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.
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 https://www.premeemohamed.com/books
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!]
Check out Escape Pod!
Again, huge thanks to Premee for this interview! ❤