Thursday, February 1, 2024

Novella Project: Selena Middleton Interview

 Today for the novella project, we're speaking to Selena Middleton:

Selena Middleton is a publisher, editor, writer, and educator with experience teaching both academic and creative writing. She earned a PhD in English focusing on feminist and Indigenous science fiction and interrelationality in the context of ecological collapse narratives. Branching off from this project, her current work—academic, creative, and in publishing—examines connections between the emotional and the ecological as part of a wider definition of ecology. Selena writes fiction under the name Eileen Gunnell Lee. Her work has been published at Selene Quarterly, Little Blue Marble, Reckoning, and Nightmare Magazine, among others.

How long have you been involved with Stelliform at this point? And what was your starting point with them?

I started Stelliform Press in 2020 after I finished a PhD in English which focused on feminist eco-fictions. The feminist sf writers of the 70s and 80s–like Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler–were addressing ecology in a more holistic way. From them my project blossomed to look at the speculative ecological perspectives of contemporary Indigenous writers (like Lee Maracle for example) and I knew that works like these, that were rarely categorised under the umbrella of "cli-fi," were crucial to understanding the climate change's impacts and its colonial origins. These writers helped me see the problem's ecological impacts in a web wherein ecology consisted of not just human bodies but human feeling and thought as well, along with the usual non-human life we think of as ecological. At the time I was also starting to publish my own fiction. Seeing how publishing works from a writer's perspective inspired me to start a press to create space for more of the kinds of stories I knew were out there but at that time were pretty hard to find.

Stelliform obviously means “star-shaped” – what was the significance of the name, and how did the press come to be called that?

I chose the star shape as an inspiration for the press because it is a shape that can be found in many realms and speaks to the connectedness between those realms. Stars are in space, but they are also on earth in the form of snowflakes and fungi and lots of other plants, animals, and geological features. The star is prevalent across mythologies and history. For me, “Stelliform” speaks to the expansive connectedness that we need to realize in order to live in an ecologically relational way.

What are the particular challenges of running a small press? Especially compared to some of the bigger publishers.

I’ve never worked for a bigger publisher, but I can imagine that having a bigger budget would make things a whole lot easier. Unfortunately, so many of the decisions I make as a small press publisher are dictated by money. We’re very lucky in Canada to have some access to fairly robust arts funding, but accessing those funds requires a lengthy application process that is really difficult to manage as a one-woman press with a few volunteers and the occasional freelancer. You can spend months on an application and not be successful. The financial side of the operation feels like walking a tightrope sometimes.

What is your favourite thing about running a small press?

I love just about everything besides the financial challenges! I have always loved editing; it’s my favourite part of my own writing process and I’ve discovered that I really love editing others’ works and getting to have in depth conversations about the intentionality of certain aspects of a book. I love getting to have those conversations with brilliant folks who care about the world in similar ways as I do, and discovering, through them and their work, new ways to love this planet we’re all on. I’ve also been surprised by how much I love the other connections I get to make in this work: with artists, and book reviewers, and readers. Stories are powerful connectors and it turns out that seeps into just about every aspect of this business.

Every small press seems to have its particular unique flavour that goes into the works they publish and how they present to the world – what would you say is Stelliform’s?

I wanted to answer this with an actual flavour and I was going to say “spicy” but that has a pretty specific meaning on the book world! All of our books are working on multiple levels, so the flavour we’re looking for is complex, deep, with some bright notes scattered throughout and maybe to finish. If there is criticism of a Stelliform book it is usually “the author is cramming too much into this novella!” but we’re very careful in our editing process to make sure that all of the pieces of even our shortest books are attended to and connected. We love a meaty novella! And our awards record, I think, shows that this is working for most readers. To put this into literary language, though, we’re interested in complex narratives populated by complex characters, told in beautiful, purposeful prose and surprising structures.

You have a lot of experience of writing from a lot of angles, including from the academic side – how does this feed into your work at Stelliform, if at all?

My academic work is the reason I started Stelliform Press and on a broad level I like to keep up with academic literature in the environmental humanities by dipping into the ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment journal and a few others every once in a while. I particularly appreciate the interdiscipinary and international aspect of that publication as its important for me, in Canada, to seek out more awareness of others’ experiences and perspectives on environment and literatures about environment. Working in academia in the fractured, piecemeal way I have has also made me tolerant of the sometimes long timelines of publishing and the huge amount of work it takes to bring a book from the first accepted manuscript version to its final form. This is by no means a good thing because there is so much wrong with academic structures and the way the academy treats people, but academia has beaten me into a patient and flexible form that ultimately is pretty beneficial for operation in an industry in which little is certain and you don’t make much money even when people praise your work.

What goes into your process for finding new works? Do you think there’s a difference compared to the larger publishers?

I think one of the main differences between how we acquire new books compared to how a larger publisher does it is that we run open submissions periods during which unagented authors can submit their work. We have found some of our most successful books in the slush pile. I’m also very intersted in mentoring BIPOC authors and encourage queries from BIPOC authors even if they don’t have a completed manuscript.

How do you go about finding the artists for your covers, and is there much author involvement in the cover art process? How does that work? Do you have a particular guiding principle in what you want to see in your covers?

We’ve been very lucky to have some connections with artists who have come through with some beautiful, eye-catching covers. Rachel Yu Lobbenberg, who did the amazing cover for Octavia Cade’s The Impossible Resurrection of Grief and the award-winning cover for Rebecca Campbell’s Arboreality is a friend of mine from undergrad. I’ve also made some connections with artists who came up through the Ontario College of Art and Design. I try to work with Canadians and/or BIPOC artists when possible. If the book or author we’re designing the cover for comes from a particular culture that is important to the story I try to match that cover project with an artist of the same culture. That’s been difficult to accomplish in some cases, but it is a guiding principal. I do generally check in with authors about what they would not want on their cover and if they have any ideas they’d love to see, but ultimately the cover is a marketing tool so I try to stay aware of trends while also delivering covers that exude the indie Stelliform spirit.

You have a particularly interesting and well curated selection of novellas – why is this something you’ve chosen to highlight? Is there something about the novella form that appeals particularly?

I started publishing novellas primarily for a couple reasons: first, publishing something shorter than a novel seemed a good move to get my feet wet in publishing; second, I’d been really impressed by a few Tor novellas since their marketing machine was making those shorter books more visible to the SFFH readership. It seemed like people really wanted to read shorter books, and a few of the Tor novellas were really inspirational for the risks they took. I’m thinking specifically of Brooke Bolander’s The Only Harmless Great Thing which was the one that solidified this form as something that could be really successful for environmental books. Some of the topics I wanted to cover with Stelliform were quite heavy, as Bolander’s novella is, and I thought a shorter book could do that well, create a gut-punch effect and leave the reader wanting to know more within that emotional resonance. Another was Rivers Solomon’s The Deep from Saga. Feeling is an important part of shifting a culture and the novellas that inspired me did that very well.

What do you think makes a good novella more broadly?

Novellas are the perfect length for experimentation. Authors can take more risks at that length because the reader doesn’t have to buy in for an entire 400 page book. A good novella is doing some of the same work that a short story is doing in structural and language experiments and attention to language, but there is more room to spread out, approach themes from several different angles and make connections as a novel does.

Are there any misconceptions you think people have about novellas? Or about the ones published by small presses? And if so, what would you say in response to them?

Sometimes it’s frustrating when readers treat novellas as if they are short novels. I think it’s more accurate to say that a novella is a long short story rather than a short novel, but it really is a hybrid form in which structure and interconnections are so important. There are undoubtedly novellas in the world that are straight narrative, but I’m more interested in novellas that pack that space to the brim with nuanced characters, linguistic play, and evocative imagery, structured in some way that is unique and linked to the book’s themes. Even though Tor has re-popularized the SFFH novella recently, I think small presses are well positioned to publish weirder, more experiemental novellas. Stelliform treads a bit of a line there as I’m always interested in finding something new, something that challenges but doesn’t completely alienate readers. Because we are publishing stories that partially function as environmental cultural commentary for us even in the weirdest stories we publish there has to be something that readers can connect to.

Is there anything you’d like to see change in novellas in the near future, or something you think will change?

There are a couple culture and industry elements that I think might drive change. First, readers are going to continue looking for shorter books because our attention spans are so challenged while simultaneously some readers are seeking to keep up with online reading challenges and book clubs. I don’t see that changing until we have some kind of major cultural or technological shift (and admittedly that last point could happen at any time). Second, the monopoly of the Big 5 or whatever it is now is going to continue to drive the more experimental, less commercial writers to small presses. While I’m very cognizant of the limitations of reach that a small press offers, I think we will see some diversification as people continue to work outside of the increasingly restricted Big 5 spaces, into spaces that allow for more flexibility and risk taking. I hope that the bigger small presses will continue to encourage and accommodate those aspects of novellas and certainly as Stelliform grows we see it as a very positive thing to support.

Can you tell us about any upcoming novellas you’re excited to be publishing? Or a few works you’ve published in 2023 that you’re particularly proud of?

Our current 2024 schedule has no novella in it! But I am hoping to pull something from our recent submission call to fill that space. In 2023 we published some amazing novellas, all of which received Publishers Weekly starred reviews. Two of our 2023 novellas were chosen for some big lists: E.G. Condé’s Sordidez, a multilingual Indigenous futurist novella, was picked as a NPR Best Book; and Tiffany Morris’s Green Fuse Burning, an Indigenous swampcore horror novella, was chosen as a Tor Reviewer’s Choice Best Book of 2023.

Thank you, Selena!

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea