Giveaway: The Flesh Made Word

FMWFree smut! Get it while it’s hot! Oh, who am I kidding? This one will stay hot indefinitely. Ten writers (including me) writing erotica about writing. What more could you want? The Flesh Made Word is published by Circlet Press, and it’s one of their rare print editions, being a publisher that specializes primarily in ebooks. What makes The Flesh Made Word extra special? There are blank pages for you to write your very own naughty, sensuous, and thrilling tales. All you have to do is comment below (or if you’re particularly shy, send me an email at a.c.wise (at) hotmail (dot) com, and I’ll enter you into the drawing. The winner will be chosen by the power of a Random Number Generator. The giveaway will be open until May 16, 2015.

The contributing authors include A.B. Eyers, Andrea Zanin, Benji Bright, Trish DeVene, Nadine Wilmot, Delilah Bell, Kannan Feng, Sasha Payne, Sunny Moraine, and yours truly. You can read an excerpt of my story at the Circlet website, and while you’re there, maybe pick up another book or two that catches your fancy? If you’re in a listening mood, you can also hear the full text of my story at the Nobilis Erotica podcast.

That’s it. Throw your name in the ring by May 16, 2015, and you might just get lucky. (See what I did there? See?)

 ETA: Random number generator says email entrant MLH is the winner. Thank you everyone who entered!

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An Interview with Margrét Helgadóttir

Margrét Helgadóttir was kind enough to drop by my blog today to discuss her debut novel, The Stars Seem So Far Away. Let me start, as always, by shamelessly cribbing from her author bio…

Margrét Helgadóttir is Icelandic-Norwegian, born and raised in East- and West-Africa and Norway. She lives in Copenhagen, Denmark. Margrét started submitting stories for publication autumn 2012 and has had success so far. She writes at http://margrethelgadottir.wordpress.com and tweets as @MaHelgad.

Stars Cover

ACW: First off, congratulations on the publication of your debut novel! Could you give us a taste of what it’s about?

Thank you so much! The Stars Seem So Far Away is actually not the classic novel, but it’s not a collection of stories either. I’d say it’s more a hybrid, a fusion of linked stories that through the book tells a larger story. It’s set in a distant future, where plagues, famine and wars rage across the dying Earth, and the last shuttles to the space colonies are long gone. Fleeing the deadly sun, humans migrate farther and farther north. The story is told through the tales of five survivors: One girl who sails the Northern Sea, robbing other ships to survive; one girl who hunts humans and lives with bears; one guerrilla soldier; and finally, two siblings who become separated when the plague hits Svalbard. It’s a pessimistic world, filled with death, misery, tears and despair, but I wanted to tell a story where there’s also hope, love, laughter and friendship. Hopefully I have managed this.

ACW: You were born in Ethiopia to Norwegian and Icelandic parents, and you’ve written a lot about growing up crosscultural. Are there any particular experiences from the many you’ve written about on your blog that you’d like to highlight? Or, are there any experiences from your upbringing that you feel particularly influence your writing?

Yes, I have reflected a little bit about my background and both the scars and blessings it has given me to be a child who moved lots between cultures whilst trying to develop my own identity. People who are born and have lived abroad in their development years, or are forced to move lots as a child, and/or have parents from different countries/cultures, might feel that they lack roots, that they always are outsiders and don’t really belong. I suspect my background has influenced my fiction writing to some degree. Many of my characters struggle with grief and a feeling of being lost, like in The Stars Seem So Far Away.

ACW: On a (possibly) related note – what drew you to writing/publishing in English, which is your second language? As someone who had a somewhat bi-lingual education, (but who, in the interest of full disclosure, should clarify that they are currently only minimally bi-lingual in any functional sense), I’m fascinated by translation and the way ideas move between languages. For you, as a bi-lingual (multi-lingual?) person, what it your writing process like? Are there certain concepts you feel are better suited to one language or another? Do you ever mentally translate between languages as you’re writing or brainstorming?

As a child and a teenager, I wrote many poems and stories, but as a grown up I stopped writing. I´ve wanted to start again for many years, because I felt there was something important missing in my life. And I do wonder if choice of language was the key all the time, because it was only when I started to write in English, my writing voice started to flow again and I found time to write on a daily basis. I don’t think in Norwegian, then translate it—I think in English when I write – it’s my writer voice. I might sketch up the plot in Norwegian, but it is a very rare thing. To be honest, it’s not like it’s a bed of roses. My English may be good, but my Norwegian is light years better. I struggle with all the things a person combats when dealing with foreign languages: the search for words, synonyms, grammar.

But I know my writing would be totally different in Norwegian or any of the other languages I know. When I write in Norwegian, I can be much more dramatic in my choice of words and how I express feelings, almost as if the harsh Nordic landscape and climate lurk between the lines. English flows differently. Its lexicon is so vast compared to Norwegian. I feel my writing becomes a smooth river, rather than a bumpy road. But I wonder if something gets lost in that river. Maybe I write in English because I can be distant. I still prefer to write poems in Norwegian.

ACW: Moving on to a different kind of translation skills, in addition to your book, you’re also a short story writer. How does your approach vary when working on a short piece versus a longer work? Are you the kind of person who can work on both simultaneously, or do you need to completely reset your brain to work on one form instead of the other?

Actually I have yet to combat the really long story. I have only written for two years and short stories have been my door into writing. It has been both a useful way to learn to write a story with a full plot and it’s been easier to find time and the writerly attention needed next to a busy day job. The Stars Seem So Far Away was my test – could I hold the concentration on a large project for several months? I have now started to write on two larger works, but I struggle with the time available to writing and that I am a slow writer, so I often find myself taking breaks to write smaller works. I guess I am the kind who can’t do both and that I will need to reset my brain if I ever is going to finish my larger plot ideas.

ACW: You’re also an editor for Fox Spirit Books. What types of stories appeal to you as an editor; what tips you over the edge from something you enjoyed to something you want to acquire for one of your anthologies?

I am not an experienced fiction editor yet, so I can’t fully answer your question. But so far, in my view, the stories that stand out usually have a strong writing voice and a natural narrative flow. They don’t have to be long. I’ve read flash stories that impressed me more than novellas. Language is to me part of the reader experience, and I will enjoy a story even more if the language is polished. Other than this, it’s difficult to say what makes me read a story twice. It can be a feeling in the story, a convincing character development, or an original setting. Since I edit anthologies it is also important not only to find good stories, but also stories that fit together and create a mood or a certain atmosphere in the book.

ACW: On a related note, how does your editorial brain play with your writing brain? Does one get in the way of the other, or do they lend each other strength?

The more stories I read as an editor, but also reading fiction in general, the more conscious I become of my own writing. I think I also can become inspired to try out new techniques, genres or point of views. I guess it was my editor mind that dominated when I plotted the project frames for The Stars Seem So Far Away and decided how I wanted the book to flow and the ingredients I wanted to include and when I should finish the project. But then again, I’m not sure I can put these two brains in two boxes.

ACW: Now that you’ve thoroughly conquered the worlds of short fiction, long fiction, and the editorial realm, what’s next for you? What else are you working on or do you have coming up that you’d like people to know about?

Oh, I don’t feel I have conquered these worlds at all. I feel I have much to learn about short story writing, and I have yet the really long fiction to combat. I also have much to learn about English and I still struggle with it. I’m also a slow writer and it can be a little bit frustrating, because I am bubbling over with story ideas. At the moment I am editing two anthologies, and this will require much of my time. I am also working on two larger projects and I must soon decide which I will concentrate on finishing first.

ACW: Thank you for stopping by!

Thank you so much for having me!

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It’s the Final Clown Down

It’s hard to believe it, but we are in the final stretch of the Kickstarter for Clowns: The Unlikely Coulrophobia Remix. We have 4 days to go, and while we’ve hit our funding goal, we’d love to be able to add even more stories to the anthology. With clowns, you can always fit in more than you think. Every $125 raised above our goal allows us to add another story. As of this writing, we have only $76 to go before we can add the next story.

On May 1, we’ll be re-opening to submissions for a month. We’ve updated our guidelines accordingly. The best way to get an idea of what we’re looking for with the anthology is to take a look at the current issue available free online. The five stories from the online issue will be reprinted in the anthology, along with six additional stories we already have in hand, and a to be determined number of new pieces from the open submission period.

Thank you to everyone who has supported the Kickstarter thus far. We could not do this without you! This is a new venture for us, and we’re very excited about it. Over the next few days, please do continue to signal boost the project if you can. True to the spirit of the anthology, we want to fit in as may clowns between our pages as possible.

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Cover Girls

The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron has a cover. Are you ready? It’s an amazing, incredible, wonderful cover and I love it to pieces. I might even go so far as to say it’s fabulous. The cover art is by Staven Anderson, whose portfolio can be found here. You really should click through; there’s some gorgeous work to be found. I couldn’t be happier with the way the cover turned out. I’m still kind of stunned my hyper/flailing description of what I had in mind turned into a real piece of art. That’s the mark of a true professional. So, without further delay, here they are – my fabulous glittering cover girls, ready to kick ass and save the world.

Glitter Cover

I am so, so excited for this collection. Now that it has a cover and an official title, it’s starting to feel real. If all goes according to plan, you should be able to get your very own copy from the wonderful Lethe Press, and other fine retailers, this Fall.

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There Ought to Be Clowns

Unlikely Story #11.5: The Journal of Unlikely Coulrophobia went live last night with flash fiction by Derek Manuel, Sara K. McNeilly, Virginia M. Mohlere, Caroline M. Yoachim, and Carlie St. George. It’s Unlikely Story’s fourth mini-issue, and our second April Fool’s Day issue. But, as it turns out, clowns are very serious business. We were pleasantly surprised by the intensity, and often heart-wrenching nature of the stories we received. There were so many good stories, in fact, that we decided a single issue couldn’t hold them all, and we needed to put together an anthology.  So we launched a Kickstarter.

Clowns: The Unlikely Coulrophobia Remix will include the stories from Unlikely Story #11.5: The Journal of Unlikely Coulrophobia, and add stories by Mari Ness, Kristen Roupenian, Evan Dicken, Line Henriksen, Holly Schofield, and J.H. Pell. If we’re funded, we’ll also re-open to submission, and add even more clown stories. Plus interior illustrations by Bryan Priniville – more money means more art!

To prove how serious we are, we’ve put together possibly the least serious Kickstarter video ever. But we interspersed it with terrifying images of clowns, just to make sure you never sleep again. If you’re kind enough to fund our project, we promise not to tell them where you live.

The best way to get an idea of what we’re trying to do is to take a look at the current issue. Even if you can’t support us, please do spread the word!

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After Earth (Or, How Not to Structure a Story)

I watched After Earth last night. Yes, on purpose. No, I don’t know what’s wrong with me either. Actually, to be perfectly honest, it’s an excellent hate watch if you’re the kind of person who likes belligerently yelling at their TV screen. Fair warning though, you probably want to arm yourself with alcohol (or the brain-altering chemical of your choice) to numb the pain before attempting a viewing of your own. All that said, there are some valuable lessons for writers to glean from After Earth – namely: how not to structure a story.

After Earth opens with a spacecraft crash in progress. It’s a big, dramatic scene where two characters we know nothing about are in mortal danger. The craft explodes then we see what appears to be the lone survivor waking up on a planet. At which point the movie immediately shifts to a montage, overlaid with a narrative voice over giving us an info dump about the history of the world. Which is followed by a flashback designed to make us care about the characters we just saw crash. Which is followed by a flashback within a flashback designed to… You know what? I don’t care anymore.

This opening is a classic example of a trap many writers fall into, especially those just starting out in learning their craft. They write a wonderful, flashy opening to grab the reader, and then they bring the story to a grinding halt. They step back and explain their world, who their characters are, how they got there, and why the reader should care. A killer hook is a fine thing, but it cannot stand alone. Catching the reader’s attention is just the first step; you have to give them a reason to keep reading once their attention is yours.

Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with a flashback here and there to deepen the reader’s interest in your characters, but flashbacks shouldn’t be the entire scaffolding your character is built upon. Contrast the opening of After Earth with the first episode of Lost. There’s still a big, dramatic plane crash, an action-filled hook to grab the viewers attention. The episode is still rife with flashbacks as well, but – and this is the important part- they’re interspersed with the present action. The characters in the present time are still taking action. They are trying to survive on the island where they’ve crashed. They’re looking for water and shelter. They’re having conflicts with each other, engaging in power struggles, forging new relationships, and growing as characters. In short, the story is moving forward.

In After Earth, the story does not move forward for a good twenty minutes, maybe longer. The characters are only interesting (and I use that term loosely, because they are not) in the present day because of their back story. Take away the flashback scenes, and we know nothing about the characters. Which begs the question – why should we care about them? Again, there is nothing wrong with flashbacks to deepen characters, but they should grow and change and reveal pieces of themselves in the present day action as well. If you, as a writer, don’t care about the story in the present, why should the reader care? If the present day story isn’t interesting to you, why are you writing it? Maybe there’s a different story you need to tell. The story of the life-changing event that brought your characters to their situation today, and then… The End. Fade to black with your character’s worldview shaken. Leave them knowing nothing will ever be the same. And leave it to the reader to imagine the next chapter, leave them hungry for more, their mind full of where the story could go from there.

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Spring Book Love

Spring might not be the right word, given this post was written in the midst of a snow storm, but the season isn’t important. The books are the important bit. Typically I do a year-end wrap-up of books each December. I’ll still do that, but this year, I figured why wait? I want to babble about the books I love now.  Wonder of wonders, several of the books I’ve loved this year are even published in 2015. If I gush about them now, there’s even more time for other people to read them before a new year ticks over and there’s a whole fresh crop of books to fall behind on.

Karen Memory

First up, Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear. I’d been looking forward to this novel since I first heard about it, and snapped up a copy as soon as it came out. The action centers around the “soiled doves” of Madame Damnable’s high-class parlor in a steampunk-tinged weird wild west. (If you don’t fall in love with the book based on the name Madame Damnable alone, then there’s just no help for you.) The titular Karen and the other girls of Madame Damnable’s are a family. They’re full of fierce love for each other, and they watch each other’s backs no matter what happens. They even look out for strangers, too. An injured escapee from a less reputable brothel brings the girl who helped her escape to their door, bleeding from a gunshot wound. Madame Damnable’s girls take them in, no questions asked, despite the world of trouble it’ll bring on their heads. What follows is action, adventure, and a good dose of daring. Above and beyond all of that, the beauty of Karen Memory is its focus on female friendships. It also places front and center the voices frequently overlooked by the Western genre. Instead of the typical square-jawed cowboys, we get whores and cooks, politicians and lawmen, and they all come from different backgrounds and have different body types, genders, races, and sexual preferences, showing that history is not a monolithic culture. On top of all that, there are escapes, bravery, horses, love, and gunfights. There’s even a cat. In short, it’s everything you could want from a weird, wild Western.

Signal to Noise

Next up is Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Signal to Noise, another book I’d been looking forward to since first hearing about it, which I grabbed as soon as it was available. Set in Mexico City in 1988 and 2009, the story follows three teenagers who learn to cast spells using vinyl records. The narrative moves back and forth between the 80s, when the three were best friends, and the present day, when their friendship has long since fallen apart. Meche, the main character, comes back to her home town to attend her father’s funeral. Her return inevitably dredges up old memories, and plunges her back into a life she tried hard to leave behind. Meche is a truly wonderful character. She’s allowed to be prickly and surly angry. She’s allowed to push people away without making concessions to their feelings. She’s allowed to misunderstand and fuck up and get things wrong. In short, she’s allowed to be human – something sadly still lacking in many female characters, even today. Moreno-Garcia maintains a delicate balance. Despite her anger, Meche is never unlikable. You understand where she’s coming from, and why she acts the way she does. She inhabits a world full of other human characters, all flawed and strong in equal measures, all imperfect as humans tend to be. It is precisely because they are imperfect that you care about these characters. They are people you know. They may, at one time or another, have been you. The magic and fantastical elements here are a bonus. The real heart of the novel is the relationships. This is proved out by the last scene of the book, which is breathtakingly perfect, and a magic all of its own.

Labyrinthian

Last, but not least, Labyrinthian by Sunny Moraine. I was so eager to read this one, I apparently bent the laws of time and space and received my copy before the official release date. Take that, time! You’re not the boss of me! Ahem. Sorry. The novel is set in the same universe as Line and Orbit by Sunny Moraine and Lisa Soem. While it isn’t a sequel, it shares many sensibilities. Taur is a genetically modified human on the run from the people who made him. Theseus is a bounty hunter who accepts the job of tracking him down. As frequently happens in this sort of tale, the people who set the bounty on Taur’s head betray Theseus. Instead of paying him, they try to kill both him and Taur. With nowhere else to turn, the two go on the run. Theseus and Taur discover a budding attraction for each other, while trying to stay alive, save Taur’s siblings, and unravel the mystery behind the creation of these genetically engineered super-beings. Oh, and just in case the stakes weren’t high enough, there’s also a chip embedded in Taur’s skull, ticking down toward killing him. The novel is sexy and fun and proves definitively that romance and space opera do in fact mix. As it turns out, feelings do not ruin a perfectly good story about spaceships, genetic modification, and bounty hunters. They make it better. Also, it’s sexy. Did I mention sexy? Luckily, there are more novels set in this universe on the way.

So there you have it – three excellent books, and the reading year has just begun. There are plenty more delicious books on the way, and I look forward to devouring them. Now it’s your turn. What have you read so far this year that you’d recommend? There’s always room for more on my tottering to read pile.

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An Interview with Damien Angelica Walters

Damien Author Photo

Damien Angelica Walters was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new collection, Sing Me Your Scars. Let’s start in the usual way, where I make introductions by shamelessly cribbing from an author’s bio…

Damien Angelica Walters’ short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in anthologies and magazines such as Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume One, The Best of Electric Velocipede, Glitter & Mayhem, What Fates Impose, Lightspeed, Shimmer, Shock Totem, Jamais Vu, Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Nightmare Magazine, and others. Sing Me Your Scars, a collection of her short fiction, will be released on March 9, 2015 from Apex Publications. Paper Tigers, a novel, will be released in late 2015 by Dark House Press. She’s also a freelance editor, and until the magazine’s closing in 2013, she was an Associate Editor of the Hugo Award-winning speculative fiction magazine, Electric Velocipede. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two rescue pit bulls.

ACW: First off, let’s start the interview with some exciting recent news. Your story, ‘The Floating Girls: A Documentary‘ is a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award. Congratulations! Where were you when you heard the news, and what did you do to celebrate?

DAW: Thank you! It feels very, very surreal. I thought nominees were notified beforehand, so I assumed my story didn’t make the ballot. I was sitting at my desk, drinking coffee and mulling over story notes when I saw that the nominees were posted. I clicked the link to see if Usman made the ballot because I hoped so–and he did!–and when I saw my story listed there, too, I blinked a few times and double-checked the link. When it hit that it wasn’t a mistake, I just sat for a few minutes, staring at the screen. Then came the flailing hands and the social media buzz, and at the end of the day, I celebrated with a glass of Merlot and a bit of chocolate.

Sing Me Your Scars Cover

ACW: And the second bit of congratulations, your collection Sing Me Your Scars was just released. What type of stories can readers expect to find in this collection?

DAW: Thank you kindly. Sing Me Your Scars is a collection of mostly dark fantasy and horror although I selected stories with cohesive themes of love, loss, strength, and hope as opposed to by genre. You’ll find origami elephants, a magician in war-torn Lithuania, Henry VIII, women who can create bridges and building with their songs, and in the title story, an homage to Mary Shelley.

ACW: The collection sounds fantastic. You also have a novel coming up later this year, Paper Tigers. Care to tell us a bit about it as well?

DAW: Paper Tigers is about a disfigured young woman and a photo album she finds at a thrift store. At its heart, it’s a ghost story, but it’s as much about the things that haunt us personally as it is about the external ghosts.

ACW: Obviously you’re a very prolific short fiction writer, and with your second novel coming out, you’re equally comfortable with long fiction. What is your process like for a short story versus a novel? Do you find switching mental gears between long form and short form difficult? Are you able to work on short fiction while you have a novel going, or do require completely different headspaces for each?

DAW: I don’t have one set process for either. Sometimes I sit at my desk in front of a blank Word document; other times I curl up on the sofa with notebook and pen. In the first draft stage, I tend to work on one thing at a time, whether it’s long form or short. I need that focus to find the story threads and make them comprehensible.

They do require different headspaces—novels have a larger scope and more threads. But while it’s nice to spend a long time with a character or a group of characters, I enjoy writing in the short form more. I don’t have to commit to one genre, and I can experiment with form and voice and tense and points of view.

ACW: You have a knack for coming up with lovely and poetic titles for your fiction – The Serial Killer’s Astronaut Daughter; The Floating Girls: A Documentary; Grey in the Gauge of His Storm; and Such Faces We Wear, Such Masks We Hide, to name a few. What is your secret for coming up with such evocative and intriguing titles? Does the story come first, or the title?

DAW: I don’t think I have secret, but I see titles as both an introduction and an extension of the story, not just as a label. I’d say it’s fifty-fifty with respect to which comes first, although if it doesn’t come first, it usually comes not long after I’ve started writing the story itself.

Sometimes a title will pop into my head and hover there like the fading traces of a strange dream until I write the story. “The Floating Girls” was one such title, although I added “A Documentary” after the first draft was done. “The Serial Killer’s Astronaut Daughter” came to me right after I wrote the first snippet of dialogue that generated the rest of the story:

“My advice to you,” Wallace says, “is to stay quiet and dignified. Let it blow over. Two months and we’re out. The novelty will wear off.”

“Quiet and dignified? Are you fucking serious? I’m an astronaut, not a fucking Barbie doll. Would you stay quiet and dignified if you were going through the same thing?”

But sometimes I reach the end of a story, realize the original title was all wrong, and then agonize over finding the right one. It’s a bit like digging through a puzzle for the right piece or finding the perfect seasoning for the soup.

ACW: Some of your stories carry echoes of Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Are any of these authors conscious influences? If not, which authors (if any) would you say most influenced your literary style? Regardless of influence, who are some of the authors you love as comfort reads, to challenge you, or to recommend to friends?

DAW: What a trio of amazing talent that is; thank you for such a huge compliment! They’re definitely not conscious influences, but I think writers are influenced by everything they read. Like the majority of authors who write dark fiction, I’d count Stephen King and Shirley Jackson as early influences, but with time I think my style and voice has developed, and is still developing, into something of its own.
Stephen King is definitely a comfort read, and I’m also partial to thriller and suspense novels, like those by Gillian Flynn and Laura Lippman. Hard science fiction is definitely a challenge for me, but I’m currently reading The Three-Body Problem by Cixin (translated by Liu, Ken Liu) and love it.

ACW: Switching away from books and writing for a bit, let’s talk about dogs. You have two rescued pit bulls. What are some of the most endearing things they do? What are some of the most aggravating?

DAW: Ripley is a lap dog, all fifty-pounds of her and it’s both endearing and aggravating. Endearing because she’s love bug; a little aggravating because fifty pounds is heavy. Kane is seventy-five pounds and doesn’t try to be a lap dog anymore; he likes to curl up next to me. It’s sweet and lovely until he farts and when he does, it’s as if he’s released a toxic cloud of epic proportions.

ACW: With your steady conquering of the world of short fiction and novels, what are you working on next?

DAW: I’m attempting to wrestle my love of short fiction into the long form by way of a portmanteau novel, a series of stories connected by a larger framing story revolving around stories and storytelling and families and the secrets they keep.

ACW: Sounds fantastic! I can’t wait to read the collection, and the novel(s). Thanks for dropping by!

DAW: Thank you so much for asking me here!

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Unlikely Story 11: The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography is Here!

Unlikely Story #11: The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography is live! The issue features all new fiction by Lauren C. Teffeau, Levi Sable, Curtis C. Chen, Barry King, Fiona Moore, and Joseph Tomaras. This is our second foray into the world of unlikely cryptography and, as always, we’re extremely proud of these stories, and delighted to share them with you.

In other unlikely news, we just announced the table of contents for our next mini issue, The Journal of Unlikely Coulrophobia, which will be published on April 1, 2015. We have other plans up our sleeves in relation to this issue, but you’ll just have to wait for further details.

In the meantime, please enjoy the stories of hacking, coding, surveillance, technology, and cyberpunk in the current Journal of Unlikely Cryptography. Let us know what you think of our stories, and if you like them, please tell your friends! Also, don’t forget you can subscribe to Unlikely Story for free.

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An Interview with Alex Shvarstman

Alex Shvartsman was kind enough to drop by today to talk about his debut collection, Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories. First off, introductions, which I will accomplish by shamelessly stealing from Alex’s author bio…

Alex Shvartsman is a writer and game designer. His adventures so far have included traveling to over 30 countries, playing a card game for a living, and building a successful business. Alex resides in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and son. Since 2010, Alex  sold over 70 short stories to a variety of magazines and anthologies. His fiction has appeared in such venues as Nature, Daily Science Fiction, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Galaxy’s Edge, and many others. Find him online at www.alexshvartsman.com

ACW: Congratulations on the publication of Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma! Can you give readers a sense of the kind of stories they’ll find in this fine collection?

explaining cthulu cover

AS: I started writing in 2010 and hadn’t gone in for doing what the popular kids do and writing a novel. Instead, I hunkered down and wrote lots and lots of short stories. Gathered within this book is my best work, but it is not unified by genre or style.

In this collection you will find Vatican investigators charged with verifying miracles in outer space, fraudster magician taking on Donald Trump, a cybernetic assassin who can’t feel pain, and a kabbalist who teams up with a hacker to break into the metaphysical Book of Fate.

There are humorous stories and really dark ones, urban fantasy and space opera, serious examination of issues like free will, immigration, and ones’ humanity alongside terrible cat puns.

Most of these stories have previously appeared in professional publications (though there is a pair of brand-new tales), a number of them made Tangent Online Recommended Reading lists, and the title story won the WSFA Small Press Award for Short Fiction last year. It is my hope that every reader will find something to like in this book.

ACW: I frequently find titles to be the hardest part of a story. However, Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma strikes me as the kind of title just begging for a story. Which came first, the title or the tale?

AS: In this case, the title definitely came first. Fellow writer and friend Sylvia Spruck Wrigley tweeted that she was having a difficult time explaining Cthulhu to grandma, and I immediately responded that it would make for a great story title. She graciously allowed me to use it, and the story unfolded from there.

 ACW: What do you find appealing about playing with Lovecraftian themes? On a related note, what do you find appealing about combining horror and humor?

AS: I’m actually not a fan of Lovecraftian fiction. Sorry! In fact, the title story was, in many ways, my examination of what the heck all these other folks find appealing about the sub-genre. I put poor Cthulhu through many indignities. He’s stuck in a pocket dimension shaped like a snow globe, and at one point grandma wants to sell him off by the pound to the sushi chains.

And while I’m being cantankerous here, let me also say that I don’t believe humor and horror can be combined well in fiction. The idea of a horror story is to evoke dread, and the idea of a humor story is to elicit the exact opposite response. So I cringe inwardly when people refer to ‘humorous horror’ as a thing. Which is not to say that you can’t tell a funny story featuring vampires and zombies and other horror tropes — or tell a wonderful tale utilizing dark humor. In fact, dark humor is the focus of my next anthology. However, I wouldn’t consider too many of my own stories to fall within this category.

 ACW: In addition to your writing, you’re also an accomplished editor, with titles including the Unidentified Funny Objects series, and Coffee. Do your writer brain and your editor brain play well with each other? Are there ways in which knowing both sides of the process help you, or hinder you when you’re wearing either the writer or editor hat?

AS: The editor and writer brains play wonderfully together: which is to say, editing is a great excuse not to write. Whenever there’s a writing deadline I’m inclined to edit and read slush and do a million other things involved with putting an anthology together, and when the anthology deadline looms I find myself wanting to pour a story out onto the page. My (overall) brain is a total bastard that way.

Seriously though, reading submissions and working with authors to improve their stories and shepherd them toward publication definitely improves my own writing. I find flaws in others’ work that I later recognize and strive to avoid in my own. It also takes a bit of the sting out of rejections: having been on the other side of that experience really makes one appreciate the process, and drives the point home that editors are rooting for you and are super-excited to find the next great story. And sometimes, they have to reject submissions because of fit and word count and a dozen other factors that aren’t indicative of the quality of the story itself.

 ACW: As if writing and editing weren’t enough, you also translate fiction. How do you approach the translation process? Do authors come to you with translation requests, or do you seek out stories you love that you want English language audiences to read and suggest translations? How closely do you work with authors during the translation process? Are there certain things you feel just don’t translate from one language to another?

AS: I was born in the former USSR and Russian is my native language. As such, I frequently read fiction in Russian and love being able to share stories that I really enjoy with the English-speaking world. So far, I’ve been the one to approach authors about translating their stories (I haven’t been turned down yet!). Typically I read the Russian equivalent of the “Best Of” anthologies and contact authors whose work has impressed me.

I generally complete a translation and then sent it to the author for approval, rather than involving them more deeply in the process, but this is because English and other foreign languages aren’t taught as well in Russian schools as math and sciences, and most of the authors I’ve worked with to date, while able to communicate in English, would have a difficult time with some of the nuances of translation.

The trick to translation is to try and maintain the voice and tone of the author instead of recasting the story into something Alex Shvartsman would write. It’s a fun process and while I only do translations occasionally, it’s something I would love to find more time for in my schedule.

 ACW: Switching topics a bit, I’m intrigued by the line in your bio about playing a card game for a living. Care to elaborate?

AS: I made a living as a professional Magic: The Gathering player in the late 1990s. I traveled to every continent and over 30 countries to complete in tournaments, and won over $100,000 over the course of my career. I also set the record for most Grand Prix top 8 finishes (21!) It took another player nearly a decade after I retired from professional play to overcome that record and, as far as I know, I still remain second on that list.

ACW: Going back to books, you’ve run successful Kickstarters for several of your projects now. What’s your secret?

AS: As part of my day job, I consult on Kickstarter campaigns for gaming companies, so I had a lot of knowledge about the platform and marketing going in, but I had to adjust and re-learn many things because book kickstarters are actually quite different from game ones.

The best piece of advice I can offer someone considering a crowd funding campaign is: make sure there is something unique about your project and give potential backers an excellent reason to be passionate about it. It could be a worthy cause (think Women Destroy Science Fiction) or just a cool item that backers would really want to own and that no one else has thought to create yet (like my Coffee anthology.) It’s much more difficult to fund a project that doesn’t stand out (yawn: another space opera anthology, or another zombie tome), even if the book is perfectly good otherwise. Want more advice? You can always hire me to consult on your next project!

ACW: Now that you’re well on your way to conquering the world of short fiction as author, editor, and translator, what’s next for you? Any plans for longer form fiction? What other projects do you have in the works?

AS: I’ve been working (very, very slowly!) on my first novel. It’s called Eridani’s Crown and my 10-second elevator pitch for it is: the setting of Game of Thrones meets the character arc of Breaking Bad. At my current pace, you can look forward to reading it by 2020. With any luck, I will find a way to write faster. Or slower, if interesting short story ideas, anthology projects, or translations get in the way!

ACW: Thanks for dropping by!

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