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Five questions with Marguerite Kenner

This week we’re excited to welcome a fellow podcaster, Marguerite of Escape Artists. We asked her what it’s like to publish in audio, what kinds of stories she’s looking for as an editor, and whether the short story form is leading the way in the move towards greater diversity within science fiction, fantasy and horror.

1. What is Escape Artists? Talk us through your aims as a genre publisher.

EA is the longest-running genre fiction podcast publisher. We started in 2005 with a single show, Escape Pod, and branched out into horror (PseudoPod) and fantasy (PodCastle). Alasdair Stuart and I took over the company from founder Serah Eley in 2014, and brought Cast of Wonders, our young adult show, into the family in 2016.

Unlike print magazines (or most digital ones), the stories we publish are always available for free on our websites under the Creative Common license. We describe ourselves as genre fiction’s best kept secret, and our “One Story, Told Well” format has inspired dozens of other podcasts and digital or audio magazines. Each podcast episode showcases a single story, or a thematically connected set of flash pieces, paired with a talented narrator and insightful commentary.

EA has three cornerstone principles:

  • Compensate the Creative – ‘Exposure’ is a cause of death, not a way to make rent. EA pays every creative endeavour involved in our episodes, from writers and narrators, to commissioned artists and staff. All made possible for nearly 15 years with the generous support of our donors and patrons.
  • Widen the Circle – Genre fiction has a representation problem, and we’re trying to help solve it by lowering the barriers to entry in publication. We actively recruit talent and fiction from these communities, support their projects, and seek to elevate their voices.
  • Short Fiction and Audio Advocacy – Contrary to the news articles you’ll read every 18 months, podcasting didn’t come into existence with Serial. It’s a nearly twenty year old distribution method with an incredible range of presentation styles and content. It makes bite-sized, commute-ready fiction accessible to a wider range of people, and can bring subtlety or meaning to text that traditional reading doesn’t. Storytelling is an activity as old as humanity, and we advocate for its critical recognition as a robust, multidimensional art form.

If you’d like the longer version of who we are and what we’re about, you can find it here.

2. Do you look for anything different in a short story that’s to be published in audio format as opposed to the written word?

I don’t actively look for specific things when selecting stories for audio publication, but there are a couple of principles I keep in mind. A story has to have a good sense of pace; audio listeners don’t ‘skip over the boring bits’, they’ll just stop listening if a story hits a lull. Likewise the number of characters can be a consideration. Most of Cast of Wonders stories have a single narrator, so asking one person to differentiate half a dozen voices – and for a listener to keep track of them all – can be a hard selling point.

Likewise subject matter can be an issue. Audio listening is intensely intimate – you can’t plug your ears the same way you can skim over a description in a book that might be uncomfortable. Horror stories in particular can do really amazing things with this in audio — not just effects or multi cast performances, but infrasound or other emotional enhancements.

There are also some narrative tricks which don’t translate well into audio. Anything which relies on the physical presentation of words on a page, for example, which has been a stumbling block in the past for me when considering poetry. Homonyms and puns can be very hit or miss, and conveying large blocks of dense information, like when you’d use an image, a map, or an infographic, just don’t translate well in audio.

3. Have you seen more diversity in the short story form? Are short stories leading the way when it comes to the representation of diverse races and gender identities? Or do many suffer from the same lack of diversity that still plagues the novel?

I think because the short story market both has a lower barrier to entry, and encourages more creativity in terms of subject matter and voice, it’s a more inclusive publication space. Part of that is active advocacy work by publishers and markets — we’re all hungry to bring more voices to the fore. In my experience it’s especially been the newer publications which have refused to accept they can’t be inclusive environments. Great examples include AnathemaFireside (creator of the Black Spec Fic report), and Fiyah. But you see movement in older established imprints as well – Samovar, the new imprint from Strange Horizons, is a good example, as is Clarkesworld’s efforts to showcase more internationally published work translated into English.

Part of it is purely financial – there’s just less money in the short fiction market all around. A magazine’s overhead when publishing a story could be as low as just the cost of the license, and maybe a narrator if they also podcast the work and pay their narrators. Contrast that with a legacy published novel, where there are print costs, marketing costs, advances, distribution networks, etc. Novels are on a whole different cost scale, and with greater risk comes less willingness to gamble. It also prompts some, in my opinion, incredibly poor practices like being more willing to publish a white author writing about experiences and stories which aren’t their own, as the way of hedging that risk.

The downside, of course, is that short fiction publishers don’t have the same marketing budgets and critical recognition as legacy publishers — we can’t put 10,000 copies in libraries and newsstands across the globe; we’re not ‘airport reading’. But I publish 52 stories a year – I’m much more comfortable with lots of them being first time or marginalised authors. In fact that’s part of what attracts and holds my audience’s attention – they trust that as an editor, I’m going to introduce them to new voices and broaden their fiction horizons.

4. Speaking as an editor, do you have any tips for writers regarding worldbuilding within the wordcount restraints of the short story form?

A short story author can’t spend a chapter detailing backstory when their finished length is under 7500 words; they have to layer in worldbuilding in parallel with progressing the narrative. When I’m reading in the slush pile, a story has very little time to hook me – less than a page, sometimes less than a paragraph. If you start your story with backstory or scene-setting (or worse, the dreaded ‘looking in the mirror’!) and not your narrative hook, chances are you won’t hook me at all. You have to make your reader intrigued or care FIRST, then you call tell them about the awesome world you built. Trust your reader / listener to navigate that initial cold plunge into action.

And remember you just can’t do it all with a short story — think appetiser, not entree. You want to deliver a fully presented and narratively complete tale, but there’s nothing wrong with leaving questions unanswered or your audience wanting more. There’s no reason at all you can’t write another story in the same world just as soon as you finish this one, and give those extra crammed in elements their own space to breathe and shine.

Finally, if you think a short story is hard, try writing flash fiction – 6000 words will feel like an extravagance compared to 1000!

5. Tell us about Artemis Rising.

Artemis Rising is an annual month-long event across all four EA podcasts, celebrating the voices of women, non-binary, trans, and marginalised gendered authors in genre fiction. It debuted in 2015; Cast of Wonders joined in 2017. This year is our fourth event, and features amazing artwork by Geneva Benton.

In addition to celebrating the authors’ work, it also features the hosting, editing and production talents of a rotating cast each year. Part of the mission of the project is to give opportunities and experience to these individuals, in publishing roles that are traditionally held by men. It’s not perfect – we’re received feedback that we haven’t done as much as we could to be an inviting space for marginalised genders, which we’re taking on board for improvements we can make next year.

Listeners can find all the past episodes here.

 

Marguerite Kenner is a native Californian who has forsaken sunny paradise to live with her partner, Alasdair Stuart, in a UK city named after her favourite pastime but pronounced differently.

She’s an experienced plate-juggler and wearer of multiple hats, managing her time between editing Cast of Wonders, working behind the scenes as COO of Escape Artists, lecturing, grappling with legal conundrums as a lawyer, studying popular culture (i.e. going to movies and playing video games), and curling up with a really good book. You can follow her adventures on Twitter.

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