Local author and journalist Jason Heller on winning a Hugo Award

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Longtime Westword readers will recognize the name Jason Heller. For years, Heller was one of the paper's premier music writers, covering the local and national music scene with insight, wit and sharp writing. These days, he's expanded his portfolio to include national outlets such as The A.V. Club and Pitchfork and published his first novel -- the science-fiction political satire Taft 2012. And as of this past weekend, he can add "Hugo Award winner" to his already impressive resume, thanks to his work as nonfiction editor at the prestigious Clarkesworld webzine, which took home the 2012 award in its category (Best Semiprozine). We recently caught up with Heller to ask him how it felt to win science-fiction's most prestigious award and catch up with what else he's doing these days.

See also: Science-fiction film: Are we on the cusp of a golden age?

Westword: Congratulations on winning a Hugo. That must be pretty mind-blowing.

Jason Heller: It is totally fucking mind-blowing. It has not sunk in. Yeah, it's just a little bit unreal. You grow up reading books, science-fiction books, and all your favorite books have "Hugo Award-winning" and you see that stamp on so many classics. Then, for me personally, you get older, you get more into fandom and you learn what that actually means and what the history of it is, so to actually have one of those fucking things is actually kind of nuts.

For readers who aren't as familiar with the Hugos, can you explain the significance of it?

The quickest analogy is it's the Oscars of the science fiction world. It honors excellence in different media, and those change over the course of time. There didn't used to be -- the Hugos were first awarded in the '50s, so there wasn't science-fiction television, so that has kind of evolved. Now classic novels, film, TV and podcasts as well as websites and publications of science fiction and fantasy are all considered for Hugo awards every year. They're voted on by members of the World Science Fiction convention every year. It is kind of like having the Academy vote for the Oscars every year. There are lots of kinds of awards, like with TV and film, in the science-fiction world that are up there toward the top, but the Hugos are definitely considered the big one. So yeah, kind of mind-blowing.

It's funny, when we had to do our photo shoot afterward, they herded all of the winners into a room and took big group photos. Sitting right in front of me, literally three inches away as I was standing up, was George R.R. Martin. It was just like ... I mean, there are lots of different writers of all different levels all around, but he won for Game of Thrones TV show, so it was pretty mind-blowing. Also, he brought with him the actor who plays the Hound on the show, so this 6' 8" Scottish dude is standing right next to me -- I'm squashed up against him during the photo shoot. So just completely unreal.

Nice bonus -- not only do you get the honor and a trophy, but the Hound sweated on you a little bit.

Exactly. I always have to point out that it wasn't me alone, by any means, who won the award. Each of us in the editorial team for Clarkesworld get our own statue and everything. I was the nonfiction editor for Clarkesworld in 2012. There were four of us on the editorial team, including the publisher and fiction editor Neil Clarke, who Clarkesworld is named after. He's the main guy -- the driving force, the founder of the whole deal -- and I was lucky enough to be able to have been part of that team during that year and I did my best to maintain the standards of the nonfiction articles that they run on the website alongside the short stories that they are known best for. It wasn't like I was singled out, me personally, it was me being part of a team, a team effort, and something that had actually been going for quite a while. That bears a little emphasis, I think. But I'm more than happy to take the statue! [Laughs]

Can you tell us a little more about Clarkesworld? They do short fiction, nonfiction and podcasts?

Yep. They do podcasts of the stories that are published. All the content is free online, but you can also get subscriptions to it. It's one of the most highly regarded venues for short science fiction and fantasy. There are the traditional science-fiction and fantasy magazines that have been around for a long time, that you can still find on what you consider the newsstand these days, if there is still such a thing. They're still made in print, anyway. You have Analog, and Fantasy and Science Fiction, otherwise known as the big three. They all have still retained that old-school printed digest format, whereas Clarkesworld was conceived as an online entity.

Neil Clarke has just had a great eye over the past few years, really singling out and soliciting up-and-coming science fiction and fantasy writers and established ones, getting their best work out of them, working with them to print the kind of science fiction and fantasy that can sometimes be edgier and more experimental, and less blatantly commercial than you can get away with in novels. It's a place to read cutting-edge, for lack of a better term, science fiction and fantasy that is of a more literary quality. Clarkesworld is one of the main places to go to for that.

Before you became the nonfiction editor, you were a contributor for some time, right?

Yeah, I had written an article for them, a nonfiction article, and it had done pretty well on the site. I applied when they needed a new nonfiction editor and since I had established a connection earlier, plus with the credentials I had as an editor, things just seemed to work out and I got the position.

I left at the end of 2012, so the award that just went out was for work published in 2012 and I was nonfiction editor through all of 2012. I left because I had some big book projects coming up that I needed to focus on. Since then, I've contributed more nonfiction articles to them and remained in touch and tried to help out here and there.

While I was there I was able to do some fun stuff, like launch a new op-ed type column that had not existed before, alongside their more essay-style pieces. I was able to solicit and attract a bunch of great nonfiction writers who had not written for Clarkesworld before. One of the things that Clarkesworld is about is really trying to introduce and support as much diversity within the genre world as well, in any way you can understand the term diversity, so hopefully doing my tenure there I helped to bring people even more in line with Neil's vision for Clarkesworld.

Book trailer for Heller's novel

Taft 2012

What are you up to since you left Clarkesworld? Where can fans of Hugo Award-winner Jason Heller find your work?

Even though it's 2013, my book Taft 2012 is still out [laughs] and maybe there's something somebody can still enjoy. I have a couple other books that have been finished, but its too early for me to say anything about them. There's more stuff on the way in that regard.

Other than that, I just was made senior writer at The A.V. Club last month [Disclosure: I am also an occasional contributor to The A.V. Club and its sister site The Gameological Society], so I've been doing a lot more work there, including a yearlong monthly series called "Fear of a Punk Decade" that just started. It goes year by year through the '90s, talking about the evolution of punk and hardcore as it went from something totally underground in the early '90s to the peak of Green Day, Offspring, Blink-182 and where the decade kind of wound up at the end. There's a lot of personal stuff about my life mixed in with it, along with hopefully a little bit of drawing some connections about what was going on societally and historically throughout the '90s. That's one of the main, ongoing projects that I'm doing for The A.V. Club.

I've been reviewing a ton for Pitchfork and there's a book coming out at the end of the year called The Time Traveler's Almanac. It is from Tor and it's an anthology edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, who are kind of the editing power-couple in science fiction and fantasy, or one of them. Jeff Vandermeer is also a very widely renowned science fiction and fantasy writer. I wrote a big essay about the connection between the theme of time travel and popular music over the years. The table of contents is insane. I'm in there, George R.R. Martin, Ursula K. LeGuin, Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams, I mean it's ... there's some reprinted stuff, some new stuff and my essay. My hero, Michael Moorcock, has a story in there as well. That is coming out later this year or early next year.

I've also been teaching at Lighthouse Writer's Workshop here in Denver. I just started a science fiction and fantasy curriculum this month. We've had a super-great response to it so far.

Anything else you want to say before we wrap up?

I just want to say, and I guess I mentioned it when we started talking, but it's one of those weird completed circuits for me. Having grown up with "Hugo Award-winning" being a stamp of excellence on all these writers that I loved growing up, it is just completely unreal to be in the books, as it were, with all the people who have won Hugo Awards over the years. I guess I am still processing it, but the only thing I want to do from here is to win one for my fiction writing. Some of the greatest science fiction and fantasy writers never got a chance to win a Hugo, so it's entirely possible I never will, but if I did... that would be the next thing to reach for.

You already have one, how hard can the second one be?

Exactly. I'm halfway there. [Laughs]

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