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Kate Heartfield Talks About Her Debut “Armed in Her Fashion”

The book cover for "Armed in her Fashion"Kate Heartfield’s debut novel, Armed in Her Fashion, was just released from ChiZine Publications last month. But that’s not all she’s had in the works in 2018: in April, Choice of Games released her interactive novel The Road to Canterbury. She’s also working on two time-travel novellas for Publications, the first of which will be published in November 2018. She is the author of more than thirty published stories in venues like Daily Science Fiction and Lackington’s, and in multiple anthologies. A former newspaper journalist, she lives in Ottawa.

Kate was kind enough to send me a copy of Armed in Her Fashion, a historical fantasy set in medieval Belgium that involves the forces of Hell ravaging the countryside of Flanders, and the determination of one woman, Margriet de Vos, to return the favour. Last week, we chatted about her novel, including the historical research she did, and how medieval Europe was a lot more diverse than we’ve been led to believe.

Let’s take a look!

[Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Me: Ok, I’m going to get a silly question out of the way first, then: how many of the people who you’ve talked to about this book start spouting out quotes from “In Bruges” at you? 😛

Kate Heartfield: Haha! I think…maybe one? Which is surprising. I really liked that movie. It gave me an appreciation for Colin Farrell I hadn’t had. And for Bruges. I haven’t been there myself so I relied on a LOT of primary and secondary research about what Bruges was like in the 14th century.

I had wondered if you had gone! The movie depicts it as this city almost frozen in time, but in your story it’s a much grittier, muddier, blasted place. What sort of research did you to get that sense of it? Also, for those who, like me, don’t know the history: was there actually a siege at Bruge in 1328?

There nearly was — the Battle of Cassel in 1328 has just happened, at the beginning of Armed in Her Fashion, and that was a real event. It was the culmination of something called the “peasant revolt” in Flanders and to modern ears that means “farmers/serfs” but in fact a lot of the participants were city people, merchants, etc.

The book A Plague of Insurrection: Popular Politics and Peasant Revolt in Flanders, 1323-1328 was a big source for me.

What was the reason for the revolt?

A lot of it was because the Count of Flanders had a pro-French policy, and this was the beginning of the Hundred Years War, so to be pro-French was to be anti-English, but the merchants and farmers of Flanders had a trade relationship with England. So basically it was the nobility being out of touch with the people. The mayor of Bruges was one of the leaders of the revolt, and imprisoned the Count, but the King of France intervened.

The backdrop for this is a looong antipathy between Flanders and France. There was a French invasion of Bruges in 1302, during which the townspeople killed the French invaders. I have a short story about that, about Margriet as a child, coming out in an anthology soon. (But I don’t think the anthology TOC has been announced yet so I’d better not say which one.)

A photo of Kate HeartfieldActually, let me back up a bit. Since people know a bit more about the setting now, can you give us a broad overview of what Armed in Her Fashion is about, for readers who are unfamiliar with it?

Sure! The inspiration came mainly from the painting Dulle Griet, by Pieter Bruegel. It shows a woman leading a raid on Hell, and is inspired by a figure in Flemish folklore: a woman so shrewish she could raid Hell. I wanted to tell that story, and I wanted to situate it in Flemish history, and the events of the early 14th century seemed like the perfect setting. But there was the question of the Hellmouth in the painting (and the Hellmouths that appear in medieval Christian art in general): if there’s a mouth, is there a beast? I started wondering what the appearance of a literal Hellbeast would do to the politics of France and Flanders, and so the book arose from that. Margriet de Vos (inspired by Dulle Griet) is a wet nurse whose city is under siege by the Chatelaine of Hell, who has wrested control of the Hellbeast and wants to gain power on the surface.

The next question I had to answer, of course, is “why is she raiding Hell?” In my research, I had discovered that the laws and customs of Flanders gave widows more rights to property and inheritance than we might think. (We tend to have a very monolithic understanding of women’s rights in medieval Europe.) So Margriet wants her inheritance, her due. She is the kind of woman who, if she lived today, would talk to the manager about a $5 coupon. She doesn’t take “no” for an answer.

Yes, I thought that there was something really compelling in that. She’s a shrew, but let’s face it, our society isn’t that sympathetic to shrewish women even if they have understandable reasons for behaving that way.

Yes, exactly. She’s not the prototypical “likeable protagonist” but I deliberately wanted to push back against notions about what makes a middle-aged woman “unlikeable.”

I also thought it was very interesting, the interplay between Margriet and her daughter, Beatrix. Beatrix is almost preternaturally kind and compassionate, like she’s a pendulum trying to swing as hard as she can away from Margriet. And in a weird way, Beatrix is the reason for Margriet’s shrewishness — it gives her something to live for.

I agree, yeah. Beatrix was hard to write, because she is a good, decent, ordinary person. But maybe she’s not as ordinary as she appears. And it’s her kindness that gives her the blessing, or the curse, of just a little bit of magical power.

I loved how you had so many women in your book, and how they were all so different from each other, yet interlocking: Margriet’s inner ferocity, Beatrix’s gentleness, Jacquemine’s practicality, Gertrude’s gregariousness and confidence.

Thank you! That was a very deliberate project, for sure.

And, of course, the Chatelaine! I found it REALLY interesting how the more you learn about her, the less villainous she seems. She wants power and autonomy, and no one is willing to give it to her, even though she literally has the keys to Hell.

Yes, I have a lot of secret (or maybe not so secret) sympathy for the Chatelaine.

Will you explore her in any other works?

I hadn’t planned to do any sequels, but I’ve heard from a few people that they’d like to know more about these characters. I would definitely like to follow up with Monoceros and with Claude. Claude goes through a lot at the beginning of the novel and I like to think he’s having a grand time, gallivanting around Europe.

Yes! I imagine you did a lot of research to depict Claude accurately as well. We’d consider Claude a trans man now, but the vocabulary we’re using wasn’t really around then. How common were people like Claude during that time period?

It’s very difficult to say, because as you say, the vocabulary didn’t exist in quite the same way it does now. We know that there were people who were assigned female at birth who donned armour and fought in probably every conflict in human history (Kameron Hurley’s classic essay “We Have Always Fought” is a great read on that), but it can be difficult to say how many of them were women disguised as men, and how many had a different understanding of their own gender. One reason I wanted to portray Claude as a trans man rather than as a Joan of Arc figure was to make sure that those people aren’t erased.

For research, I read a lot of history and essays by trans writers about that evolving vocabulary and about looking back at history: Transgender Warriors by Leslie Feinberg was one. And the main thing I did was to read every essay I could get my hands on about damaging tropes when it comes to trans characters, so that I could try to avoid falling into any of those traps. (I’m a cisgender writer myself.)

I wanted to show how his culture would have misgendered him, and show how painfully wrong that would have been, but at the same time I wanted him to just be a trans character having adventures, without causing undue trauma to him or to trans readers, and I’m not sure I got that balance right. So I’d really like to revisit him in a setting where he isn’t being constantly misgendered. Sorry, long answer! Claude is close to my heart.

No no, I get it, and it’s important. To back up your point, I wasn’t sure how to phrase that question without misgendering him or using phrases like AFAB that aren’t contemporaneous to the period.

Definitely. Point of view was the main technique I used to try to get that across despite the lack of period vocabulary: I could show that in Claude’s mind, he’s definitely a he, while the other point-of-view characters think of him (at least at first) as “she.”

I worried that that would be confusing for readers, but it hasn’t been at all, that I’ve heard.

I think it’s also interesting that, like many trans people have experienced, what they consider important is how the roles they’re playing have changed, but cis people only want to ask about body stuff. Is being able to pee standing up really more fascinating to others than being able to fight and kill?

Right, that’s definitely one of the traps cis writers and readers can fall into, and so do the cis characters in Armed.

There are so many great trans, genderqueer and non-binary writers in SFF and their work is a great place for any readers who are looking for trans characters: the Transcendant anthologies are one great place to start.

Yes, thank you for that recommendation! I’ll make sure to include a few more at the end of the post. [Note: See the list at the end.]

There are a few other elements of the book that caught my attention. I don’t know how much time you have to discuss them all, but three in particular are the stories of Reynard and Ysengrim, Beatrix’s strange visions, and the fact that Jacquemine de Ooste is of Moorish descent.

Reynard is one of those stories that just gets under my skin, and I can’t say why, exactly. He is a trickster fox figure and the stories about him were very popular in Europe at the time. I read a great translation of the Middle Dutch Reynard epic poems.

That translation is by Bouwman and Besamusca, for anyone looking.

I think the Reynard stories shed a lot of light on the medieval understanding of people’s roles in society, which as I said at the beginning was part of the backdrop of this period (with the peasant revolt), so it seemed to fit.

Beatrix’s visions were sort of personal for me. She sees flashes of the future in the landscape they’re walking across, and of course that landscape, between Bruges and Ypres, saw so much war in the 20th century. My grandfather was one of the British Expeditionary Force soldiers evacuated at Dunkirk in WWII, so I had that in the back of my mind as I was writing this other story about a desperate journey across roughly the same part of the world.

I suppose the reason I included those visions is to try to shorten that gap between us and history, in some way.

Yes, it took me a few minutes to realize exactly what Beatrix was seeing in her visions. That act of finding 14th-century words to describe 20th-century artifacts — items that are capable of doing things that the people of the book (and even the Chatelaine) would consider somehow unholy.

Yes, that was a real challenge. There’s a great Doctor Who episode that uses a WWI gas mask (if I recall correctly) to similar effect. They are eerie.

Oh, the “are you my mummy?” one?

I think so! I just googled — it’s “The Empty Child“. Creepy.

As for Jacquemine’s heritage, I wanted to show Europe as it was, and to push back against the idea that medieval Europe was homogeneously white. The Twitter account MedievalPoC is a great resource for learning about that history. [Note: MedievalPoC also has a Patreon.]

Jacquemine is also wealthy, and that was definitely a possibility for people of colour in Europe as well — think about Othello a couple of centuries later, or Alessandro de Medici, whose mother was probably black. And as you said above, Jacquemine is a woman who has a different challenge than the other women in the story: she has living children she has to protect, and different choices to make. She might be another interesting character to revisit at some point.

Yes, I was thinking of the MedievalPoC tumblr when she appeared in the book. Considering how much research you did and how many elements you were trying to balance, how long did it take you to write Armed in Her Fashion?

Hmm! I wrote it in 2013 and 2014. I think it was roughly a year and a half. It took me about a year to write and revise enough that I could show it to my agent, and then another few months to revise it after my agent’s feedback. The eventual edit was very light but there was a lot of rewriting before that point.

That’s roughly around the same time you started submitting short stories to anthos and larger markets, from what I remember. I remember you started showing up in Daily Science Fiction 1-2 years after that.

Yes, it was! Good memory. I signed with my agent about a year before I handed it in to her — I signed with her on the strength of another novel, The Humours of Grub Street, which is coming out in about a year.

Who is publishing that?

ChiZine as well — they bought both!

Nice! What do you have coming out between now and then?

I’ll have two novellas coming out from Publishing, both in a series. The first is Alice Payne Arrives in November 2018 and the second is Alice Payne Rides in March 2019. They are about a time-travelling highwaywoman and are lots of fun.

Very cool! I think that’s a good note to end on. Thanks so much for chatting tonight!

And that’s that! You can buy Armed in Her Fashion online or in bookstores.

Contemporary Non-Binary, Trans and Genderfluid Spec-Fic Authors

Kate mentioned the Transcendant anthologies above. Here’s a (far from complete) list of contemporary trans, non-binary and genderfluid SF/F authors you may want to read, in no particular order:

The cover for Witchmark, the debut novel of C.L. Polk

A Chat with C.L. Polk About Her Debut, “Witchmark”

C.L. Polk writes fiction and spots butterflies in Southern Alberta. She has an unreasonable fondness for knitting, single estate coffee, and the history of fashion. Her debut novel Witchmark, the first of a new series, will be released by Tor on June 19th. You can read an excerpt of the novel on

C.L. was kind enough to have a preview copy of Witchmark sent my way, and after I read it last month, I chatted with her about the themes of her novel, her future projects, and how her work responds to important contemporary social issues.

Let’s dive in!

Note: The following interview has been edited for structure and clarity.

The cover for Witchmark, the debut novel of C.L. Polk

Me: For people who are unfamiliar with the book, what is Witchmark about?

C.L. Polk: On the surface it’s a book about an ex-army doctor solving a murder mystery with a handsome and mysterious gentleman, but I found myself talking about other things in the middle of that. It’s about how the people who are supposed to love you the most often don’t seem to recognize who you are as a person — and how shocking it can be to them when you refuse to be who they think you are.

(It’s also a story that talks about a difficult thing about our society – that some people get to enjoy the most of the world’s plenty because hidden way down underneath the luxury and the convenience are people who are treated in the most horrific ways, and we let it happen,because that’s baked into just about everything we buy and consume. But that’s depressing and uncomfortable to face directly, so I tend to lead with the ex army doctor solving mysteries with his gentleman friend.)

I totally see both sides of the coin. At the risk of sounding spoiler-ish to readers, when I learned about the witch asylums were, and then when their true purpose is revealed, I saw a huge parallel between that and the residential school system.

Thinking about that, I think I agree. I don’t know the half of the horror of the residential school system, but I’ve learned some, partly as part of reading Allan Wade’s work surrounding trauma that concentrates on the survivors of the residential school system (Small Acts of Living: Everyday Resistance to Oppression and Other Forms of Violence).

I was aiming at institutionalization when I wrote about the asylums, with a big slice of criticism for prison labor and the glaring loophole in the 13th amendment of the [American] constitution which allows slave labor from those who are convicted of a crime.

But returning to the parallel to residential schools for a moment: I think there are stories there, but they shouldn’t be told by me. I can see the connections, but they weren’t intentional ones.

I don’t know very much about the 13th amendment, while I do know more about residential schools, so that was the connection my mind made more quickly. But yes — the whole issue of the prison-industrial complex is SO there. Considering the commentary you tried to weave in, what was your path to publication like?

My path to publication was pretty quick, honestly. I started querying the work to agents in the middle of February; I was signing the contract on the first week of December. I was extremely lucky to find people who connected to my book and the story I told, and the themes I poked with a stick.

Wow, that *is* pretty fast. Congratulations!


Were there any books you looked to as a model for how to weave that social commentary in with the more surface-friendly parts?

I think SFF is often very good at doing thematic heavy lifting while telling a story that entertains the reader. My friend Elizabeth Bear does it. Barbara Hambly and Jo Walton do it too, and short stories do this all the time. I didn’t look at any specific book; I just figured, “everyone else does, why can’t I?” and I just went for it.

Oh! I forgot Ursula K. Le Guin. specifically her story “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas“. That story got inside me and I’ve thought about it for years. I think it’s responsible for the thinking that led me to Witchmark.

Reading through Witchmark, one thing I noticed is that the narrator is intensely aware of status and class markers. The cut of someone’s coat, the quality of the fabric, their shoes, what they eat and drink, how people try to disguise themselves to varying degrees of success….was that something that came about organically as you wrote the book, or was that something you approached with more deliberation?

That was purposeful. Miles has spent years looking over his shoulder, fearing that someone from his family or one of his former peers would spot him. Since class is a strong social divide in Kingston life, Miles knew that he would be largely invisible to anyone who knew him before, simply because his dress and mannerisms would make him unimportant.

But he can’t really relax about the success of his disguise, so he’s always watching people. Noting the details of their appearance and the message they send that most everyone these days notices mostly without thinking about it. For him, it’s survival. if he spots a wrong detail on someone, he’s alarmed, and probably getting away from that person.

What sort of research did you do to get that level of authentic detail in your worldbuilding?

Well, I did a lot of looking stuff up in the moment, so when I wanted a particular detail, I did what the writing advice tells you not to do – I stopped right there and looked it up. there are a lot of fashion history websites and collections in museums — the Victoria and Albert Museum website has a lot of information, for example. I also did a lot of searching around looking for information on arsenic, as I knew nothing about it, and about how policing was done in England at the time, and how murder investigations were pursued. Whenever I got to a point where I didn’t know how something worked, I’d look it up, and then decide how I wanted it to work in my world.

Leah Bobet mentioned that you were part of a shared online project with her, and I think that’s the same one Elizabeth Bear was part of. Any insights into how that collaborative storytelling helped you during crafting Witchmark?

Ah yes, Shadow Unit! I only wrote a couple of episodes, but it taught me a lot about how much background there is going on behind the scenes. When I first joined I think it took me two weeks to read the whole series bible, and there was a wiki, and it really reinforced my love of digging in and getting to know the world, even if there’s stuff the audience will never see, because it helps the whole story in the end.

And honestly? The witches and mages in Witchmark have a lot in common with betas in Shadow Unit. I didn’t even notice until I was a few drafts in, but they have particular, specific talents that expend your personal metabolic energy to use, so they need to eat. And eat. And then look at your plate and ask if you’re gonna eat that.

That reminds me — one thing I wasn’t quite clear on was the social differences between mages and witches in the book. Witches are stigmatized and feared. But does the greater public know about mages and what they do?

No, they don’t. The fact that there’s a whole population of magicians sitting on top of the power structure — the people don’t know they’re magicians, or what they do, just that they’re wealthy and powerful and do pretty much as they please while running the government.

Witches have the same kind of magic mages do. There’s really no difference between them besides the part where mages really make an effort to produce children who have the talent to control the weather. It’s just that witches aren’t part of their class, so they suffer from systemic oppression.

I imagine that the sequel(s) will deal a lot with the fallout from when people learn the truth. Is that the case?

Yes. The story’s partly told from Miles’s sister Grace’s point of view, and she has a lot to do when it comes to trying to balance all the factions and forces that struggle against each other in the aftermath of the first book.

The other POV character is Avia Jessup, who appears briefly in Witchmark, and she’s dealing with struggles on the other side of the fight.

Ooh, neat! I got a definite sort of vamp/flapper vibe from her. How many books are you planning in the series?

I think I could go on with this setting and these characters for a while, if anyone let me, but realistically i’m hoping for a trilogy.

You mentioned that “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” was an inspiration. What others were there? Did the story spring from any particular seed?

The story was sort of simmering along in the back of my head while I tried to figure out what it was trying to tell me, and little bits of what I read wound up influencing me. I read Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, and it directly influenced the boarding house where Miles lives in the book. I don’t want to overplay the connection because it might give people the wrong idea, but I spent some time reading and watching works connected to Sherlock Holmes. Another influence that people might notice is Fullmetal Alchemist, but that was an accident. I hadn’t seen the anime before I wrote the book. And I was also deeply into the television adaptation of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, for a little more in the way of setting and feel.

Actually, now that I think about it, Avia Jessup kind of gives off a Phryne Fisher vibe!

Exactly as intended!

How far along is the second book?

I am in the third act of a very drastic revision. I’m hoping to have it done in the next two weeks, so we can get down to the editing.

I think I’m winding down in terms of questions. Is there anything you wanted to share that I haven’t brought up?

We never got to talk about tea, whoops!

Oh my god, I forgot. THIS MUST BE REMEDIED. If you could describe some of the main characters of Witchmark as types/flavours of tea, what would you say?

Um. Tristan is an Assam. Very tippy, hand-gathered leaves, good for drinking with a little bit of cream and sugar. Miles is probably the herbal blend you drink when you’re sick with a virus and need some comfort. Grace is probably a black tea with some sugar and a slice of lemon, to keep the tongue sharp.

I had to think about Grace. She was hard.

Ooh, nice! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat tonight. Good luck with finishing the revisions to the sequel!

Thank you! And thank you so much for this lovely interview!

The cover to "Those Who Make Us", an anthology co-edited by Kelsi Morris

Kelsi Morris on Myths, Monsters, and Fighting Marginalization

Kelsi Morris is a queer and neurodivergent editor who has channeled her passion for books into the Canadian publishing industry, specializing in speculative fiction and comics. She focuses on work that prioritizes and promotes the voices of marginalized communities. Her first co-edited anthology, Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories, published by Exile Editions, was nominated for the 2016 Shirley Jackson Award.

Outside of books, she finds happiness in black coffee, red wine, and dragons.

Kelsi Morris and I chatted earlier about her work on this anthology, how it relates to CanLit, and how she’s working towards making the Canadian SF/F scene more inclusive. Let’s take a look!

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The cover to "Those Who Make Us", an anthology co-edited by Kelsi MorrisMe: So, first question: What was the inspiration behind Those Who Make Us for you and your co-editor [Kaitlin Tremblay]?

Kelsi Morris: One of the earliest foundations of our friendship was our shared loved monsters! We both noticed that we tended to feel more connection to the monsters/kaiju/alien creatures than the human characters in most cases, and it was only through many (MANY) conversations (and bottles of wine) that we realized that this was not actually all that weird.

These characters are the literal embodiment of otherness, and the treatment they receive from the human world will often resonate far more strongly with folks with marginalized identities than the heroics of the protagonists.

Kaitlin and I were both coming at this from the perspective of queer people who struggle with various mental health issues, and we wanted to see more stories that had the same empathy for the outsiders that we did.

I totally see that. I noticed in particular that the opening story in the collection was really emblematic of that focus. The one where the main character, Melanie, chooses to undergo bodymods to turn into a chimera.

Would you say that sense of empathy was one of the most important things you were looking for in the stories you chose?

Absolutely! That story in particular was exciting, because it really touched on the way marginalized folks are treated by society, while keeping the story very much focused on Melanie’s own journey of self-discovery. It wasn’t about her trying to fit in, or save other people from their bigoted ways. This was something she was doing solely for herself.

We wanted this anthology to be a space for marginalized voices to celebrate and/or explore their identities, as well as criticize/highlight the abundance of ways in which they are mistreated or misrepresented by society.

One thing I also noticed is that the anthology is in dialogue with a lot of tropes/notable figures in CanLit and Canadian history. Like, when I think of Helen Marshall’s story, it feels like a story Margaret Atwood could have referred to in Survival. And Dominik Parisien’s story heavily refers to Peterborough and to Catharine Parr Traill.

I’ve spent my entire career working as an editor in Canadian genre fiction, and it is something I am deeply passionate about. A lot of times publishers and/or authors will shy away from publicizing being Canadian in order to appeal to a wider market, and I feel like that is doing everyone a disservice. I am equally passionate about how entirely fucked it is that so many people seem to buy into our national identity of being “a country at peace”, where we no longer accept racism, ableism, queerphobia, or are party to systemic and institutional violence.

Speculative fiction has always been at the forefront of social criticism, and so it was especially important to me that this project both celebrate excellence in Canadian genre fiction, at the same time it acknowledges and calls attention to the fact that many voices are silenced for the sake of this national myth.

Who else do you see challenging that myth in the Canadian SFF scene?

While neither exclusively focuses on Canadian authors, the Toronto-based literary spec fic magazines like Augur Magazine and Anathema Magazine both have mandates that focus on stories from intersectional marginalized communities, and have been doing an amazing job at celebrating the work of queer writers, writers of colour, and writers with disabilities.

These kind of markets only exist because we have to carve out the space for ourselves. The need for this is what proves that acceptance and visibility within the mainstream publishing industry really isn’t there yet.

[Note: You can read my interview with Anathema here.]

I’m going to be having Augur on the blog too!

Good! I’m so excited by the work that they do, and I can’t wait to watch them grow. 🙂

Has it been hard to carve out the space you’re describing?

As an editor, my experience is obviously quite a different one from the unique frustrations that writers have to deal with. I try to use my position to hold space for marginalized voices, and take on the brunt of any tensions that may arise between the writer and the publisher.

It can be challenging, especially for anthologies, to wholeheartedly believe in a project, and have to convince a publisher that a focus on intersectional voices doesn’t immediately make it any less interesting to “the rest of the market”.

Do you have any other anthologies or projects in progress?

Oh, I have several dream projects, and would dearly love to just work on all of them at once!

This is such an exciting time for Canadian SFF. There is so much excellent work being produced, and so many incredible emerging writers and markets. I love this field, and I’m so excited to continue contributing however I can.

And that’s that! You can check out Kelsi Morris online and buy Those Who Make Us on Amazon, Kobo, and in stores.

Kelly Robson Talks about “Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach”

The cover of Kelly Robson's novella "Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach", showing the main character, Minh, standing in a river. Kelly Robson is an award-winning short fiction writer. In 2017, she was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She was awarded the 2016 Aurora Award for best short story, and has been a finalist for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Theodore Sturgeon, and Sunburst awards.

Her latest novella, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach was just published by Tor earlier this week, and I was fortunate enough to get an ARC to read beforehand. Lucky Peach may be a shorter work, but this story about a set of environmental specialists in the 23rd century who have been sent back in time to research the ecology of ancient Mesopotamia is a surprisingly hefty examination of ethics, generational strife, and the effects of climate change. Plus, I tore through it in the space of less than 24 hours, so how’s that for an endorsement?

Robson was kind enough to chat with me over Twitter DMs for an hour earlier today, so this interview is hot off the presses. Let’s dive in!

(Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

Me: So, one of the things I found really interesting about Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is how the first two parts of chapter 1 really prime the reader to expect a huge, violent conflict — but by the end, the forms of conflict you actually see are completely different. Was that something you wanted to analyze going in, or did that emerge more organically?

Kelly Robson: I knew before I began the first draft that I wanted to have that structure — with a few paragraphs from King Shulgi’s point of view at the beginning of each chapter. And the reason is — really nerdy.


When I was a kid, I imprinted on the novelization of Battlestar Galactica’s (original version) The Gun on Ice Planet Zero — which had that kind of structure. And I loved it so much. So I wanted to use the same structure — it’s like sprinkling candy in between the chapters. And because my main character Minh isn’t really interested in history, I wanted to be able to show what’s going on in Mesopotamia. Does that make sense?

Yes, totally. Part way through the book, I checked Wikipedia and learned Shulgi was an actual historical figure!

He’s so cool.

The wiki entry was pretty sparse about him, beyond the fact that he ruled for a while and was near the beginning of his particular dynasty. What made you decide on him versus any other Mesopotamian king?

I chose Shulgi first, because as far as we know, which isn’t much, his kingship was pretty stable, long lasting, and comparatively enlightened. And because Shulgi was actually a proven athlete, which is a detail that is rather telling. He was famous in his day for running a marathon to preside in a religious ceremony in two places on one holy day. Something like 200 kilometers. Impressive achievement of physical conditioning — especially for someone who must have had a lot of other demands on his time.


Yeah! But apparently long distance marathoners can actually do that.

Damn. I thought that was still out of reach even for contemporary athletes.

So this is something charismatic leaders do to seal their mystique — perform a feat that people consider impossible. That makes them special. It’s a public relations stunt. So I thought, Shulgi, you’re an interesting person! You’re the king for me 😀

And the thing is that the time travel point you chose is pretty early in his reign. It fits in pretty well with TERN’s statements that time travel doesn’t fundamentally affect the timeline. But in the end, we don’t learn enough to know whether that’s true or not. [Note: TERN is the agency that controls access to time travel in the story.]

We don’t know it’s true. Even Fabian — the project’s tactical historian — doesn’t know if it’s true. He just believes what the physicists tell him. But yes, as the writer, I can tell you that time travel doesn’t affect the timeline. I’m not interested in paradoxes.

The big question is, can you really say that what you do in the past doesn’t matter?

And that’s totally the kind of question only Kiki would ask.

Kiki is the moral conscience of the book. And she asks this kind of question because she’s not jaded. She believes in truth, goodness, and justice.

Yes! I remember thinking throughout that I was in complete agreement with her throughout the book.

So am I 😀

It’s a question we come up against in our post-colonial world. How do you go to someone else’s world, use it for your own purposes, and not do violence to the people there? You can’t.

Though I do wonder if you can delve into the generational relationships between Minh’s cohorts and Kiki’s cohorts. Kiki says that her generation is moving away because Minh’s generation has becme too self-centred. But we don’t see a lot of that outside of Kiki’s own perspective.

Minh’s generation, in Calgary and the other habs, are basically not willing to retire. They’re mostly rugged individualists and workaholics. They believe that they are the only people who can be trusted to do the important jobs. That means that with the economic contraction that time travel has created for the above-ground habs, that there are few opportunities for young people. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

In a way, it’s all an illusion. The habs have universal basic income. Nobody has to work. But people like to work! They like to know their time is well spent and valuable. Kiki yearns to do important work. Kiki and her generation don’t want to feel their potential is going to waste.

But if there’s UBI, I’m not sure how that plays into the fact that debt, and banks, play such a large part in Minh’s decisions. As for the modern-day parallels, I totally see those.

Yup. So in this world — and this is implied, not delved into — economic competition, investment, and debt happens between the Habs, Hives, and Hells (basically these are all city-states). Personal debt is a function of accounting that allows you to access luxuries or easier/quicker access to some services, or more personal living space in your city.

So, Kiki is in debt because she’s young. Minh isn’t because she’s been working for 60 years. But Minh’s type of expertise isn’t valued by the Bank of Calgary, so she’s not comparatively rich.

Ah, so it’s not actually a representation of money per se, but really a representation of privilege (for which money is a pretty good proxy).

Totally. What the banks really want is to have people whose expertise is sought out by other cities, then they can trade that person’s time for economic advantage.

I find it really interesting, though, that all things considered, Minh’s goals are incredibly valuable — long term ecological rehabilitation. So in one sense her refusal to retire is greed, but in another sense it’s a form of selflessness.

Yes — she has spent her whole life pursuing her passion, and you don’t retire from that. She did try — she became a professor who helped establish the University of Tuktoyaktuk and started teaching others to do what she does, but that venture collapsed when time travel was invented.

I worked for environmental scientists for 15 years, and what they really like — what’s easiest for them — is to do all the work themselves. Having to work with other people on a project is so much more work than doing it all themselves.

And they HATE mentoring people. Too much work! They’d rather work for 20 hours a day than wrangle other people to do the same work in less time. If they do it all themselves, then they know it’s all done right — or they way they think is right, anyway.

And thus Kiki’s choice to change her body to get on the mission.

Such a bad decision, Kiki! But you know, when I was 23, I would have done exactly the same thing.

I like how her choice is shown to be a painful one, but not a limiting one, ultimately.

It’s not limiting, but there would be social consequences if she ever wants to go back to Jasper, to be with her generation.

From your perspective, would you say that the society of Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is more or less ableist than ours?

Overall the world is much less ableist than ours. In the habs, the above-ground cities where the plague babies are the dominant social group, it’s much less ableist. Some of the other cities — the Hives and Hells — would be slightly more ableist than the Habs.

I believe the future includes disabled people. Some people write the future like everyone’s going to be physically perfect, and that’s just not realistic. There will always be disabled people, and their contributions are just as valuable as anyone else’s.

And in the future, the ways in which people can adapt to different levels of ability will be far beyond what we can probably think of today. As you show with Minh’s prostheses, and also Kiki’s.

Totally. Which is the same right now. People can use prostheses to be extra-human — jump higher, run faster. Little difference between a prosthetic leg and a snowboard, really.

Are there any plague babies at TERN? Because I wonder if the cavalier way the time travellers treat past human lives is a manifestation of an overall lack of compassion or understanding of the value of human life, no matter the form or time it takes.

Right. No, there’s no plague babies at TERN. TERN is the time travel division of CEERD, which is an economic think tank, and they’re a bit insular. They’re not a hive, hab, or hell, but an independent economic unit kind of like a university, which leases living space from other habs, hives, and hells. They’re kind of like venture capitalists.

Basically, CEERD really likes playing economic games with other city states. And they play to win. So yes, you nailed it. Compassion and understanding of the value of human life? Not a priority for CEERD. Which is the essence of evil, really.

So in a way, it’s almost like the members of the time travel crew represent a spectrum of morality. From Fabian being the worst, to Minh, to Hamid, to Kiki.

Interesting! Yeah. Totally. Hamid’s off the scale, though. All he cares about is animals. 😀

He’d have loved memes and cat gifs. 😛


Moving back towards Shulgi, was he one of the major seeds of Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, or did he get fitted in further along in the creative process?

Shulgi was the seed. There was a Mesopotamia exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum, and it was fascinating. Alyx and I went about five times. One of the items they had there, from the British Museum, was a statue of a king carrying weapons which were specifically meant for killing monsters. Alyx and I were fascinated, because…

Imagine you’re this king, you have your monster-killing weapons, and your job is to kill monsters — keep the kingdom safe! But you’ve NEVER seen a monster! What do you think about it???

This was the seed for the whole story. What does this king think when no monsters show up? And what if monsters come and they’re not monsters at all?

Lucky Peach also hit a particular button for me, which is trying to explain modern technology to ancient people if time travel existed. Like, would you be able to explain a combustion engine or electricity to Julius Caesar?

Or even weather systems? You wouldn’t have the vocabulary.

Oh my god, yeah.

And if you tried to paraphrase to explain, it would sound all mystical.

Yes! “Electricity is lightning, but bottled in wires.”

“The air is more dense” “How can air be dense?” “Well, molecules…” “What??”

“The warm air is less strong than the cold air.” “That’s just dumb.”

Oh man. It’d be hard.

I think that about wraps it up,  but I do have one final question: In honour of Pi Day, what is your favourite flavour of pie?


And that’s that! This chat was a delight, and I appreciate Kelly’s time. You can learn more about Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach on Tor’s website.

Spec from the Margins: A Chat with Anathema Magazine

Anathema Magazine: Speculative fiction from the margins

Anathema Magazine is a Canadian short-fiction publication that accepts spec-fic stories, artwork and non-fiction work from writers and artists from across the world. Anathema published its first three issues in 2017, which included pieces by the likes of Jaymee Goh, Joyce Chng, and Nibetida Sen.

Now they’re running a crowdfunding campaign until early March to continue work on years two and three. Anathema is filling a lovely role within the Canadian spec-fic space, so it’s my pleasure to chat with the editors and share their thoughts. Take a look at what they have to say and don’t forget to check Anathema’s fiction out.

Me: For those who are unfamiliar, what is Anathema Magazine?

Editors: Anathema is a tri-annual speculative fiction magazine for queer POC/Indigenous/Aboriginal writers and artists. The speculative element is very loose: we like a broad range encompassing everything from sci-fi, fantasy, and horror to slipstream, surrealism, absurdism, noir, etc. Mostly we want to see unbounded creativity.

Me: Tell me more about each of the editors. What have you all written/edited before? What makes each of you tick?

Andrew Wilmot: Primarily I make my living doing academic work—dissertation edits, mostly, in the areas of psychology, feminist studies, gender studies, and body dysmorphia/eating disorders. I also edit for a magazine called HOLO, which celebrates the cross-section of science/technology and art, do copy and substantive editing for several independent publishers, and review for subTerrain magazine and Publishers Weekly.

With respect to writing, I go back and forth between short fiction and novel work. I’ve had maybe 20 shorts published so far. One of which—“When I’m Old, When I’m Grey”—won first place in the Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest back in 2015. My first novel, The Death Scene Artist, is set for release this fall from Wolsak & Wynn’s Buckrider Books imprint. Most of my work straddles the line between either horror and surrealism, or science fiction and surrealism. Lots of body horror, synaesthesia, and mental health in my work. Such are the things that make me tick, among others.

Michael Matheson: I’m just going to cheat and mostly fall back on my publication bio. Which is to say: I’m a genderfluid writer, editor, anthologist, and occasional poet. I’ve been longlisted for the Sunburst Award, and I’ve had work published in Nightmare, Shimmer, anthologies like Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling, and a host of other venues. I edited The Humanity of Monsters anthology, and I’m a former Managing Editor with ChiZine Publications and former Submissions Editor with Apex Magazine.

A Clarion West (’14) graduate, I’ve been a freelance editor for far more years than I want to admit at this point. That’s entailed working in multiple genres with a lot of indie clients and publishers like Ravenstone, Publishers Weekly, Harlequin, and others. And I’ve done a reasonable bit of ghostwriting over the years in a few different fields, so tracking down publications can end up depending on what I’ve signed an NDA for or not.

Chinelo Onwualu: I was born in Nigeria but now live in Toronto, Canada. I mostly do editorial consulting for international development organizations in West Africa and I am also editor and co-founder of Omenana, a magazine of African speculative fiction. My fiction and essays can be found in a bunch of places, including Strange Horizons, The Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper, Jungle Jim, Ideomancer, and the anthologies AfroSF: African Science Fiction by African Writers, Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and Beyond, Terra Incognita: New Short Speculative Stories from Africa, and Imagine Africa 500. 

I’d say what makes me tick professionally would be a need to put down my stories and those of others in the clearest ways possible. I want people to read work that best expresses what the writer—whether it’s me or someone else I’m editing—is trying to say. I used to be a journalist for newspapers and magazines so I approach my non-fiction editing like a reporter. The goal is to be as clear and concise as possible. Say what you need to say in as few words as possible, while making sure everyone understands exactly what you mean. I try to get writers to think through their ideas because one can’t assume that everyone will get what you mean.

Me: What would you describe as the perfect Anathema story? What makes a story a unique fit for your magazine?

Andrew: I don’t know that we have a story that perfectly represents what we publish or are looking for. We don’t want to set such expectations because the best thing in the world is reading something incredible that you had no idea you were looking for in the first place. That said, I’m happy to rattle off some of my favourite authors, if it helps give people a sense of my personal taste: N.K. Jemisin, Amelie Nothomb, Lauren Beukes, China Miéville, Haruki Murakami, Roxane Gay, Charles Yu, James Ellroy, Amber Dawn, and Suzette Mayr. There’s not a lot of SFF in there, but that’s kind of the point for me: I love seeing genre work and lit crossing streams in unexpected ways.

Michael: It’s true, there’s no one quintessential Anathema story. As editors, we’re drawn to a huge range of styles and approaches partly because, as Andrew rightly noted, we love being surprised by things we didn’t see coming. Editorial taste will always factor into our decisions—we’re all drawn to strong prose work and solid and/or unusual structural choices, for example—but we’re driven more by a desire to find exceptional work and see how it fits together in the confines of an issue.

One of the best parts of shaping a table of contents for any project is how the individual works interact and play off each other. And we’ve had excellent luck with our issues so far, finding themes and topical works that have come together in some absolutely delightful ways. We never know what’s going to happen with the next issue, and therein lies the fun of the thing.

Me: Related to that last question, is there a particular story already published by Anathema Magazine that one (or all) of you think is somehow quintessential?

Andrew: I don’t think I can play favourites with any of our authors or their work. Fact of the matter is, I genuinely love what we’ve published so far. We wouldn’t have published any of it if we didn’t love it. As Michael said, I don’t think we have a “quintessential” story, nor do I think it’s possible for us to have one.

Me: You’re running a fundraising campaign throughout February. What goals are there for the campaign?

Andrew: Our current month-long IndieGoGo campaign ends March 2nd and is seeking $6,000 to pay for two more years of operating costs. We’re also using the campaign to raise our fiction and non-fiction rates to $100 (CAD). We obviously want to improve our reach and our subscriber base in order to become self-sustaining, But ultimately we fundraise because we believe it’s worth paying our content creators—and paying them as well as we can.   Because they’re worth it, and their work is worth it.

Me: How do you work together to run Anathema Magazine? Do you find that you have a particular working style together?

Andrew: It’s pretty symbiotic, really. We were all quite close prior to starting the magazine, and while we all have different ways of operating and different demands on our time, we’re pretty respectful and adaptable (ie: if someone is facing a terrible deadline or is under the weather, the others are able to help pick up what needs to be done).

We also all have our individual strengths and try to play to that as much as possible: Chinelo far outstrips both Michael and I as a non-fiction editor, and is also quite busy with her other magazine, Omenana, so she primarily handles that corner of things while Michael and I do the bulk of the fiction editing. At the end, we all proof each other’s work.

Michael is incredibly skilled at communication, and is knowledgeable about so many more aspects of the speculative side of things than I am (I come mostly from the lit side of the industry), so they handle a lot of the awards submissions and solicitations, as well as managing our Twitter account. I have, on top of editing, some experience with production, so I handle creation of the PDF and ebook versions of each issue, and also manage the Tumblr account. We both manage the Facebook account.

Me: What has your feedback from readers been like so far since the magazine’s launch?

Andrew: Incredibly positive. While we’re still growing our readership and have yet to hit any kind of mainstream awareness, those who have found our content have been universal in their appreciation—for which we could not be happier.

Michael: It’s true, the response to the mag has been incredibly encouraging—especially as there was some early concern that what we were trying to do might be too niche in a variety of ways. Which is not to say we don’t get random asshats on social media calling us racist because we won’t publish white content creators. But, delightfully, those interjections have been few and farther between than we’d expected. Much of what we’ve heard from the communities actually reading Anathema has been people happy to see themselves represented. To see positive queer relationships in the work. And to see a variety of genres represented.

Hell, we’ve had readers enjoy the work enough to have three stories on the 2017 Nebula Reading List, and to have multiple stories from our first year’s issues show up repeatedly in both established and more personal short fiction reviews online. That’s a pretty good start.

How do you feel that Anathema Magazine is in dialogue with the rest of the short fiction field in SF/F?

Andrew: This is a hard question for me because—and this is where I reveal myself to be a terrible person—I don’t read that many SFF magazines. I adore short fiction, both reading and writing, but for the most part I’m an anthology/short story collection sort of person.

For me, Anathema is as much in dialogue with anthologies and collections as it is with online publications, because it’s an answer, in some small part, to a problem that exists within both realms: a startling lack of diverse voices, and an associated pushback against such things from a small but irritating and obnoxiously loud segment of the industry. These are people who think that “diversity” and “identity politics” are ruining their fun, not at all caring about who they hurt in their dismissals and attacks. To which we say: fuck that and fuck them.

Michael: It’s definitely true that Anathema’s in conversation with the wider field—specifically many of the conversations around inclusion in editorial and fictional spaces that picked up in intensity after Fireside’s #BlackSpecFic report came out in 2016. In 2017 a lot of those discussions bore fruit in the form of decolonialist magazines like FIYAH, Arsenika, and Koru.

But the work of decolonizing creative spaces can’t be placed solely on writers and artists of colour. White editors, for all their good intent, gravitate more readily toward fiction they see as accessible, or “recognizable.” And that means they’re going to gravitate to white-authored content, especially where white writers are writing “diverse” work instead of making space for authors of colour.

Anathema, too, treads a difficult line in this, given that two of our three primary editors are white. Hence why our mandate calls for only intersectionally-authored content, making space for marginalized creators. And that’s our contribution to the conversation, and our part in that dialogue: being a platform for amazing voices that are still underrepresented.

And that’s that! You can read the first three issues of Anathema Magazine online or contribute to their crowdfunding campaign until early March.

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