Interview with Charles Payseur

Recently I interviewed Charles Payseur about his upcoming short fiction collection, being the series editor for We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction, his prolific reviewing of short fiction, plus the landscape of queer speculative fiction more generally. Charles is a household name in the speculative short fiction community and a font of knowledge, and it was a real pleasure hearing his thoughts on all of these topics.

Charles Payseur

Ephiny: Congratulations on your forthcoming short fiction collection, The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories, coming soon from Lethe Press! When you put the collection together, did you find there were themes that kept popping up throughout the stories? Did any surprise you?

Charles: “I’m not sure it was a surprise, exactly, to find that longing and loneliness are big themes that I play with. Hopelessness and helplessness. Given the times, they’re not exactly uncommon veins to find flowing through works. How those themes were approached, though, and how my treatment of them changed over time, though, that was interesting to see. And as I sat down to really structure the collection, I found that it was a great way to give a backbone to the arch of the collection as a whole, and in some ways to my journey as a writer. Because I think I’ve approached the ideas of power and powerlessness, complicity and resistance, a bit different as I’ve aged and as I’ve written. And while earlier in the collection I think there’s more of a directionless want, a need that doesn’t have language to describe itself, I think as the stories progress that language becomes a bit more clear. And from the confusion and yearning I think I do find a bit of hope, a bit of peace. That there is a way forward, as difficult as it might be. That change starts from within, and radiates out.”

Do you have a favourite story in the collection? If so, what makes it your favourite?

“I think my favorite may be one of the originals, “Little Blue Men.” It’s a piece that was… rather difficult to write, in many ways, and it speaks to a lot of things that I’ve internalized and struggled with. It’s personal without being autobiographical, and I feel like I was able to really face toxic nostalgia and masculinity in it without succumbing to a kind of self-loathing. For me the final stories of the collection are my attempt to kind of map a way of making peace with my masculinity, to finding my way through all the pressures to be one way, to fit a specific and often violent, often poison model of gender, and twist it toward something affirming, something whole. Vulnerable and giving and joyous despite the hard road of getting there.

“Plus, I mean, “Little Blue Men” allowed me to get as weird as I wanted. It was a near miss at a lot of venues, who I think ultimately couldn’t get over the whole… smurf eating… thing. But that’s a big reason why I love it, and I’m so happy that the story will get to see the light of day on its own terms.”

The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories,
by Charles Payseur

You’ve been reviewing a huge amount of short speculative fiction since at least 2015. Have you noticed any changes in what’s being published between then and now?

“Well I mean there are many things I could point to as marks of “progress” as I see it in the field. More stories dealing with queer themes by queer authors. More Black authors seeing publication in the larger and more institutional venues in short SFF. I think there are a number of points where the field as a whole kind of takes stock. The Black Spec Fic Report opened a lot of eyes and I think has led to a widen engagement with some of the gatekeeping that goes on in the field. Subject-wise, I think the 2016 election saw the biggest shift in narrative structure and style. It kind of shook that idea that progress only moves in one direction, and I think since then there has been more of an effort to confront the elements acting in bad faith, at least inside the SFF community. And then of course the pandemic has shifted things a bit again, revealing the need for cooperation public trust, and just how damaged those things have been by intolerance, greed, and hate. I’m excited to see now how that continues to play out in short SFF, as globalization in the field leads to a wide collective imagination on what the future might look like and how we might try to shape it, nudging that arc of history toward justice rather than ruin.”

How about in terms of short, queer speculative fiction in particular?

“Well, I think that there’s been a lot of amazing stories published. Sadly, I think the biggest lesson and trend that’s been out there is that if you want it, you have to fight for it, and often you have to just try to go it alone. Because it’s only been through high profile crowd-funded projects and publications that queer short SFF has really been able to shine and have room to breathe. I think that from a lot of places in the field there’s always going to be the pressure to just… ”let things happen naturally.” The idea of affirmative action is still a controversial one (in the field and beyond), but the results rarely lie, where queer-headed projects celebrating queer works often have to be funded from outside the traditional sources in the field. The results are stunning, and there are so many amazing queer projects I’ve had the pleasure of reading over the years, but I do wish there’d be more institutional support.”

You’ve recently edited We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2020! How did you go about picking a final selection for this new Year’s Best anthology?

“Well thankfully that wasn’t actually my job. As series editor, it was more my responsibility to present the editor, C. L. Clark, a longlist of stories to consider. They were the one to make the final selections. Even selecting works for the longlist, though, was a gruelling process. We had hundreds of submissions on top of the stories that I had identified in my regular reading. I had to go through them all and try to find the ones that I loved most. I am an eclectic reader, so part of the joy for me was really getting to look at the field widely, trying to break free from the tunnel vision that I feel can happen sometimes with Best Ofs, where a lot of the selections end up coming from a relatively small amount of venues. I’m really proud of the work I did and the work C. L. did in selecting a table of contents that is incredibly diverse and speak to so many different queer perspectives. I can’t wait for people to read the anthology!”

We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2020,
Edited by C. L. Clark and Series Editor Charles Payseur

Are there certain magazines that you would recommend to readers because they consistently publish a lot of excellent queer speculative fiction?

“As I said before, it’s a point of pride I think as well as an oversight within the short SFF landscape that the best sources of queer short SFF tend to be those that make a conscious effort to encourage queer participation and excellence. Glittership has always been one of my favorite publications because of the explicit goal of lifting up queer stories. Unfortunately, projects like Glittership tend to rest on the shoulders of a very small amount of people. Sometimes just one editor. Sometimes a few. But it means that when life happens, something even more likely for queer editors and creatives, these projects can fall into hiatus.

“I’ve been very impressed, though, with the works put out by Strange Horizons, by Fireside Magazine, by others, especially where I feel they’ve made sure that the editorial side of the publication is diverse (and often queer), which allows for more nuanced, complicated queer stories to get the consideration they deserve and reach a wide readership.”

What makes queer speculative fiction special to you?

“It’s something that I needed. I needed it when I was young and didn’t have it. I needed it when I was growing up, in high school, in college, and still I didn’t have it. Not because it wasn’t being written, not even because it wasn’t being published. But because the field was designed to sort of hide it away. I still needed it, though, when I was out of college and didn’t know myself. When I did find it, and through it was able to really figure out a lot about myself. It’s special because it’s necessary, because it saves lives, because it’s a part of something larger than one story. It’s a gateway into a different world, one where the rules might look different. Where the words might exist to describe exactly what’s unfolding inside a heart that has never felt it’s known itself. It’s vital. It’s beautiful.”

How do you hope the publication landscape for short, queer speculative fiction will change in the future?

“I honestly have no idea how things will shake out. I think that we’ll still see a lot of indie presses and indie projects using crowdfunding to make a lot of incredibly awesome projects happen. Otherwise, I hope what is pushed back against is that queer speculative fiction is somehow easy to publish or overwhelming met with welcome or positivity within the SFF field. I wish. But… you asked how I hope it will change. I hope that we’ll see a better representation of diverse perspectives at the top of publications. I think that we’re seeing that publications that have multiple editors that can approach stories from multiple angles have a better record for inclusion.”

How has your writing evolved over the years? Has your focus changed? What can we expect from your stories in the future?

“I think the biggest thing is that there’s a kind of curve. When I started out I wrote what I wanted. As time and rejections mounted, I started more trying to write for what I thought other people wanted. As time and rejections mounted, I finally hit a balance where I could sell some of what I wrote. I wrote not just because I wanted to, but because for a while I needed the additional money that it brought. And now, because things changed in my personal life, I admit that I’m in a place where I don’t really know what to do with myself. Where I want to write more of what I want and damn the consequences. I haven’t quite figured it out, but I’m working on it. So more weirdness, more smuttiness, more glorious queerness. That’s what I hope comes next, because that’s where my heart’s at right now.”

Thank you so much for your time, Charles! Is there anything else you’d like to say?

“Thank you so much for having me! Aside from totally preordering my collection and We’re Here, I do want to encourage people, to entreat people, to please submit their queer speculative fiction short stories and novelettes to the current We’re Here call. Bury me in queer stories, please!”

You can pre-order Charles’s books from the links below:

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