Interview: Guest Lecturer Sheree Renée Thomas

Sheree Renée Thomas will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. Sheree is an award-winning editor and the author of three collections, Nine Bar Blues: Stories from an Ancient Future (Third Man Books, May 2020), Sleeping Under the Tree of Life (Aqueduct Press, 2016) and Shotgun Lullabies: Stories & Poems (Aqueduct Press, 2011). She is the editor of the groundbreaking anthologies, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000) and Dark Matter: Reading the Bones (2004), which earned the 2001 and 2005 World Fantasy Awards for Year’s Best Anthology, making her the first Black author to win the award since its inception in 1975. Sheree is the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, founded in 1949. She also edited for Random House and for magazines like Apex, Strange Horizons, and is the Associate Editor of the historic literary journal, Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora.

As a fiction writer and poet, her work has been supported with fellowships and residencies from Smith College as the Lucille Geier-Lakes Writer-in-Residence, the Cave Canem Foundation, Bread Loaf Environmental, the Millay Colony of Arts, VCCA, the Wallace Foundation, the New York Foundation of the Arts, the Tennessee Arts Commission, ArtsMemphis, and others. Widely anthologized, her work also appears in The Big Book of Modern Fantasy and The New York Times. Sheree was honored as a 2020 World Fantasy Award Finalist for her contributions to the genre and will serve as a Special Guest and a co-host of the 2021 Hugo Awards Ceremony with Malka Older at Discon III in Washington, DC.

As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advise you can give to developing writers?

The most important thing that we can do as writers, particularly at the beginning of our journey, is to read widely. You will probably get more out of reading than you would out of any workshop, to be honest. But workshops help you create a shortcut, in a way, to some of the hard-earned lessons you would eventually find out on your own, and it’s good to have people who have been on that journey before you to give you some pointers on how to get where you’re trying to go.

But for me, it’s the reading that has been the most fruitful. One, it keeps you aware of what innovations and new conventions are happening in the real world while you’re writing. Because writing is such a solitary task for most of us, that particular story you’re working on, whether it’s a short one or a novel, becomes the world for you. You can get a little bit of tunnel vision when you’re creating like that, but when you’re reading contemporary work that is being published, it gives you a sense of what’s happening in your field, in the community of writers. And finding a community and building upon it is one thing that makes writing workshops really special. While you can read on your own, being in a community helps inspire you to grow and exchange vital information. It also helps to know that you aren’t out there in the fields of imagination, laboring and creating all alone. Your workshop community can have your back in ways that become more precious to you as the years go on.

Congratulations on recently becoming editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction! What are the most common problems in the manuscript submissions you receive?

I just revised our submission guidelines to address that, because after reading 2,400 stories our first month in January, I noticed some patterns, particularly for people who have submitted work to the magazine in the past, and they probably don’t know that they’re doing some of these things.

The main thing I revised our submission guidelines to address is pacing. If you spend a long time setting up your story, or throat clearing, or giving us a long narrative exposition before we even get to the characters we’re supposed to be following and experiencing, you’re going to lose your readers’ interest right off the bat. One of the things people can do when they go back and look at the story is see if they started in the right place. As a writer, it’s not always easy to know that immediately. Sometimes we have to write the thing in order to know the thing; we have to write that first scene to get to the other one.

The other thing that a lot of writers do give us too much information that’s not naturally integrated into the storytelling, and so that becomes a little wearisome to read and hard to follow. People are not telling the story from the POV of the character who has the most to lose in the situation.

I don’t want to read about misogyny, whether it’s conscious or not in the story. I don’t particularly care for rape stories where rape is just a plot device and it’s not handled in a human way, where you don’t have the characters respond to it in a way that humans might. And F&SF is not the best market for super erotic work.

You contributed to the anthology Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda, edited by Jesse J. Holland, which came out in March 2021. What was it like writing in such a large and established world as the Marvel universe?

It was pretty exciting. Like a lot of people, I had read some of the comics, but not since I was a child, so I could not say I was a fangirl from the very beginning because my family couldn’t afford comics every week. Or specifically, they worked quite a lot, and as a latchkey child who didn’t live in a neighborhood where I could just roll up on a comic book store, it wasn’t possible for me to keep up with the weekly storylines, so I went to the library and read books. And yes, this was before publishers began widely printing graphic novels.

Later, I worked at an indie bookstore/art gallery and had the opportunity to read more Black comics. Of course, never thinking that I would contribute to a Marvel anthology one day. But I definitely enjoyed the movie even though the anthology is from the canon, so it’s not really dealing with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I had free rein to write what I wanted, once it went through the three levels of approval, so the creative process was fine. I felt good after the process.

I hope readers enjoy the stories. I’ve had a chance to read the whole book and I love it. Another cool thing is that this is the first time I’ve been on the cover of a book that I didn’t edit or author, and I’m on the cover with some greats, including Nikki Giovanni, who I met in the early 90s. It was such an honor, so every now and then I’ll stop and think, “Oh, I’m in a book with Nikki Giovanni and Tananarive Due,” who I’ve been a big fan of since The Between, so I’m fangirling in a number of ways.

In addition to being a short story writer and an editor, you are also a poet. What can writers learn from poetry to enhance their prose?

A love for language! If you’re going to tell us a story, don’t always be so matter-of-fact about it. Don’t always be so linear. Tell us a story the way human beings with a heartbeat and a pulse, who will roll their eyes the moment they get bored, will do. Put some love for language in there. Put a pulse in it.

I think poets have a marvelous relationship to the orality of writing. I think we forget sometimes that this is a symbol of a conversation we are having, mostly orally. Writing came after the spoken word. Try to deal with the magic of it.

We talk about spelling; this act of writing is an incantation. Include that storytelling magic in your writing when you can. If you don’t read poetry, start exploring that because it can add a little extra life to your writing, perhaps more depth, or another relationship to imagery and action, emotion and characterization. And if you can, do something special with that “voice” we hear about so much from editors. “I didn’t connect with the voice. I really love that voice.” What does that mean? Sometimes it’s about the love of language in the storytelling.

Where do you see the speculative short fiction field going in the next ten years?

I feel like it’ll still be here. It’s one of my favorite forms. I think it’s the perfect thing to be able to sit down in one sitting and read a whole story from beginning to end and be transported in that way. It’s totally portable, so whatever new technology is invented in the future, I feel that short stories will have a home in that.

As a field, I think there are going to be a lot more voices being made mainstream that are coming from the margins, fresh, original works that we aren’t accustomed to hearing from so often, that are going to become part of that larger mainstream. And that’s exciting, because as readers, we love discovering new writers to love. This is also important because, across the genre, science fiction is aging up and out. People who’ve been reading since the 1940s and 1950s are not going to be with us infinitely. So who are the groups of young people that we’re going to attract to this field? They’re going to be the new elders in the community, so let’s keep identifying and publishing the wonderful work they also will love.

Your short story collection, Nine Bar Blues, came out in 2020 from Third Man Books. The website says that Nine Bar Blues “explores the multitudinous forms of music and the people who make it and appreciate it.” How has music influenced your short stories and your poetry?

I believe in the orality of storytelling, its musicality, so I’m always listening to the music of people’s voices. We are always sort of half-listening to conversations that other people are having in public, particularly in cities like New York, where I lived, and where you hear the wildest things. There’s a music to the way people tell stories, particularly where I am in the country now. I’m home in the South, and there’s definitely a musicality to storytelling and everyday conversations, but that music isn’t all the same. The rhythms are different in Memphis and Nashville, Knoxville and Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas, and so on. I was sending copy edits to one of our authors for F&SF and I mentioned, “Don’t be alarmed at all the notes on the repetition; as a writer, sometimes I receive those notes as well.” As a Southerner, I think repetition is the standard state of speech. If you haven’t repeated and emphasized something, you haven’t said a thing.

Music is always a part of my world; that’s just me, I love music. If you’re writing about music, I will be reading your book! I watch all of the Where Are They Now? episodes for my favorite musicians. I just think it’s a big part of how I connect to the world, and definitely how I connected during the pandemic. It kept me calmer than I probably would have been if I didn’t have that art.

For Nine Bar Blues, there are several themes besides music that run through the stories. I either could have connected stories by the natural bugs that were in a lot of them, or water, which is always an influence. Ever since my childhood by the deserts in New Mexico, I have always lived by a river—the Hudson River in NY, spending time by the East River, and of course, the mighty Mississippi River here in Tennessee. I like the natural music of cities, and Memphis has a sound of its own. For some of the stages of my writing, I switch the soundtrack and listen to music that has no lyrics. In that way, it’s just me, the rhythms, and my own words hopefully humming on the page.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?

I always have projects. I can’t speak on them most of the time, like when I was working on the Black Panther book. I’m working on another project that I can’t announce, and I’m super excited about it and the thought that is going into it. But I’m also working on fun things I hope people will love and enjoy. I do have an anthology coming out this fall, Trouble the Waters: Tales from the Deep, that I co-edited with Pan Morgan and Troy Wiggins. That’s on the essential element we all love and it’s coming out from Third Man Books in October.



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