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Thursday, October 14, 2021

Interview with Dan Coxon, the editor of Out of The Darkness Anthology



ABOUT DAN: Dan Coxon has been shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson Award and a British Fantasy Award, and has won a Saboteur Award (Best Anthology 2016). He edited the anthologies This Dreaming Isle (Unsung Stories, 2018) and Being Dad: Short Stories About Fatherhood (Tangent Books, 2016), as well as the irregular journal of weird fiction The Shadow Booth. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, Salon, Popshot, Gutter, Unthology, Neon, The Portland Review and many other places, as well as being read at events in London, Hong Kong, Seattle and Portland. In 2019 he was shortlisted for the Bath Short Story Award for his story 'Goya in the Deaf Man's House'.

He runs a proofreading and editing service at www.momuseditorial.co.uk, working with both publishers and private clients.

Find Dan online: Website, Twitter

Order Out of the Darkness: Amazon, Publisher


INTERVIEW

Thank you for joining us, Dan, and welcome to Fantasy Book Critic! How have you been?

Good, thank you for asking! It was Fantasycon last weekend, the annual convention of the British Fantasy Society, so I think I’m still buzzing from that. It’s always nice to meet up with the wider family of writers and editors, swap ideas, maybe even arrange a collaboration or two. In this Covid era it was a slightly scaled-down affair this year, but probably more needed than ever. I can’t overemphasize how great it was to see everyone again.

Can you tell us a little bit about the anthology, Out of the Darkness?

Out of the Darkness basically started as an idea back in 2019. I’d had a minor success with the folk-horror anthology This Dreaming Isle, but it had taken so much time out of my life that I’d promised myself I wasn’t doing another anthology. Then this little idea stuck in my head: I knew a large number of writers and readers within the horror community who had suffered from mental health issues in the past, so how about we collaborated on a mental health themed anthology? Then the idea of making it a charity anthology came to me, and suddenly I really, really wanted to do it.

I should also say that I’m absolutely thrilled with the final lineup for this book. There were a couple of writers who got away (there always are), but I think we have some of the best writers working in horror and dark fantasy right now: Jenn Ashworth, Eugen Bacon, Simon Bestwick, Georgina Bruce, Gary Budden, Malcolm Devlin, Richard V. Hirst, Verity Holloway, Tim Major, Laura Mauro, Alison Moore, Gareth E. Rees, Nicholas Royle, Ashley Stokes, Sam Thompson, Anna Vaught and Aliya Whiteley.

Why have you decided to publish it through Kickstarter?

It’s a tough market for short stories at the moment, and anthologies in particular can be a tough sell. There’s a readership that loves them, but beyond that it’s difficult to get much visibility, especially in high street bookshops. One of the benefits of using Kickstarter is that it enabled us to shout about the book, and shout loud. We ended up with backers across the globe, and the book has already exceeded expectations. It’s hard to see how we could have achieved that by giving it a regular release.

What, in your mind, makes a good editor?

That’s a really tough question! In some ways, I want to flip it and ask what makes a bad editor. Because we all know a bad editor when we see them, right?

I’d suggest it’s an editor’s role to bring out the best in the stories they have, with the lightest touch possible. When they’re just starting out, new editors often make the mistake of being heavy-handed with the red pen, trying to rewrite the stories in their own voice (as a writer, I’ve encountered this on occasion). The more I’ve done this, the more I’ve realised that less is more. The idea is to polish a story to make it as good as it can be, not rebuild it from the ground up. You need to be flexible, too: the support that one writer needs might be totally inappropriate for another.

What's your focus or philosophy behind Out of the Darkness?

It’s worth stressing that while Out of the Darkness deals with themes of mental illness, it isn’t a depressing read. One of the rules I put in place early on was that the stories had to show people living with and dealing with their mental health problems, not being overcome by them. That doesn’t mean we put a gloss on things, but it seemed important to show at least a glimmer of light in these stories. Because with the right help and support, any issues can be overcome.

Probably the most difficult part of the process was finding a charity to partner with and raise money for, but I’m thrilled that we ended up working with Together for Mental Wellbeing. They’re a relatively small charity, but they’re very hands-on and proactive, and they were totally on board with what we were trying to achieve. It’s great that we’re going to be donating all royalties – and my fees – to them, to help them continue the good work.

How did you decide the order in which to present the stories? Are there certain “rules of thumb” you follow? Is there value to opening or closing the anthology with a piece from a well-known author? Any other tips you’d be willing to share?

I love talking about this, so I’ll have to resist the urge to witter on for hours here! I know that some people read anthologies by dipping in and out, reading stories in whichever order takes their fancy – and that’s fine. There are some who want to read it cover to cover, though, and for those people I think the order of the stories is hugely important. Again, it’s about showing them all in their best possible light, this time through similarities and juxtapositions.

The comparison I always use is with albums, and I think it’s a valid and useful comparison. After all, the modern trend is to put everything on shuffle – but there’s always been an art and a technique to placing songs in an order that will make sense to the listener. If you look at most albums, the lead single comes second or third. You don’t want it as the opener, necessarily – your listener has only just tuned in, so it might take them a while to adjust to what you’re doing. Opening tracks are often setting the scene for everything that comes after. If you have more challenging or experimental tracks, they’re usually in the final third of the album (or ‘buried on the B-side’, for those of us who still remember vinyl). By that point the listener/reader is hopefully fully on board with what you’re doing, and prepared to indulge slightly more difficult pieces.

I could go on! But you get the general gist – I think anthology editors can learn a lot by looking at classic albums.

Were there challenges or lessons learned during the editing process of this anthology?

I like to think that I’m always learning. Some of the lessons from this book have already been mentioned above – I think my touch has become even lighter during the process, but hopefully more finely tuned to each writer’s individual needs. Some stories needed some work to bring them to their full potential, while others were presented to me fully formed. It’s all about identifying what’s needed.

What was the author/story selection process like for this anthology?

All the authors in Out of the Darkness were invited to contribute a story, so there was no open submissions process. That said, there are writers in there who I haven’t worked with before, who were selected based on their previous writing – its quality, obviously, but also the ways in which they treated the mental health theme. I was asking a lot from the writers for this anthology, especially given that they would be donating all royalties to the charity, and they all gave so generously of their time and their work that I’m still in awe.

What draws you to darker stories?

God, I wish I knew! It’s always been part of who I am, and runs through my taste in music and movies too. In this era of Brexit and Covid and Trumpism and a planet on fire, though, it’s feeling more and more like a totally valid response to the world around us.

Why do you think we get a strange comfort from reading these kind of tales? Or is it just me?

There’s definitely a sense of comfort (it’s not just you!). I suggest in my introduction to Out of the Darkness that these types of stories maybe act as a safety net of sorts. We can read about people undergoing extreme experiences, facing their darkest fears, battling (sometimes literal) monsters – but all in the knowledge that it isn’t real. For those of us who suffer from anxiety, or depression, I think it can sometimes be a very healthy way of working through those feelings without actually having to face them in reality. It fulfils that role for me sometimes, anyway.

If you had to describe Out of the Darkness in 3 adjectives, which would you choose?

Erm... Strange. Unsettling. Uplifting. It’s a journey.

What do you enjoy most in editing and what gives you the biggest headaches?

Oddly, it’s probably the same thing. Early on in the process, you go through a stage of approaching writers, sending them guidelines and pitching the idea to them, then negotiating a contract. That’s probably my favourite and least favourite part of the process. You get to dream big, to imagine what you’d like this book to look like, then start pulling in collaborators to make that happen. It’s thrilling. But at the same time, there are always disappointments, usually when a writer you love is too busy to contribute, and negotiating contracts is... well, there’s a reason I became an editor, not a lawyer!

Do you ever get an editor’s block :) How do you outsmart it?

All the time. The good news is that putting together an anthology takes a long time, so there’s plenty of time to overcome it. Generally speaking, editing is about chipping away at things slowly, working towards an end goal that may be months – or more than a year – in the future. As long as I keep moving towards that, I tell myself I’m doing okay.

As well as editing, you’re a fiction writer yourself. What kinds of SF do you enjoy writing the most?

Definitely weird, dark tales – sometimes called the Uncanny, but also weird fiction, or what Robert Aickman called ‘strange stories’. That includes ghost stories and the supernatural at times, but it’s broader than that. I’ve actually just co-edited a book called Writing the Uncanny with Richard V. Hirst (out now, published by Dead Ink Books). If you want a definition of the kinds of stories I’m talking about, you should buy it!



Alright, we need the details on the cover. Who's the artist/designer, and can you give us a little insight into the process for coming up with it?


Most of the covers for Unsung Stories books are done by Vince Haig, either as designer (working with someone else’s artwork) or as both. In this instance, the cover for Out of the Darkness was all Vince. I’d like to claim that it was a long and tortuous process that required all sorts of input from me, but it really wasn’t. Vince is a genius for capturing the spirit of a book, and he totally nailed this one.

Is there any advice you can share for writers trying to create short stories and get published in an anthology?

Keep writing, and keep submitting. The best advice I ever received was regarding rejections. I was told that rejections are a huge part of what we do, and they mean that you’re pushing yourself and your work forward, always trying to improve. If you’re not getting rejected, then you’re doing it wrong – you’re just sitting within your comfort zone, and while that can be nice, you’re not stretching your boundaries. Remind yourself every time you get a rejection: this is good, because it means I’m pushing myself to improve. Then send it somewhere else.

What are your three biggest pet peeves regarding short fiction writing?

I’m not sure I have three! The big one is how difficult is it to sell short stories. They’re such a vital part of the scene, and so many wonderful authors have cut their teeth on short fiction, but it’s still difficult to sell more than a handful of copies of some anthologies or magazines. If you want to be a short story writer, go out and subscribe to a magazine today, or buy an anthology – otherwise pretty soon there might not be any to send your work to. So yeah – that, three times over.

Do you work on any other projects you would like to mention?

It seems to be an ongoing joke that I wear too many hats! I’m an editor with Unsung Stories, a writer (two books out with Black Shuck Books), proofreader and copy-editor (Momus Editorial), co-editor of Writing the Uncanny (Dead Ink Books)... Sometime soon I might take a rest, but not quite yet.

Thank you again for taking the time to chat with us.

Thank you!

Out of the Darkness is available as an ebook and paperback direct from Unsung Stories, as well as all the usual outlets.

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