SFF Against Cancer: Shawn Speakman on Unfettered II

Shawn Speakman’s Unfettered (Grim Oak Press, 2013) was released to well deserved fanfare and celebration. Not only did it have a star-studded line-up featuring fan favorite authors such as Patrick Rothfuss, Jacqueline Carey, Tad Williams, and Naomi Novik, it was also a near-and-dear project for Speakman’s friends and family. In 2011, Speakman was diagnosed with cancer—he was successfully treated, but accrued massive medical debts as a result. Unfettered was born from his desire to pay off that debt and avoid declaring medical bankruptcy. Many prominent authors donated stories to the project, and the book was a huge success for Speakman personally and for science fiction and fantasy readers everywhere.

“These stories remind readers that modern fantasy fiction rests firmly on Beowulf,” said John Ruch of Paste Magazine in his review of Unfettered. “In that ancient monster-slaying tale, generosity and fellowship prove the hallmarks of a king, and braving indescribable horrors and pains defines a hero. Speakman’s book, in style and substance, in community and bravery, stands as a worthy heir to the Beowulf tradition.”

Unfettered has continued to find new readers, even three years after its first publication, and Grim Oak Press recently revealed a new edition of the anthology with an additional story and a brand new cover from Todd Lockwood. Hot on the heels of this announcement, Grim Oak Press has unveiled the sequel to the critically-acclaimed anthology, suitably titled Unfettered II. Once again, all the proceeds from the project are going to the fight against cancer, and to Speakman’s newly launched not-for-profit, Grim Oak Shield.

I caught up with Speakman to discuss the anthology series, his efforts to rally science fiction and fantasy against cancer, his wonderful mother, and when readers can expect to dive into Unfettered II.

Aidan Moher: What can you tell me about the success of Unfettered and the origins of Unfettered II?

Shawn Speakman: Unfettered exists for one of the worst reasons possible: I got cancer and I didn’t have health insurance due to pre-existing conditions. The success of the anthology is grounded in the one simple truth though that we in the science fiction and fantasy community help one another when it is needed. That help was made all the easier when authors such as Terry Brooks, Jacqueline Carey, Naomi Novik, Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss and other great writers donated short stories to be collected into a sellable collection.

In short, I accrued a medical debt over $200K. Stephen King’s Haven Foundation granted me $25K, which was very generous and for which I’ll be forever grateful. Sales from Unfettered as well as my debut novel The Dark Thorn helped pay off the rest of the debt. It is that gratitude for Stephen King’s foundation as well as the authors who came to my aid that put the seed for Unfettered II in my heart. I need to pay forward the help I received. Given the platform I now have, it’s the only honorable thing to do.

But when my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 stomach cancer earlier this year, the concept behind Unfettered II evolved. She fought for 44 days before dying. I adored my mother. A voracious reader, she instilled her love of books within me. She was also there for me during my own diagnoses. She was my biggest fan. While Unfettered II would have happened anyway, her death galvanized the project in a way nothing else could. Along with Grim Oak Shield—my forthcoming non-profit—I am using my sorrow and anger to help raise money for research to fight this terrible disease. It is my way of giving back, true, but it is also my way of coping with her loss.

AM: What can you tell us about Grim Oak Shield?

unfettered-2ndedition-smallSS: Grim Oak Shield is my non-profit. Its mission statement? To alleviate medical debt for artists and authors. I have chosen two of the three people who will sit on the Grim Oak Shield board, and artists and authors will be able to submit requests for monetary aid when the need arises. It will be based a great deal on Haven Foundation. I hope to partner with them in the future since they have done such a remarkable job already.

No one should bear the burden of medical debt. The stress can be just as terrible as the medical problem. When I was diagnosed in 2011, the largest hardship I had was not combating the cancer, or the chance that I might die, but instead the financial aspect to the treatment. That’s not right. Authors and artists have enough on their plates; worrying about medical debt ruination should not be one of them. Grim Oak Shield is my answer to that.

AM: Proceeds from Unfettered II are going towards ending author medical debt along with the Cancer Research Institute in NY and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Why is it important for the SFF community to stick together and support itself in this way?

SS: Put simply, cancer affects all of us. That includes our SFF community. The part I can control is this: the SFF community is my niche—and the niche of my writer friends—and in that way it is easier to facilitate aid through it when it is needed. If with the money I donate I can help save one life—even a life who doesn’t read science fiction or fantasy—then it is worth it. The end goal is eradication of cancer.

Also, I will add that science fiction has always been a warning, a blueprint, a light shining toward the future. Cancer will be cured in our lifetime. I would rather see it happen sooner than later, and when it comes to research it often comes down to grants and money. With Unfettered II, I will help support the research that will hasten that cure. And in so doing, help the SFF community at the same time.

AM: Your story is dedicated to your mother, who you’ve said is your biggest fan. What does it mean to you to be able to dedicate your story in Unfettered II to her memory?

SS: My mother, Kathy Speakman, was an ardent fan of fantasy. I became a Terry Brooks fan at 13 years old because one of her work friends gave her The Sword of Shannara to read. I grabbed it instead. Since then, she has read every author I’ve told her to read and she’s enjoyed most of them. She was always asking me for something new to read. I’m sad that we no longer have those discussions. My heart breaks even now thinking that she didn’t get to finish Peter V. Brett’s Demon series, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller series, Robin Hobb’s Fitz and the Fool series.

When it comes to Unfettered II, it means the world to me to dedicate the book to her. Especially my short story, “The Last Flowers of the Spring Witch.” It is a story I haven’t finished yet, its content too raw, still too visceral. I will finish it after I return from Comic-Con. It is the kind of story she would have loved though. And she applauded the initial reason behind Unfettered II. I think she would be even more proud of the book now also fighting the disease that not only took her life but many of her friends’ lives as well.

AM: Unfettered II has a huge list of great authors contributing stories, including Seanan McGuire, Terry Brooks, and Brandon Sanderson. What can readers expect of the stories they’ll find within?

SS: I am in the middle of editing the anthology right now and there are some powerful stories in it. They’re all very different stories. Just like Unfettered, Unfettered II has no theme. Writers are contributing stories that they love, tales not written by any pressure from me as editor. Readers can expect fantastic writing and great storytelling in a shorter medium. I’m excited for people to read them.

AM: The stories are, literally, unfettered. We’re still a long way off the book hitting shelves, but what can you tell us about the authors who are contributing to the anthology? Can you give us any hints of what their stories will be about?

SS: I can give a few things. First, the line-up, which has just been announced:

  • Bradley Beulieau
  • Terry Brooks
  • Jim Butcher
  • Rachel Caine
  • Sarah Beth Durst
  • David Farland
  • Charlaine Harris
  • Mark Lawrence
  • Erin Lindsey
  • Seanan McGuire
  • Aidan Moher
  • Naomi Novik
  • Peter Orullian
  • J.A. Pitts
  • Anthony Ryan
  • Brandon Sanderson
  • Scott Sigler
  • Shawn Speakman
  • Michael J. Sullivan
  • Django Wexler
  • Janny Wurts
  • Todd Lockwood (Cover Artist)
  • Don Maitz (Interior Illustrator)

I think that’s a pretty great line-up. I’ll tease your readers a bit now. Butcher has contributed a Dresden Files story. Charlaine Harris’s story is something entirely new, but it’s fantastic—I really hope she writes a series of stories around the idea. Terry Brooks is still considering between a Word/Void short story, a Shannara short story, or offering a science fiction story from a new book he’s already written and hasn’t shopped yet. Brandon Sanderson is still choosing what he will contribute, but whatever it is, it will undoubtedly be great. Time will tell!

I’ll just leave it there… for your readers to mull over. Much gnashing of teeth should be taking place now!


Unfettered II will be available through Grim Oak Books and your favourite online bookstores in hardcover and eBook format in November, 2016. “Just in time for holiday gift giving and even better for holiday reading!” Speakman laughed. “Todd Lockwood should begin the cover art after Comic-Con. Hugo Award-winning illustrator Don Maitz has already begun working on the interior art. It’s all coming together quite nicely!”

Pre-orders for the hardcover edition are available now. “You can feel good about it. Not only will it be a fantastic anthology but you are helping to do good in the world too. Be sure to share the news with friends and family via social media! Even if you don’t purchase the book, sharing this announcement will help all the same!”

Aidan Moher is the Hugo-winning founder of A Dribble of Ink and author of Tide of Shadows and Other Stories and “The Red-rimmed Eyes of Tóu Mǎ.” His essays and reviews have been published by Tor.com, the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog, and Uncanny Magazine. He lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and daughter.


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