Podcast Episode 3: Michael J. DeLuca Interviewed on Natural Alternatives

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Welcome to the Reckoning Press podcast. Reckoning is a nonprofit, annual journal of creative writing on environmental justice. I’m Michael J. DeLuca, publisher, and also the editor of Reckoning 2.

For our third episode, here’s an interview I did with Phil Merkel of WUSB Stonybrook in Long Island back in September, in which we listen to a climate change aria, talk about environmental justice, climate SF, and some realities of post-industrial Southeast Michigan that influence what I’m doing with Reckoning, then wrap up with an excerpt from Jess Barber’s reading of “Lanny Boykin Rises Up Singing.”


This podcast is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). Content and audio recording are copyright by the author.

Editor’s Note: On Having a Kid in the Climate Apocalypse

My son is three months old. He has no idea what the world is, what it has become. I can say anything in front of him. I can curse, I can cry. He’s happy or he’s sad, there’s no cause and effect. I can read to him from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book that spends hundreds of pages drawing an analogy between a child growing up and an invasive tree species flourishing in a sidewalk crack, a book full of compassion for the poor hated by the rich, casual about the hatred it portrays for people of other cultures. He doesn’t understand a word.

Every day I take him on a tour of what I jokingly call “the estate”, our sixth of an acre in Detroit’s distant north suburban sprawl, barren when I moved here, now abundant with ripening apples, cherries, strawberries, saskatoonberries, raspberries. He can’t eat them; he doesn’t understand what they’re for, but I figure he can interact with the flowers. I break off a stem of bleeding heart and shove it in his fist. He hovers in my arms over the Siberian roses like a pudgy bee, breathing in bewildered gasps. His eyes crinkle; he cringes from the sun. I stand him barefoot in the grass on his flabby, undeveloped knees, and he cries.


My wife and I tried for three years to conceive. We exhausted the usual method, then experimented with folk remedies, natural medicine. We talked ourselves up to a course of fertility drugs, then another and another. She had to terminate an ectopic pregnancy, and it devastated her, and me. We recovered. We kept going. Finally, we resorted to in-vitro fertilization. It would have been prohibitively expensive if we weren’t both well-educated people from educated families. You only get to do IVF if you have privilege. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. The trans-vaginal ultrasound, that procedure conservative legislators in the US want women to undergo seemingly as a form of torture before they’re permitted to choose an abortion: she had so many of those I lost count. I had to stab her in the hip with a three-inch needle every day for months, switching hips every other day to give the bruising a chance to go down. It was fucking hard. She cried a lot. I drank a lot. I got impotent for a while. And I ran over and over in my head all the arguments I could come up with why we didn’t have to do this, why we should anyway. Depending where we were in the cycle, I had to be able to convince myself it was okay if it didn’t work, and also, simultaneously, that it was worth all this pain if it did.

For a moment, right at the end, it looked like it wouldn’t. We went from seven fertilized, viable eggs down to one. And I saw an end to it. If it failed, we could stop. With that last egg, she got pregnant. My reaction could not be characterized as joy or relief, though everyone seemed to want that from me. I felt like I’d been clenching every muscle expecting to be punched in the stomach for eighteen months only to be told the punch isn’t coming. I didn’t want their congratulations. I was exhausted, bewildered, and we had nine months to go. I kept right on expecting the worst. I don’t think it was the same for my wife. She’d been the one getting stabbed, probed, but she’d been able to invest in this positive outcome like I couldn’t. Maybe she had to.

As it turned out, those nine months were easy. The kid grew, turned, came into the world and took a breath. We told ourselves it was karma, payback for the pain.

In the meantime, Lord Farquad got elected, took office, and started dismantling everything good or hopeful he could get his hands on. What woefully insufficient protections were in place against rapacious, fatally short-sighted exploitation of the natural world in pursuit of profit fell away like scales. Willfully oblivious selfishness—not those notions of freedom and equality beaten into my head since I was a child—begins more and more to seem as if it’s always been the default.

Into this world, I have brought a son. I no longer have the luxury of playing devil’s advocate. I have to be good for him. I have to make the world good for him, even such as it is. So I have little choice but to attempt to rewrite this story, his story, as a story of redemption. Maybe that makes me an unreliable narrator. Maybe you want to take this with a grain of salt, dear reader. Too fucking bad. That option is no longer on the table.


It occurs to me having a child might make a decent trial run for living through an apocalypse. If I can adapt to this, I can adapt to anything.

I know he can adapt to anything, because he survived being born.

“Your life is going to change,” my brother-in-law said, after I delayed too long admitting to my family that the IVF had worked. He was already a father. I resented him for the platitude. This was what I’d been dreading—having to perform that joyful anticipation I had been told to feel but could not. I had no idea what he was saying.

I understand it now. Becoming a father has uprooted me from everything I know, forced me to find all new places to grab hold of the same landscape, the same people, the same life. I am no longer my own. He gets the best of my emotional, intellectual and financial resources. Which is not to say he’s my whole life; I have managed to accomplish a few other things since he was born. I made a heart and a peace sign out of lights and coat hangers and hung them in our windows. I called my congresspeople every three days to complain. I supported the people I love and the causes I care about. I listened uneasily, unconvinced, to all those arguments for how much more important protest writing and art had become, and struggled on with the incorporation documents for my nonprofit literary magazine. Reckoning 2, which you’re reading right now, is officially sanctioned by the IRS to do good through art and not pay taxes on it. The irony is not lost on me. I have, somehow, through sleep-deprivation and tears, written this. (This much of it, at least. You’ll know if I finish.)

I’m doing it for him.

Maybe that will come across as a platitude. You, childless progressive activist, perhaps newly radicalized, attending rallies and protests, calling your congresspeople every three days, casting about for what more you can do: maybe you’ll see me as a lost cause for the cause. Everything I do is for this adorable little blob. If I didn’t have him, I could be investing the resources I intend for his future in supporting Indigenous activists, Black Lives Matter, legal counsel for immigrants. You would be absolutely right.

But you’d be failing to grasp the revolution in perspective this little blob’s presence has wrought. In my revisionist history, this is the bottom line, the reason we kept going in spite of all the pain and counterarguments: helping a new person into the world and then helping them come to terms with that world teaches us a part of what it is that can’t be learned any other way. I didn’t know what that knowledge would amount to. But I knew it existed. I see it in my parents, my grandparents, in every parent of every child I’ve met. I knew there was only one way to get it. For that, I was willing to expend all this emotional labor, all these resources. Maybe that makes me selfish—even as I am learning to be more selfless than I’ve ever been? Maybe I’m taking unfair advantage of the privilege I was born with. He wouldn’t exist without it. But I can’t grudge him that. Not anymore. He gives me hope I won’t have to.


Let me tell you how I expect my son’s life to go, in this horrible new world, in spite of it.

He’ll grow up with his feet in the dirt, in the garden, in the woods. He’ll track dirt all over the house. He’ll eat dirt. He’ll eat as much food as I can manage to make my meager sixth of an acre produce, and more. He’ll learn more than I’ll ever know about how to grow food.

He’ll get sick, he’ll get well. Maybe he’ll be allergic to the world, because of everything his parents were exposed to before he was born. Or maybe his body will adapt to the new toxins, the changes, the pollen, the invasives.

He’ll get to know cats, dogs, ducks, chickens, sparrows, robins. He’ll meet frogs and toads, then watch them get scarcer. Maybe he’ll never meet a salamander. He’ll never see an intact, living coral reef.

He’ll visit the coasts, he’ll visit mountains, but he won’t get to know them, not like I did. But he’ll know the lakes, the woods. He’ll watch them get taken over by invasives, watch those invasives naturalize, learn to love them, to live with them. He’ll watch them get replaced by subdivisions.

He’ll know the wastelands, the ruins of industry. He’ll watch them crumble and sprout trees.

He’ll hate mosquitoes, but be fascinated by the industry of ants, bees, spiders. He’ll get ticks. I’ll spend half my life picking ticks off him. He’ll eat bugs, lots of them, and like it. Crickets taste like shellfish. Maybe he’ll never eat shellfish.

He’ll have cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents and friends. He’ll never have a brother or a sister. I wish that could be different. I love my sisters and I don’t know who I’d be if not for them.

Around when he turns seven, maybe I’ll realize he’s not my son at all, but my daughter, and I’ll have to do a lot of rethinking I thought I was ready for, about what gender means, about his relationship to the world, and mine. Because try as I might to be open-minded, I’ll have been operating for a long time on the assumption that he’s got a lot of the same privilege I had. It’ll take time to adapt—and in that time, I’ll hurt him, and I’ll let him get hurt. He’ll learn more than I’ll ever know about pain.

He’ll meet and know and love his gay cousins, black cousins, brown cousins, his Christian grandmother, his Muslim uncle, his pseudopagan pantheist father, and he’ll take all that experience out into the world and learn more than I’ll ever know about empathy, about difference.

He’ll meet assholes, complacent, relentlessly selfish assholes terrified of change. He’ll go to school with some of them. He’ll feel ostracized and alone and I won’t be able to help him. One day he’ll realize how many assholes exist in the world. He and I will struggle together to understand how they could have gotten that way. We’ll fail.

He’ll embrace technology, but he won’t be dependent on it—not the way I was. His laundry and his transportation and his white noise machine will be solar-powered, clean. I’ve already explained to him what the internal combustion engine is, how people mow their lawns with dead dinosaurs. He doesn’t get it. I’ll keep explaining until he does. By the time he’s twenty-five, they’ll have stopped making new internal combustion engines. By then, it will be too late. By the time he’s fifteen, the earth will have warmed past the 2 degrees Celsius goal of the Paris accords. We won’t see any drastic change; it will have happened too gradually. But passing that milestone will drive home to people what they’d been able to ignore. People will be moving away from the coasts. Detroit and its water-rich, post-industrial surrounds will get populated again. Space will be at a premium. Maybe we’ll take people in: my sisters’ families, my parents, strangers immigrating from Florida or Bangladesh. They’ll become part of our family; it’ll be like having siblings, the closest he’ll get.

Or maybe fossil-fuel-based transportation infrastructure will fall apart before we can replace it, long-distance travel will become a thing of the past, and communities will get a hell of a lot tighter-knit. Maybe he’ll have to learn to farm for real, to subsist. I couldn’t—if it happened now, I’d starve. Not him. He’ll feed his family, his community. He’ll learn more than I’ll ever know about community.

He won’t solve the climate crisis. That was up to me, up to us, and we’ve pretty much failed. I’m not putting that expectation on him.

I wish I could say I wouldn’t put any expectation on him at all, but I know better. Already, three months old, he is my embodiment of hope, exactly like in all those clichés about what parents want for their children. I can’t help hoping for him everything that’s too late for me. But I don’t have to force them on him. I don’t have to blame him.

He’ll learn to live with the climate crisis the way we’re all already doing whether we know it or not. I’ll teach him everything I can; it won’t be enough. He’ll grieve for what we’ve lost, he’ll grieve for what we haven’t lost yet. Maybe he’ll blame me. He wouldn’t be wrong.

Eventually, he’ll move beyond where I’m capable of predicting anything.

Maybe I’m wrong about all of this. Maybe he’ll take up with the assholes, reject everything I’ve tried to teach him, get rich fixing prices on cancer medicine or selling payday loans to the poor. But I can’t countenance that possibility, any more than I can countenance the possibility the oceans will acidify, kill not just the corals but the algae that produces sixty percent of the oxygen, or that Lord Farquad will build that wall.

Then again, I couldn’t countenance the possibility that Lord Farquad would be president. So maybe it is all going to shit, and there’s nothing I or my kid or anybody will be able to do. A nonprofit literary magazine isn’t going to save us, no matter how diligently, fiercely and eloquently we all think radical, community-building environmentalist thoughts. A little adorable blob isn’t going to save us no matter how many epically selfish, racist egomaniacs’ rotten hearts he melts. There certainly is a plausible scenario in which my decision to have a kid, to devote my resources and time to him instead of fighting what might be coming is the deciding factor between a future with coral reefs, ocean algae, art and free exchange of ideas, and the one where it all goes to shit. But it’s too late to care about that. In my revisionist version of the story of his incredibly short life, it was always too late. I refuse to accept a binary between his life and the continued betterment of the human race.

All that time I spent advocating the devil—he’s made me realize that was my mistake. My wife was right to commit, to overcommit, even after she miscarried, even when she was being probed with rubber gloves and (when she was lucky) warmed gel, when I was stabbing her with three-inch needles every night. I was hurting her, hurting myself, trying to have it both ways, trying to make it something it could never be. She was strong and I was weak. I see that now only because he exists, only because he has revolutionized my understanding of what having a child means.

Maybe this revelation isn’t for everyone. Maybe not everyone needs it. Maybe, to people who aren’t white, aren’t straight, aren’t privileged children of educated families, some of this is so painfully obvious I’ve spent this essay embarrassing myself. I needed it. I needed to write it. I needed my assumptions undermined and broken up and reassembled around someone who wasn’t me.

I came very, very close to never getting that. There were so many opportunities for me to turn aside. In the course of writing this, through insomniac moments at two a.m. feedings, all those diapers I changed while he screamed, he’s made me realize the reason I didn’t. All revisionism aside, it wasn’t any anticipation of ungleaned wisdom. I persisted through all that pain because it was what she wanted. I’m better, wiser, better prepared for this incredibly uncertain, ominous future because she believed in it more than I could. If it hadn’t worked, I never would have known.


He has blue eyes, for now. They’ll get darker. For now, I can sing to him “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” as I struggle futilely to lull him to sleep while he squirms and digs sharp baby fingernails into my neck. I can look forward to learning what my blue-eyed son has to teach me when he’s seen everything I haven’t. Hard as those lessons might be.

Lora Rivera Interview: “When No One’s Left”

Read Lora Rivera’s story “When No One’s Left” in Reckoning 1.

lora-riveraMichael: You live in the desert. I gather you’re an avid climber, which makes me think you spend a lot of time outside, in the heat. And you’ve mentioned a number of places online that this landscape and experience colors your writing. Can you talk a little about how? Maybe that influence isn’t coming across in “When No One’s Left”—please correct me if I’m wrong—but it’s one of Reckoning’s goals to try to understand and learn from the ways different landscapes, different experiences of nature, influence the way we think about humanity’s relationship with the natural world.

Lora: Quick plug for rock climbing: Go try it. I’ve seen bulked-up bros struggle alongside their lank-armed girlfriends. Overweight mothers and tiny toddlers wrestle equally with the rock. Struggle is the crux and the reward.

Back to it. I don’t just live in the Sonoran Desert. It’s home, this brutal landscape, and humans are out of our minds to be living here. What hubris and bravery forged our desert cities? The first wanderers, they cut through the chaparral or crossed the salt and creosote flats; they settled and raided the sky islands; they plowed, paved, and planted. And now, here I am now, embedded in that bold and foolish infrastructure, writing stories—to what end?

I lost religion in this desert. I saw the canyonlands and did not see the hand of God. Instead, I saw our human species laid out against geological time, and I was full of wonder, gratitude, and melancholy.

That is what the desert gives my writing, aside from the errant prickly pear and brittle bush blossom: the space to wrestle with the extremes of the human condition.

Struggle. The desert is struggle. Life is struggle. Writing is struggle. The reward for struggling is not at the other end. It’s in the small moments. When you’re lying out in the middle of nowhere on the hood of your car at the base of the Biosphere 2, thinking about the wreckage we’re making of this planet and of space travel and of failure. Listening to the cows low and the coyotes yip and watching the stars fall. Trying to be in this body while holding the vast unknowns. Or even the small unknowns—like how I’m going to apologize for the way I stormed out on him to drive until I found myself here. The reward is in trying to hold all that human messiness like a razor-sharp cholla ball in your hand. Careful, keen-eyed, and open.

Michael: I grew up in the woods—I consider myself very much of the woods. I’ve been to the desert. I’m fairly well practiced at romanticizing it—but I also know how living someplace undermines and reframes one’s pre-established romantic views. Do you romanticize the desert?

Lora: The other day I heard an author describe herself as a romantic. When asked what that meant she said something like, “Oh, it’s a huge pain in the ass. I cry about everything.”

I have wept more tears in the desert than I have in any other place.

The desert requires you to be here. In your thoughts, you bound outward and away, you plan and prepare, backtrack and doubt. But a spiny agave, a hiss or a rattle, the surprise deluge of warm rainfall, your own parched throat—all these bring you back. You can’t tangent for long. The desert is too present for that.

Have you seen this sky of ours? When I arrived here from Texas, the sun was the first thing I noticed. Bigger, hotter, unflagging.

The desert seems to uniquely and unsubtly highlight the push/pull struggle that is the human experience.

Michael: Does living where water is already scarce give you any perspective on how the rest of the world will cope with water scarcity in the future?

Lora: Water scarcity—the future of clean, accessible water—is terrifying to me. Almost every time I turn on the tap, I think about it. I don’t know how to be part of this infrastructure and not be culpable.

Sometimes… sometimes, out of feeble rebellion against the knowledge that this way of life is a fleeting one, and that I happen to have lucked out and been born into great luxury and privilege, I let the water run excessively. Shamed, I shut it off a moment after.

Do I think of water wars? Do I fear death by water-borne disease, by dehydration? Do I consider hoarding, consider buying food on Amazon and stashing fiberglass jugs?

When I bathe in canyon water, I use biodegradable soaps or none at all. I turn off the shower when I shave. I don’t flush every time.

It won’t be enough.

I’m not prophesizing the end of our species, but change will come for us. We’re not ready. 

Michael: Finally, and on a completely different topic: having recently become a dad, I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about the responsibilities of procreation. I’ve just been reading this Kate Schapira essay where she talks about giving up on having kids, in part because of fears for what having a kid would mean for her ability to adapt to the challenges of a world of displaced climate refugees, resource scarcity and political upheaval. That essay really got to me, to the point that I’m in the middle of composing a of response to it. “When No One’s Left” addresses these sorts of questions pretty directly. So I wanted to know how you thought about all this. Would you make the same choice the narrator makes in “When No One’s Left”? What about now, with the world as it is today?

Lora: Oh, Michael, Michael…. I wrote “When No One’s Left” in part because I don’t know the answer to your question. I was hoping she’d give me the answer. She didn’t. Luckily, I don’t want a child. I never have had that desire. But I can imagine being filled with want, looking around at the world, and asking these questions—feeling the push/pull. What would I do? I can only say that sometimes, I turn on the tap and stand soaking under the hot water just to spite the world and my impotent yet important place in it.

There’s a current of thought that it’s one’s responsibility to “have a child and raise them right.” I don’t hold with this. Children are people. They’ll make their own choices, just as potential moms and dads decide whether in fact to become mothers or fathers. I do feel that procreation is a self-focused act. The child in question did not give their consent to be brought into being. So, if one does decide to do it—better be certain to do the best damn job possible.

Michael: At least I can try.

Thank you very much for talking to me!

Editor’s Note: Love in the Time of Reckoning

Expect of me no high editorial remove. Not this year. I opened this project for submissions six months ago in a different world. Nothing is as I imagined it would be.

Yet I find that almost everything I wanted out of Reckoning remains the same—and suddenly it means a lot more. The individual, personal, visceral ways injustice and exploitation affect us mean so much more; narratives of resistance mean so much more; acts of protest mean so much more, for one thing, because they give us a voice, they help us find each other. I’m proud to think Reckoning might be another way of bringing us together—all of us still committed to resist.

In these pages you’ll find the people on the front lines: activists, ecopunks, scientists, historians, workers of the land, teachers, students, immigrants, the marginalized, and yes, the privileged. Environmental justice isn’t just for the exploited. Neither is reckoning. For what it’s worth, we’re 66% white, 60% American, 50% male-identifying, 12% Asian, 11% Indigenous, 7% Black. Yes, I counted. (No, I didn’t count sexual orientation.) I needed to know if all that agitating for diverse submissions had done any good. And it has. But not enough. I can do better, I’ll do better. We all have to do better.

When I conceived of a journal of writing on environmental justice, I entertained the notion it might escape bias. I wanted a platform for the viewpoints of individuals, not movements, certainly not corporations. I learned with painful swiftness that the biases least to be avoided were my own: the confining nature of the English language, my education, my experience and lack thereof. I’ve tried to circumvent my biases, to balance them, but in certain ways they remain, and in certain ways, I am unashamed. You will hear no voice in these pages attempting to pretend climate change isn’t real, nor that we’re not responsible, nor that some of us aren’t more responsible than others, nor that there’s nothing to be done.

I wanted Reckoning to provide a means for perceiving the passage of time, a marker we can look back on and judge what’s changed. It can still be that. But watching the world change around us as this first issue has taken form has made the limitations of that ambition clear. Some of the darkest thoughts featured here look even darker since they’ve been written. Some of the most hopeful may begin to seem far-fetched. The outlook presented here on the world and humanity’s relationship to it became imperfect as soon as the words were put to the page. But I can also think of this as exactly the kind of reckoning I set out to do: seeking not blame or punishment, but new perspective, new understanding. It’s what humans do. We leave behind what we’ve done, we share it, we move on, we do better. I picked the winter solstice for Reckoning’s release because it seems in some ways to have always been a time humans used for looking forward, looking back. It’s the top of the cycle, when everything starts again, and we get another chance.

I cannot articulate how privileged I feel to get to be the one to pay these authors and artists for their work and put it out into the world, to encourage and in some fractional part help them to do more.

I hope their work encourages that in you.

If you’re reading this on the website, new content will be appearing weekly henceforth; links in the table of contents will go live accordingly. If you’d rather not wait, the full ebook is available now from Weightless Books (other outlets coming soon).

Reckoning Interviews: Michael Damian and Lynne M. Thomas of Uncanny

issue13coverv2_large-340x510The first issue of Reckoning comes out in ebook form one week from today–preorder it here from Weightless Books! Kermit flail (because as we all know, Kermit is an amphibian-American, and thus under significant threat of extinction due to climate change)!

In the meantime, here we have my final learning-how-to-edit interview of 2016, with the incredibly successful and multiple award-winning editors of Uncanny Magazine, Michael Damian and Lynne M. Thomas.

If you’re new here, the point of these interviews has been to help me learn how to be a good and conscientious editor, to practice what I preach, to understand whether and how and to what extent fiction can inspire and encourage people to change the world for the better, and hopefully to encourage others to do the same.

Michael (DeLuca): First of all, congratulations on your Hugo win! Uncanny has huge momentum despite being only two years old. You’ve won lots of awards, run a bunch of wildly successful funding drives…how did you do it? Is there a guiding principle?

Lynne and Michael: Thank you!

The guiding principle of Uncanny has always been bringing more art, beauty, and kindness to our amazing community. That is pretty much how we do it. We work hard, surround ourselves with the best staff and creators, and try to build our community by making them shareholders in the awesome.

Michael (DeLuca): Your guidelines mention specifically seeking diverse submissions, and the stories you’ve chosen clearly reflect that. Have you had to do anything more to encourage writers of color, queer writers, marginalized writers to submit?

Lynne and Michael: We are always actively talking to writers from different backgrounds online and in person. We try to encourage as much as possible.

Michael (DeLuca): How big a part of the motivation to found Uncanny was making a space for diverse authors and marginalized voices?

Lynne and Michael: It is a core principle of what we believe art should be– it reflects the world we already live in. We couldn’t run a magazine that wasn’t a home to marginalized voices.

Michael (DeLuca): How important do you think funding drives are to Uncanny’s success? They seem such a pervasive part of the field these days…do you think it would be possible to get the attention you’ve gotten without them?

Lynne and Michael: They not only give us a portion of our funding (we also get money from subscriptions, Patreon, and advertising), they build our community and make our readers feel like the shareholders they are. No, we don’t think we would be as successful without them.

Michael (DeLuca): What kind of impact do you think you’ve had on the field so far?

Lynne and Michael: It is much too soon for us to say.

Michael (DeLuca): To what extent do you think fiction itself has the power to change minds? Can stories teach people to be better people?

Lynne and Michael: Fiction has the power to create emotions, to show people perspectives that they might not have considered, and to help people escape daily life (these things are not mutually exclusive). There are studies that show that reading helps create empathy. Stories may or may not teach people to be better people, but stories may encourage people to think differently, to make different choices, and that may lead to them being better people.

Michael (DeLuca): If you were starting Uncanny today, would you do anything differently? Any advice for me?

Lynne and Michael: Honestly, we’re pretty happy with how it has gone and is going so far. Lynne might have gotten the business management software a bit sooner so that she wasn’t filling out tax forms by hand, but that’s about it.

Michael (DeLuca): What’s your next project?

Lynne and Michael: More Uncanny!

Michael (DeLuca): Yay!

Thank you so much for talking to me.


Reckoning Interviews: Gavin J. Grant of Small Beer Press

lcrw33_medThis week’s learning-how-to-edit interview is with one of my favorite people in the world. Full disclosure, I’ve worked with Gavin for years running Weightless Books, and for additional years before that performing various technological and zymurgical somersaults for his and Kelly Link’s much-lauded small press as “chief technical officer” and “head brewer”. In fact, if it weren’t for Gavin putting a bee in my ear about guest-editing an issue of LCRW, Reckoning would not have happened. I love Small Beer Press, I love what they publish. If Reckoning manages to be anything remotely like what they have, I’ll consider it a resounding success.

In the time I’ve known Gavin I’ve asked him for a great deal of advice over a great many cups of tea and pints of beer. So it is a singular and strange opportunity to get to interview him in this formal setting.

If you’re new here, the point of these interviews has been to help me learn how to be a good and conscientious editor, to practice what I preach, to understand whether and how and to what extent fiction can inspire and encourage people to change the world for the better, and hopefully to encourage others to do the same.

9781618730862_medMichael: You’ve advocated for creative commons. You’ve advocated for women writers. You not-so-subtly celebrated Obama’s first presidential win with the cover of LCRW #23. You published Sherwood Nation, one of my favorite meditations on climate change in fiction. (Late edit: the back cover of the new LCRW #35 is pretty great too.) How do you negotiate the line between progressive politics and activism and the practical concerns of publishing?

Gavin: At this point I don’t spend too much time thinking about the line. I want a level playing field. (I sound like my 7-year-old: why isn’t it fair?!) I do want to sell a lot of books — two of the best days of the year are the royalty check writing days — so I guess I don’t want to get in the way of that but I think readers will find the books anyway. In some ways I would have expected to have published more environmentally leaning novels but while we’ve been sent a few over the years they have not been a good fit. We were very lucky with Sherwood Nation that we’d published Benjamin Parzybok’s first novel, Couch, so got a chance at his second novel. He takes on deeply serious themes while still managing to be hilarious.

Michael: What’s the most political thing you’ve ever published?

1931520054_medGavin: Perhaps Angélica Gorodischer’s novel Kalpa Imperial which was originally published in two parts in 1983/84 in Argentina although by the time we published Ursula K. Le Guin’s translation in 2003 the government in Argentina had changed over.

Michael: Do you ever think, I’ve gone too far, this is going to put people off?

Gavin: No. I’m on the humanist side: we have one planet, one life, and I’d like it to improve for everyone, not just the historically privileged. I’m an immigrant but I’m still a middle-aged white guy in the US trying to get outside my own bubble. I’d like to find out (a little) more from the people who are voting in the racists and misogynists. I know that Trump et al have been sending jobs abroad for years — I was no fan of NAFTA when it was proposed — and now he has settled a lawsuit for ripping off thousands of people so I don’t see how people can vote for him on an economic basis. The only person he is looking out for is himself. I suppose looking for logic is foolish and I should pay attention to the victory rallies that he’s about to do. Scary? No. Terrifying? Yes.

Michael: Does fiction influence people? Has a piece of fiction ever convinced you of something you weren’t sure about before?

Gavin: I think fiction can at least introduce people to ideas, places, and peoples that might be unfamiliar to them and once someone is no longer the “other” it is (can be?) harder to treat them badly. That is my most optimistic interpretation. I’ve been convinced of how little I know about the world.

Michael: Have you actively sought work from marginalized writers? How? Do you think it’s important?

Gavin: More and more as time goes by — see above for why. Also I want to read about all parts of this world (and, hey, sf&f: other worlds!), not the same old, same old.

Michael: Small Beer Press has been around for sixteen years. In that time you’ve obviously had an influence on the field. There’s a certain kind of unclassifiable, unquantifiable fiction that might never have found a place otherwise. And you’ve given a lot of great writers their start. How else do you think you’ve influenced fiction and publishing? Can one small press really make a difference?

Gavin: We probably made a difference for the writers we’ve published and for the readers who found the books but I do think that anyone we have published would have been snapped up very quickly by other publishers given the chance.

Michael: If you had it all to do again, is there anything you’d do differently or do better?

Gavin: Apply for an editorial assistant job at a huge publisher at age 23 and have a multi-million dollar buying budget by now. Or probably not. I would not want to miss out on any of the books we’ve published and what if I did not see them?

Michael: Any forthcoming titles you’re particularly excited about?

Gavin: Yes! Some of them not even announced. How about two short story collections next spring and summer which I think Reckoning readers may like: Sofia Samatar’s Tender: Stories (April) and Christopher Rowe’s Telling the Map (July). Both have unique, very different, voices.

Michael: That sounds amazing! Thank you so much.

This is the next-to-last interview before Reckoning One comes out on the winter solstice. The next and final, at least for the nonce, will be in two weeks or thereabouts, with Michael Damian and Lynne Thomas of Uncanny.

Reckoning Interviews: Djibril al-Ayad of The Future Fire


Ladies and gentlepeople of all those other sixty-two genders you hear tell about, my latest interview is, I think, just the right thing for the Tuesday before US Thanksgiving, zero plus two weeks into orangemageddon. These have not been an easy two weeks for many of us. Talking to Djibril al-Ayad, editor and publisher of The Future Fire, was an energizing and uplifting experience when I needed it most; it reminded me there are still people in the world struggling to encourage deep thinking and new ideas about positive change, that those people aren’t going anywhere, and that every one of them is something to be thankful for. I hope reading this helps you in the same way.

If you’re new here, the object of these interviews has been to help me learn how to be a good and conscientious editor, to practice what I preach, to understand whether and how and to what extent fiction can inspire and encourage people to change the world for the better, and hopefully to encourage others to do the same.

Michael: The Future Fire has been open since 2004, which is a pretty amazing thing. Surely that must put it among the longest-running fiction markets online. What was it like starting out? Did you have trouble finding the kinds of stories you wanted to publish? What kind of work did you have to do to get people (both writers and readers) interested? Did you do anything specific to encourage contributions from queer writers, indigenous writers, writers of color?

Djibril: Yeah, we’re also delighted and a little surprised that we’ve kept going so long—although that’s as much to do with low expectations as any successful formula: for example, we don’t aspire to make any money, so there’s literally no financial failure that could knock us out of existence. To start with, yes, it was very hard to get going: partly we didn’t have the experience or sites like Duotrope and the Submissions Grinder, and until we had a few issues behind us hardly anyone had heard of us. Rather than compromise on quality we published very slim issues: one story a quarter to start with, then two or three, until the slushpile built up. Experience and exposure both helped.

As for encouraging contributions from diverse/minority authors, that was something we struggled with for a while. Our first breakthrough was when we did a count of women vs. men authors, and the ratio was pitiful (this was part of one of the repeated soul-searching discussions on this topic in the genre as a whole, around 2009, I think). We didn’t want to just say, “We want more stories by women,” which felt weak; we also didn’t want to be less selective of women’s stories—that wasn’t the issue, it was rather that fewer women were submitting to our open call (perhaps dissuaded by the sausage-fests that were many of our first dozen issues). What we decided instead was to run two themed issues (#19 and #20 respectively) of Feminist SF and Queer SF, which had the result that: (1) the best stories were overwhelmingly “own voices” works; (2) we were able to show diversity in theme and in authors simultaneously; (3) we demonstrated that we had an interest in these themes and these authors, which made our slushpiles going forward much more healthy. You could say that a similar effect was discernible after each of our print anthologies: body issues, postcolonialism, disability matters—raising our profile and showing that queer, colonised, disabled, etc. authors are welcome here.

Michael: How have things changed since then? Do you think political SF writing has gotten more sophisticated? Do you still see new approaches to expressing political ideas in fiction, techniques or story structures you haven’t seen before?

Djibril: I can’t speak for the world of political science fiction generally, which I think has always been very strong and I’m only aware of a very small part of it. We do continue to be surprised by new approaches, techniques, angles and modes of storytelling that we haven’t seen before (sometimes because of our own naivety, no doubt!); recently we’ve been particularly impressed by people’s ability to tell an important political story in a poem or piece of microfiction. We’d love to see people experiment with language, e.g. untranslated dialogue in a story, or by mixing prose, verse, drama, nonfiction, tense and voice, etc., creating a collage of words that combine to tell a story greater than its parts. A few pieces have started in that direction, but I’m not sure it’s something we can influence as editors. Better to continue to be surprised.

Michael: What kind of influence do you think The Future Fire has had on the field? Are there any writers you published early in their careers who have gone on to do work in this vein you particularly admire? I’ve noticed editors tend to hesitate about picking favorites… but are there any stories you’ve featured you would point to as having had a significant influence on other writers and editors?

Djibril: I’m not sure TFF has had influence on the field, or if so I’m not the one to be able to detect it. On the contrary, I feel venues like Crossed Genres and Strange Horizons are blazing trails that we can’t hope to keep up with, partly due to the fact that we’re not a pro market. But I can speak with some pride of a few authors who we published early in their careers, such as James Bennett, Jennifer Marie Brissett, or Benjanun Sriduangkaew, who have gone on to greater things and are all very talented writers. I don’t claim we “made” or “discovered” them, but it’s still nice to have been a part of their journey.

Michael: How have you felt about the recent series of socially progressive themed issues in Lightspeed and elsewhere, “Queers Destroy”, “POC Destroy” etc.?

Djibril: I think they’re useful exercises, much as I said of our themed issues and anthologies above, and although I haven’t read them all I’ve heard that some of them were of mixed quality. We (as a genre) do of course wish that we didn’t need to publish queer-themed issues to get queer authors visibility, and that instead progressive ideas could be told in “own voices” in all sorts of venues. But I suppose we’re still in a place where queer (etc.) themed issues are needed as well.

Michael: Would you do anything differently if you were starting a magazine today? Do you have any advice for me?

Djibril: I honestly can’t imagine starting a magazine now without the Twitter and other SFF communities around us to keep us going. It’s an incredibly lonely business, working on your own. My main advice (to you, or to the 12-years-ago me) would be to make sure there are other people working with you, preferably as equals, and that the whole enterprise doesn’t rely on you alone. Collaborate with other publications (joint themed issue some time, maybe?), get in guest editors and guest edit on other projects. The more flexible you can be the better… I’ve never been able to get to the place where we accept more excellent stories that we can use (in pro-paying anthologies yes, but not in the $20-a-story magazine), so our release schedule depends on when we have enough content, not vice versa. I can also honestly say that without the writing and publishing communities full of lovely people around us, I would have quit years ago. They don’t just make life easier, they make it fun!

Michael: What’s your next project?

Djibril: I’m glad you asked me that, Michael! We’re actually about to start fundraising and calling for stories for a new anthology, to be co-edited by Nicolette Barischoff and Rivqa Rafael. Problem Daughters will amplify the voices of women who are sometimes excluded from mainstream feminism. We’re looking for beautiful, thoughtful, unconventional speculative fiction and poetry around the theme of intersectional feminism, with a specific focus on the lives and experiences of women of colour, QUILTBAG women, disabled women, sex workers, and any intersection of these. We want it to be a pro-paying, multi-mode anthology including fiction, art, poetry, nonfiction, and experimental content. I’m really looking forward to starting work on it!

Michael: Thank you so much. Honestly, I needed something like this, you have made my day better.

And I take these recommendations to heart. At the moment I am doing this nearly all by myself, but I’ve had a lot of advice and in fact have just been composing an email soliciting more substantial help from a very few people. And I’ve been thinking about guest editors. And you are not the first person to suggest a co-issue. I still need to wrap my head around that concept. But thank you very much for suggesting that, and for all of this.

Your new marginalised feminism project sounds great. And timely. Though I guess there has never been a time when it was not timely.

(If you missed any previous interviews in this series, and would like to catch up, so far I’ve talked to T.X. Watson and Faith Gregory of Solarpunk Press, Adria Laycraft and Janice Blaine of Urban Green Man, and Phoebe Wagner of Sunvault. Up next, I’ll talk to Gavin J. Grant of Small Beer Press.)

Reckoning in the Time of Cholera

I thought about calling this “Love in the Time of Reckoning”, but I’m afraid I’m not quite there yet. I’ll write that next, hopefully.

A disastrous thing happened a few days ago the consequences of which I fear will necessitate a great deal more reckoning, for everybody: rich and poor, oppressors and oppressed, even the people in the middle keeping their heads down trying to avoid either, even more than I was already expecting when I got the idea for Reckoning a year ago. Global warming will not be averted. It will be mitigated, to some degree. The world will not make the cap of two degrees C of the Paris Accords. Here’s a Danish professor arguing a three or four degree increase in average global temperature is far more likely. And that was last month. Environmental justice, likewise, will have to be fought for tooth and nail if it’s to come at all, for anyone.

I am up for that fight.

I’ll admit, half an hour before sunrise Wednesday morning, I considered canceling Reckoning and tearing up the contracts. For that moment, it didn’t seem worth doing anymore. A slim technical majority had issued a referendum; it didn’t want hope or change or progress, it wanted everything back to the bad old way even if it it killed them. Then I realized that made this even more worth doing. The harder it gets, the more it’s worth doing.

This dovetails with something I’ve wanted to articulate about Reckoning. This journal, whose first issue will appear one month before He Who Shall Not Be Named enters office (and believe me, I’m aware of the problems in that reference; forgive me, I find myself in need of black humor), will never be about revenge or punishment, it will never be about watching the world burn and saying “I told you so”. It’s about trying to understand, about finding a way forward. “Finding Our Way in the Time of Cholera”, I could have called this post, only it doesn’t roll quite so trippingly off the tongue.

Reckoning 1 has received just over three hundred submissions; I’ve read about half of those and accepted seven. I am so grateful to those seven people. I can’t tell you how excited I am to share their work. That I get to do that makes me feel immensely better about this whole mess. But regarding the remainder: it seems a lot of people mistook “reckoning” to mean I was looking for horror. Around Halloween I tried watching 28 Days Later, the alt-zombie film from 2002 that opens with all those scenes of a ruined, empty London, devoid of culture, populated with rage-filled cannibals. I shut it off after ten minutes. Once those scenes were eerie and compelling. This time they did nothing for me. I guess I could read it as a Brexit allegory, but why would I need that when I have the real thing? I’m tired of apocalypses. I was tired of them before the echo-chamber-dwelling troglodytes of my democracy elected Lord Farquad. Octavia Butler already predicted this whole trainwreck back in 1993. The end of the world is old news. And worse, it’s lazy. I want to see something new.

You’ve heard it from editors before. This time, please consider applying it to more than just fiction, to whether I want to see or you really need to write another wet Mad Max. Please consider it as it applies to the real world–not just in the big, abstract sense, but to you personally. That’s the kind of difficult, at times painful work I think needs to be done, and it’s the kind of thing I want to see in fiction. Honestly, I could adopt it as Reckoning‘s statement of purpose.

We can’t let the grief overwhelm us, we can’t just close off. We have to keep thinking, we have to keep finding new ways, and we have to keep talking and writing about them, so everyone else will see.

That’s where the love part comes in.

Reckoning Interviews: Phoebe Wagner, Editor of Sunvault

712cf200c8be59aee0a52e518d555c67_originalSunvault: Stories of Solarpunk & Eco-Speculation 
is an anthology of original fiction forthcoming in Spring 2017 from Upper Rubber Boot after a successful Kickstarter campaign, edited by Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Wieland. I got in touch with Phoebe as part of my continuing efforts to learn how to edit an eco-themed journal.

(Also see their interview with our friends at Solarpunk Press.)

Michael: What kind of submissions were you hoping for?

Phoebe: Well written and imaginative. Since solarpunk is still developing as a genre, we weren’t sure what exactly would show up in our inbox. If the story made us think differently about the world or catch our breath, we were excited.

Michael: Did you solicit specific writers or seek unsolicited submissions or both?

Phoebe: We did both. Diversity is an ongoing issue in the publishing world, so we wanted to solicit women, writers of color, and writers from the LGBTQ+ community.

Michael: Did you seek out writers from marginalized groups, and if so, how?

Phoebe: Partly through soliciting manuscripts, but also by emphasizing our desire for diversity in the submission guidelines. As we were reading submissions while the submission period was still open, we also tweeted about what marginalized groups we hadn’t seen submissions from yet in hopes to encourage more voices.

Michael: Did you get enough submissions/good enough submissions/the kind of submissions you were hoping for?

Phoebe: We did!

Michael: Is the set of stories you’ve chosen different from what you expected?

Phoebe: Yes and no. Some stories are so unique I couldn’t imagine them on the page until I read them. Others deal with solarpunk in a more straight forward manner. Overall, reading how writers and artists interpreted solarpunk was invigorating.

Michael: Are you satisfied?

Phoebe: More than satisfied! Working with the authors and artists was a truly rewarding experience, and we can’t wait to have the finished book out in the world!

Michael: How was your Kickstarter experience? Would you recommend it as a funding source?
Phoebe: We enjoyed the Kickstarter experience, especially since it allowed people who didn’t know what solarpunk was to find us. I’m a believe in Amanda Palmer’s the “art of asking,” and it was really special to see the literary community supporting us.

Michael: How have you found the solarpunk community? Is it vibrant/thriving/growing?

Phoebe: The solarpunk community is growing! Like any independent movement, there are key voices, but new people keep find our Tumblr and making solarpunk blogs on a regular basis. Right now, it seems like the most vibrant element of the community is on Tumblr. Following the tag always brings up interesting and enlightening posts.
Michael: Thank you very much for talking to me!

Reckoning Interviews: Adria Laycraft and Janice Blaine of Urban Green Man

urbangreenman-270px-100dpi-c8As part of my continuing efforts to learn how to be a good and conscientious editor, to practice what I preach, to understand whether and how and to what extent fiction can inspire and encourage people to change the world for the better, here I am pleased to present the second in a series of interviews, this time with editors Adria Laycraft and Janice Blaine, who were so good as to include a story of mine, “Deer Feet”, in the Edge Publishing urban fantasy anthology Urban Green Man: An Archetype of Renewal.

Michael: Tell me a bit more about how you envisioned your anthology’s theme. What kind of stories were you hoping for?

Janice: Adria had the original idea for a Green Man anthology. It was suggested that we needed to narrow it down in order to create a continuity within the anthology, so we decided to bring the Green Man into modern society. How would he react if he saw what has become of the contemporary world. Personally, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was amazed at the variety of stories that were submitted.

Adria: I think we really wanted stories that gave the feeling that it was time to face the consequences of the harm we’ve done to the planet, in the form of its protector waking up to start a process of renewal…which is of course the theme or meaning of the green man: renewal. Further to that, we discovered many well-educated and well-read people had never heard of the green man, and to me that was just a sign of the problems we face. So it was super fun to re-introduce this mythology into the world.

Michael: Did you do anything special when seeking submissions?

Adria: We spread the word best we could using a website, Facebook page, and listings on Duotrope and Ralan. If you’re a writer looking for markets, you should be on those sites regularly! The publisher also had a call for submissions online, and made announcements through social media. We had our fingers crossed we would get enough submissions…and ended up with enough to fill a dozen anthologies!

Janice: Many people found out about it through simple word of mouth. The theme attracted lots of attention.

Michael: Did you seek out writers from marginalized groups, and if so, how?

Adria: We didn’t specifically seek out marginalized groups. I’d rather it was normal to accept stories from anyone who submits in good form and on time, regardless of race, gender, or anything else.

Janice: We received submissions from all over the world. The Green Man is an archetype. He shows up in many cultures, in one form or another. And I believe the state of the environment affects us all, regardless of who we are or where we’re from.

Michael: Is the set of stories you ended up with different from what you expected?

Adria: The stories that came in, including many we couldn’t take but wished we could, never failed to amaze me. They were on theme, and yet somehow took the idea to places I never could have thought up myself. It’s thanks to the authors that Urban Green Man is the amazing read that it is!

Michael: How has the anthology been received?

Adria: Really well! The book itself continues to sell, which is pretty cool, and the stories received some wonderful reviews.

Michael: Would you have done anything differently, given the chance to do it again?

Adria: Ask for more money? Hahaha…

Michael: Do you have any editing advice for me?

Adria: It’s fun to find a balance between bending the rules a bit and holding the line, when it comes to choosing what to keep. It’s also fun to fall in love with stories and get to be the one to put them out in the world. Just follow your heart, is all I can say. I’m sure you’ve got the technical stuff well in hand.

Michael: What’s your next project?

Adria: We’ve pitched an anthology of World Tree legends called Twisted Roots to a small press and are waiting to hear back. There’s a little idea bug to inspire you!

Michael: Thank you!