May 13, 2022

BEHIND THE ZINES with Marie Baca Villa, Assistant Editor, Marketing, Blogger & Submissions Reader at APPARITION LIT

This month’s interview in my BEHIND THE ZINES interview series features Marie Baca Villa. She wears a few different hats at Apparition Lit: Assistant Editor, Marketing, Blogger, & Submissions Reader and I am so grateful that she was able to chat with me about her work.

Each Behind the Zines interview is first published on my Patreon, and later here at Maria's Reading.

More about Marie Baca Villa:

Marie Baca Villa is a chicana writer and artist in California. She has a master's degree in psychology and used her education to build a long career in crime victim advocacy. As a fan of speculative fiction, she loves anything involving strange worlds, complex characters, and unexplained phenomenon. She's a bonified cat lady, covered in tattoos, and she loves cussing, beer, and flaming hot cheetos. You can find Marie on Twitter @okay_its_marie.

Q. Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your background, where did you grow up, and what do you do outside the world of speculative fiction?

Marie Baca Villa: My name is Marie Baca Villa, and I hail from sunny southern California. In addition to writing and editing, I’m also a visual artist, and my day-job is coordinating a forensic sexual assault center, where victims of sexual assault and child abuse can go to get supportive services. It’s very serious work, and it’s what propelled me directly into the world of speculative fiction because, at the end of my very long day, I can always do with some wonderful escapism.

Q. You are part of the team behind Apparition Lit, a speculative fiction zine that has been around since 2018. What attracted you to the speculative fiction genre initially - as a child or young adult (or adult)? Were there any particular stories, books, movies, TV-shows, or something else that sucked you into the world of speculative fiction?

MBV: I can definitely say my mom opened that door for me, beginning at a very young age. She never shied away from the likes of Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, etc etc. She loved a good ghost story. One fateful day, I picked up her first edition copy of Firestarterand it was all over. As I grew, I found horror to be a very happy home for me, and in particular modern horror. Everything from Carnival of Souls to Scream. I love 80s and 90s schlock; you name it, and I’ve seen it. After 9/11, postmodern horror began to set in and I lost my sight for it, so entered my interest in sci-fi. The classics, of course, from Soylent Green and Logan's Run to X-files and Stargate. In recent years, I’ve come to love cerebral sci-fi, like Moon and Ex Machina, that blends the horror of being human with the fantastical visions of the future of humanity. You’ll notice not much mention of fantasy. Sadly, before this point in my life, I had scarcely allowed myself to be interested in fantasy. Joining Apparition Lit has altered my view on that and has opened my eyes to the beauty of fantasy writing. I’m still getting my feet wet, but I know there’s many great pieces waiting for me to experience!

Q. You have a few different roles at Apparition Lit: assistant editor, marketing, blogger, and submission reader. Can you tell us a bit about each of these roles and what’s involved for you in your work at the zine? What are some of your favorite things about the work you do at Apparition Lit?

MBV: Yes, and oddly enough, I really do all of that bit by bit! Slushing is by and large my biggest role as we have really started to pick up steam and gain submission numbers. I am a first submission reader, so I get to dive right into subs and just start moving through them. I occasionally do second and third readings when other readers want extra eyes, and now I also get to provide feedback to the senior and guest editors about which of our held pieces I would most like to see published. My favorite part of this experience is that every reader and editor at Apparition have vastly different tastes and ideas. It has taught me so much, both as a reader and writer, about how finding the right voice and home for your piece can mean the difference between a rejection and a hold. And also, how rejections are rarely, if ever, personal. They’re just about who is reading and what they see for your piece at their publication.

In my second year of working with Apparition LIt, they gave me the reins over the App Lit Blog. I exclusively write all of the blog posts that are put up on our site, and it’s quite fun. In my first year, I’ve kept it light and enjoyable for our readers. My primary features are the guest editor Q&As, where I interview each of our partners. I’m in awe of the amazing insights, knowledge, and gifts those editors have seeded in those answers. I also love to do curated playlists for every issue; posts highlighting accomplishments and updates; and throw in the occasional seasonal game/printable. Marketing comes into play where I am primarily responsible for the fun visuals you get on our blog and Patreon posts; the most prominent of these are our Patreon exclusive visuals which show our submission stats and results.

Last, and definitely not least, I assist reading, selecting, and editing our monthly flash contest winners. Editing flash has its own unique opportunities; namely, the word count has meant that the authors have already ruthlessly cut into their own work, and we are really just left with the occasional tweak. It makes it easy and enjoyable, and getting the opportunity to see new work every month keeps the voices in our magazine fresh and exciting.

Q. How did you get involved with the zine? And did you have any expectations or worries before you started? How has the actual work been compared to what you expected?

MBV: Apparition Lit graciously opened up applications to become a submission reader, and so I took a chance and was selected. I was so honored, and the other readers who came in with me (Maria Schrater and Tamoha Sengupta) are world class, so I am still so excited to be here. Only one worry - every author’s worry, truly - was that I wouldn’t fit in and/or measure up. The team as a whole is so amazing and supportive, and from the first editors meeting, those fears have faded. They have given us all many opportunities to get involved beyond reading (see my answer to your previous question) and I can’t imagine a better environment in which to read/contribute. As I shared a bit before, it has also taught me that most, if not all, editors/readers behind a magazine/publication are just fellow writers doing their best to make the best publication. Rejections are not personal; decisions can be hard; and competition is fierce because there truly are so many amazing writers out there. It has given me more confidence in submitting, and we often echo this sentiment (in our twitter, on the blog, on the website) to encourage people to consider us! We are truly great to work with!

Q. What have you learned since you started at Apparition Lit, and what are some of the most enjoyable things vs. the hardest things about what you do?

MBV: Oh boy, am I really going to take a third opportunity to say rejections are not personal? Yes, I am. Because while reading, and getting the honor of reading amazing works, is truly the best part of this experience, choosing which pieces to pass on is the hardest. Every one of us at the magazine has our own unique tastes and interests. I have loved stories dearly to only see them rejected by another reader. And vice versa. Some stories that we never got to publish still come to mind on occasion as truly stand out pieces, and all I can say is that I hope they found a home! Sometimes I love a story so much, it actually hurts my feelings when it gets passed on. I think “How can you not see how great this is??” and I’m sure the author is thinking the same. The reality is a good magazine, like ours, really hashes out the strengths and weaknesses of a story and isn’t afraid to be honest about if something is a good fit. That is how our issues come together so successfully. Sometimes, at the end of the day, it’s a hard decision you have to make to truly get the best product.

Q. What do you look for in a story when you’re going through the submission pile for Apparition Lit? And is there any advice you would give to writers wanting to submit stories to Apparition Lit or any other zine?

MBV: Yes, I wrote a whole blog post about this once! The dos and don’ts of submitting. I’ll start with my personal do’s and some of our magazine dos. First, I love a good tearjerker. Not in a sappy way, but in an authentic, moving way that shows me the author was not afraid to give characters and conflict depth and challenges. I also love a good horror piece. We don’t get a ton of horror, for some reason or another, and - fair warning - not all of the other editors/readers enjoy horror, but boy do I love a good horror story in the slush pile. For the magazine, one of the best things we love is intention. When a piece comes to us with a cover letter that demonstrates they’re familiar with our publication and intentional with our submission, we feel very seen and appreciate the author’s attention to detail. In terms of what not to do: do not ignore our guidelines and rules. They exist for a reason. We always get a range of pieces that fall so far outside of anything we are interested in (or break our rules) and it takes our time away from truly deserving pieces. This is not the same as self-rejecting. Self-rejecting is when you have a good piece you think will fit but do not feel you can take the time to submit to us. I am talking about people who don’t even bother to read the call/guidelines and its obvious to us in a variety of ways. Intention is best and will always put you ahead in the game, even if your piece doesn’t end up being selected. Editors will appreciate your efforts!

Q. I love Apparition Lit’s flash fiction contests. I’m guessing you get a lot of submissions for this contest every month and I know a lot of people love writing for the prompts. What are your thoughts on the benefits of prompts and contests like this, and also: as a submission reader, do you see a big range in what types of stories come in for these contests?

MBV: Truthfully, sometimes we get flooded. That’s when it gets tricky, because since it’s flash, and monthly, we are trying to be ruthless, but we get caught up in many stories and it’s back to being the hard decision we never wanted to make. With the high number of submissions we see, it also means we see so many fantastical interpretations of our prompts. We see everything from the literal to the types of stories that have only a faint reflection of our prompt. We welcome everything, because true to form, you never really know what is going to grab you until you read it…

I personally love a themed/prompted contest. Apexalso does a good one, which is microflash, and I like to take a stab every month. Sometimes the prompts are elusive for a writer, and that can both be an exciting challenge and also a sign that maybe this month they just won’t have anything to submit. That’s fine! There’s always next month! I also see authors who use it as an exercise to practice and challenge themselves, and really keep up with it just for their own benefit, not even to get published. I am the same way! I have written to many a prompt and just shelved it. You never know what seeds you will plant!

Q. Has being involved behind the scenes affected your view of the business of genre fiction publishing, compared to your perspective before? Have you gained any insights you didn’t previously have?

MBV: Is this the fourth time I will mention rejection? Yeah. It can not be overstated. Before entering Apparition Lit, I viewed magazines and publications to be a monolith of tastes and an impenetrable fortress. Now I know there truly are homes for all types of work, and it’s really just about the challenge of finding the right publication. It does not mean your piece is not wonderful; it just means it was not for us. Never mind, on to the next! Take heart and don’t self-reject!

Q. For writers and readers out there who might be thinking about getting involved with a zine in any capacity, what would you say to them? Do you have any tips and / or advice?

Be sure you like/love the publication you want to join! I have now met many a slush reader, and one thing is for sure is that we all compare notes about how our publications work, our comfort working with specific editors, and how much we enjoy reading the types of submissions we get. Just like finding the right home for your work, you can also be selective about finding the right home for your unique tastes and skills and you should know that every magazine out there works differently. No two are alike. Ask around, talk to current readers, and see how you can get involved at any level before diving in!

Q. Anything in particular you want to promote here, some exciting projects coming up for you?

MBV: I have no big projects on the horizon, but I am ridiculously excited about this year’s flash contest prompts. We have a range of beautiful photos rolling out every month, from amazing female photographers, and so far we have seen some stunning pieces get submitted. Check us out monthly! And please read our guidelines!

Thanks so much to Marie Baca Villa, and check out all the great poetry and fiction in Apparition Lit!


May 8, 2022

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup for April 2022

The artwork for this roundup features a detail of the cover for The Deadlands #12 - "Charon's Burden" by Julie Dillon. More about the artist here:

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:

Upside Down Frown by Jarred Thompson in Fiyah #22

Thompson’s story is set in a future society that has gotten past a looming climate disaster, and which might, if you look at it one way, be some kind of everyday, almost-utopia. There’s a new treatment for physical and mental discomfort and pain, for example: electroceutical surgery, a procedure that rewires the pain pathways in a person’s nervous system. There is also a Department of Happiness (lovely and Orwell-esque), which gives each citizen an in-depth life narrative analysis, advising them on how to set goals for their future and how to achieve those goals. And the newest thing is a “social cohesion project” meant to “heal inter-generational scars on the nation’s psyche”. Cassandra, the story’s protagonist, is not convinced that these things are all completely good for people or society, even though some of them might be. In her work as a museum curator, she is putting together an exhibit that is meant to explore history and the human spirit (“wrought, tortured, pummelled, yet enduring”) and that work might clash with what the Department of Happiness considers good and necessary work. It’s a great science fiction tale that delves deep into what is needed to achieve peace and real happiness for humans and society, and what we’re willing to do, and give up, in order to live together. There’s deep complexities here and I love how Thompson creates a world that is really neither a utopia nor a dystopia, rather a place where people are trying to figure out how to live.


Once on a Midsummer’s Night by Vanessa Fogg in GigaNotoSaurus

Fogg writes an epic tragedy that is also an epic fantasy and an epic romance, twisting together past and present in a beautiful, heartbreaking tale. There’s the Now of a boy entering a garden: a garden that remembers him, and wonders if he will remember everything he needs to remember before the wheel spins again and the chance to heal what was once broken is lost again. And there’s the past where a boy met a girl and they fell in love, before wars and pain and darkness tore them and the world itself apart. Fogg tells her story with a gentle touch, but that only goes to make the story more powerful and makes it cut deeper. I love how the grand sweep of a world falling into ruin is so intimately woven together with the personal tragedy of a man and a relationship being changed and torn asunder.


The Travel Guide to the Dimension of Lost Things by Effie Seiberg at Podcastle (narrated by Summer Fletcher)

Have you ever felt so tired that you just don’t feel anymore? Where you wake up, burrowed under the covers with a shaft of light somehow piercing through them and right into your brain, and realize that here comes one more day you need to endure, to wait through, until you can blessedly sleep again and stop experiencing this whole existence thing?

This is where I am.

Seiberg takes the serious issue of depression, where every small chore and act and movement seems too difficult to accomplish, and twines it together with a uniquely imagined portal fantasy. There may be no dragons to slay through this portal, no evil rulers to defeat, but there is a quest and a purpose: to go on, to live, to find the path to feeling better. It’s a brilliant story that manages to both capture the awful heaviness and inertia of depression, while also showing that there is hope, without ever giving into being maudlin or shallow like a motivational quote-poster.


Valor Bones by Derrick Boden in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

A tale of terror and woe, of terrifying magic and people being used (even killed) for profit and gain. In Boden’s story Leti flees her family and her home, and ends up in the bog outside town. There, a monster is born that is both part and not part of Leti herself. Leti feeds it: words and stories, objects too, tales both real and fictional and all the while the monster grows. But the horror in this story is not Leti’s monster, but what is happening in her town, in her house, in her family. And as that tale of dark deeds and horror is unraveled, the monster finds its own purpose too.


This is I by KT Bryski in The Deadlands

High in her eyrie, Elaine adjusts the beams of her loom. Hot, motionless air slicks the space between her shoulder blades. Her fingers cramp. She ignores the ache, weaving with the dispassionate industry of a spider, or a good Victorian housewife.

Knights ride along the road, two by two. Abbots, damsels, pageboys, shepherds. Passing her taciturn tower, they cross themselves and shudder.

Fuck them.

A multi-faceted masterpiece of a story, Bryski delves deep into the way women artists are often minimized or entirely forgotten (both while they're alive, and after), and how some women in literature and art have been stripped of their own agency in order to serve the narratives of men. And all of this wrapped up in the most glorious prose and a story that leaps and soars through history, art, and art history. To quote Bryski from her Twitter thread on this story:  "I got really mad about the way the pre-Raphaelites treated Elizabeth Siddall and combined my historical hot takes with a riff on the Lady of Shalott."


Trowel, Brush, Bones by Audrey R. Hollis in PseudoPod (narrated by Ibba Armancas)

We return to the compound that night exhausted. We flop into bed. We don’t stay awake long. We stay awake hours, looking at the stars. We’ve never seen stars like these before. We haven’t seen stars like these since we moved to the city. We get caught up looking at the milky way. We, all of us, miss home. 

A group of female archeology students are at a dig run by a male professor and his (also male) helper, digging up artefacts and bones at a site that might have once been inhabited by witches. The past is unsettling here, both because of what might have happened then, and how the remains are being treated now by the professor. Adding to the unease and tension is the ever-present spectre of a professor who has a reputation for getting way too touchy-feely with his students. Hollis twines all the threads together into an unsettling, ever-more disturbing tale, where the bones seem to whisper stories into the dreams of the women. I love the way Hollis uses second person plural here, the "we", and it adds a layer of complexity and depth to this story that makes it even more powerful.


Knotlings by Aliya Whiteley in The Dark

Body horror, existential horror, psychological horror... this story has all that and more. I'm not even going to try to describe the central "thing" that happens to the narrator and her son in this story, because it really is something best read within the context of the story. I can tell you that this story, and the ways its central "mystery" can be interpreted, will live in my head for a long time. Mother and son both have the same condition here, but in the end, it turns out they deal very differently with what happens to them, and what the son does... horrifies the mother at least initially. It's an unsettling, deeply disturbing, and uniquely imagined story that is not easily explained, but it sure as heck packs a powerful punch.


Men, Women, and Chainsaws by Stephen Graham Jones at

If you've read Stephen Graham Jones's book My Heart Is a Chainsaw, you'll know that the man has a real deep knowledge of, and love for, old slasher movies and old horror movies in general. In this story, Jones weaves in allusions to, and a homage to, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (yes, the sequel) in this story about Jenna, and there are definite callbacks to Stephen King's Christine as well. There's a haunted/possessed/blood-drinking car, there's a revenge arc with Jenna's ex, and there's the unraveling of a mystery too, specifically the mystery of how Jenna's parents died. This story feels almost like a companion piece to My Heart Is a Chainsaw and I think Jade from that novel, and Jenna from this story, might become very fast friends if they ever managed to meet.


Beginnings by Kristina Ten in Fantasy Magazine

In the beginning, June and Nat are best friends. June is not yet a swarm of honeybees and Nat is not yet a cloud of horseflies, and the king hasn’t yet decided that separating them into parts like this—June’s left pinky finger one bee, her left ring finger another—is the only surefire way to strip them of what they really are. Which, at least in the beginning, is best friends, living together on the outskirts of town, sharing a dresser full of secondhand band tees, squeezing lemon juice onto one another’s hair in the summer, then sitting together on the blacktop to wait.

If you love fairytales, and fairytales being twisted and reimagined in new ways, then this story by Kristina Ten is definitely for you. I love all those things, and I love this story. Ten's story twists and loops around itself, it progresses, but it comes back to the beginning, this beginning, over and over again: "beginnings can be beautiful, something worth lingering and lingering in". (Read the interview with Kristina Ten for more about her inspiration for this story.) This is a love story, a romance, a tragedy, and a twisted fairytale, and it is beautiful. 

Collecting Ynes by Lisa M. Bradley in Fantasy Magazine

Ynes doesn’t remember the marigold, but she has a recurring dream in which she accidentally swallows an entire tangerine. She grows very warm and realizes it was not a tangerine at all but a small sun. She knows if she tells her mother what she swallowed, there will be a panic. So instead, she keeps her mouth shut. The sun sits warm in her belly and shines tendrils of light down her arms and legs. When rays escape her fingertips, she puts on mittens.

I love this tale about Ynes so much. Bradley tells an evocative and lyrical story about a girl who starts changing, slowly but surely, after ingesting what she thinks of as a small sun. Ynes keeps changing throughout her life, much to the consternation of family and others. Her powers and her connection to plants (and especially the way plants and trees react to her) end up making her life, and eventually her career, very interesting. And what happens after she dies makes for a transformative ending. I love Bradley's prose and the musical, poetic rhythm of the tale.


An Expression of Silence by Beth Goder in Clarkesworld

She will meet the sentient beings of Ekara C like this, with juice running down her chin, in her worn jogging pants. If she’s going to die, she wants to be comfortable.

This is a wonderful, subtle and brilliant short story about first contact between humanity, in the form of Riley, an astronaut from Earth, and Yyfal’s of Ekara C (their body "is a mountain stretching from the lower valley of Turlanar to the coasts of Greater Dorn"). Goder shows us the first encounter, and what happens after, from both viewpoints, exploring the communication problems and misunderstandings, but also how the will and courage to give the other side the benefit of the doubt, of having just a bit of trust and a lot of curiosity, can bring about unexpected new insights (and adventures). It's a beautiful, subtle, finely crafted story that has a lot of depth beneath the surface.


Hiraeth Heart by Lulu Kadhim in khลrรฉล 

She smiles. All the time that has passed since I was a girl is in the lines around her mouth.

“The heart yearns,” she says, “not just for what it had, but for what it almost had, too.”

We make bed for the night, right by the fire, side by side.

This story brought me to tears. It's 950 words, and packs so much beauty and loss and pain and love into that space. The narrator is traveling with her mother, traveling through stories and memories, and a landscape that is intimately familiar to the narrator, even though she has never been there. A place she has seen through her mother's stories all her life. Kadhim captures the feeling of both mother and child so beautifully. I also love how gently Kadhim captures the experience of having a profound connection to a place you've never been, and the kind of longing that brings with it.


Everything the Sea Takes, It Returns by Izzy Wasserstein in Lightspeed

Just as no coastline is impervious, just as the sea claims what it will, grief can hollow a heart. Who can say what will fill it?

Oh, what a story. Near future scifi, set in a world that hasn't exactly experienced an apocalypse, but is definitely in dire straits both environmentally, socially, and politically. We follow Jess through her life from when she loses her grandmother at 16, through love and loss, despair and hope. Jess keeps wandering the coast, up and down, here and there, and the sea takes and it gives, it carries things away and might return them again, but nothing is the same even if it comes back. Gorgeous writing by Wasserstein.


Where the Heather Grows by Shaoni C. White in Nightmare

Every now and then she messes up. She’ll let herself hear water dripping or rushing or pouring or roaring and then the melody will come. The song will trickle into her ears, note by note, line by line. Once the song starts, it’s hard to remember where she is, what year she’s in, what name she has. It’s crucial that she stops it, that she stems the river. If she doesn’t, the flood will come.

White tells a chilling, haunting, twisted tale of old sins, strange dark magics, and murder in "Where the Heather Grows", a story which is partly written in the form of emails (and which uses that epistolary form to great effect). Clara has a fear of water, even the sound of it, and definitely the feel of it. It haunts her and threatens to change her (or maybe change her back) into something other. There's a great interview with White in Nightmare about the Child Ballads that were an important inspiration: 

The Child Ballads are a great example of this, which is why I became obsessed enough with one of them to twist it to my purposes in this story: “The Cruel Sister,” also known as “Two Sisters” or “Wind and Rain.”


Rider Reviews for FerrymanCharon by Guan Un in Translunar Travelers Lounge

Review by LostAndLonelySoul:

4 Stars: Quick and prompt service. Ferry driver was prompt and efficient. Although might want to do something about that smell.

This story is part of a terrific issue of Translunar Travelers Lounge. It serves up some slices of Greek mythology in a flash fiction story written as a series of reviews, all with responses by BossHades. Funny, and with a neat twist at the end.

Bee Balm Bergamot’s Tele-Sympathic Space Cats by Adam Lee Weatherford in Translunar Travelers Lounge

When I got here, TS Space was mostly void, and we few residents were okay with that. We were minds loosed from bodies. We explored the frontiers of a new way of being. We toyed with our own perceptions of time, space, and being in radical, nearly psycho-phantasmagoric parties.

A former barista now sells virtual cats in a virtual reality called Tele-Sympathic Space that has recently opened to paying customers. The former barista, AKA Bee-Balm-Bergamot has some objections to the new way of doing things in TS Space, and while it seems B-B-B is playing along... well, there might be more to their welcome message than meets the eye. A lovely science fiction flash with something rebellious brewing beneath the surface. 


Heavy Possessions by Seoung Kim in Strange Horizons

Why do you ignore me, like a warning light in your car or a toothache you can’t afford? In those first few days, you barely reply when I talk. I was bored and lonely even before I died, so you can imagine how much worse it is living with someone who thinks you’re the result of laced weed or possibly ergot.

Ok, so this one came out in early May but I’m sneaking it into this April roundup anyway because I love it so much. A young woman is working online as a digital medium, pretending to be able to contact the spirits of the dead and communicating with the people who want to speak to them again. It’s a sham, but then something unexpected happens: the spirit of a dead woman enters her body for real. I love how this story is so gentle as two very different people share the same body, and find that they have things to learn from each other.  


Letters from Roger by Emily Sanders in Apparition Lit

June 22

Lettie has died again.

I thought that the sickness would stay gone from her, but it seems that the cure we were promised was a myth. Her mind took to the hallucinations quickly this time, and by 2 p.m. she had gone over into that place from which no one returns. This time, I think it is permanent.

A quiet, enigmatic, and rather terrifying horror tale of a strange disease that we follow in a series of letters from Roger. I love how the plain, straightforward style at the beginning slowly morphs into something more twisted and dark as the story progresses. There are hints of quarantine and physical distancing here, but whatever this sickness is, it might be even more frightening than COVID. This story was the winner of the Apparition Literary Magazine March Flash Fiction Challenge.


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April 13, 2022

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup - March 2022


The art for this roundup includes a detail of the cover for Fantasy Magazine #77. Cover art by ะะฝะฝะฐ ะ‘ะพะณะฐั‚ั‹ั€ะตะฒะฐ / Adobe Stock.

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:


The Angel Azrael Encounters the Revelation Pilgrims and Other Curiosities by Peter Darbyshire in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

The angel Azrael rode across the badlands on the dead horse for so many days and nights that he became lost, until a dying woman’s bloody bible set him on a path back to the world.

An absolutely wild and captivating weird west tale, Darbyshire's story involves angels walking the earth after some kind of devastating apocalyptic event that has laid waste to much of mankind. There are also nephilim about, we encounter zombies and terrifying gargoyles, and there are bibles of various kinds that are sources of power and magic. At the beginning of the story, the angel Azrael is entrusted with a powerful book of a different kind from a dying woman and he promises to bring it to her daughter in a place called Jerusalem's Sorrow. What happens after that is an angelic/diabolical western tale of deception and strife that had me hooked from beginning to end. Brilliant worldbuilding and characters.

A Nickel For The Burlap Man by Patty Templeton in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

This is folklore-horror-fantasy of the very best kind. In a tense and taut tale studded with shards of violence and darkness, Templeton lays out the chilling backstory to what is introduced in the story's first paragraph:

 If you walk west of town and into the woods there’s a scarecrow. A steward of the forest instead of the field. He’s nailed to repurposed railroad ties. The cross obstructs a cart-sized hole in a cottonwood tree. The scarecrow is a cadaver wrapped in potato sacks. His exposed hands are leathered. Critters’ve nibbled fingers to pointed bone. Bit through boot, sock, and honed his toes. The face is not a face. It’s a middle-meeting seam gracelessly sewn. He has no hat.

A masterclass in folk-horror that packs an emotional punch.


Becomes the Color by E. Catherine Tobler in Three-Lobed Burning Eye

“Muscle, bone, and marrow dissolved, deepened the turquoise, and created the darker depths, where the blue went black.” 

A hauntingly, eerily beautiful story about a very strange lake with an ominous and mysterious history. When the narrator goes back to the lake, and a nearby cabin, after many years away, the ghosts of the past are present everywhere. Near the water, even the landscape seems nightmarish or dreamlike as night comes. I love the way Tobler gives us a sense of a larger world, and a life lived, beyond the edges of the story, and I love how the darkness (and the mystery) deepens with every line and paragraph.

Oak moss and Ambergris by Joe Koch in Three-Lobed Burning Eye

This story is filled with heady scents and beguiling perfumes, and it's set in a future where there is an interplanetary smuggling business involving various rare and expensive compounds that are valued specifically for their scent. Laden, the protagonist, has been working as a mule, smuggling such substances inside their body, for years, but the work has changed them (and has taken a toll) in more ways than one. This is an emotionally and erotically charged story of love and desire, greed and lust and transformation. It's science fiction with a carnal, hungry vibe and I adore every bit of it.


Ribbons by Natalia Theodoridou in Uncanny Magazine

Monday’s lover tugs at Jan’s ribbon with his teeth. Jan doesn’t yell at the lover to stop. The guy just received bad news from the front—a friend lost to a bomb, perhaps, a sibling blown to bits; Jan doesn’t ask. He tells the lover, instead, to be careful: We don’t want my head rolling off now, do we? We’ve all heard of them, after all, the stories of women taking it off and their heads falling to the ground.

If you're looking for a story to tenderly, gently, yet fiercely undo your heart and soul, then this story by Theodoridou is the perfect thing. Jan lives in a world of war and strife, trying to find a way to live with the grief and sorrow and longing that permeates his life. Jan also wonders about the ribbon around his neck, about those he meets that wear no ribbons, wondering what that would be like. There is love and caring in this story, violence and fear too, sex and desire as well, gender and identity, but what gets me the most is the gentleness beneath it all.


Seven Times Seven by A.C. Wise in Kaleidotrope

They are going to have to look. They are going to have to face the thing in the trunk and know for sure what it is they brought out of the woods. The dreams could merely be memories. They could. But they don’t know for sure.

(They know. They do not want to know, but they do.)

A twisted, twisting, harrowing tale of Jax who is in a car with a timer on the seat and a creature (maybe) in the trunk and the memories of their friend and lover Marcus running through their head. Jax is trying to get everything they want, but what they have to do to get it, what they have already done (maybe?), could also be their undoing. I love how reality is changeable and slippery here, as Wise lets memory and fear and hope weave together in Jax's mind. Whatever Jax brought out of the woods, whatever they left behind, nothing is certain in this tale except Jax's desperation and pain.


Hush by Mary Anne Mohanraj at

A subtle, quiet science fiction story about violence and bigotry and about the small, everyday choices we can make in order to reduce the evil of the world, even if it's just in some small, flawed way. The story is about Jenny, who returns to her home planet in the midst of widespread and ominous civil unrest. There are anti-alien protests, and a stay-at-home-order, and all Jenny wants to do is go home. However, her homecoming is made more complicated when she has to escort her neighbor Katika, an alien Razuli girl, home safely.


Nine Tails of a Soap Empire by Maria Dong in Lightspeed

I’ve never told him about the coal I swallowed three years ago, the way it has plagued me ever since. Some nights, when I’m trying to sleep, it burns like the feathers of the vermilion firebird, five-colored fury that threatens to turn me to ash. Other times, it is barely the faint warmth of a finger on a wrist, a flutter that could be drowned out by the pulse of a thumb.

But the coal is always lit. I am always hungry.

This is a fantastic fantasy tale about a very ambitious, magically inclined, soap-maker with grand dreams of establishing an empire, and what happens when they receive a summons from the Maripgan. The journey to the Maripgan is not easy, and on the way there, the soap-maker is haunted, and maybe hunted, by a mysterious fox. I love the fairytale texture of this story, and I absolutely LOVE the ending.

The Heaven That They Never Knew by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor in Lightspeed

Ginger clings to the skin of Heaven, wrapped in deep, cold vacuum. She’s a speck in the void and her breath trembles inside her helmet. No sound in space. So she breathes. She has to stay grounded, keep her thoughts from shaking and drifting to hostile sensors.

A scifi epic in flash fiction format, where Ginger, humanity's only hope to survive, approaches Heaven, the terrifying alien construct that devours and destroys life anywhere and everywhere. Tense, taut, and with a lyrical space beauty, Wolfmoor's story is like a song at the edge of space.


Christopher Mills, Return to Sender by Isabel J. Kim in Fantasy Magazine

This is the dead thing becoming the body. This is the dead thing opening the body’s eyes. This is the dead thing rising from the grave. This is the dead thing saying “What the hell—I didn’t ask to be summoned. I was having a great time being dead and dreaming about nothing.”

Oh how I love this gritty, growly, sweary story of necromancy, death, revenge, and with a complex and complicated sibling relationship at its heart. It's set in a world where necromancy is an accepted and rather normal part of life (with necromancers working office hours), and where the testimony of the dead can be used in legal proceedings. All of this is the setup for a fabulous tale where a sister resurrects her brother in order to solve his murder. This story is both dark, painful, and funny and I could not put it down once I started reading.


Emmory and the Wolf by Lowry Poletti in LampLight Volume 10 Issue 3

The wolf wakes beside a corpse she doesn't recognize. When she stands, she realizes her paws have been replaced with hands scraped raw by the asphalt, and she cries.

I do love wolf and werewolf stories, and this one is both powerful and devastating. A woman who is/was a wolf has made a domestic life with her partner with a home and children. The wolf still calls to her, and the change still happens when the moon is right, but she insists she wants the life she's made away from the woods, away from the wolves. Poletti unravels the domestic peace bit by bit in this story, digging into the unhappiness and darkness beneath with sharp claws, and the ending hit me like a ton of bricks.  


Them At Number Seventy-Four by Lindz McLeod at PseudoPod (narrated by Katherine Inskip)

When body number four is discovered, Mrs Patterson thinks that surely now she and her husband will be caught. Days creep past, then a week. 



Their excitement and relief begins to fade.

A marital murder tale, this story really resembles nothing else I've read recently. We follow an old married couple as they go about their daily regular lives in retirement (TV shows, food, shopping, gardening). There seems to be nothing really notable about them, except that they murder people, together, as a couple's activity. McLeod tells this story with such quiet, detailed focus, and it makes the story chilling, darkly humorous, and devastating on a number of levels. This one will stick with me for a while, and I think one terrifying aspect of it is how McLeod shows us two people who seem like regular everyday humans on the outside, but who also do not see others as human in the same way they are. It's a fascinating story and also, Katherine Inskip's narration is pitch-perfect.


The Assembly of Graves by Rob E. Boley in Diabolical Plots

From the bathroom, a dripping noise. It doesn’t sound like a leaky faucet though. No, it’s heavier somehow. More ominous. Naomi stares a moment into the flickering, throbbing darkness.

My favourite kind of haunting tale, this one involves a hotel getaway for Naomi and her wife Jeanne. Naomi feels like Jeanne is slipping away from her, and she is trying to reconnect, but in the hotel room, strange sounds and sights keep intruding, including some very strange happenings in the bathroom. A love story that holds a lot of sadness, and a little bit of hope.


Embroidery of a Bird’s Heart by Nelly Geraldine Garcรญa-Rosas in Strange Horizons

Grandma died last year, yet she comes every Saturday to have lunch with me.

When she was still alive, she loved telling everyone that we were roommates. She would say to her embroidery club friends that her roomie had landed a very hip job in the city because she did not want to admit to them that I had moved in to take care of her, that our family had come to the decision that she should not—could not—keep on living alone. 

Oh goodness. This story broke my heart in several different ways and I love every bit of it. It's a story about grief and loss, about trying to find a way to live on and remember, and it's very much a story about family and love, as well. Crafts, like cooking and needlework, bind Grandma and her granddaughter together here, in more ways than one. Beautifully told from start to finish.

“The land of the dead is nothing like this. Not at all.”

“How is it then, abue?”

“It’s like a normal town, hijita, but as if everything was covered by a thick fog or smoke or I don’t know what.”

“So, pretty much like here,” I said as I opened my arms wide to signal the entire city, and looked up to the polluted sky that never allowed us to see the stars.


The Wrong Side of the Sky by Raymond Roach in Escape Pod (narrated by Sandy Parsons)

There’s an old woman who lives in the desert, and who has lived in the desert a very long time. So, too, have her people, but many of them have gone, while she remains. She’s old enough that she should have a child on her back, or even a grandchild, but she doesn’t. 

I do have a weak spot for tales about aliens that are written from the aliens' perspective, turning humans into the real aliens. Here, we meet a strange group of beings that live in a harmony of sorts with their planet's environment. Their way of life, their culture, is in many ways tightly regimented and controlled, but there is a definite magic and beauty and a vast intelligence among them as well. Roach's story delves into family relationships, forgiveness, second chances, and grace.


The Golden Hour by Erica Ruppert in Nightmare

His memory stuttered, caught on faces and places and angles of light, aromas and flavors that had long since faded to dust. He sighed, and closed his bleary eyes against the visions.

This is a gorgeous, quietly devastating story about two brothers, the strange light they find in the creek near their house when they're children, and about the terrible thing (things) that happen afterwards. Reading this story, you realize at some point that it is a sort of monster/ vampire story, though no one in the story says so, and the vibe and feel of this is more sorrowful and riven by pain than most stories I've read about vampires. If you've read Lord of the Rings, there's a moment early on that echoes (for me at least) a pivotal scene with Gollum, but Ruppert moves past that into something else, into the loneliness and ever-present hunger of being something that is not human, but with all the memories of who you were.


Animal Sacrifice by Mar Stratford in The Deadlands

I lost consciousness during liftoff. When I came to, you had appeared. You were floating outside the meter-wide porthole of the orbital waste management craft. Ears pointed up, tongue lolling out of a half-opened mouth. Impossible, I thought, because I knew how fast the craft had to be moving to maintain orbit, and there was no way such a little dog could keep pace. Then I realized I was attempting to apply the standard model of physics to a dog that had died a quarter of a century ago, and stopped asking questions. You were here, Laika. Of course you were.

If you grieve over the good dog Laika who was sent into space and lost her life there, then this story is absolutely for you. If you want to read a science fiction story that deals with death, including ghostly dogs, then this story is also for you. It is surreal, beautiful, and wistful. 


It Rises and Falls and Rises Again by RJ Taylor in Apex

The screaming began, as it always did, from above, from far away, from someone falling off the summit, or maybe being pushed. No one knew.

Lori was cutting a pattern for a new skirt when the screams reached her. She tried for a second to ignore them, but her hands shook and the metal scissors slipped off her fingers down to the counter. The blades were still tangled in the fabric—a pale paisley—and muffled the clatter. All she could hear was the screaming. It always took so long to come.

Lori lives in a ledge town, towns located on the ledges of a very high mountain. Now, the strange thing about the place, the mountain, is that the people who decide to climb to the top all end up falling off the mountain. They scream as they fall, and then they keep falling, over and over, until the fall is done and they are gone and they are never seen again. No one knows what makes them fall but the rumour is that maybe God is up there and makes them fall. When Lori's partner Koel climbs the mountain, she almost thinks it will be different for him, but it isn't, and once she sees him fall, Lori decides to climb the mountain too. A surreal and uniquely imagined story, where the answers might be even stranger than the questions.


Where the Prayers Run Like Weeds Along the Road by Fred Coppersmith in Bourbon Penn

You find the dead man waiting for you right where you left him, leaning against the old wooden fence at the side of the road. He looks like he’s smiling, a lopsided grin of too many teeth, but you’re sure that’s just a trick of the light, or of too little sleep. Because when you pull the truck over and rub both of your eyes until you see stars, the grin is gone, and the dead man just grumbles at you and says, “What took you so long?”

I love every bit of this strange and enigmatic post-apocalyptic tale. Nothing is certain here: not death, or life, or what has caused the apocalypse that changed the world and the people in it (at least the few who remain). Was it angels? Aliens? No one seems to know. Coppersmith weaves a story with emotional depth and power that moves back and forth in time and where everything is both dreamlike and terrifyingly real. It feels a bit like cruising through a nightmare, and I mean that as a sincere compliment.


Douen by Suzan Palumbo in The Dark

I see Mama in de cemetery when dey put de white casket in de ground. She was crying so hard she was shaking like when grandma died and Tanty, Mama’s aunt, had to hug Mama up tight, tight, to keep Mama from falling down.

A ghost/afterlife story that might shred your heart and chill your bones, all at the same time.  There's horror here, but horror mixed with sadness and anger, as a dead child tries to make sense of what's happened to her, and as she clings to the people and places she loved (and still loves). There is grief and betrayal here, and a child's wicked vengeance, and I love the prose, and how skillfully Palumbo captures the logic of a child in all its terrifying glory.


Fried Rice by Shih-Li Kow in Flash Fiction Online

We’ve had Cook for a month now. Ever since Mom died, Dad’s been trading one obsession for another. After periods of relentless exercising, house cleaning, and cataloging of Mom’s books, he’s now fixated on perfecting Cook’s fried rice. We’ve had fried rice every day for two weeks.

A family is trying to come to terms with the death of Mom, and it's a difficult time for everyone. Dad pours all his energy into arguing with, and berating, the robot cook that seems incapable of truly capturing the essence of Mom's cooking. There's a gentle sense of humour here, and Kow has a deft touch for capturing family conflicts and love, as well as the many strange ways humans experience and express grief.


The Precipice by Jiksun Cheung in The Molotov Cocktail

Every year, on the fifteenth night of the seventh lunar month, when the gates of the underworld are thrown open, he returns to the corner just off the main road in Kam Tin beside the entrance of a rundown amusement park, where he sets a bundle of joss papers alight in a rusty tin can and then takes a pinch of gravel and rooster blood between his fingers and rubs the vile mixture into his eyes until it burns.

Beautifully crafted flash fiction set in an amusement park where a father and a daughter enjoy the rides and games, while the dead gather round, looking for the gifts left behind by the living. Gripping, heartbreaking, and utterly fabulous.


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April 7, 2022

BEHIND THE ZINES with Laura Blackwell, Copy Editor at THE DEADLANDS

This month’s BEHIND THE ZINES interview features the wonderful Laura Blackwell. She talks about her work as copy editor for The Deadlands. and many other writerly things.

More about Laura Blackwell:

Laura Blackwell is a Pushcart-nominated writer of speculative fiction. Her stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies including Nightmare, PseudoPod, Strange California, and 2015 Locus Recommended and 2016 World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows. She co-hosts the online reading series Story Hour. You can find her on Twitter at @pronouncedLAHra.

Q. First up, what's your background: where did you grow up, and what do you do outside the world of speculative fiction? What first drew you to speculative fiction? And what kind of speculative fiction are you most into?

LB. When I was very small, my mom would write me little picture books and have me illustrate them. I was a weird, dreamy kid who was always making up stories and drawing comics about fairies and cute animals. I loved fantasy and science fiction first, just the sheer wonder of them, the boundless potential in other worlds. Horror worked on me very well as a kid—still does, really—and so it took me a while to come around to the idea that most of what I write is horror. I’d love to tell you that I read very broadly, and it’s true that I like to mix up reading different styles and settings, but I have to admit that supernatural horror and ghost stories are much more attractive to me than tales about serial killers and other real-life monsters.

Most of my bread-and-butter work is copyediting, and I’m not terribly specialized at this point. I edit short fiction and novels from various genres, and I have a few clients for tech blogs and interviews as well. I enjoy the variety. One of the wonderful things about copyediting The Deadlands is that I get to work on the entire magazine, from the short stories to the poems to the nonfiction articles and the Ask a Necromancer column.

Q. You're the copy editor at The Deadlands and you were previously the copy editor at Shimmer which is where I first met you when you did copy edits on a story of mine. (By the way, these are two of my favourite speculative fiction zines, past and present!) How did you get involved in zine-publishing business and what is it about the work that keeps you involved?

LB. I spent about a decade at a consumer tech publication, and had the great fortune to work with several top-drawer copy editors (this is back when magazines were printed on dead trees and had copy editors). They taught me some of the basics, and at some point I realized that I enjoyed reading style guides. This is apparently not a typical thought, and it suggested I might be happy copyediting.

When I ran across Shimmer, I was very taken with it, as you were (and thank you for saying so). It was so thoughtful and beautiful. And it turned out that Shimmer’s publisher was Beth Wodzinski, a college friend I’d fallen out of touch with. So, while catching up with Beth, I asked if there was any way I could help out with Shimmer. When there was an opening for a volunteer copy editor, Shimmer editor E. Catherine Tobler gave me a shot. She’s now the editor-in-chief at The Deadlands, and I’m so happy to be working with her again.

Q. What does a copy editor do? What does the job involve for you on a day-to-day basis? What are the most enjoyable things vs. the hardest things about your work? Do you have any pet peeves?

LB. The way I see it, a copy editor’s job is helping all writer’s words and ideas get into the reader’s brain. Often that means standardizing spelling, hewing to the style guide, and literally making sure numbers add up, just to keep things consistent. I do light fact-checking. Little things can catch a fraction of a reader’s attention and distract them from what matters. Questions of nuance are trickier, but also interesting and fun to think about.

Q. The work of a copy editor involves working very closely with a writer's text. What is that like, to offer corrections and suggest changes to someone's work, and do you find writer's are usually receptive to that kind of teamwork?

LB. One thing I enjoy is seeing not what’s wrong, but how many different ways there are to be right. The order of the words and phrases change emphasis and the way they work into a reader’s brain. Synonyms can have slightly different connotations or very different sounds that make a difference. My job isn’t to make a story “better” (whatever that means) but as much itself as it can be. That’s especially important for The Deadlands, which takes writer voice very seriously.

I tend to write a lot of notes and queries rather than “just fixing it.” By the time I get a story, it’s working fine; the question is if it’s working the exact way the writer wants it to work. This takes more time for everybody, but I think most writers are okay with it once they understand that I really am trying to help the stories live up to themselves and I’m not just marking things up to be a know-it-all. Sometimes they write me comments back, and that is a treat! I love geeking out over stories.

Q. What is something about your job behind the scenes that you think most people DON'T know but that is a major part of it when you're active behind the scenes?

LB. Language changes quickly! Once I copyedited a contemporary YA and literally spent an hour adding new words to my dictionary. I’m always looking for changes to Chicago style (and AP, which is faster on some things) and thinking about what to recommend to different clients for their style guides. And sometimes I’m the fuddy-duddy who doesn’t want to give up what I learned in eighth grade. CMoS, I love you, but I really do not think “important” and “importantly” should be interchangeable.

Q. Do you have any favourite stories that you've copy edited that you'd like to recommend?

LB. I can’t pick favorites. I love them all! But having just copyedited the fiction for The Deadlands’ April 2022 issue, I have to say it’s a good time to subscribe. Both the stories were so precise in their intent and their voice that they were very easy to copyedit. One of them absolutely gutted me, and the other awakened a roiling hatred for a famous poet. Powerful stuff.

Q. You're also an excellent writer, how do you feel the work as a copy editor has influenced your own writing, if at all?

LB. Copyediting challenges me to look at subtle differences in style and voice, which is always useful. It also challenges me because I have to pay very close attention to really stellar work, which makes me want to give my best not just when I edit, but when I write as well. Whether it’s helped me become a better writer, I can’t say, but thank you for your kind words.

Q. For those writers and readers out there who might be thinking about getting involved in working for a zine in any capacity, what would you say to them? Any tips and / or advice?

LB. I suggest thinking about the kind of work you’d like to do and who and what you’d like to work with, then looking at your skill set and seeing what you have to offer. Unless you have specialized skills, you may start out volunteering as a slusher (I did, ages ago, for a now-defunct publication). It certainly helps if you can point to success at meeting deadlines. Let the folks you work with know what else you’d like to learn, too. And of course, being easy to get along with helps in any career.

Q. You're also one of the people behind the wonderful weekly event Story Hour. I've been part of Story Hour and absolutely love the format. How did Story Hour come to be, and what kind of feedback have you received?

LB. At first, Story Hour was just Daniel Marcus and his friends reading to one another (“just Daniel and his friends” includes Pat Murphy and Nisi Shawl, among others, so there were impressive readers from the start) once a week on Zoom and Facebook. I really liked the format, which emphasized full stories. In those anxious early days of the pandemic, it meant a lot to see real live humans and hear stories that had definite closure. Daniel also gave a shout-out to a worthy nonprofit at the beginning of each hour.

After a while, Daniel said he might scale back to monthly Story Hours. I thought that would be a pity, because it’s so much harder to remember events that happen only once a month versus once a week. I asked what I could do to keep it weekly, and he asked if I would be willing to co-host. It’s worked out really well. He set up the website, and I do some promotion. We both recruit readers, although the website also lets readers come to us—which is great, because we don’t know everybody. We alternate hosting duties now, and we bring in guest hosts from time to time. I have heard some phenomenal stories and met some lovely writers who I might not have known otherwise. Story Hour gives me something to look forward to every Wednesday, and has for two years now.

(Find out more about Story Hour at

Q. Finally, some writerly questions. You are part of the new Chiral Mad anthology, tell us a bit about that, and any other projects you have coming up.

LB. Award-winning Michael Bailey of publisher Written Backwards started the lauded Chiral Mad psychological horror series about ten years ago, and this volume will be the fifth and final. It includes one of my favorite stories of my own, “What Is Lost in the Smoke.” It’s personal, because I live in California, where we have “fire season.” Even if the community you live in doesn’t catch fire, the air is full of ash for days on end—and when you stop to think what that ash is made of, it’s deeply disturbing. A survivor of California wildfires, Michael immediately saw the heart of the story. Any story sale is exciting, but knowing an editor really gets it is a wonderful feeling.

I get the chills just looking at the ToC for Chiral Mad 5. It’s too many to list—this will be a big book!—but the name “Stephen King” rings a bell, doesn’t it?

(Find out more about Chiral Mad at

Later this month, I’ll moderate a panel on editing for Flights of Foundry, which is a first for me! This year, I have two very different stories coming out in Nightmare and Weirdbook. In the background, I’m revising a science fiction gothic novel and drafting a suburban fantasy.

Find out more about Laura Blackwell on her website!

March 23, 2022

BEHIND THE ZINES with Premee Mohamed, Assistant Editor at ESCAPE POD


Welcome to my second Behind the Zines interview! Every month I am interviewing people working behind the scenes (badumtsssh) at various speculative fiction publications. My goal is to highlight the work that goes into keeping these publications alive, and to share insights from the people doing that work.

Each monthly interview is available exclusively on my Patreon for one week, and is then posted here at Maria's Reading. (If you want to support my work, check out my Patreon or Ko-Fi.)

Last month, my guest was Fred Coppersmith, editor and publisher of Kaleidotrope (read the interview). This month's guest is accomplished author Premee Mohamed, who is also Assistant Editor at the science fiction podcast Escape Pod.

Since I did this interview earlier this year, Mohamed's novella And What Can We Offer You Tonight has become a Nebula Award Finalist! Also, three (3) of her books are on the Locus Recommended Reading List: her novel A Broken Darkness, as well as her her novellas And What Can We Offer You Tonight, and The Annual Migration of Clouds

Find all her books at 

Q. First up, what’s your background: where did you grow up, and what do you do outside the world of speculative fiction? And: as a reader and writer, what drew you to that genre initially as a child or young adult or adult? Were there specific books or something else that sucked you into the world of SFF?

Premee Mohamed: I grew up in St. Albert, Alberta! This is a little barnacle that clings onto Edmonton, the probably-better-known capital city of Alberta. Outside the world of speculative fiction, I'm a public servant with the Government of Alberta! My work is related to environmental policy, focused on soil and land management. As a reader and writer, I've always loved speculative fiction -- my parents didn't care what I read and we didn't own many books of our own, so I was always in the St. Albert public library taking out armfuls of books when I was a kid. I particularly adored Monica Hughes, Susan Cooper, Barbara Hambly, Lloyd Alexander, Terry Pratchett, and William Gibson. My biggest formative influence though was probably the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane--I loved Kit and Nita and the entire magical system co-existing with the normal world, and the sense of wonder and awe I felt when I read them (especially Deep Magic, which as an ocean story absolutely fascinated me, a prairie kid). And I read William Gibson's Neuromancer when I was ten or eleven, and really began a sci-fi binge for the next couple of years trying to recapture the feeling it gave me. Which wasn't that easy, as our junior high and then eventually high school libraries did not have all that much fantasy and sci-fi. I also first read Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books when I was around that age and became absolutely obsessed--I've read them probably fifteen or twenty times since.

Q. You became an assistant editor at the science fiction podcast Escape Pod relatively recently: how did that come about, and how would you describe what an assistant editor does? What does the job involve on a day-to-day basis?

PM: I was formerly a slusher at Escape Pod, but had to drop out due to time pressures, which I was pretty sad about--I liked slushing and being part of the crew, but I was just swamped. Then last fall, Divya and Mur (who edit Escape Pod) approached me to see if I could help out as an Assistant Editor, with the understanding that I was still pretty time-crunched but so was our other Assistant Editor, Ben, and maybe if we could split the firehose of stories in half, it would be more manageable for everyone? I was incredibly honoured to be asked, and I think the process is working pretty well so far.

I'm sure other venues have a similar process, but in terms of Escape Pod, the role of the Assistant Editor is to act as kind of a second set of eyes on the stories passed up by our first readers (Associate Editors). We're open almost year-round so there's always a steady trickle of stories coming in. The Associate Editors rank them and then Ben and I take a look at those and send back responses to the author and bump up stories to Mur and Divya to choose from. On a day-to-day basis, that's most of it; Ben also does some of the slush team management, like checking to make sure tags are correct or seeing if people are reading too many or too few stories. Sometimes we'll meet up to discuss stories that we would like a second opinion on, or stories where an R&R has been suggested and the story comes back to us, to compare the revised version to the original.

Q. Can you tell us a bit about Escape Pod, and what made you want to get involved behind the scenes there?

PM: Escape Pod is a long-running science fiction short story venue that's part of the Escape Artists family and has been operating since 2005! They pay pro rates for original fiction, so I had been submitting sci-fi stories to them for a while before they approached me out of the blue to see if I could help out their Associate Editor team a few years ago. I had never slushed before, but they were really enthusiastic and thorough about the training, and a little while after that they asked me to be one of the Social Media managers (so sometimes if you see the Pod posting about science stories or teasing the other podcasts, that's me!). They're just a really fun, passionate group of people who are consistently dedicated to finding and promoting SFFH, and to being good community members and offering opportunities for marginalized authors to be seen (for example, their recent Black Future Month, which was guest edited by the amazing Brent C. Lambert).

Q. What have you learned since you started your position, and what are the most enjoyable things vs. the hardest things about your work? Do you have any pet peeves?

PM: I feel like this is an interesting progression actually, because all the things I learned while slushing apply, but I also have to be thinking of other things too -- for one thing, because I read the Associate Editor comments before I read the story, I find it hard not to let the comments guide or influence my thinking about the story as I read. That makes it hard sometimes for me to reject a story that an Associate Editor really loved, but I still have to, because we don't pass up every story that gets passed up to us! I actually find rejection really hard in general, which surprised me. Much harder than receiving a rejection, because I'm like 'Well whatever' and just send my story out again. For the first little while I was reading the stories but Ben was sending out the rejections. It took me a long time to just be able to click the button! (It does get easier though.) I also try to give a little bit of feedback on stories that get passed up to us, but sometimes it's next to impossible. Saying 'This is a good story but we're not getting Escape Pod vibes' isn't helpful or actionable! I do really love finding a knockout story though -- the way you just know it when you read it and you sit there with your head filling up with fireworks and sparkles. Amazing feeling.

Q. What are some things you look for when you’re picking stories for Escape Pod? And if you could give any advice to the writers wanting to submit stories to the podcast, what would you say?

PM: We're definitely looking for stories that fit Escape Pod's existing vision and feel, and I think that's the first thing I look for! It's still something I'm developing my taste in (as well as reading the back catalogue whenever I get a chance!). It's not that we never publish stories that are super gory, grim, bleak, or feature a lot of violence or torture or murder; it's just those are kind of a hard sell for Mur and Divya, and if I see it, it has to be really impressive in a lot of other aspects for me to pass it up. For myself too, I'm looking for a strong hook -- for the first paragraph (or ideally the first sentence!) to show me what the rest of the story will be like: the tone, the atmosphere, the premise if possible, and that it's a sci-fi story. I also look for a strong, logical ending that connects back to the start in some way; and I like for the emotional story to make just as much sense as the story being told in the actions of the characters. Consistent character decisions and motive is great: it's always a bit of a turn-off when a character does something for plot reasons, because it feels clunky and awkward. I don't like seeing characters do things that they're being 'told' to do by the author, rather than because they're making a choice. Ben and I particularly like to see character agency in the sense of them being presented with decisions and choices that influence the events of the story -- it doesn't have to be all pew-pew spaceship-blowy-uppy brain-implant-disaster action whatever all the time, but we like to see active characters that participate fully in the story! I also like to see fresh, precise sensory descriptions ("Her hair was the colour of gold and her eyes were as blue as the ocean" is going to be a hard sell). In audio, strong sense imagery is awesome for the listener even more so than for the reader; it helps keep people grounded and interested. I guess in terms of advice to submitting writers, for sure read or listen to Escape Pod's stories (they're all free and they're all on the website!) to get a sense of what we're looking for; but also make sure your characters are active, your prose is audio-friendly, and your sci-fi premise is an integral part of your story and doesn't show up on page 11 of 15!

Q. You’re also a writer, how do you feel like the work as an assistant editor has influenced your own writing, if at all?

PM: By a mildly hilarious coincidence, for the entire time that I've been an Assistant Editor I've been writing a fantasy novel, of all things. But I do think the experience has influenced some of the ways I think about my own writing! Particularly in terms of repeated category mistakes. When I read Ben's comments, or an Associate Editor's comments, on a story, I often think "Oops, I've done that" or "Oops, I have a whole story planned with that exact problem." They're very perceptive but also, when writers do the same thing again and again, it starts to jump out as a recognizable pattern. I've been consciously trying to avoid those patterns in my own writing. A lot of them aren't related to the prose itself but to the structure of the story -- starting too early, finishing too late, creating plot armour, plot holes, having disproportionate amounts of dialogue, exposition, or action for the length of the story, that kind of thing. I'm much more aware of structure now because I've seen so many interesting examples of it, and I hope I'm getting more of a feel for when something works and something doesn't both in the submitted stories and in my own writing. It's good to experiment! I love experiments! But sometimes it just can't hold up.

Q. Has being involved behind the scenes affected your view of the SFF community and the business of genre fiction publishing? Have you gained insights you didn’t previously have as a writer and listener/reader?

PM: I don't think so... there's probably something I'm forgetting though. I think it really drove home though that when an editor writes back to you to say, 'This story was great but we're not buying it,' that literally is all it means. The story is genuinely great, and Ben and I agonize over great stories all the time, because we really can only pass up so many a month. Sometimes it means 'great for another venue that doesn't object to the genocide in the first page, and someone else will snap this up immediately.' It's not personal at all. It's because there's only so much money every month for four stories, so it's not just the story itself being taken into consideration, it's also wordcount, reprint status, similarity to existing stories, and other things that Mur and Divya take into consideration.

Q. For those writers and readers out there who might be thinking about getting involved with a podcast or zine, in any capacity, what would you say to them? Any tips and / or advice?

PM: Being a first reader is a terrific experience, and if you let people know that you're available to do it and willing to learn, hopefully they reach out! The sheer volume and breadth of stories is a fantastic crash education in what's out there, whether it impacts your own writing or not. I really recommend people get involved if possible, even if it's just on a volunteer basis. And for readers, particularly for Escape Pod, we're super grateful for our Patreon supporters. The Patreon makes it possible to pay writers, narrators, and Associate Editors, and to provide all the stories for free! The podcast wouldn't exist without its readers. I would also gently encourage readers to rate and review, and to get involved in the forums and the Patreon Discord if they feel like it; there's a lively community there and it's another way to support the authors for free! Just looking at it from both sides I know it's hard for someone to publish a story and feel like it's gone into the void because there's no discussion about it.

Q. Finally, some writerly questions. You had several (excellent) works published last year. Three novellas: These Lifeless Things, The Annual Migration of Clouds, and And What Can We Offer You Tonight. PLUS! your second novel A Broken Darkness(sequel to Beneath the Rising). What’s coming up from you this year on the writing front?

PM: Aw thank you! Yes 2021 was a busy year... this year, the third book in the Beneath the Rising trilogy, which is The Void Ascendant, is coming out in April! Very excited to see that story concluded as it's been part of my life for so long. My next story out will be “With All Souls Still Aboard”, which will be coming out in the Reinvented Heart anthology in May, edited by Cat Rambo and Jennifer Brozek. And after that we'll see! There may be other things in the works. ;)

[SPOILER ALERT! There were indeed other things in the works: a short story collection! The announcement came last week: Undertow Publications will be publishing Premee Mohamed's debut collection of cosmic folk horrors and genealogical tragedies No One Will Come Back for Us next year!]


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Again, huge thanks to Premee for this interview! ❤