Monday, June 22, 2020

Interview: Strange Horizons





Congratulations to Strange Horizons for their Hugo nomination for Best Semiprozine!

Strange Horizons got it's start way back in 2000, and it's always been a home for fiction that pushes the envelope. With a specific focus on showcasing underrepresented and and global voices. Weekly issues contain a combination of short speculative fiction, poems, podcasts, non-fiction essays and reviews, roundtables and interviews.  The magazine has a massive and international staff of over 50 volunteers who do everything from reading slush to editing essays, podasts, and reviews, to purchasing poetry and artwork. 

In the last few years, Strange Horizons spun off a sister magazine - Samovar, which features translated speculative fiction.  Fiction and non-fiction published in Strange Horizons has gone on to win World Fantasy Awards, Sunburst awards, Sturgeon awards, and been nominated for countless Nebulas, Chelseas, BSFA awards, Rhyslings, and appeared in dozens of "Best of" anthologies. Authors, artists, and poets who appeared in Strange Horizons include Juliana Pinho, Grace Fong, Galen Dara, Cassandra Khaw, Rafeeat Ayilu, Mari Ness, Lavie Tidhar, Omar William Sow, Charles Payseur,  Kali de los Santos,  Shiv Ramdas, Marie Brennan, Ruthanna Emrys, and so many more.

With so much going on behind the scenes at Strange Horizons and their large staff, I requested a panel interview with a cross section of their staff.  This extended interview offers a glimpse behind the scenes of this massive operation.

I am pleased to introduce our panelists:

Anaea Lay - Anaea's short fiction has appeared in Diabolical Plots, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Penumbra, Apex, Lightspeed, and elsewhere.  She is president of The Dream Foundry, an organization dedicating to bolstering and nurturing the careers of nascent professionals working with the speculative arts.  You can learn more about her at her website, anaealay.com.

Joyce Chng - Joyce lives in Singapore and writes urban fantasy, YA, and things inbetween, including the Starfang trilogy. Their short fiction has appeared in The Future Fire, Anathema, Kanstellation, Insignia, and elsewhere, and they co-edited The Sea is Ours:Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia. You can learn more about Joyce by visiting their website,  A Wolf's Tale.

Dante Luiz - Dante is a Brazilian illustrator and comic artist. He is a two-time PRISM awards finalist, and his short comics have appeared in Screams Heard Round the World, Gothic Tales of Haunted Love, Wayward Sisters, Shout Out!, Built on Strange Ground, and elsewhere. You can learn more about Dante at his website, DanteLuiz.com.

Maureen Kincaid Speller - Maureen is an SFF reviewer for Vector, Interzone and Foundation, among other places. From her home in the UK she copy-edits and "enjoys" her cats' opinions on the timing of breakfast.  You can follow her on twitter at @maureenkspeller.

Romie Stott - Romie's poetry has appeared in inkscrawl, Dreams&Nightmares, Polu Texni, and Liminality and her non-fiction essays have appeared in The Toast and Atlas Obscura.  You can learn more about her artwork, poetry, music, and film making at her website, RomieSays.

Vanessa Rose Phin - Ness started as an articles editor at Strange Horizons in 2012, and is now the Editor in Chief.  Ve enjoys gaming,  editing, interviewing people, keeping green things alive, and being an extrovert in the morning. You can follow ve on twitter, @wordfey.

NOAF: Tell us a little about your role at Strange Horizons. How did you come to be involved with the magazine?

Anaea Lay: I'm the fiction podcast editor, which means I'm in charge of turning all the fiction from words on a screen into sounds in your ear. I got the job mostly by demanding that they invent it, then volunteering to fill the position. I'd been reading Strange Horizons since 2007 and it was, far and away, my favorite magazine. But after I changed jobs and my reading habits shifted, I was only getting short fiction via podcast, and Strange Horizons didn’t have one. I thought that was tragic and wanted to fix it. Julia Rios and Niall Harrison very kindly let me have my way.

Joyce Chng: I am a non-fictions/articles editor at Strange Horizons. I commission and solicit authors and writers for articles and columns. Nessa asked me if I wanted to sign up as an editor in 2016 and I said yes. I still remember the interview with Nessa and Niall (was a Sunday evening for me). And now here I am.

Dante Luiz: I'm one of the art directors together with Heather McDougal! I applied to the position after seeing she was searching for a new member for the art team, both because I'm a fan and reader of the magazine, and because I always wanted to work with other artists, being an illustrator myself.

Our job consists of commissioning artists that would match one of the stories of the month, and guide the process of creation, as well as sorting out submissions, creating covers and designing pins, among others.

Maureen Kincaid Speller: I'm part of the reviews department, along with Dan Hartland and Aishwarya Subramanian. We commission book and media reviews, do the structural and line editing in conjunction with our reviewers, and then do the final copy edits and galley the reviews before turning them over to the eagle-eyed proofreaders. We're also constantly on the lookout for things to review. We work very much as a team, but as Senior Reviews Editor, I tend to handle the admin (general correspondence, keeping in touch with publishers, soliciting review material, and organising the review assignments).

We all joined Strange Horizons as reviews editors in 2015, when Abigail Nussbaum retired from the role. It took three of us to fill her extremely capable shoes, and I still don't know how she managed it all on her own. Niall Harrison, who was then editor of SH, invited us to join the team, and I jumped at the chance. I knew Dan and Aisha online already (we have not met in real life as much as we would like to have done) and admired their writing very much so was delighted to have a chance to work with them. I was surprised and frankly very flattered to be asked to be Senior Reviews Editor.

However, my association with Strange Horizons goes back to around 2011 when I asked to become a reviewer, because I wanted to become involved with a project that not only understood fiction but also understood the importance of non-fiction, particularly critical non-fiction. I have never written fiction but I've been writing sf criticism for a long time and SH seemed to be a place I could be happy.

Romie Stott: I'm the poetry editor, alongside AJ Odasso. We both joined the magazine at the same time, based on an open call in 2012, although I took a few years off in the middle. We’ve been a two-person department for the last two years, but we've operated with three or four editors in the past and are in the process of transitioning back to that because it's valuable to have more institutional memory. The poetry editors trade off doing everything from slush reading through galleying, plus liaising with the podcasters, tracking contracts, following up on payments, and commissioning pieces for special issues.

Vanessa Rose Phin: I joined in July 2012 as an articles editor. I became senior articles editor a few years after that, then associate editor, then editor in chief in 2019. As EIC, I'm the lad of all loose ends, with a big-picture box much too large for my arms. Stereotypes of EIC dictatorship are laughable: this magazine is a collective. It runs like a solar system rather than a planet, with each department its own planetary habitat, its own way of doing things. Our staff is enormous for a zine of our size - over 60 - because it was the best way to strike a balance between volunteering and giving everyone the option to participate in as much or as little a capacity as they could. And it is international, covering almost all of the time zones of the world. With such a treasure of folks in the SH collective, my biggest job is to listen.

NOAF: How has Strange Horizons evolved over the years? Where do you see the magazine going in the next few years?

AL: It keeps growing and doing more, which is great to see and particularly great to be a part of. Our partnership with Samovar is the change that's happened during my tenure which excites me most. I see the magic of Strange Horizons as its ability to expose and nurture amazing, brilliant work that doesn't get the attention it should to larger audiences. Branching out into translation is a perfect demonstration of that.

In terms of thinking about the future and Strange Horizons, my expectation is this: We will be here, being true to what we are, and thriving. What that specifically means will depend on where the world is at that time. And I mean that both at the macro, "state of global affairs" level, but also where our conversations in the industry and community are. Where the conversations amongst our subcommunities are. One of the beautiful things about Strange Horizons is that it has room for all the subgroups of the larger spec fic community, and their internal conversations around art, aesthetics, politics, merit, value, respect, representation, all of it. It's messy, nuanced, and deeply human in the best way.

Anyway, wherever the world is, and our federated communities of humanity are, that's where Strange Horizons will be.

JC: Strange Horizons has grown a lot. I came in later but I have seen it grow by leaps and bounds within a few years. The collaborations and teamwork are amazing.

Where do I see the magazine going in the next few years? Strange Horizons is a science fiction magazine that is firmly rooted in the communication of the diversity in science fiction and sffnal communities. As Anaea has said, Strange Horizons has rooms for all the subgroups in the community. And it's how we navigate and negotiate all the pretty and messy bits . . . in the best possible way. I have read and witnessed conversations between diverse folk in a nuanced manner. And I feel that the world needs this perspective. Currently, the world is burning in more ways than ever . . .  and Strange Horizons is an example of us working together. And we need more working-togetherness.

DL: Without wanting to sound too corny with the pun, I think Strange Horizons will keep its role of expanding people's horizons regarding what they read and who they read. We are constantly bringing new writers from all backgrounds to the table, including people from other countries and cultures that many English-speaking readers might have never read otherwise.

Our special issues are good examples of that, from climate change to Nigeria, India and Brazil. I can speak for the later that we are very underrepresented in anglophone markets, and it brought a lot of joy to the national SFF community to see our work recognized by an international market and reaching a different kind of audience (a rare feat for Brazilians, as our production tends to be very niche even inside the country). This kind of thing is part of the very essence of the magazine, and I'm confident we will keep seeing more of the diversity and quality that have been championed so far.

MKS: Much of what I might say has already been expressed by my colleagues above, though I would particularly like to pick up Joyce's point about "the communication of the diversity in science fiction and sffnal communities". This is something we’ve worked hard at in the reviews department, inspired by other departments, trying to focus on work from smaller and non-traditional presses, marginalised groups, and so on. We've also tried to reflect that diversity within our amazing team of reviewers.

But I think too that Strange Horizons will take on an even more significant role in the next few years, as Anaea suggests, engaging with the state of the world through everything we publish. I like the fact that we are 'political', i.e. that we do engage with the global world, through things such as our climate crisis special. I feel we do that better than many other venues, and that there is a continuing need for such an approach.

RS: We've gotten larger since 2012 in a number of ways - more staff, the addition of special issues, the translation work through our offshoot Samovar, the launch of the podcasts, better payment to authors, and the growth of the fund drive. Recently, we added content warning tags and an accessibility editor. There have also been things that dropped off or shifted - more posts to social media and fewer to email lists, more reliance on Patreon and less on Amazon affiliate links.

A lot of our backend has been automated or systematized - a submissions manager instead of submissions copied and pasted to the body of an email sent to a Yahoo! group, Wordpress templates instead of hand-entering html. The latter has sometimes been frustrating for our department because we have to figure out how to trick the auto formatting into not cleaning up something deliberately weird. The subs manager also took some getting used to and I suspect contributed to the departure of at least one editor, although it's been invaluable for being able to jump in and cover each other when there have been life disasters (anything from somebody missing a flight and having battery power on a phone die to somebody needing surgery) and the other editor has been able to jump in and pull up the needed information without needing to wait for an email (or a bunch of emails) to be forwarded.

AJ and I are both still pretty grouchy about showing up on Slack regularly. I think it's a generational thing.

Artistically, I've seen us become more global in terms of both our fanbase and our contributors, and I expect that to continue.

In the poetry department specifically, between 2012 and now, went from being outliers to being the mainstream, while operating pretty much the same way throughout. In my early years at the magazine, I remember most of SF poetry outside of Strange Horizons (though not all) being either jokey parodic stuff or Tolkienish pot-medieval lays. (Take that with a grain of salt; my memory may be fallible here.) There were also a lot more horror magazines. It wasn't a super highbrow space - more pulpy. And then we were over here doing this other thing.

Either through our influence or as a coincidence, the type of poems we published started to get more traction in the genre community, maybe because online publishing started to take off, which opened the field up to a different kind of editor and a different kind of audience. At one point, at a similar time as the Sad Puppies drama at the Hugos, but I think a little earlier, we had some backlash where various poets accused us of having secret blacklists or being the PC police or I forget what else. Which wasn't true. We just liked different poems than some of the editors of some other magazines that folded, not to our joy.

That's years ago, though. Now, somewhat to my surprise, we're respectable enough to have some influence outside of the SF space, and we get submissions from famous poets who have won major literary awards, people whose names make me have to close my eyes for a second. This is probably partly because we pay pretty well for poetry and reply quickly, but I like to think it's because of our cutting-edge taste, and our occasional willingness to take wild risks with format and run poems that are games, poems that are comics, poems that transform before your eyes. (The luxury of being an electronic publication.)

Meanwhile, I now see poems in a lot of serious litmags where I think: yeah, we would have published that. Sometimes, rarely, it sends me into agonies similar to the classic "why are we shelving George Orwell in general fiction" spasm. We don’t want to stop being SF just because we're also lit, and we don't want to be a closed door to everyone but the same names you've seen everywhere else. We're also still the first publication of a lot of poets who are just starting out, and everyone in between. We're always looking for what comes next. We take being strange and being a horizon as our mandate.

VRP: I see Strange Horizons as staying astonishingly true to itself over its twenty-year tenure. It was originally created with the intent to open up publishing to new and marginalized voices, and it continues to do so. With Niall Harrison and later, Gautam Bhatia, I oversaw the transformation of the articles department from a passive receiver of pieces to a more active, journalistic department with a deeper sense of community engagement, chasing folks for their thoughts, making space for voices silenced at conferences. That launched our thematic focus in a nonfiction sense, which we later coordinated to a zine-wide affair with an international focus my team and I deeply believe in.

With the specific creation of Samovar under Niall's tenure, we moved from occasionally translating pieces to a sibling 'zine with that specific focus. The reviews team has carefully curated their pieces and expanded their net over countless trials and reviewer rotations; our art team has reached out to new and international artists. As someone with PTSD, I lobbied for content warnings until, lucky day, Natalia Theodoridou requested them for "The Birding", and we set to work - Catherine Krahe worked with the piece; I created our initial zinewide content warnings list and trained our first accessibility editor, Clark Seanor; and Will Ellwood, our only webmaster at the time, created the system we use. We had such a positive response from the community, it really underscored the reality that we do our best when we serve it. To that end, we've also worked to get marginalized editors access and experience and to support younger zines.

Looking back on my time at SH, a lot of our changes over time were about expanding our own horizons, and how apt is that? We've only become more ourselves with each step.

As for the future, I'd planned to get our team into anthologies and other such projects, but things are a bit different this year than any of us expected. I’'m looking at our fund drive this month and planning for the worst case scenario, not expansion. My goal is to help SH survive the economic contraction of 2020.

NOAF: What is your favorite thing about being involved with Strange Horizons?

AL: Without a doubt, 1000%, it's the authors. Every time somebody is excited about their work getting audio, I'm thrilled.

JC: My favourite thing about being involved with Strange Horizons? Commissioning articles from talented writers and authors, especially from POC and marginalised groups. And the teamwork between the departments and between editors is amazing!

DL: Match-making art with story, artist with writer. It's just magical to find someone from a completely different field that resonates so well with a story, and to help this connection happen. It makes me feel like an ancient patron of the arts, and it's very rewarding to pay the artists and show them that their work is appreciated.

MKS: Bringing new work to the attention of our readers, especially titles that might not have got attention in the mainstream SF press; discovering new authors as a result of review requests; and mainly, working with our reviewers – we put a lot of time and effort into editing the reviews and it is immensely rewarding to see a review transformed as a result of the dialogue with a reviewer. It's especially good to work with new reviewers, encouraging them to push the boundaries of their abilities as writers and critics.

RS: It's nice to feel like we've built a community, one that's a lot bigger than us, which we keep welcoming more people into.

VRP: My favorite thing about SH is the people. I've often said that people are candy. As an agoraphobe who has been shut inside at various times of my life, I do not take human interaction for granted, and I do not dismiss the Internet as a source of that contact. SH has always been online, never print: many of our volunteers, too, will have never met in person, living continents apart, and yet we change each other and our community across that invisible web. It includes our contributors from around the world, the people who have helped make our fund drives successful and cheer us on, the people who have volunteered with the zine - a large cohort by now - and the people inside, those lovely people in the zine itself, the ones I get to talk to and watch as they create art, words, connections. We can come together and debate a book, get a hug, or cheer a tentacle sticker (long story). They're my quirky online family.


NOAF: Why is short fiction important? For readers of science fiction and fantasy who say "I only read novels", or "I'm interested in short fiction, but I don't know where to start", what would you tell them?

AL: I'd say that "short fiction”" isn’t important so much as "fiction" is important, at all lengths. Some stories only need four thousand words to capture them fully; that doesn't make them less valuable or worthy than stories that need more space and time. Just because you can hold a story from beginning to end in a single reading session doesn't mean it isn't going to seep under your skin and stay with you for days or weeks or years. And sometimes the best way to make your point or share your insight is to have it strike like a thunderclap.

For the "I only read novels" crowd, I'd tell them that novels are my soft, squishy, happy place for fiction, too. The tactile weight of a novel in my hands is one of the purest physical pleasures I know. But fiction is like dessert: Elaborate layer cakes with fancy fillings might be your happy place, but that doesn't mean macarons aren't amazing.

As far as where to start, that really depends on you. I do short fiction entirely by audio at this point, so, obviously, I'm most familiar with places that have podcasts. Each of the shows done by the Escape Artists have a really good sense of who they are and what they do, and they cover a wide variety of subgenres across their shows. It's likely they have something that will hit your sweet spot. I'm also a big fan of Clarkesworld and their podcasts. When I wind up reading a short fiction story instead of listening to it, it's very likely to come from FIYAH or Fireside.

Honestly, though, if you're really at a loss, take a look at Charles Payseur's reviews at Quick Sip Reviews. He reads almost everything, and he's reliably good at reading. (By which I mean, he reviews the story on the page, not the one he imagines he read.) Even if you don't share his taste, it's a good spot to look for directions on where to go.

DL: Short fiction is the perfect media to make yourself familiar with new writers and to expand your vision of your favorite genre and learn about different experiences and realities without the commitment a novel requires. This alone can make a reader to fall in love with the style and message of writers they might never heard of in other cases.

Also, I second Anaea and recommend checking Charles Payseur's reviews at Quick Sip Reviews for a starting point: he summarizes really well the stories he reviews, and can be a good starting point to find something you might enjoy.

MKS: As the others have said, it's not so much that short fiction is special, more that some ideas are better explored at a shorter word length. Technically, I think it's a very different writing discipline to novel writing. Every word has to pull its weight in a way that I don't think is true for novels, or rather not in the same way.

And I'd third reading Charles Payseur's reviews to find out what’s good.

Having said all that, I'm going to subvert my answer by reminding everyone that Strange Horizons is not just about fiction. It has one of the strongest non-fiction departments of any magazine site, producing an amazing amount of material. Thoughtful, well-argued, usefully provocative articles and columns, as well as fascinating roundtable discussions (and I hear the reviews aren't bad, either).

RS: Our poems are the shortest short fiction. There are some speculative ideas where the idea itself is such a jolt that you don't really want to have it drawn out to book length, or even page length. You want it to tingle electrically on your skin as you walk around all day.

VRP: Short fiction is the laboratory of the genre. It is where authors take risks, where so many great ideas take their first steps. SFF created the framework with which we view ourselves in these times. Watch short fiction this upcoming year and I guarantee you'll see the embryo of how the world will be thinking about itself in the years to come.

NOAF: What will winning a Hugo award mean for you?

AL: When I started with Strange Horizons, several things were true that no longer are: we'd never been nominated for a Hugo, we'd never done audio of our fiction or poetry, and I couldn't conceive of ever wanting to stop doing the podcast. Now, we've been nominated every year I've been with the magazine (not because of me, this is a coincidence), we've podcast virtually all of our fiction and poetry for eight years, and it's really clear that Life Plans are headed in a direction incompatible with staying at my post. I don't have a solid time line on when I'll be retiring, but I've definitely transitioned from “"I'm here for the indefinite forever or until I'm fired," to, “If I'm still here in two years, something went wrong."

Looking at upcoming retirement from the magazine, and having lost the Hugo every year I've been here, I'd actually be pretty okay with not winning. "Strange Horizons is popular enough to get nominated for a Hugo every year, but too edgy to actually win," feels very, very on brand. I'm comfy with that.

On the other hand, "I helped create an entire department of the magazine, was one of the longest tenured staff while I was there, and lost the Hugo year after year, until we won and I retired," is also a really great story. It suits a narrative of showing up, being consistently awesome, and being an overnight success after years of work. That isn't very on brand, but it makes a great movie. Strange Horizons is still my favorite magazine on the market; I would definitely show up for our movie.


JC: To be honest, winning an Hugo award (as a team and for me personally) will be huge. Winning the award will be a testament to the hard working folks behind the scene. Folks who want to see and read discussion, dialogue and conversation from sffnal fans and writers. We all put in 100% (even more than that, I believe) in what we do and after eight years… shouldn’t we win the award, because we have done brilliant, amazing (again) and gorgeous work (we being the staff and all the writers, illustrators, podcasters, technical folk etc).

As for me personally, winning a Hugo will be enormous because 1) Southeast Asia has talent! And 2) it’s not often usual (if not, rare) to have a person from Southeast Asia winning a Hugo. So, if I win, it will be Southeast Asia (and Singapore) represent! And if I win, I hope this is also a signal for SEAsian folk to step up and sign up as fiction and non-fiction editors at SH. (we need more, please!)

DL: I'm not 100% sure about this, so please bear with me, but I might be the second Brazilian to ever appear between the Hugo's Finalists, after Ana Grilo and her amazing work at The Book Smugglers. If Strange Horizons wins, I'll be able to bring with my name a bit of the pride of our own SFF community that, as I said before, is often ignored.

We're only now starting to try our luck in English-speaking markets with authors like H. Pueyo, Sérgio Motta, Woody Dismukes and Clara Madrigano, along with a handful of others I might not know yet (I really recommend starting with our Brazil Special Issue, it's pretty cool and I had the pleasure to work with the amazing Juliana Pinho for the art). It would be a great honor to show fellow Brazilians and South Americans that yes, we can go there, and help each other along the way.

MKS: Finally winning a Hugo would be an amazing acknowledgement of the work done by the entire Strange Horizons editorial team, not to mention perhaps bringing our site to even wider attention.Strange Horizons has been nominated every year I've been an editor, and it would be lovely to finally hear our name being read out when the announcement of the winner is made, not to mention being a massive validation of the choices we've made as an editorial team to take this particular direction. But, as Anaea says, if we don't win, we can continue being 'too edgy to actually win' and I'm fine with that. It’s not like we'll be going away because we haven't won.

RS: I admit I like our long streak of being nominated but not winning. I like that we are beloved and reliable but slightly too comfortable for some people and slightly too weird for other people. The truth is, we don't have a singular vision. We are a massive volunteer org which makes decisions horizontally and often whimsically. We are like a magazine version of student council. We pick which editors' names go on the nomination each year pretty much at random, cyclically, because the Hugo ballot would have to have a whole page for just our names if you listed all of us. That's special. It's also necessarily ragtag and inconsistent.

The nomination means a lot to me, more than the win. (If we stopped being nominated, I'd be disappointed.) But of course if we do win a Hugo I am sure I will be smug and insufferable about it forever. FOREVER.

VRP: It's been 20 years of public support for an online zine everyone said wouldn't last. It's been eight Hugo nominations. I used to shrug and say hey, that's the work: blaze that trail, keep on going, don’t stop to look back at the pomp.

But I'd be lying if I said I didn't want it for them. I do. So much.

It's about being seen. People call us a U.S. magazine, and that phrase alone erases much of the staff and almost the entirety of our focus. People call us venerable, as if the folks in the zine weren't constantly changing out, turning over fresh ideas, pushing that edge. It goes back to the editors here - so much of our work is invisible alongside our faces, our lives, our identities. A Hugo would mean to me that the community recognized us for who we are, and throw the spotlight on the wonderful people with whom I work, acknowledging the 20 years in which we've shaped the genre with our arms wide open; not by being safe, but by being deliberately strange.

NOAF: Thank you for this wonderful panel interview!

POSTED BY: Andrea Johnson lives in Michigan with her husband and too many books. She can be found on twitter, @redhead5318 , where she posts about books, food, and assorted nerdery.

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