Alisa Krasnostein started Australian Spec Fic in Focus, or ASif!, in November 2005. Since then she has been a whirlwind of enthusiasm, launching a number of electronic publishing efforts including New Ceres, Shiny and The Australian Journal for Critical Review of Speculative Fiction. She took time out from all of these to be interviewed by Russell B. Farr.
What is it that first inspired you about sf, and what is it about sf that continues to inspire you?
I don't remember a time before sf so I can't really say what first inspired me—I'm pretty sure I was exposed to sf TV long before I could read. My Mum had to give up Dr Who for a while because it was giving her toddler nightmares. What inspires me about sf is the possibility, the what if? Sf gives so much more freedom to take an idea and run with it to its conclusion. I'm really a hard core science fiction fan and I love the chance to explore—space, the future, the point of it all and times and places that are not here and now. I love and am inspired by thoughtful sf—that makes commentary and pursues other ways of being or thinking. I guess it's escapism in the truest form—to a time and place where so many of today's issues might be solved and no longer remotely relevant—like race, colour, gender and so on. The kind of scifi I like appeals to my idealism.
You started Australian Spec Fic in Focus, or ASif!, in November 2005. What was the catalyst for this?
Ben Peek's snapshots series was the catalyst for ASif! It was so much fun to see many members of the local community who are normally not active in online places getting involved in the discussion of the state of things and ideas about how things could /should be. I thought it would be so cool to be able to interact with these people all the time and be able to access discussions about ideas and issues and felt what we were lacking, as a community, was a place to gather and chew the fat. Ben proposed a project that aimed to review the Aussie specfic all in one place with reviewers from outside the scene who don't know the authors and the work they are reviewing. I thought that this sounded like a project I could do and that it was a way that I could get involved and so ASif! was born.
What do you look for in a review?
I try and read ASif! reviews as though I have not read the reviewed material and never heard of the writer. I feel that ASif! should be accessible to readers outside of the community. The bottom line for me is the review should give me a good idea of what the work is (the plot, the genre etc) and its strengths and weaknesses. I always ask the reviewers to include whether they think the work is worth reading or not. I don't like to waste my time and I think a review should prepare me and serve as an effective filter to distill what I should read from what I could read. But what "I" should read is different to others, for a whole variety of reasons. I think there should be enough in a review so that the reader can glean from it whether they would like the work even if the reviewer didn't.
How well do you feel this project has been received? What are some of the challenges you've overcome and what do you feel the successes have been?
I think generally ASif! has been well received by the local community. ASif! gets about 100 000 hits a month with repeat visitors. I think our Discussion Forums (where writers, editors and publishers guest for fortnight stints and answer readers' questions), in particular has been embraced.
There have been a fair few challenges. We never have enough reviewers on the team for the workload. It's taken a lot of hard work to get the bigger publishing houses to get involved and send us review copies. I was told by one publicist that review copies are given out on an ad hoc basis based on budgets and strategies for each book. I think in part, one of our challenges has been in influencing a change in how things have always been done to show how things are evolving and embracing and using new technology. And working out who your audience is and how they change over time. Being able to review bigger names and bigger books has been one of the biggest challenges. With no budget before this year, we were limited to free online material, material we personally bought and the material we were given by smaller press for review—I have found small press to be very supportive of the project. This meant that overall, our site appeared overly critical, I guess. We got a lot of feedback that we mostly give negative reviews and I believe that's in part because of the level of material we were mostly reviewing in the beginning. We didn't want to get to a point where we had nowhere to go when big name works started coming in.
Dealing with the fallout of negative reviews has been an interesting experience for me and a big learning curve both in PR and in practicing what you preach. No-one likes to get negative feedback on their work. At the same time, you can never please everyone and I've come to learn that it's important to choose who you will be judged by. If you want to earn a reputation for giving honest and unabashed reviews, you have to learn to delete the hate mail but take on board advice when more experienced and wise people in the field pull you aside.
Another challenge we've tried to overcome and I think are still working on, is the stigma of who is qualified to review. Often I get angry feedback about negative reviews we've published, accusing Reviewer X of not being qualified to review the work in question. I find it constantly intriguing that writers dismiss the opinions of readers. Firstly, I think everyone in the world is qualified to state whether or not they enjoyed a book they read. Whether they are the target audience for the book is another matter. Secondly, readers are the people who actually buy the work of writers. Surely they are the people writers should be trying to impress. I've never understood the point of writing something that only 50 people in the world will understand and "get". I think the opinion of the reader gets dismissed all too quickly, which leaves me wondering who these writers are writing for?
Successes. Actually maintaining and continuing this project, I consider to be a success. Often it feels like I'm riding a wild beast out of control in the middle of a jungle: I can't quite see, I have to duck all the time and I'm not 100% sure where I'm going but I know I'm getting there at quite a fast pace. It's been hard to recruit and retain reviewers and so I am really proud of the core team we have built and how we as a group maintain our morale in the face of some of the criticisms we've received. At the same time though, we have earned our stripes in other quarters—we have definitely received more positive feedback than negative. I'm proud of the site hosting this year the two reviews of the Aurealis shortlists. And for me, the biggest success was last year's Donation Drive run jointly with TiconderogaOnline. People donating their own money to support our cause blew me away. And the size of individual donations definitely left me a bit teary. To me, that's our biggest success—people backing us and financially supporting us so that we can continue doing what we are doing.
Who do you think are the people to watch in the genre at the moment? The people I am watching:
Ben Peek—every piece of work he published last year was refreshing and different. I love his experimental pieces—I don't always think they work but I love that he's out there doing his own thing and not showing up with the same thing everyone else is doing. I'm watching him because I think in the next couple of years he's going to make the "big leap".
Deborah Biancotti—doesn't write nearly enough for my liking. Each piece she writes is bizarre and unexpected. Each new work is always totally different from the last one so that you never really get a true sense of her and that's what's so intriguing.
Lily Chrywenstrom—I think Lily is truly unique, both as a person and as a writer. I love her written voice and the themes she explores. The atmosphere she creates in her work is so heavy and exquisite with emotion you can almost touch it. I think Lily is someone who we might watch take that "big leap" in the next few years.
Tansy Rayner Roberts—I'm loving reading each new work of Tansy's. I think she is just growing phenomenally right now and I can hardly keep quiet on her next New Ceres story which will feature in Issue 3. I just love how she is starting to really push boundaries and ask interesting questions about gender and sex.
Martin Livings—I haven't loved his most recent publications as much as his piece "Running" in Daikaiju. However, I recently got a sneak peak at what his next novel, Skinsongs, might be like and I must say … I am looking forward to that work and whatever else he might be working on in that same vein. I think Livings has a lot of interesting things to say on this particular theme.
David Conyers is a new writer whom I just find overwhelmingly compelling. It's the only way I can describe his work and I can't really put my finger on why I feel this way. I found his story "Aftermath" in Agog Ripping Reads so heavy and depressing and bleak. I'm interested in where he is going to go next.
Jacinta Butterworth wrote a really interesting story in C0ck last year and it really intrigued me as to what she is looking to say as a writer and as a woman. I'll be looking out for whatever she writes in the future.
Stephanie Campisi is another writer I'm watching. I guess she fits my "not the norm" storyteller and that makes her work fresh and new when wading through yet another anthology.
You've recently taken to electronic publishing, first with the themes-shared world project New Ceres and the forthcoming Shiny. What was the inspiration behind the concept of New Ceres?
I guess we came up with the concept over 2 years ago now. At the time I was reading a lot of anthologies and found them hard work from the perspective of being jolted in and out of different worlds as I moved from one story to the next. I was interested in creating a themed anthology where each story built on the last and the reader benefited from prior knowledge and discovery of the world. I was also interested in the types of stories you'd get when you take the pressure off world building from scratch and how the world built would evolve with the input from various and diverse contributors.
I wanted to enter the market but felt very strongly that it couldn't support yet another magazine that did not sufficiently differentiate itself.
What led to choosing to publish this electronically, as a subscription-based periodical?
I was very aware that the Australian market is small and must soon be hitting its glut. I wanted to test whether this would be true if you played around with both the business and the publishing models.
Small press publishers and publishing have limited funds. I wanted to see how printing costs limited the viability of a magazine. Also, I wanted to play with the experience of reading a magazine by offering a product that was a magazine and yet not in the conventional sense. I think that if you are going to take magazines to the electronic form, it has to be more and different to the product in its hard copy format. Publishing electronically enables me more freedom in what a magazine can look like and how it can be read.
Ultimately, though, I don't think that online magazines can be sustainable in the long-term publishing for free.
How has the first issue been received?
It got some good and fair reviews and I have personally received mostly positive feedback but I don't think it was really read as widely as I had hoped it would have been. I'm looking forwards now to Issue 2, which has a strong TOC and some really great stories in it and I will see how this issue sells.
With Shiny you're targeting the Young Adult market, again through an electronic subscription format. What is it about Young Adult Fiction that interests you? What are you hoping to achieve with this project?
I enjoy reading YA—I guess for its themes like the exploration of self and identity and comprehension of the world. There are so many really good YA works being published right now that a magazine dedicated solely to YA seemed an appropriate project to embark on. I think, also, there's much discussion about the place that the short story form is dying out. How better to ensure its survival than making it accessible to new readers?
I have big hopes and dreams for Shiny. This year's 3 mini-issues special is a trial to see if the magazine would be viable—both from the perspective of content as well as demand. Again, the notion of paying to access material from the internet is still itself in its infancy. I think we'd ultimately like to see this as a monthly periodical of 10 stories per issue. Whether that's realistic remains to be seen.
What are you looking for in a story?
I want reading a story to have been a worthwhile experience—be that perched on the edge of my seat, moved to tears or anger or laughter, blown away by the ideas explored, the lingering of atmosphere long after the story is read or brought to action or my perspective altered by an idea or issue. I want to be changed by having read it.
What are some of the things that pull you out of a story?
Gratuitous violence towards women or children. Unnecessary or laborious description and world building. Factual or technical inaccuracies. Cultural misappropriation. Lazy writing. Too many typos or grammatical mistakes. Boring plots. Bats that turn into vampires.
You've made a mark with your online presence, and through concentrating on online, electronic projects. How do you see the role of web publishing in the genre?
I think web publishing increases readers' access to small press. I am able to access more international small press via online publications worldwide and am able to read works of writers I may otherwise never have been able to even hear about. I'm hoping the reverse will be true for Australian writers gaining more exposure to the worldwide market without having to fight the same slush piles.
Where do you see the future of genre publishing going?
I think soon the bubble will burst on the fantasy trilogy frenzy which should hopefully enable other works to get more space on the bookstore shelves. I think horror is emerging as a subgenre to take seriously and is increasing both in the respect of its readership and the quality of works being published. I'd personally like to see more dark science fiction which might start to happen within the current political atmosphere. I think the future of genre publishing is bright and getting brighter.
How do you see the role of independent press in the genre, in general?
I see independent press adding to the diversity of material out there to be read. There is a far greater opportunity and freedom for experimentation—for writers, artists and publishers. Because the bottom line is not necessarily the driving force behind independent projects, a greater emphasis can be placed on providing a platform for diversity of voice, ideas and expression and exploration of less mainstream ideas.
Where to from here? What can we expect to see from you in the near future?
In the near future... two issues of New Ceres and rolling out of some other features of the webzine. (https://www.newceres.com) Our trio of Shiny issues will be bimonthly from August.(https://shinymag.blogspot.com) Our first issue of The Australian Journal for Critical Review of Speculative Fiction will be released towards the end of the year. The journal will publish essays with rigorous critical examinations of literature and other media within the speculative fiction genre. (https://specficreview.blogspot.com/). And early in 2008, Ben Payne and I will be launching the first print project under Twelfth Planet Press. As well as the regular publication of reviews on ASif!, guests on our discussion forums and a few more new features for ASif!, which we are currently working on.
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