A Geordie in Space

Tony C. SmithInterview with Tony C. Smith of the
StarshipSofa Podcast

In the first of what I hope will be a regular series of interviews with some of my favourite people, I caught up with Tony C. Smith, host and all round good guy captain of the StarshipSofa podcast. The Sofa runs previously-published science fiction stories, recorded by a range of volunteer narrators (some of them, the authors themselves). Much like Analog and Asimov’s magazines, it also runs a great selection of non fiction. Amy H. Sturges’ superb history of science fiction series, and Jim Campanella’s highly accessible science fact  articles, for example (Jim, I really was amazed at what the male mating duck was capable of…seriously!). Tony ran my short story Dr. North’s Wound on one episode, and has accepted one of my horror shorts for the sister podcast, Tales to Terrify. Which has nothing to do with why I wanted this interview, honest! Though I will say I am extremely proud to be among the ranks of some very fine writers on these podcasts. I want to say also that I love listening to Tony’s voice…had I not been born a Scotsman, my second choice would have been to grow up with a Geordie accent.

Tony, can I begin by asking you to tell us something about yourself (interests, work, family, etc).

I’m coming up to 46, married a girl of my dreams who is simply amazing and with two equally amazing kids. I work (the day job) for Northumbrian Water as a Network Controller (I’m like the person on the other end of the phone if you were to phone 999 emergency services but for water). My desk keeps growing computer screens…there’s now six. Every time they bring a new software package out another screen comes along. We have two Doberman dogs who look as mean as hell, all teeth and drool – but we love ’em.

How did you first become interested in science fiction, and which writers cemented your love for the genre?

I never picked up a book until I was twenty-two. School and I were not compatible. I was too interested in being a naughty boy. I look back to what I did as a kid and wonder how the hell I got away with it. I don’t tell my kids what I got up to – they would never let me forget it. Then for some strange reason I just began reading. My first book was C S Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy. Then the walls came tumbling down. And with the passing of the great man, Ray Bradbury, I remember Dandelion Wine had such an impact on me. There are two books I feel everyone should read: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman and Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, both truly great works of the sf genre.

How did StarShipSofa come about?

Like most from the early days who took to podcasting, I got an iPod. I soon discovered other podcasts (Escape Pod) and the realisation that anyone could produce a podcast. I need to take time out here to mention Steve Eley, founder of Escape Pod. He was such an influence on StarShipSofa. Steve’s moved on now, but you can’t talk about genre fiction podcasts without acknowledging what he did for us all. I will always be grateful.

Unlike some science fiction podcasts, you’ve chosen to focus on previously-published material. Why did you go down that route?

Its quite simple really. If it’s good enough for Asimov’s and Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine, well, hell – its good enough for StarShipSofa. I’m not an editor in that sense and have never claimed to be. I take my hat off to anyone who has to read piles and piles of slush to find the hidden gems – I simply could not do that job. Yes, I could get an editor in but I’m not looking for brand spanking new stories. StarShipSofa’s aim is to breathe a little life into a forgotten story.

The Sofa has won a Hugo Award and has been nominated several more times. Have you noticed big changes as a result, like bigger audiences, writers and artists knocking on your door, and so on?

All of the above I guess, to some extent or other, and if it helps us keep putting the show out for free then that’s a good thing. Winning the award was amazing. We were the first podcast to do this ­– that is equally special.

You recently launched a sister podcast focusing on horror, Tales to Terrify. Why horror, rather than the genre that more typically goes hand-in-hand with scifi, that of fantasy? Are you a big horror fan as well?

Let me start by saying, I f@<$king hate zombies. Really. To the point of phobia. I hate hate, hate them. There…feel better after that. Horror is strange for me. When the floodgates opened with books, I gobbled up Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, Damnation Game and Weaveworld in days. These were simply stunning works, but then he came out with Coldheart Canyon and I have never been back to Barker. I should. I would love to be allowed to play one of his short stories on Tales To Terrify. Getting back to the question though, why horror? It was the challenge to see if I could recreate SSS with a horror podcast. I knew I was not up to being the host. I wanted to put a host in TtT and there was only one person for the job – Larry Santoro. If Larry had said no (he nearly did, too, on several occasions) there would have been no TtT. It had to be Larry. I urge you all to listen to TtT ­– just to see and listen to how good Larry is at presenting. I could not have dreamed it would work as good as it has. Logistics are a nightmare but we are getting there. We have learned to introduce things to Larry very slowly. We recently moved to a new online storage package. Getting us all working from this new package…has been, well…Lets just say…we’ve had to take it slow – real slow.

You’ve put out some print and ebook collections of stuff that has appeared in the Sofa. What’s next on the horizon – or do you prefer to play that close to your chest for now?

What’s next? Ha! It never stops. There is always something to do at Sofa HQ. We are weeks away from launching two new podcasts, Crime City Central and Protecting Project Pulp. Both will be like SSS and TtT but will have their own independence. They will be a new host on each show. Jack Calvery will host CCC and Dave Robison with host PPP. We are slowly gathering stories at the moment. These four podcasts will then come under the banner of District of Wonders. This will be a central hub and from there you’ll be able to wander down any one of the four shows. Now…if you back up to Larry and the trouble we had with getting Larry synched up to our online storage – have a think what I’m going through with fifteen people! This is how many are now working on these projects. Try getting fifteen all singing from the same hymn sheet. My day job is where I unwind!

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us that I haven’t asked?

I think I’ll have a cup of tea please and a nice slice of cake. I do like cake – Cherry Bakewell.

Fantasy, steam punk and boy’s own stories

Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver is a free podcast from The Guardian. It’s a coming-of-age tale set in an unspecified prehistorical period. Young Torak’s father is viciously killed by a bear possessed by a demon. The boy is left alone in the ancient forest and sets out on perilous journey to a mystical mountain to ask the World Spirit for help. He encounters an orphaned wolf cub on the way and discovers he can communicate with it. The two of them encounter many perils and near-death experiences, including a narrow escape from the Raven Clan. Read superbly by Ian McKellen, the story (the first in Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series) is a stirring YA tale full of adventure, magic, and excitement. Paver’s beautiful, crisp, and highly-visual style is well suited to being read aloud. Listeners are immediately transported into Torak’s world, and the device of switching the point of view between boy and wolf cub is a delight. Don’t miss this one.

I’ve just started listening to Natania Barron’s The Aldersgate Cycle, a gripping steampunk tale. I am very fond of the genre but, as Natania says herself in one episode of her podcast, in which she muses about fantasy writing in general and steampunk in particular, it’s not a big seller in the publishing industry. Instead there is a plethora of standard sword-and-sorcery, motley crews setting out on long (painfully long, sometimes) odysseys. But Natania is doing something quite different here. Romance, adventure and – cogs, gears and steam! From her intro: “It has been four hundred years since the Great Collision changed the face of Earena. Bards still tell tales of how the sky was split asunder, how the one moon became two, and how, after, the gods fell silent. Forests turned to deserts, deserts submerged into the seas… But one thing still endured: the Aldersgate, the long line of curiously hardy alder trees growing from the northermost reaches of the Isles, to the southern tip of Soderon. Bards once told of the Aldersgate’s powers, that the trees healed a rift in the earth itself, that without it, not only would the sky and moons have split, but all of Earena, too. But now, the world has changed. Songs of the old world have been forgotten and such stories of trees, of gods, and of magic, hold little clout in the age of steam, politics, and philosophy.”

Finally, I was whisked back to my young teenage years with JJ Campanella’s podcast of the Doc Savage novel, The Man of Bronze by Kenneth Robeson (Lester Dent). Before Indiana Jones, or even Superman, Dent wrote a pulpy, fast-moving series about scientis-as-hero, Clark Savage and his eccentric sidekicks. JJ is also a science writer, and his column on the latest developments in science for StarShip Sofa is also worth your time. JJ is also a pretty good reader, with a broad range of suitably tongue-in-cheek character voices at his disposal.