Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Quick Questions - Octavia Cade and Joanne Merriam of Women Up To No Good

Welcome to a new Quick Questions, my interview series where I talk with genre professionals about short fiction & more. I'm joined today by two amazing editors from the Women Up To No Good anthologies from Upper Rubber Boot Books, which are currently running a Kickstarter to fund two anthologies: Broad Knowledge and Sharp & Sugar Tooth.

From the Kickstarter: "The Women Up To No Good series are anthologies of dark fiction by marginalized voices—primarily women and authors of marginalized sex and gender identities, and we additionally strive for diversity in race, national origin, sexual orientation, and ability."

First, a little bit about my guests:

Octavia Cade (@OJCade) is a New Zealand writer with a PhD in science communication and a particular interest in science history and marine studies. She has most recently been researching the reproductive strategies of Zostera muelleri seagrass. She has had around 30 short stories published, in places like Clarkesworld, Asimov’s,and Apex Magazine, amongst others. Her poetry collection on the periodic table, Chemical Letters, was published by Popcorn Press and her novellas have been published by Masque Books, Paper Road Press, and The Book Smugglers. She has been nominated for BSFA and Elgin awards, and has won three Sir Julius Vogels – twice for best novella (The Ghost of Matter and The Convergence of Fairy Tales) and once for best fan writing, for a series of columns on food and horror, which became Food and Horror: Essays on Ravenous Souls, Toothsome Monsters, and Vicious Cravings (Book Smugglers, 2017).

Joanne Merriam is an immigrant to Nashville from Nova Scotia, whose writing has appeared in The Glaze from Breaking (Stride, 2005), and in dozens of magazines and journals, including Asimov's Science Fiction, The Fiddlehead, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, Pank, and Strange Horizons. She runs Upper Rubber Boot Books, administers Small Press Week, volunteers for Postcards to Voters and More Than Medicine, and runs a surgical fellowship and the lives of four oncologists for a local hospital.

Now, without further delay, the interview is below!

Why are you focusing on dark fiction, specifically, and how would you go about defining what dark fiction is or looks like as a unifying idea behind these anthologies?

JM: We started with the idea of feminist anthologies, first, and focusing on dark fiction seemed like a natural fit given how women are socialized to be calm and nice and demure and soft-spoken and all of that sort of nonsense, so pushing back against that meant acknowledging the dark places in our human nature. It's a hard thing to pin down with a simple definition, though. A lot of people seem to think of dark fiction as another term for horror, and we've been nominated for a horror award (This is Horror), which was exciting, but I see dark speculative fiction as more of an umbrella term for horror, science fiction, fantasy, and magic realism which reveals the dark side of our lives, while also having that speculative element. Some of the stories are funny, even light-hearted, but with a dark undercurrent. Some have happy endings (for a limited definition of happy, anyway). Some are really grim. What ties them all together is an unblinking view of human nature.

OC: I can’t speak to the unifying idea, as I’m only involved in Sharp & Sugar Tooth food horror anthology, but I think Joanne’s on the right track with her response. Feminist fiction necessarily touches on dark places, because an awareness of inequality comes with the crushing weight of expectation, almost, and these stories are all about how limiting expectations are, and the amputation of self that those limitations ensure. As for how dark fiction is defined... that’s something for debate! Everyone has their own idea of what makes fiction dark, and what level of dark a narrative reaches. For me dark fiction is inextricably linked to temptation, to identification with the wrong. It’s one thing to know that poisoning is immoral in broad daylight, and quite another to be brought to feel, though fiction, that poison can be an excusable and tempting thing. It’s a temporary identification, perhaps, but I tend to think that deliberately acknowledging our own capacity for identification with evil is a form of inoculation towards it. In that way horror can be a very empowering genre – at its best, it’s all about self-knowledge and perseverance in the face of failure.

Both of you touched on dark fiction helping people to examine their own nature and ability to identify with evil. What kind of responsibility, then, do you feel that writers (or editors) have in presenting that evil? Given that dark fiction often depicts some very disturbing imagery and situations, do you feel there is a line that should not be crossed?

JM: No, I wouldn’t say that there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed, but I would say that certain topics and certain kinds of imagery and situations are so well-worn, or so horrifying, that they require a really thoughtful and skilled writer to do them justice. In practice this means that certain plots and situations are incredibly hard to sell to me as an editor. Women in refrigerator stories, for example, or vagina dentata, or revenge fantasies… I see these in stories a lot, and nearly always reject them, unless the writer has both done an exceptional job with all of the other elements of the story, and also interrogated the hell out of the problematic imagery or situation in question.

OC: Technically no, I don’t believe there’s a line over which lie stories that no-one can write, ever. Practically it’s a different matter. The more difficult a subject is to read, the more difficult it is to write accurately and with full comprehension. I think sometimes horror gets a bad rap because it’s very easy, if you don’t have the best writing skills, to cover up lack of skill with shock. I’m not saying, please note, that the most disturbing subjects are always written by the worst writers – there are some very fine horror writers out there! – but I do think the worst writers have a greater temptation to tackle the worst subjects. It’s easier to think people are too disturbed by your torture-cannibal story to appreciate it than it is to think your torture-cannibal story is shocking and that the writing is shit. Too often horror’s used as a get-out-of-work free card for writers, when it’s the genre that can need most skill. The most useful, responsible thing horror editors can do in my opinion is to set limits early. There’s always going to be people who will ignore submission guidelines like the numpties that they are, but if you say “no paedophilia stories here please”, you’re not saying that Lolita has no literary value, you’re saying the writers whose first instinct is to go for that sort of shock need to think a little harder about what they send in.

As a project that aims to be proactive in promoting marginalized voices, how have you approached that aspect of your work, especially given the current turbulent political climate?


JM: In terms of seeking submissions, social media has been really helpful in giving us a way to find communities of writers who get less attention and reach out to them. Octavia may have had a different process. In terms of selecting stories and editing, the Trump administration has pushed me to be more radical. I'm an immigrant, and female, and LGBTQ, and if I feel attacked (and I do) I can only imagine how bad it is for somebody who doesn't have my cis white privilege. So I wanted to select stories that challenged the status quo and give space to writers from all over the world and from all backgrounds, especially those who are generally ignored or suppressed. 

OC: Social media was helpful for me as well. I have very little time for editors who go around whining that no minorities have submitted stories to them – you go out and find people, put some effort in! Again, it’s a question of inoculation. I’m a biologist at heart, and in any species, any ecosystem, diversity increases resilience. It’s not such a stretch to apply this principle to politics, or to stories.

Is there any advice you would give to newer or less established writers, then, who aren’t sure how to be visible, or visible enough?

JM: It’s a problem, isn’t it? Social media has made this easier in the sense that we can all be connected, and harder in the sense that algorithms generally reinforce the status quo, because they look for patterns, and bias is a pattern. So even if a new writer friends me and I friend them back, we may not ever see each other’s posts, if the algorithm decides that we’re too different on whatever axis it’s looking at. Being mindful of that can help - I take some active measures to stir things up periodically, like using the “search on posts by friends” feature to find people who haven’t shown up in my timeline in awhile and comment on their posts to retrain the algorithm. Ultimately, the best thing for networking is to join groups and participate in discussions and just be a human being interacting with other human beings without worrying about how any given interaction is going to help your career.

Back in 2010? 2011?, poet Molly Peacock told me to start something, so people would have to come to me, and although everybody doesn’t have the connections or energy or free time to start something like her Best Canadian Poetry in English series, most writers can start something: a review blog, a discussion group, a writing group, a reading series, or, like me, a small press (though make sure, unlike me, that the thing you start doesn't take up all of your writing time!). That’s not an exhaustive list, of course.

OC: I’m less established and no-one knows me, so I’m going to be very little help here! It’s useful to have an online presence so that people can find you if they need to, but I think if you go on social media and your only goal is Visibility-I-Must-Be-Visible, you’ll either burn out early or turn into a tedious bore who does nothing but shill their own work. Do it for other reasons as well – to chat to other writers, for example, to turn them into mates, because they’re the ones who’ll know what you’re going through, or to talk about stories you’ve read that you love and can’t stop yourself from sharing.

What does success look like to you, in regards to the project (outside of successfully funding the Kickstarter, I mean), and how do you hope people feel after reading the anthologies?

JM: Ultimately, I'd like to get the series on a self-sustaining footing, so sales of previous anthologies fund payments to writers for future ones. I also hope to see the writers who are less well-known go on to big things (in fact, this has already happened: Christina Dalcher wrote a story for us which she decided to expand into a novel, so we released her from her contract, and now Vox is coming out this August, and I expect it to be a big hit given how good the short story was). After reading, I hope people feel energized! I hope they find themselves still thinking about the stories weeks or months later. I'd like to haunt readers, and I hope people who don't usually see themselves in books will see themselves in these narratives. 

OC: I hope they feel hungry! *laughs* Seriously, I hope it encourages them to think a little bit more about food, and their relationship with food. How it can actually be empowering, because for many people food means misery or fuel or absence. I hope they read it and feel a little stronger, a little more aware of choice and potential. And given it’s a horror anthology, if the stories can do that and also keep a few readers awake at night, all the better. I hope that readers come across some authors who are new to them, and make them want to read more of their work. I hope they find other fans of those authors and make connections and cupcakes with them. That’d be success, I reckon.

Will there be more to come in the Women Up To No Good project? Or, are there other ideas and themes that you’d like to explore in a similar format? 

JM: Definitely. I’d like to release a new anthology every couple of years. I have more ideas than I know what to do with, so really the problem is limiting myself to one or two! 

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