How Zion’s Fiction Was Born
It was an early morning sometime in mid-2013. I was sitting by my desk when suddenly Skype started its icky ringing. On my screen I saw an unfamiliar face, but when the man introduced himself, I recognized the name at once. Sheldon “Sheli” Teitelbaum had been, with me, a staff member of the defunct but fondly remembered Fantasia 2000, Israel’s most influential SF magazine. The young, handsome, black-haired man I knew was replaced by a white-bearded gentleman, but well, that’s linear time for you. After an exchange of pleasantries, I asked to what I owed this unexpected pleasure, and Sheli said two words: Zion’s Fiction.
Now, I’m famous for my quick and witty repartees, and this knack did not fail me this time either, because I immediately replied, “huh?” Sheli said emphatically, “Zah-ions Fic-tion,” to which I shrewdly countered, “say what?” Sheli patiently explained the idea: an English-language anthology of Israeli science fiction stories, to be edited by us. I fell for the idea at once, hook, line, and sinker.
A lot of sinkers, too, because the road turned out to be much more difficult than either of us had anticipated. First of all, we brought on board Avi Katz, the well-known illustrator who had also been a Fantasia 2000 veteran, and then we began sifting out through the bulk of original stories written from 1980 on. In between discussions of the pros and cons of each story one of us thought worthy of inclusion, we found time to daydream of a series of anthologies (you can only get a Hugo for editing a short-story anthology if you’ve published at least three of them), to shmooze about the good old days, and to argue about politics, literature, and other stuff.
But most of all we argued about the stories. Many of them both of us dismissed – either immediately or with many misgivings – for any number of reasons. But there were quite a few which one of us liked and the other one didn’t, or the other way round. Looking back on it, this had been sheer fun, discussing the merits or otherwise of a story, instead of arguing about the things most people disagree about. But at the time, this was wearing both our patiences very thin.
There was also a major practical hurdle to contend with. Most of these stories were written in Hebrew and had to be translated. Now, I’m a translator, and I could have done the work, but it would have taken me – what with the work I’ve been doing for a living – at least one year. Back then, this seemed like an exceedingly long time. Little did we know what lay ahead of us…
We finally agreed on our list of stories – some written in English to begin with, some translated by me, and some by others. Avi Katz provided beautiful, woodcut-style, black-and-white illustrations for each of them, and Sheli persuaded Robert Silverberg, the Grand Old Master of Science Fiction, to write the preface. Aharon Hauptman, the founding editor of Fantasia 2000, wrote the afterword, and we were all set to go, except for one thing. We had to write the introduction.
What a grueling task this proved to be. We wanted it to be a history of Israeli science fiction and fantasy, but we soon realized that we have to begin, however briefly, with a history of modern Hebrew literature in general, and then clamor against the stranglehold of self-appointed literary gatekeepers over this history for such a long time, and then explain the circumstances under which a new generation of writers managed to shake off this iron grip, and then characterize the writing of a diverse group of avowedly individualistic, not to say idiosyncratic writers, and then…
It didn’t help, time-wise, that Sheli and I kept arguing about each sentence, constantly deleting what the other one wrote and substituting our own ideas and phrasings in its stead. The introduction, as you can read it now in Zion’s Fiction: A Treasury of Israeli Speculative Literature, has gone through at least 50 drafts, I reckon. Maybe I’m exaggerating, so let’s say 45. But finally, we had a book! All that was left was to find a publisher, and let our anthology loose at an unsuspecting worldwide readership.
That hackneyed phrase, easier said than done, does not even begin to encapsulate the trials and tribulations that still ominously lurked in our future. First things first, we needed an agent, and it took Sheli quite some time to find one – a nice man called Eddie Schneider of the New York JABBERwocky agency (I did hit Caps Lock, but not accidentally). He took our cause to heart, and cast as wide a net as he possibly could. But then the letters of rejection began piling up. If you’ve never received one, let me tell you that these are invariably cast in a polite, regretful mold, ending with the best of wishes for success – elsewhere.
We were nearing despair, to use an understatement, when Eddie managed to find us a publishing house neither of us has ever heard of before, Mandel Vilar Press. Its chief, Robert Mandel, was willing to give us a shot, for a sum that was very far from covering our expenses, but what the hell. We were going to get a book on the expectant market! Readers who’re interested in international SF will buy it, Jews will give it as Bar/Bath Mitzvah gifts to eager youngsters, professors of Israel and/or Judaic studies in any number of universities will prescribe it as mandatory reading for their students, the possibilities were endless!
Reviews started coming in. They were glorious, one and all, they were the fulfillment of our every hope, they flattered our egos: you can read them for yourselves elsewhere on this site and see that I’m not exaggerating. The sales, however, have been another matter altogether. An unadulterated disappointment. We did find some consolation in a request (to which we immediately agreed, of course) to translate the book into Japanese. It is about to appear in Japan shortly, and we’re holding our breath. But as for sales to the English-speaking world… not so good. Naturally, we hold MVP to blame, they hold us to blame for some reasons that defy understanding, but the market remains resistant to our efforts.
Naturally, then, we’ve embarked on the second volume, and having more or less completed our list of stories, and secured Avi’s agreement to do the illustrations, we’re now hotly arguing about the introduction – does this sound familiar?