Karl Johanson Will Eat a Mars Bar if 1000 People Read This Interview

KJohansonKarl Johanson is the editor of Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine. He co-edited Under the Ozone Hole Magazine, a science fiction publication, for six years. He has also had several several non-fiction writing credits, including “Alternate Therapy for your Computer” in Stitches Magazine. Check out Neo-opsis’ website at http://www.Neo-opsis.ca/ and Karl’s website at http://members.shaw.ca/steph19/

David Steffen: Karl, thanks for coming. I really appreciate you taking the time for this interview.

My first question: Which do you see more of, fantasy or science fiction?

Karl Johanson: The descriptions for fantasy and science fiction overlap and sometimes completely contradict each other. But to answer as best I can, we receive more fantasy than science fiction. Of the stories my assistant editor passes on to me for final decisions, there is more science fiction than fantasy.

David: Are there any sub-genres you’d like to see more of, such as urban fantasy, near-future science fiction, etc.?

Karl: It’s difficult to anticipate what we might need. We may get several good stories featuring, say life under the ice on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Even if they’re all good, I’m unlikely to accept a large number of stories with such a similar premise. So if I say we’d like to see more stories featuring something like exploring parallel universes, it may be counter productive.

David: Is there anything you see too much of in the slush pile?

Karl: We’ve received stories that were severely sexist or racist. A character who happens to be sexist and/or racist is a valid element of a story, but that is quite different from a story that blatantly claims that a given sex or race are inherently evil or incompetent. We haven’t received many like that, but even one seems too many.

David: Is there anything you’d like to see more of in the slush pile?

Karl: Excellent stories. To be more detailed, I think a story tends to be better if it doesn’t just present an idea, but rather shows possible implications of the idea.

David: What proportion of submissions do you read all the way through?

Karl: My assistant editor, Stephanie Ann Johanson reads all of the submitted stories and passes on less than five percent of them to me. Stephanie is better with helpful suggestions than I am, so perhaps it’s best that she’s the first reader. Of the ones that come to me, I read almost all of them all the way through before making final decisions.

David: Are there any upcoming stories that you are particularly looking forward to sharing with the world? Can you tell us a little bit about them?

Karl: We are including a poem by Canadian writer Dave Duncan in issue 17. Dave is the author of more than forty fantasy and science fiction novels. His novels “West of January” and “Children of Chaos” won Aurora Awards. Currently he has been short listed for the Endeavour Awards for his novel “Ill Met in the Arena” and short listed for the Sunburst Award Âfor his novel “The Alchemist’s Code”. Needless to say, we’re quite happy to include his work.

David: Do you make use of slush readers?

Karl: Just my assistant editor for now. Stephanie has excellent taste and she has a good idea of which stories I will be likely to say yes to on the final pass. Our tastes vary, but they compliment each other, which is what gives Neo-opsis its flavour.

David: I know of some writer critique groups which are focused on improving the opening of a story. How important do you think it is to establish a “hook” for a story?

Karl: The whole story is important, but the opening has to grab the reader or they may not continue reading it. This is notably true for editors. They read so many stories, they need to make a decision rapidly. If a story bores them at the start, they may not continue.

We do get some stories with great opening hooks that grab the reader, but lose them soon after. Grab the reader and hold onto them throughout your story.

David: If you could give only one piece of advice to aspiring writers trying to get published, what would it be?

Karl: My advice? Don’t listen to the people who tell you that fiction is “all about the characters”. Characterization is an extremely important element of fiction, but it is just an element. To me, even the best characterization falls flat in a story with no interesting ideas, events, conflicts, settings etc.

If I’m allowed two pieces of advice: It isn’t always the best idea to pre-categorize your work in a cover letter. For example, pre-labelling your work as humorous may set expectations that may not be met. The work may have sold even if the publisher didn’t laugh, but if you tell them it’s humorous and they don’t laugh, they’re not going to buy it.

David: Has the economic crisis impacted Neo-opsis at all?

Karl: We seem to have had a slight increase in subscriptions. The entertainment value per dollar for literary magazines is quite high and people seem to want to spend their recreational money wisely during troubled economic times.

David: How has your experience as editor of Neo-opsis differed from Co-editing at Under the Ozone Hole Magazine? Did you learn anything from that experience that has helped you in your current position?

Karl: Under the Ozone Hole was in theory a Canadian fandom news zine, but in practice it was much more, including a wide variety unique content and humour. UTOH won four Aurora awards, and that was against some healthy competition from such zines such as BCSFAzine, Opuntia and Solaris.

I learned a great deal co-editing “Under the Ozone Hole” with John W. Herbert. I learned the value of networking. I received excellent feedback on my writing. I learned that a humorous presentation can be an effective way of getting a serious point across. Much of our work was humorous, while even our title was serious.

There are a lot of similarities, but running Neo-opsis is a great deal more complex. We have far more submissions, a more complex layout process, as well as the complications of professional marketing and distribution.

David: Was Neo-Opsis something you’d been dreaming of for a long time. How long did it take before you made it into a reality?

Karl: Stephanie thought up the idea in the middle of the night sometime around May 2003. We took business courses, consulted with other publishers, set up procedures, did a survey / questionnaire, got appropriate software, got the first stories read and considered, got artwork together, and had issue 1 out at VCon in Vancouver in October of 2003. For anyone considering starting up a magazine, multiply the amount of work you think it will be by ten, multiply the expected costs by 5.73, then plan to average 3 hours of sleep per night.

David: One day when you reach issue 1000 who would you want to do the cover? ÂWhose story would you like to see in that issue?

Karl: For issue 1,000 I would like it if Stephanie and I could collaborate on a cover. At 3 issues per year, issue 1,000 would come out in the year 2337, and it would be cool if we’re both still alive then.

As for what story to print… Many which once existed only the realm of SF are more mainstream now. Stephanie read a story from her grandfather’s SF collection in which the only SFish elements were automated cloths and dish washers. The cordless / mobile phones on the desks in the TV series “UFO” and in Maxwell Smart’s shoe in “Get Smart” were intended in part, to establish an SFish, or at minimum “cutting edge technology,” feel to the shows. (Well, okay, shoe phones aren’t that common yet, but mobile phones
clearly aren’t an inherently SFish item.) By 2337, the ‘mainstream’ might include people riding sleds in and out of the event horizons of black holes, with 9,000 channels of direct mental stimulation letting the audience feel it as it happens while some annoying shmuck commentates directly into your brain about what you already can tell is going on. So working out what would be an appropriate SF story for then could be tricky.

At the same time, contemporary science and technology is still a valid choice for SF. Some of the most popular fiction today is shows about forensics, which is people using science and technology to solve complex puzzles, so clearly part of the SF genre.

As for who we’d want to write it? Someone who’s a big name in the genre, hopefully because of the quality of their writing, more than the quality of their marketing.

David: What’s your favourite outdoor activity?

Karl: I can’t pin down a single answer to that. Swimming and walking I do fairly commonly. I’ve taken to the Frisbee game Ultimate recently. I like to have a camp fire and cook stuff over it, but I tend to use my gas barbecue for cooking more often. A camp fire is good for marshmallows, where as the barbecue isn’t. I’ve been kayaking the last few years. It was canoeing before that, until some butt head stole our canoe. We live in canoeing / kayaking paradise here in Victoria, BC. Lots of lakes, rivers, beaches and lagoons. Quite an amazing planet we’re on here. Sitting in a hot tub with a mug of iced root beer, talking with cool people and watching satellites and meteors is pretty much a favourite as well.

David: So will you actually eat a Mars bar (like the Facebook group)? Do you really dislike Mars bars or what is that about?

Karl: I like them just fine actually. I created the FaceBook group “Karl Johanson Will Eat a Mars Bar if 1,000 People Join This Group,” to parody how thoroughly pointless many of the FaceBook groups seem to be. You see groups like “I’ll change my name to Abachromby Grumblybum if 100,000 people join this group.” The Mars bar group has turned into a useful dumping ground for some unconstrained bits of creativity, such as announcements for “Cheesecake for Breakfast Day,” or “Draw a Moose Day.” We think up far more ideas for the magazine than we can possibly do. Some ideas have to be filtered out for being a little too far outside that box everyone talks about, or for being funny and creative but likely to appeal to only a select audience. Posting some of this stuff on KJWEAMBIOTPJTG acts as a release valve, when there are too many ideas in my head at once.

There’s been a recent trend in the group towards photos of ducks from some of the members. If anyone reading this has any good duck photos or videos, or if you want to be a part of an undirected sociological experiment, I encourage you to join this group, as well as our Neo-opsis group and to subscribe to Neo-opsis. You can subscribe even if you don’t have any photos of ducks.

David: What was the last book you read?

Karl: I’m part way through a book of Sudoku puzzles. I haven’t read that much fiction recently, as I’m working to catch up on the submitted stories I have to get to. I don’t like to leave writers waiting, but at the same time, I don’t like to rush through their works and make an uninformed decision.

David: Your favorite book?

Karl: “Protector” by Larry Niven. The Titan trilogy by John Varley is up there as well.

David: Who is your favorite author?

Karl: For fiction I’d have to say Larry Niven. I was thrilled when I got my first chance to be on a panel with Larry Niven. It was an environmental panel, at the 2003 World Science Fiction Convention in Toronto. I was actually proud of myself for being willing to put forth a different opinion than my favourite writer. It may seem like a small thing, but I admired him and didn’t want to offend him. He showed no signs of annoyance at respectful disagreement.

David: What was the last movie you saw?

Karl: I recently saw “Up” by Pixar/Disney.

David: What is your favorite movie?

Karl: For SF, “Aliens”. Better than the first and subsequent movies in the series.

Movies which still make me laugh, even though I’ve seen them many times, include, “Roxanne,” “Without a Clue.” “The Three Amigos” and “Galaxy Quest.”

David: Do you have any upcoming publications, either fiction or non-fiction?

Karl: I’m working on some animation to include on Neo-opsis’ 5th CD-ROM of Amazingly Neat stuff (we will likely post versions on line as well). Many stories feature narrative or dialogue that is intended metaphorically or allegorically. I’m attempting to do some animated stories in which everything other than the narrative and dialogue are intended to be metaphor and allegory. This perhaps sounds a bit more clever than the finished product will come out, but I’m hoping to have a fun and interesting end result.

David: Are you currently working on any writing, either fiction or non-fiction, that you’d like to give a sneak peek at?

Karl: “I really need to learn some impulse control,” David thought as he jumped from the moving bus.

David: Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions, Karl. Also, thanks to Frank Dutkiewicz, Gary Cuba, and Joey Jordan for your contributions to this interview.