Friday, October 28, 2016

Quick Questions - Jason Sizemore & Lesley Conner of Apex Magazine

Hello and welcome, dear readers, to the inaugural Quick Questions. I have been kicking around this idea for a while and thought this was an excellent opportunity to show just how I'd like to run it. At the moment, doing these on a more regular basis is a goal on my Patreon. Until that funds, though, I would still like to run these every now and again. So join me as I pick the brains of some of the pillars of short SFF.


Stopping in to talk today are Jason Sizemore (Publisher/Editor-in-Chief) and Lesley Conner (Managing Editor) of Apex Magazine. So let's get to introductions first.

Born the son of an unemployed coal miner in a tiny Kentucky Appalachian villa named Big Creek (population 400), Jason Sizemore fought his way out of the hills to the big city of Lexington. He attended Transylvania University (real school with its own vampire) and received a degree in computer science. Since 2004, he has owned and operated Apex Publications. He is the editor of five anthologies, author of Irredeemable and For Exposure: The Life and Times of a Small Press Publisher, a three-time Hugo Award loser, an occasional writer, and usually can be found wandering the halls of hotel conventions seeking friends and free food.

Lesley Conner is a writer/editor, managing editor of Apex Publications and Apex Magazine, and a Girl Scout leader. When she isn’t handling her editorial or Girl Scout leader responsibilities, she’s researching fascinating historical figures, rare demons, and new ways to dispose of bodies, interweaving the three into strange and horrifying tales. Her short fiction can be found in Mountain Dead, Dark Tales of Terror, A Hacked-Up Holiday Massacre, as well as other places. Her first novel The Weight of Chains was published by Sinister Grin Press in September, 2015. Best of Apex Magazine: Volume 1 marks her debut experience in anthology editing. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two daughters, and is currently working on a new novel. To find out all her secrets, you can follow her on Twitter at @LesleyConner.


QSR: I feel Apex distinguishes itself from other SFF publications by focusing more on dark SFF. What does darkness in SFF mean to you as editors?

Jason: From our editorial directive, it's an all-encompassing term to describe the type of speculative fiction that proposes less than savory outcomes based on the usage, direction, and invention of technologies/powers. At a simplistic, higher level think of stories closer in conversation with a film like The Matrix and less so with Scott's Alien.

Lesley: Maybe I’m a pessimist … or just really sick and twisted, but I love the emotional impact of dark SFF. As Jason said, we’re looking for speculative fiction with “less than savory outcomes,” but when it comes right down to it it’s the emotional upheaval that I’m looking for as an editor. Humans are flawed creatures. Smart, but flawed, and I think stories that explore that are endlessly intriguing.

QSR: To follow up with the idea of darkness, I'd say that Apex has certainly not shied away from publishing some rather graphic and difficult stories (like "Aishiteru Means I Love You" from December 2015 or "Screaming Without a Mouth" from March 2016). What do you hope people come away from those stories (and those kinds of stories, content-wise) feeling?

Jason: I have a pessimistic view of technology. While I love the comforts and convenience the electronic age has brought us, I simply don’t trust the human race. This distrust pops its head up a lot in the fiction we publish. Prime among these are “Aishiteru Means I Love You.” It’s a story about a virtual reality companion that hackers on sites similar to 8chan and SA learn how to manipulate into the most horrifying ways possible. A teenager grapples with his actions. He knows what he is doing is terrible. But the self-loathing only fuels his deviancy.

“Aishiteru Means I Love You” and “Screaming Without a Mouth” share thematic ground. Humans do terrible things. We feel bad about it. Yet we still do them. There will come a time of reckoning.

Or maybe my Southern Baptist upbringing is coloring my interpretations!

Lesley: Jason takes a pessimistic stance on these stories. I have a more optimistic view.

Apex certainly does not shy away from graphic and difficult stories and “Aishiteru Means I Love You” and “Screaming Without a Mouth” are great examples of that. I won’t deny that these are difficult stories to read. They are emotionally draining and will turn more than a few stomachs. But my hope, as an editor, is that these stories will do more than that. My hope is they will make the reader question what is good and bad, right and wrong. At first glance, they seem pretty cut and dry. But …

The main character in “Aishiteru Means I Love You” is doing something that is repulsive, but does the act of what he is doing make him a bad person? Does the fact that he hates himself for doing it change that? Or that he’s doing it to a person who is not truly alive?

Or take “Screaming Without a Mouth.” This is a story about a ghost taking revenge by stealing people’s mouths. The idea of a person’s mouth being literally stolen from them is horrifying. But later in the story we find out what happened to the girl when she was alive. It is … I can’t put into words how awful it is. And suddenly the reason why she’s doing what she’s doing make sense. She was gagged, her voice was stolen, and now that’s she’s dead, she’s determined to do the same to those who she blames. Yes, it is still horrifying, but is it justified when taken in context to what was done to her?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I think stories like these – ones that force the reader to question their own initial reaction – help us understand ourselves better. And in my mind that is a positive.

QSR: You're running a subscription drive now. What makes this year the year to subscribe to Apex?

Jason: If I don't give Lesley Conner a raise soon, she said she's going to feed me to the ticks.

Lesley: *looks at Jason to see if he’s being serious*

Every year is the year to subscribe to Apex Magazine, but this year we are hoping to be able to expand Apex in ways that we haven’t been able to in the past.

Our goal for the subscription drive – which runs until November 15th – is to raise $10,000 through new subscriptions, sales of individual issues and Apex Magazine bundles, and funds thrown into our tip jar by readers who want to support us. If we are able to do this - and I believe it is completely doable – then we will be able to increase the original fiction each issue from 12,000 to 16,000 words, increase our pay rate for original fiction from 6 cents per word to 8 cents, and increase our pay rate for cover art from $60 to $100. These are goals that Jason and I have had for the magazine for a long while now, but being able to make that jump requires funds.

Also, as part of our drive, we are offering readers a chance to add additional content to our January 2017 issue, creating a mega double issue! This was something that we did last year with our subscription drive, and issue 80 was EPIC! The January 2017 issue already has four amazing pieces of original fiction by James Beamon, Lia Swope Mitchell, Iori Kusana, and J.J. Litke. Plus, all of the poetry, a reprint, and nonfiction that readers have come expect from Apex. As we hit specific funding goals, we will add more content to January’s issue. More poetry, more interviews, more reprints, but probably most exciting, more original fiction! We have stories by Ursula Vernon, Nisi Shawl, John Hornor Jacobs, and E. Catherine Tobler just waiting to be unlocked!

Beyond the subscription drive and the goals related to that, this is the year to subscribe to Apex Magazine because we have some amazing things lined up: fantastic stories, amazing artwork, plus a couple of guest edited issues that we are incredibly excited about. Maurice Broaddus will be guest editing the April 2017 issue. Dr. Amy H. Sturgis will be guest editing the August issue. Dr. Sturgis’s issue will feature fiction by Native American and First Nations authors. Apex has long been committed to publishing a diverse and inclusive group of authors and we feel that by featuring guest editors, we can better serve that goal.

Feed you to ticks, my ass! Hey Jason, I want a raise!

QSR Those are some amazing goals (and I loved issue 80, fyi). You mentioned bringing in guest editors for April and August 2017 as part of your commitment to being inclusive as a publication. Will you continue to bring in guest editors past the August issue, and/or are there other ways that Apex hopes to work toward that specific goal?

Jason: Having guest editors is something we’ve done periodically over the years. Lavie Tidhar has edited two “world SF” issues. Jerry Gordon edited an issue around the concept of faith. Spanish author and editor Cristina Jurado guest-edited an issue about 18 months ago.

As editor-in-chief, I need to do a better job reaching out to the various communities of writers. Having guest editors is a nice first step, but it is on me to continue to build on that, to make it clear that no matter your race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual preference, Apex Magazine is a welcoming and friendly publication.

QSR: If you had to pick one Apex story from the past year that you would call emblematic of Apex and the direction you want to go as a publication, which would it be?

Jason: I find this a challenging question because we published many stories this year that have hit our sweet spot! Probably the most 'Apex' story of the year so far would be "Lazarus and the Amazing Kid Phoenix" by Jennifer Giesbrecht. It's a superhero tale that subverts all your expectations and has a dialog with the reader about how difficult it can be not allow technology/power ruin who you are.

Lesley: Just one? Wow!

I really want to say “Next Station, Shibuya” by Iori Kusana, because the author was able to write a story that says one thing on the page, but beneath the surface is really saying something completely different. And from a highly unusual perspective! But that would be cheating because we aren’t publishing that story till January …

I’m going to have to go with “1957” by Stephen Cox. It’s a story that mixes time travel, and love, and obsession in a twisting narrative that poses more questions than answers. It’s the type of story that demands to be reread immediately after you finish it and that’s a trait that I feel embodies the best Apex stories.

Also, “The Laura Ingalls Experience” by Andrew Neil Gray because SF against the backdrop of one of my favorite childhood books and I’m really bad at this just one thing.

I just realized where my children get that annoying little habit …

QSR: I love your choices of stories! I want to change tracks a little bit now and talk about not-fiction. Apex puts out a rather stunning amount of SFF poetry a year, as well as a nice selection of nonfiction. Do you feel that these different forms synergize well together and what would you say to someone who would rather skip any content that wasn't fiction?

Lesley: The different forms definitely work well together! One of Apex’s goals is to publish speculative fiction that is representative of a wide variety of voices. This includes different forms such as poetry, flash fiction, and nonfiction.

Our poetry editor Bianca Spriggs does a stunning job of finding amazing poetry month after month. Even if you don’t think you enjoy poetry, I would suggest trying it. Give the pieces we publish a read instead of just skipping over them. You may be surprised to find you enjoy the rhythm or the imagery. 

As for nonfiction, I am absolutely in love the interviews that Andrea Johnson and Russell Dickerson turn in for each issue. I’m the type of person who wants to know the process behind the creativity. I want to dig into the first gleams of inspiration and find out how they went from those to the final product. Andrea and Russ have become experts at asking just the right questions.

Maybe you came to Apex to read a story by your favorite author, but reading the entire issue will really give you a look at speculative fiction as a whole.

QSR: Thanks so much for kicking off Quick Questions!

For those looking for even more interview goodness, there is a Patron-exclusive extra question that Jason and Lesley were kind enough to answer. For that and more exciting reviewing adventures, consider becoming a Patron and helping Quick Sip Reviews to continue!


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