I am delighted to bring you all yet another instalment in our ongoing interview series here at Smash Dragons. This week I had the amazing privilege to be able to sit down and chat with editor and writer Simon Dewar. Simon has recently exploded onto the scene with his amazing anthology Suspended in Dusk, and he took time out of his busy schedule to chat about all things horror and editing.
Simon Dewar, welcome to Smash Dragons!
Thanks for having me!!
First up, tell me little about yourself. How did you start writing and editing?
I grew up on fantasy… stuff like David Gemmell, Eddings, Robert Jordan. I never really thought I’d start writing, or perhaps I toyed with the idea but figured I’d go into fantasy. Sometime around 2012 I got the bug to try a short story and so I wrote one called The Kettle and managed to sell it to the Bloody Parchment horror anthology published by eKhaya, an imprint of Random House Struik. Selling your first short story on your first try is terrible… it left me woefully unprepared for all the rejections to come!
Suspended in Dusk is an amazing collection with a wonderful variety of talented authors. I’m curious, how did it all come about? Can you remember the moment the idea for this collection popped into your head?
Thanks for the kind words. I floated the idea of an anthology to Nerine Dorman, a writer and editor in South Africa, and she agreed to edit it if I compiled it. We were going to put it out through Dark Continents Press. We came up with Suspended in Dusk as a working title, because we couldn’t think of anything else at the time. It was actually going to be an un-themed anthology. As I began to approach authors and began to collect some stories, I realised that they gelled pretty well with the title. They were all stories about change or being on the edge between the dark and the light, or trapped between places. After a while I just started telling people that was the actual theme and no one was the wiser!
Suspended in Dusk almost didn’t come about. Can you elaborate on the trials and tribulations you went through to get it published?
I’m not 100% sure why, but for whatever reason Dark Continents couldn’t proceed with Suspended in Dusk. A short while later they actually closed up shop, so they were probably in the process of winding down, I guess. When that happened I was left with 19 stories that I’d collected, from extremely talented writers like Ramsey Campbell, Angela Slatter, John Everson, Alan Baxter as well as a lot of “young blood” (like me!). I really didn’t want the project to fold.
In the end, I pitched to a couple of presses and Books of the Dead picked the project up. The book has been very successful. For about 11 months it was in the top 20 horror anthologies in the kindle store and briefly hit number 1.
How did you hook it up with Books of the Dead Press?
After I’d re-pitched the anthology and had some interest but ultimately rejection, JC Michael (one of the SiD authors) approached me and said “Hey, I’ve got a book with Books of the Dead Press. James Roy Daley is a real straight shooter, maybe give him a try!” So I did.
James liked the idea and Suspended in Dusk was bought by Books of the Dead Press. I’m pretty proud because I’ve heard that it is extremely rare to re-home an anthology project that has fallen through with a publisher. I’m glad my hard work and the work of the authors didn’t go to waste.
The legendary Jack Ketchum wrote the introduction to Suspended in Dusk. How did you manage to pull that coup off?
I took Jack Ketchum’s Litreactor course “Talking Scars”. It was a fantastic course and I really learnt a lot and thoroughly enjoyed it. While I was taking the course I met some cool people and asked them to submit work to Suspended in Dusk. These people included Wendy Hammer, Sarah Read and Karen Runge. I was very impressed by their classwork and knew I wanted them to be a part of my project.
When I was done I asked the course coordinator to contact Jack and see if I could hit him up for a story. We got in contact and his response was along the lines of “I can’t give you a story right now due to commitments and I’ve already had to turn down quite a few folk, but send me a 12pt Times New Roman, double spaced hard copy of your manuscript and I’ll consider writing an introduction”.
So when I was ready I posted it off—cost me like $60AUD just to get it to NYC—but I guess he liked it because he wrote a very cool and very flattering introduction. I was honoured and humbled. Still am!
What skills did you learn whilst bringing the project together?
Most important ones:
- Aim high – You can achieve cool things, work with cool people, make a great product but you have to aim high. What you get in the end will always be lower than what you aimed for… I dunno why, creative gravity or something will drag your arrow down… so aim high.
- Don’t give up. Projects grind down, sometimes to a halt. Sometimes you need to step back for a day or a week before you can get back to it, but don’t give up. The only thing that stands between you and finishing the story, the novel or editing the anthology is persistence.
What is your secret to maintaining a good work/life balance?
Fuck, man. I don’t even know. I guess the secret is… Put your family (I’ve got a lovely wife, a 4 year old and twin 2 year olds!) and your day job first—that has to be non-negotiable. Then, any spare moment you have you cram with your writing or your editing. I’m talking squeezing in edits on a quarter of a short story on your lunch break or in the hour you have after the kids are in bed and all your household chores are done before you have to hit the sack so you can get up for work in the morning. If you want results, you’ve gotta be hungry, but you just have to prioritise.
Reading critically, beta reading, slush reading, editing stories or an anthology WILL improve your writing. I do, however, think that editing saps your creative juices. If you’re doing a lot of editing (novels, anthologies, etc) you’re probably not going to be in the right creative mindset to work on your own fiction.
I’ve got some more editing in me yet, and even then I’ll probably do some anthologies again in the future, but it’s coming up to time for me to have a bit of a break. I want to get some more of my own fiction out there and I find it extremely hard to be creative when doing a lot of work for other people.
Editing an anthology is a form of creation or creativity, and it does bring a lot of satisfaction, but it’s not as satisfying for me as writing my own work and seeing it published and seeing someone enjoy reading it.
What appealed to you about an anthology exploring the theme of that moment between light and dark?
Life is change, and change is either better or worse. Change, one way or the other, is taking you into the light or the dark. This time of dusk... the time between times… the time between the light and the dark…this grey area—that we all find ourselves in from time to time—is the fulcrum—the tipping point. This tipping point is the penultimate moment of change—It’s where things either come good, or go badly, badly wrong. This is a fantastic place for good stories to be found, written and collected, I think.
I don’t have any specific favourite in terms of content, I chose them all because I loved them for what each story individually is. I do feel very well disposed towards A Keeper of Secrets by Ben Knox, because Ben and I both worked very hard on that story to achieve as tight a story as we could but also tell the story he wanted to tell with the aesthetic and voice he wanted. It’s a fantastic horror story. Its sequel story, Mother of Shadows, is featured in Suspended in Dusk 2. It will read fine as a standalone story, but it continues the story from the first book and readers of Book 1 should really enjoy it.
You’re a big fan of horror fiction and speculative fiction in general. What books/stories are your favourites? Why?
I’ve never really thought about it too much, but I seem to gravitate to haunted house stories. Three of the best are: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, Hell House by Richard Matheson and Hide and Seek by Jack Ketchum. I found Hell House to be particularly confronting with its intense poltergeist and poltergeist-rape scenes. The audiobook version of it is top notch. Hide and Seek scared the fuck out of me. I listened to the audiobook version read by the extremely talented Wayne June and my heart was pounding in the last few chapters. It was all the better because it wasn’t a supernatural haunting.
Funniest typo you’ve come across as an editor?
I feel I should know the answer to this question but I don’t. When I’m working on anthologies there is so much going through your head… grammatical/developmental issues with the current story; what might face you with the remaining stories; author correspondence; liaising with the publisher; marketing, etc. I’ve probably read some real corkers, but frankly, I don’t remember any of them. I just fix that shit and move on ASAP. No time to lose and even less time to second guess/ruminate.
Tell me about your own writing. What sorts of things do you like to explore in your stories?
I suspect I have a few hang-ups from my teenage years because I tend to write a lot of fiction which has teenage protagonists but themes or content that are only readable by adults. The world is a brutal place and I don’t really tone down my fiction to make it more palatable to a group or subset of readers. This makes it hard to sell, but also rewarding when it does. Some of themes I’ve explored in recent works are: school bullying, racism, the “creative spark” within us.
If you were selected to join a Mars colonization mission what 3 books (only 3 due to payload restrictions) would you take in hardback? Why?
Blergh, that’s super tough. Possibly:
- Three men in a boat by Jerome K Jerome.
- Catch 22 by Joseph Heller.
- Complete works of Arthur Conan Doyle.
I’d hate that I had no horror in there, but the above makes for fantastic laughs and intrigue, and endless re-reading.
What are you working on right now?
I have a short story I’m finalising and hoping to sell. It is somewhat satirical, but deals with racism and Lovecraft. It’s set in 1920s NYC and has a black protagonist. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff or the Ballad of Tom Black by Victor LaValle, I suppose (p.s all folks need to read those books, if they haven’t they’re doing themselves a disservice. Unfuck that, ASAP).
I’ve had one offer on the story so far from a beta reader who is a magazine editor, but I’m still finalising rewrites/edits and I’m hoping to sell it to a pro market. The piece has had some very mixed reactions with some beta-readers being almost offended and others thinking it is a fantastic piece. Let’s assume I sell it—I’m looking forward to the reaction. I think it’s going to generate some discussion.
You’ve been a member of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild for a while now. How has the guild helped shape you as an editor and writer?
I’ve not been as closely affiliated with CSFG as I’d like. I think CSFG is truly fantastic because they offer great services for members—e.g critique groups attended by folks who’ve made quite a few pro-sales, or have won competitions like Writers of the Future, or have sold to markets like The Black Library or Angry Robots.
It is also very democratic in that they put out an anthology every year and give opportunities to all members to put their hand up to edit it etc. If I didn’t have three kids I’d like to be more involved with the group, they’re fantastic. As it stands now, any free time I have goes on my projects and that’s it. They’re definitely a group worth joining if you’re in the area and they’re all genuinely great people and there are no egos involved.
What’s your favourite line from a horror book or movie? Why?
Probably the opening line to Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door—
You think you know about pain?
This one line challenges you, scares you, tantalises you and lets you know exactly what you’re in for. If you didn’t know about pain, you will by the end of this book. Oh you will. This is one of the best opening lines ever written. Hands down.
Got any tips for people looking to become editors or writers within the horror industry?
If you want to be a writer, don’t try and do serious writing while you’re doing serious editing. Editing will drain you and you’ll find it difficult to write—in my personal opinion, anyway.
Completely ignoring the advice above—whatever works for you to produce your art and and whatever achieves a sale of a story/book/etc… that’s what you need to do. Don’t be afraid to be different.
Editing is great, but if you see yourself as a writer you’re likely to find it’s not as satisfying in the same way as seeing your own work published. Bear that in mind. Any time you spend working on editing other people’s work is time you’re not writing your own stories and really honing your own craft.
All those people out there selling lots of stories and winning lots of awards etc.—guess what—they write a LOT of stories. Whether its shorts or novels, or both, they’re out there writing their asses off. If you think you can write a handful of stories and they’re just going to sell and you’re going to win an award and get some recognition etc.—think again! Seriously, if you wanna do something with your art—you have to write, and submit. You’ll get rejected… so revisit your work, adjust it and then resubmit. You’ll get rejected again, so rinse and repeat. You’ll get there, you’ll sell your work and people will read your stories or books…but don’t expect anything less than a hard slog.
I know of people who’ve taken 2 years to sell a particular short story or had their novel rejected 100x before selling it. Welcome to the #writerlife.
What's your take on the horror scene right now? Where do we need to do better?
For readers, the horror genre is extremely healthy. You’ve got people like Paul Tremblay, Stephen Graham Jones, Joe Hill, Nick Mamatas, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Angela Slatter, Damien Angelica Walters, and many more doing fantastic work and getting serious recognition for it.
You’ve got fantastic newer writers like Josh Malerman, Karen Runge, Kristi DeMeester, Sarah Read, etc doing fantastic novels, novellas and short stories. Aside from tried-and-true masters like Ellen Datlow, Paula Guran, Stephen Jones, etc … you’ve got folk like Michael Bailey doing phenomenal work in the anthology space. You’ve got people like Richard Thomas doing great work with anthologies like Exigencies, Burnt Tongues and The New Black. Suspended in Dusk was pretty well received so I indulge myself to think I’m somewhere there in the healthy mix of art that’s being generated. In terms of content and output—now is a GREAT time to be a horror reader.
Due to my exposure to some of the recent goings on, namely HWA member RJ Cavender defrauding large numbers of people, and the all the other shit that has come to light, I have pretty strong thoughts about the health of horror fiction writing *community*.
To be honest sometimes I wonder if there really is a “community” or whether we’re all just kidding ourselves. Doubts aside, however—There are, I think, a lot of things that need to change or be looked at in a serious manner. These can be said of other genres or fandom generally, so I’m not singling out any specific person or org, but, as a starting point:
- People need to stop turning a blind eye to predatory behaviour and practices (of any kind).
- Organisations need to put in place policies and bylaws to limit the ability of bad actors to do bad things and to use their standing (perceived or otherwise) within the org to get away with it.
- Organisations, and people, need to be more vocal about malfeasance and malpractice.
- Organisations, and people, need to continue to speak out against sexism and harassment. And organisations should have recent, clear and accessible policies regarding these.
- Cons need to be made safer for everyone, including women.
- Cons need to have visible and accessible safety and anti-harassment policies that are enforced and seen to be enforced where instances of unsafe behaviour or harassment take place.
- People need to report on the above in a sensible and informed manner and give the facts, as available, to the people.
- People need to be able to report on the above without name-calling, wagon circling, misrepresentation of what they said etc.
Now, for the purposes of discussion, the above is a starting point. I’m personally heartened that there’s actually a running dialogue on a lot of this stuff now that hasn’t been happening in previous years. I also realise that some of the above stuff is being worked on as we speak (in both the horror genre community and in SF/F/H generally) and people and orgs seem to be taking steps in the right direction. Can we, collectively, do better though? Definitely.
Can you give us a sneak peek of Suspended in Dusk 2? What can we expect from the follow up?
If you liked the first one you should like this too. If you haven’t read the first one, check this out and I think you’ll really enjoy it. Then go buy book one :-P
The book (stories and art) is the product of a mix of men and women, people whose first language is not English, people who speak multiple languages, people of colour, people from at least 3 continents (I’ll just pretend Britain is part of the European continent and New Zealand is part of Australia, shall I!?), people of different sexual persuasions, people who are of a religion, people who are of no religion.
Is that mix perfect? No, but it ain’t just the who’s who of old straight white men either. There’s some diversity in this book and I think it adds to the flavour and its appeal. I’m very proud of that.
There is a very cool (and pretty creepy in its own right!) introduction from the supremely talented Angela Slatter. Was very gratified and humbled that she managed to fit it in among all the projects she has going on right now.
As with the first book in the series: there’ll be some non-supernatural “people horror”, a tale with a bit of a western ghost story feel, and something funny.
There’ll be some post-apocalyptic stories and something that touches on religious zealotry. There’ll be a story that touches on video games and the Dark Web and one that is inspired or based on Maori mythology & religion.
As mentioned, Ben Knox’s story Mother of Shadows continues on from his story in the original anthology; although readers will definitely be able to “enjoy” it, even if they didn’t read the first book.
I think there is more emotional depth in this anthology—some really hard hitting emotional pieces. Damien Angelica Walter’s piece made me want to cry. Dan Rabarts and Annie Neugebauer took alternate turns in punching me in the guts. Karen Runge’s story is pretty tragic too.
Who are some of the horror writers that have flown under the radar that people need to check out in your opinion?
Karen Runge is my pick (and has been for the last few years) for the “next big thing” in horror. She’s had stories in Shock Totem and Suspended in Dusk, also in some of the Grey Matter Press anthologies (including one called ‘High Art’ that we co-wrote). She’s scarily good at what she does. She makes characters incredibly sympathetic and then has them do a whole bunch of terrible and unforgivable things. I was giving her an endorsement on my FB page recently and I made a typo which is still pretty darn accurate: “She’ll pull out your heart strings [sic] and make the bile rise in the back of your throat”. I think I read most of the stories that went into her debut collection that has just been released and they’re incredibly good. To wind up with cover endorsements from Stephen Graham Jones (who said it was “the best collection of the year”, no less!) and from Paul Tremblay (who has likened her to Joyce Carol Oates), you know she’s got talent.
I’m a very big fan of Sarah Read. She’s recently sold one of her stories to the newly Gamut Magazine but I was blown away by her story for SiD2 “Still Life with Natalie”. It’s a tad over 2000 words but she is incredibly effective in such a short period. It’s probably the shortest or second shortest, but she really nailed it. Stephen Graham Jones’ SiD 2 story is of a similar length and I’d put hers alongside his for quality horror. She’s the real deal.
Also, Matt Andrew. He’s got stories in Blight Digest, Pantheon Magazine, State of Horror: North Carolina and elsewhere. I’ve read a couple of his stories in recent years and he’s going from strength to strength. I suspect he’s gonna be well known in coming years. He’s also a kickass artist too!
And finally, will you be appearing on the convention circuit over the coming months?
I’d love to, but I’ve got so much on my plate that I don’t think I’ll get to anything this year. I suspect my public showings will be pretty light on until the youngins are a little older. Perhaps next year.
Simon Dewar, thanks for stopping by!
Thank you for having me!