For this month's edition of Staff Stories, I’m interviewing Vajra Chandrasekera, one of our beloved Senior Fiction Editors. Vajra has been publishing fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and more since 2012, and has forthcoming stories in Fireside, Nightmare, and Kanstellation.
How did you get your start on the editing team at Strange Horizons?
In 2015 and, even more so, 2016, I suddenly had a lot of work appear in SH, in multiple departments. I participated in a couple of book club roundtable discussions, wrote some book reviews and a few essays for a regular column, and sold not one but two short stories—”Sweet Marrow” and “Applied Cenotaphics in the Long, Long Longitudes”—which came out within a few months of each other. I think SH was quite saturated with me by mid-2016. I was everywhere, like an insidious jingle at the supermarket. I imagine this is how I got onto the shortlist of potential new fiction editors, which was happening at roughly the same time. Kate and Niall asked me if I wanted to try it and I said yes, because of course I did.
What’s your take on the process of publishing a short story with Strange Horizons, and what parts do you play in the process?
The fiction editors (Lila, Cassie, Rasha, and me) and several dozen first readers all read incoming submissions, of which there are about six or seven thousand a year on our current schedule, and make preliminary selections. The editors then review those selections and make final decisions. Sometimes we ask authors to revise something and resubmit, but this is relatively rare. Once we’ve argued over the shortlisted stories and decided which ones to buy, one of us will handle it from that point onward for contracts, edits, prepping it for publication, and so on. I think this is a fairly typical workflow for a contemporary online magazine.
Do you know how many pieces you’ve had a hand in during your time with Strange Horizons? What makes you excited to work on a story that comes in?
About a hundred stories so far, of which about eighty are published. I have probably sent ten thousand rejections. I like to think I’ve contributed to making SH’s fiction a little weirder during this time. I like odd, powerful, difficult voices, and the stories that make me happiest to read are the kind where I suddenly realize I’ve read the whole thing before even remembering to think critically about it. It’s fascinating to be an editor who is also a working writer. You get to see how very differently other writers handle scenes and sentences, or how they come up with lines or images that would never have occurred to you.
You’ve published over 80 pieces since 2012—what got you hooked on writing in general, and speculative fiction in particular?
My father was a writer, and simply assumed that I too would grow up to be a writer. He advised me only against making it a primary occupation, because there was no money in it. Get a regular job, he would say, but write your books in your own time. It was also his advice that I should write in English, not Sinhala (as he mostly did), and also that nobody cares about long flowery descriptions of the light of the sun on the water and that one should just get on with the plot. He was himself best known for a kind of acerbic, witty, fast-moving, contemporary realist fiction that drew heavily from his own (complicated, eventful) life and featured many caricatures of real people (family, acquaintances, co-workers) who hated this and wished he would stop—nothing at all like the kind of thing I write, really. He died a few years before I published my first short story. I don’t think he ever stopped taking it as a given that I was a writer, though. Even in the long years when I didn’t write a single word and was trying to focus on entirely different careers, he would ask me out of the blue what I was writing lately.
Speculative fiction was my own obsession. I was drawn to it young, for the usual reasons: the wonder and the sense of possibility; the pleasantly dizzying double-vision of reading something that is simultaneously exactly what it says it is but also obviously about something else altogether; the cool ideas, imagery, and aesthetic. I’ve grown a finer appreciation of style and other mysteries over the years, and every year my own sense of what is speculative is broader, but I think the reasons are still the same.
What are some of your current non-Strange Horizons projects?
I’m working on a novel. This is not the first one I’ve started, and if I finish it, it won’t be the first one I’ve finished. I’m yet to finish a book and like it enough to consider trying to have it published, though. I would describe it, but—well, I don’t subscribe to many writerly superstitions but this one I am a firm believer in: I try to never describe a work in any detail before it’s finished, preferably not before it’s published, and ideally, not even then.
I’m also working on (*checks the drafts folder*) four short stories right now. There are always at least a couple in there.
What’s one thing you feel strongly about right now, in the writing community or otherwise?
I’ve been thinking about the uselessness and irreplaceability of art, more than ever in these apocalyptic times. There are so few things about our horrible species that might be said to have been good: that we loved, that we mourned, and that we had art. Those are all things that we can still learn to do better.
What fiction has inspired you recently?
So far it’s been a year of reading mostly fantasy, including relatively recent books (I have enjoyed novels by Evan Winter, Fonda Lee, and Leigh Bardugo this year, among others) but also catching up on some classics that have been on my to-read stack for years. Earlier this year I finally read Bujold’s Chalion books, including the more recent Penric novellas, and am now midway through Delany’s Nevèrÿon books, which are exhilarating. I’ve read rather a lot of Bujold but I actually have not read much Delany.
I’ve long had this problem with writers like Delany, Michael Cisco, M. John Harrison: I read their books and enjoy them too much, the sentences and the stories and the strangeness, because they are so good it seems that they ought not to exist. Books like that are beautiful and incredible to encounter as not only a reader but a writer, because they blow past the borders of what you thought was possible in prose fiction, never mind permissible, with such intent and power that you are forced to remember—and this is always like waking and remembering that you did know this already, but only in a dream—that those seeming borders of possibility, which will congeal around you at the slightest opportunity, are not real.
But because of that intensity and unreality, I then keep putting their other books off for a perfect day of reading, because they are surely too good to be read in a mundane fashion but must be ritually enjoyed only when the moon is in the correct phase, and so on. And of course this perfect day never comes, so these books don’t get read, even though they are the books that I most want to read. So now I am trying to … not do this thing, and part of that is that a week ago I just sat down and started reading Nevèrÿon, like an animal, on a deeply imperfect day.
Last one: you use the same banner image across your social media and website: “Allegory of Death and Fame,” an engraving by Agostino Musi in 1518. What draws you to this image?
I love that it’s so stark and yet so unclear. Is it “just” a set of skeletons and desiccated nudes arranged in a fanciful way, intended for an unpublished book of anatomy? Is it an argument between winged death and the mourners for the dead? Is death pointing out something in his book like he’s referring to the manual? Also, it looks cool as hell.