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Ann VanderMeer
12-23-09 World Fantasy Convention Interview with Ann VanderMeer

I guess I've been following the careers of the VanderMeers longer than I might have suspected. Back in the 1980's, when I was writing for OtherRealms Magazine, I took it upon myself to do a survey of the small press magazines publishing. I bought Issue Number of a little thing called Cemetery Dance, and a copy of something called The Silver Web — not knowing that I would be entangled in that same web well into a new century.

I guess I've been following the careers of the VanderMeers longer than I might have suspected. Back in the 1980's, when I was writing for OtherRealms Magazine, I took it upon myself to do a survey of the small press magazines publishing. I bought Issue Number of a little thing called Cemetery Dance, and a copy of something called The Silver Web — not knowing that I would be entangled in that same web well into a new century.

Ann, I remember The Silver Web as part of the small press magazine explosion of the 1980's. Could you talk about what made you enter that world as an editor and publisher?

I am the kind of person who always has more than one thing going on. And I got together with a co-worker to start the magazine. We went to lunch together almost every day and talked about fiction. We shared books and magazines with each other. We were inspired by what was being published at that time. Somehow I thought it would be easy and fun. It WAS was fun, but it certainly wasn’t easy. I learned a lot.

I was fortunate to have many resources available to me, and remember this was before email, etc. All my correspondence was via snail mail and phone calls. At this time there were several magazines doing interesting things. Mark Rainey was publishing Deathrealm, Dave Wilson was publishing The Tome, James Van Hise was publishing Midnight Graffiti and Jeff was just launching Jabberwocky (this was actually my first contact with him). And Ellen Datlow was the fiction editor of Omni. I approached everyone I could find and asked lots of questions. I was surprised at how open and welcoming everyone was. I got a lot of advice and assistance at various times. Not something you often find in other businesses. That was something that drew me to the genre and one of the things I love most about it.

My partner and I published 6 issues of The Sterling Web before she was ready to quit. I decided to keep going, but she asked that I change the name. Since the magazine was going through a name change, I thought it would be a good time to revamp the entire thing and move in a different direction. The Sterling Web published anything and everything (SF/F/H), so I wanted the new project to be more focused.

I met Alan M. Clark at the first WHC back in the early 1990’s. He introduced me to surrealism thru through his art and that of many others. I was totally drawn to it, but decided to put a spin on it for the re-launch of The Webthe magazine (I’ve always tended toward the dark side). The new and improved magazine The Silver Web, was subtitled A Magazine of the Surreal. I also wanted more images, more art. I worked very hard to make it a visually appealing magazine as well as one with the most unusual stories. I was looking for fiction that fell between the cracks of traditional genre tropes. Basically I was doing interstitial/slipstream/new weird/what-have-you before it was cool!

Publishing is a business as well as an art — especially when you move from small press magazines to books. What made you decide to take the leap to Buzzcity?

It was time to start another adventure. And books are a lot easier to publish than a regular magazine. They have a longer shelf-life and you are dealing with only one writer. I wasn’t really planning to move in this direction, but it seemed to make sense at the time.

The PR and all the mechanics of putting a book together was completely different so it was almost like starting over again. I had a lot of contacts in the magazine/short fiction field who gave lots of valuable advice but this was a whole new world for me. And you know how I love a challenge!

Tell us about buying and printing the first book for Buzzcity, and then about how you scaled up from there.

The first book I published was Jeff VanderMeer’s Dradin in Love. This was one of Jeff’s early Ambergris works and was an amazing short novel. None of the larger presses were willing to take a chance on it, but I jumped at the opportunity, and it paid off. That short novel later became part of the foundation of Jeff’s City of Saints and Madmen. In addition to various nominations and much critical acclaim, it sold out quickly and is a rare find.

Since I am a very visual person and indeed The Silver Web was an Art & Fiction magazine, I liked the idea of interior artwork to go along with this strange book. So I contacted Michael Shores, an artist who did these unusual collages, for Dradin. I found his style well-suited to this project.

I also published Michael Cisco’s The Divinity Student. Again, with my philosophy of marrying image to words, I asked Harry O. Morris to do the artwork. His beautiful wrap-around cover is still one of my favorites. Another book that quickly sold out. It won the IHG International Horror Guild award for best first novel and received many excellent reviews.

Could you give us some insight into your business practices as a publisher? Do you do your own accounting and taxes?

I was able to handle all of that until Jeff went full-time as a writer. At that time we went to an accountant friend (also a big fantasy reader and fan) to help us out.

Tell us how you came to the helm of Weird Tales.

In late 2006 my friend Paula Guran asked if I would be interested in reading fiction for Weird Tales. At that time I was a judge for the International Horror Guild and writing reviews for various venues, in addition to doing anthology projects with my husband. My first thought was, “Gosh, I am so busy.” But Jeff encouraged me to reconsider and Sean Wallace told me I’d be perfect for this job.

So, I had several long conversations with Stephen H. Segal about his vision for the magazine. We really hit it off and I felt that not only could I help him move Weird Tales into the 21st century, but that it would be a lot of fun. Reading fiction was one of my favorite parts of publishing The Silver Web. And I wouldn’t have to worry about all the other responsibilities; subscriptions, ad revenue, etc. It just sounded like a dream job for me. How could I resist?

Weird Tales is a magazine that in itself is a sort of manifesto; and like Jeff, you've seen the movements come and go. How do these groups of writers and their manifestos, speeches, anthologies, magazines, conventions and works inform you as an editor?

In many ways manifestos allow writers to verbalize and work out what they are feeling about their work, seeing how it fits into a larger context. For me personally I don’t see any writer as fitting into a specific movement. Instead, I look at each individual project as it’s own thing and work from that perspective.

When Jeff & and I started work on the New Weird anthology, we had many long conversations about it, talking about the various definitions we had read and debating the online discussions. This led us to discuss influences and other historical literary “movements.” From there we delved further to seek more examples of what some thought of as a very narrow sub-genre. And I believe we gave the reader a new perspective of on the term New Weird.

Now, conversely with Weird Tales, I am working within a long established tradition. My goal is to honor those traditions of the past while at the same time moving Weird Tales into the future — shake it up and become once more the pioneer, the ideal for what weird fiction is and could can be.

What do you see as the core concepts at the heart of science fiction, fantasy and horror? Do you see a hard differentiation or a gradation from one to the other?

Each of these genres has its own individual, recognizable tropes, but there is often overlap. There is something to be said for “keeping it pure,” but at the same time, you never know what wonderful thing can happen with when you mix it up. That was one of my favorite things with The Silver Web. I loved blending different traditions, but always with a dark edge to it. And while we’re at it, why not throw in some noir, or romance? No reason to be limited to only these three genres.

What is it that brings you to accept a story for publication— in any genre?

As far as accepting a story for any publication, first the work has to be excellent. There is quite a lot of good fiction out there and it is my job to seek out the best. Next, the story must fit into the project, whatever that may be (an issue of Weird Tales or an anthology). Sometimes a story is submitted to me for a particular project, but I end up buying it for another. For example, Jonathan Wood sent me a story for Fast Ships, Black Sails, the original pirate fiction anthology we did. Although a great story, it didn’t fit that project. However, it was a perfect Weird Tales story.

Alistair Rennie sent me a story for Weird Tales. I was intrigued by it and got excited when I thought how terrific it would be to buy it for The the New Weird anthology — as I saw it as a possible future of the movement, so to speak.

This is one of my favorite parts of my work — being able to work on various projects and matching the work to the book or magazine issue. It’s very satisfying.

Could you tell us about your editing day?

It varies depending on the project. I don’t read slush if I am tired (not fair to the writer). Because I do many different things daily, I set aside the time for each task I must complete. I am a huge list maker and calendar -junky. All tasks, projects, deadlines are written down and I look at my lists several times a day to keep myself on track. I read A LOT!!!a lot!

Any fiction that has potential is set aside for a second and sometimes even a third read before I make a final decision. This is true of the anthologies as well.

I use a spreadsheet to keep track of all the stories in inventory. I play around with it to get the stories in the right issue and in the right order. I am looking for the total word count as well as the tone. The stories must flow from one to the next seamlessly because many readers read in this manner. Some people don’t realize how important story order is in a magazine and especially in an anthology.

Once I have a working story order, I re-read the stories in that order to make sure it works; I don’t want anyone getting the bends moving from one to the next! After that, I prepare the manuscript for publication and turn it in to the publisher.

What are the most important things outside of writing that contribute to your work as an editor?

I am interested in all kinds of things. I read in all genres, fiction and non-fiction. I teach the Bar Mitzvah class at my synagogue and tutor students as a volunteer. I am a voracious music fan (spent 4 four years as a bass player in a punk rock band). I also volunteer at the Homeless homeless shelter cooking and delivering meals. I travel around the country for my job and around the world for my fiction projects, so I have the opportunity to meet all kinds of people and experience different cultures and perspectives. This is important, so that you don’t get locked into a narrow point of view.

My family and friends take precedence over any work, of course. And they continue to inspire and delight me. I have a young grandson (almost 3 years old). Spend a few hours playing with a toddler and your priorities shift.

Since you started writing, we've seen all of the tropes of science fiction and fantasy become parts of mainstream culture — and yet there is still a very strong sense of what is genre and what is not. Do you consider Weird Tales to be a mainstream magazine? Looking at what's in the theaters, it seems like it ought to be.

I guess it all depends on what you mean by mainstream. If you mean popular, then of course! Weird Tales is most definitely more than a fiction magazine; it’s filled with lot of pop culture goodies and eye candy. It’s begun to appeal to a much wider range of readers, including the next generation.

Fantasy, by definition, includes elements of the fantastic that cordon it off, so to speak from realistic literary fiction. As an editor, do you think about these barriers, about the difference between Weird Tales and The Missouri Review — or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, for that matter?

I don’t think about barriers or boundaries when I am editing. I only think about the story — whether it works as a whole, and if it fits into the particular project I am working on. There is a distinct difference between Weird Tales and the Missouri Review, as and that’s as it should be. Why would the reader want all magazines to be the same? We may have a crossover audience, and that’s fine.

You would be surprised at the number of writers whose credits include both literary journals and genre magazines. Why should the writer be limited in what they write? I don’t like the idea of restrictions.

When my husband and I started the BAF (Best American Fantasy) series we were pleasantly surprised at how much fantasy was being published in mainstream literary journals. If you take a look at the TOC table of contents you will see fiction from The New Yorker next to Analog. You will see Harper’s and Strange Horizons. I love that and why not? I see this more of an expansion of our audience as well as bringing each reader something they may not have considered before. We’ve heard from so many readers that were happily introduced to a world they didn’t even know existed. This makes me very smilehappy.

Could you talk about the role that the genre support system — conventions, and awards such as the Hugo you recently won — play in the day-to-day work of an editor?

Conventions and awards are great. I love attending the cons when I can. This is how I learned so much when I was starting out. I got to meet and talk to so may different people. This helped me refine the focus of my publishing company. It also allowed me to connect with some writers and artists I may not have heard of otherwise. Indeed, many of the artists in The Silver Web came from various art shows at cons.

So many of us seem to live in a virtual world; making friends and sustaining relationships over the internet. But there is something to be said for that face-to-face contact. The conventions guvegive us that opportunity. Plus, they’re a lot of fun.

Last year I was honoredprivileged to bewith the a guest of honor invitation tofor the first Steampunk Convention in Sunnyvale, CA. Jeff and I had such a blast — and it was a very different con from the ones I am used to attending. I was introduced to many new people and ideas. This can only improve my work as an editor, expanding my horizons. And the creativity of the gadgets, instruments and clothing designs? Wow! I was blown away by the talent around me.

I’ve also been a guest at Finncon in Finland, Utopiales in France and Parcon in the Czech Republic. You see a lot ofsome similarities to in the US conventions, but there are some also many differences and it’s great to experience something new in different surroundings.

As for the awards, I can’t tell you how excited I am to be nominated so many times this year. First for the Shirley Jackson award for Fast Ships, Black Sails. Then the Hugo nomination for Weird Tales and now two WF awardsWorld Fantasy nominations, for Weird Tales and Steampunk.

And winning the Hugo was a complete surprise that made my parents very very proud. Not only that, but it made me recognize that we’re heading in the right direction with the new vision that Stephen and I have for this iconic magazine is heading in the right direction. The crowd went absolutely wild when they called out our names. That was quite an experience for me. Made me feel like a rock star!

Could you look back over your career and tell us how you feel about your body of work as whole?

Overall I feel excited and humbled, and truly blessed. Not only have I been able to work on so many diverse projects that continue to challenge me and thrill me, I have made so many good friends around the world. I look over the past 20 to -25 years of accomplishments and I am pleased. However, I can’t wait to do more. There are so many projects I’d like to do and hope to have the time for them all.

One upcoming project that I am especially excited about is the Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals. This is my first written — rather than edited — book. Taking on a new adventure, right? You never know where your interests and talents will take you. Last year Jeff and I where taking a short hike — this was right before Passover. We got to talking about the kosherness of certain imaginary animals (Passover has so many dietary restrictions, this conversation naturally moved in this direction — of course!).

The conversation was so much fun we decided to do it as a blog post on Jeff’s blog, expanding it to a discussion/debate between me and Evil Monkey (Jeff’s alter-ego). The blog post was so popular. We got feedback from hundreds of people all over the place. It even got picked up on Swedish NPR. Then Jacob Weisman of Tachyon thought it would make a fine book. So look for a beautiful, lively, fun gift book early next year (just in time for Purim). John Coulthart is the designer and we also have Duff Goldman (from Ace of Cakes) providing some delicious recipes (and wine pairings) for cooking some of these imaginary creatures. You never know what wacky project is just around the corner.

I am also looking forward to the upcoming Last Drink Bird Head. This is a charity anthology dreamed up by Jeff and inspired by the artwork of our good friend Eric Schaller. Jeff asked many writers “Don’t Think — Just Write! What is Last Drink Bird Head?” Another fun project with the interior designed by John Coulthart. Everyone contributing their talents — over 80 contributors (yeah, I know…harder than herding cats). But the proceeds go to ProLiteracy, an international organization that promotes literacy around the world through local grassroots efforts. And that’s what it’s all about, right? Giving something back.

And speaking of giving back…I have to tell you this one story. One of the best moments of my life as an editor was this email I received from a writer named Jeff Johnson. I had bought a story from him for Weird Tales a while back (he was a relatively unknown writer). He has since published an amazing book called Tattoo Machine that continues to become more and more popular. And he sent me this email….telling me that the reason he writes today is that an editor gave him lots of encouragement years ago even though he didn’t sell anything back then. He went on to say that this editor was me (back with The Silver Web). Truly one of my best editor moments!

When a writer tells me that I was able to help them, I am thrilled. When a reader tells me that I introduced them to some amazing fiction they wouldn’t have seen otherwise, I am so happy. So, yes, looking back at the work itself, I am pleased, but it’s the relationships that really make me proud.

The publishing industry is meeting the same challenges the music industry and musicians met some fifteen years ago. What do you think writers and publishers can do to ensure that readership keeps growing and the industry remains a viable source of income for writers? What do you do?

If you want your readership to grow you need to know your audience. I know that so many out there think that the key to success is to duplicate what’s already popular. And that may work for a while, but I believe that instead this is the time to be truly innovative. Try something new. Take a chance. Give the readers something they can’t get anywhere else. Stand out. And make sure it’s easy to findaccessible (they have to know it’s out there, right?).

In the music industry we see a lot of bands doing it all themselves. And with the advent of new technologies, it’s much easier to find your audience today. You can put your music online and let the buyer download it. And it’s not a stigma for the musician to “self-publish.”

Unfortunately this is not true for the writer,; however the opportunity now exists for independent publishers to step into the gap and do those projects that the majors don’t, rather than just try to replicate what the commercial publishers are doing. Or even to create a project the majors might not think ofa new audience by coming up with an interesting project. Yes, I know — the economy is terrible and no one reads anymore. I am so tired of hearing this. I’d rather look to the future more hopefully and seek out new opportunities. They are there. You just have to be open to them and let your imagination run wild.

And finally, tell us about how this year's World Fantasy Convention slots into your work as a editor, and how this convention fits into the larger frame of genre fiction, and indeed, just what is publishable.

I love the World Fantasy Convention. It’s one of my favorite times of the year. Not only does it usually fall on my favorite holiday (Halloween), but I feel as if I am attending a family reunion. I don’t know why it is, but this particular convention just feels like home to me. The first time I went was in 1992 at Calloway Gardens in Georgia. I met Michael Bishop (one of my heroes) there and he welcomes welcomed me like I was the most important person in the room, even though I was just a new editor. Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov’s SF Magazine, took Jeff and I out for a mealbreakfast (breakfast maybe?). She was so gracious to us and made Jeff feel like a very important writerhis work was worth something.

Someone once told me that you will be the same person in the future that you are today except for two things — the people you meet and the books that you read. So true, don’t you think? The welcoming atmosphere of WFC and other conventions (not to mention the people) help bring new life every year to the genre. Some may worry that we’ve become stagnant and spend too much time with in-fighting, but I disagree. There will always be a bit of that in every organization (after all, we’re peopleonly human). But overall, I find our community vibrant and forward-thinking. We are blessed with some of the most talented and creative people. And the best readers! The more established writers hold their hands out to help the new writers. However, the new writers also inspire the experienced ones. So it works both ways. And WFC (and other conventions) fosters these relationships. It can only be good for the future of genre and writers and readers in general.

12-22-09: Jasper Fforde Sees in 'Shades of Grey' : Black and White in Colour

The path to utopia is not littered with anything. It is clean and tidy, spick-and-span. Any government plans that come into being should start with cleaning up the clutter. You take care of that and the rest takes care of itself. Why do we know this? We know this because every dystopia is somehow, somewhere, dingy, grimy, and most important to those writing about them, gritty. What's fun to write about is not so easy to live in.

All this dystopian doublespeak comes courtesy of
Jasper Fforde's latest novel, 'Shades of Grey' (Viking / Penguin Putnam ; December 29, 2009 ; $25.95 ; Hodder & Stoughton ; January 14, 2010 ; £16.99), which takes Fforde's oeuvre in a new and to my mind more different direction than one might presume upon reading the book. Now, I've loved Fforde's previous work; The Thursday Next novels and the Nursery Crime series, and one reason is because they are rather unique literary creations. Probably the best description is literary fantasy, because the world in which they unfold is quite absurd and strictly literary. They are full-on second world fantasies, but closer to Lewis Carroll than J. R. R. Tolkien. The Thursday Next and Nursery Crime novels not only have no connection to our world, they have no possible connection to our world. Now while Tolkien has no explicit connection to our world, there is at last enough commonality so that one can imagine some evolution from magic and elves to World War I England. Not so the world of Thursday Next.

But Fforde's latest novel, while it retains the kooky situations and engaging characters of his other work, is set in a world that is, or rather was, demonstrably ours. But efforts to make our world better inevitably ended up making it worse, and presto-change-o, you've got the Colourtocracy under which Eddie Russett finds himself sent to the boondocks. It's a utopia for some, particularly the nastiest, meanest and smallest minds, but something of a living hell for everyone else. But for the reader, it's a non-stop mind-boggler, full of inventive twists and not to put too fine a point upon it, colorful inventions. Happily, Fforde proves himself to be as adept at sort-of straightforward science fiction as he is at his unique brand of literary fantasy.

'Shades of Grey' is as goofy and funny as anything that Fforde has written. His knack for creating characters you love, even if some of them are somewhat hateful, is right-on and fully intact. This is a very science-fictional novel in that part of the plot lies in discovering just how things came to be the way they are in the novel and in fact, just how they are. But every weird invention of Fforde's unfortunate future has a ringer in the present, every catch-phrase leads us back to a slogan of this place and time that might make you want to wring somebody's neck. Fforde has a particular flair for creating absurd worlds that have a consistent internal logic, and it's nice to see him deploy that talent in the service of a more down-to-earth, science-fictional setting. Down-to-earth, of course, being quite relative. Like most dystopias, it starts with lofty utopian goals that get grimy, gritty and grungy with age. That's our clue. We need to make sure any Utopian planning includes a thorough regime of cleanliness and clutter removal.

It's my take that readers who have enjoyed Fforde's previous work will be delighted with his new direction. It's just as fun as his other work, and just as inventive. Moreover, the dystopian utopia he's created will resonate with a larger audience. Yes, 'Shades of Grey' is clearly the launch of a promising series, as well as a satisfying novel in itself. One hopes that the world Fforde creates here will remain firmly in the absurd. But the world has a way of outdoing even the most outlandish imaginations. You'll be tempted to keep your Pantone color swatch guide close to hand.

12-21-09: Ghosts of the Cities : Nightlife of the Living and Dead

We may build cities and fill them with life, but we do not think of them as alive. Not consciously, anyway.

But cities do have a life. There is some ineffable, untouchable aspect of any city that any human can detect upon entering. You know when you arrive in a city. It may or may not be at the city limits. Usually it is when you are in some part of the downtown; at some moment you look around you and realize that you are surrounded not just by the living, but by a life. You are immersed in an organism. And where else would the brain of any city reside but in its bookstores?

It shouldn’t then surprise us, that, if we find the brain and perhaps the heart of a city in its bookstores that a literature would grow around that heart. That a scrum of words would form, like moss on the pillars of Stonehenge, and spell out for us the secret lives of that city, of any city, of every city. As lifeforms, then, cities are very different from the other living beings of this (or any other) planet. They are what Theodore Sturgeon called in his short story "Baby is Three" (later expanded into a novel, 'More Than Human'), a gestalt consciousness. A whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

What makes the gestalt being so interesting to writers is that it is a character that is comprised of other characters, of human beings, in a fractal suite where images and ideas can collide in reality to form something much more interesting than mere mundane reality. The writing about these cities is found in those books where someone says, "Oh, the main character is the city."

This kind of writing isn’t new. You can look back at Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, or go back further and consider 'A Tale of Two Cities.' Writers have long known that cities have a life not unlike that of those who inhabit them. But a new crop of writers have taken that idea to create a wonderful world of living cities, from the split personality of China Miéville's 'The City and the City' to Carlos Ruiz Zafón's Barcelona, explored in 'The Shadow of the Wind' and 'The Angel's Game' to Buenos Aires, unearthed by
Eric Stener Carlson in 'The Saint Perpetuus Club of Buenos Aires,' reviewed by Mario Guslandi here.

Zafón and Carlson have even more in common, though they explore two very different cities. Now, we love our cities. Make no mistake. But I think also that we are frightened of them, scared that cities will expose our own flaws in a manner that is at best surreal, and at worst, terrifying. The problem with mirrors is that they show us what is. And so it should not surprise us, then, that both Zafón and Carlson look at the heart of our cities, at our shining best, the bookstores, but find that somewhere within lies the Devil. You want to know what the Devil looks like? Take a good look in the mirror. Don’t flinch, don’t turn away.

We know that we are more complex than we can comprehend; and that the cities we create magnify that effect, that they become us in a manner that may not exactly flatter us. But writers like Zafón, Miéville and Carlson know something more. By taming our cities with words, by writing them into the bookstores that are their beating hearts, we turn the darkness not into light, but into something we can, if only briefly, in that fleeting moment of a reading experience — and perhaps, love as a memory, afterwards.

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Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Charles and Caroline Todd : "...let them be themselves and sort it out..." Caroline Todd "'s more on a personal level..." Charles Todd

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 191: Charles Todd : A Fine Summer's Day

01-13-15: Commentary : Rosalie Parker Unearths 'The Old Knowledge' : The New Old World

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker : "I thought I'd write something for fun.." Ray Russell "..there was a side of me of that was interested in the strangeness..." Ros Parker

01-12-15: Commentary : Richard Ford 'Let Me Be Frank with You' : The Default Years

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Richard Ford : "...most of our politicians are morons..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 190: Richard Ford : Let Me Be Frank with You

01-06-15: Commentary : Bessel van der Kolk 'The Body Keeps the Score' : Human Trauma

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Bessel van der Kolk : "...being able to see what happens in the brain really helps us to understand certain things..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 189: Bessel van der Kolk : The Body Keeps the Score

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