Creating a Monster: Interview with Shock Totem Editor/Creator K. Allen Wood

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Shock Totem is an American print literary journal specializing in horror and dark fantasy (horror-infused fantasy). Issue 1 was released in mid-2009, Issue 2 in mid-2010, and Issue 3 in January 2011. Editor K. Allen Wood (@kallenwood) is a friend to many of us here at Toasted Cheese and he was kind enough to take some time to discuss writing, editing, music, and giant Nazi chickens.

Toasted Cheese: Most important things first: what’s the latest addition to your music collection? What are you listening to these days?

K. Allen Wood: I like your style, Stephanie. Let’s see. I’m not sure I know what my latest addition is. I do have a small pile of recent additions on my desk, though; it includes albums by Foo Fighters, Cavalera Conspiracy, Therapy?, Jet Red, Cynthesis, Anathema, Ari Hest, Bad Religion, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, KMFDM and, get this, a 1992 demo by Wicked Maraya… on cassette!

As for what I’m listening to these days, it’s always an eclectic mix. I typically set iTunes to shuffle and press play. Currently iTunes shows that I have 85,758 songs on my external hard drive, so it’s always an interesting mix. For instance, the last ten bands played, according to Last.fm, were Queensrÿche, Shootyz Groove, Twilight Ophera, Ultimatum, Stuck Mojo, Incubus, 3 Doors Down, Live, Sprung Monkey, and Project 86.

It never gets old.

TC: What made you decide to create Shock Totem as a print rather than electronic journal? Do you ever feel pressured to create an electronic version?

KAW: Well, in the beginning we were going to be an electronic journal. I knew the traditional print cost for magazines was far beyond my budget. I’d seen too many publications close for that very reason, so I knew I couldn’t manage it financially. I didn’t even want to try. So creating an online journal was more practical, if less appealing.

But then Apex Digest shut down as a print magazine. I was bummed. They were my favorite magazine (I need issue 3, if anyone has an extra). I wanted Shock Totem to at least have the potential to sit on someone’s bookshelf like Apex sat on mine.

So I decided to look into print-on-demand publishing, which would all but eliminate the upfront cost of traditional printing. I tried a few different companies before choosing the one I felt was best and just went for it. I knew the stigma behind POD publishing would be a hurdle, but I also knew that it wasn’t the technology that was the problem, it was the horrible writers using it and the foolish critics that couldn’t comprehend the difference between the two. Done right, done well—which I think we’ve achieved with Shock Totem—it’s arguable that POD publishing is better than traditional publishing, at least for small-press outfits.

And no, I never feel pressured to turn Shock Totem into an electronic journal. It would save me some money, but I think we’d lose a lot of readers.

TC: Would you mind retelling how the title “Shock Totem” came to be, including the discovery that there already existed a book named Shock Totem (by Thom Metzger)?

KAW: It’s all John Boden’s fault. We’d been tossing around a long list of potential names for a while. Most were terrible, some laughable, and others kind of cool. But nothing really stood out. We had a short list of favorites—Nightfall Overture, Scrawl, Shades & Shadows, Blood Tells—but nothing really seemed fitting. It was basically a Best of the Worst list.

One day, John mentioned Shock Totem. Nick and I immediately liked it. It just sounded cool, you know. When asked where the name came from, John said something like, “I don’t know. The words just popped into my head earlier today.” So we added it to the list of potentials and kept thinking of more possible names. But we kept coming back to Shock Totem. At this point we’d already decided to be print magazine, so given that and taking into account the definition of shock and totem, it was the perfect name. And so it was decided.

Sometime later, Nick broke the bad news. He’d Googled the name and found out that it was also the name of an old book by Thom Metzger. That’s when John remembered he’d actually read the book back in college. Doh!

Of course, at that point, we were set on using it. We didn’t want to think of something else, so we decided to go ahead and keep it. We found that Thom Metzger taught at a college in New York, so to be gracious and professional, John contacted him and asked him if he’d be okay with us using the name. We didn’t have to ask, you know, as titles can’t be copyrighted, but we felt it was the right thing to do.

Thom gave us his blessing, and thus, we exist.

TC: Your cover art is amazing and diverse from issue to issue. Is it solicited or submitted?

KAW: So far the artwork for each issue has been solicited. From the beginning I had a very clear vision of what I wanted in terms of artwork. I don’t know that Nick and John were on board with that vision at first, but I think they dig it now. I just really like the digital medium, things that are fantastical but look realistic. Artists like Travis Smith have been a big inspiration to me and I wanted to see that kind of work as the face of our issues.

When we branch out into non-magazine releases, which will be later this year or next year, then we’ll go for a different kind of style.

That said, we are open to artwork submissions.

TC: How does the editorial process work for Shock Totem? In other words, once an author sends you a submission, what happens to it?

KAW: First, a team of five pigmy lady-boys transcribe each submission into handwritten script. Each story is then placed on a gold satin pillow, packaged inside a miniature Kiss Kasket, and flown out to each team member via a murder of crows. Most never arrive, for whatever reason, but those that do make the magazine. It’s unorthodox, but it works for us.

Some people probably think that way of doing business is unfair and unprofessional, so here’s the hooey-fooey but more acceptable answer: These days we have a submissions management system through which authors upload their stories. It’s a great system and much easier for us to interact with the authors. For me in particular. (You’d be amazed—and probably baffled—if I told you how submissions were handled for the first two issues.) While I may be the Head Cheese, we’re a team of five and we all have an equal voice. So majority rules. Three votes either way seals the deal.

TC: Are you able to meet face to face with your editors or do you handle much of Shock Totem’s business via Skype, email, chat, etc.?

KAW: We do most of our work through email and on super-secret forums. This past summer, though, Kurt Newton and I drove down to Pennsylvania and met up with John and Nick. I’d met Kurt at Rock and Shock the year before, but other than that it was the first time any of us had met. We stayed at John’s mother’s house, way up some mountain in Orbisonia. It was a ridiculously ridiculous week. (Ask Nick about the tragic and hilarious eruption of Mt. Pissuvius.)

This coming July, John, Nick and I will be at Necon, and I imagine it’ll be a good time. Next year, we hope to meet up with Mercedes at KillerCon in Vegas.

But I think it’s best that we handle Shock Totem business online and in emails. We joke around so much it’s a wonder we get anything done as it is; we’d never get anything done if we put this thing together in person.

TC: I’m positive that every submission is given a fair shake but what would make you stop reading a submission (a subject, a phrase, a technique, anything)? Is there anything you’ve seen enough of in the inbox?

KAW: Since I’m the one that does the main editing, I’m more inclined to quickly reject stories that have a lot of grammar issues, problems with flow or spelling or formatting. The other guys tend to look past those things. They read for story, but I don’t have that luxury; I have to think about what happens after.

We accepted a story for our first issue that had a lot of issues. There was a great story there, but it needed work, it wasn’t fully realized. Being new to editing and a little too inexperienced, I naïvely thought, with the author’s cooperation, that we could make the story shine. Unfortunately, it was a nightmare. The author fought me every inch of the way. In the end, after about six months, the story was getting worse not better, so I reluctantly passed on it. The author wasn’t pleased, to say the least.

So that’s why I quickly vote NO on stories that would require too much editorial involvement. There may be a good story in some of those, but I now realize it’s not my job to fix it that much. Typically, though, we all read the majority of submissions through to the end.

As for things we’ve seen enough of, there are a few things that elicit a collective sigh. The eat– or kill–the–baby endings are really lame. You can see those coming a mile off. I could do without the whole Nazi angle. We’ve gotten stories with Nazi zombies, Nazi werewolves, Nazi were-raccoons, giant Nazi chickens, and many more. Sadly. But we’re still open-minded enough to know there are exceptions to everything, so we have few restrictions on what we’ll read.

TC: You don’t do “themes” yet the stories always fit well together. Your reviews are eclectic—books, films, music, games—yet cohesive with the creative content. Is that due to consistency in the editors’ tastes or do you consciously choose pieces that jive thematically?

KAW: Well, I think our diverse tastes help with that, believe it or not. John likes surreal, bizzaro kind of stuff; Mercedes is into dark and whimsical tales. I like stuff that is more fantastical. We each have our favorite styles, we all dig a broad range of styles beyond that, but at our collective core, we like the same thing: dark fiction. And everything is tethered to that core.

I also think most if it comes down to us having the integrity to stay true to the standards we set before our first issue came out. And that really comes down to one thing: Publish stories that we enjoy. If you publish fiction for any other reason, you simply don’t care enough. We don’t publish our friends because they’re our friends. We don’t publish stories because the author is popular. We print what we enjoy.

TC: Shock Totem has earned a reputation for being a “tough” journal in which to be published. Do you enjoy that reputation and do you think it has an impact on the submissions you receive?

KAW: At first it was like a badge of honor. When you see other publications accepting eighty percent or more of their submissions, it feels good to not be like that. But it’s a childish way to look at things. Having a low acceptance rate doesn’t mean you’re a good publication, you know.

And I do think being a tough market makes it harder for us. I can’t tell you how many authors have complained to me about how many times we’ve rejected them. Some people do it to bust my balls, but others are clearly angry about it. A few have even told me they’re never going to submit to us again because we’ve rejected them too many times, as if the act of sending us five different kind of stories should guarantee an acceptance. It’s baffling and sad, especially when you know they’re good writers.

So yeah, I think having a low acceptance rate makes it harder on a certain level. Of course, if it were easy I guess there’d be a lot more magazines out there.

TC: Is the content of Shock Totem similar to what you write or is it simply what you like to read?

KAW: A little of both, I think. Probably for all of us.

TC: Shock Totem 3 is almost the size of Shock Totem 1 & Shock Totem 2 together. When did you notice an increase in submissions, considering the timeline of when you launched until today, and did the quality of the submissions follow suit?

KAW: We got an obscene amount of submissions at first. Like forty a day for the first few months. And most of them were atrocious. The moment we upped our pay rate to 5 cents a word, the quality increased tenfold. Eventually the amount of submissions dipped a bit, for whatever reason. Maybe because we’re considered a tough market, I don’t know. Now we average about ten to twenty submissions a day.

Our third issue is bigger because we got a large number of quality submissions during that reading period. If only it were always that plentiful! We probably should have saved a couple stories for Issue 4, though, because Issue 3 was damn expensive. Haha.

TC: Do Shock Totem‘s sales support your paying writers or does that come out of your own pocket? Has this changed over the course of the journal’s existence?

KAW: Profits from sales help, but the bulk of the cost comes from my pocket. Nick and John help when they can, and I’m grateful for it, but they have families, you know, so that comes first. But to give you a little more insight, we have recouped from sales half of what it cost to do Issue 1. But Issue 1 sold a hell of a lot of copies—over a thousand—in its first year of release. Unfortunately, Issue 2 and 3 have sold less. But I think—or hope—that says less about the product and more about why so many people bought our first issue.

In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Stephen King talked a bit about short-fiction outlets. In part, he said, “…a lot of the people who read those magazines are only reading them to see what they publish so that they can publish their own stories.” I think that’s why Issue 1 sold so well: A lot of writers were checking out the new pro-paying market, not necessarily the new fiction magazine.

That’s okay of course. We may be selling less now, but we’re still selling well. And hopefully our upcoming digital editions will increase our sales, thus reader base. We also have a few more things planned for this year that should help as well. My wallet could use the break. Haha.

TC: Has Shock Totem introduced you to new subgenres or writing styles? Are there subgenres you’d like to see more of as submissions?

KAW: I’ve always been a reader with broad tastes, so I don’t know that I’ve been introduced to new subgenres, but doing this magazine has definitely given me new insight into writing styles, or what works and what doesn’t work. I’ve learned much more than I would have otherwise, I think. Or at least much quicker.

And personally, I’d like to see more steampunk come our way. Of a darker sort, you know.

TC: Very often I say to someone, “You have to read this story” and hand them the journal (Brian Rappatta’s “The Dead March” in Shock Totem 1 springs to mind). Do you notice yourself especially eager to get an issue to print because you have to share your discoveries with your readers?

KAW: Of course. Traci L. Morganfield’s “The Music Box,” Leslianne Wilder’s “Sweepers,” John Skipp’s “Worm Central Tonite!” and Aaron Polson’s “Wanting It” come to mind. “Beneath the Weeping Willow,” by Lee Thompson, is one from our upcoming issue that I can’t wait to see what people think of it. It’s a heartbreaking tale, and the ending is so bittersweet.

But depending on the person, I may suggest any story. I really like them all.

TC: Shock Totem had a flash fiction contest in 2010 (the winning story “Ruth Across the Sea” by Steven Pirie was published in Shock Totem 3). Will you run the contest again this year? Do you plan to add more contests?

KAW: Yes. It’s ongoing. Our third bi-monthly contest started May 1. There will be two more after that. (The contests take place on our forum, for those interested.) The final judging will be done after our September contest is complete, and the overall winner will then appear in Issue 5.

And we plan to have other contests, just one-off deals, you know, where people can win books or CDs, things like that. Our new website—which is updated constantly and far more interactive than our previous site—is where we’ll hold those kinds of contests.

TC: In what ways has Shock Totem evolved away from your original expectation for the journal (for better or worse)?

KAW: We’re almost the complete opposite of what we first set out to be. We opened our doors as an e-zine paying 1 cent a word, and now we’re a print magazine that pays 5 cents a word. And despite the additional cost to us, we’re definitely better for it.

But as I mentioned at the beginning of Issue 1, our overall vision remains the same: Shock Totem is a magazine full of stories that we, as readers, enjoy the hell out of.

We’re also pissing fewer people off. Or I am, anyway. Haha.

Final Poll Results

Agents to Zombies: Author Mira Grant from A-Z

Absolute Blank

By Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

Mira Grant is the author of the Newsflesh Trilogy—a story of a post-zombie-apocalypse America that, among other things, explores the effects of “The Rising” (the moment that people started rising from the dead in search of tasty, tasty brains) on politics and media. Deadline, the second book in the trilogy, will be released on May 31.

As Seanan McGuire, she has published four books in the October Daye urban fantasy series. Seanan was the winner of the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her novel Feed (the first book of the Newsflesh Trilogy) was named as one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2010.

I interviewed Mira using the the A-Z interview, the brainchild of my husband, Rand Bellavia. Here is his explanation of how it works: “The structure of these interviews is simple: I email the interviewee 26 words/phrases, each beginning with a different letter of the English alphabet. Then it’s up to them. The interviewee is free to respond to each item as completely or as curtly as they wish.”

So I made my list, sent it off to Mira, and watched her go.

A is for Agent

I probably tell the story of how I hooked up with my agent a little more often than is strictly necessary, partially because I’m still a little amazed that I have her, and partially because she’s so perfect for me, and I sort of want to say, “See? You can get the right agent for you, if you keep looking, and don’t settle for someone who can’t handle your particular variety of crazy.” She’s my personal superhero. She rooms with me at conventions and doesn’t kill me when I leave my laptop slide show running all night. She understands my passion for My Little Ponies, the color orange, and Monster High dolls. Basically, she proves that sometimes when you’re very, very good, the Great Pumpkin gives you what you ask for.

B is for Buffy

Buffy the Vampire Slayer wasn’t my first fandom—that dubious honor goes to either Doctor Who or My Little Pony, depending on how you want to measure things—but it was the fandom that saw me through my teenage years and into my twenties. It was the fandom I grew up during, and that means that it will always, always be precious to me, no matter how much I may sometimes want to shake the show until its metaphorical teeth rattle. Buffy changed the game. It really did. For better or for worse, the landscape we’re playing in today, as authors and as readers and as people who enjoy this genre… it’s not the landscape we had before Buffy came along. My favorite characters are Anya and Faith; I am a shameless line-quoter and soundtrack singer; and I once flew to New Jersey just to sing Buffy Summers in a cabaret performance of “Once More With Feeling.” So yeah, this show kinda means a lot to me.

C is for Candy Corn

I took an experimental psych class in college. And one of the assignments was to basically self-condition. To create a passion or a phobia centering on something small, so that we could see how malleable the human brain really is. I chose candy corn, which I’d always been fairly neutral about, and spent three weeks convincing myself that it was the best! Thing!! EVER!!! It worked, maybe a little too well, since I remain passionately fond of the stuff… but only when it’s fresh. Fresh candy corn is the ambrosia of the gods. Stale candy corn is a punishment upon the wicked. People who say that they’ve just been re-selling the same three hundred pounds since candy corn was invented (you know who you are) have clearly never had the fresh stuff.

Oh, and here’s a fun candy corn fact for you: did you know that it’s seasonal not because of any specific ingredients, but because the original process of making it was so involved that it took weeks, and required that the molds be sufficiently cool to set? So they couldn’t make it in the middle of the summer, even if they wanted to. The candy wouldn’t harden properly.

D is for Dialogue

Writing dialogue is so much easier now that everyone has a cell phone. I just hold it up to my ear while I argue with myself, and everyone assumes that there’s another person on the other end, rather than it being just me, solo, running “lines” to make sure that everything sounds natural. It makes a nice change from the days where people would assume that I was crazy and cross the street to get away from me.

E is for Elvis

I loved Lilo and Stitch. Did you love Lilo and Stitch? Great movie. It was the last movie I saw with my grandmother before she died. This exhausts my knowledge of Elvis and his ways. Elvira, I can talk about for days. Elvis, not so much.

F is for Feed

This is what the cats want me to do for them.

More seriously, when I started writing Feed, it was a standalone novel called Newsflesh, and it was pretty much an accident. I sat down one day, and fifty pages of zombie science fiction adventure just fell out of me. I could tell just by looking at it that the rest wasn’t going to be nearly that simple… and that I wanted to find out just how hard it could be. It turned out to be harder, and easier, and more rewarding than I had ever dared to dream that it might be. I mean, everyone wants to write the book that moves them to tears, right? With Feed, I actually got to do that. Parts of it still make me cry, and I’ve read them and lived with them and agonized over them longer than anybody else.

G is for George Romero

The father of the modern zombie. I hope he’s proud of what he’s managed to do, and not just faintly puzzled and appalled.

H is for Habits

I am a creature of habit. Sometimes this is a good thing, like when my rigid adherence to word counts means I don’t miss my deadlines. Sometimes this is a bad thing, like when my rigid adherence to the to-do list causes me to neglect the twenty new things that have cropped up over the course of an evening. I have a planner that basically contains my entire brain, because without it, the bad habits would overwhelm the good, and I’d wind up sitting in my back room watching carefully hoarded episodes of So You Think You Can Dance? and iCarly for the rest of time, rather than actually finishing any of the books that I currently have approaching due.

I is for Influences

My influences are many and varied and faintly insane. I mean, you’ve got the literary, like Stephen King and Shakespeare and Tanya Huff and Diane Duane. But you’ve also got Wes Craven and Chris Claremont and everyone who wrote for Warren Comics during the Creepy and Eerie era, and the writers for the old 1980s horror television, like Monsters and Tales from the Darkside. Peter S. Beagle, Walt Disney, the Brothers Grimm, Sir Child, whoever wrote the scripts for the My Little Pony cartoons, the Counting Crows, Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld, Joss Whedon and Stan Lee… I’m like a weird human magpie that just sort of grabs things, mashes them together, and then attacks them with cookie cutters until they start looking like the literary equivalent of food. I’ve give up trying to make any sort of sense of them. You should probably do the same.

J is for James Gunn

He needs to call me.

K is for King, Stephen

The only two authors I wasn’t allowed to read when I was a kid were Stephen King and Robert Heinlein—Heinlein because Mom had heard that he was dirty, and King because she’d heard that he was scary. Naturally, I became obsessed with reading them, and managed to sneak a few of their books. I got a good King for my age—Cujo—and a bad Heinlein; I don’t even remember what it was. I decided that I had to be allowed to read Stephen King or I would actually die. I started to pester my mother, and believe me, I was a Grade-A pesterer when I wanted to be. I cajoled, I whined, I begged, and when all that failed, I wrote a twelve-page essay explaining why, after reading Lovecraft and Poe and Barker, King really wasn’t that big of a deal. Mom finally gave in, probably to avoid more footnotes. I was nine. Stephen King has been my favorite author ever since. I read him when I want to be comforted by the way he uses words. I recently reread IT for the first time in over a year, and it’s amazing how good that was for my mental stability.

L is for Lycanthropy

I am, like, the queen of accidentally stumbling over new projects when I’m not looking for them. One of those projects is a series of young adult novels about a teenage werecoyote named Clady Porter, who likes to watch horror movies, but never wanted to actually live in one. The first book is called Lycanthropy and Other Personal Issues, and it’s about her first year in the lycanthrope world. She’s probably one of the heroines I have the most sheer fun writing, because she’s a lot like I was in high school. Plus, you know, periodically shape-shifting into a predatory canine and eating the neighbor’s poodle. I really hope I get to publish these someday. I want to spend a lot more time with Clady.

M is for Music

Music is a hugely important part of my life, both creating it and listening to it. My favorite “retail therapy” involves crawling for hours and hours through the used CD racks at my local Rasputin Records. I even love the recording process. When I’m really stressed out, I start work on a new album. It’s very immediate and visceral for me, in a way that writing isn’t. You finish your part of a song, step back, and wait to see what the next person is going to do. It’s an amazing process. I’ve been listening to a lot of country recently, for reasons that are unknown even to me, and the new Christian Kane album is essentially auditory perfection.

N is for Nextwave

I randomly quote Tabitha Smith in conversation with people who do not even read comics. I have no shame over this fact. Tick tick tick boom.

O is for October Daye

Toby is my imaginary friend. Rosemary and Rue was the first book I really finished, and the process of writing it is what taught me how to write—it’s what taught me that I could write, that there was no length so impossible to overcome that it meant I should just throw my hands up and admit defeat. I’ve lived with Toby for literally over a decade. I know her so well I could never put all the little details into a book. And that’s why she’s so real to me. It can make reviews a little uncomfortable sometimes, because not everyone likes her, and it’s sort of “Oh, yeah? Well, I don’t like your talking banana!” Yes, my brain is a little odd at times.

P is for Poetry

There’s this old poetry exercise, where you ask for three words and then you use them to write a poem. For several years, I was doing a modified version of this exercise, called Iron Poet, where I would take three words and an optional poetic style from anyone who wanted to play, and I would write them a poem. I got some really good pieces out of that game. I also got some total crap. I miss having the time to play Iron Poet. I hope I can do it again someday.

Q is for Quidditch

The scoring system of this game makes absolutely no sense, and I’ve played Dragon Poker.

R is for Research

Research is like ice cream. There is no such thing as too much, and if you try to swallow it all at once, you’re probably going to give yourself a stomachache. Learning good research habits is almost as important to a writer’s career as learning good editing habits. Probably a little less painful, too.

S is for Seanan McGuire

Seanan is my good twin, which means she gets to wear fluffy orange and pink dresses and prance around declaring herself the Princess of Halloweentown, while I have to spend all my time bribing the monster under the bed to not eat the cats. Whatever. Who wants to be a stupid ol’ princess, anyway? I just wish she’d share the tiaras…

T is for Twilight

There’s this big hill near my house, covered in trees and scrub grass and little winding dog trails, and the absolute best time to climb it is when the sun’s going down, because the grass turns this sort of dusty gold, and the crows are all crying to each other, and the eagles come home to roost, and sometimes you’ll even see a coyote. Man, twilight on that hill is just plain magical.

U is for Unilateral nuclear disarmament

If we can take the toys away from absolutely everybody, I’m all for it. If we can’t, then I have no idea, and will let people who studied this sort of thing in college deal with it. I studied fairy tales. Ask me about unilateral magic lamp disarmament, and I’m there.

V is for Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars was one of the best things on television. There were a few bad episodes, and the show as a whole never found a mystery to rival the question of who killed Lily Kane, but it was an incredible ensemble, the writing was amazing, and I still miss it. Veronica + Logan forever, yo.

W is for the West Wing

When I started really working on Feed, I watched all seven seasons of The West Wing in like, three months. I was doing almost a full season a week. It was a hugely intense experience, and I will love this show forever. No one does political dialog like Aaron Sorkin when he’s bringing his ‘A’ game.

X is for X-Men

Someday, I am going to write for the X-Men. And on that day, I will have fulfilled every goal I set for myself when I was eight years old, and I will finally be able to return to my home dimension. Also, Emma Frost is totally the perfect woman for Scott Summers.

Y is for YA

I love love love what’s going on in young adult literature right now. There’s so much story, and so much risk, because it’s basically this wide-open field where no one says “you can’t do that, it’s a cliche” or “you shouldn’t do that, you’ll never do it as well as so-and-so did.” You know what? Who cares. We’re doing it. And so everything is amped-up and awesome and totally exciting, and it’s just incredible. I want to be writing YA so bad. I’m going to be writing YA eventually, just as soon as we can find the right excuse to set me loose on a whole new series. And it’s going to be awesome.

Z is for Zombies

Zombies are love.


Seanan’s LiveJournal
Seanan’s Twitter
Mira’s Twitter

Final Poll Results

Delicious Morsels: Interview with Bizarro Fiction Author Jeremy C. Shipp

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Jeremy C. Shipp’s writing includes short fiction, novels, a screenplay and more. Visiting his website is like taking a trip through a liquid funhouse with the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson. Naturally we snatched him up for an October interview, coinciding with the release of several delicious morsels of new work.

Toasted Cheese: October is a busy month for you, with Cursed and Harlan County Horrors both being released. What other work do you have coming out?

Jeremy C. Shipp: I love October, because of Samhain/Halloween, and so this is an extra special month for me. I also have stories upcoming in Cemetery Dance, Apex Magazine, and other publications. I’m not sure exactly when these stories will be published, however.

TC: For your Harlan County Horrors anthology story “Kingdom Come,” you were given a setting—Harlan County, Kentucky—for a horror story. Where did you go from there? Tell us about your process for writing the story and what it’s about (without spoiling the surprises). Was the process typical of how you work?

JCS: My process for writing “Kingdom Come” was not typical for me, because I don’t often research a specific place before writing a story. With “Kingdom Come,” I read everything I could about Harlan County, and found a place I connected with, Kingdom Come State Park.

With “Kingdom Come,” I wanted to write a dystopian tale that reflects, in a fun-house mirror, the systemic evils that Harlan County has faced in the past. The story is about a man who goes on vacation with his family, and begins to lose everything. His family, his mind. And only by losing everything does he find the truth about himself, and about Kingdom Come.

TC: In other interviews, you’ve said that the theme of equality—and the danger of hierarchy—runs through your work. Is this a conscious choice or something you discovered in looking back at your work?

JCS: I never attempt to convey certain messages in my writing, but my worldview is reflected and explored in my writing. I believe whole-heartedly that hierarchical thinking is one of the greatest evils in the world, and so many of my characters must face this evil. I do what I can to make the world a better place, even in the smallest of ways, and so my characters do the same.

TC: Even though you write fiction that encompasses multiple genres, do you consider yourself primarily a writer of “bizarro” fiction? How fluid do you find genre and how do you play with it and the reader’s preconceptions?

JCS: I never set out to write a bizarro or horror or dark fantasy story, but these are how many of my tales are categorized. And I’m glad. Genre, to me, has more to do with community than literary conventions. The bizarro and horror communities have embraced me and my writing, and I have embraced them back. Within these communities I’ve found writers and readers and editors who connect with my writing. This is a blessing.

As far as my actual writing process goes, I write what’s in my heart and mind and spleen. I try to open my mind, and travel beyond the boundaries of my own preconceptions of what a story is or isn’t. This is not only a meaningful experience for me. It’s fun.

TC: Tell us about the theme of “transformation” and how you use it.

JCS: The transformations in my stories are usually emotional, spiritual, ideological transformations. For example, Bernard in “Vacation” experiences a major paradigm shift. And his shift reflects my own ideological transformation.

My characters aren’t heroes. They’re ordinary people, with insecurities and prejudices and weaknesses. Sometimes they must help save the world, by defeating the darkness in themselves. They must learn to love and accept themselves. They must discover their inner power. And so, they must transform.

TC: Darkness and humor aren’t what some would consider a natural combination. Tell us something about your opinion on the combination or separate elements.

JCS: First of all, on the subject of darkness, I want to say that while I believe in evil systems and ideas, I don’t believe in evil people. In my mind, everything in existence is inherently worthy of respect. Anyway, I believe that humor can be used to battle evil. Also, the darkness of our world is often ridiculous and absurd. And so, for me, darkness and humor go hand in hand.

Of course, I’m very conscious about my use of humor in stories. My goal is never to make light of serious situations. But humor and absurdity often exists, even in the darkest of times.

TC: You write a lot of strong, central female characters. Tell us about some of your favorite female characters and how they evolved as you worked on their stories.

JCS: My goal is always to create characters who will be viewed as whole human beings. I don’t want to create stereotypes or archetypes. And so, my female characters are strong, fragile people. Because everyone in the world is strong and fragile.

My favorite character so far, probably, is Cicely from Cursed. She’s a passionate, creative, weird human being. When I first started writing Cursed, I didn’t understand her completely. She was a stranger to me. As the story continued, my understanding of her deepened, and she became more and more complex. This is the reason why I love writing novels so much. I get to stick with the same characters for so long.

Another character I’m very fond of is Bridget, from the novel I’m working on now. Bridget is a depressed, unhappy person, with a lot of love bottled up inside her. There are forces in the world that want to claim her, and hopefully, she’ll find the strength to follow her own path. She believes she’s an uncaring and unworthy person. She hates her body. But I hope she’ll learn to love herself. I’ll do what I can to guide her in that direction, but in the end, she’ll have to make all the hard decisions herself.

TC: Do you find that fans gravitate toward a certain aspect of your work? How vocal are your fans?

JCS: Judging by the feedback I’ve received over the years, my readers seem to be people (and yard gnomes) who enjoy stories that are both entertaining and thought-provoking. I try to write stories that are socially, emotionally, and spiritually conscious, and my readers appreciate this. I’m very lucky to be a cult writer who has a very vocal and very supportive fan base. It’s because of my fans that my readership grows every day.

TC: Have you found that online/electronic publishing opens your work up to a greater audience or is it difficult to find readers open to taking that ride?

JCS: Most of my readers seem to enjoy both online and print media. Many of my online stories are free to read, which is nice, because this allows readers to try out my work without spending any money. Then, if they connect with my writing in a positive way, they might end up buying my print books or subscribing to Bizarro Bytes.

TC: Tell us about Bizarro Bytes.

JCS: Bizarro Bytes is my story subscription service. For $12, subscribers get twelve new, previously unpublished bizarro tales written by me. They get a new story every month, delivered to their email, in the e-book format of their choice. Higher level subscribers also get added bonuses, like their name in one of my stories. You can read more about Bizarro Bytes here.

TC: Who are your influences (not only writers but directors, musicians, artists, etc.)?

JCS: Myriad artists inspire me. Hayao Miyazaki, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Takashi Miike, Terry Gilliam, Jim Henson, Chan-wook Park, Pink Floyd, The Flaming Lips, David Firth, George Lucas, Joss Whedon, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Arundhati Roy, and many, many others.

TC: What inspires you? What challenges you?

JCS: I’m inspired by all the wonderful artistic creations that I love. I’m inspired by my friends and my family and the people I overhear in the grocery store. I’m inspired by the horrors of our world. Civilization as a system challenges me. At times, I have to work hard to stay hopeful and positive. So every day, I write out ten blessings. Ten things, big or small, that touch my heart. This helps.

TC: What writing advice do you wish you’d heeded sooner? What writing advice do you wish you’d never listened to?

JCS: I’m lucky, because most of the advice I’ve been given over the years has been helpful in some way. And when someone gives me bad advice, I can usually recognize that fact.

TC: What are you consuming lately?

JCS: I’ve been consuming daal, green smoothies, bizarro books, American Born Chinese, The Dark Crystal, Return to Oz, Ponyo, Spirited Away, Let the Right One In, Kare Kano, Naruto, and The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.

TC: What are you working on?

JCS: I’m currently working on a new novel called Bridge, a story collection called Fungus of the Heart, a short film that might end up being called Fairy, and a comic series. I can’t say much about any of these at this point.

TC: Please tell us about your short film Egg and the process of creating it.

JCS: Jayson Densman, director extraordinaire, is a fan of my books and stories, and he approached me about doing a project together. So I wrote the script for Egg, specifically for him. Egg is the story of a man’s shattered psyche. He’s searching for the truth about his past, but this is difficult, because his memories are always changing. You can watch the trailer on YouTube.

TC: Finally, what do we need to know about the gnomes?

JCS: Yard gnomes are compassionate, magical creatures that live in hunter-gatherer-based eco-villages. They believe that every word they speak and every muscle they move should be an act of love. Also, they’re doing everything they can to prepare for the collapse of civilization, but they try not to worry too much about it.


Jeremy C. Shipp is a weird author of bizarro, horror, dark fantasy, and magic realism. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in over 50 publications, the likes of Cemetery Dance, ChiZine, Harlan County Horrors, Apex Magazine, Pseudopod, and The Bizarro Starter Kit (blue). While preparing for the forthcoming collapse of civilization, Jeremy enjoys living in Southern California in a moderately haunted Victorian farmhouse with his wife, Lisa, and their legion of yard gnomes. He’s currently working on many stories and novels and is losing his hair, though not because of the ghosts. His books include Vacation, Sheep and Wolves, and Cursed. And thankfully, only one mime was killed during the making of his first short film, Egg.

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