Thanks to Chris Pourteau for visiting Zen DiPietro Science Fiction today. I have no idea how I’d balance my own writing with the many, many tasks involved with creating an anthology. My hat is definitely off to Chris both for managing that feat and for donating to a great program. You all know what a sucker I am for animals!
Zen: Your most recent release, Tails of the Apocalypse was an anthology that you masterminded. What was it like to shift from being an author to a curator of authors?
Chris: I was actually the driver on another anthology, Tales from Pennsylvania, about a year ago. So I’d done the “coordinate with authors around a publication schedule” thing before. And I’ve been a technical editor and helmed professional newsletters for over 20 years, so editing another writer’s work was nothing new to me. However, on the TfP anthology, Editor Extraordinaire David Gatewood did the heavy lifting—I just cleaned up stories before he saw them and kept the train on the tracks during production.
One thing that differentiated Tails of the Apocalypse from TfP was that I did almost all the editing myself on Tails—from helping the authors developmentally to correcting grammar and mechanics to line editing. And anyone who knows me knows I’m not shy. Translation on Tails: I gave a lot of feedback, often embedding up to 100 comments per story when I sent back the first round of edits to authors. That’s no reflection on story quality in the collection—the stories were innovative and well executed from the get-go. But as a writer myself, I had ideas (in addition to an editor’s edits) to share with the authors and, if they wanted them, they could adopt them; if they didn’t, that was their choice, as long as the “necessary changes” (consistency within the story, grammar and mechanics, etc.) were made. On average, I probably spent 8 to 10 hours per story reading, giving feedback, and reconciling edits. I also employed a third-party final proofreader because, after a while, everything blends together to your eyes.
I also had help in other areas—like marketing and promotion, formatting, and distribution from other contributors—that let me focus on the editing. A few examples: David Bruns, a veteran himself, volunteered to be my marketing coordinator and came up with the idea of benefiting Pets for Vets., Inc. Todd Barselow, who runs Auspicious Apparatus Press, oversaw production of the paperback and coordinated the voice talent for the audiobook. Jennifer Ellis ran the Goodreads giveaway and set up the launch party. Hank Garner opened up his Author Stories Podcast for us to talk about the stories and their thematic connection to Pets for Vets’ mission. And all the authors reached out to their mailing lists (and are still reaching out). Putting Tails together was a real team effort.
Zen: What made you want to create an anthology?
Chris: Back in the fall of 2014, my friend Stefan Bolz (who also has a story in Tails), posted a photo on Facebook of his dog, Ember, standing in the middle of an empty road. It’s autumn and Ember’s stance seems lonely, like she’s searching for something—or someone, maybe. I commented on his photo that it looked like a shot from The Walking Dead, maybe from an episode focused on a dog’s experience in the zombie apocalypse. A story quickly formed in my head about how the family dog might experience that particular world-ending event, and it kept poking me in the brain, demanding I write it. (That sounds contrived and dramatic, but I’m serious—it wouldn’t let me go.) So, over the Christmas holidays wrote the story and published it in mid-January 2015.
The story, “Unconditional: A Tale of the Zombie Apocalypse” rose to the top of Amazon’s “Top Rated in 30-Minute Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Reads” pretty quickly and stayed there for 6 months. After 11 months, it’s still #3. It has 50 reviews—pretty unusual for a short story—with a 4.8/5.0 star average. Based on the reviews, readers seem to empathize closely with the dog in the story and the loneliness and terror he experiences searching for his best friend, a young boy who flees with the rest of the family when the zombies overrun their home. So, I thought—why not an anthology? And with other animals, not just dogs. I felt “Unconditional” had a place in this anthology as “the story that started it all,” so I’ve included it as the final tale in the collection.
Zen: What was the toughest part of putting it all together? Were there any big surprises along the way?
Chris: Since I’d been the whip-cracker on Tales from Pennsylvania, nothing really surprised me about the process of putting the anthology together. However, one thing that really surprised me was the support I received from about half a dozen Goodreads group coordinators. I’ve joked that my “marketing philosophy” for Tails has been “it never hurts to ask.” So, with that in mind, I approached nine or ten coordinators of Goodreads groups whose readership might be interested in the anthology—fantasy, sci-fi, apocalyptic groups. I explained what the anthology was all about and that sales were benefiting Pets for Vets, Inc. Every single coordinator who responded (there were a handful who didn’t) offered to reach out to their members with blogs, announcements, etc. One coordinator—who says she’s never accepted an advanced reader copy before in her life—offered to read and review the anthology because of its animal-centric take on apocalyptic scenarios and our desire to donate to Pets for Vets.
The same goes for a number of podcasts I’d never been involved with before, like the To Be Read podcast. Jackie Chin, host of Zombiepalooza Radio, was so taken with the idea of our benefiting Pets for Vets that she allowed us to take over her 5-hour show two Fridays in a row—November 6 and 13—and allowed each of our authors 30-minute segments to talk about their stories. You can find the podcasts at that link under those dates, if you’re interested in listening. ZR is a great forum for talking apocalypses!
Zen: Tell us about Pets for Vets, which receives a portion of the sales.
Chris: Pets for Vets, Inc., is a national non-profit 501(c)3 organization that matches shelter animals with military veterans. Personnel train the animals as special companions for veterans suffering from emotional trauma, like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to Ann Black, president of Pets for Vets’ board of directors, three to four million dogs and cats are euthanized in shelters each year. And 20 percent of returning vets suffer from PTSD. So bringing them together provides a loving home for the pet and a caring companion for the vet. It’s a win-win. Please check them out and like their Facebook page. They’re an awesome group!
Zen: Short stories have always been popular, but anthologies seem to be enjoying a peak in popularity lately. Why do you think that is?
Chris: I think it’s happening for a few reasons. First, for many people, an anthology is a novelty; they’ve never seen one before outside the primers they were forced to read in school. As fiction readers, I think they’re discovering the power of a well-written short story, which can be as emotionally impactful “in the moment” as any poem or other work of art. It’s hard to sustain that kind of emotional impact in a novel-length work.
Second, our attention span is shorter. While I still like curling up with a good book on a rainy Saturday, the reality is, finishing that book takes me forever. My schedule is just crazy—I read short stints at a time. But I can read a short story in the time it would take to read a book chapter and experience a complete tale in one sitting—the plot is wrapped up, characters grow and change, and hopefully it leaves me with an emotional experience to remember. No reminding myself a couple of days from now where I left off in order to continue the story, like I would with a novel.
Third, the advent of independent publishing is allowing the production of quality fiction as the market demands it rather than how the publisher wants to present it. For years, short story collections have been seen as a money-losing proposition for publishers and authors alike. But take Sam Peralta’s Future Chronicles, for example. He’s taken the idea of producing anthologies around established themes—sci-fi, fantasy, zombies, to name a few—and built a 500-strong Facebook group dedicated to producing quality collections on a regular basis. He, as much as anyone, has helped readers rediscover their love for short fiction while giving new writers—including myself—the opportunity to find new readers.
Zen: Do you think you’ll put together another anthology in the future?
Chris: Yes, I hope so. I already have an idea for my next project, and if Tails does well, I might do a second volume of animal-centric stories. Time will tell!
Currently residing in College Station, Texas, Chris Pourteau has made a living at one time or another as a teacher, a lab technician helping to recover one of Christopher Columbus’s ships, and a technical writer and editor.
As far as reading interests go, Pourteau prefers fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction, which you could probably guess from his list of influences. Occasionally, he likes taking random chances on new writers–new to him, anyway–and has recently become enamored of the works of Roberto Calas, Nick Cole, Suzanne Collins, Glen Cook, Manel Jennifer Ellis, and John Scalzi among others. He’s also a die-hard Star Trek fan and prefers gritty dramas like Jessica Jones, Hell on Wheels, Homeland, and The Walking Dead when he flips on the tube.