Women to Read: Where to Start: October 2017

Welcome to another Women to Read: Where to Start! Last month’s recommendations were all about ghosts and the undead. This month, the themes range far and wide, and the forms include a web comic, a short story, a novelette, and a novella. Taken all together, they represent the work of four fantastic women, and four excellent starting points for their work.

Shattered StarlightNicole Chartrand is a concept artist and comic creator, and she just so happens to live in my home town of Montreal. My recommended starting place for her work is Shattered Starlight an ongoing web comic about what happens when Magical Girls grow up.  For those unfamiliar with the Magical Girl trope, think Sailor Moon – a band of girls is given magical powers by a mystical force, usually associated with a trinket that unlocks their power and transforms them, allowing them to battle evil. Shattered Starlight is reminiscent of Hurricane Heels by Isabel Yap at times while being completely its own thing. Instead of an ongoing friendship with her team, Farah Shaughnessy aka Arcturus , Guardian of Heaven, former leader of the Star Guardians, is on her own. Her team mates are scattered, and as as the story opens, she’s being “reassigned” after using her powers to throw her boss through a wall because, in her words, he was being a sack of dicks. The Empress sends her to work at The Dead End Cafe, staffed by other former Magical Girls, in an effort to keep her out of trouble. However, trouble insists on finding her. Figures from Farah’s past begin to reappear, including a former teammate, and a former enemy, and the spell that’s supposed to keep innocent bystanders from remembering encounters with Magical Girls stops working, adding an unsuspecting human to the mix. The story is fun, without being cutesy. The world is edged in darkness. Farah’s handler is an alcoholic rabbit creature, and there are hints of tragedy in the Star Guardians’ past, causing their broken friendship. The art is striking, largely black and white with splashes of color, and it accurately capture the feeling of Montreal. I can’t wait to see where the story goes, and I look forward to seeing what else Nicole Chartrand does in the future.

C.S.E. Cooney is an author, poet, singer, performer, a member of the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours, and a World Fantasy Award winner on top of all that. If you’ve ever seen her perform, you’ll understand when I say there’s a good chance she’s actually made of magic. If you haven’t seen her perform, you really owe it to yourself to find a way to do so. There are a good many starting places I could recommend for her work, but I’ve settled on The Big Bah-Ha, a novelette originally published by Drollerie Press, and recently reprinted by Apex Magazine. The Big Bah-Ha feels very much like a fairy tale, a story passed around playgrounds by children about the shape of their world, a legend in the process of being born. Beatrice wakes up dead, a victim of the Flabberghast. Only where she is now that she’s dead isn’t quite clear. She knows she’s left her gang behind – Tex, Diodiance, Granny Two-Shoes, and Sheepdog Sal –  after falling victim to the very creature she’d always warned them about.

And when they asked her why, she’d said, “Well, because he’s a Tall One. Because he appeared in the gravy yard with the other eight after the world ended. Because he’s here to eat the bones, and he’ll eat yours when you go.”

The end of the world is a hard place. The slaprash takes those over a certain age. Kids are left to fend for themselves against monsters, but they look out for each other, too. Even though Beatrice is dead, her gang is determined to parley with the Flabberghast to get her bones back, and perform a proper death rite. Cooney’s prose is lush and evocative, doing much of the worldbuilding just by setting the tone. The Big Bah-Ha simultaneously captures a sense of wonder, and a sense of darkness, underscoring childhood as the terrifying country it can be when everyone is bigger than you, and you don’t get to make the rules. It’s an excellent example of Cooney’s literary voice, and thus an excellent starting place for her work.

Future FireVanessa Fogg is a freelance medical and science writer, as well as being a fiction writer. My recommended starting place for her work is Taiya, published in Future Fire #42. Patrick and Karen have just moved to a foreign country. The country isn’t specified, but all that matters is it isn’t home, and there’s a ghost haunting their new residence. The taiya is a spirit that wails in their garden, whose name literally translates to ‘eaten’. There’s nothing that can be done to appease a taiya; the only thing to do is ignore it, and hope it eventually goes away.

Patrick turns off the water. It’s only then that they hear it: a thin cry at the edge of the world. They stand still, and it rises in pitch, comes close, and moves away—like a train whistle speeding away from them in the night, racing across empty fields. The sadness is nothing human. The sound dies, then rises once more, just once. This time it catches in something like a sob.

Patrick has a new job that keeps him busy and away from home. However, Karen’s former place of employment promised her contract work, but no jobs have come through yet, leaving her at loose ends. She tries to fill her days with language lessons, exploring the new city, meeting with other expats, anything to distract herself from the house and the ghost, but ignoring the taiya is harder than it seems. At its heart, Taiya is a story about loneliness, isolation, and depression. It’s a gut-punch, but one that’s beautifully told. Fogg neatly draws a parallel between a ghost no one can see, and a clinical condition many people misunderstand. The taiya cannot communicate its sadness, just as Karen can’t communicate what she’s going through, even to those closest to her. Depression here is literally an unspeakable disease; there is no way for those on the outside to know what it feels like to inside its grasp. It is not something one can simple ‘get over’, it is not a matter of being sad, or depressed with lower case ‘d’. Being clinically depressed requires medical treatment, and silence and ignoring it will not make it go away. Although Taiya is not a horror story in the traditional sense, there is horror here, and it comes from the way mental illness is too often viewed and treated in our society. Taiya is a powerful story, packs an emotional punch, and is a wonderful starting place for Vanessa Fogg’s work.

Water Into WineJoyce Chng is a prolific author and the co-editor of The Sea is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia. My recommended starting place for her work is her latest novella, Water Into Wine. The story begins with Xin inheriting a vineyard on the planet Tertullian VI from their grandfather. They are fresh off a divorce, with three children, and have never given a thought to viticulture before, but they pack up their family, including their mother, and make the move, determined to make the most of their grandfather’s gift and start a new life. They had been living as a man, the main source of tension with their ex-husband, but on Tertullian VI, Xin stops taking hormones. With this new phase in their life, they realize they are neither a man nor a woman, but simply themself. However, just as they begin to build a new life, learning about grapes, bottling and selling wine, and falling into a romance with a man named Galliano who helps tend the fields, war comes to their new planet.  Water Into Wine is a quiet story; the war is omnipresent, but largely happens off screen, with a few notable exceptions. Even so, it’s a driving force, shaping Xin’s family, and teaching them more about themself, their mother, their lover, and their children. There is a rhythm to the language throughout; spare, stripped back sentences contrast with and highlight moments of poetry where Xin describes the wine they are making, or their recurring dreams, born of the trauma of war. There is a satisfying arc for the characters, and by the end, Xin has undoubtedly grown, honed by their experiences into a truer version of themself: I give myself my own pronoun. I am qar. I am me. I am Ping Xin. At its heart, Water Into Wine is a lovely and contemplative story about family, building community, and learning to be yourself, which just happens to be set against a backdrop of war on an alien world. Overall, it’s a wonderful starting place for Joyce Chng’s work.

That does it for October’s Women to Read. I’ll be back in November with more suggestions. In the meantime, feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments!

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October Happenings

This weekend (October 6-8) I’ll be at Capclave in Gaithersburg, MD, which is a small, literary-focused convention. This year’s guests of honor are Neil Clarke and Ken Liu. It’s a relaxed, laidback, con, and every year I’ve attended it’s been a lot of fun – good friends, tasty food nearby, people saying smart things on panels, and of course, lots of books. In between my panels, I’ll be hanging out in the bar area, attending friends’ readings and panels, and browsing the dealer’s room. As to the rest of the time, here’s my official schedule for the weekend.

10am – Saturday – Rockville/Potomac – Doctor Who, End of an Era, Beginning of a New One.

Moffatt’s era ends and Chibnall’s era begins. What did we think of the Capaldi era and Clara and Bill as companions? What do we want from Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor? What are our hopes for Chibnall as showrunner? Moffatt era vs. Davies era?

Victoria Janssen, A.C. Wise, Hildy Silverman, Vanessa Phin (m)

11am – Saturday – Rockville/Potomac – Reimagining Fairy Tales

Who doesn’t love a fairy tale retelling? Part of the universal appeal of fairy tales is that they were never a static form, at least not as an oral tradition. Re-tellers have used these archetypes and modes to spin new variations ever since these stories first came to the page. Angela Carter once said that “Ours is a highly individualized culture, with a great faith in the work of art as a unique one-off…. But fairy tales are not like that, and nor are their makers.” We can find fresh insight into our own lives and connections through these age old tales. This panel will focus on a variety of approaches in reconstructing fairy tales with a modern bent, both in their favorite respins and in their own work.

Margaret Ronald, A.C. Wise (m), John Skovron, Michelle Sonnier, Marylin “Mattie” Brahen

6pm – Saturday – Frederick – Writing for Anthologies

Anthologies are an excellent opportunity for writers to get their work out to new readers. Where to look for submission opportunities, how to write to a theme, tips on catching the editor’s eye (in a good way), and a what-not-to-do list are some of the things to be addressed.

M’Shai Dash, Hildy Silverman, A.C. Wise, Alex Shvartsman, Larry Hodges (m)

Saturday – 10:30 pm – Rockville/Potomac – Superheroine to Wise Woman: Creating Powerful Female Characters

What goes into creating strong, compelling female characters in fantasy worlds? Speculative fiction authors discuss how to approach elements such as world-building, magic, special powers, and plot when crafting a multi-dimensional character, and how to avoid the pitfalls of the “Mary Sue.”

Joshua Palmatier, Michelle D. Sonnier, A.C. Wise

Noon – Sunday – Frederick

Reading – Beverly Haaf (12-12:30pm)

Reading – A.C. Wise (12:30-1pm)

2pm Sunday – Bethesda – Why Do We Like Being Scared?

Fear probably developed as a survival mechanism. We fear things that might hurt us. Yet many read horror, go to slasher films, ride roller coasters, and climb cliffs. Why? What does this say about us and our psyches?

Dina Leacock, Darrell Schweitzer, A.C. Wise, Hildy Silverman (m), Scott Roberts

October generally seems to be a good month for literary things, so later in the month, on October 18, I’ll be reading at Noir at the Bar in West Chester, PA. The event is being held at Timothy’s from 7-9pm. A group of us will be reading. If you’re in the area, come join us!

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An Interview with Sunny Moraine

A few years back, I interviewed Sunny Moraine about their novel Line and Orbit. Sunny was kind enough to come back today to talk about their new serial fiction podcast, Gone. If you dig Gone (and why wouldn’t you?), consider supporting Sunny on Patreon so they can continue creating it. Now, to get things started, I’ll make introductions by way of shamelessly stealing from Sunny’s author bio…

Sunny Moraine’s short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, Lightspeed, and multiple Year’s Best anthologies, among other places. They are also responsible for the Root Code and Casting the Bones trilogies and their debut short fiction collection Singing With All My Skin and Bone is available from Undertow Publications. In addition to time spent authoring, Sunny is a doctoral candidate in sociology and a sometime college instructor. They unfortunately live just outside Washington, DC, in a creepy house with two cats and a very long-suffering husband.

GoneWelcome back! Gone just released its mid-season finale. Without giving too much away, can you give folks who may not be caught up yet a taste of what Gone is about? And for those who are in the know, any non-spoilery hints about what the future holds?

Gone starts with a relatively simple premise: you wake up one morning and everyone has vanished, leaving no trace or clue regarding what happened or where they went. My unnamed protagonist goes from there, initially trying to answer the most basic question of where everyone is, but things quickly get a lot weirder and far more troubling questions begin to assert themselves. Including the one I think most of us would be asking: “Is this even happening at all?”

Halfway through the season it’s turned into a story about mental illness and the terror of isolation and the fearful damage of deeply repressed anger. It’s also a twisted kind of love story (this is where I think the influence of Alice Isn’t Dead is most apparent) between two women, a romance which has been happy and healthy on the surface while resentment and lies seethe beneath. At heart it’s a story about things breaking down and falling apart: lives, relationships, one’s grip on reality and perhaps reality itself. It’s a very personal story and a lot of my own baggage is in it. Which is true of most of my work.

The future? I’m both excited by and nervous about the future. I can reveal that the second half of the season is going to be much darker – figuratively and literally – and some fairly awful things are going to happen, including one scene that I’m especially nervous about because of the subject matter, which hopefully I’ll pull off okay. I don’t think things are going to tie themselves up neatly in the end, but I almost never end stories that way anyway. Nevertheless, I’m aiming to make the ending a real conclusion that ideally at least somewhat satisfies. Although not all the questions will be answered, many will be.

I promise she won’t turn out to be in Purgatory. Or Heaven, or Hell, or any iteration of any afterlife. I won’t hurt anyone else the way Lost hurt me.

Something that I said in the intro to the midseason finale is that this is actually a much larger universe than it seems right now (about which I don’t know a huge amount and would like to find out). I’m not sure how much of that universe I’ll be able to explore in the next five or six (six maximum) episodes, but it is out there, and while I’m envisioning this season as a single self-contained narrative that can stand on its own, I’m also consciously developing it in a way that could be an establishing point for a second season. That’ll depend almost entirely on the reception the rest of the season gets; if the demand is there, I’ll try to make it happen. In any case, there’s the possibility.

You’re essentially a one-person production team, and you’ve written a bit about your process on your blog. One of the things that surprised me is how much room for improvisation you leave yourself. What is your actual, physical process like when you sit down to record? What do you have with you in terms of notes, cues to yourself, or points you know you need to hit in each episode? Have you ever gone back to re-record sections after something unexpected came up that pushed the plot in a different direction, or do you simply go forward from where the new twist in the story takes you?

Very little of what someone hears is directly scripted, yeah, although the Interludes are all written beforehand. For the main episodes I draw up an extremely rough sketch of an episode, with a few “talking points” for each scene, but otherwise I just sit down in front of my cheap little mic and improvise with one eye on my outline. I feel like it helps with the acting, and it makes it easier for me to get fluidly into this character’s head. I actually haven’t had to re-record much; I edit things, cut out longer pauses and lines that I don’t think work, but for the most part I get the lion’s share in a single take.

The overall plot for the rest of the season is fairly set, but I’ve left some flexibility for things to take the natural turns they want to (which is also how I write my other fiction). So for the most part, when something new pops up, I have room to let it run. I’ve also had to shift scenes around here and there in my outline when I realized they might have to happen sooner or later than I thought.

On a related note, what has been most surprising to you in terms of what you originally envisioned for the story, versus where it’s ended up so far? (If you can answer without giving too much away that is.)

The plot hasn’t really surprised me; it’s the details that have revealed themselves as I go. I had only a basic grasp of this character when I started recording the first episode; she’s taught me about herself as the story has unfolded. Though again, none of that has been exactly surprising, because the framework for her character was always there and I knew the outlines of who she was, but it’s been great to chip away at the marble and watch the details of the sculpture appear.

I think what’s been most surprising to me is actually just how well it’s held together so far. I’m obviously nervous about that suddenly not being the case, and it’s clearly not a perfect story because very few stories are, but in general, considering that I’ve never done this before (with the exception of my other podcast, Keep Singing, which is purely a fandom deal), the whole thing has been kind of a pleasant surprise.

In the same post where you discussed process, you talked a bit about drawing inspiration from classic audio dramas like The Shadow, as well as recent podcasts like Alice Isn’t Dead. One of the things that’s always fascinated me about the audio dramas is the foley work. How do you handle sound effects for Gone? Have you used any household items in unconventional ways to create the audio effects? Has any of your audio work caused undue alarm among neighbors, pets, or passersby those who may not be aware you’re recording an audio drama?

Oh, man. Yeah, it’s been an interesting experience, especially given that I have no budget or formal training in any of this, and my “recording studio” is a home office with tile floors and mostly bare walls. That obviously works okay for stuff that’s technically supposed to be recorded in someone’s echoey home office, and that’s one reason why I lean a lot on that setting, but for scenes set elsewhere, I have to get creative. So far the best solution I’ve come up with for that is recording with a literal quilt over my head and the mic to dampen the echo. I have to hold very still to minimize the rustling. It’s not perfect but I think it works better than I would have expected.

For sound effects, I make heavy use of a site called Freesound.org, which is an excellent archive of Creative Commons licensed sound effects. The quality is a somewhat mixed bag but so far I’ve found enough good stuff to do what I want to do. But using imported sound effects takes a fair amount of precise work – I often do a lot of editing and move smaller bits of them around – so I try to do in-“studio” foley when I can. When the protagonist is flipping through a book, I’m flipping through a book. When she runs into the hall, I’m running into the hall. I actually threw myself and a bunch of stuff on the floor for a scene in the second episode; the pain you hear there is real (I wanted it to be; I suffer for my art).

The most recent episode involved some screaming; I closed up the house, put the quilt over my head, and prayed no one would call the cops. It’s not the last time I’ll need to scream, either, so it could yet happen.

I have badly startled my cats on more than one occasion.

As mentioned, you’re a one-person production team. Do you think you might ever expand to include additional voices?

I’ve been thinking about that a good bit, especially as I look forward to the possibility of a second season. I’d like to, with another project if not with this one, but I think I would have to adjust my working style somewhat and write real lines, given how much of what I do is unscripted. That or find a truly gelling improv partner. I’m also not sure about how to handle the logistics of recording multiple voices, especially if I’m dealing with geographically distributed people, but hey, I could learn. I’ve taught myself how to do this much.

In addition to being a podcaster, you’re also a novelist, and a prolific author of short fiction. What else do you have coming up, or in progress that you’d like people to know about?

I have a story forthcoming in Uncanny Magazine – not sure exactly when – about two women who forge an intense and violent romantic relationship owing to their shared superpower: they can cause enormous destruction when they’re in pain. I’m very proud of it and very excited to share it with the world.

Besides that, I’m in the final stages of editing a novel called LINEAGE which will be released hopefully sometime in the first part of next year from Riptide Publishing. It’s a work of science fantasy set in the same universe as the ROOT CODE books, about a trans man who (along with the girl on whom he has a tremendous and tremendously awkward crush) crashlands on a strange planet and must try to survive caught between an isolated band of survivors and their nemesis, who is a gigantic sentient plant-mass.

Finally, I’m in the early development stages of another podcast with my sister, Emma Phipps. The working title is “Drinks and Thinks”, and the premise is that we drink a different specific brand of liquor per episode while we ramble on some topic of mutual interest. I have no idea how well this would/will work but it seems like it might be fun.

That all sounds amazing and I can’t wait to read and listen! Thank you so much for stopping by!

Thank you so much for having me!

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An Interview with Kat Howard

Kat Howard was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new novel, An Unkindness of Magicians, among other things. To get started, I’ll make introductions by way of shamelessly stealing from Kat’s author bio…

Kat Howard is a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and horror who lives and writes in New Hampshire. Her short fiction has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, performed on NPR, and anthologized in year’s best and best of volumes. In the past, she’s been a competitive fencer and a college professor. Her debut novel, Roses and Rot was released from Saga Press in May of 2016, and will be followed by An Unkindness of Magicians in September 2017, and a short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, in 2018, both also from Saga. You can find her on twitter, and on tumblr.

An Unkindness of MagiciansWelcome and congratulations on the publication of An Unkindness of Magicians! Without giving too much away, care to give readers a taste of what it’s about?

Thanks so much! To continue the trend of shameless stealing, here’s the back cover copy:

There is a dark secret that is hiding at the heart of New York City, diminishing the city’s magicians’ power…

In New York City, magic controls everything, but the power of magic is fading. No one knows what is happening, except for Sydney—a new, rare magician with incredible power that has been unmatched in decades, and she may be the only person who is able to stop the darkness that is weakening the magic. But Sydney doesn’t want to help the system, she wants to destroy it.

This is a book about sacrifice and family and making yourself who you want to be. Oh, and there are magical duels.

I have admit that sometimes I’m shallow, and I do judge books by their cover, by which I mean impulse buying things that are pretty. This cover is a particularly striking one – did you have any input on the artistic process?

I had absolutely nothing to do with the artistic process, so I feel perfectly comfortable in saying that I love how gorgeous this cover is. The cover design is by Lizzy Bromley, and the illustration done by Vault 49, and I’m so grateful for their genius. It’s based on what is one of my favorite scenes in the book, where a piece of magic goes very, very wrong.

I also wanted to ask about your first novel, Roses and Rot, which I adored. I love the themes of family, fairy tales, and artistic inspiration woven throughout. Speaking of artistic inspiration, what sparked this story for you?

Thank you! Roses and Rot is a very loose retelling of Tam Lin (Child Ballad 39A). So in a way it was sparked back when I read Pamela Dean’s gorgeous novel, Tam Lin, and first learned about the story. The question that eventually became the book for me was, “What would you be willing to give up?”

The artist’s colony of Melete that you describe in the novel sounds amazing. If you were invited, would you go, even knowing what lies behind the colony? If you were offered the deal that the most promising Melete residents are offered, would you accept that invitation?

I’d go, and I’d make the bargain. I’m not sure I’m exactly comfortable with that piece of self-knowledge, but there you go.

In addition to your two novels, you’ve also written quite a bit of short fiction. Were there any challenges in transitioning between the two lengths? Do you have different processes for writing short versus long fiction?

The biggest challenge for me was to let the novel open up and breathe. My short fiction tends to be very focused (or at least it feels that way in my head when I’m writing it), and so allowing myself to open up to the possibilities that something novel-length offered as a bit of a transition.

Switching gears completely, I have to ask about your competitive fencing. How did you get into competitive fencing, and do you still fence for fun? Are you an extra harsh critic of works (movies, books, etc.) featuring swordplay? Are there any works out there that really get it right? On the other side of things, is there a particular thing that people who don’t do their research get wrong about swords that causes you to shout at a book/movie in frustration?

I’ve been obsessed with fencing since I first saw a Zorro cartoon and went around drawing Z’s everywhere. Seeing Star Wars and lightsabers only increased this obsession. My parents found me lessons, and I started training seriously in college. Injury meant that I stopped competing, but I’m moving in a few months, and one of the first things I did was look up fencing clubs, so I hope to get back into it. I love the sport.

And because I love the sport, while I do wince at certain depictions, I’m also generally glad to see fencing in movies and books. Anything that gets people to love it! Ellen Kushner writes great fencing, and Molly Tanzer has a forthcoming book, Creatures of Will and Temper, that I love, and also has terrific fencing in.

Oh, and there may be a fencing scene in An Unkindness of Magicians, too.
(NB: I wrote an article about fencing for Lightspeed a few years ago, if you want more info)

Now that An Unkindness of Magicians is out in the world, what’s next for you? Any projects you’re working on you want folks to know about?

I have a short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, that will be out next fall from Saga. There will be reprints, but also some new pieces, including a new novella, “Once, Future.” That’s an Arthurian riff that I’m extremely excited for people to read. And I am working on some other things that I hope to be able to say more about soon!

All of that sounds wonderful, and I can’t wait to read it! Thanks for stopping by!

Thanks so much for having me.

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An Interview with the Editors of Augur Magazine

Augur MagazineToday, I’m very pleased to welcome the editors of Augur Magazine, a new publication of intersectional Canadian speculative fiction. They’re currently running a Kickstarter to fund their first two years of publication. For a taste of the types of things they intend to publish, check out their Preview Issue, which is available for free.

Welcome! To start things off, could you please each briefly introduce yourself and talk a bit about your vision for Augur Magazine?

Kerrie: Hello! Thanks so much for having us. I’m (obviously) Kerrie, cat lover extraordinaire and the Editor in Chief of Augur.

When it comes to Augurian vision, I think we’ve all always wanted to create space for the kinds of stories we wanted to read. For me, it was a matter of time and place. Augur is all about creating space for stories that don’t always have the room to be told—whether intersectional storytelling (something we gravitate towards naturally as a fairly intersectional editorial staff) or stories that fit between genres.

We’ve talked a lot about our goals and wants for intersectionality over the last month on our kickstarter campaign, so i’m going to focus for a second on the second point. We’re really looking for stories that feel like they don’t belong, or that might not fit a single or defined genre. It’s one of the reasons we aren’t limiting ourselves to speculative or realist work—we take both, because we think that they aren’t as different from one another as they’re often treated. That said, we do lean pretty heavily on the speculative fiction side of things. There’s just so much room there to explore the kinds of topics we love.

Alex: We’re thrilled to be here! I’m Alex, the Managing Editor of Augur and a JD Candidate at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law.

Mado: Great to be here! I’m Mado: Senior Editor for Augur and classical pianist who moonlights as a writer (or is it the other way around?)

How did you all meet, and how did the idea to launch Augur come about?

K: A half decade or so ago, I launched a speculative fiction magazine at the University of Toronto called The Spectatorial. This was, in part, a response to something so many spec fic readers are familiar with—how little speculative fiction is in the English Literature curriculum, despite the fact that it’s such a rich literary landscape. The mag quickly became one of the biggest pubs on campus. And, to my surprise and delight, it also became a blissfully queer and intersectional space.

It was easy to make The Spectatorial that kind of space. It happened naturally. We want to bring that sense of ease with us to Augur—we want to be coincidentally intersectional, that kind of space that creates a gravitational force. It will take work on our part. Natural doesn’t mean easy for us. But I remember the joy in the faces of the students who were a part of The Spec—here was a speculative fiction environment that supported them! My hope is that Augur will generate that same kind of joy on a larger scale than a university campus. The Spectatorial was always what I considered a training ground for the magazine-that-would-become-Augur, but it was definitely a force in making us realize how much need remains for spaces that explicitly look to welcome intersectionality. None of those students should have been that happy that they finally felt like they belonged—they should have had that experience much sooner.

As for how we met, we’re mainly school chums. Alex was an editor of The Spectatorial after I was, and Mado and I met online many, many moons ago—but officially met in person in a writing group I ran at the University of Toronto. I’m very lucky to have them on the team.

As editors, I know it’s sometimes hard to pin down exactly what you’re looking for in a story, and sometimes the best stories are the ones you never knew you wanted to read until you’ve read them. That said, do you have any particular soft spots in fiction? Are there are any subjects or styles or types of voices you’re hoping to see in the submission pile, or things that you don’t see enough of in other publications that you’re hoping Augur can highlight?

K: I’m a big sucker for pieces that are only-kind-of-speculative and/or that play with your idea of what a story is meant to do. I like being left with questions and uncertainty when I read, but especially when those questions and that uncertainty is joined with a sense of fulfillment. When you get something from a story, but it takes you some time to realize what you’ve gotten—maybe you never get more than a feeling. This is especially true when the voice and writing are crystal clear—I want to be challenged when I read, but I don’t necessarily like being challenged to read it in the first place. That’s also, of course, highly dependant on each individual piece. Sometimes the dense, difficult-to-read pieces are my favourite. But the above is the easiest way to get on my Yes list.

A: I love stories that have lush settings—I’m always drawn into stories that have a strong atmosphere and some well-placed details about their environment. I have a huge soft spot for urban fantasy. Seeing cities turned magical, dystopic, futuristic, or otherwise speculative enthrals me every time. There isn’t a lot of urban fantasy set in Canada, so I think I would really latch onto stories like that.

I find that lately there’s been a resurgence of stories written from the second-person perspective, and I’d definitely like to see more of these stories coming to Augur. There’s something about the directness and intimacy of this approach that I think can have really fascinating effects on storytelling and on how we experience narratives.

M: The pieces that stood to me the most in our submissions were the ones that were completely unapologetic in their tone. The ones that dropped me in an entirely unfamiliar setting and didn’t spoon-feed me information until I felt comfortable, but instead made me do some of the work of puzzling out where I was and what was happening. (Of course this can only be effective if the writing is excellent!) More generally speaking, I’m always drawn in by stories in a folkloric style, with echoes of oral tradition.

Shifting gears a bit, you’re based in Toronto, which seems to be home to a good number of speculative fiction writers. Do you think there’s anything particularly speculative or science fictional about Toronto? What are your favorite spots in the city, or places you’d recommend to first time visitors?

K: Oh, definitely. But then again, I was the kind of kid that went chasing after rabbits or into forests, convinced magic was just a turn away—I think most of our environments are brimming with the speculative, the what-ifs. It’s one of the reasons we worked with one of our artists, Ann Sheng, to do up a speculative landscape series—a fairytale creature in the rollings hills of Alberta, a dragon in the mountains of the Yukon, and an apocalypse in Quebec City. One of our goals is to make sure we’re recognizing the magic that’s all over our environments and acknowledging all kinds of spaces. And, of course, as we do this it’s essential that we carve out room for Indigenous/Aboriginal creators to engage this conversation, and so we plan on including Indigenous/Aboriginal voices as often as we can.

But yes. I’ve segued. For your actual question. Toronto, specifically…I’d say climbing the hill to St. Clair and looking out over the city is pretty wonderful. You really get a sense of scope, being so high that you can see the lake. Otherwise it’s easy to feel lost. There’s also tons of alleyways behind houses that are covered in street art and have this gorgeous city beauty to them, and it’s easy to imagine slipping between houses and disappearing into another world. It’s also very easy to imagine being spirited away in the city’s ravine—a long, winding stretch of nature and greenery that’s carved throughout Toronto. That’s my stress place, and it has a wonderful calmness to it.

A: I think there’s a diversity of worlds that make up Toronto—it’s a collection of different neighbourhoods, of course, but it’s also an amalgamation of different cities. I’ve lived my whole life in Scarborough, which was originally a separate city but became an administrative district and borough of Toronto. Toronto is utterly sprawling, and many places are difficult to get to even with public transit. I feel like every week I discover an entirely new neighbourhood or area, and this limitlessness has always felt magical.

One of my favourite places in the city is actually the University of Toronto’s downtown campus. It’s a beautiful campus, and lots of sleek, newly designed buildings sit beside castle-like structures that are nearly two hundred years old. This will be a very controversial statement for every University of Toronto student, but I actually love Robarts Library, the largest individual library at the university. Robarts is reviled for being a particularly imposing and unattractive example of brutalist architecture, but it’s also designed in the shape of a peacock! I’m in love with how one of the most ominous, ugly buildings in the city is actually a giant concrete peacock filled with academic books. To me, that’s absolutely wonderful.

But I think the most speculative elements of Toronto are quietly nestled into the background. Kerrie talked about the beautiful street art in the alleys, and I’d like to mention the “Outside the Box” program, where local artists paint works of art on traffic signal boxes throughout the city. I think one of the most speculative things about Toronto is that it’s always trying to transform and represent itself through art.

Some places that I would recommend are the Scarborough Bluffs, Rouge Park, and the beaches. There are countless parks, woodlands, ravines, and trails hidden throughout Toronto, especially in the suburbs, and I think exploring them is a lot of fun.

M: I grew up in a residential area of downtown Toronto, and I’ve always thought there was a kind of fungal quality to the city: the creeping spread of its outskirts, the connective root system of the PATH. There’s an awesome tension between the straight-laced, gridded areas of the city, and the weirdnesses that permeate it, such as the ROM’s crystal growth, the life-sized sculpture of a white elephant in my neighbourhood, and whatever the heck is going on at OCAD. The place is full of great little glitches in what is supposed to be a very orderly, chitinous code. Plus there’s Dundas Street, which makes me very uncomfortable. It’s everywhere you look. You can’t get away from it. It knows all.

For first-timers I recommend Kensington Market and Ward’s Island for great walkarounds.

On a related note, I like to ask my fellow Canadians 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 and sets it apart from other fiction?

K: I think that there’s a tone we’ve learned to expect when it comes to thinking about what Canlit “is”. There’s a good number of tropey themes—cottages, nature, feeling sad or morose in the city, etc., etc.. When Augur talks about Canlit, that’s not necessarily what we’re looking for. Recently, there have been a number of excellent pieces circulating that interrogate what “Canlit” is and how it needs to be rebuilt in order for it to function as a responsible, representative space. I especially recommend these pieces by Chelene Knight, Alicia Elliot, and Gwen Benaway.

I’m less concerned with what Canlit has been and more concerned with what we can make it.

A: If you ever take a course on Canadian literature at a university, there will always be a student there who summarizes Canlit as being “about nature”, or about the tension between rural and urban life. The prof will then spend the rest of course trying to show how there is so much more beyond that, haha.

Nature is of course a major element of CanLit, but I think that a more important thread of themes in contemporary Canadian Literature is the struggle between the old and the new. There’s a very palpable and vivid tension between the historic, nostalgic, and somewhat inaccurate sense of what Canadian literature was—stories about small towns and the encroaching wilderness—and emerging Canadian literature, which explores immigration, cultural diversity, poverty, and the continued destruction of Indigenous/Aboriginal communities. Matched with these I think is the struggle to reconcile ideals and actuality. What excites me the most is that there’s a flux of exciting emerging writers expanding the conversation of what Canlit is and could be, and I think Canlit is going to open up to whole new worlds in the near future.

M: Three words come to mind: anxious, jealous, and funny. At least that’s for the CanLit I’ve read, which for a long time was dictated by Giller frenzy and Book City tables. I’m really excited to see where CanLit is going, and from what I’ve read more recently, I’m hopeful that it’s going towards a space with fewer guardians and more chaos.

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

K: I’d love to mention the Augur Magazine Preview Issue! Our inaugural pre-issue (a collection of reprints) was published at the end of August, on the same day that we launched our kickstarter, and is free to read on our website. It’s a collection of reprints, spanning fiction, poetry, and comics, and features both established and emerging creators. We had an amazing time working with our contributors, and we really can’t express enough how happy we are to have been able to produce this first collection. It’s a good starting point to see what we’re going to be looking for in the future (and, if we fund we’ll open to original submissions October 1!), and I think I speak for all of us when I say that we felt very lucky as we hemmed it together. We can’t wait to produce more like it.

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

K: Thanks so much for having us!

A: Thank you so much!

M: Thank you!

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Women to Read: Where to Start: September 2017

Welcome to another edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. We’re still the heat of August as I write this, which may be why I’m already projecting ahead to fall, October, and Halloween, anticipating cooler weather. By the time this posts, it’ll be September, which means Halloween is really just around the corner, and it’s never too early to start celebrating, right? By coincidence, all four of my recommendations this month are in the Halloween spirit, featuring the otherwordly, ghosts, and things returned from the dead.

Winter TideFirst up, my recommended starting place for Ruthanna Emrys’ work is appropriately enough her debut novel, Winter Tide. She’s also a short fiction author, and a columnist for Tor.com, where she and Anne M. Pillsworth dissect and discuss the works of H.P. Lovecraft, along with other authors playing in his sandbox. Winter Tide is set in the same world as Emrys’ short story, Litany of Earth, both reclaiming Lovecraft, and specifically the people of Innsmouth, and giving them a rich, nuanced, and misunderstood history. Aphra Marsh and her brother Caleb are the last surviving children of Innsmouth. When the town was raided years ago, they were put in a camp and forgotten until the location was re-purposed for Japanese internment during the war. As an adult, Aphra lives in San Francisco with her adopted family, the Kotos who took care of Caleb and her in the camp. She works in a rare bookshop with her friend and student, Charlie, who she is instructing in the rituals and rites of her people. Aphra also occasionally works for the government. Her sometimes boss, Ron Spector, calls her back to Innsmouth and Miskatonic to help track down a suspected Russian spy who may be using body switching magic derived from the Yith. Aphra sees it as an opportunity to reunite with her brother, and try to reclaim the books stolen from her people, and now housed at the university. Knowledge of Lovecraft’s works will enrich Winter Tide, but it isn’t strictly necessary. Emrys does an excellent job of giving the reader everything they need to know, peeling back the layers of Lovecraft’s mythos and making it more personal and sympathetic. In doing so, she touches on themes of cultural appropriation and theft, as Innsmouth’s heritage is locked up in libraries and museums, used by those who neither understand it nor respect it, and kept away from its rightful owners. While one of the prevailing themes in many of Lovecraft’s stories is the vast and uncaring nature of the universe, Emrys brings humanity to the race known as the Deep Ones. They aren’t monsters, just another branch of humanity – a fact Aphra asserts throughout the novel, refusing to let herself be othered. In addition to cosmic events, and potential spies, Aphra must also deal with the pressures of being one of the last of her people. Her ancestors who moved below the waves want her to help continue the species, something she isn’t particularly interested in, but feels obligated to consider. While Aphra is an individual, she is also part of a chain of existence, and the weight of its continuation rests with her. In Aphra’s circle, Emrys offers a well-rounded cast of characters, each with their own goals and desires. The world she builds is rich, making Innsmouth feels like a real place with traditions, rituals, and culture that needs to be protected and restored. Winter Tide is an excellent starting place for Emrys’ work, and as a next step there’s another book coming soon continuing Aphra’s story.

Apex MagazineAllison Mills is an author, archivist, librarian, and researcher. My recommended starting place for her work is If a Bird Can Be a Ghost published in Issue 99 of Apex Magazine. Shelly’s grandmother specializes in removing ghosts, catching them in her hair, and helping them to move on. She does most of her work for trade, or the occasional small fee, and she’s been training Shelly as an assistant even though Shelly’s mother doesn’t approve.

Grandma doesn’t get rid of every ghost she comes across. Sometimes ghosts deserve to do their haunting. Sometimes people deserve to be haunted.

“You don’t take ghosts from a graveyard,” Grandma says, braiding Shelly’s hair so she won’t catch any ghosts she doesn’t want. “Not unless they want to go, then you can let them out. Most of those ghosts, they’ll leave if they really want to. Same with churches and temples, sacred places. They deserve to stay.”

When Shelly’s mother dies, she can no longer accept the rules her grandmother taught her. She begins stealing ghosts in an effort to find her mother, wanting just a few more moments with her. Not every dead person becomes a ghost, but even though it seems Shelly’s mother has already moved on, Shelly finds herself unable to let go. It’s a beautiful story exploring family, loss, grief, and love. It packs an emotional punch, while offering moments of lightness and humor as well, and overall, it is an excellent starting place for Mills’ work.

Fiyah 2Eden Royce has been a bridal consultant, reptile handler, and a stockbroker, as well as an author whose work spans multiple genres. My recommended starting place for her work is Graverobbing Negress Seeks Employment from Fiyah #2. Prosper is a rootworker who uses the healing skills her mother taught her in order to brew tea to bring back the dead. She also saves a little for herself, just enough to ease her pain and extend her life by a few more years so she can keep doing the work that’s needed of her.

Even though most church-going Negroes claimed to be scared of me, saying I wasn’t natural, I eased their minds by returning their kin to them so they could rest on blessed ground. Whispers about me had been going around the city for years, in the parlors and in the paper mills, on the farms and in the ironworks. If you can find your dead, then you better find Miss Prosper next.

Most of those she brings back are lynching victims. Her work isn’t easy or pretty, but it’s important, bringing some small measure of peace to grieving families. A young boy comes to her after the remains of his brother, who had been missing for years, are found. They’re on the land owned by Runnin’ Jack, a notoriously dangerous man who deals in liquor and numbers and who doesn’t take kindly to trespassers. Prosper takes the job regardless of the risk. Jack finds her at her work, attacks her, and she discovers that not only is he a black man passing as white, he’s a serial killer who has been using lynchings and other violence to hide his crimes. Royce packs a lot into a relatively short story, delivering a powerful tale. Even though its set in the past, the story resonates with current events. It’s a story about those who are seen by society at large as disposable, against whom violence is so common that it’s almost expected, and therefore dismissed. For all the pain, there is a hopeful note to the story as well. It shares elements with Mills’ story, in its focus on healing and bringing peace to the dead and those who mourn them. Both stories also deal with community on a certain level as well. Royce’s story underlines how the death of a single person wounds a whole community, but also shows that community fighting back, as friends and neighbors who put their own lives at risk to help each other. It isn’t an easy or comfortable story, but it isn’t meant to be. It’s an excellent story, and a wonderful starting place for Royce’s work.

Six WakesMur Lafferty is a Campbell award winner, twice the winner of the the Manly Wade Wellman Award, and a Hugo finalist for her podcasting work. My recommended starting place for her work is her latest novel, Six Wakes. Maria wakes in the cloning bay of a ship, with dead bodies floating all around her, including her own. The gravity is off, there are clear signs of violence, and something is obviously very wrong. She wakes the other members of the crew, all clones, and even though they should have mindmaps from their previous selves, the last thing each of them remembers is boarding the ship. They soon discover the pilot’s previous clone hanged himself, while the captain’s is still technically alive, but in a coma. To make things even worse, the ship’s AI is unresponsive, and they’re off course. Since none of their cargo of cryogenically frozen colonists are awake, one of them must be the murderer. The basic premise could be likened to cult classics like House on Haunted Hill, and Clue, but instead of a guests invited to a creepy old mansion, clones are invited to serve on a spaceship. Each of them has a criminal past, accepting the job in exchange for wiping their records clean. Lafferty does an excellent job of slowly unfolding each character, and of course they all have secrets and a potential motive. The six wakes of the titles also gives the book its structure – from the waking of the clones, to the waking of the AI, to new knowledge being woken in the characters. The characters are well-rounded, and given new depths as the novel progresses. Lafferty manages to keep the tension high and maintain sense that any one of them really could be the killer. Among the grim circumstances, there are touches of humor, engaging character interactions, and excellent worldbuilding. The novel unfolds is tightly plotted and brilliantly executed, making it a wonderful starting point for Lafferty’s work.

That brings us to the end of September’s Women to Read. I’ll be back with more recommendations next month when it’s actually Halloween season. In the meantime, please do leave your own recommendations for fantastic women to read in the comments!

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Non-Binary Authors to Read: Where to Start – Part 9

Hello, my lovelies! It’s time for another installment of Non-Binary Authors to Read. If you’re looking to catch up on the series, you can do so here. And now that you’re all caught up, onward to new recommendations!

Anathema Issue 2Wen Ma is a queer, non-binary, author, editor, and translator  from Hong Kong who also dabbles in illustration. My recommended starting place for their work is Everything You Left Behind from Issue #2 of Anathema Magazine. The story takes place in a city where time is frozen. An event called the Nothing stopped it, and no one within the bubble can die or grow old. The protagonist’s lover disappears, and all they know about the disappearance for certain is that the last person to see their lover was The Pain Merchant, a man who takes hurts big and small away from people in exchange for a piece of themselves. The protagonist knows exactly what pain their lover sought to get rid of – the death of the couple’s daughter just before the Nothing froze time. Looking for answers, they seek out the Pain Merchant themself, and make an odd request – they want to take their lover’s pain rather than pain of their own taken away. A trade is agreed upon, and they drink the pain their lover gave up.

But this isn’t my pain, isn’t my grief. It’s yours, at once alien and achingly familiar. I’m drowning in it, trying to keep my head above the waves even as the storm threatens to pull me under.

By consuming it, the protagonist comes to understand the rift between them and their lover, the doubt and guilt their lover felt, the questions they couldn’t stop asking. If they’d never adopted Fara, if they’d lived somewhere else, would things be different? They see how their lover came to resent them in a way for processing grief differently, and come to understand why they left. It’s a lovely story, beautifully written, and despite the subject matter, it’s not without hope. While it is a story about grief, it’s also a story about finding a way through grief, and learning to see the world through someone else’s eyes. The story meditates on loss, family, and the fundamental isolation of humans. No matter how well we know someone, we can never see and feel and experience the world exactly as they do. This is echoed in the story by the unchanging nature of the city, cut off from the world, and bringing into question what the point of anything is in a world without time. However in this story, the protagonist is given the rare opportunity to understand at least one aspect of their lover completely, and that brings hope. It’s a gorgeous story and an excellent starting place for Wen Ma’s work.

Latonya Pennington is a queer essayist who regularly contributes to Black Girl Nerds, The Mary Sue, Beyond Words, and BuzzFeed. My recommended starting place for her work is actually two essays, which I see as being thematically linked – What Magical Girls Taught Me About Being Queer, and When Will Black Coming-of-Age Films Leave the Hood. The first article is more personal, discussing how Sailor Moon helped the author realize her queerness, and deal with coming out to her friends and family. The second article is more general, questioning the way many black coming-of-age movies follow the pattern of Boyz n The Hood rather than presenting a wider range of black, teenage experiences. Although their subject matter differs, similar themes resonate across both articles. Both pieces underline the critical importance of representation, and being able to find yourself in fiction and film. They also  highlight the importance of portraying a diversity of experiences. Growing up black is not a monolithic experience, nor is being female, queer, disabled, etc. Marginalized voices are already erased and dismissed, and presenting only one model of femininity, queerness, blackness, or anything else, only further erases individuals. It’s othering and alienating. Both articles also make the point that the more representation there is out there, the more likely we are to see ourselves reflected on the page and on the screen, and that can literally be a life changing and/or a life saving experience. They’re both excellent articles and a worthy starting place for Pennington’s work.

SunvaultT.X. Watson is an author, activist, and the co-founder of Solarpunk Press, a short fiction magazine celebrating the solarpunk sub-genre. Appropriately enough, my recommended starting place for their work is the opening story from the anthology Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation. The Boston Hearth Project is written as an admissions essay from a prospective student, Andie Freeman, who is applying to X.S.U. The question in particular zie is answering is “When have you worked well as part of a team?” The answer may be slightly illegal, but after being assured that application essays are confidential, zie relates the story of working with a team of activists to take over a first class hotel and turn it into a homeless shelter. Andie is an e-sports expert, and takes on almost Oracle-like role on the team, guiding Juniper, an urban explorer and parkour practioner, through the building – avoiding guards, and security cameras – in order to stage the takeover.

Practicing with AugR was like learning to operate another body. I learned new limits for what was physically possible. I know how far back Jupiter’s arms can go before they hurt, and how much farther before they’ll keep hurting afterward. I know how high she can jump. I know how soft she can land.

One of the defining characteristics of solarpunk is its hopeful nature. It imagines a better future, one that embraces diversity, and where people work together toward the greater good. Andie’s team can be seen as a kind of future version of Robin Hood and his merry men, robbing from the rich to give to the poor, and making innovative use of technology to do so. The structure of the story is clever, opening with an email exchange between Andie and an X.S.U. admissions counselor before going in to the essay. Because it’s written as a personal essay, the story doesn’t lose any immediacy, so Watson remains free to show us the friendship between Andie and zier team, along with the tense action of the break in and occupation itself. In a time when it’s all too easy to imagine a grim future where corporations and profit are valued over individual people, and hate-speech is given free rein, The Boston Hearth Project offers hope. It is a story of camaraderie, resistance, and working for a greater good, all of which make it an excellent, and timely, starting place for T.X. Watson’s work.

As always, please leave your own recommendations for non-binary authors to read in the comments, and I’ll be back with more recommendations soon!

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Leveling Up and Measuring Success

Ding! Level! It’s a satisfying noise and a satisfying feeling. You’ve put in the time, now your efforts have been rewarded. Whether it’s a noise, or pretty sparkles on the screen, video games tend to celebrate the achievement of leveling in a tangible way. They’ve also conditioned players to expect that with leveling comes other rewards – more powerful attacks, new skills, better gear, an increased chance of winning the next fight, and so on. It’s hard not to want to apply that same metric to other areas of life, for example writing. You pour your heart into your work, tear yourself open, bleed on the page, bang your head against the wall trying to get that one sentence, one word, one punctuation mark, right. And slowly, ever so slowly, you improve your craft. Ding! Wait, no ding? What’s happening?

Mario Level UpHere’s where things get tricky. That tangible reward system, that outside sense of validation, isn’t always there. It’s hard to write about things like this without it sounding like sour grapes or meaningless platitudes. This post isn’t intended to be either of these things, or to be dismissive of tangible rewards. Consider it a companion post to one I wrote three years ago: Permission to Fail, Permission to Succeed. It’s something I need to remind myself of every now and then, and maybe other people will find it helpful too.

As authors, we all love our craft, right? Otherwise why would we keep banging our heads against that metaphorical wall, agonizing over that one sentence? We’re passionate and most of us would keep writing regardless of reward or recognition, but deep down, wouldn’t it be nice if someone noticed? If a lot of people noticed? If enough people noticed to result in an award? Applying the video game metric, the logical conclusion is that as long as you put in the time, keep grinding and leveling up, an award nomination or even a win will be the end result. Level. Ding! But there are a lot of factors that go into award nominations, and nothing is guaranteed.

Every year, many wonderful, worthy, and amazing works get nominated, but only one can win. Does that make the rest of the ballot any less amazing or worthy? No. Many more works don’t get nominated – they just miss the ballot, or they miss it by miles. Does that make them objectively bad? Not worth your time? No. There are so many works published each year, no one can keep up with all of them. Incredible work gets overlooked and missed all the time. People make hard choices when deciding what to include on their ballots. The works and authors that don’t end up on the list aren’t failures.

Leveling up in writing, unlike video games, is not a strictly linear progression. Some people seem to burst onto the scene with immediate awards success, and from the outside, it looks effortless. We don’t see the years of work behind the “instant” sensation, the days when they too stare at the blank page and the words refuse to come, the days when they doubt anything and everything they’ve ever written, and doubt themselves most of all. Some people work steadily for years, build a career of small victories, then larger ones, and then finally, at last, they earn a coveted space at the top. Ding! Others zig-zag  all over the place and take unconventional routs, and others still put in the time, steadily improve their craft, and that ding never sounds. Sometimes, the cake is a lie.

Does that mean you’re doing something wrong as an author? No. Maybe there is an award further ahead in your future, and when that nomination comes it will be incredible and well-deserved and you will celebrate with glee. But there might not be. Awards aren’t a guaranteed landmark on your journey. If you don’t hit that way point, it doesn’t mean you’re lost. Again, it means the rewards, the way points on your journey, the proof you’ve leveled, aren’t always tangible.

There are other markers along the way, and sometimes it’s hard to see them. You’re running so fast toward that next level, that perceived endpoint, that sometimes the scenery starts to blur. You don’t always see that one person your words touched, or that your work meant the world too. You don’t always notice the improvements in your craft, or how far you’ve come from where you started.

The temptation is there to think if I could just win an award, I will have finally made it. I will be able to leave the self doubt behind. The dirty secret is, it’s never enough. Those people who win awards? They doubt themselves too. We all do. It’s what keeps us writing, keeps us striving. Even when you win, there’s always another level. The cap keeps rising. So what do you do? Keep writing. Make more words. A torrent of them. Don’t stop, but do look back every now and then. Give yourself permission to succeed. The metric may not be what you thought it was, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t made any progress. You may just need to learn to measure the journey in different ways.

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Women to Read: Where to Start: August 2017

Welcome to another Women to Read: Where to Start. Last month, I focused on non-fiction, but this month I’m back to fiction with a mix of short stories, novels, and novellas. Away we go!

Heroine ComplexSarah Kuhn has written for comics, has written essays on geek culture scattered across many publications, and her novella One Con Glory is in development as a feature film. My recommended starting place for her work is Heroine Complex, the first book in a trilogy following the adventures of Evie Tanaka, personal assistant to superheroine Aveda Jupiter. The novel opens with Evie filming Aveda’s battle against a horde of demons who just happen to have taken the form of cupcakes and are wreaking havoc on a local bakery. With an opening like that, the novel has high potential to be goofy or cheesy, and while  what unfolds from there never loses its sense of fun, Kuhn layers in a serious examination of complex relationships while dismantling several tropes. Aveda and Evie are fiercely devoted to each other at their cores and have been since they were children, bonding over being the only two Asian girls in their kindergarten class, teased by the white kids. However that doesn’t mean their relationship is always perfect – Aveda’s obsession with pleasing her parents and living up to their ideal image of her often leads her to be domineering, bossy, and controlling, while Evie’s fear of her own superpowers lead her to push people away, or lash out at them in anger. The story explores female friendship, lust, family relationships, insecurity, and the desire for parental approval. While many of the characters present as stereotypes at first (e.g. the means girls, the tomboy, etc.) Kuhn peels back the layers of each character over the course of the novel to refute those stereotypes. The storytelling is slick and fast-paced, and as mentioned, never loses its sense of fun. For example, one of the epic showdowns with the villain takes the form of a karaoke battle. It’s not a typical superhero story, though it does hit some of the familiar beats – the hero/villain dynamic, the superhero support team, and a character coming into their powers. Kuhn puts her own spin on things though, and always keeps her characters at the story’s heart. The relationships in Evie’s life are the prime driver for everything that occurs – her loyaty to Aveda, her burgeoning lust for Nathaniel, her efforts to keep her sister Bea safe and give her a normal life, and her alienation from her father. Even Evie and Aveda’s relationship with the villain is important, playing with the idea of women cutting each other down because there’s only room for so many women in the world. There’s action, humor, sex, and genuinely touching emotional beats between the characters, and they all blend smoothly to make a wonderful whole. The sequel, Heroine Worship, was just released, and I look forward to reading it.

A Question of FaithTonya Liburd is an author and the Associate Editor at Abyss & Apex. My recommended starting point for her work is A Question of Faith published at The Book Smugglers. Ceke works in the Temple of Ra, researching the connection between the human mind and the concept of divinity. Her primary subject is a young man named Wahibra who was abandoned on the temple doorstep as a child. Wahibra is uniquely talented, manifesting psychoacoustic phenomena through singing, and Ceke believes he may be the key to unlocking higher planes of consciousness and essentially transcending humanity. Just as Wahibra begins to manifest some unusual results during his tests, he goes missing. Meanwhile, Ceke’s co-wife and co-worker, Ngware, is home on maternity leave getting ready to have their first child. Ceke has fears and doubts about raising a child. She wants to be there for Ngware, especially with the extra medical risks associated with child coming from two eggs and no sperm, but she can’t abandon work. Things become even more complicated when rumors begin to circulate of Wahibra performing miracles and attacking people. Ngware vanishes as well, and Ceke knows Wahibra is involved. She tracks him down, discovering he’s become something more than human and can’t control the divinity inside him, and she must help him fight it off in order to save her wife and unborn child. Liburd explores science and faith on multiple levels throughout the story. Ceke must learn to have faith in her relationship with Ngware and in the future of their child. This is paralleled with the idea of humans ascending to divinity and attaining godlike powers, questioning whether divinity is an external force or something that comes from within. The same parallels exist with the science in the story – the medical advances allowing Ceke and Ngware to have a child together, and the science elevating human consciousness and transforming the understanding of religion. Both big picture questions are also happening on a small scale, affecting very intimate and personal things within Ceke’s life, and Liburd blends them together seamlessly. A Question of Faith is an excellent story and an excellent starting place for Liburd’s work.

K.T. Bryski is an author, playwright, fellow Canadian (woot!), and a person who is extremely knowledgeable about beer. My recommended starting place for her work is La Corriveau, which is currently a finalist for the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. The story centers around the legend of La Corriveau aka Marie-Josephte Corriveau, whose second husband died under suspicious circumstances, resulting in both Marie-Josephte and her father being accused of murder. Legends grew around her until it was rumored that she married and murdered seven husbands and practiced witchcraft. Bryski’s story attempts to reclaim Marie-Josephte from history, making her into a real woman with hopes and dreams. Marie-Josphte was ultimately found guilty of murder, hanged, and her body displayed in an iron cage post mortem. While some question remains as to Marie-Josephte’s guilt as a historical figure, Bryski offers up a sympathetic portrait of an innocent young woman married at age sixteen, learning to love her husband, losing him to war, and being forced to remarry an abusive man in order to support her children. Marie-Josephte’s hope for the future is palpable, and her loss  is crushing. The story underlines the relative powerlessness of women during Marie-Josephte’s time, as well as the power of history to write people out of existence. This is especially true of women and other marginalized people who were rarely the ones writing the official history, making it easier for their stories to vanish under sensationalism, convenient lies, and outright slander. Whatever the truth of La Corriveau’s life, this fictionalized version is a lovely and painful story, and worthy starting place for Bryski’s work.

River of TeethSarah Gailey is an author, a columnist for Tor.com and Barnes and Noble’s Sci Fi Blog, and a 2017 Campbell and Hugo Award finalist. My recommended starting place for her work is her debut novella, River of Teeth. The novella posits an alternate history where the US Government’s plan to farm hippos for meat actually came to pass. Set in the 1890s in Louisiana, the story follows Winslow Remmington Houndstooth as he assembles a band of outlaws and mercenaries to rid the bayou of the feral hippos that have overrun it and are interfering with trade. His team includes Regina Archambault aka Archie, a con artist and pickpocket, Hero Shackleby, an expert in explosives and poison, Cal Hotchkiss, the fastest gun in the west (or the world, if you ask him), Adelia Reyes, a deadly assassin, and, of course, their hippos. The first half of the novella sees Houndstooth building his crew, a familiar scenario, but one that is elevated beyond the ordinary but Gailey’s exquisite worldbuilding and wonderful characters. The world feels real and lived in, and her characters are people you want to spend time with, even though you’d have to constantly watch your back and your wallet.  Gailey gives each character a history, and many of them a history with each other, and these histories and unique personalities drive the story. The hippos have unique personalities in their own right, and they are every bit as much central characters in the story as the humans. The writing is smooth and sharp, highly visual and cinematic while not neglecting the other senses, and by turns fun, violent, emotional, and action-filled. The sequel Taste of Marrow, is out in September, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it. While I am recommending River of Teeth as a starting point for Gailey’s work, I’d highly recommend her Tor.com and Barnes and Noble essays as well. They’re insightful, and in the case of her Women of Harry Potter Series, pack an emotional punch. Basically, seek out her work and give it a read!

That wraps up another Women to Read: Where to Start. Because one can never have too many things to read, I’d love your suggestions for your favorite female authors and a good starting point for their work. Fire away in the comments, and happy reading!

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Women to Read: Where to Start: July 2017

Welcome to July’s Women to Read: Where to Start. One of my reading goals in recent years has been to read more non-fiction, so it seemed only appropriate to put together a Women to Read column focusing on just that very thing. Here we go!

Tracy Beach is a Colorado author, and my recommended starting place for her work is My Life as a Whore: The Biography of Madam Laura Evens 1871-1953. I picked this book up on a whim while visiting Colorado. After all, who doesn’t like a bit of colorful local history? This book certainly doesn’t disappoint. Beach writes in a very engaging style, often using dialog provided by Laura herself from a series of interviews conducted by another local historian, Fred Mazzulla, before Laura died. She also builds the story from her own interviews conducted with those who knew Laura, and a wealth of primary sources including letters, diaries, and photographs kept by Evens’ family. Laura Evens was very firm about calling herself a whore, dismissing euphemisms such as “soiled dove” or “lady of the evening”. Beach honors that with the title of her book, and invites readers to meet Laura, a headstrong,  funny, caring woman with an occasionally violent temper, who was not opposed to a bit of mischief and chaos. Beach chronicles Laura’s journey from her choice to leave her husband and become a whore, to her purchasing her own parlor house and becoming a Madam. Had Laura been alive in the age of internet memes, I suspect she would have made liberal use of “Behold! The field in which I grow my fucks. Lay thine eyes upon it, and see that it is barren”, and variations thereupon. The book paints a fascinating portrait of the lives whores lived in Salida at the time, from the auditions to earn them a place in the houses, to their lodgings, and the way they spent their spare time. Laura was careful with her money, and was able to afford a certain degree of luxury for herself. She was also generous, buying the local school football team brand new uniforms. Her savings allowed her to purchase her own house, and become her own boss. She spent her life refusing to back down, and refusing to apologize to anyone. She wasn’t above throwing a punch if she felt a man was disrespecting her, and she wasn’t above causing property damage in the name of fun. One particularly charming (or possibly horrifying depending on your perspective) incident recounts how she brought her horse, Charlie, into a bar at the Ice Palace set up for a winter fair, and the ensuing chaos he caused when he spooked and kicked over a four foot tall ice display. It’s a fun book, and an enlightening one. It shows the humor and joy Laura found in aspects of her life, but doesn’t shy away from the hardships either. Overall, it’s a fascinating look at a slice of history, and a worthy starting place for Beach’s work.

A New Orleans Voudou PriestessA New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau is another book I picked up on a whim, and it’s my recommended starting point for Carolyn Morrow Long, who specializes in books dealing with religion, spirituality, and the history of New Orleans. In contrast with Tracy Beach’s writing, Long’s accounting of the life of Marie Laveau is often very dry. Rather than a narrative style, her writing reveals her research process, presenting legends and rumors about the famed Voudou Queen, and laying out the meticulously-researched evidence to support or refute those stories. Reading through the book is almost like watching a detective at work, as Long digs through old birth records, baptism certificates, marriage announcements, property records, newspaper articles, and more. Like Beach, Long refers to interviews with those connected to Marie Laveau, and does her best to reconstruct a life largely lost to myth and sensationalism. The ultimate conclusion of Long’s research is that some details may forever be unknown. One of the most fascinating things about the book is that it reveals how easily truth can be lost under layers of imperfect memory and incomplete record keeping. The amount Long is able to reconstruct is amazing when you see her sources and methods laid out. During Laveau’s time in New Orleans, everyone seemed to be known by at least ten different names, and the spelling of those names was highly inconsistent. Long’s dry style actually helps in reclaiming Laveau from the sensational legends that have grown up around her since her death, and even within her own lifetime. Long reminds us that there was a real woman behind the stories, one with a family and deep ties to her community. Long also gives readers a glimpse into the unique history of New Orleans, its racial politics, and its blend and clash of cultures. The thoroughness of Long’s research and the precise way she lays it out makes this an excellent starting place for her work, and has me wanting to read her other titles.2424

Sticking with the theme of books picked up on a whim that illuminate some aspect of local history, my recommended starting point for Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s work is Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine. Today, Dr. Thomas Mütter is best known for the Philadelphia museum that bears his name, a museum of medical oddities containing anatomical casts, skeletons, medical instruments, and jars full of specimens. Rather than typical medical specimens, the collection focuses on unusual cases, and includes a plaster cast of the conjoined twins Chang and Eng, the tallest skeleton on view in North America, and “the soap lady”, the exhumed remains of a woman encased in adipocere, a fatty substance formed in rare cases under certain burial conditions. Like Beach, Aptowicz writes in a very engaging and easy to read narrative style. Far more than a collector of unique medical specimens, Aptowicz reveals Mütter as a deeply compassionate and highly innovative man. He pioneered delicate facial reconstruction surgery in North America, using techniques learned in Europe, and giving new hope to those who injuries and birth defects were considered un-treatable by most surgeons at the time. He was also a fierce advocate for many things we take for granted today – anesthesia, basic hygiene in the operating room, including the revolutionary idea that doctors should wash their hands in-between treating patients, after-care and recovery rooms, and working closely with patients at every stage of their surgery, before, during, and after so that they understood the process. The book is as much the story of early medicine in North America, and particularly Philadelphia. It is occasionally horrifying, but always fascinating, showing how the pioneers of modern medicine shaped hospitals, surgical facilities, and even medical schools. Due to the subject matter, it’s not a book for the squeamish, but it is an excellent and informative read, and a wonderful starting place for Aptowicz’s work.

Natalie Luhrs is a writer, reviewer, editor, and finalist for this year’s Hugo Award in the Best Fan Writer category. She is co-founder and co-editor of The Bias, and her reviews and essays are thoughtful, informative, and well-researched. My recommended starting place for Luhrs’ work is her essay, Failures of Empathy, which perfectly captures the type of issues she writes about, and her style. The essay opens with an incident on twitter, where a writer brought up an issue with their copy editor, and another writer called them out for being unprofessional and threatened them with a “blacklist” that would damage their career. Luhrs uses this as a starting point to talk about larger issues of privilege, marginalized voices – who is publicly chastised or threatened for their actions and who is not – and the idea of empathy as a whole. She relates the situation to topics discusses in Daniel Goleman’s Focus, which outlines three types of empathy, along with how empathy relates to wealth. Within the SFF community (as a microcosm of society as a whole) there are imbalances of power. Luhrs outlines how imbalances of power can create the same gap in empathy that Goleman describes. It’s an excellent essay, taking a relevant, current situation and placing it in a larger context. This is something Luhrs frequently does in her essays, which is why I recommend it as a starting point. I also highly recommend her reviews, her essays at The Bias, Uncanny, and elsewhere, and her excellent weekly links curation posts. What I’m saying is – follow Luhrs and read her work wherever you find it.

That wraps up my non-fiction edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. I’ll be back with more fiction recommendations next month, but in the meantime, I’d love to see your recommendations for non-fiction books and essays by women in the comments.

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