For the Strange Horizons 2020 Fund Drive, a conversation between articles editor Joyce Chng and poetry editor Romie Stott. They discuss houseplants, mouse drawings, editorial processes, and what they’re reading in their spare time.
Romie Stott: I think we may be in different time zones. (I’m on the US East Coast.) What is the room like where you are, when you are working on Strange Horizons? If I wanted to picture you at your computer, what’s the chair like? Are there windows? What color are the walls?
Joyce Chng: I am in the study room I share with my spouse. I face the window, so sunlight comes in bright and lovely. My walls are white, but I hang plants on them to make the room more cheerful. Also a lot of books. We have many shelves in the study room.
RS: I have … not enough shelves. I have books stacked in front of books, books stacked on the floor. What kind of plants? I have a lot of the usual suspect houseplants (ivies and polka dots and Spathiphylla), but am always also trying to grow things which are not at all appropriate for my fairly northern climate, like a very spindly and much-babysat key lime tree. Most of them are out on my balcony at the moment since I’m in one of the few warm-enough months for that. Rather than making me feel domestic, my houseplants make me feel like a discredited Victorian scientist (discredited because I will sometimes confidently declare that a tomato is growing when it is not a tomato).
On the subject of books, I’m currently mostly reading Authority by Jeff Vandermeer (middle book of the Southern Reach trilogy, the sequel to Annihilation), but am also varying stages of midway through Vicky Swanky is a Beauty, The Octopus Museum, Oceanic, and Is That the Sound of a Piano Coming from Several Houses Down? (poetry collections) and Red Orchestra (nonfiction), plus a book club re-read of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
My to-read bedside stack when I get to the end of Southern Reach is A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe, Recursion, and Children of Ruin, probably in reverse order. Then probably the Daevabad Trilogy, which I’m waiting to buy until I’ve read more of the books I already have, but am currently looking at a lot of fan art about and thereby reading vicariously. I don’t have a lot of time for reading right now that’s not work-related (I read a lot of news and current events stuff for my day job, and obviously read a lot of poetry submissions when I’m on desk), so it’s something I wind up approaching like a long-term strategy campaign.
JC: My spouse and I are geeks (nerds?). The books you see in the study are just a quarter of the number of books. We have the wall of books outside, where we keep our RPG books and other assorted stuff. Plus our shelves where we keep our favorite books and books that make an impact in our lives. I am currently reading Warhammer 40k books and nonfiction (horses and plants!) books.
I used to have air plants but they died … . So spouse got me plastic ones. They are pretty, but I’d rather have live ones (one day!). I have more plants outside. We live in an apartment block, and our unit fortunately occupies the corner, where we can grow container plants. I have a Norfolk pine—currently spindly, but growing OK. I am growing local herbs which thrive in the humid weather. The rosemary is bravely hanging on.
RS: I salute you. I still haven’t figured out how to behave appropriately toward pine or rosemary, or for that matter succulents. I suspect I don’t water them enough since I don’t see their leaves getting droopy. I suspect there is a parallel here to my style as a poetry editor, in that I find it very easy to tell people why their poem is good (giving them water when droopy), but am less helpful if they want advice on how a poem should be changed. I don’t know, small cactus in a pot. You seem to be going in many jabbing directions for reasons I don’t pretend to know more about than you do.
JC: I realize with plants, I work best with tropical plants who thrive in the humid temperatures. And I think you are right in saying that there are parallels to our styles as editors. I work best with strengths and will amplify the strengths (add more water, remove those weeds, etc.).
RS: I meandered through your blog a second ago (the one linked in your staff bio), because I love a personal blog. Discovering blog circles in 1998 is when I decided I liked the internet. It seems like in the last six months, you’ve released several YA dragon books (am I miscounting, because it seems like wow), had a cancer scare, and drawn a lot of mice (drawings which I like very much).
I was intrigued by this item on a May to-do list of yours: “2. Draw Mice. (Duan Wu Jie falls on the 25th of June).” What’s the connection between the Dragon Boat Festival and mice? Does it have to do with your books about dragon-racing, or is it something else I would immediately understand if I lived in Singapore instead of a Texan-Italian household in Massachusetts?
JC: Yeah, I have too many dragon books (LOL). Yes, I had a cancer scare (and thank goddess I am OK). The Mice? Well, one of my sidelines is illustrating Mid-Autumn Mice, inspired by Mid-Autumn Festival. The Mid-Autumn Mice was the product of me coping with stress at work (when I was teaching), and it took off from there. From there onward, I started drawing the Mice in all the Chinese festivals, not just Mid-Autumn Festival.
I love dragons, hence you see them everywhere. Not directly related to the dragon-racing YA I write—but did inspire a little. For my dragon-racing YA, I was more influenced by the Pernese dragons, a bit of RPG, and just … fun? I actually pitched (yet another) dragon-racing series to Serial Box—I should really stop my dragon thing and focus on werewolves instead.
Am wondering about editing styles? Should we talk about our editing styles?
RS: As poetry editor, my approach is mostly curatorial—it parallels running an art gallery. I spend most of my time choosing which pieces to accept. I read everything that comes in during my reading period, narrow it down to the poems I like best, and then make a further decision about what of that group makes an interesting mix—I’m not likely to accept three Snow White poems in the same batch even if they’re all very good, unless we’re doing a Snow White special issue.
Once accepted, it’s very rare for me to change anything in a poem unless the poet asks me to; my challenge during the galley/proof stage is often more about how I’ll code unusual formatting to override the website’s style sheets (when, say, a poem has an indented line mid-paragraph) without mucking up the experience of people who use screen readers or might need to resize the text.
It’s a balancing act. A poem is simultaneously words with literal meanings, an auditory experience, and a visual presentation. Poets may use things like line breaks and extra spaces as a form of punctuation (auditory) or to make a picture or symmetry (visual) or both. Poems often push the boundaries of language, or play with the limits of verbal or textual expression; they are often antithetical to the regularization of prose style guidelines. This means having to find bespoke solutions for a lot of our poems, and then having to figure out how to hook each of those up to the wonderful safety nets we use to keep the website accessible.
Accessibility editor Clark Seanor is almost a member of the poetry department, given how often Clark and I, together or separately, are sitting there looking at something and trying to figure out how to describe something or warn about something that’s deliberately ambiguous, or that’s supposed to have a secret puzzle meaning. I get a lot of messages from Clark along the lines of “is this broken or did you break this on purpose.” It’s a fair question and I usually have to go check.
What is your process as an articles editor? Are you picking topics and then finding people to write about them? Are you choosing between pitches that come in? How much shaping do you do of a piece that comes in, and how long, usually, is the journey from conception to publication? Have any pieces under your watch happened especially quickly or taken an unusually long time?
JC: Mmmm, what is my process as an articles editor? I pick topics and then find people to write about them. Likewise, I will also pick up any pitches given to me. The most recent I edited was an article for the Chosen Family issue. It came from a pitch/sub.
I use my background as a teacher when it comes to shaping a piece. I am strict but also gentle—that’s the same way I marked. Plus, I have an editing background from when I quit teaching the first time and I worked at a publishing house, editing textbooks. Each writer is different, so I have to be sensitive to them too.
The journey from conception to publication takes about half a year, or less than that—three to four months. The writer writes the article, sends it to me; I do a read-through and give feedback, send it back; writer sends back revised version. I will also develop the article if it has the potential to be so much better and impactful. (The joys of Track Changes—I make comments, highlight the portions that need tightening or elaborating.)
Most of the pieces under my watch (roundtables and articles) happen fairly quickly (give or take life intervening and throwing curveballs—so I do give leeway). Only one roundtable took an exceptionally long time, because one of the correspondents was busy (family/health issues).
RS: I’m looking forward to the Chosen Family special. That’s the end of this month, right? And then at the end of August, we have the big twentieth anniversary special, which has me thinking about how and when I joined Strange Horizons.
It was a while ago, in 2012, and I don’t trust my memory. I know it was before we switched to the current website layout, and I saw a little "hey, we’re looking to add another poetry editor" notice up in the corner of the main page, where memos from the editor in chief used to go. I’d showed up to read the current issue and wasn’t particularly looking for an editing job.
I pointed it out to a friend who I thought would be interested, and the friend said, "ummmmm, I think they’re looking for somebody more like you, person who has had a poem published in Strange Horizons and who just spent several years running the nonfiction half of a beloved and recently discontinued online-only science fiction magazine." Which, it turned out, yes.
(The defunct webzine, Reflection’s Edge, is now mostly lost to memory, partly because some ransomware took down the archive. It and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet were the main places to go for slipstream fiction in the mid-2000s. We did good work, at RE, but it was before Kickstarter, Patreon, Ko-fi, and the rest, and we could never work out a sustainable funding model. We made plans a few years ago to bring it back as a book imprint, but it’s another of those familiar "exceptionally long time because one of us had family/health issues" situations. I still think it could happen. We’ll see.)
I just pulled up my old archived application/interview emails, in which I say I think Strange Horizons publishes the best speculative poetry (still true); that I will make it my priority to improve our reputation with audiences that don’t yet realize that speculative poetry is great (still true); and that I’m a hard sell on Greek mythology poems because they’ve been overdone (still true).
I also complimented a Strange Horizons poem by AJ, who I hadn’t met, and didn’t know was also about to be hired as a poetry editor. Their most recent book of poems is right this moment on my bedside table. So maybe I have a hard time remembering back then because it is identical to now and I haven’t changed at all, which is either depressing or a testament to my strength of character.
How did editorship at Strange Horizons begin for you?
JC: Way back in 2016, Ness asked me if I would like to be an articles/nonfiction editor at SH. I said yes, and we had a short interview with Niall. Then editorship began…
(My answer is so short!)
I wish, though, that there were more Southeast Asian editors—especially Southeast Asians from Southeast Asia! (Yes, this is a call for more SEA rep in editorial positions.) There is Jaymee Goh (at Tachyon) and Daphne Lee (Scholastic Asia). But I would like to see more!
RS: Well—agreed! Publishing industry, take notice.