Among his other adventures in publishing, Mike Allen is the editor of Mythic Delirium magazine and the Clockwork Phoenix speculative fiction anthology series. An author and poet, his short fiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the anthologies Cthulhu’s Reign, Solaris Rising 2 and Tomorrow’s Cthulhu. His poetry has won the Rhysling Award three times, and his fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. His newest short story collection, The Spider Tapestries was released in early March, and Clockwork Phoenix Vol 5 will be available in April.
Full disclosure, Mike provided me with an early copy of Clockwork Phoenix Vol 5, and I’ve been savoring it over the past few weeks. The blurb on the back of the book includes the phrase “ground-breaking, boundary-stretching”, and these tales are exactly that. Nothing in this volume or the previous volumes are what I would call “typical” speculative fiction, as authors such as Marie Brennan, Rich Larson, Beth Cato, Sunil Patel, and Benjanun Sriduangkaew, among many others take what you think you know about speculative fiction and push it beyond everything you thought you knew. It’s thanks to this anthology series that I’ve found many of my favorite short story authors.
Well, enough of my fan girl swooning over this incredible anthology series, let’s get to the interview!
Andrea Johnson: Congratulations on Clockwork Phoenix volume 5! Looking back, when you published the first Clockwork Phoenix anthology, did you envision the series being at least 5 volumes? Looking forward, what do you hope to see in future installments?
Mike Allen: When I started Clockwork Phoenix, I did expect that there would be more than one volume, but I couldn’t have told you how many. For a couple years, though, with the original publisher gone financially moribund and no new publishers interested, I assumed Clockwork Phoenix 3 was going to be the last in the series, and that bothered me because I didn’t feel that the concept had run its course yet. Thank goodness for crowdfunding.
It’s hard for me to say what I might like to see for a Clockwork Phoenix 6 or Clockwork Phoenix 7 because I don’t start these anthologies with preconceived notions of what’s going to be in them. I have some guiding principles: that the stories blur genres, employ off-the-beaten-track storytelling techniques, provide strikingly original settings and concepts, and deliver an emotional payload. So, more volumes would have more of that.
I also would want to keep future volumes open to new voices. Clockwork Phoenix will never be a series that announces a new volume along with a pre-assembled list of contributors. I understand the practical reasons for that approach, but with these books I’m interested in finding the voices that best fulfill the vision of the series, not selecting contributors based on how many fans they appear to have. A prefab approach would never work for Clockwork Phoenix anyway.
AJ: Volumes four and five were funded through very successful Kickstarter campaigns. I’ve seen plenty of anthologies, single author collections, and other creative ventures succeed and fail on Kickstarter. What’s your secret to having these successful Kickstarters?
MA: Kickstarters are hard work. I find I have to treat them like I’ve taken on a second full-time job. Even though Clockwork Phoenix has fervent supporters, doing an original anthology and doing it well requires an impractically large amount of money paid up front (which is why bigger publishers mostly avoid them). So that means I have to reach beyond the loyal readers, to convince people who may never even have heard of the books before that what I’m doing is worth their time and money. This boils down to being both relentless and constantly creative on social media, and continually coming up with new rewards and incentives to entice those who know about the campaign but haven’t yet committed.
I had a solid track record for delivering complex projects before I ever tried my hand at Kickstarter, and for me it’s a point of pride that I have delivered every reward for the first two Kickstarters (and so far, the third) on time. Gauging realistic costs and reasonable schedules for these projects can be really tricky, so again, experience helps.
AJ: Can you speak to the “behind the scenes” of all the stories you received and had to read through to find the perfect stories for the anthology? What’s the trick to reading over a thousand submissions and not getting completely burned out?
MA: I estimate that Clockwork Phoenix 5 received over 1,300 submissions. The brutal truth is, editors only read an unsolicited story all the way to the end if it’s compelling enough to hold their attention. At this point in the game, if a story is completely wrong for the series, I can usually figure that out within a couple of paragraphs. It’s the stories that have a fighting chance that take much more time to evaluate.
I had help, too: my assistant editors, Sabrina West, Sally Brackett Robertson, Catherine Reniere and, of course, Anita Allen, my partner in crime, had all read for previous volumes and have a notion of what I’m after.
It’s always fascinating how batches of submissions often have unexpected themes running through them. Sometimes this influences the finished book: for example, I seemed to encounter a lot of stories about angels and a lot of stories about intelligent or anthropomorphized animals, and some of the best and strangest of those made it into Clockwork Phoenix 5. There also, curiously, were a ton of stories about Medusa, none of which got in.
We whittled that 1,300 down to about 60 finalists, which still left some hard choices, because only 20 made it into the finished book. That’s the most ever in a Clockwork Phoenix volume, by the way.
AJ: Clockwork Phoenix 5 is dedicated to Elizabeth Campbell and Tanith Lee. Why those two people? (Full disclosure, I’m friends with Elizabeth Campbell)
MA: When I made up my mind to put Clockwork Phoenix 5 together, I planned from the get-go to dedicate it to Elizabeth Campbell. The book wouldn’t have been possible without her.
Elaborating on all the reasons why could take pages, but I’ll try to stay concise. She and I actually met because of Clockwork Phoenix. I was sitting at a table at RavenCon in Richmond, Va., in 2010 with a stack of the anthologies. Elizabeth, who was a fan of the series, spotted them and started talking to me about how much she liked them without realizing right away who I was. Since then, she’s done everything in her power to give the series a second, third and even fourth life, and even helped with my non-Clockwork Phoenix books, magazine issues and stories. I’m talking from re-releasing the first three books in the series as e-books, to helping with just about every aspect of the Clockwork Phoenix 4 Kickstarter, the Mythic Delirium Kickstarter, and the process of producing those books and magazines, to helping to publicize my first novel, The Black Fire Concerto, to actually publishing my first short story collection, Unseaming, through her Antimatter Press LLC. And she’s a great friend to just hang out with, too. Frankly, dedicating a book to her feels like the least I could do for her.
Tanith Lee hardly needs an introduction, I hope, with World Fantasy and Bram Stoker awards for lifetime achievement in her list of laurels. Her short story “The Woman” was the first I ever accepted for the Clockwork Phoenix books, and it helped establish the tone for the whole series. The first four books all included a story from her, culminating with her Shirley Jackson Award finalist “A Little of the Night” in volume four. Working with her like this, I got to know her a little bit, and she always had incredibly kind things to say about the work Anita and I did.
I can’t adequately express how much it saddens me that I never got to see a story from her for Clockwork Phoenix 5. Word of her death from cancer went public just a couple days before the Clockwork Phoenix 5 Kickstarter ended, incredibly disheartening news in the midst of what was already an extremely stressful ordeal. At that time we still hadn’t met our funding goal, and I resolved that if we did, the new volume had to include a tribute to Tanith, who was so instrumental in shaping the character of these books. I’m grateful to everyone who backed the project, because I got to follow through on that pledge.
AJ: At 2015 Readercon, one of your many panels was “How to Write Successfully about Horrible Things”. Ok, so how does one write successfully about horrible things? How does an author make reading about horrible things an enjoyable (or at least satisfying) experience for the reader?
MA: In that panel you mentioned, we covered a variety of meanings for that question, such as how to responsibly write about trauma, when it’s appropriate to have a beloved character die on stage as opposed to off, and more. These questions gain interesting nuances when the goal of the story is to disturb and frighten the reader.
It’s an interesting conundrum. Not everyone enjoys horror, and the ones that do aren’t necessarily seeking duplicate flavors. Someone excited by subtle ghost stories might be bored to tears by gore and vice versa.
As a connoisseur of horror, I am an omnivore who enjoys the cream of the crop from all the different strands. (And even some of the worst of the worst.) I don’t think there’s a formula for what works and what doesn’t. It’s all about what the individual stories require. I just finished the first draft of a new story for an upcoming horror anthology that I think contains the single grossest gore scene I’ve ever come up with, but I’m pretty sure it’s exactly what the doctor ordered for that moment, in what has up to that point been a narrative with all the darkness kept off stage. So many horrible things just don’t seem real, until they happen to you or right in front of you.
I may have one edge, which is that in my day job as a reporter, I’ve written a couple thousand news stories about real crimes. It does inform my fiction writing, even when I’m depicting impossible happenings.
AJ: I am fascinated with poetry and poets (mostly because I don’t understand poetry, and I would like to). When an idea pops into your head, how do you know if it should be written as a short story, or as a poem? What advice do you have for someone like me, who would like to have a better understanding and enjoyment of poetry?
MA: Second question first: the way to get poetry is to read it. Studying it might help, but reading it is what matters. For a complete novice to modern poetry, a great introduction could be the Billy Collins collection Sailing Alone Around the Room, or Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall. Or simply browsing the Poetry Foundation website, there’s so much amazing stuff to be found there. To my mind, poetry is foremost an effort to sculpt and polish language to an end the way a visual artist manipulates paint or clay. (There’s so much freedom to be found there, and plenty of room for failure, too.)
Now, as for how I sort them, I kinda know right from the beginning what an idea wants to become. In fact, I often start with the form I want, then come up with the ideas that fill the shape.
AJ: You had a fantastic 2015. Mythic Delirium Press printed C.S.E Cooney’s Bone Swans collection, your novella “The Quiltmaker” came out, Clockwork Phoenix 5 was in the works, and you had a number of poems and short stories published. Other than finally having some time to breathe, what do you have in store for 2016?
MA: You left out the Shirley Jackson Award nomination for my short story collection Unseaming. (Imagine a combination of cheeky smirk and still-amazed shake of the head as I type that.)
I’m not sure having time to breathe made it to the 2016 menu. I just had to ask an editor if I could turn in a solicited short story a little late so I could meet a couple of tight publishing deadlines.
The biggest deal, of course, is the release of Clockwork Phoenix 5. That happens April 5, and we’re holding a launch that night at the Brooklyn Commons Cafe in New York as part of the New York Review of Science Fiction Readings series. Seven of the book’s contributors will be there.
On the writing side, my second short story collection, The Spider Tapestries, will probably have been released into the world by the time this interview appears online. On the editing side, I have a new issue of Mythic Delirium to piece together, with a story from Roshani Chokshi, poetry by Theodora Goss, and lots more cool stuff. Again on the writing side, I am working on a new draft of my unpublished novel Trail of Shadows, an expansion of the short story “The Hiker’s Tale” that appeared in Unseaming. And back on the editing side, and utterly exhilarating, the announcement just went out that C.S.E. Cooney’s story “The Bone Swans of Amandale” from her Bone Swans collection is now a Nebula Award nominee for best novella!
AJ: Let’s end the interview on a fun easy question. What do you like to do to relax?
MA: Nowadays it’s more like collapsing than relaxing, but I still dig long walks and mind-bending movies. (Anita and I just rewatched Federico Fellini’s Satyricon, which might have more influence over my approach to writing science fiction than I’ve ever consciously realized.) Come mid-March, Anita and I plan to be at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando, and I think there I’ll finally endure something akin to a real vacation.