Literature in Light and Shadow: An Interview with Brett Alexander Savory and Sandra Kasturi, founders of ChiZine Publishing

In Canada’s genre publishing scene, one press is lighting up the shadows like no other. ChiZine Publishing built its reputation publishing high-quality “dark genre” fiction—a label that acknowledges that the boundaries between genres are somewhat fluid. As the press’s website points out, “We say “dark genre fiction” because too much time is spent fighting over SF vs. horror vs. fantasy. If there’re dragons, it’s fantasy . . .Unless they’re bio-engineered dragons, then it’s SF . . .But a dragon apocalypse might be horror . . .” Ultimately, ChiZine’s dual focus on quality and originality — and their willingness to take risks — make them a force to be reckoned with.

ChiZine Publishing grew out of ChiZine.com—the online magazine, relaunched on April 1 this year—started by Savory in 1997; he was joined by Kasturi in 1999, and by 2001, they were in a position to be paying writers professional rates. By 2008, they wanted to produce an original ChiZine anthology, but the cost of production turned out to be prohibitive. “Original anthologies that pay a pro word rate are really expensive to produce, so the antho ended up being a no-go, which was really sad,” says Kasturi. “I guess we always regretted that, so when Brett said, ‘What do you think about doing ChiZine as a publishing house?’ I said, ‘Fuck it, let’s do it.’ And as I always like to add: ‘And that’s how great business decisions get made!’”

The first titles off the press were the novel Filaria, by Brent Hayward, and Robert Boyczuk’s short-story collection Horror Story and Other Horror Stories. “We were only going to do four titles a year,” says Kasturi. “Really small time. But then Brett got laid off, so we decided to just make CZP his full-time job. I kept my day job, but I work on CZP sort of part-time/full-time, so I have no other life, really!” In 2009, the press put out another five books, and then went “really hardcore” (Kasturi’s words) in 2010, with twelve titles in one year. “This year,” she says, “it’s twelve books, plus a ‘best of’ anthology of Canadian writers. Whew. It makes me tired just thinking about it!”

Both Savory and Kasturi are established authors, and their experiences of that side of the publishing industry has definitely influenced the way that they operate ChiZine. “I think as writers, we had some trepidation,” Kasturi admits, “because being a publisher, an actual maker of books, is a very different prospect from writing a book. Once you’ve written it, your job is basically done, except for edits … and marketing and promo later, but the creative stuff is largely over. As a publisher, of course, it just really gets into gear at that stage. I think we just wanted to publish the kinds of books we liked to read. That’s the C.S. Lewis answer, if you will.”

“I think the fact that we’re both writers influences us a lot,” she continues. “I mean, we want to make money, but we don’t want to gouge anybody either. We want to make sure our writers get a good deal, that their books get out there, that they’re well treated, that they feel that they have a voice in what happens with their books. I’m not sure we would have paid as much attention to that if we weren’t writers ourselves. Mind you, it’s still a business, so we can’t do absolutely everything in favour of the writers! We get to get something out of it too. A lot of late nights and hand-wringing, mostly.” But in the light of genre stalwart Brian Keene’s call to boycott Dorchester Press because of its treatment of its authors, the appeal of an opportunity for writers to publish with experienced writers seems obvious.

At a time when a lot of publishers are scaling back on hardcovers, ChiZine are also going against the prevailing trends by publishing beautifully designed limited edition hardcovers—but conversely, they’re also making their books available in electronic formats. There has, of course, been a lot of conflicting press about the growth of digital formats, shifts in the publishing industry, the death of print, the premature announcement of the death of print, and so forth—but what’s the press’s philosophy as far as digital media are concerned?

“We’re all for embracing new technologies. I don’t think print is dead,” says Kasturi. “That’d be like saying radio was dead once TV rolled around. Print will still exist. It just might be accessed differently or distributed differently. I think the competition will keep getting fiercer.” She also underscores the importance of design and aesthetics in the industry, something that ChiZine has been commended for again and again. “It’s more important than ever that the product you put out is beautiful—that people want to pick it up and touch it,” she says. “Especially if they can get it electronically; there has to be an incentive for people to get the physical copy of the book. Our hardcovers are like artefacts, little pieces of artwork you can have in your home. Or at least, that’s how I like to think of it. We don’t think it’s an either/or situation, really. As a publisher, why can’t we do all of it?” Good question.

“We’re always trying to think of ways to enhance the reading experience,” she continues, “whether it’s through a link from the ebook to a video of the author reading the very chapter you’re on, to just having gorgeous endpapers or illustrations in the physical text. We’re always excited to see what will be next, what is possible—or even what’s impossible for now, but at least imaginable!”

But it’s the trend towards good writing in genre fiction that most excites Kasturi at the moment. “I often feel that genre fiction in general—including SF, fantasy and horror—really got a push in that Golden Era of the pulps. So there was a lot of cheap, lurid writing going on. Now, don’t get me wrong,” she adds, “I am a big fan of the cheap and lurid! But I think the quality of writing really suffered. Even when books had amazing ideas, the execution was often not so hot. And then there was the horror boom of the 80s, with all those terrible skull covers…yeesh. That didn’t help. But I feel like we’re in a kind of renaissance now; economic slump notwithstanding, people are writing interesting things and doing it well. People are pushing boundaries. Maybe it’s because things are tough economically, and terrible things continue to happen all over the world, and we’re kind of living in scary times—well, when are we not?—but sometimes that kind of pressure produces diamonds, you know?”

There’s certainly an argument to be made that a great deal of good writing has its roots in the writer’s response to times of great political or social upheaval—sea changes in the fabric of society. But where does Kasturi feel the genre is likely to go next? “I think there’s going to be an upswing in the witch genre,” she says. “We already had some of that with Anne Rice’s work, and Kim Harrison, and others have been playing in that field for a while. But I think Deborah Harkness’s book A Discovery of Witches seems poised to really set it off in an unprecedented way. Which is too bad; it’s a really badly written book, but, like Twilight, it will no doubt be a massive bestseller. Hopefully someone else will come along who’ll do it better, so I hope for that. Then again, witchcraft, even in fiction, makes some people very nervous, as if it’s deeply anti-religion—or anti-establishment—in a way that even vampires are not.” Perhaps in a world where elites, both real and imagined, are mistrusted across the political spectrum, the idea of humans who have access to almost limitless power and esoteric knowledge about how the world really works is the most unnerving idea of our generation. Vampires, at least, are comfortably unlikely.

Since the vast majority of genre fans can point to an image or scene that got them hooked, what did it for Kasturi? “Probably the illustration of the Wolf and the Devil in my copy of The Moon Painters [a collection of Estonian folk tales],” she says. “In it, the Wolf is chasing the Devil, after the Devil has brought the Wolf to life, using the words giving him by Vanaisa [Grandfather/God]. That picture scared the shit out of me as a child. I had to put the book under something when I went to bed at night, so it wouldn’t Get Me” The capital letters speak volumes. “All those old fairy tales and folk tales and myths got me hooked,” she says. “Children understand horror better than anyone.” For Savory, it was Poe’s classic “The Tell-Tale Heart.” “My grade 10 English teacher taught that story, and it really opened my eyes,” he says. “If we’re talking film, though, then definitely Michael Myers from Halloween. Still love that original film so much. As for more recently, I think the slow-mo woman-walking-down-the-hall-in-a-way-no-human-should-ever-walk scene in the Japanese horror film Kairo would top my list. It’s not an overstatement to say that scene is indelibly seared into my mind.” Kasturi cites John Langan’s House of Windows as a more recent source of genuine terror. “Not even any specific moment in that book,” she says. “Just the atmosphere of the whole thing. I was trying very hard not to read the book at night, because it has the kind of creepiness that just sifts into your dreams. But of course, I couldn’t resist it either.”

When you’re an avid reader, of course, it’s always interesting to ask other avid readers what gems they’ve found recently. What would Kasturi and Savory recommend from their non-ChiZine reading?

“Luckily, I actually keep track of everything I read,” says Kasturi. “I know, super-anal, right?” She begins by citing Justin Cronin‘s The Passage. “ It’s just gorgeously written,” she says. “You can’t put it down. It’s got quite a vast sea of characters, but it’s almost impossible not to invest in all of them. It’s a monster-sized book, but I whizzed through it, because I got so invested. And it’s a vampire novel, of all things. And an apocalypse novel! Two genres I’m really tired of—but he did them both well. Which just goes to show you that you can indeed retell the same story, just as long as you do it better than everyone else. Plus Cronin’s vampires are monsters, which is a refreshing change from all the emo-vampires of late. I also adore Tana French. Her latest book is Faithful Place, which is ostensibly a detective novel, but is really much more than that. I actually begged to review this one for the Globe & Mail, since I’m such a fan of her work. Jim Butcher’s Changes, his latest Harry Dresden novel. I’ve always liked this series, but at first it started out as a kind of fun, magic in the world of detective fiction sort of thing, and now it’s evolved into this very dark, very interesting character study. Changes, in particular, went a lot of very unexpected places and was riveting from start to finish. Not sure how Butcher’s going to be able to top it, but oh boy, am I waiting to see what he’s going to do!”
“I read through all of Deon Meyer‘s work,” she continues. He’s a South African crime/noir writer. Really interesting, terrific stuff. The one that came out in 2010 was Thirteen Hours. Nail-biting. Oh! And I loved Joe Hill’s Horns, which was simultaneously loopy and hilarious, but still heartbreaking and creepy and strange. I’m dying to read Laird Barron’s Occultation, which everyone is raving about, but I unfortunately haven’t managed to snag a copy of it yet.” What books have caught Savory’s eye over the past year? “Probably … Keith Hollihan’s The Four Stages of Cruelty, which, while not a genre book, has some seriously disturbing shit happening near the end that actually dropped my jaw when I read it. Great writer, very good book,” he says. “I also really dug the non-genre three-day-novel contest winner from last year, Mark Sedore’s Snowmen. Great little book, and astonishing that it was written in a mere three days.”

And ChiZine has a lot of exciting writers returning for the 2011 season. “We’ve got several writers who are doing their second books with us this spring,” says Kasturi. “Namely David Nickle‘s creepy Eutopia; Brent Hayward, with the strange and beautiful The Fecund’s Melancholy Daughter; Claude Lalumière’s The Door to Lost Pages; and of course Gemma Files’ balls-to-the-walls, violent, weird western, A Rope of Thorns [which is Book Two in her Hexslinger Series]. Not to mention that we got lucky enough to publish a novella by Tom Piccirilli, the noirish, stylishly bleak Every Shallow Cut, and Derryl Murphy‘s super-cool, math-as-magic, destructo-universe dark SF novel, Napier’s Bones. Oh, and we’re doing a best-of antho with Tightrope Books, Imaginarium 2011: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing, which reprints the best fiction and poetry out last year. And of course we’re pursuing translation and film rights for our authors, and hoping some of that pans out. Lot of irons in the fire!” she says. “Aaaaand…now I’m spent.”

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One Response to Literature in Light and Shadow: An Interview with Brett Alexander Savory and Sandra Kasturi, founders of ChiZine Publishing

  1. Lynda Williams says:

    First encountered Sandra as the author of rich and disturbing poetry. Strange how an author/publisher who specializes in the dark has created such a bright, creative campfire for the writers and readers of her genre. She produces classy books.

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