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.