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Ignyte Interview Series: Diana M. Pho

The Ignyte Community Award celebrates the Outstanding Efforts in Service of Inclusion and Equitable Practice in Genre. Nominated in this year’s Ignytes, Diana M. Pho is a Hugo Award-nominated developmental editor, writer and the creater of the #Edits4BlackSFF Project and essential member of the speculative community. We are delighted to have her as a finalist for the award and have interviewed her about her work. 

Can you talk about the #Edits4BlackSFF project? What prompted you to start it? What work do you hope to accomplish with it?

Thanks for having me on-board, FIYAHCON Team, and for offering this chance to spotlight my work leading up to the convention. ?

#EditsforBlackSFF was a project that has been on my mind for a while in some permutation. While at Tor, I was asked about volunteer editorial work for another program, but unfortunately, I couldn’t take it on due to my editorial workload at the time. Yet I loved the idea of working with a marginalized author on the ground floor, and being able to guide them as they navigated the very early stages of landing an agent with their manuscript.

This past summer, when Macmillan had their layoffs, I opened shop doing freelance work. Then, by total coincidence, I. (Ilene) W. Gregorio and Alex R. White each approached me separately with the idea of sponsoring my editorial freelance work to help more Black writers break into traditional publishing. I connected the three of us together and we brainstormed how #Edits4BlackSFF would work. The basic two ideas driving it are:

1) A small but meaningful and concrete opportunity to give Black SFF writers a transparent process to get some useful feedback on their manuscripts; and

2) Have the editorial side be led by BIPOC publishing professionals who would get paid a fair wage for their work.

Ilene and Alex were instrumental in getting additional funding for #Edits4BlackSFF so that all of the first readers, graphic designer, and myself would be financially sponsored. Beth Phalen, the founder of #DVPit, has also been generous in her advice while I was formulating the structure of this project.  Once the core team built out the idea, I reached out to the agents to ask for their involvement, which was met with equal enthusiasm.

The overall goal is that all applicants will get some form of feedback from our first readers instead of the usual impersonal form letter. Up to nine finalists will get feedback from the first reader and personal edits from myself. One selected writer will work with me on a full developmental edit of their manuscript, and once that manuscript is revised, have that manuscript be shown to the some of the top agents in the genre. I’d consider the project a complete success if we’re able to go through the entire developmental edit process and then match the winning manuscript with an agent.

After #Edits4BlackSFF was announced, I also got some legitimate concerns that Black writers were feeling burnt out and worried about missing this opportunity. I certainly don’t want to add FOMO on top of the trash-fire that is 2020! Other people have asked what they could do to keep #Edits4BlackSFF going in 2021, which I would love, love LOVE to do. So, folx, drop me a line ?


Can you talk about your phenomenal work as an editor? When you acquire stories, what are some specific things that you look for? What do you think sets a speculative story apart from the wealth of ones out there?

I’ve been lucky enough to be a working creative right now – editing is an art, just like any other form of creative writing. At least, my experience of editing contains some of the same elements that artists describe when they are in the “flow mindset”. Which is why I truly enjoy the experience acquiring the stories I want to edit – it’s seeing talent in the rough. From reading page one, I’m already thinking about ways to hone the material in new directions to highlight the writer’s message and strengths.

I’ve always been drawn to science fiction and fantasy of all stripes because I think genre can unfold hidden truths about the world and the human condition in indirect ways, while still giving the reader cognitive space to process these deep ideas using the freedom of the imagination. Also, to me personally, they are the most fun!

When acquiring stories, the questions I ask myself usually go: “Is this engaging? Am I entertained? Can this story change the world?”

Sometimes, that “world” can be very singular: a debut author’s whole life changes with a book deal! More often, I read a story that changes my world: an innovative or urgent idea I hadn’t considered before, an unfamiliar view from a marginalized community, or even just a fun, playful romp that makes me feel a bit more hopeful about tomorrow. And during those times I know — passionately, viscerally — this is the story I want to bring to the greater SFF community. Readers need to know this story as much as I needed this story.


What does it mean to you to be considered for the Community Award?

I’m flattered and extremely honored, and even more floored to be considered among my fellow finalists, who are such extraordinary compassionate people. I’ve crossed paths with Beth, Mary Robinette, Tempest, Nisi, and members of the Strange Horizons team many times over the years. We are all professional colleagues, friends, and collaborators for social justice. I’ll be cheering for whoever gets this award!!


What’s your all time favorite speculative story or even trope?

I will read any time travel story. As someone intrigued by the realities of history (which can be stranger than fiction), fascinated by the concept of manipulating linear time (it’s physics lite!), and delighted by beautiful period costuming (who isn’t?), time travel stories are the perfect package.


Speculative fiction has done some great things in the past and continues to make some phenomenal strides and breakthroughs in the present. Is there something you’d like to particularly see from the genre that hasn’t been done before or something old you’d like to see new life breathed into?

Hmm, a hard question! Knowing the expanse of a genre that crosses languages and geography, I’m sure anything I say here has already been done by someone, somewhere in the world!
But in terms of breathing new life into something: I want to see more innovative ways of storytelling that can reach readerships that had been considered “historically inaccessible” (quotes intentional, since we very well know of the institutional limitations and prejudices that often blocked this outreach).

One of the silver linings of this pandemic is people really embracing technologies that can make conventions and the SFF social world even more open across borders and time zones; accessible to the disabled community, to the poor, and to other marginalized communities; to those outside of the US/UK SFF publishing spheres.


Where do you see the future of SFF headed?

I see the scope of SFF fiction becoming broader and in general, more interesting. I see SFF and other speculative genres become enmeshed in pop culture in hybrid ways. We will all become geeks and nerds of something in the future.

On the other hand, I’m also concerned about the consolidation of traditional publishing, and how that will affect how major genre houses. I’m worried about the monopoly that one particular online retail distributor (*ahemahem*) has in physical books, ebooks, and audiobooks that may result in a chokehold on how SFF works get distributed. Thankfully, however, SFF has always been at the forefront in exploring alternate publishing and new media avenues, and I personally am excited to see how these opportunities will evolve.


What are some of the most dynamic or inspirational SFF books you’ve worked on or authors you’ve worked with?

Can I just say all of the authors I’ve worked with has inspired me one way or another? ? I’m lucky to have worked with so many top names in the field as well as discovering some really wonderful and talented folx along the way. And I hope to continue to do both!


What prompted you to become an editor?

I’ve always been a writer. But I’ve also always been a collaborator and a cheerleader. Being an editor combines the best of both worlds, I think!

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