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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An Interview with Scott Gable

Today, I’m pleased to welcome Scott Gable, publisher of Broken Eye Books, and editor of many of their fine anthologies, including the upcoming Welcome to Miskatonic University.

Scott GableWelcome, Scott! To start things off, would you care to introduce yourself and tell folks a bit about Broken Eye Books?

So great to be here! I run the indie press Broken Eye Books out of Seattle. We’ve been going for eight wonderful years, publishing the odd, strange, and offbeat side of speculative fiction. We love to blend genres and blur the boundaries of science fiction, fantasy, and the weird.

You’re currently running a Kickstarter for two volumes of Welcome to Miskatonic University. Could you give readers a taste of the sorts of stories they’ll find in its pages?

We asked authors to envision a modern-day Miskatonic University, that institution from the Cthulhu Mythos that always seemed to be at the center of all things strange and magical. And as we read through the slush, an interesting pattern developed. There was a shift in the types of stories we received that fell along a spectrum: on one end, the setting and mood of the weird fiction typified by Lovecraft and his contemporaries, albeit modern, and on the other end, we see where weird fiction starts to blend with other speculative genres (fantasy and science fiction, though largely fantasy in this case with stories more akin to Grossman’s The Magicians or a more adult Hogwarts). This was fascinating and presented a great opportunity to more deeply explore weird fiction’s relationship with other genres, so we split the project into two anthologies—the first consisting of the fantastically weird and the latter of the weirdly fantastic.

The first, Welcome to Miskatonic University, represents the first half of that spectrum. These are the tales with the unknown at their core, where relatively normal people in a relatively normal world come face to face with the unknown, and we get to see what happens. These are the stories most tightly anchored to our reality, to what we now. In the second, It Came from Miskatonic University, the setting and mood change a bit. And this isn’t a binary—not an either-or; it’s a spectrum with gradation in how these elements change. In these tales, that next layer of secrets have been stripped away. (It makes perfect sense that, after a century of uncovering secrets, a college might not be the same as it was.) In these tales, at least some of the unknown is stripped bare for the characters. This appears in two different ways: either 1) what was once unknown is now known from the start by either the main characters or the setting as a whole or 2) the protagonist is themself the “unknown,” being privy to the secrets—whether a Deep One trying to save her human girlfriend or a powerful sorcerer on a mission—and thereby becoming a direct window to that unknown for the reader. These are the lands where weird fiction blends with fantasy and science fiction. When the unknown has been revealed, accepted, and possibly even incorporated into the setting, we are flitting across weird fiction’s borders with other speculative fiction. And it makes sense that after some time at MU, as in the second anthology, you might learn a thing or two.

Past Broken Eye Books anthologies have explored Lovecraftian mythology in the future, and mashed up Lovecraft and space opera. This time around, you’ve asked authors to tell stories set in the modern day. What appeals to you about Lovecraftian mythology colliding with our current day world? Overall, what sparked the idea behind the anthology?

Well, there’s the easy answer that we just love mashing together two seemingly disparate things to get something hopefully greater than its parts. (That’s how you get peanut butter cups!) Before Tomorrow’s Cthulhu, for instance, we did the anthology Ghost in the Cogs, combining steampunk and the supernatural—which was crazy amounts of fun, by the way. So really, that ethos of experimental “what if we try this?” is very much a part of our books.

As for the Cthulhu Mythos, it’s always taunted me, from that first Del Rey collection that inaugurated me as a kid who liked weird fiction. I would be all “Yeah! And then what?” and always wanting more. The “terrible crushing dread of existence” didn’t have to end in the 1920s. Everyone at some point in their lives knows it’s still kicking around in their closet. So why not bring it into the modern world? And as a gamer, the Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green RPGs were already planting such wonderful seeds for how a modern Mythos might take shape.

As for the science fiction elements, there’s never really been a shortage of weird horror to go around, but it’s always felt that the weird science elements would get overshadowed by the supernatural. And to me, the two are both vital for weird fiction. “From Beyond” is one of my favorite highlights from the Mythos of weird science. These are those crazy, “misunderstood” experiments that start from scientific principles but quickly go off the rails into realms that science just has no answers for (like Frankenstein before it). That’s the key: it’s still unknown, the narrative just pokes that unknown with a “scientific” stick rather than a “supernatural” one.

As for the modern world, that’s where I live. I want stories that spin off from that world and with more relevance to the modern human condition, stories that shine a light on the unknowns of today and that embrace both the supernatural and the weird science. I want inclusive stories that represent our modern sensibilities, and I want to hear it from lots of different voices. I want all of us to be excited to explore and experiment, to take those bits we like and forge something unique and all our own.

If you were enrolling at Miskatonic University yourself, what courses would you be most interested in, or what would your major be? Would you try out for any sports? Join any clubs?

Tough call. I’ve always been torn between the sciences and the humanities. And though I’m sure I could fully redeem Tillinghast’s and West’s experiments—what could go wrong!—I would likely find myself drawn to library sciences, instructing students on the proper care and maintenance of those dangerous words. Books are a responsibility, you know, requiring a commitment of both time and intention, an understanding of the preventive safeguards and reparative ministrations for the physical and mental wellbeing of both you and them, and a dedication to their proper socialization and training and mental stimulation. Countless are those hurt by a book’s misuse.

And I would definitely take a yoga class, or tai chi. Something for stress management. (I wonder if there’s a non-Euclidean yoga?)

TentaclesAs part of the Kickstarter, you have some pretty awesome swag to offer including university bumper stickers, hand-bound books, and custom art. Could you talk a bit about the art and design aspect of the anthology, how you identify artists, and how you work with them to bring unique visions of the eldritch and squamous to life?

I have a big list of authors and artists I’m itching to work with. As I discover a person’s work, I often know immediately that they’d make a great fit for some project percolating in the gray matter—and often, I know exactly what I’d want them to work on. I find artists online and from their work on other books and games, but most notably, I find them at the conventions I attend. (I stumbled upon the cover artist for Pretty Marys All in a Rowgawki—for instance, at Emerald City Comic Con 2017. I enjoyed their work so much and knew they’d be a perfect match for the novella.)

For book covers, I generally try to have a very rough idea (or several possible ideas and often will chat with the author—for the single-author works—to get their feedback) of what I’m thinking about for a book so that the artist has something to latch onto and expand on. But I don’t want to tell these artists how to do their jobs, so I leave as much detail to them as they’re comfortable with. We typically go through a round of low-res mockups of possible ideas, and then once we’ve settled on something, I typically back away. They’re artists and know what they’re doing.

For the Kickstarter, I wanted to offer something special beyond the core books, and Near Mint (the bookbinder for the deluxe edition) and Merle Rice (creator of the fleece squid hats)—both local artists that I met at conventions—seemed a wonderful fit, as did Frank Casey who’s slated for the second anthology’s cover. And of course Yves Tourigny and Michael Bukowski I’ve worked with before on the Ride the Star Wind illustrations. And if we unlock that particular stretch goal, even more artists will be added.

And the bumper stickers are largely my own designs (with assistance from Jeremy Zerfoss and Michael Bukowski for some of the illustrations), and I’ve had a blast making them.

After Welcome to Miskatonic University, what’s next for Broken Eye Books? Any other upcoming projects you’d like folks to know about?

There are a couple novellas coming next that I’ve already announced and a couple that I haven’t. There’s also another novel slated for later this year along with a new publishing imprint. And of course, I wouldn’t be me without the next few anthologies in mind. Our online magazine Eyedolon will be the next big thing to watch from us as that’s where the next pebble drops.

We’re a small press, so we can adjust our course with relative ease, embracing the chaos of book publishing. But always spinning new tales and hopefully not taking ourselves too seriously.

Thank you for dropping by! I can’t wait to see the finished anthologies!

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An Interview with Brooke Bolander

Brooke Bolander was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her debut novella, The Only Harmless Great Thing. To get started, I’ll make introductions by way of shamelessly stealing from Brooke’s author bio…

Brooke Bolander writes weird things of indeterminate genre, most of them leaning rather heavily towards fantasy or general all-around weirdness. She attended the University of Leicester 2004-2007 studying History and Archaeology and is an alum of the 2011 Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UCSD. Her stories have been featured in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, Uncanny, Tor.com, and various other fine purveyors of the fantastic. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Hugo, Locus, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy awards, much to her unending bafflement. She can be reached at her website (brookebolander.com) or on Twitter @BBolander

Welcome and congratulations on the publication of The Only Harmless Great Thing! Without
giving too much away, care to give readers a taste of what it’s about?

The Only Harmless Great ThingThe Only Harmless Great Thing is my weirdo prose-poem alternate history novella tribute to two really terrible, mostly forgotten bits of ephemeral American history: The 1903 public execution by electricity of Topsy, an abused circus elephant, and the deaths of the radium girls, factory workers employed in New Jersey and Illinois to paint watch dials with radium-laced dye. Nobody bothered telling them that the paint was toxic, and none of the girls suspected a thing until, one by one, they began to sicken and die of radiation poisoning. In the universe of the book, things work out a little differently for all involved. Bonds are struck and terrible choices are made—choices that will also have massive ramifications in an alternate present and a far-flung future. It’s a book about anger, and injustice, and women, and friendship. It’s about stories–how they shape narratives and who gets to shape those narratives. It’s about coming together, solidarity in anger and in the fight.

Also: Wooly mammoth folk tales. I can never forget to mention the wooly mammoth folk tales. If you’ve been dying to read a wooly mammoth folk tale, boy have I got the book for you.

Since the book is rooted in events that actually occurred in the early 20th century, what kind of research did you do to inform your writing? What drew you in particular to that time period, or to the story of the radium girls and Edison’s experiments with electricity?

I’m a history student slash historical buff, so a lot of this was already rattling around in my head, looking for a way out.

The late 19th/early 20th century is such an odd period; industrialization rattling on at an ever-increasing clip, making the lives of many better while crushing the poor and the marginalized to feed the altars of Our Sainted Lady Progress. So many things we’ve come to rely on in modern life were invented then. So many of our problems now come from callous decisions made around that era, broken, unsustainable, exploitative systems cemented in on which our own personal Omelas teeters and sways. Want to understand why things in the States are splintering the way they are now? Trace the cracks and fissures back to the period after the Civil War and go from there. You can do that all the way back to the beginning–the systems this country built itself on were always, always rotted through–but recently I was watching a documentary on New York at the turn of the last century and it was remarkable how much you could pinpoint at that nexus leading to where we are currently. The same systems that gave us the freedom of the automobile belched pollution into the air, necessitated the creation of the assembly line, and tore highways through urban neighborhoods with a callous disregard that’s breathtaking. There’s very little we have now that didn’t come with a price. The rich and the powerful wrote the tunes we’d be dancing to on down the decades.

So I think about that a lot, especially recently for, y’know, reasons. The exploitation of the radium girls was just one case in a long, long line of horrible incidents around that time: The matchgirls who came down with fossy jaw in London, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York, and the radium girls of New Jersey and Illinois. The first two were such public outrages they sparked protest and change; the London Matchgirls Strike of 1888 was a reaction to the growing number of fossy jaw deaths, and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911 (the doors to the factory floors were locked from the outside to prevent union organizers from reaching workers; a fire broke out and 146 women, mostly young immigrant girls, burned to death) led to slightly improved factory safety standards and the organization of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. But until recently, the radium girls had been mostly forgotten. Their deaths sparked no grand revolt or reform. The lawsuits against their employers were stalled and put off long enough that most of the girls were dead before it was all settled. The best they could hope for was a payout for their families and the shutting down of the factories so that no more women would come to such an end. Nobody taught their story in schools; the only monument that stands to mark their passage was erected in Ottawa, Illinois after a schoolgirl learned what had happened and, horrified at her community’s silence over the matter, fought and pressured for a statue.

The past deserves telling. Even the nasty parts. Especially the nasty parts. If the stories aren’t told, they die, which is also a big theme in the book.

And Thomas Edison, as usual, has been credited with yet another accomplishment not his own, having precious little to do with Topsy’s death. She, like many a ‘performing’ elephant before and since, was so ill-treated she finally snapped and killed a man, at which point the Forepaugh Circus sold her to Frederic Thompson and Elmer Dundy, owners of Coney Island’s Luna Park. Her handler there was an alcoholic. There were more incidents, some involving the police, none of them really her fault. Eventually Thompson and Dundy decided to get rid of her, and what better way to both take care of the problem and promote their soon-to-be-opened park than with a public execution?

The confusion arises from Edison’s penchant for frying animals during the War of the Currents and the fact that the film crew sent to record the event were from Edison Studios. Edison was a terrible guy who deserves everything bad smeared across his name, but the Current War had ended fifteen years earlier, and Edison Studios took no direction from the man himself on who or what they filmed. As far as anybody can tell, he never even knew Topsy existed. She, like the radium girls, was simply another victim of a brutal, uncaring system. Her death served no purpose, for good or ill.

Your short fiction has been multiply award nominated at this point. Do you remember the first nomination, how you found out about it, and what you did to celebrate?

That would have been the Nebula nomination for And You Shall Know Her By The Trail of Dead in early 2016. SFWA calls you for that one, on the phone; I believe I was standing in my kitchen in Brooklyn when they rang, and for once I actually picked up. I’m pretty sure I said “thank you” a whole lot, got off the call, and went to go stare at a wall in a daze for the next half-hour. I was coming off a pretty rough winter, a bad time, and it just made everything extra surreal. I felt a little like Neil Patrick Harris in the final shot of Doctor Horrible.

But thankfully everything seemed to pick up from there, at least personally. Hearing that I’ve been nominated for something has never gotten any less weird, though. “You mean people LIKED that? … That much? Good lord, really?”

Completely switching gears for a moment… At the time this interview is being written, the background image of your twitter account is a scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. How great is that movie? It’s sort of a perfect storm of things that shouldn’t work together, but they do, and can never be replicated. (I may be a touch obsessed.) What is you favorite thing about the movie? Favorite character? Seriously, how freakin’ great is it?!

Bless you a thousand years for asking about Who Framed Roger Rabbit, one of my favourite movies if not my absolute favourite. It is great in so many ways I don’t even have space to go into them all here. It’s absolutely ridiculous that it’s so damned good, but I’ve been watching it since I was 7, and it just keeps getting better the older I get and the more I learn and learn to see. It’s a movie that never should have gotten made, a logistical nightmare both in the level of special effects needed and the constant wrangling to keep both Disney and Warner Bros and every other company with a character in the damned thing happy. And who the hell pitches a comedy/all-ages noir based on the same concept as an unmade Chinatown sequel with a Robert Moses figure as the villain, razing a marginalized community to the ground to build his precious freeway?

(True story, folks; it had the working title Cloverleaf and was going to go into the sordid land grabs that made the Los Angeles highway system possible. Considering how The Two Jakes came out, this was probably the best case scenario.)

My favourite thing about it is how deft and tight the storytelling is. It’s a movie that never bothers infodumping about this bizarre world it takes place within when a shot of a photograph on someone’s desk or a single line of dialogue will do. We learn about Eddie Valiant almost entirely from his interactions with others. From Dolores and Lt. Santino we get that he used to be a great guy and an A+ detective, but unresolved grief over his brother’s death has turned him into a reactive, alcoholic mess taking muckraking jobs just to pay rent. From a really beautiful, wordless montage panning over their desk, we learn that Eddie and Teddy started out with the LAPD before hanging up the shingle on their own with Dolores to become respected PIs. The camera deliberately scrolls backwards chronologically through Valiant’s past until it ends on a shot of Eddie, Teddy, and their dad together in the circus–a single frame explaining why Eddie and Teddy were so open to taking Toon cases in the first place, how bitter and damaged the loss of Teddy has left his now-humourless brother, and, finally, how Eddie knows all those cool clown moves he makes use of in the finale. How the hell do you tell that much in ONE FRAME?! Cinema has its own language, and that entire scene rings like ‘cellar door’ to me.

And of course, none of this would work without Bob Hoskins acting his entire ass off, taking everything almost as seriously as his role in The Long Good Friday (Eddie, as you may have already guessed, as my favourite character). The scene where he has to confront his unaddressed PTSD over Teddy’s death and go back through the tunnel to Toontown–again, almost wordlessly; this is a movie that knows when to keep quiet–lives or dies on Hoskins’ ability to emote, and boy does he bring it. The acting on display would be phenomenal in any film; here it’s absolutely jaw-dropping. Watch: He’s nakedly terrified. He breaks out in a sweat, probably remembering in vivid detail his last visit there. He goes to take a drink of bourbon for courage, but stops with the bottle halfway to his lips. Slowly, like a light has just gone on, he lowers it, considering the label like he’s never really seen a bottle of Wild Turkey before until this moment. No, you see him decide, finally, I’m goin’ in there clean. He pours the contents into the gutter. He’s still terrified, but something has changed. And it’s not even sudden, this epiphany! The entire movie has been building to it. Once he takes Roger under his wing, he never takes another drink. He’s tempted, but the bottle always stops halfway.

… Also it’s still a really fucking funny movie. And I have gone on way too long here about Who Framed Roger Rabbit, sorry. You did ask!

There’s no such thing as going on too long when talking about Roger Rabbit! However, topic hopping again, you studied History and Archeology at University. Has any of that background made it into your writing thus far, or do you think it might in the future?

I think it informs everything I do or write in some fashion or another. Being a student of history means you have that much more of an informational back catalogue to dig into when you need a subject to write about. So many interviewers have asked me how I learned about these things, and it’s very strange because an awful lot of the time they’re already sitting around in vials in my head, waiting for a moment to react with something. “BREAK GLASS TO RECEIVE STORY.” History is nothing but stories interlinked, after all.

Now that The Only Harmless Great Thing is out in the world, what’s next for you? Any projects you’re working on you want folks to know about?

I’m currently working on a fantasy novel. I have always been working on this novel. Presumably I will be working on this novel until we go all the way back ’round the horn and start relaying stories solely as an oral tradition again, at which point the entire damn endeavour will be moot. Story of my life.

Besides that, though, I have an upcoming novelette at Tor.com about (what else) extinct animals and the end of the world. I swear up and down that my next piece will be about kittens on fluffy duvets and nobody will die or be angry, ever. Honest.

Thanks for stopping by!

Thanks for having me! And for asking about Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Because Who Framed Roger Rabbit, y’all. Forget about my book: Go re-watch it. Seriously.

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An Interview with D Franklin

D Franklin was kind enough to drop by today to discuss their new venture, Galli Books. I’ll start things off with an introduction by way of shamelessly stealing from their bio…

D is a genderqueer Glasgow-based bookseller. They are a recovering Ancient Historian, a comics nerd, a science fiction and fantasy devourer, and they are founder of Galli Books.

Galli Books Welcome and congratulations on the launch of Galli Books! For those not in the know, what is Galli Books? What sort of titles can people expect from Galli? What inspired you to found Galli?

Galli Books is a small publisher of speculative fiction anthologies with social themes and intersectional social justice intent. Our first couple of planned titles give a good idea of what to expect in future, too; a book about alternative masculinities, and a book of stories of scientists who aren’t (gasp) men!

I was inspired to found Galli when another call for submissions from another publisher went out that basically called for stories that it claimed represented suppressed ideas, when, in reality, they’re the dominant ideas in our genre and across society. A few people on Twitter joked about a response anthology and I… maybe took the joke too far?

You recently put out your first call for submissions (including a call for artists’ portfolios). For hopeful authors out there, what type of work is likely to catch your eye? Conversely, what do you not want to see in your submission pile?

I’m not editing it alone, I’ve got some excellent consultants in to co-edit the volume with me! Shout out to Jay Wolf, Ronan Sadler, and Brandon O’Brien! Work that will catch our eye will be socially progressive, will rewrite the standard toxic and fragile models of masculinity that dominate in our society, will have diverse casts, and will engage with a range of responses to masculinity. What we don’t want to see is a whole lot of Conan clones, because that’s what we’re reacting to, nor straightforward parody of that… unless it’s really spectacularly done parody, of course!

On a somewhat related note, since you’re also a reviewer, what are some of your recent favorite reads? Or your all-time favorite reads? What titles would you point people toward in order to get a sense of your tastes, or just in general because you love them and want people to read them?

Recently, I loved Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun: theology and fairytale run up against each other in a claustrophobic Victorian gothic melodrama. More broadly, everyone should read the Imperial Raadch trilogy by Ann Leckie, Becky Chambers’ heartwarming and intelligent Wayfarer series, and quite literally every novel N. K. Jemisin has ever written. Your own Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves The World Again has a special place in my heart for combining so many different registers so brilliantly, and for what it does with masculinity (TOPICAL); I’m still not over ‘Roller Girls Have More Fun’.: blushing over here.) (Interviewer’s note And, of course, there’s Terry Pratchett, miss him as we all do…

In addition to being a reviewer and a publisher, you’re also a bookseller. Do you have any “tales from the trenches” that you’re able to share, either in terms of odd questions you’ve received, or inspiring stories of helping someone find the perfect book?

Oh, the tales I could tell… if it wouldn’t be unprofessional. Let’s just say that sometimes, “It’s the recent one with the silver cover” is surprisingly more than enough information to go on; that books that haven’t been in print for half a century AREN’T going to be available in a first-hand book shop; and that no, you can’t have a copy of the book that’s not out for another week, because we don’t have it in – it’s not out for another week.

To topic switch a bit, you’re based in Glasgow – what’s the speculative fiction scene like there? More generally, what are some of your favorite places to visit in the city, or places you would recommend to someone coming to Glasgow for the first time?

Glasgow has a seriously thriving speculative fiction scene; internationally it is perhaps eclipsed a little by some of Edinburgh’s writers like Laura Lam, Ken MacLeod, and Elizabeth May, but we’ve got some great folks of our own. The irrepressible and brilliant Hal Duncan is possibly our most notorious current speculative author, but Neil Williamson, Ruth Booth, and Cameron Johnston, whose debut is coming later this year, are all also locals; the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers’ Circle does a great job of encouraging and helping new writers, and it’s produced some real crackers!

Any visitor to Glasgow needs to visit one place, and it’s a café. Or a gin bar. Really, it’s both. Cup in the daytime is a lovely café with cakes, food, and a whole menu of different kinds of tea. At about 5 o’clock, it turns into Gin71. The name originally referred to its street address; now, it refers also to the number of gins they have. We’re also home to a whole lot of museums and art galleries, plus there’s always the Charles Rennie Mackintosh architecture to admire!

Aside from Galli Books, do you have any other upcoming projects you’d like people to know about, or any other closing thoughts in general you’d like to share?

“Aside from founding a publishing house and putting out a public call for stories to your anthology while working as a bookseller”, you mean? HAH, oh for that kind of energy! Though watch this space for future calls for submissions!

I can’t wait to see what the future holds for Galli Books. Thanks for dropping by!

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An Interview with Ada Hoffmann

Ada Hoffmann was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her debut fiction and poetry collection, Monsters in My Mind. To get things started, I’ll make introductions by way of shamelessly stealing from Ada’s author bio…

Ada Hoffmann is the author of over 60 published speculative short stories and poems. Her work has appeared in professional magazines such as Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, and Uncanny, and in two year’s-best anthologies. She is the winner of the Friends of the Merrill Collection Short Story Contest (2013, “The Mother of All Squid Builds a Library”) and a two-time Rhysling award nominee (2014 for “The Siren of Mayberry Crescent” and 2017 for “The Giantess’s Dream”).

Monsters in My MindWelcome and congratulations on the publication of your first collection! Care to give readers a little taste of what sorts of things they’ll find in the pages of Monsters in My Mind?

Dinosaur opera. Hive-mind squid. Non-neurotypical fairylands. Half-living spaceships in the shape of dragons, teenagers working together to escape cyber-surveillance, and Neolithic vampires who prowl in ancient ruins with their packs of human followers. Passionate and difficult relationships, both romantic and familial. Characters who are monsters, characters who love monsters, characters who fight against monsters with everything they’ve got, and characters who are all too human.

I’m always fascinated with the various approaches authors take to assembling their collections. How did you go about picking which stories and poems to include, and how to arrange them? Would you say there’s an emergent overarching theme, or groups of themes within the collection?

I’m glad you’re fascinated by this, because so am I. I always wanted to arrange an anthology around a theme. When I got the idea of working with NeuroQueer Books, I came up with a way of structuring a collection just for this publisher. If I put words to the theme of Monsters in My Mind, it would be the theme of feeling different, not fitting in some big or small way, and the countless ways characters respond to that.

I went through all my stories and poems that were available to reprint, and I jotted down how they engaged with the collection’s theme. I used those notes to put together a rough ordering felt like it made sense – as if the theme was its own meta-story, with its own establishment, development, rising action, and resolution. I knew the stories I wanted to start and end with, and that helped give the meta-story a shape. Finally, I put the rough collection together and read through it a few times, tweaking the order to make sure it flowed and wasn’t jarring or doubling back on itself.

I’ve published several stories and poems that I think are very good, but that didn’t fit into the collection thematically. Either they didn’t have anything to do with the theme, or they engaged with it in a way that didn’t feel like a fit with where the meta-story wanted to go. Those ones, I am saving for another collection!

I’m admittedly biased since it originally appeared in Unlikely Story, but one of my favorite among your stories is “How My Best Friend Rania Crashed a Party and Saved the World”. It also happens to be one of my favorite story titles ever, so I have to ask, which came first, the title or the story? I also have to ask the same question about the titles “An Operatic Tour of New Jersey, With Raptors” and “The Mother of All Squid Builds a Library”.

For “The Mother of All Squid Builds a Library”, the title came first, along with a mental image of the main character. The rest wrote itself. For “An Operatic Tour of New Jersey, With Raptors,” the idea for the story came first, but the title followed logically and was put on the page before the story’s actual words.

“How My Best Friend Rania Crashed a Party and Saved the World” was the reverse. The story’s working title was “AllBook, Rania, and the Infallible Cloud,” but that was a terrible title because no one who hasn’t read the story will know what any of it means. The actual title came in very late. It’s funny you should say it’s one of your favorites, because several readers complained that it was false advertising. Rania is a World Saver, and she crashes a party and engages in World Saving, but that’s a phrase that has a special meaning in the world of the story. The actual, literal world is not saved.

Switching gears a bit, you run an ongoing review series called Autistic Book Party. Could you talk a bit about how the series came about?

Back in 2012, I was a very shy little blogger who didn’t really know how anything worked. Autism representation was a thing I had started to pay attention to, and I had posted a couple of small things about it, but nothing huge. Then thanks to a signal boost by Jim C. Hines, I suddenly had people pouring in who wanted to know more. They kept asking me if I’d read this book, or that book. It should have been overwhelming, but I felt excited and inspired. I hadn’t known anyone was really interested in what I had to say.

I had actually not read most of the books, so I decided to fix that. I called it Autistic Book Party partly out of irony, but also because the glut of people did feel like a party to me. In retrospect I think that’s exactly how autistic people should party – by coming together and discussing a shared interest.

A question I always like to ask my fellow Canadians is about the idea of Canadian Literature. Do you think there’s a particular theme, tone, or some common unifying thread that makes a piece of writing particularly Canadian? If so, do you find it in your own writing, either surfacing unconsciously, or something you actively work toward or against?

Canada is such a big place with so much diversity. There are some obvious ways to make a story feel Canadian, like setting it in Canada. But I think it would be a mistake to identify Canadianness through just one factor – I think there are a lot of subgroups doing wildly different things. Even just within Canadian speculative fiction, I would say that’s true.

Since your Ph.D. studies focus on computer generated-poetry, I’m curious as to whether you’ve read “Caesura” by Hayley Stone, which was recently published in Fireside Fiction, and deals with an AI gaining self-awareness through poetry, and winning a major poetry competition no less. Do you think computers could get to the point of producing art, poetry, writing, and music that’s indistinguishable from human-created works? Or will there always be a kind of uncanny valley effect, for example the My Little Pony Names designed by a neural network (http://aiweirdness.com/post/164560090962/new-my-little-ponies-designed-by-neural-network) where some of them are spot on, and some are hilariously and/or terrifyingly wrong?

I have definitely read “Caesura” – in fact, it went on my list of favorite short stories from that month.
Computers in real life are at a point where the best of them can do a skilled pastiche of the patterns that emerge in human art. It’s not perfect, but it’s often good, and sometimes good enough to fool non-experts. But there is definitely an uncanny valley effect, especially in computer-generated creative writing, and it comes from the fact that computers don’t really understand what they’re doing. They don’t have a sensory experience of the things they are writing about; it’s just patterns in letters to them. There are ways to make inroads on this problem, but the only way to fully solve it is by inventing strong AI. The computer in “Caesura” is a strong AI, but we’re not anywhere close to that in real life, and we don’t even have a solid idea of how we’d get there or what it will look like when we do.

In the near future, we’re going to have a lot of cute silly bots like the My Little Pony one, a lot of pastiche machines that make convincing Muzak, and some really cool, really out-there art projects that are the result of humans and computers working together in novel ways. But I don’t believe computers will become better than humans at the kind of art humans are already doing – that’s a job for our wildly speculative, SFnal robot overlords.

Now that Monsters in My Mind is out in the world, what’s next for you?

I need to finish my PhD thesis, and I need to write more short stories and poetry – a few of those are already scheduled to come out in 2018. I have a book of dinosaur poems, “Million-Year Elegies,” that has been stalled out at about 75 or 80% complete for at least half a year now, and I need to get back on that. I also have a completed space opera novel that my agent is shopping around, but no idea if anyone will actually buy it or not. Anything could happen. Who knows?

“Million-Year Elegies” sounds amazing. Good luck with the PhD thesis, and thanks for dropping by!

You’re welcome! It was a pleasure.

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Non-Binary Authors to Read: Where to Start – Part 11

We’ve ticked over to 2018, and what better way to kick of a new year than with another installment of Non-Binary Authors to Read! For those unfamiliar with the series, you can catch up here. Onward to the recommendations!

CapriciousB.R. Sanders is a genderqueer writer who has also worked as a research psychologist and labor organizer. My recommended starting place for their work is The Music of the Spheres published in Capricious Issue Seven. Wren is a young musician stationed with a group of scientists on the planet Polyphemus. Even though she has no scientific background, Wren is uniquely positioned to be valuable on the planet, as the planet is uniquely suited to her. Polyphemus is largely dark, but thanks to medical implants, Wren sees via sonar, having been born blind. Her musical ability also ties her to the planet; when she plays her flute, Polyphemus responds. The indigenous life is neither plant nor animal, but both. Grass insects flutter their wings and dance in response to Wren’s music, but only when she improvises her compositions. A young doctor on the planet, Razza, is the only one who doesn’t treat Wren merely as a curiosity or a problem to be solved. Ze proposes a research project with Wren to determine why the planet responds to her the way it does.

Wren and Razza drove out to a lush valley, one of the strange spots on the planet where life abounded. Wren couldn’t see it, but she could feel it. There was a density in that valley unlike anything around Research Station Three. Her sonar pinged close, pinged softly. Noises rolled off the trunks of trees, off the smooth skins of the bulbous plant life that detached from the vines and bounded through the grass like puppies. The plurality of forms there in the valley came back to Wren. It beat against her body like soft rain.

Wren tries different instruments, and as she does, a pattern emerges, a rhythm that seems to point to a greater whole. With the recordings they make, Razza and Wren work together to learn more about the planet, deepening their friendship, and leading Wren to learn more about herself in the process. The Music of the Sphere is a gorgeous story, one which recognizes music as a form of math, but also as something magical beyond simple numbers. Throughout the story, Sanders draws parallels between Wren and the planet. Music connects Wren to the world around her, allowing her to communicate in a way that feels more natural that words. Polyphemus communicates in the same way, and Wren and the planet share other similarities as well. Wren hates that people see her as a riddle, and she alone sees the planet as more than a mystery to be solved. Polyphemus and Wren are the same in a way, and she finds a home there unlike any other, making a place for herself on an alien world. The story touches on friendship, the intersection between science and art, and the value of seeing the world in different ways, all of which makes it an excellent starting place for B.R. Sanders’ work.

Tender Feet of Cretan Girls by Sarah WebbJulian K. Jarboe is a writer and a sound designer, and my recommended starting place for their work is As Tender Feet of Cretan Girls Danced Once Around an Altar of Love. Isadora is the last of the snake women, constantly reborn over the years and thus essentially immortal. She lives in the Azores now, but remembers Knossos in the time of King Minos, the bull, and the labyrinth. Much of her time is consumed by memories of Ariadne, and seeking out and recording various versions of her story. As part of her obsession with her past, she joins a dig to unearth the labyrinth.

I had come to Crete and joined the Evans excavation in order to lord my expertise over him, and pocket sacred objects before they could be whisked off to the Ashmolean. Instead, I spent half a lifetime wiping sweat from my forehead and rubbing the sting of dust from my eyes with my monstrous hands. I watched as this man redesigned the rubble he found into impossible, triple story complexes of poured concrete and “restored” frescoes—really images entirely of his own direction with the modern hand of a father and son painting team.

Having found no satisfaction in literally unearthing her past, Isadora plans to leave her current life behind and reincarnate once more. As she’s making her preparations, she meets an elderly man named Dimas who seems determined to befriend her. She is suspicious of his motives at first, and eventually discovers he wants her to be his confessor for what he sees as his past sins – marrying his wife despite not loving her while carrying on an affair with her brother. A friendship grows between them, one that leads them both to be able to shed the weight of their pasts and move on. Jarboe weaves themes of memory, history, and story itself throughout the tale. Who owns history? Those who who lived it, or those who retell it and make it their own? The story explores the way narratives are built, and how each person shapes legends and even history to their own needs and preconceptions. The story also explores the way people use narratives to make sense of the world, how received narratives can erode authenticity and truth, and the way desire makes memory unreliable. It is a liminal and beautiful story, and an excellent starting place for Jarboe’s work.

TranscendentHolly Heisey is a book cover designer and an author. My recommended starting place for their work is Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, formerly Ryan Andrew Curran published at EGM Shorts and reprinted in Transcendent: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction. The story is short, but effective, opening with a list of the contents of the titular care package being sent to Etsath-tachri who has recently transitioned from human to Sedrayin.

In this package:
1. Three letters. (With our instructions on opening order, per Human dating system.)
2. One musical instrument, harmonica.
3. One plastic package containing three toothbrushes.
4. One tube of toothpaste.
5. One cloth Earth mammal, bear (unsure of further classification), filled with synthetic material. (We are sorry for the lack of symmetry, the cloth mammal was obviously damaged and repaired at some point. We were told not to modify it.)

The first letter is from Etsath-tachri’s former wife, Sophie, who is not taking the transition well, feeling betrayed. The second is from Etsath-tachri’s brother Gabe, who is far more supportive, and over the course of writing the letter comes to realize that his brother was never human but always Sedrayin, and the transition simply corrected things. The final letter is from Etsath-tachri’s mother, who is trying her best, though still occasionally makes mistakes, like calling Etsath-tachri Andrew. The story works as an effective metaphor for gender transition, but shown from an outsider’s perspective. We don’t get Etsath-tachri’s point of view, merely Sophie, Gabe, and Mom’s, with a sweet postscript about Etsath-tachri’s daughter Jenna. On the balance, the reactions of those who knew Etsath-tachri as Andrew are positive, with the exception of Sophie whose hurt is understandable from her point of view of having her marriage recently broken. Gabe’s supportive stance is heartening, as is Etsath-tachri’s mother’s response, ultimately making this a sweet and uplifting story. Even though Etsath-tachri has lost Sophie, there is the possibility she will come around to acceptance, and on the whole the relationships are supportive and happy ones. Heisey accomplishes a lot in just a few words, which is impressive, showing off the effectiveness of flash fiction as a form. It’s an excellent story, and an excellent staring place for Heisey’s work.

That’s it for this installment. As always, I’d love to see your own recommendations for work by non-binary authors in the comments. Happy reading, and I’ll be back with more recommendations soon.

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