March 6, 2023

BEHIND THE ZINES with Jennifer R. Donohue, author of speculative short fiction, novellas, and a new novel

At Behind the Zines this month, I'm talking to Jennifer R. Donohue and going behind the zines completely to talk about self-publishing. Donohue's short fiction has been published in magazines like Apex and Fantasy Magazine. She has also self-published several novellas and her self-published debut novel, Exit Ghost, is out March 7. I'm thrilled to be able to talk to her about her experience with self-publishing and the joys and challenges of getting your work out into the world without a publisher as intermediary.


More about Jennifer R. Donohue:

Jennifer  R. Donohue grew up at the Jersey Shore and now lives in central New  York with her husband and her Doberman. She is a Codexian and an  Associate member of the SFWA, and short fiction has appeared in Daily  Science Fiction, Apex, Syntax & Salt, Escape Pod, and elsewhere. Her  cyberpunk novella series Run With the Hunted is available on most  digital platforms. She tweets @AuthorizedMusin.

More about Exit Ghost:

After her father is murdered and an attempt is made on her  life, New Jersey heiress and witch Juliet Duncan is supposed to be  concentrating on getting better and moving forward. Instead, Jules  summons her father's ghost using her blood and tears and his old rotary  phone to answer the question: who did it? He reveals it was Hector, her  dad’s best friend and her mom’s new fiancé.

Certain  her life is still in danger, Jules flees the family estate to the Asbury  Park apartment she shares with her best friend and fellow witch, Ashes.  When another friend joins them, all three women get caught up with a  secret boyfriend who’s also big into magic, but in all the wrong ways,  all while Jules wrestles with whether her father’s ghost was telling the  truth. But what Jules does know is that power has its cost, and she is  more than willing to pay the price in order to get her revenge.


Q. First up: what’s your background, and what do you do outside the world of speculative fiction writing?

JD: I was born in New Jersey and went to college for psychology in a small town in central New York, where I ended up staying after graduation. My husband and I went to college together, and staying in town afterwards just made sense to us. What I do for my day job (my non writing career?) is I work at my local public library; I was on the circulation desk and then in charge of interlibrary loan for my first years there, and now I do what the library world calls “tech services,” I do the book ordering, and then receive and process them. There’s also the joke in libraryland (probably other fields as well) that our job descriptions all contain “other duties as required.” In addition to ordering materials, I’ve helped with our local history materials, I’ve researched the building’s construction projects, helped coordinate room remodels and asbestos abatement projects, and I’ve run a writing workshop there since 2014. The writing workshop feels a little bit like cheating; what a dream it is, to be able to write at work!

Since getting dogs (we’ve had them one at a time, but it’s been two now,) my ambient interest in animal behavior and dog training expanded, and I’ve said that I have to use my psychology degree for something, and so dogs it is. I was even a dog blogger for a little while, before the whole ‘fiction career’ thing got traction.

Q. What attracted you to the speculative fiction genre when you were a child or young adult (or adult)? What was your gateway into the world of speculative fiction?

JD: I was born in the 80s, and a lot of the media then (that I remember) was very fantasy/scifi/genre mashup, and I think that’s really influenced me my whole life. I read far more “literary” fiction than genre for a really long time, which might be what landed me in that “too speculative to be literary and too literary to be speculative” niche at times. The very first scifi book that I ever remember reading is The Magic Meadow by Alexander Key, though one of my aunts also lent me The Earthsea trilogy and The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings once I was old enough for those. I did used to try to write more literary fiction, especially in college when I was taking writing classes, but also in high school I hand wrote (but never finished) 1000 pages of an epic fantasy novel with many dragons and characters but no real plot.

Q. I always love reading your work and you have had many short stories published in various speculative fiction zines over the years, including "Into the Dark" in Fantasy Magazine and "A Country of Eternal Light" in Apex Magazine. Your novella The Drowned Heir was published last year, and you have a novel called Exit Ghost coming out in March. Both the novel and the novella are fabulous reads, and both are self-published. Can you talk a bit about why you decided to go the self-publishing route for these stories?

JD: Thank you so much!

I actually did try to go a more traditional route with both The Drowned Heir and also Exit Ghost. With The Drowned Heir, I submitted it to both magazines and small presses that accepted those lengths (20k words.) After a few years of that, though, and after putting out several books in my Run With the Hunted series, I thought “well fine, I’ll just do it myself,” and put it out in ebook and hardcover.

Similarly, with Exit Ghost, I queried agents with it……….starting in 2020. Querying agents is difficult in the best of times, but the pandemic really made things that much harder on all levels. I did get several full requests, and continued querying for perhaps longer than I otherwise would have while waiting on a very exciting, high profile agent to decide, and when that rejection finally came, I thought “well fine, I’ll just do it myself.”

Q. Can you describe the work involved in getting your work ready for publication when you self-publish. How do you go about the process of editing, getting a cover, and then publishing and distributing your work?

JD: Most of my covers come from screwing around with things on Canva until I arrive at something that I don’t hate. I’m actually personally a minimalist when it comes to book covers; as a reader, I’ve been frustrated with movie tie in covers, or covers that have people on them that don’t end up representing the characters as they are on the page, and I would just as soon have a black book with the title and author name on it, and maybe some cool embossed designs, like those leatherbound-with-a-ribbon-bookmark editions of things that get put out.

I benefit greatly from having very good friends (some of whom are also writers) who are willing to read my stuff for me, ranging from short stories on up to novels. My ultimate proofreader has been my friend since high school, and I’m super grateful for his keen eye.

I use Draft2Digital for my formatting, and for distributing my non-Amazon ebooks. I’ve done paperback on Amazon, and the hardcovers through IngramSpark (who then will distribute to Amazon and everywhere.) I find it very frustrating that Amazon will only do preorders for digital items, and that is one reason I have not tried out their (new) hardcover options. In general, I like the Amazon book building tools better than Ingram’s, but that ability to run preorders is just too compelling.

Q. What are some of the things you’ve learned about the self-publishing process? Any insights, tips and tricks, or bloopers you’d like to share? What are some of the biggest joys and some of the hardest challenges?

JD: The very first time I formatted a book for self publishing (Run With the Hunted, back in 2018), I came to the belated realization that everything that is in the book has to be in the file when I upload it, which is VERY obvious but I wasn’t thinking about, say, an author bio, when I was in the homestretch of getting that ready. Since then, Draft2Digital has really expanded their tools, and you can add things like the dedication, copyright page, author bio, etc. in their interface (they don’t pay me for being happy with them, I’ve just found them crucial to my process!)

It’s truly a joy to see people engage with my work, be it discussion with a podcast or even just somebody responding to a meme that I put on twitter. These are characters and events that only existed in my head for however long, so seeing how they exist in the world is delightful. It’s also really exciting if somebody picks up on a reference that I’m making, or even mentions liking something that I am particularly pleased with or proud of.

Q. For writers who might be interested in doing this for themselves, what advice would you give?

JD: It’s important to be pragmatic, and behave professionally. Did I think I would be rich and famous by now, perhaps even discovered by a big publisher who wanted to do a run of my books, and then movie producers who want to bring my work to the screen? Maybe! We hear those self-publishing success stories, like with Hugh Howey, and E. L. James, and many others. I guess it could still happen at any moment, given my ever-growing back catalog, but it hasn’t yet. Does that mean I’m going to stop? Absolutely not. I write first and foremost for myself, and then also because I want to be read.

And I am read! People, not just my family or friends, but strangers have bought my books, and even rated or reviewed them, and that’s a really gratifying experience. People who I don’t have social currency with are still interested in my work, and I hope that they continue to be.

When I say behave professionally, that includes treating your fellow writer and other peers with respect, and also never going after reviewers, which is something that happens with alarming frequency, and is wildly inappropriate. Not everybody is going to love your book and give the ratings that you hope for, and that is just part of the territory. You can complain to your friends if you need to, or your group chat, venting can be really important, but that’s for private.

Q. What are your thoughts on the business of speculative fiction publishing and the challenges and joys of taking control of that process yourself? And also any thoughts you have on the challenge of getting self-published work reviewed and noticed for awards season?

JD: It’s really very freeing to be beholden only to myself. I push preorders because that is a thing that is “done,” but having a shortfall in expected preorders isn’t going to get anything canceled, if that make sense. I’ll continue to put out Run With the Hunted as long as I’m having fun with it. I’m publishing Exit Ghost as my debut because it is my most personal novel. When I publish my trilogy of werewolf books, I won’t have to worry about an editor rejecting my books 2 and 3 and sending me back to a blank page.

Admittedly, it is difficult being my own marketing department. I don’t have a background in it, and my self-promotion has largely been on Twitter, which is the social media site that’s meshed best with my own habits and how my brain works. And it is very hard getting self-published work reviewed and noticed for awards season; indeed, and I might be wrong, but self-published novellas (and probably novels, but I didn’t have a novel out when I looked this up) didn’t used to be eligible for the Nebula Award, but are now eligible for the Nebula and Hugo. But even my non-self-published short stories haven’t gotten awards nomination levels of attention, so it’s difficult to know what will hit the cultural consciousness just right and then sustain that attention right up until awards nominations. So many writers are producing work at such amazing levels, it’s really a privilege to have these stellar peers.

Q. Talk a bit about your new book, Exit Ghost. It’s a witchy story that might have some connections to a certain work by Shakespeare, with dead father, witches, and a Yorick (even though your Yorick is a dog). How did this story come to you and what kind of journey has it been to get it to publication?

JD: I’ve loved Shakespeare from my first contact, which I think was Romeo and Juliet during my freshman year of high school. That teacher taught two half-year Shakespeare electives, so my sophomore year of high school, I just spend the whole year immersed in Shakespeare, which he taught by actually just having us watch the plays, as is kind of the whole point of plays. There were a lot of BBC productions (The Taming of the Shrewwas the notable one I remember of those) and then a lot of Hollywood Shakespeare around that time, so we watched Romeo + Juliet, and Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet, and Laurence Fishburn’s Othello. I don’t remember which Macbeth we saw, maybe that was BBC as well, though when we did Macbethin junior year English, we watched the 1971 film that was produced by Playboy, and we as a class were very mature about that. Since then, I’ve happily watched a number of Macbeths (Patrick Stewart’s is particularly good) and King Lears (no surprise that Anthony Hopkins’ is very good) and other Hamlets.

There is an unfortunate category of my writing that is “my dad died and I’m sad about it,” and this novel falls under that heading.

My original idea for this novel was actually two separate ideas for two separate novels, one a thriller-y sort of thing that was a modern girl Hamlet but not speculative, and one that had nothing to do with Hamlet and was two friends who were witches in 1970’s Asbury Park, NJ. Both of those drafts petered out, as things sometimes will, and then I got the notion to combine them, so I essentially shuffled them like a deck of cards, picking the elements that I liked from both, and then wrote to The End. Then came my own rewrites and edits and adjustments, and then my trusted first readers got it, and then the dreaded query letter and synopsis, and Exit Ghost started hitting agent inboxes in January of 2020.

In the course of querying, I did get several full requests, some of which took longer for that rejection than others, and I waited an entire year to the day for a particularly high-profile agent’s full rejection. Had that agent not requested the full, I might not have queried for more than two years, but in November of 2022, when all was said and done, I’d written four more novels while waiting (they always say “write something else,” right?) in addition to three Run With the Hunted novellas, and I decided that I didn’t want to wait for rounds of small press slush pile submissions. I was seeing witch novels getting published, I was tired of waiting, and that was that.

Q. As a fellow dog lover, I approve very much of Yorick in this story. I know you are a Doberman lover in real life too, so I’m guessing it was important for you to include not just any dog, but this particular dog. What’s so great about Dobermans? 😊

JD: It’s funny, first draft Yorick was actually a mastiff, due to their occasional historic estate guardian roles, and then I thought it would be very funny if he was a Great Dane, giving the certain work by Shakespeare that Exit Ghost is inspired by/in dialogue with, but really, he always needed to be a Doberman. The Doberman Party Line is that they are the first/only breed that was created with personal protection in mind, and while I have never protection trained a dog, I can absolutely testify to the breed’s need to be with their people at all times. Our first Doberman, Elka, was eerily intelligent, and our current Doberman, Ulrike, is one of the sweetest dogs that I have ever known, and both of them performed the important role of “rest for my left elbow” as I’ve sat on the couch with a laptop in addition to their other duties of alerting us to neighborhood goings-on an getting me out of the house for constitutionals. Dobermans want to be with their people, and also would love to share whatever it is that you’re eating. I’m absolutely heart and soul sold on them as the breed for me.

Q. I loved your novella, The Drowned Heir, and found its description of magic and the society it takes place in to be fascinating and uniquely imagined. It’s a place where people are literally magicked into being possessed by the deceased. Tell us a bit about the inspiration for that story the world you created.

JD: I literally dreamed the first line of The Drowned Heir: “They drown me when my uncle dies.” I woke up and immediately wrote that down, so I wouldn’t lose it, and then texted it to one of my aforementioned writer friends who was like “well that’s a lot.” I went about my morning, but the sentence stuck with me, and the general textural feeling of that scene, the place in the rocks where the water comes up, the salt, the strangeness of it all. I very rarely plan when I write, and it was no different when I wrote The Drowned Heir; I started at the start, and wrote to the end. The first draft was about half the length but contained essentially the entire plot arc, and then I went back and expanded it because it just didn’t seem like enough.

Q. Is there anything in particular you want to promote here, some exciting projects coming up for you in the near future?

JD: With all of my Exit Ghost promotion, I don’t yet have any sense of what comes next. There will be another Run With the Hunted in October (book 6! Title as yet undecided!) so that gives people who are new to the series plenty of time to catch up with the first five novellas. I’ll release a Run With the Hunted short story collection eventually, but need a few more to make it a reasonable length. It’s such a fun project, and I love playing with those characters and their points of view.

I do have a short story forthcoming in Interzone, and another that’s a secret right now, because the anthology hasn’t yet done the Table of Contents reveal but that I’m very excited for.


Thanks so much to Jennifer R. Donohue for talking to me!


About Behind the Zines:

In this interview series, I talk to people working behind the scenes 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 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.

February 27, 2023

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup for Jan/Feb 2023

The artwork is a detail of artist Artur Haas's cover art for Clarkesworld #197. More about the artist at:

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube (with mic-noise courtesy of the dog...):

Who the Final Girl Becomes by Dominique Dickey in Nightmare

What a tour-de-force this story is. At first, it clobbered me hard with horror-movie / final girl setup that is brutal and devastating in all its gory detail as Cinda sees her friends murdered and then manages to turn the tables on the killer. But it’s happens after that setup that holds the true greatness of this story as we follow Cinda’s transformation into something other than the “final girl”. First, she finds community in an online group of other final girls who have lived through similar horror-movie-esque experiences. She goes to college, she tries to live her life, but nothing ever seems to fit her quite right, and she never seems to fit in quite right either. Cinda tries to get away from the way people see and react to her based on her reputation, by creating an online persona, but the dissonance between who people think she is, and what she feels like inside, never seem to go away. Dickey’s story is beautifully layered and complex as it follows Cinda past the trauma and into something totally new. One of the best stories I’ve read so far this year and by the end, I was in tears.

Subject: More Monsters Will Not Make Us Safer by Paul Crenshaw in Lightspeed

I also disagree with the liberal argument that having an ogre or dragon or an armored T-rex outside our schools might make children less safe...

This story made me smile and even laugh out loud, despite the fact that it actually deals with some pretty dark subject matter: protecting children from at school. Crenshaw brings together balrogs, gun control, climate change, dystopia, firenados, giants, and a lot more into a madcap vision of the future that is both hilarious and disturbing.

Our Grandmother's Words by M.H. Ayinde in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

The Ishani called the white-robed figure a Scribe, I learned, but I heard the others calling him Word-Eater.

Ayinde's story is a sharp and powerful tale about colonization and the power of language. The outlanders in the story come to a new world and they are looking to take, to steal, and to dominate the population. To help them do that, they have a devastating form of magic that robs others of their words, and in the end, robs them of their language. But this isn't just a story about invaders conquering a people. It is really a story about resistance and survival, and the ways in which a people can find a way to survive, even when it seems almost impossible.

Your Great Mother Across the Salt Sea by Kelsey Hutton in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

A sharp and wonderfully crafted story that flows like a fairytale told by firelight, and cuts as deep as a knife: “There once was a woman who sewed clothes so powerful they made you become the person you needed to be.” This wondrously gifted woman is called Miyohtwāw, and, “at the direction of the grandmothers”, she is asked to leave the Plains and go with the foreigners that have come to their lands. She will meet the newcomers' kwīn and find a way to protect the land of her people from further invasion. At the royal court, Miyohtwāw’s gifts are much appreciated, but finding a way to protect the land of her people is not easy, not even when the kwīn makes use of the seamstress’s gifts. This story grabs you by the short hairs and never lets go. It’s about magic and power, about using your gifts, about learning and teaching, and daring to see the truth of yourself and others, and about protecting what yourself and those you love, even when others try to use your gifts against you.

What It Feels Like To Die by Warren Benedetto in Martian Magazine

“Mama?” Madelyn asked. “What does it feel like to die?”

I love reading the stories in Martian Magazine. It's always a kick to read drabbles - 100 words, no more, no less - and find whole worlds, characters, and tales. This one by Benedetto is a prime example of what you can do with just 100 words. Excellent stuff, and a great reminder to check in on Martian Magazine when you can.

Somewhere, It's About To Be Spring, by Samantha Murray in Clarkesworld

Lacuna knew winter. Winter was the vast distances between the stars. Winter was the cold of space.

You couldn’t measure cold; it was not a thing in itself. It was only the absence of heat. As darkness was only an absence of light. Yet both of these—the dark and the cold—felt like things that reached toward her as she moved through space.

I unabashedly LOVE sentient ship stories, and this one is beautiful and heartbreaking and hopeful and just so exquisitely crafted. We meet Lacuna, a ship that finds itself all alone and damaged, having lost its crew and seemingly its purpose. The ship is nowhere near a planetary system, but there is something there: a rogue planet and its moon. As Lacuna sifts through old memories, songs and conversations, scientific results and memories, things inside the ship are changing in unexpected ways. It's a gorgeous, lyrical story of change and memory, of a strange evolution, and of finding (and making) new family where there was only loneliness.

Silo, Sweet Silo by James Castles in Clarkesworld 

A silo is a good home. It is snug, secure, and shielded. It maintains optimal temperature and humidity. The walls are all perfectly equidistant from my fuselage. This pleases me.

A silo is a good home. But it is wrong that it is still my home. I failed. My siblings soared, while all I did was watch. Now I am alone. Now I am useless.

I love this thought-provoking and ingenious take on the post-apocalypse. Here, a war starts, weapons are launched, and the world is plunged into dystopia. But one warhead did not launch as it should have. Instead, the warhead's artificial intelligence finds it has the run of the silo and the military base, a new and unexpected kind of freedom that is soon put to the test when a group of humans, trying to survive in this new bleak world, come knocking on the door. It's a great story where the meeting between a potentially deadly AI and humans looking for shelter plays differently than SkyNet would have you believe.

In Lieu of Natural Habitats, by Brian Hugenbruch in Translunar Travelers Lounge

A wonderful science fantasy tale where humanity has terraformed a new planet to live on, and where they've manufactured an ocean to hold all sorts of life that once lived in Earth's oceans. And it's not just fish that have come along, but also the merfolk. This is a terrific flash story, with bite.

Interzone recently changed hands. Andy Cox's last (wonderful) issue as editor was the double issue #292/293 which is currently available from the TTA Press shop. #294 is the first issue edited by Gareth Jelley, who is also the editor of Interzone's digital sibling, IZ Digital, which has its own slate of stories. Subscriptions, including print subscriptions to Interzone, are available on the zine's website:

The Disappeared, by J.F. Sebastian in Interzone

Ghalib woke up thinking he was drowning in an ocean of sand. He heard himself cry out as he took a deep, painful breath against the suffocating embrace of the life vest.

Set in a refugee camp on the Mediterranean, we follow Ghalib who has lost his wife and child while fleeing war and destruction. Devastated and in pain, he almost loses his grip on reality, but is pulled back from the brink by the presence of his cousin who has also survived the storm that wrecked their boat. And then the story takes a turn, when Ghalib seems to slip from reality to reality: is he losing his hold on the world, or is the world not what it seemed to be? This is a haunting and wrenching story with so much depth and nuance.

Murder by Proxy, by Philip Fracassi in Interzone

As a twenty-year veteran in the most crime-ridden area of the city, I've seen things no man or woman should ever lay eyes on. But even I had to wince at the carnage inside apartment 327.

A terrific science fiction/noir with dames (AI and otherwise) and a wisecracking detective trying to solve a horrific and mysterious murder. I'm a huge fan of noir stories, and this one hits all the right notes. The science fiction part of the story dovetails perfectly with the noir-tale beneath, as Detective Merriweather must track down a killer, and understand how the murders were committed, while also making sure he isn't the next victim.

The Black Box Killer, by Kat Clay in Interzone

There are shades of Fahrenheit 451 in this though-provoking and ingeniously told story by Kat Clay. It's set in a future where names of criminals (real and fictitious) in the present and the past, in fiction and reality, are being redacted, blacked out of existence. In the story, visually, this is shown in the text by names being blacked out as if redacted. Even faces are obscured in this society, with people wearing devices that blur and pixelate their features. Clay only gives us nicknames for some of the characters, and the redacting, eventually, becomes part of the story itself as we get closer to the killer.

The Building across the Street, by R.T. Ester in Interzone

The night Leland met Agent Everly, he had expected her to inject him with a Homeless Tagging Chip.

The chip was for adults - able-bodied and otherwise - without proper living arrangements. You could not sleep on a park bench without the chip passing electric current through your body in intervals. You could not ride the train past a set number of stops.

Oh my goodness. This science fiction story hits so many of my sweet spots as we follow Leland, a homeless man who insists he isn't really homeless, he just doesn't have a place to live. For a time, he is not sure how long, he's been making enough money to get by on cleaning an office floor in a building, trying as hard as he can to avoid getting chipped by the authorities. His sister was injected with the chip and then he never saw her again. At least that's how he remembers it, though the details are hard for him to grasp. When he meets Agent Everly, she gives him a strange new task to carry out with the promise of permanent, secure housing but Leland soon realized the agent isn't quite what she seems, and neither is his new job. It's a gripping, twisting, absolutely fantastic story from start to finish, set in a vividly drawn, yet nebulous future city as we see it through Leland's weary eyes. Everything has a dream/nightmare vibe where things are clear and distorted simultaneously, and where Leland, and we, are never quite sure what we are actually experiencing. And that ending.... oh oh OH, I do so love that ending.

Common Speech by Elise Stephens at Escape Pod (narrated by Ibba Armancas)

A harrowing and incisive story about communication and about how we treat others, and expect them to treat us in turn. This story is set on a planet only recently settled by humans. Unfortunately for the new settlers, the planet turns out to be not as livable as people first thought, and the only way to cure the horrible disease that is threatening to wipe out all the colonists, seems to be a cure produced by Sonitus, the local intelligent species. At first, the humans believed the Sonitus were some kind of plant life, but they are much more than that. Now, in a desperate search for a cure, the humans have captured several of the aliens and are trying to communicate with them, but captivity and the use of force have poisoned the relationship between the two species. I love how this story looks at the conundrum of communication and co-existence, capturing the complexities and diverging opinions among the humans. And I love how it illustrates that it’s not just our methods of communication that matter, but how we treat those we try to communicate with.

Time: Marked and Mended by Carrie Vaughn at

The description of this story at is:

Graff isn’t quite human. His people move through the galaxy collecting memories and experiences, recording their lives and passing them on. Then, one day, he breaks: he discovers a chunk of his memory is missing. This should be impossible—he’s never forgotten a moment in his life. Now, he has to learn to forget, and to remember, and this has consequences for all his people, his culture, and his whole world.

Vaughn weaves a mysterious and compelling tale filled with strong characters and a story I’d like to follow beyond this short story into a novel. Graff’s strangeness, and the nature of who he is, and where he comes from is the central mystery of this story, as we follow him and his human crewmate, as they head back to Graff’s home, trying to find a cure, a fix, for what has happened to him. I love the characters and the world, and I especially love the way Vaughn makes you feel the presence of a vast, complex universe beyond the pages of the story. My only real problem with this story is that I wanted more of it!

Amma’s Kitchen by Rati Mehrotra in The Deadlands

I make the girl’s fish pakoras first. I flip open the notebook to a random page, and her mother’s recipe materializes in small, neat script. Chop tilapia filets into two-inch squares and set aside. Make a paste of chickpea flour, water, crushed garlic, ajwain, salt, turmeric, and red chili powder. Coat the pieces of fish in the paste and deep-fry in hot canola oil until golden brown.

The aroma of fried fish fills the kitchen, making my mouth water.

But the food is not for me. It’s never for me. 

Amma works in a kitchen where the dead come to visit. There’s a magic in the kitchen that makes it possible for Amma to cook whatever it is the dead want to eat. It’s not just that she can make the same dishes they want, Amma can make them taste exactly the way each person remembers. But there is a darker secret, a deal, that ties Amma to her kitchen, and when a girl walks in with a frog on her shoulder, things start to take a different turn for Amma. It is a gripping and emotionally powerful tale, full of flavour and scents (and recipes!). It's also subtly funny, with a unique take on Death, and what might happen after we die. Also, if you think a story about death can’t make you hungry, this story will definitely prove you wrong.

The Carousel by Eliza Gilbert in Flash Fiction Online

On the day Grandmother swallowed a piece of the sun, the carnival was in town.

“They’d just elected Eisenhower,” she swears. “A do-nothing. Creepy looking, too. Bald, sun-spotty. That Normandy heat sucked the collagen right out of him, poor thing.”

I adore this surreal and haunting story of a grandmother who tells her grandchildren what seems like tall tales of her past. There’s a gorgeous rhythm and melody to the prose here that enchanted me, and the payoff at the end is just right.

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January 25, 2023

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup for December 2022/January 2023

The artwork for this roundup is a detail of the art for Kaleidotrope Winter 2023 by Aylin S Erkan. You can find more of her artwork at

For more of my story picks, check out my latest Short Fiction Treasures column at Strange Horizons. The theme for this particular column is science fiction. Read it here:

An audio version of this roundup is at YouTube:

We Grew Tall and Strong By the Water by Leah Andelsmith in Fiyah #25

It’s brute work moving this body around. It takes every ounce of my spirit to keep the pieces together. I pick up one leg, move it forward, try not to let it thump to the ground. It’s not at all like I remember walking. Even on my worst days, even at the end, when I was bone tired from the cancer treatments and gasping with each step, I didn’t have to think so much about what order the motions should go in. It’s like being inside a steel robot and trying to manipulate the controls while dragging around the hull.

A gripping story that skips through time and spans several generations, but which returns to the same place: the town of Rainey, an all-Black town in Oklahoma, founded by refugees from the American South, after Reconstruction. We follow the life (and afterlife!) of Helen, through the loss of Ada, her childhood friend who leaves the town by means of a strange and sudden magic. We follow Helen through the agony and longing that never leave her as she regrets not going with her friend in that one, strange, life-defining moment. Andelsmith's story is both a history lesson and a fantasy tale, and it is suffused with magic. The passage where we follow Helen through death and back into the world again is just exquisite. I love this story, and one of my favourite parts, is the transformation the narrator undergoes when she returns to the world of the living as a spirit, and builds her own body from leaves and twigs from the trees of Rainey. This is a gorgeously wrought, profoundly moving story and part of an excellent issue of Fiyah.

Mother Trucker by Wailana Kalana (narrated by Jen Zink and first published in Mother: Tales Of Love And Terror) at PseudoPod

Motherhood is full of horrors, and Kalana brings this out masterfully and with both ferocity and insight in this story. I love everything about it. Its descriptions of the Rockies, of the roads through the mountains, of the forest and the darkness, of a life lived on the highway. The narrator's mother is a trucker, and on this trip through Canada up to Alaska, we follow the winding path of a life, as the trucker follows the winding highway, until the crash, until nothing can be hidden anymore. What I particularly love about this story is the way nature, and the landscape (the road, the mountains, the empty spaces) entwine with the plot and the characters.

Until It Has Your Reflection by Katherine Quevedo in Nightmare

Well, consider me well and truly freaked out of my own skin after reading this story. Horror that involves mirrors is very much up my alley, and in this story, the horror is so surreal and terrifying in both how it manifests itself and how it can be counteracted. There’s a scene here when the mother in the family makes the decision to counteract the horrifying presence that has somehow gotten into their home (and heads), and the way Quevedo describes the numinous horror that almost, but only almost, shows its face is masterful.

Missed Connections - Central Square Today Around 930 by Jess Cameron in Strange Horizons

You ever have that thing happen to you—maybe your eyes meet with someone on a train, just as you’re glancing around, and they’re cute and you imagine maybe they think you’re cute and you let yourself wonder, what if some contrivance happened and you had a reason to talk? And what would your relationship with them be like? Nothing serious, you know, just a little daydreaming to pass the time on a train. That happens to me too.

But when it happens to me, some contrivance actually does happen, and I do talk to the person, and indeed, some sort of relationship comes of it, and then that relationship ends in whatever way, and suddenly I’m back on the train. Then the contrivance does not happen, and usually we both just continue on our way. Life resumes.

A trans woman has been cursed to occasionally, and haphazardly, experience relationships that start with some small and random occurrence. These relationships might last weeks, months, or even years, but when they end, she is returned to the moment when the relationship first started. Except this time, nothing happens, and her life goes on as if that relationship had never been even though she can remember every moment. She's lived like this for years, accepting it as a kind of cruel twist of fate, but now, she is trying to reconnect with a person from her latest time skip, trying to convince them to pick up a relationship that never even happened as far as the other person is concerned. It's a real mind-twist of a plot, and it makes for an aching, desperate love story, and an even more aching and desperate attempt to reconnect with a lost love. Tender and wrenching, this story wears its broken heart on its sleeve.

Sweat Rice by Shari Paul in The Dark

Using magic to get your way in a bad situation doesn’t always work out well, but in Paul’s story, there is some satisfaction in following the main character of this story as she makes her anger and her desire felt any way she can. And food is part of the writerly magic here, its presence and its power, in the everyday flavours, and in the way that food can be a lure and a way of showing and receiving love and attention. But here, it’s turned into something more powerful still.

Sailors Take Warning by Gretchen Tessmer in Nature Futures

I’ve heard this broadcast before: Charlie Gale’s Incredibly Accurate Weekend Forecast. Sure, it’s accurate. With a partly sunny, partly cloudy outlook, the guy always hedged his bets.

Gran sighs from her rocking chair, sitting near the front-room windows, eyes on the eastern horizon, lips soon pressed together. She’s heard this show more times than me and probably wants me to switch it off. But there’s something about hearing other voices in the house, even ones long gone.

On Earth, a girl and her grandmother are listening to a broadcast from the asteroid belt. It's the same broadcast that has played again and again for years, ever since the grid went down on Earth, and ever since the nuclear disaster almost wiped out the planet's civilization. They listen to the broadcast that keeps bouncing around the airwaves, replaying again and again. Tessmer's story is tragic and bleak, and yet it is not devoid of hope, because there are still people listening, still hunkering down, hoping for better days. I love the way this story captures so much in such a small moment of time.

Treacle Blood by Joyce Chng in The Future Fire

“You don’t have to cut open your veins,” the old woman warned me, “just to let them feed on you.”

It was the day after Qing Ming, when the tombs were swept and the visitors had already left in their cars. The hill of the graves was buried in its usual silence, filled only by the sound of wind and the skitter of spirit voices.

“My blood’s treacle,” I said quietly to the elder. “Like spun sugar.”

In Chng's story, strange things are happening in the world. People are changing in unforeseen and peculiar ways, and werewolves and vampires live cheek by jowl with those who have changed, and are still changing, in other ways. Everyone is trying to figure out how to live with the consequences of the changes, trying to find love and safety, and a way to make it through every day, any way they can. Even if it is by letting others drink their sweet, sweet blood. There's a lovely gentleness to this story even as it describes an often harsh world, telling us that even in the dark and difficult times, there are ways to survive, and people who care. 

Ratatoskr by Kij Johnson in Sunday Morning Transport

Norse gods, squirrels, squirrel ghosts, childhood fears (that are often absolutely real, no matter how adults try to explain them away), and thunderstorms come together beautifully in this story by Johnson. There are scenes here of jawdropping beauty and terror, vivid like nightmares or dreams, or like a vision you catch somewhere between waking and sleeping. Lila is ten when she sees something, a towering presence outside her window. For the rest of her life, it haunts her. And for the rest of her life, she finds its tendrils reaching into her life, and her world through the dead squirrels she finds, and helps.

The Pruner by M Leigh in Apparition Lit

Stories about hell and the nature of hell can sometimes feel a bit played out. Sure, fire and brimstone, timeloops of punishment, eternal torment, etc. But Leigh’s story finds a horror, a meticulous, implacable, and merciless horror that feels like true damnation, like true punishment, like the truth of hell. The visceral, unique vision of eternal punishment is unforgettable.

Don’t Look Down by Jennifer Lee Rossman in Kaleidotrope

So maybe she shouldn’a touched it. Maybe when you live next to a factory constantly pouring thick storm clouds of pollution into the air, you’re supposed to think twice before you let some strange substance that fell from the sky come into contact with your bare skin.

Yeah. She probably shoulda poked it with a stick first. But no point in dwelling on that now.

First up, I read this story because of Jennifer Lee Rossman's brilliant description of it on Twitter: "A little autistic girl touches some mystery goo and runs away into the sky to save an atmospheric whale". I mean, who wouldn't want to read that story? And this one is such a wonderfully strange, almost dreamlike, tale of unexpected magic that appears in unexpected places. The little autistic girl is named Aracely, and she is living in a group home because she was being abused at home. Things are better, Aracely knows this, but she is finding it difficult to trust in people, and trust that things can actually stay good or get better. Rossman captures Aracely with such gentle precision, and allows the magic of sky whales and flying to blend with the challenges Aracely faces in the real world. To me, the story's dreamlike vibe, and how the magic is threaded into the everyday world, is a convincing depiction of how children see the world.

I’m Not The One They Come To See by Corey Farrenkopf in Cold Signal

“Oh god,” she exhaled, peering over the bow.

Inside the skiff lay the body of a young boy, red swimsuit, flip flops dangling from his feet. He was pale, redheaded, clutching the dried body of a box turtle to his chest. Mila waded into the water, soaking her jeans to mid-calf before lifting the boy. She strained to carry him up the beach, stumbling around water-eaten knees of pine.

Mila is at the lake reading a book the first time it happens: a boy who disappeared turns up dead in a boat that suddenly just appears, seemingly out of nowhere. The incident gets Mila a lot of attention at school and elsewhere, but it's just the beginning. Every time she goes to the lake, it seems someone else, someone long since disappeared, turns up, and soon, people around her are not fascinated, but seriously creeped out. This is a terrific dark and emotionally resonant piece of fiction that skirts the edges of horror. Is what's happening to Mila a gift or a curse? And what does a community do when its deepest darkest secrets are dredged up from the waters? 

As One Listens to the Rain by Andrea Chapela (translated by Emma Törzs) in Uncanny Magazine

They say the City had been built over a lake, of which only a whisper remained once all the water had turned to vapor and all the rivers had been piped. But the land had remembered the water, and cried out for its ghost.

The storm came in spring.

It rained every day and every night, it rained for months and months, for years and years, and when finally the rain had passed, there was once again a lake where the City had been. Where there had been light, there was now only darkness, and all the people had fled.

Yes, this is a story about a drowned city. It’s about the community living around the lake, and on the lake. It’s about the dangerous weather and the difficult choices people in this place have to make to live their lives and make a future for themselves. But most of all, this is an exquisite love story, tender and gentle and real and painful and also full of quiet joys. Axóchitl and Nasmi meet, and then they go to the heart of the lake where things both fall apart and come together. A brilliant, luminous gem of a story.

The title is from a poem by Octavio Paz:

Listen to me as one listens to the rain,
not attentive, not distracted,
light footsteps, thin drizzle,
water that is air, air that is time,
the day is still leaving,
the night has yet to arrive,
figurations of mist
at the turn of the corner,
figurations of time
at the bend in this pause,


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December 23, 2022

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup for November/December 2022


The artwork for this roundup includes a detail of the cover for Hexagon #11 by Thais Leiros. More about the artist:

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:

Our Heartstrings Howl the Moon by Eleanna Castroianni in Strange Horizons

When we are kids, says Stavros, we eat the heart of a wolf and become half-wolves ourselves.

This is a fierce, wild, devastating, and gorgeously wrought short story about a pack of children who become wolves in order to survive the horrors of Greece's civil war. The story is written as a group of children telling us part of the story, of hunting together, of cold and starvation, of being taken away from your pack and friends and family to be re-made in something else. I love how this story shows us children the way they are, not only victims, but young people finding their own way to make it through the hard times. Castroianni depicts the bleak and terrible moments of war, and the bond of the wolves/children in fiercely sharp and beautiful prose. An outstanding piece of historical fiction threaded through with fairytale and subtle magic.

Plum Century by Simo Srinivas in Fantasy Magazine

It takes the lieutenant one hundred years to climb the hill to Lao Po’s house. By then, the warlords have come and gone, the Republic has risen and fallen, and developers have been petitioning the ruling party to demolish Lao Po’s hilltop hut for decades.

Lao Po is a sorceress, and the lieutenant has come to deliver a message to her, but as it turns out, her power works in a way that those around her don’t quite understand. I love this story by Srinivas, for the delightful way it twists a fairytale into a new shape, and for the way its characters defy the limitations and expectations we might have for them. I also love the subtle way the conversation between these two presumed enemies works to build a bond between them. Lovely and beautiful and incisively funny in every way.

The Typewriter by Z.K. Abraham in Fantasy Magazine

Zella can hear the typewriter next door while she tries to find a way to write her own story. She reflects on old photos and old memories, family stories, but the sound of that typewriter haunts her and beckons to her. And when she meets the woman who is using that typewriter, things take a surreal turn. I love the quiet strangeness of this story, the way it reveals and obscures at the same time, and the way we're slowly drawn into to the enigmatic truth (perhaps) of what is happening here.

He Stays Among the Commots by Christopher Rowe in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

I really like stories that take a well-worn, familiar trope and stitch a new story from the old threads. Here, there are quests and battles, magic and destiny in the background, but none of those things turn out the way you might think. Rowe anchors his fantasy story beautifully in a place and a world that feels real, complex, and tactile. And I really appreciate a story where the everyday world with its seemingly non-epic quests, troubles, tribulations, and joys is celebrated.

Sulta by James Bennett in The Dark

An ancient Norse goddess takes centerstage in this absolutely bone-chilling tale about a photographer trespassing at an ancient shrine in Norway. Bennett twists the horror up expertly here as the story plays out both in the past, when Tate, the photographer, refuses to heed the warnings about the ancient site he has decided to visit; and the present, where Tate returns home with his camera and finds that while he might have left the ancient shrine, the goddess did not leave him. 

Fostering by Ray Nayler in VICE

You don’t know what they don’t know. That’s the problem with fostering. You know what you think they need to know. But you don’t know where the gaps will be. What will they need to survive out there? What did you forget to give them? You don’t know where they are going. All you can do is guess.

A quietly heartbreaking science fiction story where the science is right below the surface. You can feel its presence, but it is not the main focus of the story. Instead, Nayler leans into the emotional, human side, with a quietly devastating prose. The story's narrator fosters children, or rather, he fosters artificial humans who need to learn how to navigate life, emotions, and the responsibilities of how to move through the world. It's an incisive and deeply emotional story that will resonate with me for a long time.

Ant Twin by Sean Noah Noah in Nightmare

By weight, there are as many ants on Earth as people, which means logically that every person on the planet has an Ant Twin, made up of millions of specific ants who would all, if they could just get together in one place, weigh the same amount as each and every one of us.

Aaaah, such a beautifully creepy-crawly tale from Nightmare! It manages to be both intriguing, compelling, and chilling in a very small space. Wonderfully done (and now I'll be thinking a lot about ants...)

Break the Skin If You Have To by Emma Osborne, Jess Essey, and Cadwell Turnbull in Nightmare Magazine

“Annalee,” she says. “And you welcome, Miss Constance.” She leans over the counter toward me, and her nearness is enough to dim the buzzing, the tightness. She smells like citrus and warmed amber, almost like honey. “You mind if I ask you something?”


She lowers her head slightly and looks at me through her black lashes. “You a zombie?” She doesn’t look scared. Curious, maybe, but not scared.

A zombie story, but with a difference. Here, the zombie is not a dead person come back to life to eat and kill others. Rather, the zombie is a woman who has been bound, forced, to serve someone else by the use of terrible magic. But this is also a love story, and a story of how difficult it can be to break free. I love the sensual, sensuous feel of this story, and the way it vividly describes how this particular zombie, this woman, has been bound to one house, and the specific way that the old magic keeps her bound, keeps her alive, keeps her tethered to that one place even when those who bound her are long gone. And I also love the way that this forcible bond is interwoven with and challenged by a new bond: love. 

The Last Cold Place by Alice Towey in Flash Fiction Online

A love story, or maybe the end of a love story, plays out in one of the last cold places on Earth where scientists are doing research on glaciers and ice cores. Towey quietly and skillfully brings together the outside world and the emotional drama within, and the ending is brilliant.

Patterns in Stone and Stars by M V Melcer in GigaNotoSaurus

A gripping story of first contact plays out in Melcer's story, which is set in a spacefaring universe where war and conflict loom large, and where prejudices and colonialism taint almost every interaction. Szkazy is a scientist from a minority group who has joined the military rather than pursue an academic career. Her path has never been an easy one, and now she is tasked with trying to figure out if a mysterious native species living on a planet of great strategic importance qualifies as an intelligent lifeform or not. Her decision will have major political and personal repercussions and there are no easy answers to be had. Szkazy must confront complex personal, political, and scientific issues, without losing herself. I LOVE the description of the mysterious aliens - there's a scene when we first see them feeding that is pure sci-fi magic - and I love how each strand of the tale works together with the others to form a compelling tapestry.

Last Stand of the E. 12th St. Pirates by L.D. Lewis in Lightspeed Magazine

The flooded part of the city stretched into the sea below them. Rooftops presented largely as rows of solar panels less impressive on dreary, overcast days like this. The only living green was on top of the buildings west of 17th—since tree-lined streets could no longer denote monied neighborhoods. The flood waters stopped receding the summer of 2025. There was no great catastrophe. Storm frequency had simply outpaced the plans developed to prevent it. We’d been promised a cinematic fate, drowned by a final wave, inevitable and big enough to name. The reality—that we could be undone by three inches of standing water in places no water should be—had largely registered as an affront and then became an opportunity.

In the not so distant future, in a city dealing with the rising waters brought by climate change, small and big battles are taking place everywhere, including in the Flood District where Dee and Bobby are delivering packages to residents. Amazon is there too (of course), well-funded and eager to defend its shipments from the local pirate crews. Lewis takes you right into this world, this place, this city, this neighbourhood, and into the lives of the characters, and every facet of the story feels alive and compelling. I love the way Lewis makes everyday problems, joys, struggles, fights, and relationships the heart of the story, and the writing makes everything pop off the page. A true science fiction gem. It is well worth checking out the Author Spotlight at Nightmare too: 

The Cat of Lin Villa by Megan Chee at Cast of Wonders, narrated by Su Ling Chan

I did not care for Mr. Lin, the man who claimed to own the villa that I lived in. But when his new wife moved in, I found her much more agreeable. She came out to the courtyard every evening to give me treats: handfuls of coconut-scented rice, slices of stewed pork, fish steamed with ginger.

Told from the point of view of a very particular cat, this story blends myth and fairytale brilliantly. The cat deals with deities and powers of all sorts, trying to solve a painful situation at Lin Villa, maybe to help a certain human involved, but also to make sure the cat doesn't lose its beloved creature comforts. I love everything about this story, but particularly the ornery and self-involved voice of the cat as narrator. If ever a story captured the vibe of a cat, this is it.

The Warrior Tree by Chana Kohl in Luna Station Quarterly

From the moment I was born, my parents knew I would need to fight to find my place in this world. That is why they named me Faiza. The victorious one.

Ten perfect fingers and ten perfect toes—it’s what every mother checks when they see their newborn the first time. But when the midwife brought me to my mother, she felt the universe pivot. She said it was something in the way the old woman’s eyes refused to meet hers.

I love this story about Faiza, who fights her whole life to be allowed to be herself, to do the things she wants, to get the kind of life she would like to live. Her physical disability, ectrodactyly or a deformity of the fingers and hands, makes people see her and treat her in ways she cannot control and profoundly dislikes. Even so, she finds ways to go her own way. The ending took me by surprise in the best kind of way.

The Mages of Byker by Kym Deyn in Hexagon Magazine

He is considered to be something of a legend among the mages of Byker, the man in his old grey coat and woolly hat, who begs for ciggies outside of 'Spoons.

Two mages in Newcastle, David Bright and Terry Blake, used to be inseparable but now they are fighting each other causing all sorts of disturbances and mischief in the streets and alleys and metro stations and elsewhere. Anna Sullivan, who knows both of them and has some serious magic of her own, is now sitting in a particular carriage on the metro, with a plan to sort it all out, or maybe cause an even bigger rift. This is SUCH a wonderful urban fantasy story, with magic in the metro, in scarves, in pigeons and chewing gum. The entire issue of Hexagon Magazine is well worth a read.

Verðandi of the Present by Liv Strom in Hexagon Magazine

“What shall we do with the body? After Urðr is done with it, I mean,” I asked, avoiding looking at the fresh male corpse laid out in the empty parking lot. At least he had been old enough that his days had been numbered ever before he had the unfortune to meet my sister Skuld tonight. It shouldn’t have mattered to me, but it did.

Well, as someone who is obsessed with Norse mythology, this story is a real treat. The Norns are living regular, separate lives in the regular, everyday world until a death brings them together. Is it the start of Ragnarök? That's what they have to figure out and what happens next will take them on a wild ride that includes some well-known monsters and even a Valkyrie. Excellent storytelling from start to finish.

Pleiades, by Wesley Woolf in The Deadlands

Haunting and mesmerizing from start to finish, this story is dark and enigmatic, and utterly captivating. The prose has the texture and flow of poetry as the story is told. There is a mystery being wound and unravelled, a place and a time, something that happened or must happen, and the main character wanders in and out of the story as it is being told. For some reason, this story reminded me of Alan Garner's book Redshift (which I love), where there are points of connection, of living and reliving, playing out again and again.

The Call of the Void, by Tyler Hein in The Deadlands (non-fiction)

A lot of people don’t like talking about the feeling. It’s easy enough to dismiss, to rationalize a reason for why, when driving down the highway, our hand gently steers in the direction of oncoming traffic, or when, if only for a second, nothing felt more imperative, more vital, than to step from the roof and plummet to the ground. You know the sensation: the call of the void.

All my picks for this month seem to lean more or less into the uncanny, the weird, the strange. Hein's non-fiction piece stays true to that theme, leaning into the void, into that feeling of wanting to step into nothing, to fall, to crash, to disappear into the dark. There's an emotional honesty here, a feeling of peeling back the layers of what we would like to think we are, what we would like others to think we are, scratching away until something that might be the truth appears.

The Healer by Jennifer Marie Brissett in Apex Magazine

Six months ago his life changed—again. It began with a phone call. It always begins with a phone call. He had been out on his own, living his life, when he received the second of the worst two calls of his life. Something had happened to his sister at college. That’s all they would say. He needed to come down because someone had hurt her. His baby sister. Someone had actually hurt his baby sister.

Oh my goodness. This story winds and loops and did an absolute number on my brain, and my heart, as I read it. The devastation though? That hits in the final paragraph. A brother is caring for his sister after something terrible happened to her. He ends up contacting a very peculiar healer and what comes next has to be read rather than described. I love stories that tie my mind in knots like this, especially when the underlying emotional truths, and the complexity of the relationships, are as powerful as they are here.

"Bloodbath (VHS, 1987, Director Unknown)" by David Demchuk in the anthology Alternate Plains

I love found footage horror, and here, Demchuk tells a found footage story that is downright terrifying. At the flea market, Jenny and her cousin Lana pick up an old horror movie on VHS, and when they watch it, Jenny's world begins to turn inside out and upside down. Something about the movie is too familiar, even though she has never watched it before. The people, the house, everything. Demchuk unravels it all slowly and with precision. I love how reality twists into nightmare for Jenny, and how even small details from the beginning of the story are revealed to have a much greater meaning once you get to the end. 

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December 16, 2022

BEHIND THE ZINES with Suzan Palumbo, co-administrator of the IGNYTE AWARDS and a member of the FIYAHCON team


This month's Behind the Zines interview features the amazing Suzan Palumbo. I am so honoured and grateful that she took the time to answer some of my questions about her work in the speculative fiction community.

More about Suzan Palumbo:

Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Suzan Palumbo is a writer, active member of the HWA, co administrator of the Ignyte Awards and a member of the Hugo nominated FIYAHCON team. She is also a former associate editor of Shimmer. Her work has been published in The Deadlands, The Dark Magazine, PseudoPod, Fireside Fiction Quarterly, PodCastle, Anathema: Spec Fic from the Margins and other venues. She is officially represented by Michael Curry of the Donald Maass Literary Agency and tweets at @sillysyntax. When she isn’t writing, she can be found sketching, listening to new wave or wandering her local misty forests.

Q. What’s your background?
Suzan Palumbo: I was born in Trinidad and Tobago and immigrated with my mother to Toronto Canada when I was a preschooler. I grew up in a Toronto neighbourhood that was primarily made up of Caribbean and South Asian immigrants. I was immersed in Caribbean culture, and we maintained ties with my mother’s family in Trinidad. I had a rough childhood generally. My family was quite poor, and we lived in government subsidized housing my entire childhood.

I have B.A. in English Language and Literature. After University, I went to college to learn how to teach ESL. I taught ESL for many years, eventually becoming the director of the private school in downtown Toronto where I worked. In that position, I designed curriculum, interviewed and hired people and planned school events. I enjoyed teaching quite a bit. I might even have been good at it!

Q. Were there any particular books, movies, or shows, or something else that first attracted you to speculative fiction?
SP: I didn’t have access to many books as a very young child and I think that is partially why I was a “later” reader. I had trouble reading until something clicked for me in grade three. But, I grew up hearing bits of Caribbean folktales from my mother and her family. Those oral folktales have been a major pillar of my interest in speculative fiction. I’ve written several stories with Trinidadian folkloric characters: Soucouyants, Douens, La Diablesse and other jumbies. When I was little, I was scared of these characters. But, jumbies aren’t simply malevolent monsters or ghosts. They are spirits with tragic histories. They are often marginalized people who were forced to barter their humanity to survive or who died tragically. I think that backstory element is what sparked my love of gothic fiction.

In terms of actual media, I watched a lot of Scooby Doo, He-Man and She-ra, Thunder Cats, Gargoyles and X-Men. I adored the Addams Family film and The Last Unicorn movie. I had an obsession with Batman the Animated Series. When I was in my early teens I read a lot of the classics such as: Frankenstein, The Monk, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Phantom of the Opera and Rebecca etc.. When I was a bit older, I got into the dystopian classics like 1984 and A Brave New World. I’m intrigued with speculative fiction’s ability to reflect our world and relationships and its function as a tool that helps us examine our global, political, social, emotional and personal flaws.

Q. You are one of the co-founders of the Ignyte Awards, In the description of the awards it says, “The Awards seek to celebrate the vibrancy and diversity of the current and future landscapes of science fiction, fantasy, and horror by recognizing incredible feats in storytelling and outstanding efforts toward inclusivity of the genre.” Can you tell us a bit about how the Ignyte Awards were conceived and born. What was happening behind the scenes (and on the scene!) at that time?

SP: Yes! I cofounded the Ignyte Awards along with the incomparable L.D. Lewis. I’m going to speak about my part in the award’s conception but want to highlight foremost that I am only part of the story. The Ignyte Awards would not exist with out FIYAHCON which was born in the Summer of 2020 in the aftermath of the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Tayler. FIYAHCON was conceived by L.D. Lewis and members of the FIYAH Literary Magazine team. It “is a virtual convention centering the perspectives and celebrating the contributions of BIPOC in speculative fiction.”

That same summer I had publicly questioned the Sunburst Awards, which are a Canadian Speculative Awards series, as to why their finalist list had “absolutely” no BIPOC representation. I was very wrong in that assumption. The list did have quite a few BIPOC in many of the categories and I was rightly and publicly corrected for the inaccurate statement and the erasure of those writers. That said, I still felt that the award could do better in terms of representation. I don’t think I was wrong for pushing for more diversity. You can’t have too much diversity in my opinion. I offered to help the organization and wrote a multi page proposal outlining how I would increase BIPOC engagement and participation with the awards and bring in more community support. I submitted that document to the contact I had. I haven’t received a response to that proposal at present. The following year, the Sunburst Awards announced that they would be going on hiatus for understandable reasons that were pandemic and workload related.

It was with that mindset that I watched the live stream of the 2020 Hugo Awards where the host, George R.R. Martin, mispronounced several of the nominees’ names, made a transphobic joke and centered the achievements of white male authors of the past. I’m not going into specifics of exactly what he said here. Those events are easily searchable on Google. He did offer a partial apology for some of his remarks afterwards. But by that point I felt I couldn’t keep quiet any longer about wanting SFFH awards to do better. If no one was going to let me help or volunteer with the established awards to make them more inclusive, respectful and diverse, then I was going to make my own awards and try my best to treat everyone it served with respect.

I’d been aware that FIYAH was planning a convention but did not know L.D. Lewis or any of the con committee personally. I messaged L.D. and asked if FIYAHCON was interested in running an SFFH awards and suggested that we could call it the Ignyte Awards. L.D. and the FIYAHCON team had already been thinking of including an award ceremony as part of the convention, so she invited me to join FIYAHCON.

We put on those awards together in just over two months. We collected the pronunciation of every nominees’ name and practiced them with our host. We wrote the script and remarks together to ensure the ceremony was inclusive and fostered the joy and sense of community we wanted people to feel while watching. Speaking for myself, the Ignyte Awards is probably one of the most important projects I’ve been apart of. BIPOC and other marginalized creators are doing great work and I’m not sorry to say that I think they deserve to be proud of themselves and come together and celebrate how wonderful they are.

I’m not perfect and can’t guarantee that we will never have a situation where a name is mispronounced but I care deeply about being respectful and am open to constructive criticism and feed back. I’m not certain that some of the legacy awards are open to receiving and acting on constructive criticism from the general SFFH community in the same way.

Q. Two of the Ignyte Awards I particularly love are: “The Ember Award for Unsung Contributions to Genre” and the “Community Award for Outstanding Efforts in Service of Inclusion and Equitable Practice in Genre”. What were your thoughts when you decided to include these Award categories? Because they seem specifically designed to award people for work in the spec fic community that isn’t always recognized.

SP: They are very much designed to award people for work in the spec fic community that isn’t always recognized. Short fiction magazines, professional organizations, conventions, forums, critique groups and so many other facets of this industry rely heavily on volunteer labour. They depend on other people’s kindness and willingness to help. I don’t see how SFFH, particularly the short fiction ecosystem would function without people volunteering their time.  We wanted to draw attention to this work because it has value. No one gets to where they are alone and for underrepresented groups, a lot of us wouldn’t be published at all without others advocating for us. I am nothing without community.

Creating an award for a specific person was L.D.’s idea. I came up with the name Ember. For me the name represents someone who kept working to help and inspire others even when they themselves didn’t have that same encouragement and support. It's important to thank people in the present while we can and not put that off until they get to some lifetime of service achievement age. Why not celebrate them now? Why not say thank you now?

Q. I know from following you on social media that you have some strong opinions about how cons should be run, and the problems with how many of them are run. What are some things you’ve learned from FIYAHCON, and what are some things you’d like others to learn from your experience?

SP: I am going to focus my attention on one specific point because I could write a book on this topic. I think virtual tracks for cons are vital and essential for accessibility. Any con that does not include some type of thought-out virtual component is silently saying we only care about parts of the community that are physically and financially able to attend our event. It may actually be the case that some cons only want certain people to be present at their events. If that is so, they shouldn’t be offended when they are told they are inaccessible or upholding exclusivity or gatekeeping, as the case may be.

FIYAHCON, under L.D. Lewis’ direction, proved that a virtual con could be engaging, educational, entertaining, and accessible. Flights of Foundry also runs a multi day, completely virtual convention that is time zone accessible to participants all over the world. Over the past couple of years, I’ve listened to many seasoned in person convention attendees bemoan the fact that virtual conventions don’t have the same atmosphere or dynamic as their beloved in-person events. There has also been a lot of talk around making virtual conventions feel like in-person ones.

My question in response is: Why should a virtual convention feel like an in-person convention? It is not an in-person convention. With FIYAHCON being the first event I was able to attend because of accessibility, like many of the attendees, I had no idea what an in-person convention felt like. Further, many in-person convention spaces are not physically or financially accessible for people in North America and around the world. Many are not welcoming to BIPOC. I understand wanting to get together with old friends in real life but then perhaps you should call the event: “Old friend get together” instead of “convention”. Shrugging off virtual components shuts out so many people from participating in community.

If conventions care about diversity and inclusion, they should bring in people who know how to plan and run virtual events and listen to their advice and opinions. I am baffled at how backwards looking and resistant to incorporating technology SFFH convention culture is, especially since the community it serves is interested in speculating about the future.

Please keep supporting and having virtual programming alongside in person events so that people who have been historically excluded can participate! You can do it, if you try! *steps off soapbox*

Q. You’ve been involved in a lot of different work behind the zines, for example as a slush reader at Shimmer. What advice would you give to someone else who might be interested in getting involved with a zine, or a writer’s organization, or breaking new ground like you’ve done with Ignyte?

SP: I think doing community work in any capacity is rewarding and educational. It’s important to consider how much time you have to devote to whatever project or organization you want to join and what your goals are regarding the experience. You have to be honest with yourself about how much work you can balance.

I learned a lot from reading slush. As a person who’s never had a regular critique group and had never been part of a writing workshop, being a first reader helped me learn to identify the strengths and weaknesses in other people’s fiction and articulate those in a concise way. When I first started reading slush, it required a lot of my time. That time commitment lessened as I learned to recognize which stories fit Shimmer’s aesthetic.  That said, while I was reading slush, I didn’t get a lot of my own writing done. I was okay with that back then because I was absorbing so much. Having that bit of a fallow period helped me be a better self editor.

Regarding running larger projects such as the Ignyte Awards: We need people who are willing and able to do ground-breaking work. It’s one of the ways change happens and the industry evolves. That said, when you run an event like this, the time commitment is significant, and you have to have a handle planning out your schedule months in advance. You have to be creative and good at thinking on your feet and problem solving because nothing ever goes according to plan when you’re trying to organize an event. You have to be patient and respectful when dealing with people and be prepared to work in a team. You have to be prepared for individuals to not take you seriously at first because you are not a traditionally lauded or respected event with a venerated history. The best way to stay on course with all these considerations swirling around, I find, is to make sure you believe deeply in the goal you are working toward. Knowing that the Ignyte ceremony will be a moment of joy for everyone is what gets me through all of the other hard work.

With that in mind, I want to emphasize that you don’t have to do something ground-breaking by yourself to have a positive impact in the community. Everything counts. I tend to have big ideas that I want to implement and announce them loudly but helping out with smaller things that take less of your time is valuable and appreciated. We have a small team with the Ignyte Awards that helps with emailing and vetting nominations. This doesn’t require a large time commitment and is crucial to putting together our ballot. I have to thank Eboni Dunbar and Leah Weyland for their assistance with this because I couldn’t do that by myself.

Finally, I’ll say if someone wants to be involved in a zine or a project or organization that they care about and isn’t sure how they can join in, you can always just ask. Contact them and ask respectfully if there is anything that you can do to help. Whenever I’ve asked if I could join or help out people have always responded enthusiastically. A lot of the time I put out a question on twitter and get several responses as to how I can get involved.

Q. How has your view of the speculative fiction community, such as it is, changed since you decided to get more involved in the “business” side of things? There are a lot of barriers, and lot of built-in biases, on every level in this business. What are your thoughts on that?

SP: My thoughts are: Yes there are a lot of built-in biases everywhere on many intersectional axes and barriers. I’d like to see more representation. I’d like to see editors, magazines and publishers move towards embracing Non-Western Story telling modes. I’d like for them to go beyond repeating: “I want an active protagonist” because their definition of active is very narrow and limiting. I’d like to see more diverse acquiring editors at magazines and publishing houses. It’s not enough to have diverse slush readers when the person who has the power to buy the stories has a very narrow view of what constitutes a good story. I’d like to see more diverse con chairs so that diversity is baked into every con space.

That said, I think change is happening and I am hopeful. I’m seeing so much great work being published. I’m going to point to F&SF. Before, as a writer, I had zero hope of ever being published in F&SFbecause the editorial vision was extremely biased towards white western story telling. Yes, BIPOC were published by that magazine, but those numbers were low.  Under Sheree Renee Thomas, the representation in the magazine has increased. People who never wanted to submit to F&SF because they had no hope, some people who are fantastic writers and who had been submitting for twenty years are finally being published. Everyone is benefiting from this change in editorial vision.

Workshops are becoming more diverse. They are offering online options. There are more grassroots groups getting together to help each other. Some conventions are moving past basic diversity panels. The community is trying and I give them credit for that. I have a lot of opinions on what can be improved but as I said earlier in my answer about the Ember Award, it’s important to acknowledge the work people are doing now. There is much good in the SFFH community. I am grateful for it.

Q. Is there any advice or insight you’d give to your younger self after all the experience you’ve gained?

SP: Honestly, I’d just hug my younger self. I think to give myself advice would imply that I could have saved time or done something differently and I don’t think I would have done anything differently. I’m happy with where I am with my writing work and my other community projects. But sometimes even when you are working towards a worthy goal, you can become tired or discouraged and feel lonely. I wish I could have kept myself company during those times.

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

SP: I deal with most of the people/public facing work with the Ignyte Awards. That means I supervise the inbox, draft a lot of the communication emails, organize and communicate with the jury members, and answer questions or pass questions that I can’t answer on to L.D. Lewis. I also write the first draft of the script and go over it with the host and practice pronunciation with them.

Perhaps it would be surprising for people to know that I spend time assuring nominees that they are in fact eligible for the award and deserve to be nominated. I also help them with nerves or anxieties related to writing a speech and the possibility of having to deliver that speech. For the record, no one is required to give a speech. We would never force anyone to do something they weren’t comfortable with but sometimes people need to hear: The viewers will love whatever you have to say, as a form of encouragement and reassurance. Sometimes they need a mental hug!

Q. To turn toward the writerly side. You write horror and dark fantasy, and one of your stories, “Laughter Among the Trees” was just included in a Best of Dark Fantasy and Horror anthology. You have a short story collection coming out, and your book “Countess” is coming in 2024. Tell us a bit about these upcoming projects.

SP: Yes! My short story collection “Skin Thief” will be published in the fall of 2023 by Neon Hemlock Press. It includes a lot of my previously published work such as “Laughter Among the Trees” along with a 10K word unpublished novelette called “Kill Jar”. “Kill Jar” is a queer gothic tale set on an isolated estate in rural Ontario. It has green houses, snakes and a girl uncovering a dark family secret! The collection is very representative of the short work I’ve been producing over the past five years and has an arc and theme. Here is my pitch for the entire collection for those interested:

“Skin Thief” is a dark fantasy/horror short story collection. The book is named for a group of characters that appear in the collection’s first story, “The Pull of the Herd”. The stories feature queer women of color grappling with the complexities of identity, racism, immigration, oppression and patriarchy. Themes such as nature, gothic hauntings, Trinidadian folklore and shape shifting are interwoven throughout and are used to explore these struggles. The order of the stories in the collection mimics the peeling away of an assimilated Western identity or skin. Stories at the beginning of the book are set in Canada and are written in Canadian English. As the reader moves through the collection, the Canadian voice and settings gradually fade. The middle of the collection is composed of diaspora stories such as "Laughter Among the Trees" which contain some Trinidadian English. The last section of the collection features stories set in Trinidad with larger portions of dialect. Samantha, the narrator of the final story, entitled “Douen”, narrates in full Trinidadian dialect. Thus metaphorically, the collection reenacts the process of shedding a stolen or assumed identity, mirroring the themes of the individual stories themselves.

“Countess” my novella, will be published by ECW press in spring 2024. It is a queer, Caribbean, Count of Monte Cristo retelling, space opera. I love this little book very much and feel it is the story I’ve lived my whole life to write. I have never read or watched a space opera with an indo-caribbean woman as the protagonist so in many ways, this may be me breaking new ground on the publishing front. Even if it isn’t, I put my entire heart into it. Here is my elevator pitch for it!

Virika Sameroo lives in colonized space under the Acerbot Empire, much like her ancestors before her in the British West Indies. Working hard to rise up the ranks of the empire's merchant marine, she's finally become the first lieutenant of an interstellar cargo ship. But her captain falls ill under suspicious circumstances and Virika must salvage the mission and the shipment of iridium that is integral to the functioning of the Empire's military fleet. When she returns to the capital, Virka is arrested and charged with treason despite her lifelong loyalty to the empire. This sets her on a path of revenge where she will confront personal trauma, intimate betrayal and prejudice as the fate of her people hangs in the balance.

Can’t wait to read that collection and that novella. Huge thanks to Suzan Palumbo for doing this interview!


About Behind the Zines:

In this interview series, I talk to people working behind the scenes 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 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.