Interview with author and editor Alex Shvartsman

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m pleased to be interviewing Alex Shvartsman. Alex is a writer, translator, and anthologist from Brooklyn, NY. Over 120 of his short stories have appeared in Analog, Nature, Strange Horizons, and many other venues. His website is If you’ve read my anthology RELEASE THE VIRGINS, you’ll be familiar with his work!

Alex, how did you get your start in the writing business?

ALEX SHVARTSMAN: I’ve been an avid reader since early childhood, but my family emigrated from Ukraine to the United States when I was a teenager and I never believed my English would be good enough to write books. So I didn’t start until I was well into my thirties. I didn’t know a single writer, or anything about the business side of things, so I decided to just write short stories and see if any magazine will buy them as the means of figuring out whether I could write publishable fiction. I was both surprised and elated when those stories began selling, and I never looked back!

VENTRELLA: You began the “UFO” series to feature humorous science fiction and fantasy stories and it’s been quite successful. Tell us about that. What kinds of stories are you looking for? What advice can you give someone who may want to submit?

SHVARTSMAN: I wanted to create a pro-paying market for humorous SF/F. There’s never enough of it being published, and most other humorous anthologies are themed. UFO was meant to feature all kinds of humor, and to give new writers an opportunity to have their work showcased alongside the genre’s greats. About half of each volume’s contents is purchased through slush and I often publish newer authors, sometimes UFO is even their first-ever sale!

we’re specifically a humor publication, it’s important that your story’s voice stands out. Make me smile and hold my attention with your first couple of paragraphs to get me to keep reading!

VENTRELLA: Your latest novel has received excellent reviews. Tell us about it (and why we want to read it!) What was the inspiration for the story?

SHVARTSMAN: THE MIDDLING AFFLICTION is the first book in the Conradverse Chronicles urban fantasy series. My elevator pitch for these books is “The Dresden Files meets American Gods in Brooklyn” and the story follows Conrad Brent, who is part of an organization that protects the people of NYC from monsters and malevolent magic users, except he has a secret he keeps even from his friends and allies: he has no magic of his own, relying on artifacts and his wits to keep up with the arcane practitioners. To quote my own book, in the world of magical superheroes and supervillains, he’s Batman. Except he has no batcave, billions of dollars, or even a butler.

You can read the first chapter here to see if you might like it.

VENTRELLA: What kinds of readers do you think would be interested in your book?  In other words, whose work do you think your book is comparable to?

SHVARTSMAN: When my first Conrad Brent short stories were published, so many people rushed to make the comparison between him and Harry Dresden, and I often stick to that comparison as shorthand. Except, I’d never read any Jim Butcher when I wrote those stories, and have only read the first Dresden novel since then. Rather, I was inspired by Simon R. Green’s Nightside books and Mike Resnick’s urban fantasy titles. It was a huge honor for me that Simon wrote a cover blurb for The Middling Affliction. I’d like to think that any fans of Green or Resnick would dig my writing as well.

VENTRELLA: One thing writers sometimes fail to understand is how important connections matter in getting into the business. Can you give examples of how that has worked with you?

SHVARTSMAN: When I started out, I had none, so you can absolutely make it without connections if your writing is good. Especially today, when you can submit stories and novels digitally from anywhere in the world. However, I’d be naïve not to recognize that connections matter and can greatly help you. I’ve had editors I met at conventions solicit short stories from me. My current novel series is being published by Caezik SF&F, and I met the publisher and his staff at events and became friends with them there. I’ve been on many panels with my current agent Joshua Bilmes so he knew me and I pitched him an idea at a convention, so I never went through the soul-crushing querying process to land an agent. If you can go to conventions and interact with industry folks in person, do it. But if you can’t, don’t assume the gates are closed to you. I never even met a real-life science fiction writer, let alone editor, until after I’ve had numerous short stories published.

VENTRELLA: We’ve discussed putting humor into fiction before. What is the best way to use humor in a fictional story? And is that the same thing as writing comedy?

SHVARTSMAN: Humor is a great way to release tension, and you can use it in any story or book, not just an outright comedy. Writing comedy is hard, but certainly not impossible. Are you funny in real life? Ever crack a joke that made a bunch of friends you were hanging out with laugh? Steal from yourself! Write this down and have your character (or narrator) use that line! I once wrote a guide for introducing humor into your writing, and although it was written years ago, it’s still valid. Check it out here.

VENTRELLA: Which authors do you think best handle writing humor?

SHVARTSMAN: The easy answer is, just look at the table of contents of any UFO volume! I try to get the really funny writers into my anthologies, though it’s not always possible. Some of the funniest authors I’d love to include in UFO someday are John Scalzi, Gail Carriger, and Connie Willis.

VENTRELLA: Did you have any training to be a writer and do you think that is necessary?

SHVARTSMAN: I don’t — and I don’t. I’m an award-winning writer, an editor of well over a dozen anthologies, and a professional translator. All of those roles are self-taught. I have no MFA, no framed piece of paper permitting me to engage in any of those endeavors. Which is not to say that one doesn’t have to learn. I’m still learning. I’m getting better at it with every page I write or edit or translate. There are great many ways to improve as a writer. I suggest attending a workshop such as Clarion or Viable Paradise if your schedule and finances permit this. Otherwise, join an online or an in-person writing group, find other writers who are on the same stage in their journey as you are, and level up together.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best advice you would give to a starting writer that they probably haven’t already heard?

SHVARTSMAN: Start out by writing short stories. It’s a great way to train your writing “muscles” and you get to try out different voices, tones, and methods of storytelling. And if your story doesn’t sell, at least it’s not a novel you may have poured months or even years of effort into. Short form will also teach you to write concise prose, which is a valuable skill.

VENTRELLA: What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve heard people give?

SHVARTSMAN: “Never open a story with a line of dialog.” This bit of nonsense is actual “advice” I got from a self-styled “expert” on an internet-based critique forum when I was just starting out.

There are a lot of people out there handing out advice or even trying to sell it who really don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s always a good idea to check the bona fides of anyone offering writing advice, to see if they ever managed to leverage their own wisdom into a sort of career you might like to emulate.

VENTRELLA: What writing projects are you working on now?

KAKISTOCRACY, book 2 of the Conradverse Chronicles, is with the publisher. I have a few short stories I need to write for anthologies; I still love doing those because themed anthologies generate fresh ideas for me, and nothing focuses quite like a deadline! After that, I will move on to writing book 3, tentatively titled Kings and Queens.

Click here to read an earlier interview with Alex

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