Interview with Diane Walton

An interview with Diane Walton
by Derek Newman-Stille

I had an opportunity to have a chat with Diane Walton, the managing editor of one of my favourite magazines, On Spec, a Canadian magazine of the fantastic. Diane has been with On Spec since its beginning. In addition to her editing duties, Diane Walton has published in the Northern Frights volumes, in On Spec’s own pages, and in the anthology Divine Realms. Feminist, speculative author, and fan of the fantastic, she is a fascinating character with some interesting perspectives on the Canadian fantastic.

Spec Can: Could you tell readers a little bit about yourself to begin this interview?

Diane Walton: Always the tough question. I’ll give you a bunch of true facts and you can pick and choose.

  • Born in Montreal, descended from one of les filles du roi, (I have the family genealogy, courtesy of my mother). I am also told there are UEL ancestors on her side.
  • I’ve lived in 4 provinces, following my dad’s employment in the early years: Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and now Alberta
  • I had dreams of being an actor, so I studied Theatre in university, but eventually went into teaching. That lasted one year, and then I joined the public service. One job led to another and then the government entered the computer age, eventually giving me some pretty marketable skills as a trainer and a technical writer and software tester. These days I do contract IT work.
  • I read my first SF book at the age of 13. The Stars Are Ours! By Andre Norton. I quickly cleaned out the SF section of the public library.
  • On Spec was not my first magazine. In the mid 70s I was a volunteer with Branching Out, Canada’s first feminist magazine.

Spec Can: You have been with OnSpec since its beginning and are currently Managing Editor. Can you provide readers with a bit of background about OnSpec?

Diane Walton: We started On Spec out of frustration, when no American magazines seemed interested in the type of spec fiction we Canadians were writing. To be fair, I’m pretty sure that has certainly changed over the years, but we still provide a pretty good entry point for Canadian writers to get noticed. It’s a labour of love, and heavily dependent on government arts funding (at this point I must give thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts and to the Alberta Culture Multi-Media Fund for their support).

Spec Can: OnSpec is reaching its 25th anniversary. What were some of the things that motivated the origin of this brilliant magazine?

Diane Walton: As I mentioned above– frustration was a prime motivator. Also, there was a synergy here in Edmonton. We had editorial talent and leadership with Marianne Nielsen, artistic talent with Tim Hammell, our first cover artist and Art Director, and most important, the amazing desktop publishing skills of Jena Snyder, who could turn a bunch of words and pictures into an actual magazine. We also had connections with the then-small handful of SF writers in Canada, so when we put out a call for stories, they responded.

Spec Can: A lot of literary magazines in Canada tend to feature “realist” literature. What inspired the formation of a literary magazine that focuses on the fantastic?

Diane Walton: We are probably guilty of some snobbery here, since we originally wanted to differentiate ourselves from the rather predictable style of SF short fiction that seemed to be prevalent in the American magazines. In other words, we weren’t afraid of publishing obscure stories with “downer” or ambiguous endings from time to time. We looked for quirky works and diverse characters that pushed the envelope a bit, and took risks.

The “literary” aspect was, in part, because we had to put On Spec in a particular bucket to be able to get the funding we needed to publish, and literary was the way to get the dollars. Even now, when you look at the so-called “peer juries” for some grants we apply for, you see a lot of English Lit professors who edit poetry journals published under the banner of their particular academic institution. And those are the folks we have to convince each year that On Spec is worthy of funding.

Fortunately, it wasn’t too difficult for us to actually BE literary. We wanted well-written literature and good storytelling that wasn’t too pretentious or self-indulgent. But it’s all subjective, isn’t it? We have still been accused by some grant juries of not being literary enough. You can’t please everyone.

Spec Can: What are some of the ideas that have shaped OnSpec over the years?

Diane Walton: What shapes the magazine is the amazing blend of people who have worked on it over the years, I think. For the most part, we do leave our egos at the door, and even when we argue over a story, we respect each editor’s opinion, and the magazine is all the better for that. So I’m not sure if this answers your question. We all just love good storytelling and the craft of writing.

Spec Can: What are some of the works that you have chosen for OnSpec that have really influenced you and changed your perspective?

Diane Walton: Now that is a very tough question. I can’t say that anything has managed to change my perspective, but some stories have moved me, and stick with me, even after many years.

My all-time personal favourite has to be Jim Gardiner’s “Muffin Explains Teleology to the World at Large”. http://www.litmir.net/br/?b=123223&p=1

The story immediately struck me as the perfect On Spec story, and I remember having to convince the other editors at the time, that we should select it from the slush. I mean who doesn’t want a story about the end of the world? Several years ago, Jim told me that re-prints of that story have continued to make money for him. I still love to read it out loud to people.

Another story I love is Robert Weston’s “Mourning Sickness”, a work of magic realism where your grief over the death of a friend or relative is visible in the form of an avatar that increases in size according to the depth of your true feelings for the deceased.

Spec Can: OnSpec has done a great job in recent years of featuring stories about people who are under-represented in other Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror literature. What are some of the things that have inspired the editors to make sure that the magazine is more inclusive?

Diane Walton: It may be simply that we go for stories where the protagonist is facing more interesting and honest challenges than your average young healthy white male protagonist might face. We are all very sensitive to the “isms”—racism, sexism, age-ism, able-ism and the like. We definitely look for honesty in the works we buy, but at the same time, I don’t believe any of us is pushing any sort of agenda. (We have been accused of single-handedly preventing the advancement of the entire genre because we’re all prudes, but that’s another story.)

For us, it is all about the storytelling, and the multi-faceted characters who drive the stories. Diversity is sometimes just a bonus that comes with a well-crafted story of the fantastic that doesn’t necessarily rely on the tried and true tropes of the genre.

For example, when we started reading stories for the Apocalypse themed issue, we were all at a retreat together. And so we all got to see each editor’s immediate reaction to reading Camille Alexa’s “All Them Pretty Babies” , a story that examines the nature of what is beautiful. It was one of those moments when we all just knew we had a winner.

Spec Can: Short stories are often viewed as lesser media in our current publishing climate. People seem to look at short stories as stepping stones to the “real” literature of the novel. What are some of the great things that short stories can do differently than novels?

Diane Walton: I know that some writers depend on their published short fiction to open doors and get them on the radar of the book publishers like Edge and Tor, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. One author even told me that was why they sent stories to On Spec—because our writers got noticed, and it opened doors when the novel manuscript was ready to submit.

Flattering, and yet kind of sad in some ways, because a talented short fiction writer will often concentrate on novels because that’s where they get noticed, and make some money. But the short story is such an elegant and challenging art form. A powerful short story can stay etched in your memory for decades after reading it. Harlan Ellison’s “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”, for example. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is a story that still can make me shiver. A short story needs to hit the ground running, and grab the reader’s attention without the “warm up act” that the first chapter of a novel can provide. A short story of any genre has to suspend a reader’s disbelief immediately, engage them with the character or characters, and make them WANT to know what is going to happen.

Spec Can: What is different about Canadian Fantastic fiction than American Fantastic fiction? What different themes, issues, and ideas tend to surface in the North?

Diane Walton: I am probably not the best person to ask this, partly because I don’t do a lot of reading for pleasure any more, and what I do read is extremely selective. I don’t pay attention to themes or issues. If anything, it is entirely possible that some influences from Canadian and British SF have made their way into the work of new American writers, as the genre becomes more and more global.

One the other hand, I bet more Canadian fiction has a stronger focus on something like a harsh winter and fighting the elements.

Spec Can: What are some things that readers and fans can be doing to encourage more reading of Canadian fiction and to support our own literary community?

Diane Walton: There is lots of information available online these days, and it’s ridiculously simple to Google phrases like “Canadian science fiction writer” and “Canadian science fiction magazine”. In fact I just did that, and the first thing was a Wikipedia list of Canadian SF writers, followed by a listing for Robert J Sawyer, and then followed by SF Canada, the professional organization that I’ve recently been elected Secretary-Treasurer of. Then the Aurora Awards are mentioned. Then the Sunburst Award. All very good sources of great books and authors a Canadian fan should get to know.

Spec Can: What would you like to see more of in Canadian SF fiction?

Diane Walton: I’d like to see less snobbery from the gatekeepers of the literary “establishment”, and then maybe top-notch authors like Guy Gavriel Kay would be on the short lists for mainstream prizes like the Giller and the GG where they deserve to be.

Spec Can: To finish our interview, what can readers do to find out more about your own work and about OnSpec magazine?

Diane Walton: Well, we do make a free sample available to download from our website www.onspec.ca , and the magazine is also ridiculously simple to buy in digital format from Weightless Books. https://weightlessbooks.com/format/on-spec-magazine-1-year-subscription-4-issues/  And of course we sell print subscriptions.

There aren’t many back issues of On Spec still available, but you can read some memorable stories from our early days, in On Spec:The First Five Years, still available from Edge Publishing. (That’s where you’d find “Muffin”) And this summer, our 25 year retrospective, Casserole Diplomacy and other Stories, will be published by our friends at Tyche Books. (“Mourning Sickness” is in that book, as well as other personal favourites.)

We’d like to think that once a reader has seen what we have to offer, they’ll be happy to keep us in the business of providing good reading for a while longer. We depend on word of mouth because our funding doesn’t give us enough to advertise, and so every new subscriber is gold for us. And while I have your readers’ attention, might I add that we are looking for sponsors and new sources of funding, so donations are always welcome.

To conclude, I wanted to add a quote: “A short story…can be held in the mind all in one piece. It’s less like a building than a fiendish device. Every bit of it must be cunningly made and crafted to fit together perfectly and without waste so it can perform its task with absolute precision. That purpose might be to move the reader to tears or wonder, to awaken the conscience, to console, to gladden, or to enlighten. But each short story has one chief purpose, and every sentence, phrase, and word is crafted to achieve that end. The ideal short story is like a knife–strongly made, well balanced, and with an absolute minimum of moving parts.” – Michael Swanwick

Thanks for this opportunity!

I want to thank Diane Walton for all of her insights and for taking the time to talk a little bit about Canadian short fiction and the nature of running a speculative magazine.

 

Advertisements

Upcoming interview with Diane Walton Wednesday July 16th

This Wednesday July 16th I will be doing an interview with Diane Walton, managing editor of OnSpec magazine: speculative author, feminist, fan, and supporter of the Canadian fantastic. Ms. Walton and I discuss the nature of the Canadian fantastic, pushing the envelope in SF, bringing forward characters from diverse backgrounds that are often under-represented in texts, the challenge of creating an SF magazine in a cultural climate the views SF as non-literary, and the power of short fiction.

Author photo of Diane Walton from onspec.ca

Author photo of Diane Walton from onspec.ca

Here are a few teasers from our upcoming interview:

Diane Walton: “We started On Spec out of frustration, when no American magazines seemed interested in the type of spec fiction we Canadians were writing.”

Diane Walton: “We weren’t afraid of publishing obscure stories with “downer” or ambiguous endings from time to time. We looked for quirky works and diverse characters that pushed the envelope a bit, and took risks.”

Diane Walton: “For us, it is all about the storytelling, and the multi-faceted characters who drive the stories. Diversity is sometimes just a bonus that comes with a well-crafted story of the fantastic that doesn’t necessarily rely on the tried and true tropes of the genre.”

Diane Walton: “The short story is such an elegant and challenging art form. A powerful short story can stay etched in your memory for decades after reading it.”

So, this Wednesday, check out my interview with Diane Walton and share in her insights.

Is it Literary if it has Social Commentary?

A review of OnSpec #95 vol 25 no 4 Edited by Diane L. Walton
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo from OnSpec  # 95, courtesy of http://www.onspec.ca

Cover photo from OnSpec # 95, courtesy of http://www.onspec.ca

 

This review is well- timed since I recently posted something about ableism, sexism, homophobia, and racism at fan conventions and have been thinking about ways to make SF fandom more inclusive. When reading OnSpec #95 vol 25 no 4, it occurred to me that the OnSpec editors are definitely doing their part to be inclusive by featuring stories that engage with a variety of different bodies and identities. One way that we can open fans to new ways of including diversity is to make sure that diversity is reflected in the SF works that we produce. OnSpec’s recently produced winter issue features works that engage with aging characters, LGBTQ2 or QUILTBAG populations, people in poverty, physical and psychological disability, and they do so in a way that raises questions about ableism, classism, and homophobia by giving the reader the opportunity to enter into the headspace of people who are often treated as abject by a society that discriminates against them.

Fiction provides us with an opportunity to exercise our skills in empathy, flowing in to the minds and experiences of characters as we read about them. Empathy is something that we all need to develop further and SF has the ability to let us venture into a variety of highly diverse minds and experiences.

Susan MacGregor begins this OnSpec with a discussion of the notion of “literary merit” and a reminder that a lot of the people who defend the notion that there is a “high literature” and that science fiction, fantasy, and horror cannot be it will often say that SF doesn’t make social contributions. Susan reminds the reader of the kinds of contributions that SF makes and mirrors some of the perspectives I have often espoused here on Speculating Canada that speculative fiction by its very nature opens things up to speculation, to question, and that by venturing into the weird realms of other worlds, other realities, and strange places, we can come back to our own world with questions, pondering the things we take for granted. It is very appropriate that this volume follows from her editorial with stories that feature characters who are often socially ostracized and exploring ideas about people in our own society who are treated like aliens and monsters. This exploration of those who are so often treated as ABnormal in situations that are abnormal (because they are set in the future or on other worlds or alternative histories) lets us question the idea of “normal” and come back to our own reality with a question about why so many people want to maintain a “normal” that excludes so many others. OnSpec 95, like other good works of SF opens OUR world to questions and lets us reassess it.

In addition to the -isms, OnSpec 95 invites readers to think about the damage caused by war whether it is physical injury to the body, environmental damage, psychological trauma, or damage to the community and notions of trust. The reader is encouraged to question our relationship to technology, deal with issues of addiction, plague, family violence, community secrets, memory, and the loss of selfhood itself. The fact that it does this social interrogation in a plague city of the future, in an alternative past full of necromantic powers and political intrigue, a future of prosthetic limbs and VR technology for coping with PTSD, a future of resource scarcity following international war, and a small town with a man who can sense truth makes it both incredibly entertaining and engaging.

OnSpec 95 binds narratives of loss together, creating a space for the interaction of future and past to talk about things that have become memory, things that we pine for, and things that we will feel the loss of in the future…. but these stories are ultimately about the present, about where and how we live NOW… and the authors ask us to question The Now to gain new insights about ourselves and the human experience.

We talk a lot about fantasy, science fiction, and horror as escapes, but I think that good speculative fiction is not an escape, but a temporary abstraction from reality that lets us come back to our own world with new insights, new ideas, and new ways of questioning the “norms” that we take for granted. Send me to an alien world any day if I can come back from it with a spaceship full of questions for this world!!

To read reviews of some of the individual stories in OnSpec 95, see:

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/04/23/performing-reality-living-fiction

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/04/27/between-coping-and-addiction

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/a-necromantic-disregard

You can discover more about OnSpec at onspec.ca .

Transformative Art

A Review of OnSpec #91 Vol 24, No 4 (Winter 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of OnSpec (Art by Kenn Brown)

Cover photo courtesy of OnSpec (Art by Kenn Brown)

One of the key narrative threads running through Volume 24, number 4 of OnSpec is the transformative power of art and writing. This thread is most potent in Kevin Cockle’s Palimpsest, a short story about a man who learns how to transform the world and people around him through calligraphy, over-writing people’s personalities, histories, and selfhood with simple movements of pen and ink. The world becomes a transformative space, subject to authorial whims and transformative thoughts.

Gaie Sebold’s Sharali focuses on an artist who is resisting social pressures to devote his artistic energies toward capitalist means. In a society that is over-writing the natural world with the destructive industrialist enterprise, Charentin concentrates on painting natural scenes and scenes of natural beauty, capturing the numinous quality of the natural environment rather than scenes of industrial expansion and wealth. Through his artistic ability to overlay the natural, Charentin is capable of releasing himself and the prostitute Sharali from their lives of servitude and artificiality.

William B. Robinson’s poem Delta Theta Alpha Beta concentrates on the numinous quality of letters, the ability of letters to transcend the limits of simple meaning – the power of sigils to speak to more than their representative value but summon an eldritch quality that arises from beyond the mundane.

In Steven Popkes’ 10 Things I Know About Jesus, the transformation that occurs is on a mythical level, shifting the tales told from the past to illustrate how rumour leads to legend, leads to myth, and the mythical says very little about the original subject and speaks more to the ideologies of those creating the myth. Jesus in this story is far different from the character outlined in Christian belief. He plays poker with Satan and Lazarus, doesn’t attend a church, has little interest in performing miracles, and views the events leading up to his crucifixion as his last foray into the realm of politics. He resists the mythical structure that has been built around him.

David Gordon Buresh’s The Devil’s Eyes looks at the transformative power of consumption and hunger, the way that the act of eating can fundamentally shift something in the structure of human beings, pushing them into something Other, something mythical.

Leslie Claire Walker’s Ghost Ride explores the world of a driver for the dead, bringing the deceased to their new destinations (whether it be Heaven or Hell). Mack, the driver, seeks to change destiny, trying to find his wife (who committed suicide) a means of finding her way into Heaven, transforming the stigma and spiritual blight that was branded onto her soul by her act of suicide. The transformative quality of this story is huge, facilitated by the vehicle of travel (the car ride to the realms of the dead) and the transformative quality of death itself, moving between one state of being and another. The life (and afterlife) narrative of the passengers is in flux, determining what their next steps will be.

Kim Neville’s One Shoe Highway is a powerful transformative travel narrative. Like Ghost Ride, it is focused on the roadway as a place of transition and change. Women in this story disappear periodically from the road, leaving behind a symbol of their travel as well as of their previous lives – their shoes. These women have the option of giving up their previous lives (often marred by abuse) and separating themselves from the world that victimises them.  Bringing attention to the social issue of so many battered women disappearing, Kim Neville has her characters instantly be forgotten after they disappear (mirroring the social response to women who are victims of assault and abduction, which is often to forget about them and erase their memory). Instead of being abduction victims, however, the women in One Shoe Highway are given the option of changing their narrative future and instead of tolerating a future of spousal and societal abuse, they are allowed to move out of the world into a space primarily for battered women.

As a medium that brings the SF community short stories, SF artwork, interviews, and editorials in one volume, it was incredible to see OnSpec’s focus on the power of narrative and stories to shift and change and to alter the world around them. SF stories have the potential to bring social attention to issues in our world – they can shift our consciousness, help us see things that we ignore, and open our minds to new possibilities. Art and narrative really are transformative – they can change the world.

On a personal note, as a disability scholar, I was extremely excited to see the interview conducted with Kevin Cockle and his discussion of the influence of his own medical disability on his authorial work.

To find out more about OnSpec, you can visit their website at http://www.onspec.ca/ .