MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Michael Pederson today! Mike is a good friend from my old hometown of Richmond. He’s the publisher/editor/graphic designer responsible for the magazine Nth Degree. In addition to Nth Degree, in 2006 Mike came up with the crazy idea of hosting a science-fiction convention in Richmond. After its tenth year, RavenCon moved to Williamsburg and Mike is still the con chair. In the last few years Mike has interviewed a wide range of writers, gamers, artists, and actors.
Let’s first talk about editing. How did the idea for Nth Degree begin?
MICHAEL PEDERSON: I had been publishing a local entertainment magazine (Scene) in the late ’90s and had to stop after four issues because I couldn’t keep the volunteer staff on track and it was too much to do by myself. This was also a period where I had GAFIAted a bit and was only attending one con a year (MarsCon in Williamsburg, VA). I really wanted to do something that would combine all of my passions—graphic design, writing, editing, and fandom. I worked out the basic framework in my head on a late-night drive from Northern Virginia to Richmond and then emailed all of my friends to get their input. After about two weeks, I had condensed everything into what became Nth Degree.
That’s been kind of a running theme in my life. I’m the Kermit. I’m always the guy that gets all his friends together and pushes them into creating something big and exciting. Yaaaaaayyyy!!!!!
VENTRELLA: What kinds of stories are you interested in?
PEDERSON: I always like to say that I look for character-driven stories but that sounds like such a generic editor response. I don’t really know. People have told me that Nth Degree stories have their own flavor and that reading the zine reminds them of the type of stories that got them interested in science fiction in the first place. It’s just one of those things that I recognize when I see it. My personal tastes run to science fiction over fantasy but the market being what it is these days I tend to see a fair amount of fantasy. And that’s ok.
VENTRELLA: What bugs you most about being an editor? In other words, what is your pet peeve concerning submissions?
PEDERSON: Well, I could tell all the usual horror stories about improper formatting but I’ll skip that. Twist endings bug me. For some reason, writers who are just starting out tend to love to throw that twist ending at you. And 99.9 percent of the time it just doesn’t work. And people who submit non-genre stories. That bugs me. It’s not too hard to research the publication you’re about to submit to. Someone actually sent me a story about a game of golf they had played. I have no idea what they were thinking.
PEDERSON: You make it sound like it was a choice. I don’t think I ever chose it; science fiction and fantasy were just always a part of my life. I started reading at a very early age and one of the first things I remember reading was a book of Greek mythology. I think that really shaped my interests. And then when I was in kindergarten and first grade I read through everything that my school had from some author whose name I had forgotten until much later. I do remember one of the stories was called “Have Space Suit Will Travel”. I, of course, eventually realized that I had been reading Heinlein’s juveniles. At age eight I was reading Bulfinch’s Mythology. I also discovered comics around then. I still have the first comic I ever read, Peter Parker The Spectacular Spider-Man Issue #4, “The Vulture is a Bird of Prey!”. After that it was Lewis and Tolkien and Kipling and Asimov and Bradbury and Clarke… all the classics. And I was hooked.
VENTRELLA: Tell us about the first RavenCon and how it came to be.
PEDERSON: I’ve told this story so many times that I’ll go ahead and give you the seldom-told long version. Freshman year of high school (I did say it was the long version) was the year that I discovered there was such a thing as a science fiction convention. We had a very short-lived science fiction club at school and one week two girls came back to report that they had gone to a convention. The concept fascinated me. I had to go! This was 1982 though and there weren’t as many cons as there are now and there were very few ways to even get a schedule for the local cons. I also discovered that year, hidden in the back of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, a convention calendar! One page, every issue that listed upcoming conventions. The calendar was compiled by Erwin “Filthy Pierre” Strauss. I was further intrigued by the idea that people had different badge names that they used at conventions (for a while I went by the deceptively non-descript name of Harold Zwick but that’s another story).
So, five years later I make it to my first convention. The late, great SciCon. I instantly fell in love with the whole culture of fandom. During the late ’80s and early ’90s I was primarily attending SciCon, EveCon, and DisClave. When I started my comic book in 1993 (Raven), I expanded the number of conventions I was attending and started guesting and/or vending. I ended up doing A LOT of conventions during the ’90s. And I would travel all over Virginia and North Carolina and DC and Maryland and sometimes further, and it occurred to me that Richmond was geographically central to everywhere I was going. So why didn’t Richmond have a convention? In 1994, I started exploring the possibilities of hosting a con in Richmond but I didn’t get very far.
Fast forward to October 2004. I had been attending between 12-16 conventions a year with Nth Degree and had met a lot of con runners and knew pretty much everyone on the local circuit. I was sitting around at a convention with Tee Morris and Tony Ruggiero and my old Richmond convention idea floated back to the top of my head. We were sitting in the hotel bar and I turned to the two of them and said, “You know, I bet we could do this.” I expected them to tell me I was crazy but instead they both agreed with me. So, three people that had never even worked at a convention (we were all writers) ended up putting on the first RavenCon in 2006.
As people that had done a lot of panels at other conventions we had a pretty good idea of what worked well and what needed tweaking and even had some original ideas of our own. I threw $500 into the pot and booked a hotel. Tee booked our guests (Terry Brooks for the first year!). And Tony put together the program. We recruited some friends and built a staff of 10 people. It was really a “Come on baby, hold together!” kind of event. There were a million things that could have gone wrong but it turned out amazing.
And to bring the whole story full-circle: I got to meet Filthy Pierre many times over the years. We did an interview with him in an early Nth Degree and had him as a guest of honor at one of the early RavenCons. He’s now a regular at RavenCon and I’m very proud to have him as a friend.
VENTRELLA: What are your ultimate plans for RavenCon?
PEDERSON: I want to keep building it. RavenCon’s primary focus will always be on the literary aspect. We like to include as much of the other fun stuff as well (gaming, filk, anime, cosplay, etc.) but at our heart we’re all about the fiction. We’ve always tried to add a little more every year. I think the only thing left on my wish list now though is a video gaming room. That should be coming in the next year or two.
VENTRELLA: I’ve attended most of them, and can’t help but notice how bigger and better they get each year. Do you want it to keep expanding or do you think there is a limit you want to reach?
PEDERSON: We’ve always focused on small growth. We had 420 people our first year and are currently bringing in 1200 people. I feel like 2000 people would be an ideal number but our hotel is large enough that we could easily do 3000 if we wanted to.
VENTRELLA: Will moving it to Williamsburg next year change the feel of the convention?
PEDERSON: I don’t think it will change it. It will definitely focus it more though. Now that we’re sharing a hotel with MarsCon we’re paying very close attention to what makes a RavenCon a RavenCon. We have certain things that we do very well and we’re working extra hard to make sure that those things are our prime focus now.
VENTRELLA: Literary Conventions seem to have a problem attracting younger fans these days. Is this a bad thing? What can be done to get more younger readers to attend?
PEDERSON: I think RavenCon’s average age has actually been getting younger and younger every year. We owe comic cons a huge debt for that. Also, we partner with a local high school every year where we go in to the school and speak with the kids. We send them some of our programming guests and the students tell us what they enjoy about science fiction. Young people still read science fiction and they definitely want to be involved, it’s just a matter of letting them know that we’re here.
VENTRELLA: You’ve been able to meet and interview many famous writers. Who was your favorite?
PEDERSON: Writers and artists and gamers and actors. Yeah, I love doing the Guest of Honor interview. Always the highlight of any convention I attend. And I’m very grateful that so many conventions have asked me to do that.
Favorites… I’ve interviewed Jim Butcher twice and he’s a lot of fun. He’s got great stories and is very easy to work with. Sherrilyn Kenyon was amazing—she has an energy that is just infectious, you can’t talk to her without laughing. Elizabeth Bear—someone’s whose work I’m so impressed by—was another one that I remember fondly. I think some of the ones that I worried about the most were some of my most memorable though. People like Orson Scott Card and Larry Correia, where I go in feeling like I’m walking on eggshells, but then there’s always some point where you just connect with your guest and you’re laughing and swapping stories from that point on. It’s all very gratifying.
VENTRELLA: Who would you like to see as a guest that you have been unable to get?
PEDERSON: I have a personal wish list. It’s mostly people that don’t do conventions or are overseas and out of my budget, or both: China Mieville, Stephen Baxter, Neil Stephenson, Dan Simmons.
VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?
PEDERSON: Everyone on my wish list. Jack McDevitt, John Scalzi, Robert Sawyer, William Gibson, S.M. Stirling, Jim Butcher, Harry Turtledove, George R.R. Martin. And, of course, the classics. Dune is still my all-time favorite.
VENTRELLA: You’ve done some writing; do you plan on doing more?
PEDERSON: I have a couple of novels on the drawing board but haven’t been able to find the time to put them to paper yet. Between working a full-time job, running a convention, and publishing a fanzine there just aren’t enough hours in the day. One of these days though.
I’m currently working on a Kickstarter project that will fund a “best of” print issue of Nth Degree. It’s been online for the last 10 years and people keep asking me if I’m ever going to do a print issue again. So that’s keeping me busy. Oh, and I’m redesigning both the Nth Degree and RavenCon websites. I should really just stop sleeping.
VENTRELLA: Science Fiction doesn’t seem to be selling as much as fantasy these days, including urban fantasy and all the varieties. Why do you think that is?
PEDERSON: That’s a fairly recent development. SF always used to do better. I suspect that’s it’s just the way the market cycles. We’ll see science fiction on top again. Or maybe horror will start outselling everything. There are plenty of good science fiction writers out there right now though. Just look at the current lineups at Tor and Baen—it’s an impressive list. Maybe the Honor Harrington movie will be the push in the right direction that pushes SF over the top of fantasy again. In a way though it’s a little unfair to make the SF versus fantasy comparison; so many authors work in both genres and even blend the genres that it’s hard to favor one over the other.
VENTRELLA: With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?
PEDERSON: Groucho Marx, Jim Henson, Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams. There are others I’d like to meet but I wouldn’t want to detract from my time with my idols.