This is another in the series of interviews with members of “The Bridge Fiction Workshop” that I started back 2010, and which now runs under its own steam in Narberth, PA. Alison-Campbell Wise (who writes as “A.C. Wise”) was in the very first incarnation of the workshop and submitted some of the more interesting fantasy works we read and critiqued. It’s no surprise to me then that she now has a collection of stories—comprising something akin to a braided novel—about to debut. It was something of a surprise to find that the stories include drink recipes, and it’s with that bit of trivia we begin.
Your collection of short stories, The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, comes out in October from Lethe Press. I understand there are beverage recipes?
There are indeed! One of the members of the Glitter Squadron, Sapphire, aspires to open her own bar someday – provided she isn’t too busy saving the world, of course. In order to practice her mixology skills, she’s designed signature cocktails for each of the members of the Squadron. The stories in the collection are interspersed with these recipes, which also provide insight into how Sapphire sees the other members of the Squadron, and how she sees herself. Sapphire (with a little help from me) has also been designing personalized recipes for folks who preorder the collection. It’s been a lot of fun.
Tell me a little about the collection. Are these connected stories in some way?
It all started with “Dr. Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron” (which I’ll talk about a bit more below), which was published at Ideomancer. Originally, I thought it would be a one-off thing, a lot of fun to write, but certainly not anything that would expand into a whole universe. However, it turns out the fabulous, glittery ladies of the Squadron had a lot more to say. Two of the stories in the collection are reprints, and the rest are originals. The collection is book-ended by adventures featuring the whole crew, and the stories in-between explore various aspects of the individual members. Some are origin stories, and some are solo side missions. The stories are all connected, but they’re all meant to stand alone and be relatively self-contained as well.
Who is Bunny? And who is Dr. Blood? What kinds of danger does the Squadron encounter?
Bunny is the fearless leader of the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron. Her preferred battle attire is typically a silver mini-dress. Her chosen weapon is a custom-made harpoon or, in a pinch, the pair of high heels she currently happens to be wearing. She is fierce and fabulous and never without her trademark bunny ears, perched atop her bouffant hair-do.
In terms of the order the stories were written, Dr. Blood is the first nemesis the Glitter Squadron faced off against, but in terms of the in-universe timeline, they encounter him fairly late. He threatens the destruction of earth from his elaborate fortress on Mars, as one does, when one is a scientist/super-villain, and it’s up to the Glitter Squadron to stop him. As you may have gathered, the Glitter Squadron isn’t exactly a gritty, realistic crime drama. Their foes tend to be space eels and sirens and other supernatural creatures. At the same time, the collection isn’t solely camp. It touches on gender, family, friendship, queerness, and all those lovely, messy details that are part and parcel of life.
How long have you been writing short stories and when did the UFGS first tickle the back of your brain?
It’s a cliche answer, but I’ve been writing short stories since I learned how to write. As proof, I have a binder full of fully-illustrated ‘stories’ typed on my parents old word processor from when I was around 4 or 5. They’re mostly about mice, and the spelling is quite…creative. Luckily, I’ve mostly outgrown the tendency to spell words that look like they would only be fit as part of an incantation to summon the Old Ones. I’ve been publishing professionally since 2004, but I still tend to think of myself as a beginner. I’m still learning!
As for the Glitter Squadron, the original idea came about in 2011, I think. Dr. Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron was sparked by a call for submissions for an anthology of campy B-movie-inspired stories, co-edited by our mutua
l acquaintance, Jonathan Maberry. The story didn’t make the cut for the anthology, but it did find a good home eventually. From there, the members of the Glitter Squadron began lining up and politely, or not so politely, demanding my attention and asking for their stories to be told.
What’s your favorite way to start a story?
My favorite way to start a story is to have the first line pop into my head fully formed, and for the rest of the story to effortlessly fall in line from there. Alas, that is rarely the way it happens.
Revision: love or hate it?
Hate it with a passion hotter than a thousand burning suns. Why can’t the damned story just do what it’s supposed to the first time around?
Ultimately, I like to think the editing process gets me to a better place in the end, but while the revisions are happening, I am frequently tempted to throw my laptop out the window, set it on fire, and swear off writing forever. This temptation occurs roughly every five minutes. Sometimes there is literal swearing involved. Usually I find a way through somehow; for the most part, no laptops are harmed during this process.
If you had to compare The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, what would you compare it to? Animal, vegetable, or mineral?Something sparkly. I’m thinking a hippogriff dipped in sequins.
You also co-edited Unlikely Story for many years. How has your experience as an editor changed over time? Has it influenced your writing? Do you hope to revive the anthology?
Unlikely Story has gone through many changes over the years. It started life as The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, a very narrowly-focused publication featuring fiction about bugs. From there, we expanded to include other themes – architecture, cartography, academia – and grew to a pro-paying market. This year, we’re publishing our first print anthology, Clowns: The Unlikely Coulrophobia Remix, featuring flash fiction stories about clowns. Alas, time and financial constraints won’t allow us to continue publishing regularly anymore. We had been doing three full issues per year, plus the occasional flash fiction mini-issue. We’re hoping to do more one-off anthology projects down the road, but those will likely be Kickstarter projects, and it may be a while before our respective life and work schedules have enough space to make such a thing feasible.
Co-editing Unlikely Story has been an amazing experience. It’s taught me to have more patience as a writer, and it’s really driven home the point that rejection isn’t personal. We’ve had to pass on stories we loved because they didn’t fit our theme closely enough, or they were too similar to something we’d already published. So much of it is right editor, right time.
The best part of working on Unlikely Story has been getting to know so many incredible authors. Some were people whose works I’d previously admired and was delighted to have the opportunity to publish, others were new-to-me and working with them turned me into an avid fan of their work. It’s always a great feeling when an author makes their first sale or first pro sale to your publication. You’re the first to discover something new and wonderful, and you can’t wait to share it with the world. I’ve met a few of our authors at conventions, and now consider some of them friends. That might never have happened without that first moment of ‘hey we published your work and now you’re a real person here in real life hooray’ to spark the initial conversation.
Ok, you can tell us. What REALLY happened at Uncanny Cabin last year?Nothing at all suspicious. The cabin is perfectly friendly. In fact, why don’t you step inside and make yourself comfortable on the couch. Even take a little nap. That noise is just the house settling. Houses settle all the time. Yes, I suppose it does sound a bit like chewing, but really, it’s only the wind…
You write a fantastic monthly column for SF Signal, called “Women To Read.” How did that column get its start? How much reading do you do to prepare?
The column was sparked by Kari Sperring’s #womentoread hashtag on Twitter. I wanted to take it one step farther, and recommend a specific starting point for each woman’s work. Luckily, I tend to read a lot anyway, so most of the reading for the column comes out of that. I do like to feature different women with each column, and get a mix of newer and more established authors. It’s been a great incentive to seek out work I’m not familiar with; I’ve made a lot of great discoveries that way!
Where can we find you and our copies of The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Save the World Again?
You can find my sporadically updated blog at www.acwise.net; you can find my Women to Read column at www.sfsignal.com; and you can find me on Twitter as @ac_wise (warning, may contain excessive corgi pictures).
The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again is currently available for preorder from Lethe Press.
As of October 20th, it will officially be out in the world and hopefully making its way into a few independent bookstores, as well as online retailers like Amazon.
The third interview from a workshop I conducted called The Bridge–this one is with author Fran Grote. I met Fran originally years earlier in another workshop. She worked fearlessly and feverishly at her writing, and in the end chose to go independent of traditional publishing. She has written and published now a serio-comic novel, Fire in the Henhouse, and a collection of stories that defies categorization, Death Madness & a Mess of Dogs.
What got you started writing?
Someone asked me recently why I write, and my instant answer was, “Because I have to.” Real life being more like the SATs than any of us wants to admit, I’m going to stick with my first answer. The human mind thrives on story. Stories not only soothe and instruct us, they engage just about every bit of our brains, making us see and feel as well as think. They create autonomic responses throughout our nervous systems, and mold memories. They are an addiction. And so, when I found myself on a three-week business trip to China with nothing to read during my down time, I finally got off my duff and started writing down the stories I’d been telling myself my whole life. Everybody’s got some of those. Luckily, those weren’t the ones I showed to anybody else. But that’s what got me started.
You didn’t ask me what’s made me continue, but just in case you’re curious, I don’t know how it is for anybody else, but for me writing has become an even more powerful addiction than reading. My family can always tell when I’ve had a day with no writing in it. I have all the classic signs of withdrawal – mood changes, fidgety inability to get anything substantive done, and nobody better dare get between me and the nacho chips.
What draws you to certain books and stories?
I started to answer this question by looking at the things I’ve recently read that fell into the “can’t put this down” category. On the surface, they don’t have much in common – Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane; a collection of Alice Munro’s short stories written between 1968 and 1994; Endless Love by Scott Spencer. But upon closer inspection I realized these authors consistently do some very powerful things – their language isn’t just beautiful, it ignites the senses; their protagonists are painfully honest about what they think and what they want, even if that sometimes makes them not very nice. These books and stories all build a world that I know when I’m done reading, even if I didn’t know it before I started. I guess the short answer would be I’m looking for a story that sucks me in and doesn’t let go of me even long after I’ve finished reading it.
Do you see recurring themes emerging in your work?
Is this a trick question? she asked, smiling inside. And then she remembered something a very astute teacher once told her, that each reader brings her or his own perspective to a story, and that perspective will often render their experience very different from what the author thought it would be. So with that in mind, I will answer honestly that to me there is only one theme in my work, and that is the struggle to gain power over the things that control us. Granted, sometimes that struggle shows up in the form of a guy on work-release trying not to get tagged for a crime he didn’t commit, or of two elderly sisters in a Hell inspired by the tenets of personalized medicine. And one of the things that never fails to surprise me is the number of laughs I get whenever I read my work aloud. I’m always delighted that people find the way I see the world as funny. My work often looks at the darker side of human behavior, so it’s only fair that I offer readers the chance to laugh. [Check out FIRE IN THE HENHOUSE here.]
At what point in the process did you decide to create your own imprint and go it alone?
If I recall correctly, I was semi-conscious, delirious with fever and trying to lift the front end of an SUV with my bare hands, when some voice in my head said, hey, there’s probably something you can do with your spare time that might be easier than this, but just a little. I’m only slightly exaggerating. To be fair, there are some self-publishing routes that are way easier than what I’ve chosen to do, but I wanted to treat this endeavor as a business, not just as an avenue to getting my work in print. And it was that desire to focus on quality that really tipped the scales in favor of self-publishing for me. My non-fiction writing about the pharmabio industry has resulted in multiple national speaking engagements, my memoir has won accolades, but when I tried to sell my fiction, I was invisible. My voice, I was told, is too quirky to be considered mainstream, too mainstream to qualify as genre. People suspected I might have an audience, but there was no easy, well-trodden path to find it. And worst of all, being Nobody meant I was not likely to get top of the line attention and support. So I started my own imprint in order to ensure I am always working with the best – the best editors, the best designers and artists, the best bookshops. The response from readers indicates that they see and appreciate that.
What have you learned as a result of eschewing traditional publishing?
The biggest thing I learned is that it’s not for the faint of heart. Putting all the time and work required aside for a moment, there is still a significant part of the industry that denigrates anything self-published. Many prestigious awards flatly refuse to consider self-published work. Other people throughout the traditional publishing industry make blanket statements about self-published books that are dismissive and unfairly critical. I have had the occasional bookstore buyer hang up on me or ask me to leave the store when I request to have my books carried, although I want to hasten to say that many, many independent bookstores have been generous and supportive and, along with my readers, have made this an incredibly wonderful journey.
Why do I keep doing it? Because my readers are the people who really matter. My first novel reached #1 on Amazon, and my short story collection (DEATH, MADNESS & A MESS OF DOGS) was featured in Kirkus Indie Best of 2014. Those are the things that tell me I’m doing something right. There are bestselling authors among the self-published, just as there are in traditional publishing. The opposite is also true – not everything self-published is going to knock people’s socks off. Bottom line? Bring quality to your work in every way you know how, think first and foremost about your readers, and don’t quit your day job. I haven’t yet.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a writer?
Get started. Just like every other job, the key to success is butts in seats. Write every day, for at least half an hour. Write snippets, write notes to yourself, write down those random thoughts. Someday one of your characters is going to sound like a genius for saying them. Don’t let anyone discourage you. Recognize that no matter how good you may be when you start, over time you will get better – so don’t stop making your work better the first time you think you’re done. Take advice, but remember that sometimes it is best taken with a grain of salt. Not everyone who loves your work will have the means to buy or publish it; not everyone who criticizes it has earned the chops to be a critic. Don’t give up your dream, but don’t let it distract you from the real work of improving your craft. Most of all, no matter what anybody tells you, it IS a competition, so put everything you’ve got into creating the best damn winning entry you can.
Fran, thank you very much.