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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Carrie Cuinn on “Fish”

Carrie Cuinn is an author, editor, bibliophile, modernist, and geek. She writes speculative fiction – including science fiction and apocalypse stories and magic realism and fucked up fairy tales – and non-fiction on a range of academic and technical subjects. FISH is her third published anthology as an editor.

You can find Carrie on Twitter @carriecuinn. Links to her published work, and her writing blog, can be found at

CHARLES TAN: Hi Carrie, thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, Fish is a peculiar speculative anthology. How did you conceptualize it, decided to dedicate it to your son, and to have a children’s book atmosphere for the book?

CARRIE CUINN: Fish is meant to be the first in a four-part series. I wanted to do a set of anthologies that included a mix of genres but that all together would cover a huge range of stories. I thought that if I could choose themes that were wide enough, I could encompass the kind of variety I like in my own reading. Science fiction, magical realism, interstitial fiction, fantasy… you can find it all in Fish.

To choose the themes, I thought of the way that many cultures broke up the world into four parts: water, earth, air, and fire. Everything was said to be made of those four elements–and the combination or absence of them all made up the “void”, a fifth element that is either around or inside of us all. Those elements also were said to affect personality, medical conditions, even the attributes of animals.

Starting with water, the animal I immediately thought of was a fish. Just as each anthology is tied to an element and animal, there are also people in my life that influence the books. In my life, the fish is my son. Quick, water-loving, and silent—for years he didn’t speak at all. That’s how his autism presents, as a lack of language, and a lot of energy. He’s a little disjointed and jumpy, until he gets into the water. It’s always difficult to get him back out again.

So if I knew that I wanted to do a water-based, fish-themed anthology for my son, then choosing the stories was actually easy. I looked for work that was beautiful, a little strange, and that I would be proud to say I’d published. In that way it’s the same as my child. He’s very cute, a little strange, but I am definitely proud of him.

CT: I once saw you tweet at how you wanted Dagan Books to publish books that you’re passionate about. How does Fish fit into that vision?

CC: I love layered projects. Themes and motifs that mean one thing to one reader, and another to one with a different reading history or background. That “a-ha!” moment where you realize that this story references a much older one. You shouldn’t need that extra knowledge in order to love the story, but like the way that in great children’s movies, there are jokes and scary moments that only the older folks will understand, I love stories that offer something more to readers.
Because Fish contains retold fairy tales and new myths with old characters (as well as completely original stories) I felt we were offering that same kind of layered reading experience. That delighted me.

CT: How did you end up collaborating with KV Taylor as co-editor?

CC: I’d worked with Taylor before: she wrote for both Cthulhurotica and IN SITU. We got to know each other in the course of those two projects, and have actually met. She adores my son and finds him charming in a similar way to how I see him, so I knew that she would understand what I was looking for. When I presented the idea to her, she just got it immediately, and was happy to jump in.

CT: What was your criteria in selecting the stories? What was your editing process like?

CC: We each read everything. We compiled a spreadsheet with our votes: yes, no, maybe. There were a few stories that we knew right away we had to have because they were just so perfect for this project. “Thwarting the Fiends”, by Polenth Blake; “What the Water Gave Her”, by Sam Fleming, and “How Do You Know if a Fish is Happy?” by Ken Liu were among those we immediately wanted.

Once we had read all of the submissions, we rejected those that had received a “no” vote from both of us, and accepted those we both had said “yes” to without reservations. We arranged what we had into a loose Table of Contents to get a sense of what we felt the anthology still needed. That left us with only a few slots left, and we were able to each slip in a couple of stories that either I or Taylor had especially wanted.

We split the stories to be edited in half, with us each taking the ones we liked best or had a clear vision of what edits were needed. We created the edits, and I reviewed Taylor’s notes, before sending them all on to the authors. With very few exceptions, the editing process was simple and straightforward.

CT: Why do you think we need stories like these? If you weren’t editing Fish (i.e. another publisher was soliciting from you), what’s the appeal for you of contributing to this themed anthology?

CC: We always need stories like these. Life is hard. It’s rarely what we expected it to be, and there’s so much dark and gloom. We can’t get rid of it, so I don’t try to pretend it isn’t there. Instead, I look for what’s beautiful in between the bad things, or alongside sadness or grief. Delightful, surprising, moments are always there, whether we see them or not, but life is easier when we take the time to look. There is always something or someone to love, if you let life creep in. The stories in Fish are just like that: sad, dark, and scary, with surprising moments of beauty, joy, and life.

I know what story I would have written, if I were contributing to a project like this. It would be different from anything we did publish, but similar in feeling to Blake and Fleming’s work. I would have wanted to show that flashing underside, the brightness in a dark sea. It would have been about my son, and the things I lost when I got to know him.

And the things I gained.

CT: A lot of the art is done by you and Galen Dara. What was your art direction process?

CC: Galen did two different types of images: the dreamy, watery, cover portrait, and the energetic black and white interior art. For the portrait, I knew I wanted a fish and a person, because so many of our stories have humans interacting with underwater creatures. I wanted the fish to represent my son, so instead of having a boy on the cover we went with a girl—but it was very important that she be a live girl, not the all-to-frequent drowned Ophelias so popular on YA covers these days. This book has so much life in it, straining at the edges. Our cover couldn’t be any less.

In the process of talking it over with Galen, I had the idea to use my mother as the cover model. She laughed when I asked her, but Galen took the photos I shared with her and perfectly represented the girl my mom was just before I was born. It’s a gorgeous cover, and I love it.

For the interior art, I let Galen choose which stories she wanted to illustrate. She ran her ideas past me and I agreed with all of them. There’s very little of my input in those pieces, because they didn’t need it. I ended up including a couple of spot images I’d been working on, too. I think of myself as more of an illustrator than an artist—I have a draftsperson’s style—and it takes me a long time to finish an image. So there aren’t many of my fish in the book, but I like that I was able to have a part in that, too.

CT: Since Dagan Books is a small company, what was it like micromanaging the production of the book, since you were basically involved in almost every process, whether it’s production, art, editing, promotions, etc.?

CC: It’s tiring. Everything that needs to be done, I either do myself, or oversee. Mostly, I do it myself. I have some great volunteers (Andrew Kelly and Kelly Stiles) who help read slush and proofread final documents, as well as farming the ebooks out to Elizabeth Campbell at Antimatter Press. Having even a small amount of help reduces my stress a great deal, since I know that there’s no way I can catch every typographical error alone, or rely solely on my judgment for every single decision.

Dagan Books works best when I don’t rush. When I limit the number of books that I put out a year, don’t publish things I don’t love, and remember to take the time for accounting and office management, not just reading and editing. I always feel that I should be doing more, that the company could be more, but I don’t have the time or money to grow too quickly. I actually think this is going to Dagan Books better, in the end. I have time to learn from my mistakes, and I by forcing myself to take things slow, I feel I can go back and make corrections, or improve earlier projects (such as adding art to Cthulhurotica, which we did last year).

CT: What were the challenges in coming out with the anthology?

CC: Last year we ran a successful Kickstarter to fund two books: Fish and our forthcoming anthology, Bibliotheca Fantastica, edited by Claude Lalumière and Don Pizarro. Unfortunately, after the Kickstarter finished, the funds were removed from our account by a former employee. This left me in the position of having to not only fund the books myself (which, if I could have done right away, I wouldn’t have needed the Kickstarter campaign) but also to meet all of the new reward obligations.

I didn’t give up, and kept slowly moving forward, until now Fish had been published, our first novella is out, and Bibliotheca Fantastica is nearly here. We’re starting to mail out the physical rewards, and catching up on the loose ends. While it’s been a very difficult year, I wouldn’t have dreamed of letting our readers down, and I’m so proud of these books. Fish is everything I wanted it to be.

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