[This is an interview of Arley Sorg, conducted by Effie Seiberg, specially for the Strange Horizons Fund Drive Issue 2021].
Effie Seiberg: Arley! First of all, congratulations on your very first big nomination! World Fantasy [i.e., the World Fantasy Award nomination for Fantasy Magazine] is a huge deal!
Arley Sorg: Thank you so much! I had thought/hoped a couple of pieces from the issues might win something (there were a number of nominations of various kinds, as well as landing on several notable reading lists) but I hadn't even considered the possibility of Christie and I being up for something. I feel like this nomination is really about the excellent work in the issues, more than being about us, per se.
ES: You describe yourself as work-promiscuous (or a slightly less polite term) because you have So. Many. Projects. What are you working on right now?
AS: My day job is at Locus Magazine, where I do everything from some of the news blog posts to convention write-ups to movie reviews, interviews, occasional book reviews, and more. I do interviews for Clarkesworld every month, book reviews for Lightspeed as well as miscellaneous stuff for them and Nightmare, and I have a new column for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I co-edit Fantasy Magazine with Christie Yant, and specifically (besides our shared fiction and poetry acquisition responsibilities) I do the interviews and commission the essays. I also have my own interview series on my website, called "At the Bar." The concept is from missing those conversations at conventions.
Oh and I've been doing a fair amount of panels, as well as teaching classes, for a range of events. I'm on panels at the upcoming World Fantasy and Worldcon. I recently taught a class for Clarion West. I'm running a workshop for Augur Magazine and I'm a guest speaker at the upcoming Cascade Writers three day workshop.
ES: When you and I met in 2013, you started out as a fiction writer, and you eventually moved behind the scenes into editing, acquisitions, reviewing, and more. How did you make that change, and do you ever miss writing fiction?
AS: Seanan McGuire invited me to slush for "Queers Destroy Science Fiction." I had just started at Locus Magazine, but QDSF was my intro to Lightspeed. I took on more responsibilities as time went on, from doing Spotlight interviews to doing second reads and more. At some point, a few years ago, I started thinking about running a fiction magazine. I tested a few things. For example, having conversations with friends to see if they'd be interested, or to gauge reactions to different ideas. I was considering pitching a magazine concept to someone (who shall remain nameless) who would function as publisher, but I was on the fence about undertaking the project with them. Then, I went to a convention, where I met a couple of people who used to run a mag. At a party I pitched the idea of bringing back their mag with me as editor-in-chief. They loved the idea! Everything was set to go, we set up one last meeting to finalize, and before the meeting happened, there was a big kerfuffle which swept the entire idea into oblivion. Shortly after, I ran into another person who ran another magazine which had been defunct for a while. I pitched the idea of me bringing back their mag. They said they already had plans to bring it back, and a person to run it, but that maaaaybe we could think of other ways to work together. In other words: No, thanks. Finally, after all that, Christie and I were doing a video call just to catch up. She mentioned having been thinking about opening a mag, and I was like, "What?!? ME TOO!"
As for writing, after attending The Odyssey Writing Workshop I had a very difficult break up with my boyfriend, ending an 11-year relationship. Submission rejections had always been really hard for me to deal with. intellectually I got that they shouldn't matter, but I always struggled emotionally. Something about the association of coming back from Odyssey and the timing of the break up, something about the way that writing had been a point of friction in the relationship, coupled with the fact that the guy I thought I was essentially "married" to dumped me, and all the insecurities that creates, it left me completely unable to deal with the rejection aspect of writing. Even getting feedback became ten times harder to deal with than before. You just can't be a writer and expect to not get rejections. So ... I have flaked away from writing. But I personally believe that writing is something you can go back to at any time, whenever you're ready. So ... I'm also not that worried about it. I'll get back to it when the time is right. For now, I am just working on building myself back up emotionally/psychologically, recovering from an event which was really devastating for me.
ES: You've been making a huge effort behind the scenes in the genre community to make things more diverse and inclusive. You're even running your own magazine that way. Can you tell me more about how you're making things happen?
AS: Most of the stuff I've done is confidential, but I will say I've put energy into making multiple places (and different kinds of places) more inclusive in a number of ways, from consulting over coffee/a drink to helping write copy to rethinking operating practices and more. I've reworked policies, created reading lists, consulted on recruitment, and so on. This includes consulting with a number of different kinds of editors and publishers, and in some cases, helping them rework the way they do things. When I had more time, I did some outreach on my own, such as rounds of offering free critique to Black authors or authors of color, or just responding to questions, or even trying to make newer BIPOC writers at conventions feel welcome and trying to introduce them around, so they can get connected faster and have a base of people they know.
ES: What else should we in genre be doing (that we aren't doing enough of now) to make this a more welcoming and inclusive place?
AS: I think it starts with the personal journey.
People are so afraid to be "wrong" or they get so upset at the idea of doing something "wrong." I get it, because ultimately, I'm the same way: I have that ego, too. But staying in that defensive or angry space prevents potential growth and understanding. So, fine, be upset, be defensive. But then get over it. If someone gets called out for some kind of prejudicial behavior, belief, or practice, ask yourself if you do the same thing. Don't wait to get called out; take the initiative. Look at yourself in an honest way. If you get called out, accept that you've slipped up. Own it. Look at it. Think about it. Learn about it. Fine, feel upset; don't respond from that upsetness. Let the upsetness pass, and then examine the situation with compassion for the other person. Each of us, including marginalized folks, can learn more about the ways we harm other people.
And that's the thing. So much about these conversations is about "being right," when it should be about recognizing harm, and trying to make things better where possible. It should be about empathy.
From there, I feel like what's right for different people really varies. But I think nearly everyone in genre, from awards administrators to publishers to editors and agents and even readers, should look, for themselves, at the demographics of the individuals they are publishing, promoting, reading, and so on. You don't know if your award has gone exclusively to white people for 20 years, for example, until you go and take a look. You might not know that you only published 3 Black authors out of fifty or more stories in a given year until you go and look. So: Go look. What books are you reading? Which authors are you recommending? Maybe you are putting out positive vibes, recommending authors on Twitter, but maybe they are all white...?
Once you've gone and looked and found that a lot of demographics are missing, you have to face the fact that whatever you are doing isn't really working that well, and it's up to you to figure out how to change it. Leaning into "but this is how we've always done it" only keeps the problem going. It might be time to make some changes.
ES: What are some of your favorite works you've found in the slush pile for Fantasy Magazine? Or that you've come across as a reviewer?
AS: I don't want to single pieces out and make authors feel bad that they didn't get singled out. But often my favorite stories take the usual and make it just slightly unusual, while delivering a narrative rich in meaning. If you step back from some of the work we've published, on a superficial level, you can probably give a two-line summary which may not sound interesting. But there are usually layers of subtext, of commentary of some kind; there's usually a strong heart to the story. The author has something to say, and it's important to them, and this comes across on the page.
ES: You have a great column for F&SF called "By the Numbers" which takes a factual and statistical look at a different thing within genre for each issue. How did you come up with that angle, and what have you learned from it?
AS: Thank you so much! The idea partly came out of conversations in Codex, where someone would (usually in some degree of anger or envy) make some claim about the industry, and I would look at the data and often find the claim to be ... off. Sometimes I would reply, sometimes I'd just look it up for myself, just to know. It also came out of talking to many, many people in the industry, and realizing that different people often have conflicting versions of "truths" about the industry. Two editors or two agents or two well-established authors (etc: in other words, people who, when you're new, you would assume "know what they are talking about") would tell me completely opposite things. And I mean, sometimes it was obvious that it just depends on your experiences, but sometimes it was something that, you'd think, either is or isn't a particular way. But I think our culture is all about credentials and expertise and being seen as knowledgeable and important. Many established folks are more likely to tell you "how it is in publishing" rather than "well, this is how it has been for me in publishing, and it may be totally different for someone else." I realized at some point that I have a unique vantage on the industry, being at Locus, having conversations with a broad range of folks, and having access to different kinds of data. I thought I should use it.
Personally, the most important thing, in my opinion, is to not be so quick to jump to conclusions or to assume that one's own experiences match everyone's experiences.
ES: You do a lot for the genre community. You host writing sessions, run a short story analysis group, are a welcoming presence at cons, and so much more. That's not a question, that's just a thank you for being awesome and doing what you do.
AS: Ahhhhh, thank you so much! That is really, really kind! Believe me, I'm no saint.
ES: You have a tendency to be always right. Certainly every piece of advice you've ever given me has been, and it's so consistent that it's almost rude! What advice do you have for writers, for editors, and for reviewers?
AS: LOLLL um. thank you?
Writers—you don't have to do what anyone else does, be who anyone else is, or write what anyone else in particular writes. Everyone has their own path. The best thing you can do for yourself is to figure out what kind of stories you really want to write. Be courageous; write from your heart.
Editors—This country has a history of marginalization and oppression. It's easier to just ... not bother... to come up with reasons why you can't bother ... than to help move things forward and break terrible cycles. If you don't examine the way you do things, if you don't look at your own results, you are probably participating in systems of marginalization and oppression. You don't need me (or anyone else) to look at what you do or to call you out. Look at your own ToCs, ask a few questions, and find out for yourself. How many Black authors are in your anthology? How many women? Is that lone Black author one of the handful that everyone publishes, when they actually bother to include a Black author? What about other identities, other people? Approach these situations with empathy, rather than anger and frustration. Read great stories by marginalized authors and if you don't see why it's considered "good," figure out what the editor saw in the piece, see what you might be missing.
Reviewers—Fact: fewer genre novels by Black authors are published by major publishing houses, especially outside of YA, than novels by white people. Fact: those Black authors are far less likely to get publicized and promoted than white authors. Fact: just because publicists didn't send you a flood of emails about Black authors, that doesn't mean Black authors aren't out there, writing and trying to be seen. Listen, I'm not playing with you. When I say "fact" these are things I have actually looked up, counted, and experienced—I have anecdotes to share at the bar! Please put effort into finding titles by authors from marginalized groups, give them a read. Sure, you can read and review and thereby expand the audience for the same handful of white authors that pretty much everyone is reviewing anyways; or you can actually contribute to the conversations of the community by showing people what else is out there, what they might be missing. I have no doubt that these "facts" extend to other identities, other marginalized groups. But I have done actual research and know actual stats with regards to Black authors, whereas I haven't done the same research for other identities. Know what? You don't need me to do the research for you. Go look. The information is out there.
[Not that "white authors" are inherently bad. I also read white folks. But I will look for Black folks.]
If you are an agent, editor, reviewer, or even just a reader who isn't "in the industry," when you approach a work by someone whose experience is outside your own, be aware that you may not get everything. You may even miss the point of the story! The things you miss might be obvious to someone else, because they have a different set of experiences than you do. Read more broadly and discover what you are missing. And, of course, have fun while you do it!