Queer Collections

In among shiny novels, novellas, and even multi-author anthologies, single author short story collections often get overlooked. I’m admittedly biased since they published my two collections, but Lethe Press, publishes some really standout collections, and there are a few recent releases I want to highlight.

Forget the Sleepless ShoresForget the Sleepless Shores by Sonya Taaffe is hot off the presses this month. It’s a gorgeous collection, echoing with themes of loss, longing, and separation. Many of the stories either draw from mythology and history, or create their own, giving them a timeless, fairy tale feel. As a result, the characters have a sense of lives extending far beyond the page, as though the reader is merely peeking in on a slice of their lives. They feel familiar and strange all at once, giving the stories a haunted, and unsettling feel, in the best of ways. Another common thread tying the collection together is Taaffe’s meticulous use of language. Not only is the imagery striking, but sentences are constructed with a unique sense of rhythm that shakes the reader out of complacency and makes them carefully consider each word, its placement, and what Taaffe is saying. There’s a poetic quality and a flow to the language that only increases the dreamy, magical feel saturating the collection.

His scream shocked silence into his mouth, brought him scrambling upright in bed as though he could climb out of his flame-ridden flesh: plaster cool against his sweating spine, late moonlight in watery bars across the wicker-backed chair draped with his pants and Niko’s socks and somebody’s under-shirt, and Niko in the darkness beside him, slow with sleep and sharp with worry, saying “Blake? Blake, love. What’s wrong?”

–Little Fix of Friction

There are ghost stories, a father trying to reconcile with a daughter born of the sea, a dybbuk carried inside a lover’s skin, restless spirits, bodies buried in peat, and a monster born from the weight of history and science and the atomic bomb. Each story is unique, but again connected by that timeless feel and a beauty of language. In an overall strong collection, the stories that stood out as my favorites were “Little Fix of Friction”, “On the Blindside”, “The Boatman’s Cure”, “The Dybbuk in Love”, “Like Milkweed”, “The Salt House”, and “The Creeping Influences”.

Not Here Not NowNot Here. Not Now. was published earlier this year, and contains both short stories and novellas. The settings are far-ranging in both geographical location and time period, from historical to contemporary, and from the Greek isles, to the streets of New York, from a desert island, to the canals and opera houses of Venice. Jeffers adapts the voice of each piece to suit the setting, and does an impressive job of it. In the introduction to “A Handbook for the Castaway”, the author admits to inventing a “faux-seventeenth-century dialect”, however it feels authentic, perfectly suited to the piece, making the characters’ words come alive so the reader hears the cadence of them as they go along. Some of the same themes encountered in Taaffe’s collection are here as well, in particular myth and history, but they play out very differently. There’s less of a fairy tale feel to Jeffers’ pieces, but again, the language employed for each makes them feel grounded, imbuing them with a sense of place and history.

Hunger drove me out at dusk. I followed the trail my brother had made dragging what was left of our sister. I began to smell fresher blood and to hear noises, horrible noises, chuckles and coughs and chirps. Peering between a rock and a leafy bush, I saw a wake of black vultures squabbling over the corpse of my small brother and our sister’s few disjointed bones.

— The Hyena’s Blessing

While there are ghouls and sirens to be found in the collection’s pages, many stories do away with the fantastical element altogether, or touch on it very lightly. Alongside the fantastical creatures, there is also a castrato singer, and a young boy suffering terrible migraines and obsessed with the Harry Clarke illustrations of the work of Edgar Allan Poe. There is love, both unrequited and reciprocated, lust and sex, hearts broken and hearts mended. It’s a deeply human collection, one that elegantly straddles worlds real and unreal. The stories that stood out to me in particular were “You Deserve”, “Seb and Duncan and the Sirens”, “A Handbook for the Castaway”, “The Hyena’s Blessing”, “Captain of the World”, and “The New People”.

Acres of PerhapsAcres of Perhaps by Will Ludwigsen, also published earlier this year, just happens to be part of the special sale Lethe Press has going on right now, so it’s the perfect time to snag a copy. It’s a slender collection, but one with an interesting conceit. Many of the pieces are fragmentary, describing episodes of a non-existent, Twilight Zone-like TV show, called Acres of Perhaps. Like The Twilight Zone, Acres of Perhaps occasionally pushes boundaries to make both political points and artistic ones, while other episodes are straight up campy sci-fi. All of this is established in the opening story of the collection, appropriately titled “Acres of Perhaps”. The story focuses on the fictional show’s writers, each with their own vision for the series. The “tortured genius” of the bunch, David, believes he’s had an actual encounter with the supernatural, after falling through a hole in a massive stump in the woods, and emerging in a weird mirror-world where everyone is almost, but not quite like themselves, and where he is more creative and productive than he ever could have been in the reality where he belongs. The story plays with and deconstructs the idea of genius, and the creative muse, and what counts as an acceptable sacrifice in the name of art – health, family, friendship, love? The story blurs the line between reality and fiction, never fully answering the question “of whether anything supernatural is going on, and it’s all the stronger for it.

It was dark, just as David had described. There was a slight intimation of a breeze, breathing also like he’d said. My eyes couldn’t focus on the bottom, black and speckled with something like stars. It might have been night on the other side, where David Findley was still writing in an attic somewhere with a bottle of gin beside him.

–Acres of Perhaps

The story feels true – the rivalry and affection between the writers, the struggle against budget constraints and studio notes, David’s battle with alcoholism, and Barry and his lover having to live a closeted life due to the attitudes of the time, yet still being able to enjoy support and acceptance within their writers’ circle. The snippets of episodes interspersed with the other stories in the collection add richness to the opening story and vice versa. While the other stories are not directly connected to Acres of Perhaps, they do have the uncanny feel of stories that could take place within the series’ universe, with many exploring alternate timelines – particularly “Night Fever”, which places Charles Manson in the era of disco, and “Poe at Gettysburg”, which imagines Edgar Allan Poe as president – and asking the all important question at the heart of that type of science fiction show: “what if”.

To close things out, I’ll include a shout-out for two slightly older Lethe titles – A. Merc Rustad’s wonderful So You Want to Be a Robot, and  Livia Llewellyn’s Engines of Desire. Both contain stories that are simultaneously brutal and gorgeously written, delivering gut-punches and breathtaking prose in one go. Many of Rustad’s stories explore the complexities of gender and humanity through the lens of the fantastic, while Llewellyn turns that same lens on sexuality, desire, and violence. Llewellyn’s collection skirts the edge of horror, and indeed was twice-nominated for the Shirley Jackson award, while Rustad’s collection spans genres, from rich, secondary world fantasy, to contemporary science fiction, and all the interstitial spaces in-between.

I’d highly recommend browsing Lethe’s catalogue, especially now with the aforementioned sale going on. The press also publishes novels, novellas, and anthologies, all worth checking out. In addition to the content of the collections being top-notch, Lethe’s books look and feel good too, with striking covers and excellent layout and design. As always, I remain a firm believer in there being no such thing as too many books in a TBR pile. Happy reading!

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An Interview with Julie C. Day

Julie C. Day was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her debut collection, Uncommon Miracles. To start things off, I’ll make introductions by shamelessly stealing from Julie’s author bio…

Julie has published over thirty stories in magazines such as Interzone, Black Static, Podcastle, and Split Lip Magazine. Her first collection, Uncommon Miracles, is forthcoming from PS Publishing in October as both a limited edition hardcover and ebook. It’s now available for pre-order. Julie lives in a small town in New England with her family and a menagerie of variously sized animals. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and a M.S. in Microbiology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Some of Julie’s favorite things include nighttime glasses of ginger libation, rewatching all except the last season of Trueblood, and baths, oh-so-many baths.

Uncommon Miracles CoverWelcome, and congratulations on the publication of Uncommon Miracles! Care to give readers a hint of the sorts of stories they’ll find in its pages?

Thanks, Ali! I’m incredibly chuffed to see these stories wandering the world together for the first time. It’s turning out to be an incredibly different experience from their publication in magazines. It’s interesting to see how well they fit together. There’s a certain “Julie-ness” to each of them.

In general, I’m drawn to the uncomfortable corners of the psyche, to people’s unarticulated emotional reality and the difficult choices they have to make as a result. My stories are often quite surreal and dark and if I’ve done it right, they also creep along an emotional knife edge. But really I hate describing my work! All I can think about are the exceptions. My publisher put out a lovely description which I’m going to go ahead steal!

“Melding aspects of Southern Gothic and fabulism, and utilizing the author’s own scientific background, Day’s carefully rendered settings are both delightful and unexpected. Whether set in a uniquely altered version of Florida’s Space Coast or a haunted island off the coast of Maine, each story in this collection carries its own brand of meticulous and captivating weirdness.”

It sounds wonderful! What was your process like for putting the collection together? Were you going for a certain theme or tone with the stories you selected, or any overarching thesis?

I actually focused more on how I perceived the quality of the work, rather than on maintaining a certain theme. For me at least, the thematic concerns tend to take care of themselves. I find myself returning to certain themes without any conscious intent. My writing includes the scientific, the magical, and the religious, often in combination. At some level I never lost that childlike sense that our world, our scientifically-defined universe, is infused with magic. Whether it’s the ability of entangled photons to instantaneously interact at great distances or the concept of infinite universes proposed by the many-worlds interpretation, reality is strange and wondrous and not prescribed by our everyday human experiences.

The title Uncommon Miracles actually speaks to a thread that runs through much of my work. My characters are all damaged, trapped in situations, whether personal or apocalyptic, that cause them pain. The choices available to them are never ideal. Success in these stories, the miracle, is a moment of peace in an often ugly universe. Whether it’s children, widowers, or best friends, I‘m drawn to stories of the unseen and unheard person found at an individual’s core. Articulating the internal lives of these characters often involves creating worlds that incorporate some sort of dream logic.

A lot of short story writers get subjected to some version of the sentiment “that’s nice, but when are you going to write something real like a novel?”. Have you ever experienced that? What appeals to you about short fiction as a form?

Ha! These people have clearly never experienced how much effort and time it takes me to get one of my stories even close to what I feel works. My writing is character and emotion based. I tend to spend an inordinate amount of time building worlds that support these characters. Almost without exception, I discover the plot of a story last. I also can’t stand too much predictability in my process or in the final work. This way of working fits most naturally with the short form. That said, there was a point in my life when I had never written a short story and a point in my life when I had never written a paragraph. Stretching outside of your comfort zone is one of the requirements if you’re work is going to remain fresh. I recently finished a rather long novella, 125 pages, that is currently out on submission. “The Rampant” is dark and weird and intense. I’m very proud of it. I have another long project on the back burner, but…a standard three-act-structure novel is never going to be a natural fit for me—or so says the 2018 me.

Shifting things slightly, I wanted to ask about your background. You have degrees in both Creative Writing and Microbiology, and by day you’re an IT Business Analyst. Those all seem like pretty disparate things. What path did you take from one field to another, and how do your various areas of expertise play together and inform each other (assuming they do)?

You’ll find a lot of scientific facts folded into my surreal landscapes. The rabbits in “Everyone Gets a Happy Ending” are informed by the hours I spent researching rabbit breeds, rabbit development, and the behavior and life experiences of rabbits in the wild.
Really, my favorite part of any job is the explosive gathering and assimilation of new information, that moment when nothing makes sense and you haven’t yet figured out what. It. All. Means. It’s what I loved about science, it’s what I love about my job as a business analyst, and it’s one of my favorite aspects of writing—the research that leads to unexpected connections within my own brain.

I learn quickly and I’m excited by ideas that are new and novel, plus I have a strong drive to problem solve, it’s that mindset that has led me to a number of my professional hats. In terms of fiction, over the years I’ve found my approach utilizes some of the skills involved in writing business documents and diagramming processes. It’s not so much that I’m transferring job skills to my creative endeavors. Rather I think that in some way I lean on the same strengths, and honestly, have the same weaknesses. Despite the analytical and organized nature of my work documents, my desk and my brain are spinning with fragments, scrawled notes, post-its, squiggly thought diagrams, and a gut sense of what strands of inquiry I need to follow. My work process is seemingly chaotic—until it’s not and I’ve identified both the what and the why. I find writing fiction works much the same. Linear is not my natural approach to anything!

Building off the non-writing related areas of expertise question, one of my favorite things to ask authors is about strange jobs they’ve had. What’s the most unusual job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

Well…I worked at a wax paper factory for part of a summer. I also worked at the Hood Milk factory and I made over-sized paper flowers next to my Ye Olde sales cart as an employee of Six Flags Amusement Park. I also worked as a caseworker for low-income seniors. But I have to say my job as a companion to a ninety-something-year-old man was the oddest. I was tasked with taking him out to stores and restaurants and making him feel part of the world. The money was helpful to me, as I’d left my job in hopes of “focusing on writing,” but we had very little in common and choosing our activities was, for me, deeply uncomfortable. And yes it taught me a very important lesson! I was a dumb dumb. Leaving your day job is luxury, especially early in a writing career. Of course, I had to figure that out the hard way, by trying it. These days I’m lucky enough to be able to work part-time in a professional job. If I were to jump completely, this time I’d have a much better plan!

Those all sound like fascinating life experiences, though! Switching gears again…New England in general strikes me as having a strong sense of place. The image it conjures in my mind is small towns, old families, the sea, and an area ripe for hauntings. As a resident of New England, do you find any of that to be true? What are the local-to-you places you go for inspiration, or that you like to recommend folks visiting the area?

To an extent. For me that version of New England is found on the islands off of the Maine Coast. Vinalhaven, the settling for my story “Signal and Stone,” feels very much that way, and actually that story does include a few ghosts. But I also know I look at Vinalhaven with an outsider’s eyes. While researching the story I learned something of the economic and community tensions that exist. I guess if you look closely enough, no place is any one thing.

My own experience of New England is a bit different. I live in Western Massachusetts in a college town located along the Connecticut River. The brick buildings of Smith College are quintessential New England. We have running clubs and bicycling clubs and micro-brew bicycle tours. Bike paths and woodland trails crisscross the entire region. There are movies in the summer on the lawn of the old library and a multitude of music venues. This summer the Arts Council hosted two Salsa nights in Pulaski Park. Each was a packed with small children, families, and couples who had clearly taken Salsa classes, all enjoying the music and the night—together. At the same time class—and the way that it intersects with race, ethnicity, sexual and gender identity—is at play here as much as anywhere else. We are a myriad, like any place, and we’re definitely not immune to the personal and cultural problems you find elsewhere.

That said, I love my home. Mass MOCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in North Adams feeds me in a way few museums can. It’s housed in a converted factory space with large installations and a relatively low number of visitors. There was an exhibit entitled Invisible Cities about six years ago inspired by Italo Calvino’s novel of the same name. It included a city that was presented as a soundscape with no visual representation. I stood in the empty space, enthralled, until my family dragged me away. Closer to home one of my personal favorites is the R. Michelson Gallery, which is housed in a converted nineteenth century bank. They have an incredible collection of picture book art, including Dr. Seuss, and a permanent Leonard Nimoy photography installation in what used to be the old bank vault. There is the Smith College Botanical Gardens, which are housed in a towering Victorian greenhouse. There is the Parlor Room which is small music venue by the record label Signature Sounds. It features Indie, Americana, Folk and Roots music. Fort Hill Brewery and Abandoned Building Brewery are both in nearby Easthampton and are both on the bike path. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is across the river in Amherst along with Emily Dickinson’s house and the Amherst College Museum of Natural History. And then there are all the hikes and the views of the Valley you find once you go up into the hills… I really could go on and on. I probably already have!

You did a good job – now I want to come visit! To wrap things up, now that Uncommon Miracles is out in the world, what’s next for you? Do you have any projects in the works you want folks to know about?

As well as my novella “The Rampant” currently out on submission, I’ve been contracted to write a tabletop RPG game for Evil Hat’s Fate World series. I’ve also been able to focus on new short stories. I have many partials, always, but I finally finished two new stories in the last couple of weeks. It was lovely. I also have significant pieces of a mosaic novel called Ash that I want to move forward. Writing the novella has given me some confidence and—fingers crossed—some new skills around the longer form, or my version of it anyway!

Thanks so much for stopping by!

Thank you for inviting me! I’ve really enjoyed it.

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A Shimmery Appreciation

These days, the news feels like a relentless cycle of horror. Every day, every hour, brings something new and terrifying. It’s hard not to cringe, while looking at social media or scanning headlines, reflexively tensing for whatever new blow is sure to fall.

Shimmer MagazineBut I’m not here to talk about the bad things. I’m here to talk about one very good thing, a lovely thing that has been bringing joy and art and beauty into the world for thirteen years – Shimmer Magazine. While this post is a celebration of a fine publication and the hard-working badgers who bring its digital and physical pages to life, it is a bittersweet post as well. A farewell. Recently, Shimmer announced it will be closing its pages for the last time this coming November. It will be very much missed.

Since 2005, Shimmer has consistently published gorgeous, dreamy, gut-punching, heart-wrenching and haunting stories. These are stories about outer space and unseen realms, the living, the dead, the possible and the impossible. Its pages are full of realms that were and might be and never were – magic, love, friendship, ghosts, witches, birds, and so much more. Above all, stories that were and are undeniably…shimmery.

I’ve had the good fortune to be published by Shimmer on several occasions. When I was first starting out as a baby writer, Shimmer was a publication I  aspired to. My first acceptance from them was a dream come true, and that thrill never went away. Publisher Beth Wodzinski, Senior Editor E. Catherine Tobler, and the entire Shimmer team have always been a joy to work with. My favorite piece of editorial advice, in fact, came from Shimmer, and it was simply this: add more tentacles. That, my friends, is never ever the wrong answer, no matter the situation.

Shimmer July 2016Even though the era of Shimmer is ending, it will always have a special place in my heart. Rather than mourn its loss, now seems like the perfect time to celebrate its exsistence by highlighting some of my favorite Shimmer stories (or least my favorites since I started keeping track). There are a lot to choose from. In these dark times, may I suggest pouring yourself your favorite beverage, snuggling up with a pet or a loved one, and reading something beautiful as an act of resistance? Browse through Shimmer’s vast archives, and you’re bound to find something that strikes your fancy. I certainly did.

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee – a beautiful and haunting story of magic, birds, love and loss.

Be Not Unequally Yoked by Alexis A. Hunter – a powerful story of first love, transformation, and finding your place in the world.

A Whisper in the Weld by Alix E. Harrow – the story of a woman working under brutal and punishing conditions, and the fierce love for her family that transcends death.

Shimmer March 2017In the Rustle of Pages by Cassandra Khaw – a bittersweet story of honoring family members at the end of their lives, and keeping loved ones with us, even though they are gone.

The Star Maiden by Roshani Chokshi – an otherworldly and fairy tale-like story of a grandmother, a granddaughter, and a magical dress.

States of Emergency by Erica L. Satfika – a unique take on an apocalyptic tale.

A July Story by K.L. Owens – a story full of longing, about a strange and impossible house that steals people away.

Red Mask by Jessica May Lin – a story about death, ghosts,  survival, and the origins of a super hero.

.subroutine:all///end by Alex Acks – a gut-punch of a story about an AI caregiver and the messy, complicated nature of human relationships.

Painted Grassy Mire by Nicasio Andreas Reed – a highly atmospheric story of monstrous creatures and the call of blood.

Shimmer March 2018Glam-Grandma by Avi Naftali – a delightful and stylish story about old ladies who take no shit, make no apologies, and live life to the fullest.

Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left by Fran Wilde – a dreamy and poetic story of transformation, longing, and nature reclaiming its own.

Shadow Boy by Lora Gray – a take on Peter Pan that explores identity and who we are inside versus how we appear to others.

The Cold, Lonely Waters by Aimee Ogden – a journey between the stars in search of survival, or, simply put: mermaids in spaaaaaaace.

The Creeping Influences by Sonya Taaffe – a beautifully written story of desire and fear wrapped around the mystery of a bog mummy.

The Triumphant Ward of the Railroad and the Sea by Sara Saab – a story of hunger, journeying, and trying to outrun hurt on an impossible and fantastical train.

As I said, these are just a few of the fabulous stories Shimmer has published over the years. Which ones are your favorites?

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An Interview with Joanne Merriam and Octavia Cade – Bonus Round!

Women Up to No GoodBack in April, I interviewed Joanne Merriam and Octavia Cade, two of the editors of the Women Up to No Good anthology series from Upper Rubber Boot Books. The Kickstarter to support the anthology series, which focuses on dark, feminist, speculative fiction just relaunched earlier this month. There are tons of fabulous rewards up for grab as part of the campaign, including a critique from yours truly. What’s more, you’ll be helping Upper Rubber Boot continue publishing stories with a feminist bent, and bring even more wonderful fiction into the world.

As part of the Kickstarter relaunch, Joanne and Octavia were kind enough to come back and answer some bonus questions for me. Here they are, chatting about Canadian and Kiwi literature, odd jobs, and recent favorite reads…

A question I like to ask my fellow (transplanted) Canadians (hi, Joanne!), but can apply equally to other nationalities (hi, Octavia!) is about the national character of our/their literature. So, do you think there are particular tones, themes, or subjects that make a piece of literature quintessentially of Canada or of New Zealand? If so, do you ever consciously draw on those themes in your own work, or even consciously avoid them?

JM: Yes and yes! I’d be hard-pressed to define Canadian-ness in lit (people devote their whole lives to that, as you know) but there’s definitely a “feel” to it. When I read submissions, I try to read as blind as I can, and sometimes this doesn’t work because you recognize a well-known writer’s style, but in a similar way, I’ve noticed that frequently I’ll think, “huh, I’m pretty sure a Canadian wrote this” and I’m right more often than not, although the bulk of my submissions come from Americans. But there’s such a breadth to what falls under that umbrella of Canlit that it’s really something you notice more in aggregate than in particular works. For my own work, it’s not something I generally think about but I’m sure it exerts an unconscious influence. I’ve been living in the States for 14 years now, so less and less influence over time, I expect, though Americans do still comment on my speech patterns and certain habits of mind are set by the time you’re 25 or so and I didn’t emigrate until I was 30.

OC: There’s a Kiwi actor called Sam Neill that a lot of you will probably know of, and he made a study of New Zealand cinema some time back that coined a very specific phrase. He talked about how NZ films were a “cinema of unease” – often dark and uncomfortable, reflective of the struggle for identity. And that is I think often present in our literature as well, and it’s there on both an individual and community level. We’re a young country that’s geographically isolated and relatively unimportant, so much so that for a lot of the time we’re left to do our own thing, pretty much. There’s a tongue-in-cheek campaign going round at the moment to remedy the many, many maps around the world that don’t actually have us on them, but although we laugh at it there is I think an underlying sense of national… I wouldn’t call it insecurity, exactly, although that’s part of it for sure, but a very definite awareness of isolation and the power of connection and disconnection, of existing very slightly apart, and that’s discomforting, and something we explore a lot in literature as well as cinema. When writing myself I tend to be drawn to the slightly odd and quietly grim, so I expect it’s all percolated through unawares.

Speaking of national characteristics, let’s talk about your current home towns a bit. What are your favorite places in your respective areas to gain inspiration, or refresh yourselves when you’re feeling stuck on a creative project? What are the places you like to recommend to people visiting for the first time?

OC: I live in small town Cambridge, but one of the places that really inspires me is Hamilton Public Gardens (Hamilton being the city about 20 minutes away). They were International Garden of the Year back in 2014 I think? And was originally built on the town dump. They are unreservedly excellent, split up into dozens of small connected gardens. Some of these are themed geographically – the Maori garden, the Indian garden, the Italian garden, for example – and some are totally fantastically insane. The newest one to open is a concept garden with a sunken lemon tree pit, red painted trees and a zeppelin – and they’re planning over a dozen more. Next to open, I think, and what I’ve been hanging out for, is the surrealist garden, complete with 8 metre tall giant moving topiaries. There’s also a garden based on a famous NZ short story to come, a garden where they’re building a ruined and overgrown castle, a garden based on fantasy films, an ancient Egyptian garden, one based on the medieval French poem The Romance of the Rose… they only have a few of the plans up on their website, but there’s a big display of future projects at the gardens themselves. I love public gardens at the best of times, and Hamilton’s is without doubt the best I’ve ever seen. Every time I go there – and I go there regularly – I’m inspired with what imagination can make of (literal) trash.

(ACW: OMG! Those gardens sound amazing. Now I want to visit!)

BunnyJM: I still think of my hometown as Halifax, Nova Scotia, and I miss being able to walk down to the boardwalk or drive out to Conrad’s Beach to commune with the Atlantic. Tennessee is short on ocean but long on wonderful state parks – I often go to places like Radnor Lake, Savage Gulf, and Old Stone Fort to hike to waterfalls and look at trees and turn my mind off for a bit. I find when I’m stuck, thinking harder about the issue doesn’t help me, and the best thing to do is something distracting that’s mostly physical and that gets my brain back to a sort of calm steady state, and then frequently the solution just presents itself. We also have an excellent zoo, and I like to go when they open on Saturdays, and walk straight to the elephant enclosure and watch them eat their hay while I sit and eat a protein bar. There’s one elephant who always comes over to the artificial lake by my bench to have a drink and look at me, and I feel like we’re visiting each other for breakfast, although for all I know she does that every day whether I’m there or not. The other place I’m constantly recommending to people is Cheekwood, an old mansion that was turned over to a conservancy group which has been very creative in how they use the property: the mansion is a museum with a permanent exhibit on the group floor and rotating art exhibits on the second floor, and the grounds have been turned into a series of themed gardens (similar to what Octavia describes above, but much less fantastical) plus a sculpture trail, and some additional buildings have been added for workshops and classes and quite a good restaurant. We were there last week to see an outdoor exhibit of enormous inflatable rabbits (pictured above).

Another of my favorite things to ask is about strange, non-writing jobs. What’s the most unusual job you’ve ever had? Did it inspire any of your creative work, teach you anything particular valuable, or inform your life in other ways?

JM: I haven’t had a ton of weird jobs, unlike many writers, but I do get inspiration from my work. For example, my story “Swan Song” arose from a job I had sorting Medicaid claim forms, and “Facial Deficits,” which was in [PANK], was inspired by a lecturer I met at my current job, who had been part of the team to perform the first facial allotransplantation in the US, and of course after talking to him I had to write a story about a face transplant patient because what’s more science fictional than that? Most of my work life has been as an administrative assistant, which is frequently tedious but sometimes very interesting. I worked for five years for the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia, and spent some time in corporate jobs, but most of my work life has been in medicine or related positions, for the Nova Scotia Department of Health, for a Medicaid contractor, and now running a surgical fellowship and the lives of several surgeons for a local hospital. I’m currently involved in a medical surgical-educational camp in Kenya, which my boss-doctor has brought me to twice, and at some point the small coastal town we go to, Malindi, will feature in some stories. Working in medicine helps me to maintain perspective about my own life: maybe money is tight or a tree fell on our roof or I can’t figure out how to resolve a plot problem or whathaveyou, but nobody died.

OC: I worked at a match-making festival in Ireland for 3 months once. I was doing the backpacking thing, and got a temp job at a hotel on the West Coast in this tiny little town of Lisdoonvarna which has less than 1K people most of the time but explodes into non-stop music and party for the duration of the festival. Completely mad. It’s never turned up in any of my stories. I’m not sure I could do it justice. I’ve also done some science writing for kids that’s basically looking up strange and disgusting facts and turning them into mildly informative articles (did you know one of the first women to discover a comet impaled herself on her own telescope? Well, one of the massive hooks needed to move it, anyway. Lost a significant chunk of flesh). Kids love that gross shit, and so do I.

Since I never tire of talking about books and short stories, and since a TBR piles can never be too towering, what are a few of your recent favorite reads? Or, old favorites you think more people ought to know about?

JM: I’ve been recommending Catherynne Valente’s Space Opera to everybody: it’s a hilarious adventure about an aging rock star who has to save the world in the universe’s answer to Eurovision. I’m also excited to read Christina Dalcher’s Vox once it comes out this August; it’s based on a short story she originally wrote for Broad Knowledge and then expanded into a novel instead, and the short story was extremely good. And finally, I would say that anybody who hasn’t read The Hate U Give needs to drop everything and do so.

OC: Oh, well, let me take the chance to plug (again!) The Swan Book by Alexis Wright. Magical realism meets cli-fi and indigenous Australia. It came out several years ago, is astonishingly good, got pretty much zero notice from the SFF review scene which should have fallen all over it, and inexplicably did not even make the long list for the Booker (which it deserved to win) and I will never stop being salty about that. Never. The language in it is extraordinary and if you haven’t read it please consider taking a look.

On a related note, what other nerdy things are you excited about at the moment – comics, tv, games, movies, music, or anything else?

OC: Nerdy things, hmm. I continue to work my way through every werewolf film ever made, on the grounds that I Have A Theory and therefore sitting on my arse and stuffing my face with popcorn while I watch the latest gross transformation scene is Research and not just being bone idle. Oh, and there’s a kickstarter someone’s working on to make handbags in the shape of whale sharks and I am enthralled. Other than that, most of my nerdiness is reserved for real life things like national parks being snarky to power over social media, and the hoarding of enraging science stories so I can work out my bile by writing grim uneasy stories where Science Fights Back and so on.

JM: I’m pretty obsessed with the Canadian sitcom Schitt’s Creek, about a rich family who lose everything and have to move to a small town they once bought as a joke. Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara are the big names in it, and of course they’re wonderful, but the real reason I’m watching is Daniel Levy and Emily Hampshire, whose characters are so layered in irony and unhappiness it’s a real pleasure to watch them find each other. I’ve also been watching Brooklyn 99 obsessively, but I’m late to the party there. For movies, I want everybody in the world to watch The Beauty Inside, a romantic drama about a man who wakes up every day as a different person and the woman who loves him but faces social consequences for apparently being with different men all the time. I found it lovely and haunting. I’ve also taken to watching Mr. Right, where hitman Sam Rockwell falls for Anna Kendrick (and who wouldn’t), about once a month, and I’m forever telling my loved ones that I’m a dinosaur because of it. (And speaking of dinosaurs, I’m also looking forward to the kickstarter for A. Merc Rustad’s Robot Dinosaurs virtual anthology!)

Thank you for coming back to answer some bonus questions, and best of luck with the Kickstarter!

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Read the Rainbow

StoryBundle Covers

It’s Pride Month! What better time to queer up your reading list, right? Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered. Right now, at StoryBundle, you can snag a special Pride Bundle curated by Melissa Scott. Pay what you want for five fantastic books, and if you choose to pay at least $15, you get eight additional books including my collection of inter-linked short stories full of superheroes kicking ass, female friendships, queers saving the world, and glorious, glorious wardrobes – The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again. You can also choose to donate a portion of your purchase price to Rainbow Railroad, a wonderful charity helping LGTBQIA+ individuals escape persecution and get safely out of Chechnya. There are tons of great books included in the bundle, and you can support a great cause; I highly recommend checking it out!

Another thing to check out is the recent list of Lambda Literary Award Winners. The list contains several of my favorite reads, so I’m delighted to see them being recognized! This year marked the 30th anniversary of the Lambda Literary Awards, so once you’re done with this year’s winners, spend some time catching up on the past winners as well.

Now, since I’m a firm believer that one can never have too many things to read, I have even more reading recommendations for you. Hopefully you’ll love these books and stories as much as I do!

Novels, Novellas, Collections, and Anthologies

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado – a stunning debut collection that has been racking up award nominations (and with good cause), full of stories inflected with darkness, anger, sexuality, and the fantastic.

TranscendentTranscendent edited by K.M. Szpara and Transcendent 2 edited by Bogi Takács – the first two installments in an anthology series collecting the best trans speculative fiction of the year.

The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang – the first two novellas in the Tensorate Series, which have also been racking up well-deserved awards notice, exploring themes of family, gender, power, sacrifice, loss, and magic.

Capricious Issue 9: Gender Diverse Pronouns – a special issue of an excellent publication, featuring stories exploring gender, identity, and the myriad of ways humans define themselves, all set against fantastical backdrops.

My Favorite Thing is MonstersMy Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris – a coming of age story wrapped around a murder mystery, exploring the messy, complicated nature of human beings (and occasionally monsters).

Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time – an anthology of speculative fiction by indigenous authors exploring the many facets of identity, love, and relationships, set in futuristic and magical worlds.

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon – a gorgeously-written and brutal novel about a generation ship strictly divided along racial lines, and one woman’s search for the truth and a way to escape the system.

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez – a unique vampire story spanning generations, focusing on chosen family, love, and kindness instead of insatiable hunger and blood.

Passing StrangePassing Strange by Ellen Klages – a gorgeous, queer love story, which is also a love letter to San Francisco in the 1940s, albeit one full of magic.

The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller – a novel balancing hope and pain about a young man whose eating disorder gives him special powers.

Singing With All My Skin and Bone by Sunny Moraine – a collection full of dark and unsettling stories, all told with beautiful and breath-taking prose.

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly – a slick and stylish novel full of shifting alliances, spies double-crossing spies, death, music, art, and brunch, set in decadent and glittering secondary world.

And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker – a trippy novella of alternate realities converging on a convention full of alternate Sarahs, which also just happens to be a murder mystery.

Short Fiction

The Hydraulic Emperor by Arkady Martine – a bidding war on an alien space station over a rare and eerie cult classic film, where the winning bid requires a great sacrifice.

Fiyah 3Cracks by Xen – a beautiful painful novelette full of longing, set in a world strictly divided into night and day, riddled with cracks where other realities seep through.

Four-Point Affective Calibration by Bogi Takács – a flash fiction story that packs a punch, exploring emotion and alien communication.

Granny Death and the Drag King of London by A.J. Fitzwater – a powerful exploration of communal grief and fear, set against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis and the days surrounding Freddie Mercury’s death.

Salt Lines by Ian Muneshwar – a young man haunted by loneliness, thoughts of home, and a supernatural being.

AnathemaEverything You Left Behind by Wen Ma – a story exploring the many forms grief takes, set in an unchanging town locked in time.

Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time by K.M. Szpara – a trans man bitten by a vampire struggles with the changes brought on by his new, unasked for immortality.

In Search of Stars by Matthew Bright – a haunting story of desire, shame, and a top secret formula for paint that causes people to float away.

Rivers Run Free by Charles Payseur – a gorgeous story of personified rivers and waters fighting against those who would chain and control them.

And that’s just to name a few. I really did restrain myself, I promise!

The Kissing Booth Girl and Other StoriesLast, but not least, if you need one more book to add to your tottering TBR pile, here’s a giveaway! My collection The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award last year, and included in last year’s Pride Month StoryBundle. If you didn’t have a chance to grab it then, here’s your chance to win a signed paperback copy now. Just drop a note in the comments between now and June 15th with your own favorite queer reading recommendation(s), and I’ll choose a winner via the magic of a random number generator. Happy Pride, y’all, and happy reading!

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An Interview with Michael R. Underwood

Mike Underwood was kind enough to drop by today to talk about Born to the Blade, a new fantasy series from Serial Box Publishing, written in collaboration with Marie Brennan, Malka Older, and Cassandra Khaw. The first episode was released on April 18, 2018, with more to come soon. To get things started, I’ll introduce Mike by shamelessly stealing from his author bio…

Michael R. Underwood is an author, podcaster, and publishing professional. His series include the Ree Reyes Geekomancy books, the Stabby Award-finalist Genrenauts series, and Born to the Blade. He’s been a bookseller, sales representative, and the North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books. He is also a co-host on the Hugo Award Finalist The Skiffy and Fanty Show and Speculate! The Podcast for Writers, Readers, and Fans. Mike lives in Baltimore with his wife, their dog, and an ever-growing library. He also loves geeking out with games and making pizzas from scratch.

Welcome and congratulations on the release of episode one of Born to the Blade! Without giving too much away, would you care to give folks a taste of what the series is about?

Born to the BladeBorn to the Blade is an epic fantasy series following three prominent bladecrafters in and around the Warder’s Circle – a diplomatic organization based in a free city built on a three-tiered flying city. Bladecraft works by drawing edged metal through the air in specific patterns called sigils. The warders wheel and deal and settle disputes between nations in ritual magical combat. Readers can expect diplomacy and subterfuge, magic and swordplay, and characters torn between their personal loyalties and duty to their home nations.

On your blog, you describe working on the series with Marie Brennan, Malka Older, and Cassandra Khaw, as a TV-writers-room-esque situation. Could you tell us a bit more about the collaborative process? Do you literally (or virtually) sit in a room together and hash out scenes, arcs, and plot points? Do you lob drafts back and forth between team members, or is it a divide-and-conquer kind of thing? Has working as part of a team had any impact on your solo writing process?

The Serial Box process is really cool, and unlike anything I’d done before as a writer. Last summer all four of us had a weekend-long in-person writers’ summit with Julian Yap (the co-founder of Serial Box). Everyone came to the summit having read the 30+ page world document I’d created, and we launched from there into conversations about what we wanted to do with the series, the characters, etc. We worked and re-worked the material, then laid out the season from there.

We kept developing the world even after the summit, as it turns out that there’s a lot of worldbuilding to do when you have people from over a half-dozen nations thrown together and coming into connection and conflict! A big surprise to other writers, I’m sure.
Each episode (we had eleven in season one) was assigned to one writer, but every member of the team provided feedback on each episode, so that each each represented our shared ideas and consensus on characterization, plotting, etc.

Working with Malka, Cassandra, and Marie has helped me gain a stronger understanding of different approaches to storytelling – it’s been much easier to see the contrast clearly when we’re all working with the same characters and world. I haven’t written a lot of my own fiction since we wrapped up the edits on season one, but the biggest craft lesson I feel like I’ve learned so far is how to more clearly delineate a character arc across numerous story beats. I’m looking forward to writing a new project where the character’s agenda drives the story in a very powerful way (for this type of character-driven storytelling, think Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s idea of Operational Theme and series like Breaking Bad).

Born to the Blade isn’t your first foray into episodic fiction. Genrenauts also has a TV series feel, with each episode seeing your characters visiting a different genre world and solving a problem there. What draws you to the episodic format? Speaking of Genrenauts, are there any particular genres and tropes you’re itching to play with that you haven’t explored yet?

As a life-long fan of comics and TV, a pretty large portion of the works that inspire me were told in episodic format – Babylon 5, Leverage, X-Men, Planetary, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc. The other major factor is that episodic fiction is easier to keep in readers’ minds – if you write a novel a year, you have one new release every 365 days. Born to the Blade has eleven release days per season. Genrenauts has five or six. This is also advantageous because the Amazon algorithms are more likely to be favorable if you have a very recent release, so an episodic project keeps your works in the good graces of the Black Box of Amazon for more of the year.

For Genrenauts, I’m very eager to try to see what I can say to add to the conversation in the Horror genre, and I’m excited to play around with the tropes of urban fantasy, utopian science fiction, historical romance, and, with some more research and expert consultation, non-Western narrative genres like wuxia.

Until recently, you were the Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books. How, if at all, did your roles on both sides of the publishing equation inform each other? Is there a particular piece of advice, wisdom, information about what goes on behind the scenes in turning an author’s vision into the reality of a book that you want authors to know about?

Those two jobs were constantly feeding off one another. I’ve been able to bring a much stronger sense of the marketplace and how to position a work, which I’ve used in writing stronger pitches, applying strategies developed for AR in my own work, writing my own sales copy, etc.). And because I’d been around the author block a couple of times, I had a better sense of what authors need to know and are often worried or curious about that I could address with them.

The biggest lesson I’d share with authors is that while your book may be unique, you need to know how to compare it to other novels/books/etc. If you’re publishing in USA, CAN, and the UK, it needs to be classified into BISAC or BIC genre categories. You need to be able to tell sales teams and buyers what existing books it might sell like. You need to be able to use comparisons by tone, character, genre, or other content to help readers get a sense of what to expect from your work. An agent will help you sell the novel to a publisher, but you will keep on having to sell it yourself, to readers at conventions, festivals, and on a plane when someone asks what you do and you actually want to talk about your work. Reading widely in your field and learning how publishers and authors talk about their books will help you get better at doing this for your own stuff.

I’ve found that it’s smart to develop several different pitches for each work:

1) Comparison titles – “Born to the Blade is like Avatar the Last Airbender meets The West Wing, with magic swordfights).” This is sometimes also called “The Hollywood Pitch”

2) Tone and genre – “Born to the Blade is an optimistic epic fantasy that focuses on relationships, politics, and magic sword fights.”

You can also talk about the plot hook for the series or what makes the main character(s) compelling. Readers look for different things from their fiction, so each will respond to different pitch styles. And you can always keep adjusting your hand-selling pitches, learning as you go. Almost six years after my debut, I still find myself in a position to pitch my debut novel, so the work never ends.

As part of the Skiffy and Fanty and Speculate! podcast teams, you interview authors, review work, talk about the craft of writing, and generally get to geek out with your fellow podcasters about cool, nerdy things. What works, authors, or speculative fiction properties, are you particularly excited about at the moment? If you could signal boost one or two “hidden gems” more people should be reading/watching/talking about who or what would they be?

I’m really enjoying a video game called Slay the Spire, which is a run-based roguelike card game. Each run, you pick your class and build your deck from a small base deck as you climb a tower of enemies, have strange encounters, and loot. For folks somewhat in the gaming world, think Dominion but a dungeon crawl. Since Slay the Spire is run-based/roguelike, it’s incredibly re-playable, and lets you get some of the fun of collectible card games for a fraction of the cost. The game is in early access on Steam right now, so it’s constantly being updated and improved. The third character was just added on a test server, and I’ve been having a ton of fun trying to figure them out.

The other thing I’d shout-out is the GLAAD and Eisner-nominated comic series Kim & Kim by my friend Magdalene Visaggio (writer) with Eva Cabrera (line art), Claudia Aguirre (color art), and Zak Saam (letter art). It’s an irreverent technicolor science fantasy about bounty hunter besties who are constant screw-ups. It has incredibly strong character voices, inviting and kinetic art, and features a variety of LGBTQ characters. There are two volumes available right now (The Glamorous High-Flying Rockstar Life and Love is a Battlefield) and there’s an ongoing series coming soon, called Oh S#!t, it’s Kim & Kim.

Switching gears a bit, there are a fair number of speculative fiction writers living in and around the Baltimore area. What do you see as some of the more fantastical, or science fictional elements of the city that make it a draw for writers? In general, what are your favorite spots in the city, or places you recommend to people visiting Baltimore for the first time?

Baltimore has a lot of cool history to draw on – the neighborhood of Fell’s Point was home to privateers, it was the home of a major battle of the War of 1812 (aka the battle where “The Star-Spangled Banner” was composed). A lot of people know The Wire, but there’s way more to Baltimore than that. All of those give writers powerful touchstones to build on, re-interpret, or to challenge with speculative fiction.

But enough about cool history – Baltimore is also a city with sharp income inequality, systemic racism and classism, a history of police abuses, etc. – all of which can directly inspire cyberpunk storytelling and/or any type of social science fiction.

For first-time visitors to Baltimore, I highly recommend the National Aquarium, the American Visionary Art Museum, or just a walk around Fell’s Point.

Now that Born to the Blade is making its way out into the world, what’s next for you? Is there anything else you have upcoming or that you’re working on that you’d like people to know about?

I’m finishing up revisions on a space opera novel that my agent will be sending around to publishers. I’ve been working on this one off-and-on for a couple of years, and I’m very excited to see how people respond to it. After that, I’m going to be breaking ground on Genrenauts season two and working on some comics projects to pitch.

That all sounds awesome! Thanks for dropping by!

Thanks so much for having me on for a chat!

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An Interview with Joanne Merriam and Octavia Cade

Today, I’m very pleased to welcome Joanne Merriam and Octavia Cade, two of the editors of Upper Rubber Boot’s Women Up to No Good anthology series. Women Up to No Good focuses on dark, feminist fiction by authors who identify as female, non-binary, or a marginalized sex or gender identity.

Welcome! To start things off, could you please each briefly introduce yourself?

Broad KnowledgeJM: I’m Joanne Merriam, the editor of Broad Knowledge: 35 Women Up To No Good, and co-editor (with H. L. Nelson) of Choose Wisely: 35 Women Up To No Good, and also the publisher at Upper Rubber Boot Books. I started my writing life as the executive assistant and office manager of the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia (where I’m from originally) from 1997 through 2001. At “Ma Fed,” I absorbed a very writer-focused attitude to the publishing industry, which I’ve carried into my life as a publisher. I’m also a writer, and have been published by Stride Publications (a now-defunct UK small press publisher) who put out my poetry collection The Glaze from Breaking, as well as in Asimov’s, Canadian Literature, Escape Pod, Event, The Fiddlehead, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, On Spec, PANK, Per Contra, and Strange Horizons, amongst others.

OC: Hi! I’m Octavia, I’m from New Zealand, and I am utterly consumed with cake. Well, not utterly, but close enough. Baking is a hobby that I really enjoy—everything from pies to profiteroles—and given that my favourite entertainment genre is horror the two were bound to collide eventually. Sort of by accident I fell into doing a series of columns on Food and Horror for The Book Smugglers. The collected essays were published by them last year, and it was an easy step from there to look at the possibility of editing a food horror anthology (Sharp & Sugar Tooth).

You recently launched a Kickstarter to support Women Up to No Good. I presume this means we can look forward to a new installment in the series soon? Could you tell us a bit about your vision for the next anthology, how it speaks to the previous titles in the series, and maybe a bit about where you see the series as a whole going in the future?

JM: We’re kickstarting Broad Knowledge, the second in the series, which focuses on what women know and how knowledge and wisdom overlap and entwine but aren’t the same, and Sharp & Sugar Tooth, the third, which focuses on our relationship with food and consumption. My vision for the series is that we support the voices of women and others with marginalized sex or gender identities, who we know from projects like the VIDA Count are underrepresented in publishing. I’d like to have more outside editors, and have been absolutely delighted by Octavia’s selections for Sharp & Sugar Tooth. Each anthology will have dark fiction focused on a specific subject, but otherwise they’re all self-contained.

Sharp & Sugar ToothOC: I can only speak to the anthology I’ve been an editor on, but The Sharp and Sugar Tooth is an antho about creepy food. There’s a lot of power in food, come directly from the fact that it’s a simple necessity. We literally cannot live without it, and so the preparation of food—getting the ingredients, preparing it, sharing it—is really a very powerful activity. And yet it’s so often looked down on, almost. Women’s work, kitchen chores… who’s stuck with the potato peeling and dish scrubbing and everyday management of menus, for instance. In that cultural space between “Get me a sandwich!” and “You’d starve without that bloody sandwich!” is an enormous conversation and negotiation with power. I was particularly interested, when pitching this anthology to Joanne, about how women navigated their roles as food producers and food consumers, and I think there’s a fantastic range of stories in Sugar Tooth exploring exactly that. How consumption can break you down, how it can build you up again. How you can use it to make connections with other people… it’s a fascinating thing.

As editors, I know it’s hard to pin down exactly what you’re looking for in a story, but when you were reading for Broad Knowledge and Sharp & Sugar Tooth, what were the kind of things that made you sit up and take notice?

OC: This is my first go at editing, so again my responses will be restricted to my experience with Sugar Tooth. Voice for me is a big one—as is having something to say. I wanted stories with a point, something with a bit of thought behind them. Something which engaged with the theme in an exciting and original way. I got sent a lot—a lot! —of stories about women eating their abusive husbands. It must have been nigh on 50% of submissions, and it got to the point where if meat was somehow mentioned in the first paragraph or two I knew what that meat was going to be. So yeah, originality was a big one. Another thing I wanted was something too that says to me that the author is familiar with short fiction being written today. I don’t want to be too specific about this as I don’t want to people to think I’m talking about their story specifically, but it’s very obvious if you’re writing about a speculative staple—robots, for instance, or aliens, or witches—and the all the robot or alien or witch stories you’ve read are 50 years old. I’m not saying don’t read the classics, because they’re a necessary foundation I think, but you risk dating your stories unnecessarily if you don’t read contemporary fiction in the genre you’re writing, because often the way we write about these things changes over time.

And it should go without saying but sadly doesn’t: stories that follow the guidelines. I wasn’t joking when I said I had no interest in stories about horrible violence against women, or child abuse, or anything like that but I still got bloody sent them. Don’t do that. It wins you no friends.

JM: I want to see an excellent facility with language on a sentence-level, combined with something that makes me say, “wow!”—whether that’s an original twist on a plot idea, or world-building I haven’t seen before, or a character who makes me fall in love. Like Octavia, I also notice if writers aren’t reading contemporary work, or the guidelines.

The thing that surprised me the most this time around was how angry my submitters were. Trump had just been elected, and compared to the submissions for Choose Wisely, we had many more submissions that were either overtly political (many of which we accepted) or straight-up revenge fantasies (which we didn’t).

You have an incredible line-up of authors for your anthologies. Once you have all your stories in place, whether solicited or submitted, how do you go about assembling your anthologies? Is there a certain balance or feel you’re looking to create? Have you ever found themes or conversations emerging among the stories that have surprised you?

JM: I try to balance the stories between genre (horror, science fiction, and fantasy) and feel (dark, light, serious, humorous, arch, and sincere). As a reader, I enjoy variety with some cohesion, so an anthology or collection hangs together but keeps surprising me, and so as an editor that’s what I strive for.

L. Timmel Duchamp’s “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” was the genesis for Broad Knowledge. When I reread it, I was in the process of reading submissions for an unnamed anthology that wasn’t themed yet, with a co-editor who ended up having to drop out of the project due to some issues in her personal life, but who had solicited a few stories, like Angela Slatter’s, that already fit into the concept of a knowledge-focused anthology. Many of my favorites from the submissions also fit the theme, so I reconceptualized the anthology now that I would be editing it alone, and sent out a new call for submissions. Luckily, Duchamp allowed me to reprint her story. In a way, this whole anthology has been a surprise.

OC: I used post-its! Each post-it had the title, author, and word count of one particular story, and then they got stuck to my coffee table for several days as I moved them around and tried to decide line-up. The first and last stories in Sugar Tooth were very easy to pick: they were the two most unlike each other, I think. I arranged the rest of the stories to form a sort of journey—stories of similar themes got grouped together, for instance, and the scale of the story too was also a factor. The earlier stories are often focused more on a relationship between two people, for instance, while the last stories are more often focused at the level of relationships between ecosystems or species.

Could you talk a bit about your Kickstarter campaign, what you hope to accomplish, any cool reward levels you’d like to highlight, and any stretch goals you’d like to reach?

JM: My hope is that the series will become self-supporting after this, so that sales of the first three anthologies will fund the fourth, and so on. In terms of rewards, the best deal is the “Triple Ebooks” (all three anthologies for twenty bucks) and the coolest is probably the “Triple Paperbacks + Recommended Book,” where those who pledge get all three anthologies in paperback and also get to geek out with me or Octavia about books, after which we’ll send some (non-URB) paperbacks that we recommend based on our conversation. For stretch goals, if we reach $30,000, we’ll be able to immediately open to submissions from editors for ideas for a fourth Women Up To No Good anthology, and shortly thereafter, open to submissions for the best idea!

Any closing thoughts you’d like to share about Women Up to No Good, Upper Rubber Boot, the world in general, or other personal projects you’re working on you’d like folks to know about?

JM: Upper Rubber Boot is run in my spare time (I have a completely unrelated day job as a project manager at an academic hospital), so we don’t do too much at any one time. Right now, we only have one other big project: promoting solarpunk. Last August, we published the first general-interest solarpunk anthology in English, Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation, edited by Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Christopher Wieland, and including work by Elgin Award nominee Kristine Ong Muslim, James Tiptree, Jr. Award winner Nisi Shawl (who also has a story in Broad Knowledge), Jaymee Goh, Iona Sharma, and you! Now we’re co-hosting a monthly #SolarpunkChat on the third Saturday of every month, along with Reckoning Press, World Weaver Press, and a growing group of solarpunk enthusiasts.

Thank you both for dropping by! I can’t wait to see what the future of Women Up to No Good has in store!

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Short Stack: Of Elephants & Monsters; Of Tombs, Scientists & Mars

We’re in a golden age of novellas, and what’s not to love about that? Novellas are the perfect, not-quite-bite-sized read, just right for a plane ride, a long train commute, or a few blissful hours to yourself to sit down and devour a story in one go. Assuming you’re looking for a few more books to add to your TBR pile, because who isn’t, I have recommendations for you! That’s another nice thing about novellas; they’re slender enough that you can sneak them into your towering book stack without anyone noticing it getting taller. Right?

Prime MeridianPrime Meridian by Silvia Moreno-Garcia was released first to backers of the novella late last year, and will be available for wide release in July. It made the 2017 Locus Recommended Reading List, which also makes it eligible for a Locus Award (voting closes soon, but there are still a few days left to make your voice heard), and it was picked up for Gardener Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction.  All with good cause; it’s a fantastic novella. Mars lies at its heart, and the intersecting stories of two women orbit around it. For Amelia, Mars is in her future. At least she tells herself it still could be, though every day her dream of leaving Earth and going to the Red Planet seems to be getting farther away. She’s broke, with no funds to buy her passage off planet, and barely enough money to make ends meet – living with her sister, selling her blood for cash, and working as a rent-a-friend, providing companionship and conversation for those with the means to pay. One of Amelia’s clients is an aging actress, and for her, Mars is in the past. Hers is a cardboard Mars though, the stuff of Hollywood magic and movie dreams. Both women’s stories are stories of longing, and both provide a thoughtful reflection on the distance between perception and reality, whether it’s the perception of a desired object/person/place, or the outside perceptions placed on people, telling them who they should be. Neither woman’s life is what she hoped; time, expectations, and responsibilities weigh them down, but both are still working to achieve escape velocity, even if their trajectories aren’t the ones they planned. It’s a lovely and poignant story, full of genuine emotion, and for all that it is a novella about reaching for space, it is grounded and full of humanity.

Gods Monster & the Lucky PeachGods, Monsters, and The Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson, released in March, is set in the future, post ecological disaster, as humanity is just starting to recover. Banks and corporations run a complex economy, moving around debt and human capital. Plague babies, those who survived the ecological disaster, have modified bodies that might give them extra limbs like an octopus, or the powerful legs of a gazelle, and the ability to control their heart rate, adrenaline, and just about every other autonomic function. Oh, and time travel is well within humanity’s grasp. Minh and Kiki are part of a team chosen to travel back to 2000 BC to perform an ecological survey of the Tigris and the Euphrates in hopes of reclaiming the rivers in their own time. While the company that holds the monopoly on time travel technology swears up and down that time lines collapse the moment travelers leave to return to their own time, thus making it impossible to accidentally fuck up the future, both Minh and Kiki have their doubts. The timeline they find themselves in certainly feels real, as does their ability to impact it. They aren’t merely observers, they are part of events, and those events include a king who believes it is his destiny to kill monsters. Kiki and Minhwith their inhuman-looking limbs, their egg-shaped ship, and technology that looks like magic, appear just like the sort of monsters in need of killing.  Against this backdrop, Robson does an excellent job of setting up interpersonal conflict. The time travelers are pit against each other, and their environment, and it is a joy to watch each character evolve and grow in their attitudes and relationships over the course of the story. The structure is clever, with two timelines converging on a single point, adding to the level of tension, and the world-building is fantastic.

The Clockwork TombThe Clockwork Tomb by E. Catherine Tobler is the fourth, and second-to-last (noooo, I’m not ready!), book in the excellent Folley & Mallory Series. This time around, we find the adventurous pair in Egypt, exploring a tomb referenced in Eleanor’s father’s journals. Despite not being the first to enter the tomb, Eleanor and Virgil have made it farther than anyone else. The tomb presents them with a series of puzzles, leading them deeper into the maze of its interior until they aren’t even certain they’re still in the mortal realm. Not only does the tomb cause them to doubt their sense of place and reality, it forces them to doubt themselves, testing their relationship and the strength of their wills in new ways. As with each new entry in the Folley & Mallory series, The Clockwork Tomb brings Eleanor a little closer to unraveling the mystery of her family’s past, and the truth of what happened to her mother and her grandmother. It also deepens Folley and Mallory’s relationship, as they come to know themselves and each other better, learning to trust each other completely in order to survive. Like the books that came before it, The Clockwork Tomb is full of rich, lush, descriptions that puts the reader right alongside the heroes on their adventure. Tobler perfectly balances action, romance, and mystery, to deliver a highly-satisfying read. I love these books as books, and at the same time, they’re full of so many wonderful visuals I keep hoping that someone will make them into movies.

Little Homo Sapiens ScientistThe Little Homo Sapiens Scientist by S.L. Huang is at once an inversion of the story of The Little Mermaid, and a meditation on the nature of sentience, and an examination of cultural biases and the problems they cause in the field of ethnography. Most people insist on thinking of the atagati as mermaids, or sirens. They’re an aquatic peoples, certainly, and their language sounds to human ears like singing, but they are nothing at all like the fanciful stories we tell about mythical creatures with human upper halves and fish tails. They are a sentient race, with a deep history and culture of their own, and they have no place inside the boxes humanity tries to cram them into. This is the conflict at the core of The Little Homo Sapiens Scientists. Dr. Cadance Mbella is one of the few humans who has managed a rudimentary understanding of the atagati language, and even then, there’s so much about them she doesn’t know. Almost everyone else around her seems unable to let go of their preconceived notions about what the atagati should be, insisting on seeing them through the lens of human culture. As a result, they dismiss them as a lesser species based on their own inability to understand them, or assume – like humans – their prime interest must be in attack and conquest. When the military captures an atagati who calls herself Aioëe, Caddie is roped into being a translator, interrogating the atagati so the military can better understand their supposed enemy. Caddie finds herself confiding in Aioëe, feeling a connection that may or may not be one-sided. She helps Aioëe escape, but she can’t stop thinking about her, and all she doesn’t know about the atagati and longs to learn. She hears a rumor of a man who has harnessed medical technology to transform humans into atagati, however the procedure leaves them unable to communicate, and with only a short time to live. Caddie decides to risk it, hoping against reason that she’ll be able to find Aioëe again and, even voiceless, make herself understood. The parallels to The Little Mermaid are obvious, but Hunag up-ends the traditional story by de-centering humanity, making it something to be left behind, instead of the ultimate goal the hero desires. Through the lens of two species coming into contact, the story challenges the colonial mentality of assuming cultural superiority, and confronts the problem of looking at others through a framework that doesn’t match their lived reality. It’s a beautifully told story, with thoughtful underpinnings, and packs a punch.

The Only Harmless Great ThingThe Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander, published in January, brings together the imagined mythology of elephants, and a take on the true history of the Radium Girls who unwittingly poisoned themselves painting matches and watch dials with luminous paint, leading to their slow and painful deaths. Topsy, a former circus elephant, famously publicly executed after killing a spectator, is part of a long, matrilineal line of elephants stretching back to prehistoric time. She carries the memory of her people, in stories passed down from mother to daughter, including the horrors visited on elephant kind by humanity. The latest horror is humans teaching elephants to wield paintbrushes so they too can paint clock dials with luminous paint, consigning them to the same terrible fate as the women already rotting from the inside out. With the various threads it weaves together, The Only Harmless Great Things is a story about stories. Narratives shape our lives, define us as a people, help us make sense of the world, and are sometimes used as a survival mechanism, both literally and figuratively. Tricksters of old steal and seek and horde stories to build power and sometimes to save lives, and in modern times, tricksters of another kind deploy stories to get their way, increase their wealth, and offload their problems. Bolander weaves these threads together seemingly effortlessly – the myths told by the elephants, the story of Topsy , the story of Regan, one of the Radium Girls, and the story of Kat, a translator who, years after the Radium disaster, is tasked with telling a story that will redeem the public image of elephants by convincing them to become the guardians of irradiated land, even after everything humans have done to them. The language is stunning, the kind that guts you and leaves you breathless, and the story is both utterly satisfying and leaves you craving more.

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An Interview with Sean Wallace

Today, I’m very pleased to welcome the publisher of The Dark, who is currently wrapping up a Kickstarter campaign to publish even more excellent fiction, increase pay rates, publish a special double issue in December, and possibly even launch a regular podcast.

The DarkWelcome! To start things off, could you please briefly introduce yourself?

I’m Sean Wallace, co-editor and publisher for The Dark Magazine, and I work hand-in-hand with Silvia Moreno-Garcia to select and showcase great fiction every month. I’ve essentially been onboard since the first issue, so about five years now, and thirty-five issues later.

You launched The Dark in 2013, and you’ve been going strong for five years now. How did the idea or the vision for the publication originally come about? What’s changed between Issue 1 and Issue 35?

I would say not much has really changed, as the focus has always been on character-driven stories from all around the world, bringing unique mythologies, perspectives, and more, to the magazine. This is something to be proud of, as we have accomplished that to a large degree, with the help of Jack Fisher, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and many others. And last year was our best, yet, with over forty-percent of our authors being people of colo(u)r. We could always improve, though!

However, in other ways, The Dark has indeed evolved. For example, when we added the award-winning Kate Baker to our masthead, to narrate the occasional podcast adaptation throughout the year. There was also the time we dropped from four original stories down to two, and brought in two reprints instead. Or, over the years, opening up and exploring revenue streams by offering Patreon, Amazon subscriptions, and more. Publishing online is always a challenge, so we have to change, sometimes fast, sometimes slow.

As an editor, I know it’s sometimes hard to pin down exactly what you’re looking for in a story, but how would you generally characterize a story that has the right feel for The Dark? Is there anything you don’t see enough of in the submission pile that you’d like to see more often?

You have to remember that between Silvia and myself that we are pretty well read, with a combined thirty years of editing experience, so, honestly, what we react positively to basically boils down to: surprise us with something we haven’t seen before, right away, because you only get that one chance, for the most part. And since we process about three or hundred stories a month, that first paragraph really has to do the heavy lifting, almost always, in order to convince us to go any further.

Could you talk a bit about your Kickstarter campaign, what you hope to accomplish, and particularly the stretch goals you’d like to reach?

It takes time (and energy) to grow a magazine and make it sustainable. Ever since I bought The Dark entirely a few years ago, it has been resource-starved, in a number of ways. So we are hoping that the kickstarter campaign allows us a bit of breathing space to grow everything at a pace that we’re comfortable with, without worrying about the finances underpinning the entire business model. But, also, and just as important, we wanted to bump up the pay rate for our authors, to properly compensate them for the great work they do. We couldn’t do it without them.

With regards to stretch goals, the first is if we reach $13,500, it essentially boils down to having a podcast every month, instead of every other month. Why? Because people want to process their short fiction fix in a number of ways, not just online or in print, but also in audio. You have to go where the readers are, in this.

We also thought that an one-off Spanish-language edition might be really cool, to partially reflect the interest worldwide in our stories, so we mocked up the cover, came up with the title, La Oscuridad, and we really hope to get a chance to do this in time for World Fantasy this year. After all, there shouldn’t be any reason why there shouldn’t one, in a country where Hispanics and Latinos represent the largest ethnic / racial minority. So, in this, we need to do more.

And the second and last goal is for $15,000: at which point we increase the pay rate from five cents to six cents a word, making the magazine SFWA qualified. Which would make a lot of people very happy, including us!

You’ve worked as an co-editor elsewhere in addition to The Dark (Clarkesworld Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, and more). How have those experiences influenced (or not) the way you work with others on this publication?

I do think that working on all those other magazines has meant that I look at The Dark with a realistic perspective, knowing that I will lose money on the venture for the first two or three years, but with a game plan in mind to at least break-even or make some money down the road. Because, ultimately, there is nothing in this world I love more but publish short stories and have readers enjoy them as much as I do.

Beyond that the more I work at this, it is clear that I work best at co-editing, that it balances out my own editorial inclinations, which can be sometimes good or bad, really. And whether it is with Neil Clarke, Jack Fisher, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Cat Rambo, Paul Tremblay, or any others I’ve forgotten to list, they help me be better. As it really is a team effort.

Any closing thoughts you’d like to share about The Dark, the world in general, or other personal projects you’re working on you’d like people to know about?

Just to repeat what we stated on the campaign itself: we don’t just like dark fantasy, horror, or weird fiction . . . we love it. And we hope to keep doing it for years to come, with your help.

Thank you all for dropping by! I can’t wait to see what the future of The Dark has in store!

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An Interview with Miriam Seidel

Miriam Seidel was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her wonderful novel, The Speed of Clouds. To get things started, I’ll make introductions by way of shamelessly stealing from her author bio…

Miriam Seidel is a writer, curator, librettist, and longtime sci-fi fan. Her novel, The Speed of Clouds, will be published by New Door Books in April 2018. She wrote the libretto for an opera about the visionary inventor Nikola Tesla, performed in Belgrade, New York, and Philadelphia, and a sci-fi radio play for New American Radio. She’s written about visual arts and performance for Art in America, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and other publications, and her writing has won fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

The Speed of CloudsWelcome and congratulations on the publication of your first novel! Without giving too much away, would you care to give folks a taste of The Speed of Clouds is about?

Well, the main character, Mindy, is a fangirl for SkyLog, a major sci-fi franchise, who edits her own fanzine. It’s 1999, so fan fiction is already big, but just starting to migrate from printed zines to online. Mindy is disabled—she has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. But when she loses the leadership of her club, she’s forced to explore different parts of the SkyLog fan universe, which ends up bringing her to a stronger, more open version of herself. Meanwhile, other, more sweeping versions of events come in through fan fiction stories and the obsessions of some of the characters. I wanted to get at that heady, disorienting feeling in the contrast of those two kinds of experience—our regular, more circumscribed lives, and the bigger things we imagine.

There are so many wonderful things about this novel, the characters, their relationships, and the shared passion over nerdy pursuits, whether it’s music, collectibles, science fiction or computer programming. Did one of these elements in particular form the seed of the novel that the rest was built around, or did it all come together at once? Or, to put it another way, what was the spark that drove you to write The Speed of Clouds?

The spark was definitely my experience of going to Cons. I had been reading and watching sci-fi and fantasy since I was a kid, but never as part of a group—I was kind of a loner, and there wasn’t as much going on then. But later I heard about the Star Trek Cons, and my antennae started buzzing. I told myself it would be a fun thing for our son, who was in elementary school and watched the shows with us. But looking back, I kind of used him as my excuse to check it out. I loved the whole thing—the overheated atmosphere, the tension between the cheesiness and all this pure passion, the fans themselves, and especially how they got dressed up! It felt like a kind of ritual of communion with this large-scale fictional world.

At a certain point, Mindy came to me as a character, full-blown. And then the other things gathered around her like a centrifuge. I felt that she was strong enough to be at the center of these other elements, a lot of which I’m into myself: contemporary art, electronic music, Buckminster Fuller. BTW, I do have a theremin (which makes a cameo in the story), and I’ve played it, although it’s really hard to master.

Obviously the culture of fandom is deeply important to the novel, which touches on cosplay, conventions, zines, fan fiction and more. What is your own personal experience with fandom, and what is your particular fan passion?

My personal experience has been through Cons and clubs. Right now I’m a member of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, which has many really smart, serious fans and stimulating discussions. And I love Galactic Philadelphia, a new SFF reading series.

I want to hone in on the fan fiction aspect of the novel for a moment. You use it effectively in The Speed of Clouds to echo the characters’ real life experiences, but you also touch on the importance of fan fiction in expanding a property’s world. For example, fan fiction creates the space to explore consequences which can often get lost in episodic television, and it can improve representation by including queer pairings through slash fiction, whereas a mainstream TV series might be afraid to go in that direction. Are you a writer and/or reader of fan fiction yourself? If so, have you ever come across a story line in fan fiction that you’d want to see brought to life in the main property itself? If not, what would be your choice of media property to write fan fiction for if you were going to delve into that world?

I am so fascinated and heartened by this aspect of fan fiction. In one way, I see fan fiction taking story-making full circle, from telling stories around the fire, to folktales, to written literature, film, and now electronic mass media, and fan fiction then re-appropriates the mass media to create this proliferating, grass-roots art form that you could see as a new kind of folk art.

And then in this new, unregulated space, things like slash fiction could emerge that rewrote the possibilities of gender and sexuality, adding them into that narrative of the future. That was pretty radical when it started in the 1970s. And it’s interesting that slash began mainly with women writers. I really wanted to fold in the Mary Sue phenomenon, which also rose out of early fan fiction by women, but then turned into a weapon used by fanboys against women writers. Women in fan fiction feels somehow related to the growing numbers of great women’s voices in SSF writing now. I know it’s not a direct line, and that the wave of new women writers may be more of a concurrent phenomenon, but women writing fan fiction could have been a contributing factor. It was liberating, and it still can be.

As far as writing fan fiction myself, I’ve read it but haven’t written any. When I was a kid and read something that really struck me, I always wanted to draw the characters, so I guess you could call that fan art. I did that with Lord of the Rings, and this was long before the movies came out and stamped those versions of the characters into our retinas. It could be fun to rewrite parts of LOTR with women characters—either new ones, or expanding on the few who are in there. And this may be a reach, but you could say my novel is my way of writing fan fiction.

Switching gears a bit, I’d like to ask about some of your other artistic work, specifically the libretto you wrote for the opera about Nikola Tesla. How did that come about? What was it like seeing something you’d written performed live?

Like some of my characters, I have a tendency to get obsessed with certain subjects, and I became completely obsessed by Tesla after reading his biography (the one by Margaret Cheney, which I recommend). I was working as a visual artist at the time, but I had seen some contemporary opera, and it just seemed clear to me that Tesla’s story had to be told as an opera—that it was too big and strange to be anything else. Here was a figure whose inventions had shaped our world, yet who was subject to visions throughout his life. I was very lucky to connect with the composer Jon Gibson, and he set my libretto to a wonderful score. I did see it performed in Philadelphia, and then in Belgrade and New York on Tesla’s 150th birthday. Hearing the words I had written coming to life in Jon’s music was profoundly thrilling. I felt that in the first rehearsal, and at every performance.

Switching gears again, there are a fair number of speculative fiction writers living in and around the Philadelphia area. What do you see as some of the more fantastical, or science fictional elements of the city that make it a draw for writers? In general, what are your favorite places to visit in the city, or places you recommend to people who are coming to Philadelphia for the first time?

What a great question! I’m not sure why Philadelphia has been a congenial place for speculative fiction writers, but it may have to do with the fact that it’s always been a strong city for science and scientists. I do think Ben Franklin is an icon in this way, with his interest in electricity and mathematics—did you know he was into magic squares? And there’s the Franklin Institute, which hosted a lecture by Tesla in 1893, and they have a working Tesla coil in their electricity exhibit. And the ENIAC was developed here at Penn—I only recently learned that women played an important role there, as they did at NASA.

My personal favorite science/sci-fi icon is the Bicentennial Moon Tree, which was planted from a seedling that orbited in space, in Washington Square. It looked pretty sickly though, and I wondered if the trip had been traumatic for it. Then it died, but they’ve now replanted a clone from the original, which is also kind of science-fictiony.

Now that The Speed of Clouds is out in the world, what’s next for you? Is there anything else you have upcoming or that you’re working on that you’d like people to know about.

The next novel I want to write will be straight sci-fi/fantasy. Right now it’s in the notes-and-outlining phase.

Thanks for dropping by!

Thank you so much! I’m such a fan of your writing, and I appreciate what you do for the SFF community!

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