s a clear majority of the contributors.

    As an anthologist, I’m always humbled by the trust that writers show in me when they hand me their work for an anthology. (Remember what I said earlier about pieces taking on additional meanings because of the essays surrounding them and the way the book as a whole is structured.) Whether or not that trust is justified comes down to reader reaction. If I’ve done my job well, the individual essays within Beyond the Wall will shine as solos, but as you make your way through the collection, you’ll find the pieces working together in unexpected ways. Truth be told, there are aspects to the final book that surprised me, too, as I was assembling the table of contents. It’s that element of surprise and the chance for discovery that comes along with it that makes editing—and reading—Smart Pop anthologies such an exhilarating experience.

    James Lowder – 2012

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