One of the things this series of posts has dealt with in the past is how hard it can be sometimes to find queer speculative fiction, especially when the big presses seem to actively avoid “outing” their books in flap copy. The endless search doesn’t have to be the default for readers seeking queer SFF, though, because there are other offerings. Several small presses are doing great work with queer SFF—and they aren’t interested in hiding it. For a reader who’s used to the difficult hunt for books they want, it’s a breath of fresh air to discover a press that will provide you with your LGBTQ spec-fic happily, openly, and with passion.
Steve Berman, who wears the hats of “writer,” “editor” and “publisher,” is here to talk about one of the best of these: Lethe Press. While Lethe Press doesn’t publish solely speculative fiction, it is a focus of the press, and they’ve published authors such as Melissa Scott and Tanith Lee. They also regularly have books nominated for the Lambda Award for science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Brit Mandelo: Hi, and thanks for letting me ask you questions today. For starters: what’s the “mission statement” or guiding vision of Lethe Press, for the readers who are new to you?
Steve Berman: No, I should be thanking you for being a passionate promoter of queer spec fic. Lethe Press’s aim is to ensure that the voices of queer authors are not forgotten. We rescue many books from obscurity as well as help ensure that writers have a home for new work that larger presses might not release because the content is too queer-focused. In the last decade several gay presses have folded and Lethe has expanded its line to meet the needs of the marketplace.
BM: Speaking of expanding your line, Lethe will be ten years old next year—did you anticipate when you started the press that it would not only live this long, but grow as much as it has?
SB: Does anyone anticipate what their life will be a decade later? No, I had no clue what Lethe might become. For the first couple of years, Lethe was more of a hobby than serious publishing pursuit. Now, more gay authors know of me as a publisher than as a colleague.
BM: Is that ever weird, being both a writer and a publisher? Or has running Lethe given you more insight into your own writing?
SB: Oh, it’s makes everything more complicated. I don’t have as much spare time to devote to writing, which is a real drawback. But without the press would I have been able to release two short story collections of my own? Probably not. And books like Sea, Swallow Me or Diana Comet and Other Improbable Tales would never have happened. So, Lethe is definitely a good thing for the field.
BM: I absolutely agree. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed from Lethe are the Wilde Stories collections (2010 edition reviewed here)—where did the idea to collect the “best gay speculative fiction” each year come from? How difficult is it to narrow down your choices and select the best stories?
SB: I conceived of Wilde Stories after a conversation with a friend asking for short fiction recommendations. Many readers aren’t aware just how many good quality gay spec fic stories release in a year. Those who are more invested in the traditional fantasy and sci-fi venues, such as Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction might be aware of a new Rick Bowes tale but might miss a piece by Tom Cardamone in small gay press anthology. And the reverse is true: patrons of a gay bookstore might never think that a horror anthology might feature an amazing gay-themed story by Laird Barron. Wilde Stories aims to bridge the schism and provide readers with the best tales published the prior year from a variety of print and online publications.
Choosing stories can be difficult. I’ve noticed a trend with the small gay presses to label fiction as spec fic when really only the “trappings” are—so we have a traditional romance aboard a starship or an erotic encounter with a vampire. I suppose this is gay paranormal romance. What I’m seeking for Wilde Stories, though, are stories that either refresh old themes, such as coming out or homophobia, or tales that are only incidentally gay. By the latter, I mean the character’s sexual identity is incidental to the plotline, but, because the protagonist is homosexual, gay readers are much more engaged with his story than if he happened to be hetero.
BM: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in running Lethe? And on the flip side of that—what are some of the best, most exciting moments you’ve had with the press?
SB: Cash flow problems are the detriment of all small presses. Nothing is more frustrating than emptying your coffers because a book is a success... and knowing it may be three to five months before you see any money from the increased sales. One that I did not anticipate: dealing with the demands of awards; sending out gratis books to jury members, who may number in the teens, can be very expensive. But you don’t want to ignore requests to submit for awards, because that is how authors and titles earn acclaim.
That said, when a Lethe title does reach the short-list of an award, I’m thrilled. For the last two years, we had three books among the Lambda Literary finalists, including Best Fantasy/Horror/Science Fiction. I have accepted the Gaylactic Spectrum Award on behalf of Joshua Lewis for his very first published short story, which was in a Lethe anthology.
Then there’s the pleasure in working with authors to nurture an idea. Peter Dube and I share a fondness for the surrealists; when I challenged him to write a spec fic story featuring Rene Crevel, a year later he turned in Subtle Bodies. When Jerry Wheeler told me he wanted to edit a book of strange circus-themed gay erotica, I encouraged him. Tented releases in September and it’s a wild ride to read.
BM: What new books do you have in the works at Lethe? Give us some “coming soon” highlights.
SB: Well, before I mention forthcoming titles, I want to say that recent release Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories by Sandra McDonald has been one of our bestselling titles this year; the fact that it received a starred review in Booklist helped, of course. If you like quirky fiction with a queer bent, I think you’ll adore McDonald’s stories. We also released a new collection of Tanith Lee tales, Disturbed by Her Song, which is very queer. Next month, Peter Dube’s novella, Subtle Bodies, a historical fantastique of Rene Crevel, the French surrealist poet, releases.
In 2011, we will be publishing a gay spec fic short story collection by Alex Jeffers. Stoker and Lambda Literary Award winner Lee Thomas has a new thriller in March, The German. A Study in Lavender is an anthology of queered Holmesian tales edited by Joseph DeMarco. And, of course, the next edition of Wilde Stories.
BM: “Queered Holmesian tales” is a phrase that makes me nearly giggle with joy, just so you know. (I believe I just revealed which side of the fandom I stand on. Ahem.)
How about you, on the writing side of your career? Any new stories coming soon?
SB: Yes, we’re trying to ascertain the rights issues with the Holmes canon; the book may have to be a UK & Canadian release only. Apparently many Holmes buffs are decidedly homophobic.
As for my own writing: this past spring, The Beastly Bride, edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, appeared and featured my lesbian retelling of the Swan Lake storyline; I have bit of humorous flash fiction in the autumn release, Blood Sacraments, edited by Todd Gregory, entitled “Five Gay Vampire Shows That Were Never Greenlit”; and next year’s YA vampire anthology Teeth, also edited by Ellen and Terri, features a gay story, “All Smiles.” That’s on the horizon. I’m currently finishing up a short story about a sister and her brother, who becomes afflicted with applianthropy—he becomes a were-oven. And then there’s the novel, a Victorian-era fey story. And a couple of short story collections, one illustrated and aimed at the YA market, the other involving lost gay cinematic characters like the poor pilot who shot down King Kong.
BM: Something from the panel you were moderating at Readercon comes back to me—you, and all of the panelists, seemed to agree that the field of queer spec-fic is expanding and becoming more mainstream, not less. Has the shift been recent, or have you noticed it for some time now?
SB: Well, queer rights are certainly becoming more widespread. And exposure to LGBTI and Q characters are more prevalent in mass media. Mainstream publishers can release books like Spaceman Blues or Boy Meets Boy. But these are still rare releases; like other minorities, we’re often relegated to secondary or tertiary roles in books. Supposedly, 10% of the populace is queer... then shouldn’t 1 out of 10 books be the same?
I know, there are a plethora of variables, but the dearth of good queer spec fic is troubling. Are there fewer queer readers (and writers) in the genre because they cannot identify with most protagonists? Or will this goad people? I write queer spec fic to tell the kind of story I have had trouble all my life finding in bookstores.
BM: How about we end with some sort of fun question? Like name 3 queer authors you’d want to have with while stranded on a deserted island.
SB: Can they be pulled from the time stream? If so, then Oscar Wilde, because without electricity I will need someone witty to survive the ennui. Tristram Burden (who wrote My Hero: A Wild Boy’s Tale) because he’s an amazing imagination and he’s so pretty (hey, a fellow can dream, right?). And Perrin 5, a cyborg from the 22nd century and slam lesbian poet because she’ll be the bold one that eventually figures out how to get us rescued. Plus, she’s WiFi-enabled and can turn palm fronds into ersatz coffee.
BM: Fine choices. Thanks again for doing this interview, it’s been fun!
SB: I loved it!