An Interview with Charles Payseur

Charles Payseur was kind enough to stop by today to talk about his new collection, The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories, which is currently available for pre-order and will be published this summer by Lethe Press. To kick things off, allow me to introduce Charles by way of his author bio.

Charles Payseur is an avid reader, writer, and reviewer of speculative fiction. His works have appeared in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, Lightspeed Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among others. His forthcoming short fiction collection, The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories, will be published by Lethe Press (Summer 2021) and his editorial debut, We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2020, is forthcoming from Neon Hemlock Press (August 2021). He currently resides in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, with his herd of disobedient pets and husband, Matt.

The Burning Day and Other Stories CoverWelcome, and congratulations on The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories! It’s a fantastic collection! Care to give folks a sense of the types of stories they’ll find in its pages?

Genre-wise, it’s a pretty balanced mix of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative horror. It’s entirely short stories, too, which seems a little odd for a collection (most authors tend to have novelettes or even a novella) but for more mainstream speculative fiction I find the short story is where I excel, at least for now. I do often enjoy dipping into non-human narratives as well, from a sentient star to a kind of merman to rivers who can shift into humanoid form. The stories by and large all feature a bit of action, a lot of angst, and probably plenty of queer characters and themes.

It strikes me that many of the stories in the collection center around the pairing of longing and hope, or the idea of being in a dark time, but coming out on the other side of it, regardless of whether they’re science fiction, fantasy, or a slip-streamy type blend of genres. Is that something you consciously had in mind when deciding which stories would go in the collection and what order to put them in? Are there other themes you had in mind, or something particular you hope people take away with them after reading the collection?

I’ve tried, though never been entirely satisfied with the results, to sort of look at what I write and where I write from. At what I’m trying to “say” in a broad sense. So I tend now to try and have a more focused approach. When I was picking the table of contents for the collection, and setting it all together, I wanted to somehow capture both my trajectory through time and thematically in my work. So when I was picking a first story, I went with one of my first professional sales, “Rubbing is Racing.” It’s a quick, brief story that touches on some grim themes but focuses on freedom, release, and a kind of rebellion against a broken system. As I structured the rest of the collection, I did keep most of my earlier works in the front, but found as I went that the impact of my stories seemed to change as I grew, as a person and a writer.

So in the earlier part of the work there’s “Shoot and Ladders” and “A Million Future Days” and “Spring Thaw,” works that are fairly grim, that grapple with being stuck somewhere you don’t want to be, unable to really embrace yourself, scared to take action. It’s a theme I feel culminates in “The Sound of,” that really gets at the fear of helplessness and hopelessness, of complicity in the face of corruption. And I tried to make that a kind of anchor in the collection. A low point in terms of optimistic outlooks. And from there I tried to dig back out, to find more power in rebellion again, the energy and drive of “Rubbing is Racing” but less of the directionless energy. More organized and better able to see past that feeling of lack of agency. From there, I hope that people start to see a more proactive take on resistance and change, ways of breaking down toxic systems and expectations and embracing something affirming and just.

In addition to your own fiction, many people also know you as an incredibly prolific reviewer. Personally, I’m constantly in awe of the amount of fiction you read and review each year! I know you’ve written about this a bit in other places, but what’s your philosophy, or the approach you take to reviewing? Dare I ask, how do you find time to balance your review work with everything else in your life? Do you ever sleep? Do you still have time to read just for fun? On a possibly related note, do you find your reading habits have changed since you became a reviewer, and are you able to turn your critical brain off and simply read for pure enjoyment?

Reviewing is something of my coping mechanism. I do it a lot, and around basically everything else that I do, whenever I can. My general philosophy is as straightforward as I can make it and boils down to be “Be compassionate and own your opinion.” By which I basically mean I try to be the reviewer I want to see in the world, the kind of reviewer I would want both to read my own work and whose reviews I’d want to read. My general thoughts are that a review put out into the world becomes a text. That text, like those that I review, is then there. Other people can react to it, can review my reviews, and I keep that in mind, that I have to own what I write, that I need to be both deliberate and responsible when it comes to what I do. Which so far has served me quite well.

As for time? Well, again, short fiction is my coping mechanism. So every time I am somewhere and can’t do something else, I’m reading. Any time I feel directionless and bored, I seek out something to read. Which has probably saved me, though I don’t know I balance it well with writing and other things. Especially 2017 and on, I’ve struggled to write, and reviewing became something that was…safe, I guess. That was something I could feel good about. So I probably have drifted into letting it take over a lot of my creative time and energy. And I don’t have regrets about that, though I’ve been trying lately to rebalance things a bit.

For reading, I do find it difficult to read outside of my reviewing. Mostly because I do a lot of reviewing and the stuff I read to review are works I want to read, that I’m excited to read. I have a TBR pile of books that is epic, though, and I do want to get to the point where I’m reading more novels, where I can reading graphic novels and manga more. Even when I’m reading for fun, though, I’ve always liked reviewing. So I don’t feel that it’s stretching a different muscle or anything. Even before QSR I was on Goodreads A Lot and loved to dive deep into what I was reading. It’s just how I like to engage with texts. Which is how I’ve been able (I feel) to keep on doing the work with short fiction reviewing so long. It’s genuinely something I like doing, so it’s more that my critical brain and fun brain walk hand in hand.

I’d like to talk a bit about your Liver Beware! series in which you drink and review the Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine. What inspired the series? Did you read Goosebumps as a kid, or are you coming to the books fresh with an adult sensibility? Are there any other series or any other authors whose body of work you’d want to give a similar treatment in the future?

Thanks for asking about this! It’s definitely a project of mine that…probably surprises people a little, because it’s rather random. But the Goosebumps books were how I learned to read. When I was young I was not a strong reader, and struggled with getting into books. Until Goosebumps. They were what really made me look forward to going to library, and I’d sneak reading them in my desk at school, and just generally devoured them for a few years. I’d tried to return and to a reread in…2010, I think, and got as far as Deep Trouble before I stopped. The books, while nostalgic for me, are very hit and miss in terms of quality (for me as an adult reader, at least), so I let that lapse. Around the time that I was launching my Patreon, though, I was thinking of things I could offer patrons to…sweeten the pot, I guess (because a lot of my Patreon is just sort of fund the work I do for free at Quick Sip Reviews). And I thought it would be great to return to do a more concerted reread, one that would allow me to balance the uneven quality of the books with booze! I’ve had so much fun with the series, and do plan to migrate them over to public access (I have done so for some, but I’m way behind that part at the moment).

I had read…most of the books already (and as I said, I’d made a go at a reread before). But most of them either I didn’t remember well or had sort of mixed up with the show (which I loved watching when I was younger). So most of the time it’s all new to me! As for what I might do next…I’m not sure. I don’t have as strong a connection to any other middle grade series (though I’ve quite enjoyed the more recent Frightville books by Mike Ford). I’ve actually been weighing changing gears a little and doing drunk reviews of X-Men comics. Like, story arcs. Because I’ve very much been meaning to return to reread my old comics and they are often…well, much of the time they could probably only be improved by the addition of alcohol. But we’ll see! Liver Beware! still has through the end of the year, so I’ll probably wait to make a final call after that (after 62 months, I might take a wee break first).

As if reviewing and writing wasn’t enough, you’re also making your editorial debut this year with We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2020. Could you talk a bit about your process in putting together the anthology, both in terms of selecting stories to include, and deciding on their order within the book?

I’m really honored that dave ring of Neon Hemlock approached me about being involved with the series, and he even let me name it! It’s something I’d been thinking about since the Lethe Press Best Ofs discontinued, and though I’d never done editing before, this plays into my strengths. Namely, I get to read a lot of short fiction. Which I do now anyway. And I put out monthly lists of works with queer content and themes (that project is on its fourth year now). So this was sort of the natural extension of that. It was also much more challenging than I had thought it was going to be, though, because it’s one thing to just read and reflect on stories, and another to try and make the call of what can be considered a “The Best.” What helped was really thinking about it as being a voice in a conversation. Not an authority, really, though editing in general is a form of gatekeeping and it’s important to not lose sight of that. But that this was going to be a The Best that could be stories I just really loved and wanted to share with others.

Logistically, the process worked a lot like with The Best American series that John Joseph Adams edits with guest editors each year. I took on the JJA role of reading as absolutely widely as I could, and pouring over the submissions. Because of the nature of the project, we feel it’s important to leave room for authors to put forth their own stories, first because there’s a lot I can’t personally get to in my regular reading, and because queerness is such a complicated thing, and we didn’t want the only person deciding what stories were “queer enough” to be, well, me. Now, it’s not perfect solution, and there’s a heavy and complicated conversation to be had about queerness in SFF, but I do feel we did our best to be inclusive and careful about it, and I am 100% thrilled by the result. What happened was I cast as wide a net as I could and passed on my favorites to my co-editor, C. L. Clark, and they got to add any that they felt I missed, and then they made the final decisions about what went in (with some discussion on where to draw the line for length purposes).

For order within the book, I thought it important to lead with something with energy and get to some of the more difficult and grim stories a little later (in the center of the collection), before rising again to end with a complex but lasting resilience and hope. I’m still quite new at this kind of organizing, but I tried to provide something where people could take breaks but where I hope they feel like there’s a flow from piece to piece, a kind of energy as the stories feed into each other, that will get readers to say “just one more” and then find that they’ve reached the end and still want more. We’ll see if that pans out, though.

Back in 2017, you and Nicasio Andres Reed took a deep (pun maybe intended) dive into one of the greatest Star Trek characters of all time, Garak, from Deep Space 9, looking at Garak-centric episodes of the series, along with media tie-in fiction featuring him. If you were offered the opportunity to write your own tie-in novel/graphic novel/comic series featuring Garak, would you? And if so, what sort of story might you tell?

Oh glob. So, I absolutely adore what Una McCormack has done with the character, building off of the phenomenal acting (and writing) of Andrew Robinson. Together they have done so much to take Cardassians in general and complicate them and get them on a level that I feel is important, especially given recent global political trends. I also love how McCormack worked so much of Cardassian literary traditions into those novels. What I would do…you know, if I could do just something completely one-off, I think I’d like to turn the tables on that a bit. We’re always seeing Garak as a sort of window into Cardassia, and Cardassian art and literature, but I’d be interested to see him taken through something much more human (something that I feel could have been done better in “Our Man Bashir”). I actually wrote a little fic about Garak being loaned The Picture of Dorian Gray and I think it would be really interesting to see Garak find some human literature that actually spoke to him on a deep level. That might break through his own disdain for art from other cultures. Given how Star Trek itself grows out of the human literary and artistic tradition, I think it would be an interesting meta twist that would allow for some insight into not Garak as a Cardassian, but Garak as a person. But seriously I could go on about Garak all day so will try to hold myself back from saying more.

Switching gears completely, one of my favorite questions to ask authors is about non-writing related jobs. What is the most unusual job you’ve ever had? What did you learn from it, and has any aspect of that job worked its way into any of your stories?

Haha I feel I have a fairly bland employment history, actually. I’ve been a lifeguard, a dishwasher then cook at a bar and grill, worked for university housing, and then got into prepress at a commercial printer. Of those, being a cook (where I got to work alongside my twin sister) was probably the most interesting/unusual. I had no experience going in, and was often overwhelmed, and the work was exhausting and often disgusting. But I did learn how to take that sort of situation and try to have fun with it. I’d sing along to the radio (I am not a good singer) and get my sister and the waitresses to laugh. We talked about starting a band called Fish and the Chips (I was going to be Fish), but only my sister could play an instrument. I’m actually not sure that the job has really worked its way into any of my stories…yet.

Now that The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories is out in the world, what’s next for you? What are you working on, or have coming up that you want folks to know about?

I’m partly completely unsure what’s next for me. Aside from the collection and We’re Here (which will continue next year with editor L. D. Lewis), I’m trying to climb back into writing more regularly. I’ve been writing a lot of poetry. I hope to maybe collect up all the romance short fiction I’ve written over the years that has largely been lost to presses closes or breaking contracts and find a place to rerelease it. I have ideas for longer works, but I’m slow and I also have my reviewing work. So…we’ll see!

Thanks for stopping by!

And thank you!!!

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