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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