Ignyte Interview Series: Strange Horizons
The Ignyte Community Award celebrates outstanding efforts in service of inclusion and equitable practice in Genre. Nominated in this year’s Ignytes, Strange Horizons is a weekly magazine of and about speculative fiction. It publishes fiction, poetry, reviews, essays, interviews, roundtable discussions, and art. We are honored to count Strange Horizons among our finalists and have interviewed her here about her endeavors.
Strange Horizons has been publishing speculative work for twenty years! Obviously each new Editor and department head brings their own special zing to the magazine. What do you try to keep consistent from issue to issue?
A.J. Odasso (Senior Poetry Editor): I feel like, in the Poetry Department, as a team, we seek as eclectic a mix of ideas, themes, and voices as possible. The one thing I know I’m consistent with, at least in my personal slush-reading and editorial practices otherwise, is that I try to make sure the majority of my acceptances are a combination of folks SH has never published before and folks who have never had their verse published before. Most submitters who are first-time submitters, period, anywhere, will tell you as much. I’m inexpressibly grateful that’s the case, because I’ve perceived in the feedback I’ve gotten over time that this wasn’t always the case with past editorial teams in our department. A publication like ours should not only be striving to publish diverse voices in the sense of cultures, backgrounds, and identities, but also in the sense of experience. And I choose to prioritize the new as much as I can. The SF/F/Spec community has experienced more than its fair share of gatekeeping, and it’s been a top priority for me, in the 8 years I’ve been an editor at SH, to ensure we break that pattern.
Romie Stott (poetry editor): I’m looking for the opposite of consistency; I’m always checking to make sure I’m not getting into a rut of repeating the same idea from the same voice. I want to find an idea or phrase or image I haven’t seen before and doubt I will run into again if I pass on this poem. I’m also looking for emotional truth – ideally I want to feel something strongly, and I want it to be complex enough it couldn’t be expressed in a form shorter than the poem is.
Lila Garrott (fiction editor): We don’t try for consistency. Honestly, we try for the opposite. We don’t want there to be a kind of story you can point to and say ‘that’s a Strange Horizons kind of story’. The only thing we want to keep consistent is quality. I want to be excited by each of the stories we pick and publish, to look back on them and say that I’m proud we bought each of them.
Joyce Chng (articles editor): I can’t speak for the rest of the Articles and Non-Fiction department- but to me, we articles folk try to bring in marginalised and diverse voices from all around the world. And we focus beyond US and UK spheres, looking at sff-nal spheres that are often non-white, non-USian in outlook, diverse and often overlooked by many people. That’s the consistent thing I see in our department. From Brazil to Singapore, we strive to see/read/hear from sff-nal folk. Science fiction is diverse. Voices are also diverse.
Vanessa Rose Phin (eic): I have noticed, if not within the zine, a popular sense of the zine as literary-adjacent and heavier on the fantasy, possibly stemming from the interests of prior editors, possibly from the interests and retellings by the readership over the years. I don’t think this perception actually reflects the current team. As with the rest of the collective, I have been trying my best to bring in more elements, not fewer ones: of late, interactive fiction, erotica, and game/fandom work, which are places with a big queer presence. We are always looking for new contributors. I have encouraged and been encouraged by our general movement toward more international subjects–I think that it’s as close to a team mission as we’ve got. We have a style guide and a content warnings system, and beyond that, what I want most to see from my departments is a development of their own interests and style.
Dan Hartland (reviews editor): I echo everything that the editors from other departments have said about consistency not generally being one of our goals in Reviews: what we want to achieve is a polyphony of voices, the excitement of a conversation as broad as it can possible be, rather than anything so static as a house voice or a sort of predictable style. That said, I also think it’s true – and my colleagues in Reviews, Maureen and Aisha, may put this differently – that we do have a view of what a SH review should try to achieve. Ours are often longer pieces which try to get under the skin of a text; I think we blur the boundary between ‘review’ and ‘criticism’ with more enthusiasm than some. We see this as a fundamental part of SH’s wider mission: close analysis of what SFFnal texts do – either intentionally or, often more interestingly, unintentionally – is part of how we enhance and expand the genre, too. As editors we are always aiming to enable our reviewers to express themselves in their own voices, and so in this sense we hope for the noise of the crowd more than we do the calm of the herd; but we like that noise to have some … point, I guess? This critical approach is probably the only consistency we aim for.
Heather McDougal (Art Director): I try to find ways to match the stories with the artists in terms of atmosphere, culture, and texture, and encourage the artists to create pieces with a sense of the emotions in the story, whether that’s dreaminess, dread, or mechanical intelligence. So in that sense, I follow the flow of what is happening in the fiction department. I do look for a certain level of consistency: I prefer art that is colorful, active, and detailed, that doesn’t fall too much into the tropes of the genre. But I also like an open-ended approach, so I’m always looking for a way to get consistent excellence while showcasing many different styles and points of view.
How do you allow each new editor’s voice to thrive as well?
A.J. Odasso (Senior Poetry Editor): The Poetry Department works on a rotation system, meaning that each editor takes a few months out of the year where they’re the one reading and responding to submissions. While we consult with each other in the case of Fund Drive and Special issues, normal reading rotations permit each editor to make decisions about what they accept and reject, without consulting the other editors (unless, of course, that editor wishes to – and sometimes that’s the case).
Romie Stott (poetry editor): Each poetry editor has complete artistic autonomy in what they accept, who they do outreach to, and how they reply to submissions. We each have an equal number of acceptances. If an editor is going through a health or personal struggle we prioritize their ability to make curatorial choices and delegate the other stuff like formatting galleys, sending contracts, and replying to emails.
Lila Garrott (fiction editor): The fiction team discusses each story that we’re seriously considering accepting, and every editor, from the time they come on, has the ability to say ‘we’re taking this one, I love it’– whether the other editors necessarily love it or not. Obviously, we like to come to a consensus, which usually happens, but we pay a lot of attention to individual loves and hates. And each editor has complete autonomy over their own line edits and author communications. We try to support each other with the processes like galleying and contracts.
Joyce Chng (articles editor): Like the Poetry department, we all have our slots to solicit and accept articles and columns. And we are pretty flexible too: we try to step in and help if an editor is not feeling well or going through a struggle. Likewise, we all bring in our own personal style/voice when it comes to soliciting, commissioning and editing. We also discuss re: articles queries in the sub queue. Most of all, there is a level of trust when it comes to type and style of articles we solicit or accept.
Vanessa Rose Phin (eic): You might have noticed from the way we’ve responded to this interview that we prefer a commune rather than a tower. My oversight role is much less intense than most zines practice, each department is pretty autonomous, and folks’ quirks and queries on Slack tend to get a lot of encouragement from the group at large. I believe, too, that publishing weekly helps us stay more open to experimentation–if it falls flat, we’ll just try something else next week.
Dan Hartland (reviews editor): In Reviews, each of the editors is ‘always on’: we simultaneously and as a group edit submissions, discuss assignments, identify texts to cover and find reviewers to recruit on a rolling basis. (That latter search in particular is never not taking place, we are always looking for new writers.) Out of this continual ‘behind-the-scenes’ dialogue comes, I think and hope, a sort of hive-mind, a settled departmental approach to which we have each contributed: the aim is that, whichever editor has been responsible for a particular review, all the things that any one of the other editors might have done to it will be … well, done. No doubt we each have our quirks – I like em dashes, I’ll ‘fess up – but equally we’re aware as a collective of what the ultimate aim of the department is, and as individuals each help design, and then own responsibility for achieving, that goal. Critically – pun very much intended – as Reviews editors we want to be transparent. The voice – and the argument – that the reader sees on the virtual page needs to be the reviewer’s, not ours.
Heather McDougal (Art Director): This is funny, because our other Art Director, Dante Luiz, is an artist himself (as opposed to me who comes from Graphic Design), and when I was bringing him onto the crew he clearly had skills that I didn’t, and vice versa. He’s definitely developed his own style during his time here, and you can often tell who has done the art for that month based on what the art looks like. He reaches farther than I do, and often has a more subtle color palette, but it’s all high-quality work and suits the SH aesthetic. It’s been just lovely to see what he comes up with.
Strange Horizons also does a great job of not making diversity and equity a “special issue” practice. Why is this important to you and how do you operationalize it?
A.J. Odasso (Senior Poetry Editor): Our staff, readership, and submitters/writers are from around the globe. There is no fee to read our publication; as long as you’re able to gain access to the internet, even if you don’t necessarily have it at home or on a mobile device, you can read and submit. We offer flexibility to the greatest degree possible in the methods we use to pay the writers we publish; we, the staff, are unpaid (entirely volunteer) workers, which means that we can make writer payment an absolute priority. Our social media presence and outreach are vast, which means that we’re constantly striving to get word out about who we are, what we do, and how much we value having a diverse worldwide following. Paying pro rates to our writers as a semi-pro zine is crucial, too. We believe that artists should be paid for their work, and paid well, too. Our diverse support network helps to make this possible. I’ve never seen anything like the outpouring of support we get every year in our Fund Drive!
Romie Stott (poetry editor): Since we’re online (no print distribution) we’re available to anyone anywhere in the world there’s internet, so we have a global readership and global submission base. Behind the scenes we’ve made sure we can quickly and reliably get payment to people outside the US, and to people without bank accounts, and have actively looked for the best exchange rates and lowest fees. We routinely, proactively reach out to under-represented communities through message boards and twitter, and also just send fan emails when we read stuff. We have pretty big personal networks at this point and a lot of us are pretty free about giving out our personal contact information; it’s not hard to find my email address or phone number. We try to be very warm and welcoming in our rejections, offering specific praise where possible, so poets understand that even if we’re saying no to this specific piece right now, we definitely want them here in our community. We don’t charge submission fees and try to give people the least possible number of hoops to jump through to get their writing in front of us.
Lila Garrott (fiction editor): Each of us in a personal capacity reads widely, and notices writers from all around the world. I try to ask writers I admire to submit, and also to tell their friends and communities to submit, and we advertise in those communities to ask for submissions. Special issues, such as our Mexico or Nigeria specials, make us more visible to writers in those regions, and then we keep following up to make sure those writers know they’re welcome when we’re not actively focusing on their country or identity. We advertise for first readers of diverse backgrounds and try to maintain a pool of first readers who have first-hand knowledge of many different cultures. (And we always need first readers– if you’re interested, apply today!) We actively reach out to young writers’ workshops, and if teenagers write in and ask questions about publishing, we make sure to answer as kindly and completely as we can. We’re explicitly open to publishing work by minors. And, of course, the fiction editors are from several different countries, cultures, ethnicities, sexualities, etc. ourselves, which helps in not centering or elevating any single perspective.
Joyce Chng (articles editor): To me, Strange Horizons is diverse. Even the staff is diverse! Hence, there is no need for a special “diversity” issue. When we solicit and commission writers and columnists, we have that in mind. I agree with the other editors: we advertise in communities to ask for submissions. We are all connected.
Vanessa Rose Phin (eic): Diversity is not effortless, especially for a zine with colonizers in it–that goes for me, too! I had a lot to learn about preserving authors’ unique voices when I started there. The important thing, I think, is that we know and reverence that the work is ongoing: from seeking out and encouraging contributors from all areas of ability and identity (I am always cruising Twitter for new writers and artists), to working with other magazines on an international scale, to focusing the spotlight on regions and identities that are often thrown together & far more vaguely explored than they deserve. As Joyce notes, a wide-ranging staff is crucial, as is a culture of calling each other out when needed. From the moment I had the chance to bring in new editors myself, that diverse staff was intentional, and I love that we span a globe’s worth of timezones.
Dan Hartland (reviews editor): Ness is absolutely right: the key thing here is the willingness to put in the work. The reason to do so is that a breadth of voices makes stuff better. The purpose of criticism is to achieve as total a view of literature as possible; one important reason not to make diversity a ‘special’ issue – quite aside from all the others! – is that, if we did so, we would be failing in that key critical aim. Of course, polyphony doesn’t and shouldn’t happen without a lot of effort – and we are acutely aware more energy can always be expended on doing better, which is something we place at the forefront of our practice all the time. We reach out wherever we can, critically assess our output and understand as best we can its gaps; we consult with current and past reviewers, with readers and really with anyone from whom we can get a view of how we’re doing that is beyond our own. Reviews is a busy department: there’s a lot to get through, and we’re always running to keep up with the latest releases, trying to figure out what to cover and how. I think one thing we try to do is remember that this ‘day-to-day’ part of our job is only one-half of it – that there is also, for all the importance we place on getting relevant pieces into the magazine every week, a strategic and forward-looking element to our role as editors that involves recruiting and fostering new voices. Practically, that means constant consideration and active engagement.
Heather McDougal (Art Director): I do try consciously to match the incredible diversity of stories that come to me down the Fiction pipe with the same diversity in the art, although the nature of the job means I often don’t know what I’m going to get until a month or so in advance. So do a lot of checking the art postings on Twitter under various hashtags, because although I have a couple of favorite artists that have to be planned in advance, I really want to keep the art from getting stuck. We only do twelve pieces of art a year, so there has to be a constant awareness on this front!
You all have a huge team! How do you build community together? How do you ensure first readers voices are included in processes?
A.J. Odasso (Senior Poetry Editor): Magazine-wide, SH staff use Slack to communicate both within and between departments. In the Poetry Department, we don’t have First Readers; the Advisor and Editors are first points of contact for all submitters of verse. There are only four of us, so I would say that, for Poetry, those open channels to other departments keeps us from growing too isolated.
Romie Stott (poetry editor): The poetry department doesn’t use first readers; your poem is always going straight to one of the editors. We’ve recently done something opposite to having a first reader – we’ve welcomed Sydney Hilton as poetry advisor – as someone who keeps an eye on the big picture and says “here’s what I’m not seeing you do” or “here is what other magazines are doing that you may not have noticed.” It’s a new role, and we’re still feeling out the contours, which are something like a public editor or ombudsman, and something like a special projects team lead. The magazine as a whole jumps in and out of various Slack message boards to check in or ask questions.
Lila Garrott (fiction editor): There’s a first-readers mailing list, where we chat about things like whether anyone has noticed trends in the slush lately– you can tell when someone out there is making an anthology on a specific theme, because we get many, many stories about that subject– what the most interesting thing is people have read lately, that sort of thing. The editors try to be available for chat and for procedural questions. First readers include notes on why they liked a story when they pass it up to the editors, and we take those notes into consideration. And the editors have weekly live-chat meetings, which certainly helps us feel cohesive as a department, plus of course there’s the whole-magazine Slack.
Joyce Chng (articles editor): We use Slack to communicate with one another. Like the Poetry Department, we do not have first readers. The editors are the first points of contact. Besides when we look through the subs and queries, there is also a democratic process where we voice our comments and feedback. Our voices as editors are also valued.
Vanessa Rose Phin (eic): Moving from email to Slack was crucial for a sense of team wholeness, and it’s still an ongoing process. First readers turn around so rapidly, and there are so many of them, so really only the Fiction team has a good idea of the group, but they’re very good at cultivating and listening to their team. I’m working on creating a Discord to bring the first readers and zine readers together with the rest of the editing staff–hopefully that’ll help some, as well. It IS a large group, but we found that with volunteers, it was the only way to make sure folks with less privilege or dealing with emergencies can step back or step it up whenever they crfelt they can. It reduces burnout, even if it does make for a big crew!
Dan Hartland (reviews editor): Maureen, Aisha and I knew each other a little from elsewhere before starting to work together – this helped a lot. Using Slack has been a game-changer in then weaving our Reviews mini-community into the wider fabric of the magazine, and I think one of the things that has changed at SH relatively recently is its vision of itself as a single entity – rather than a number of semi-autonomous departments. This has been a really welcome and productive change. Within Reviews itself, we don’t use first readers but do routinely ask reviewers and friends of the department to take a look at pieces we identify as ones that might benefit from further input or expertise: perhaps the specialism or life experience of a given reader might help the review fill out or calibrate its argument, or even alter it in various ways. This process helps us ensure that our mini-community produces reviews that aren’t just good pieces of writing – well constructed, considered and composed – but also informed pieces of thinking. This is all part of that ‘noise of the crowd’ thing – that idea of criticism as conversation that powers the department.
Heather McDougal (Art Director): Since we got Slack, it’s been amazing and wonderful to talk to all the members of the editorial community. Because that’s what it is, a communal effort, and now that we have a platform to do it with, we’re getting to know each other all the time, all across the world. It’s an extraordinary and incredibly affirming experience, it makes me feel so much less alone with the job.
What do you hope for in the next twenty years for the magazine?
A.J. Odasso (Senior Poetry Editor): I hope that our current and longtime readership will continue to stick with us, as their loyalty has ensured our survival. I also hope that our readership and submissions base will continue to grow, as they’re part of that survival. We need to keep doing what we’re doing as a team, but we also need to continually strive for improvement.
Lila Garrott (fiction editor): To keep on going, and keep doing what we’re doing. I think the free-on-the-web model, where we get our money from yearly crowdfunding, is a good one, with a nice balance of accessibility to all and ability to ask for money for specific things when we want to do them. I don’t know what the internet is going to look like in twenty years, because that’s a geological epoch in internet time, but I want us to be on that internet.
Joyce Chng (articles editor): That the magazine will keep on going (stronger, better) as the sff readership matures and grows. Like Lila has said, I don’t know what the internet is going to look like in twenty years or how life is going to look like either!
Vanessa Rose Phin (eic): Well it certainly won’t be me at the helm, that’s for sure! We’ve had five EICs in twenty years, and I think that turnaround is one of the things that keeps things innovative. Some of the major items on my wishlist–content warnings and a trans special–have already happened, much to my joy. I’d like to see us do more anthologies, and more collaborations with magazines in languages other than English. Publishing a 25th anniversary edition in print is also on the agenda. And in 20 years? Hell, I’d love to know we’re being read on Mars.
Dan Hartland (reviews editor): I hope it is something I cannot even predict. The magazine is so different now than it was even five years ago, and that’s how it should be – how it must be! So I hope the magazine far exceeds the bounds of my imagination, and am pretty sure it will.
Heather McDougal (Art Director): This sounds silly, but I want to see MORE ART. The thing I love about my job is matching authors with artists, giving authors wonderful images of their imaginings. I’d like to see more happy authors and I’d like to give more artists, from more and more different backgrounds, a chance to make work and be paid for it.
What are your hopes for the SFF community in the future?
A.J. Odasso (Senior Poetry Editor): I would like to see “Spec” become more regularly, visibly recognized in our community. Too often, I feel like we’re considered not SF or F enough to be here, with the assumption our overlaps with the mainstream Literary community are strongest…and, too often, I feel the mainstream Literary community de-legitimizes us without realizing it, too. I hope the SF/F/Spec community will continue to move toward even greater diversity, inclusiveness, and kindness, because we aren’t perfect. I hope we never grow complacent or feel that our work is finished.
Joyce Chng (articles editor): I would like to see the SFF community walk their talk. The community wants to be diverse, then be diverse. Walk the talk. Be the community people often talk about, not just cliques and factions. A community built on kindness, compassion, diversity and inclusivity.
Vanessa Rose Phin (eic): That the focus move out of the U.S. and that SFdom be recognized for the international community it is. That we choose our folks in power for their community awareness and engagement in the work of social justice in the genre. That we move away from genre snobbery and embrace fanfiction and game-writing and erotica in the queerest ways. That it continues to be a vibrant evaluation of humanity and the people who imagine humanity.
Dan Hartland (reviews editor): Yeah, what everyone else said. I have always had a conflicted, arm’s-length relationship with what has been perceived to be ‘the’ SFF community: it has so often felt to me far less capacious or outward-looking than the texts around which it purportedly gathers. I would like that to change – actually, I would simply like change to be seen as a good thing, to be encouraged and celebrated. Communities should – and can – be dynamic rather than defensive.
Heather McDougal (Art Director): The whole point of SFF should be to explore ideas that simultaneously affirm our humanity and push the definition of “human,” push the definition of “normal.” Like Ness says, I’d like to see our community walk the talk and emulate this attitude. Perhaps if we did, the world could learn from it.
What does it mean to you to be considered for the Community award?
A.J. Odasso (Senior Poetry Editor): News of our nomination for the Ignyte Community Award has meant more to me than any previous nomination we’ve received in my time on SH staff. We stand for community above all else, when you get right down to it; the nomination alone means that we have made at least some small difference. I started reading SH as an undergraduate. I was always starstruck; I never dreamed I’d be published there (which I eventually was, a few times), much less become part of the editorial team. This award is part of the fulfillment of a dream I didn’t think would ever come true.
Romie Stott (poetry editor): It’s extremely moving. It’s the most significant award I’ve ever been nominated for – an award for the thing I care about the most. Win or lose, it’s something to continue to live up to, and it gives me great joy to know it’s valued by so many other people, including our fellow nominee list. I hope (and this is part of the SFF community of the future hope as well) the list of nominees continues to grow each year until our chances of winning are one in a million because there are so many of us inspiring and pushing each other.
Lila Garrott (fiction editor): I’m delighted. We do try to make inclusivity, diversity, and a wide community part of our usual practices, and it makes me feel that maybe that’s working a bit, though of course we’re always learning how to be better at it. It serves as a reminder to me that people pay attention to what we do and notice things about us, even if we don’t necessarily notice them noticing at the time. And it is something to live up to, in the future, as we, hopefully, learn and improve more. As Romie said, I hope the list of nominees gets longer every year.
Joyce Chng (articles editor): I was surprised and very moved by the nomination. SH is a team and community. Our values show in what we do and what we publish. And I am glad that people see what we are doing. Like what the rest has said, may we continue to inspire each other and may the list of nominees get longer every year.
Vanessa Rose Phin (eic): I think everyone who has been nominated for this award, all of their lovely and magical selves, would say the same thing: it was wonderful, not because we were recognized, but because the award made it clear that the work is seen and valued and needed.
We’ll keep on doing it.
Dan Hartland (reviews editor): It means that some of the often seemingly small change we have been trying to make has had an impact somewhere, on some people. And that means all the things. The nomination is energising, encouraging, emboldening. It is so very welcome – and a spur to work harder still.
Heather McDougal (Art Director): It’s lovely. I just…can’t believe it. I feel so lucky to be in such incredibly good company.