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For those who missed last week's inaugural staff story, we have begun an interview series highlighting our staff, whose work is fascinating but usually invisible.
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This week, I interview senior fiction editor Catherine Krahe, one of our longest-serving staff members, and the first Strange Horizons editor I met in person. Cassie is precise, insightful, and playful, with a strong sense of justice. Writers often tell me how much they like working with her.
You started as a first reader at Strange Horizons. When did you join? How you become a senior fiction editor?
Back in 2011, I attended Clarion West with a bunch of ferociously skilled writers. Because anxiety and self-sabotage, among other things, I am one of the unlucky ones who basically stopped writing entirely … but I did get a lot of praise for my critiquing skills, and people mentioned that I should be an editor. Accepted wisdom was that good critiquers should be editors, and the way to do this was to be a first reader for some magazine you liked and then eventually you would metamorphose into a serious business editor, and maybe someday, I don’t know, profit?
This is not how it works, just so you know.
Anyway, I applied to be a first reader and really liked being able to talk about my favorite SH stories in the application process. I know I mentioned “Waiting on Alexandre Dumas,” which I read very early in my binge-on-all-SF-available-online freshman year of college, and “Tomorrow Is Waiting.”
Once I was a first reader, I read … um, a lot? Lots. I have a pretty healthy competitive streak, and Rahul Kanakia and I very quietly tried to dominate the slush. I also kept at it quite a while longer than our average first reader: I think our typical reader stays between a year and eighteen months.
A few years after I started as the world’s most terrifyingly productive first reader, Julia Rios asked if I’d be willing to audition as a senior fiction editor, and I joined the team. My first edited story was “Vacui Magia,” but I had been part of the discussion for some time before then.
People sometimes ask how to become an editor, or they’re advised to become a first reader because obviously that is the first rung on the ladder and the path is straight up from there, but it doesn’t work that way for most people. There is no typical path to Serious-Business Editorhood.
Describe the fiction acquisitions process at Strange Horizons.
A story first comes in via Moksha, and a first reader will grab it. The first reader will read, summarize, and comment on the story, then send it to the senior editors if they think it’s for us. If they don’t send it up, we hold it for about a week so the senior editors can review the summary and comments and grab anything we think is particularly interesting. We also ask the first readers to flag representation in comments, like people of color, genderqueer, nonbinary, and trans authors and characters, things like that. In no case will we buy a bad story because it meets a certain number of representation tickyboxes—we won’t buy a bad story even if it’s by a seriously famous person, and trust me, writing those rejections is terrifying— but knowing that representation is important. We got a lot of Little Red Riding Hood retellings when I was a first reader: those stories had to work against a serious seen-it-before-please-stop reaction. A story drawing from a less prevalent non-European folkloric source is more interesting and may be worth further revisions with the author or an encouraging rejection letter.
At our weekly meeting, the senior editors decide which stories we want to accept, request rewrites for, or reject. This can take a while—we have different tastes and backgrounds, and we all catch different flaws. We generally come to an agreement about which stories we’d like to buy, but if we don’t, any of us can make an editor’s-choice pick and take it.
One thing you’ll note is missing here is any kind of detailed analysis of cover letter and publishing credits. When I was FRing, I never read them. I don’t pay much attention, if any, to authors when I’m reading submissions. I’ll catch names I know, but quite often forget that they were in the stack by the time I get to their stories.
So yeah, that’s How a Bill Becomes a Law How a Submission Becomes a Story.
What do you feel are some of the best stories you've edited at the magazine?
Finding a story I really adore is just fun. I’ve written comments about it to authors along the lines of "this ending, it made me want to bite my hands, it was so good" and "I want to roll around in this paragraph." Writers often seem to think that editors laugh as they reject stories and have an adversarial relationship to the slush, but really, we want stories to be amazing.
We all have gimme-buttons of sorts; stories about motherhood or water have historically appealed to me a lot. Lately, I’ve been enjoying some weirder, less classifiable fiction.
Stories about art forms that we don’t have yet are great—“Applied Cenotaphics” and “The Troll Who Hid Her Heart.” I love the weirdness of both of them, how there is clearly a culture and a story going on in the background, but since we don’t have the medium of the art, we can only guess.
Alien narrators like in “The Visitor,” “We Have a Cultural Difference, Can I Taste You?” and “Utopia, LOL?” are huge fun to edit. It’s a balancing act between human enough to be comprehensible and nonhuman enough to be weird. Giant tentacle alien, medium-sized slime-monster exchange student, personification of Tumblr? I love them all.
You're a regular presence at WisCon. Tell us why you love the con, and about the Strange Horizons tea party you run there.
I’m typing this between panels, actually, having taken too much time to get it wrapped up beforehand. WisCon was the first con I went to on my own—I found roommates, my brother drove me up to Madison because I didn’t have a car yet, and I immediately latched onto an author I particularly liked who was willing to be a social anchor. It was, in a lot of ways, the transition between college and adult life (or grad school, in my case). It was exactly the right time for me to step into WisCon.
As for the tea party, well before I was involved, Strange Horizons had started the tradition of having tea parties in the afternoon at cons rather than evening parties. I do my best to make sure that people know about the party, can find something to eat, and have good conversation throughout, plus tea. All the food is vegan, gluten-free, or both, and I try to cover other common sensitivities when possible. It’s a lot of fun for me to perform as hostess.
You got married recently--congratulations! What's your favorite thing about the partnership?
Well, he’s a gigantic dork who thinks I’m awesome, so that’s good. He’s not in my part of fandom in general, more a gamer-type who reads things that I don’t read—actually, one sign of high-quality gentleman was that he read the Kate Elliott Cold Magic trilogy on my recommendation. Those are not small books, and while he didn’t enjoy them, he had reasons for not enjoying them. (A lot of my judgment of high-quality people boils down to “shows their work.”)
What's your favorite celestial body, and why?
I generally like what I can identify, be it stars, birds, or minerals. Like Scorpio: a constellation I recognized and identified with no information whatsoever. “That must be a constellation. It is probably Scorpio.” I’d never seen it before, but it has such a thingness to it.
What are some of your current non-SH projects?
The Alpha Young Writers’ Workshop is an eleven-day residential writing workshop modeled on Clarion. Four professional guests come in for two or three days each to teach twenty teens. The students write and workshop a short story, attend and give readings at Barnes and Noble, and submit work to professional markets.
Imagine twenty students in a dorm, furiously networking and writing and critiquing and yelling about whatever they’re reading or watching. The students are amazing: it’s taken me about a decade to get over my inferiority complex around them as a group. The passion, the drive, the incredible weirdness of the ideas they come up with, the dedication to inclusivity, the ferocity with which they defend each other against internal enemies—seriously, Alpha is phenomenal.
I’ve also been reading for the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Older Writers Grant. It’s been interesting contrasting the teen submissions for Alpha with the older adult submissions for the grant. Alphan submission stories are single complete short stories rather than excerpts of novels or screenplays or collections of poetry, and the protags are understandably younger, but not by as much as I’d expected. There’s also a lot more genderqueer content in Alpha stories.
Write about one thing you feel strongly about right now regarding the SFF community.
I am really looking forward to the next BlackSpecFic Report because I want to know if what we’ve done to improve our demographics has had any effect.