Christie and I love short fiction. Of course, we love the stuff we publish in Fantasy Magazine, and we believe the work we select stands with the best out there. But there are so many writers doing fantastic things in short fiction these days!
This issue, we thought we’d do something slightly different. We wanted to celebrate a few authors, and we also wanted to celebrate short fiction in general.
Interviews are a great way for readers to gain insight into favorite works and authors. They are also a great way for writers to find perspectives on both the craft of writing and the publishing industry. So we asked a handful of notable short fiction writers if they’d like to do a group interview.
This is not meant to be a “best of” list, nor is it exhaustive. There’s no way for us to interview everyone we believe should be interviewed. But we did invite several writers whose work we consider notable, authors whose short fiction, we believe, deserves attention.
Whether you’re a reader, a writer, or both, we think you’ll find this interesting.
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Participants: Christopher Caldwell, WC Dunlap, Jaymee Goh, Tenea D. Johnson, Sam J. Miller, Russell Nichols, Suzan Palumbo, Pamela Rentz, Eden Royce, and A.C. Wise.
Looking at your short fiction to-date, do you feel like there are themes or ideas that you tend to gravitate towards? Or does it vary greatly from piece to piece?
Christopher Caldwell: I’m fascinated by syncretism. I love seeing how different elements of culture combine and change over time, but I’m especially fascinated by syncretism when it occurs because one culture is suppressed or derogated and its practitioners continue on in secret—a good example of this is Voudon, where Saint Peter is used as a stand-in for Legba, or aspects of Erzulie are celebrated with the Virgin Mary—and this is a thing you will see come up time and time again, baked right into the dough of my worlds.
Another recurring motif is transformation. There’s a fantastic line from one of my favorite movies, Todo sobre mi madre, where the character Agrado—I’m paraphrasing here—says that one is more authentic the more one resembles what one has dreamed, and the idea of becoming your more authentic self, in the sense that Agrado means it, really undergirds a lot of my writing.
WC Dunlap: I tend to gravitate towards themes of social inequity, whether it’s about enslavement in an early American colony in “The Settlement” (PodCastle) or race relations and microaggressions during an Aves apocalypse in “Caw” (Nightmare Magazine). My intention is not to be didactic, but rather to process my own experiences. My stories are often a cathartic purge of fear and anger, and sometimes a healing reimagining of justice and restoration. I’d like to write more of the latter, and even when I’m working through anger I try to center hope.
I am also obsessed with the antihero, the unlikely savior who has been demonized and dehumanized but yet holds the keys to survival. I want to tell the stories of society’s outcasts. My protagonists are “heroes” that mainstream society would deem “unlikely.”
Jaymee Goh: I occasionally joke that the name of my first collection will be “Disappointing Children,” ‘disappointing’ as both adjective and as verb. I’m interested in family dynamics, particularly forced family dynamics where there are failed expectations on all sides.
Short fiction also serves as a playspace to test out worldbuilding concepts that I don’t have a larger story to fit into—there are some concepts which sound really cool but just don’t work in a larger novel because the overarching image is difficult to sustain (at least for me). Sometimes I also use short fiction to explore secondary worlds I am thinking of writing novels in, at least to see how it works on a smaller scale.
Tenea D. Johnson: My work varies, but stories about all manner of inequality, environmental catastrophe, and connection definitely reoccur.
At times, I just want to share wonder, and that happens too. I’ve said before and most likely will again that, like a lot of spec fic, many of my stories could be categorized as wish fulfillment. They just wish for justice.
Sam J. Miller: Super gay stuff. Rage and resistance. Monsters and violence and social justice. You know. The fun stuff.
Russell Nichols: Themes may vary, but my fiction usually digs into ideas of Black existentialism in tech-heavy, absurd dystopian worlds. As a nomad, I also explore various forms of movement and the ongoing challenge of breaking free without breaking down.
Suzan Palumbo: Yes! A lot of my stories draw from my personal experiences. It’s cliché to say that writing is a kind of therapy, but a significant portion of my fiction begins as a sandbox where I process my thoughts and emotions. The premises and plots of the work may be speculative, but the power dynamics and feelings therein are not. I’ve experienced them all acutely. Because of this, my work tends to grapple with aspects of identity, oppression, marginalization, grief, being part of a diaspora, and the struggle for self-acceptance.
It’s a running joke that I like to use skin as a metaphor. Being a brown immigrant growing up in a predominantly white country has had a profound effect on the way I’m perceived and how I’ve moved through the world my entire life. It’s one of the aspects of myself that I can never hide, which leads to the questions: Why would you want to hide this? Why would you want or need to conceal any part of who you are, for that matter? And how do you function while trying to do so? These questions have been the generator for a fair amount of my work to date!
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention my love of nature, wildlife, and plants. I am a firm believer that WE are wildlife and the barrier (or skin!) we’ve constructed between ourselves and the natural world is artificial but also porous. I enjoy playing with that concept. It’s both frightening and empowering.
Pamela Rentz: In my professional life I do legal support for tribes and tribal organizations, so bureaucracy, convoluted policies, dealings with dysfunctional or ineffective governments are strongly represented in my fiction.
Sometimes this is the relationship between a Tribe and a colonizer government and sometimes it is the internal workings of a tribal government. A lot of humor and conflict can be mined from government operations.
I also have a lot of elders in my stories. I can’t point to any reason why. I have set out, intentionally, to write a story without an elder and, before I know it, one has shuffled in and taken over.
Eden Royce: My themes vary from piece to piece, but I love folklore, folk magic, family secrets, and food culture, and I tend to incorporate them often.
A.C. Wise: I tend to gravitate towards stories about ghosts, the past haunting the present, and queer characters and relationships—sometimes all at the same time! Birds and foxes seem to show up a lot in my work, as do magicians, found families, bodies of water, and old movies.
What, for you, are the most challenging craft elements in short fiction, and how do you deal with those challenges?
CC: I’m terrible at endings! I’m the sort of person who watches a movie and figures out what’s going to happen in the first few minutes, and I find that when I write I sometimes stop when I think the implication of the narrative is clear. But that’s not always the case for the reader, so for them it’s sometimes been an abrupt experience with no closure. I don’t tend to use a lot of readers—for me I find that my original conception of a work can get really muddled when other people introduce their own ideas, especially if they’re good ones—but my partner Alice usually reads over my first drafts, and she’s very good at telling me if the ending isn’t doing what I want it to.
WCD: I didn’t read short fiction when I started writing. I worked as a journalist, published academically, studied screenwriting, won a playwriting award, and occasionally performed spoken word. Then I read the shorts in Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora by editor Sheree R. Thomas. Each story transported me into a fantastic and unapologetically Black microworld. As a reader, this was delicious, snackable escapism. As a writer, short fiction felt accessible. This was a format conducive to the busy lifestyle of a working mother.
I already understood the hero’s journey and the basics of story structure and character development. The most challenging element of short fiction has been developing and resolving plot under 10,000 words. My approach has been to think of each story as a scene or a day in the life. If I’m able to resolve a conflict and show character growth within those constraints, I think I’ve told a decent story.
Outlining my stories helps with this challenge. This is where my screenwriter trainer comes in. I was taught to write a treatment before embarking on a screenplay. So before I start a short story, I develop a one-page outline from beginning to end. But the outline is only a guide. Once I have the basic framework, I allow the story to breath and take on its own life. The outcome is sometimes not what I originally intended, but it’s where the story needed to go.
JG: Finding an emotional core is always difficult for me—I often start with a fun little concept, like “fish spa in the ghost world” or “magic meat stew” but that doesn’t always lead to an actual story. I’m pretty bad at characters, and I don’t always find the process of writing characters that interesting, in my work or others’, so I have to work hardest on them: starting with broad strokes, then going deeper into their emotional journey over the course of the story.
It helps that I write a particular genre that has certain conventions, and it gives me that added challenge of, if I take away the novum and science fictional concept of the setting, how would this story unfold? Would the character still undergo the same journey in some fashion? If the answer is “no” then I think I’ve hit the right note.
TDJ: My guiding principle is to waste no words. That means one has to choose the right details at the right time to keep the story moving at the right pace while still doing justice to characterization and development. I also tend to gravitate to big ideas, so fleshing those out while respecting such considerations and constraints can be a challenge, but that principle helps. It means I have to work at a sentence level and pay as much attention to that as the overall narrative arc.
SJM: Making it exciting! Finding surprises along the way. Never repeating myself. Combining the character’s journey with the reader’s journey—the actual plot—so they feel organic and connected.
RN: I struggle with evoking emotion on the page. It has been said that I use wordplay as a shield to conceal real feelings. I deal with that by having my wife tell me when I’m “doing the most.” Now, do I always listen? Next question.
SP: I used to have a lot of difficulty writing short work that felt complete. I’d have a plot and write it straight through, mindful of the advice that a short could only handle one major plot line. This lead to me receiving many hold notices but not very many acceptances. The advice is not wrong. It’s bang on, actually. A story under seven thousand words usually works best with one major plot thread.
I think what I was missing was that, in order for a story to have depth, you have to show, or suggest at least, how the plot affects other dynamics in the character’s life. Now, before I sit down to write, I think of the central conflict and consider how it causes tension in other areas of the main character’s world. Working those in, in an organic way, helped fill out my work and gave it greater weight.
PR: It’s all challenging. Especially endings, oof. Plentiful revision and great crit partners are my best approach. Short fiction is tough because there is so little space to work with. You want to keep it small and make everything work for the story. I don’t write quickly, and a lot of that is noodling around, condensing, and trying to make it all count.
ER: Crafting what feels like a complete, satisfying ending is a huge challenge for me in my short fiction. I always seem to know the right place to begin a story, but finding the right way to end one is a different thing entirely.
To deal with it, I tend to write until I get to a point where I have no inkling of how to continue, then set the piece aside. I’ll come back it when I have a better understanding of what the story needs—forcing it rarely works for me. It might take a month or a year or more, but I always come back to it.
I’d sat aside a half-written story for almost two years before finishing the ending, and that story eventually became “Room and Board included, Demonology Extra”, and it was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award this year.
ACW: Not letting the story wander or get overly-long can be a challenge for me. Sometimes I get over-enthusiastic in the drafting process, and then I have a hard time making myself kill my darlings, as it were.
Who are the authors or what are the creative works (books, movies, shows, etc.) which have significantly inspired you? Do you see their influence in your work, or is your work very different, even if inspired by those sources?
CC: A really important childhood influence is Virginia Hamilton. Her collection of folktales, The People Could Fly, is a really obvious and direct influence on pretty much all my later work. Her use of language and curation of such a broad selection of folktales is incredible, but it was really the first time I read things where the heroes were explicitly Black people; when I was a kid the folk heroes were pretty Disneyfied and almost exclusively white or white-coded. Discovering Baldwin in my adolescence was probably as important as Hamilton; it seems silly now but when I realized that I was queer, Baldwin helped me understand that being Black and queer was a thing I could be. I was obsessed with Rainer Maria Rilke, Anne Sexton, and Langston Hughes, and a lot of my earliest attempts at writing are probably somewhat imitative of their styles. I don’t think I would have become a writer of fantastic fiction if it hadn’t been for Octavia E. Butler. I read a lot of SFF in my teens, some very good, most mediocre, and some absolutely dreadful, but no other SFF author resonated with me the way that she did; in particular I loved the way that her characters were complex, with motivations that reflected that complexity.
I don’t think I try to reproduce in fiction the way film communicates things visually, but there are certainly emotional beats that I would like to recreate. I’ve already mentioned Pedro Almodóvar’s Todo sobre mi madre, but his more recent film, Dolor y gloria really touched upon queer desire in aging bodies in a way that I feel needs more representation; there’s a lot of the coming-out story, the first blushes of young love, the hedonism of youth depicted in literature, but I don’t really see much about navigating sex and desire once you’ve passed thirty-five or so, and the reality is that sexuality doesn’t have an expiration date. I love Barry Jenkins! Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk depict Black people with such dignity and such intrinsic humanity in unglamorous settings; it’s such a rejection of the kind of oppression porn we sometimes see, and I’d really like for my own work to allow for that human dignity, even if I focus on subjects that come with abjection like racism and homophobia.
I listen to a lot of music. Lately Orville Peck has been in heavy rotation. There’s something about the earnest loneliness and very queer desire of his music that subverts some of the cultural trappings of the image of the cowboy that really appeals to me. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Paul Cauthen and Shakey Graves. I’m working on a novel that takes place in an America much like ours, and there’s something about Country music that resonates in my understanding of the disconnect between the Dream and the reality. I love Janelle Monáe, FKA Twigs, Tori Amos, and each of them have tapped into feelings of vulnerability and resilience that has influenced things that I write.
I would hope that my influences don’t show up as emulation. I don’t want my writing to feel like pastiche. There’s only one Langston Hughes, and I wouldn’t like to be a poor imitation of him.
WCD: Clive Barker’s novella “Cabal” (Nightbreed) continues to be a source of inspiration. It challenges readers to rethink who the real predators are, despite appearances of civility and normalcy. The residents of Midian are imperfect beings, but they have more compassion and wisdom than the human world surrounding them. I immediately identified with the protagonist Boone, demonized by society and manipulated into believing himself a monster. This was my story as a talented Black child in the American public school system. I read “Cabal” in the early ‘90s and it has had a profound impact on how I write and what I write about.
Barker also has a brilliant way of juxtaposing fantasy and reality, creating worlds within worlds, inspiring readers to ponder what remains unseen in their daily lives. His mystical lens on the mundane has set the bar for dark fantasy and horror that continues to influence readers long after the last word is read on the last page. My serial Carnivale, currently available via the Broken Eye Books Patreon, is my ode to Barker.
Rounding out my top three inspirational sources are Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison. The diversity of themes and expert storytelling of these women gives me permission to cross genres, deliver message, and center Black women in my storytelling. Butler’s imagination is nothing short of prophesying, and Morrison’s prose sets a new standard for the English language.
JG: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short fiction, especially her utopic vignettes, are extremely important to me. Folks like to focus on the little gothic “Yellow Wallpaper”, which is indeed a very good work, but works like “When I Was A Witch”, “Joan’s Defender”, and “His Mother” are little treats that showcase the breadth of her socialist vision. They’re high-level concepts that cover a huge swath of time and follow at a distance the changes that happen to a person, through and on a community scale. My work has a slightly different ideological bent, being informed by the changes in society that have passed in the near-hundred years since her death, but I still think of her as an important force in my work.
TDJ: I’ve always had a drive to tell stories, loved language and compelling turns of phrase. I was also raised in an environment where people knew how to do things: fix and build cars, grow vegetables, lead others, paint and draw, outsmart the system, talk shit. There’ve always been authors whose work engaged me, and I was lucky enough to be exposed to lots of books, but I don’t think they are my primary inspirations; I think it’s just capable people, problem solvers, and artists—the ones who did it without breaking their stride or folks who gave their whole heart to their work.
On that last note, I will say this: My dad took us to see The Color Purple in the theater when I was a kid, and it left an indelible impression of what it looks like when an entire group of Black folks put their soul into something (I’m speaking here of the actors and the composer). Decades later I found out that some of the most powerful moments in that movie were unscripted. It made perfect sense. The movie and book are very different and I have love for them both, but the film taught me that art can transcend its medium if you show up and share your truth.
SJM: Octavia Butler showed me I could make writing a form of activism. Ted Chiang taught me I could use speculative fiction to do all the crazy wild ambitious things that other genres do. Avatar: The Last Airbender and Battlestar Galactica showed me how to make characters messy and terrible and loveable.
RN: My major literary inspirations include the work of Octavia E. Butler, The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, and the Dark Matter anthology edited by Sheree Renée Thomas. All formative works for me, showing Black people in speculative situations. My work is different but communicates with them, call-and-response style.
SP: The quick answer to this question is: As a kid, I loved The Addams Family, Batman the Animated Series, Gargoyles, and X-men. I was a voracious reader and read every classic gothic book I could get from the library. Jane Eyre, The Phantom of the Opera and Dracula’s fingerprints are all over my work. As an adult, Carmilla by Le Fanu and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson have been impactful. Above all, the collection The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter has been formative for me. The atmosphere, mood and ache of “The Erl-King” in that collection is evocative of what I’d like to achieve.
I wanted to add, however, that while all of these “works” have been integral to shaping my writing, I think what we consider “works” and how those are defined is broader than the Western concept of finished products that we consume. The Caribbean in general (but I speak from my experience as a Trinidadian specifically) has a vibrant culture and oral storytelling tradition that is a fusion of a myriad of influences.
I grew up living and breathing folklore. I cannot tell you who originally authored or created these tales and characters. We can only trace their evolutions through genocide, enslavement, indenture, and colonialism, but these “works” and the way they’ve endured over time has had the most profound influence on the way I approach writing.
Our stories, our music, our food, our ability to be picked up and dropped in an “alien” landscape and create art by combining the things we smuggled or were allowed to bring with what we found in the West Indies is the “work” that looms largest in my imagination. The people of the Caribbean are masters of the speculative, and their ability to generate and nurture beauty and joy in the direst of situations is what inspires me. It is a living and breathing project that evolves continuously. That is the legacy I want to live up to most.
PR: When I was first starting to think about myself as a writer (early ‘90s) both Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie were huge inspirations. Especially Alexie’s collection, Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. That book gave me ideas for what stories of Indigenous people could be. I knew I didn’t want to write stodgy historical stories and his work really opened my eyes. I have to acknowledge that he’s been called out for problematic behavior that has hurt a number of women. Such a bummer to be disappointed by an artist you admire.
You can see the influence of those authors in the sense that I keep my focus on Indigenous settings and characters, but what I manage to put out there is uniquely me.
ER: For TV shows, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. I was so obsessed with it as a kid. I even watched as much as I could of the SyFy channel’s New Year’s marathon as an adult. One thing I see in my work that may be inspired by TZ and by old-school dark fairy tales is my reticence to explain every event or decision that happens in a story. Some things just are—as strange as they may seem—and trying to pin down accurate assessments as to exactly why they occur detracts from the speculative tone.
Even with echoes of Twilight Zone, I think my work is very different. I love wrapping touches of history in my work, displaying a different side of the American South than is widely portrayed, and showing soft Black characters who are still able to triumph.
ACW: Ray Bradbury and Alvin Schwartz were definitely early influences on me, and I do see things making their way into my work that have roots in their writing. I’m also constantly inspired by the other short fiction authors publishing work today, including but not limited to A.T. Greenblatt, E. Catherine Tobler, Maria Haskins, Suzan Palumbo, John Wiswell, Isabel Yap, Kel Coleman, and G.V. Anderson, to name just a few. (I could go on, seriously!) Their work influences and pushes me to want to write more stories and better stories all the time!
Who are the short fiction authors you really admire, and why?
CC: There are entirely too many! I’m going to refrain from mentioning dead people, and really that doesn’t cut down the list that much.
Any time Kai Ashante Wilson publishes anything I’m there to read it. Not only is his dialogue some of the best in the game, he manages to pack in some really brutal emotional beats in a small space. I think he has done as much as anyone to upend the notion of fantastic fiction as a white-by-default space, and I’m eager to see what he does next.
I always look forward to new short fiction by Zadie Smith and Helen Oyeyemi. Zadie Smith is, on a sentence-by-sentence level, one of my favorite writers, and those sentences really shine in shorter works. Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is one of the few short story collections I’ve read where every piece felt like it belonged together.
I think Dominica Phetteplace is critically underrated. Short fiction is a strange animal, and the constraints of telling a satisfying story in a small space require either a very good sense of economy of language or an elegance of prose that sweeps you away, and I think Dominica possesses both. Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s prose really has gorgeous, musical rhythms and is a pleasure to read. Eden Royce has such wonderfully specificity of details that I’m drawn in immediately. Ian Muneshwar is a master of pairing the repulsive with the alluring in a way that evokes Clive Barker’s best while maintaining a sensibility and aesthetic that is completely unique to him.
WCD: There are so many to list. To name a few, I really enjoy P. Djèlí Clark’s short fiction, and in particular “Night Doctors” (Nightmare Magazine) and his novella The Black God’s Drums. Celeste Rita Baker is also a favorite. Her World Fantasy Award-winning “Glass Bottle Dancer” (Lightspeed Magazine) is absolutely stunning, as is her anthology of shorts, Back, Belly & Side. She writes in Caribbean dialect and each story has a performance art quality—must be read aloud! I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Sheree Renée Thomas; her work inspired me to write short fiction in the first place. I took one of her writing courses at the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center in NY back in early 2000. I am thrilled to have a story included in her latest anthology, Africa Risen, with co-editors Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki and Zelda Knight. Africa Risen will be published by Tordotcom in 2022.
JG: Ted Chiang has a truly deft touch with science and emotionality. He always marries the science to an emotional core. Liu Cixin does a similar thing—I can’t stand his novels, but in short fiction, the way he writes science abets an emotional punch. Liu Cixin is also one of those worldbuilders who uses the short fiction form very ambitiously—“The Poetry Cloud” is one of my favourite short stories simply for the concept. “Literature teacher offered as a sacrifice by dinosaur diplomat challenges 6th dimension art curator to write poetry better than Li Bai” is kind of bananapants, a story that might be overwrought in novel form but delivers a certain poignancy couched in absurdity in a short.
N. K. Jemisin is lauded for her ambitious worldbuilding in her novels, but her short fiction is also incredible—she has such range in the types of stories she tells, and she can paint a world with such depth in a few thousand words as well as she can with several hundred.
TDJ: I’m gonna go classic on this. Stories stick with me more than individual authors; so an entire collection that engages me is a feat. Bloodchild and Other Stories (by the incomparable Octavia Butler) did that. Cover to cover, it wastes no words and deposits the reader in fully realized worlds.
There are also many excellent contemporary short fiction authors, but I don’t read when I’m writing, which means I’m pretty behind these days.
SJM: So many! Alyssa Wong, Usman Tanveer Malik, Isabel Yap, Aliette de Bodard, Nathan Ballingrud, Ken Liu, Sarah Pinsker, Amal El-Mohtar, Craig Laurance Gidney, Cassandra Khaw, P. Djèlí Clark, Tochi Onyebuchi, Meg Elison, Kelly Robson, K.M. Szpara, Rebecca Roanhorse, Fran Wilde, Carmen Maria Machado. I know I am forgetting so, so many and I beg their forgiveness and I thank them for their work.
RN: Instead of giving a list of names, let me shout out The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction (2021) edited by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki. This anthology is full of dope authors demonstrating what speculative fiction has been, is, and can be—such as Makena Onjerika’s deconstruction of depression in “Disassembly”. (Disclaimer: True, I have a story in this anthology, but the facts remain).
SP: There are so many! I’ll preface this by saying that I adore so much work coming out of the global South. It is fresh and insightful and needed, and I wish I could name all of the fabulous writers I’ve come across here.
This year I discovered H. Pueyo, an Argentine-Brazilian dark fantasy and horror writer. Her work is honest and doesn’t flinch from engaging with difficult truths. Her story “A Study in Ugliness”, published by The Dark, bowled me over for putting us in the POV of an unapologetically “unlikeable” protagonist whom I unapologetically liked.
Nadia Shammas is a Palestinian-American writer who, in my opinion, wrote one of the most important stories of 2021, “The Center of the Universe” published by Strange Horizons in their special Palestinian issue. It’s hard for me to articulate the truth contained in this piece. Shammas in a very short space deftly illustrated the lived experiences of Palestinians, and BIPOC generally, and the types of stories they are expected to tell for western audiences.
Finally, I love Eden Royce’s Southern Gothic short- and long-form fiction. Her centering of her Gullah-Geechee roots has been encouraging for me as a writer who wants to center my own Trinidadian heritage. Her work is moving, lyrical and compassionate. She’s been a favourite of mine for several years.
PR: One of the first short story writers I came to love is Ray Bradbury. One of my middle school teachers introduced me to The Illustrated Man. I can still remember reading “The Veldt” and the lions. I had never read anything like that. Such a range of stories and settings.
I also love Annie Proulx. She is terrific at characterization and can draw a vivid character in a couple of sentences. She’s also great at creating settings that become like characters.
ER: J. California Cooper—she had an incredible way of writing that always feels like she’s opening her heart and home to me.
Irenosen Okojie—for her bold, unapologetic, magic-lashed stories. Her imagination feels boundless, and it inspires me.
Randall Kenan—for his way of portraying the South, blending all of her magic and madness.
Zora Neale Hurston—for her determination and dedication to folklore and to putting dialect on the page.
ACW: Oh, uh. See above. Plus also Kristina Ten, C.S.E. Cooney, Tochi Onyebuchi, Eugenia Triantafyllou, Sarah Pinsker, L. Chan, Charles Payseur, Kelly Link, John Langan, Stephen Graham Jones, and Kelly Robson. See how I was sneaky there and listed several more names? And again, I feel like I’m only scratching the surface and I really could go on and on. There are so many amazing short fiction writers out there with distinct voices, experimenting with form, who are publishing incredible work. Anyone who thinks they don’t like short fiction or it isn’t worth the time should browse any one of the magazines publishing short fiction from the past five years, or take a chance on a recent short story collection or anthology and see what they’ve been missing!
What is one piece of advice you’d give to readers, and separately, one piece of advice you’d give to writers who are just starting out?
CC: To readers: I think it’s absolutely vital to sometimes push past discomfort with a story if that discomfort is caused by a character or situation not being immediately relatable to you. I don’t mean that you have to force yourself to read something you hate, or that you need to be bored. But sometimes there are stories that will only open themselves to you after you’ve let go of the idea of yourself as central. Sometimes you need to interrogate the reasons behind your discomfort.
For writers: I think a lot of writing advice tends to be pretty reductive, and I’m really hesitant to give out any. Why should anyone think I am more of an authority on writing than they are? I’m certainly not more of an authority on writing your work than you are. I suppose I can share something that has been helpful for me. It has been immensely helpful to discover that not every idea I have has to be a story immediately—or ever—and that I can start something and put it away if it’s not worth finishing, rather than attempting alchemy via the process of endless revision. You keep hearing that it’s important to finish things, and it is, but that doesn’t mean you have to finish everything, nor does it mean everything is worth finishing.
WCD: Join a critique group of trusted peers! If you can’t find one, create one. Meet regularly, collectively hone craft, and push one another to submit, submit, submit. My critique group pulled me out of a ten-year writing hiatus and gave me the confidence to submit my work for publication. To date, they have had the most significant impact on my writing career. In the Christian church we like to quote Matthew 18:20, “when two or more are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” The spiritualist in me believes this is true of all things. Be in the company of other writers, for this be where the muses flow.
JG: To read widely, and to submit boldly. R.B. Lemberg wrote on self-rejection many years ago, and their advice remains true: don’t self-reject, because rejection is the editors’ job, not the writers’.
Readers have a veritable buffet of works. Maybe not every bite works, but there’s always the next bite, and the next, and the next!
TDJ: To readers, we live in an algorithmic world. This can mean you are only exposed to maybe 5-20% of the work that’s available—that’s if you don’t explore. So be adventurous—get off the home page, seek out bookshops that hand sell books, check out what lies beyond the one who shall not be named (i.e., look for online shops that curate their collections), be open to small presses and indie authors. Invest a bit of time and money into trying something new.
For those writers who are just starting out (or any writers), define what success means to you and pursue it relentlessly (not to the exclusion of your happiness, mind you; just to the exclusion of distraction). Your definition of success may change; it may have nothing to do with what other people think is important. It need only be true to you, just like your words.
SJM: For writers: Read a ton! Read everything! Talk to other writers and readers, see what they’re loving, try new stuff even if it doesn’t seem like it’s your thing. There’s something to be learned from everyone!
For readers… I don’t know! I need them to give me some advice, lol.
RN: To readers: Be patient. To writers: If you think you’re doing it wrong, that’s alright because at least you’re doing it. Also to writers: Be patient.
SP: I try not to give readers advice as a writer. I will speak for myself as a reader and perhaps people will find something of value there. I come from an English Literary theory academic background. I do read for fun and escapism, but for many years I approached fiction in a critical way. I was taught to identify patterns and symbols and decipher what those could mean in the context of the narrative and their implications with respect to the world at large. For me, it’s been enlightening to reflect on what I like about a particular story. It’s useful to know why you’re drawn to certain arcs and narratives. When I was able to articulate why I liked a particular story it gave me the ability to appreciate other types of stories and make more deliberate choices in diversifying my reading beyond what makes me comfortable.
For writers who are just starting out, first of all, hugs. It’s rough out here. Take every opportunity you can get and learn as much as you can from it. Try to develop a critical eye for your own work by reading and critiquing as much as you can. Don’t self-reject. Don’t try to please everyone. Lean into what makes you, you. Take your weirdness and splash it all over the page. Have courage and tell the story only you can tell. You’ll find your audience.
PR: It’s tempting to think that all readers choose what to read the same way we do. But I have found there are any number of paths to the stack of books that waits for us. There was a time when I felt like I should read something because ‘it was good for me,’ which then led to avoiding reading. I wasted a whole summer not reading because I couldn’t get through On The Road by Jack Kerouac. For readers: Don’t waste time trying to slog through things you don’t like.
For writers, if I could go back in time and give myself one piece of advice it would be: Figure out your process and don’t keep doing things that don’t work for you.
There is always someone who will confidently advise: Write in the morning or write every day or achieve a certain word count.
If you aren’t a morning person, if you have a grueling work schedule or are parenting, trying to follow this kind of advice is going to be torture. Figure out what works for you. Try different things. The process that works for this project might change for the next.
ER: Experiment—with themes, format, sentence structure, everything you can as much as you can. Also spend some time writing things that you never intend to share with anyone.
ACW: To readers, I would say, read broadly! Seek out authors who are new-to-you. Seek out authors whose backgrounds are different from yours. Seek out different genres. You may discover something you never thought you’d love that will become a new favorite.
To authors starting out, I would also say read broadly. I would add never underestimate the power of a good critique group or critique partner. Having even one extra set of outside eyes on a piece before you send it out on submission can be so valuable. Plus, you then have someone to celebrate with and commiserate with over the tough business that is writing. You can be each other’s cheerleaders and hold each other accountable when it comes to writing goals.
For readers who don’t know your work, if they read one piece by you, which one would it be, and why?
CC: One piece! This feels a little Sophie’s Choice. I don’t think there’s any work I’ve sold in the last decade that I don’t think represents who I am as an artist. But I guess if you really wanted to get a feel for a lot of the little obsessions that have come up over the course of the interview, I would have to say to read “Femme and Sundance” in Uncanny.
WCD: I am going to cheat and recommend three pieces. My serial Carnivale is a good example of my dark imagination. It will be packaged into a single novel by Broken Eye Books in 2022. “Revival” originally published in the inaugural edition of FIYAH Literary Magazine under byline Wendi Dunlap, and republished in Lightspeed Magazine, is an intergalactic reimagining of my experience as a 19-year-old pregnant college student. I also recommend “Interstate Africana”, originally published in the 2020 “Joy” issue of FIYAH and scheduled to be reprinted in the upcoming Future Splendor anthology (2022) by Bee Infinite Publishing. Lastly—okay I lied, four pieces—please check out my flash fiction piece, “The Front Line”, originally published in Breathe FIYAH by Tor.com, and currently featured in the first ever The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction by Jembefola Press. For more of my fiction, please visit wcdunlap.com.
JG: This is a “favourite child” question and I don’t like it! My two most widely-read works are “The Last Cheng Beng Gift” and “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea”, but they are extremely different. But let’s go with the weirder one, “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea” because it has bobbit worm mermaids and horrific sex, which is not exactly my brand, but has the strangeness that I love speculative fiction for. [Reprinted in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020]
TDJ: One piece? We’re all so different; things hit differently. I’d like to say Broken Fevers or R/evolution. Then you have some diversity or could see how a novel in stories works—and as I’m a generally a short-short story author, you may be surprised at their lengths.
If I can’t cheat, I’ll say “Bare,” which is in Broken Fevers. It doesn’t have the humor of some of my work or the social commentary on race/class/gender or the environmental world building, but it gives some intimation of the depths we may reach if you go further with me and the kind of things you’ll see there. It’s first in the collection because I think it’s a good introduction to my work. Hopefully you’ll want to immerse yourself once you’ve dipped your toe in.
SJM: I’d say start with my short story “Things With Beards” in Clarkesworld, because it’s got all my obsessions—queerness and passing and HIV/AIDS and resisting police violence and shapeshifting bloodthirsty aliens. If you hate that, you’ll probably hate the other stuff, too. But if you dig it, there’s some more cool stuff—check out my website to connect with the rest of it.
RN: I’d say start with “Trash Can Rap” (published in Nature Futures, July 2020) because it’s short and that little robot be dropping knowledge.
SP: My story “Laughter Among the Trees” published by The Dark in February 2021 is probably one of the most honest pieces I’ve written. It seemed to have resonated with people so I’d probably start there.
PR: “The Battle of Little Big Science”, originally published in Asimov’s (Aug 2010) [reprinted in Expanded Horizons]. It’s funny and sad and features bureaucracy, elders, the false promise that history can be changed, and bingo.
ER: Why is this always the hardest question? I think it would be “The Choking Kind” from my first short story collection, Spook Lights: Southern Gothic Horror, reprinted in PodCastle. That story is based on a story my grandmother told me when I was a little girl and it stuck with me all this time—probably because it sent a shiver down my spine as I listened to it. I kept my grandmother’s story and the feeling it gave me in mind as I wrote “The Choking Kind” and it will always remind me of her.
ACW: Oh geez. Maybe “How the Trick Is Done”, which was published in Uncanny Magazine. It contains many of the things I mentioned above—ghosts, magicians, and queer characters. It isn’t too horror-y for folks who aren’t into that, but still contains a decent amount of darkness, and it’s free to read online!
• • • •
Christopher Caldwell is a queer, Black American living abroad in Glasgow, Scotland with his partner, Alice. His work has appeared in Fiyah, Strange Horizons, and Uncanny Magazine, among others. You can follow him on twitter @seraph76.
WC Dunlap draws her inspiration from the complexities of a Black Baptist middle-class upbringing by southern parents in northern New Jersey, and all that entails for a brown skin girl growing up in America. Equally enthralled by the divine and the demonic with a professional background in data & tech, she seeks to bend genres with a unique lens on fantasy, fear, and the future. She is currently completing her first full-length novel, a macabre horror thriller about lycans, the nature of evil, and the end of the world. Follow WC Dunlap on twitter @wcdunlap_tales and visit wcdunlap.com.
Jaymee Goh writes, reviews, and edits speculative fiction, with work published in Science Fiction Studies, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. She is a graduate from the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop and works for Tachyon Publications.
Tenea D. Johnson is a multimedia storyteller, musician, editor, arts & empowerment entrepreneur, and award-winning author of 7 speculative fiction works, including 2021’s releases, Frequencies, a Fiction Album, and Broken Fevers, of which Publisher’s Weekly wrote “the 14 hard-hitting, memorable short stories and prose vignettes in this powerhouse collection … are astounding in their originality.” Her virtual home is teneadjohnson.com. Stop by anytime.
Sam J. Miller’s books have been called “must reads” and “bests of the year” by USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, and O: The Oprah Magazine, among others. He is the Nebula-Award-winning author of Blackfish City, which has been translated into six languages and won the hopefully-soon-to-be-renamed John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Sam’s short stories have won a Shirley Jackson Award and been nominated for the World Fantasy, Theodore Sturgeon, and Locus Awards, and have been reprinted in dozens of anthologies. He’s also the last in a long line of butchers. He lives in New York City, and at samjmiller.com.
Russell Nichols is a speculative fiction writer and endangered journalist. Raised in Richmond, California, he got rid of all his stuff in 2011 to live out of a backpack with his wife, vagabonding around the world ever since. Look for him at russellnichols.com.
Suzan Palumbo is originally from Trinidad and Tobago. She is a writer, ESL teacher, Ignyte Awards Administrator and a member of the Hugo-nominated FIYAHCON team. She is also a former associate editor of the illustrious Shimmer magazine. Her work has been published in The Deadlands, The Dark Magazine, PseudoPod, PodCastle, Fireside Fiction Quarterly, Anathema: Spec Fic from the Margins and other venues. When she isn’t writing, she can be found sketching, listening to new wave or wandering her local misty forests as Lesbian Satan.
Pamela Rentz is a citizen of the Karuk Tribe and works as a paralegal specializing in tribal affairs. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and her work has appeared in Asimov’s, Apex, and Fantasy Magazine. Her personal website is pamrentz.com.
Eden Royce is a writer from Charleston, South Carolina. She’s a Shirley Jackson Award nominee and a recipient of the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Diverse Worlds grant. Her short fiction can be found in various print and online magazines including FIYAH Literary Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, Strange Horizons, Nightmare Magazine, and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror. Her debut middle grade Southern Gothic novel Root Magic is out now from Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins. Find her online at linktr.ee/edenroyce.
AC Wise is the author of the novels Wendy, Darling and Hooked (forthcoming) from Titan Books, along with three short fiction collections including The Ghost Sequences, recently published by Undertow Books. Her work has won the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, and has been a finalist for the Sunburst, Nebula, Aurora, Lambda, and Ignyte Awards. In addition to her fiction, she contributes review columns to Apex Magazine and The Book Smugglers. Find her online at acwise.net and on twitter as @ac_wise.
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