Interview by Bryan Thomas Schmidt
BTS: Where’d your interest in speculative fiction come from?
Margaret Killjoy: My dad. I grew up with a huge bookshelf of Heinlein, Bradbury, Zelazny, and all of those folks and my parents never put a limit on what I was allowed to read. So some of the ideas of the old SciFi masters are as much a part of my understanding of the world as, I don’t know, the history classes in school. I probably thought more about the feasibility of generation ships with which to explore the stars than I did about mundane existence.
BTS: Who are some of your favorite authors/books?
MK: Well, I’m plowing through George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books along with the rest of the world, but I really like them. He tells epic fantasy with a brutal realism I find refreshing. I’m a big fan of S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse books. I’ve never met a Cory Doctorow book I don’t love. Ursula Le Guin is probably the closest thing I have to a literary hero. And the last book I read was amazing: Aurorarama by Jean-Cristophe Valtat.
BTS: How did you get into editing and publishing?
MK: I got into editing and publishing from the zine world… in the early aughts I started writing and releasing stories I’d written as zines, and I did all the layout on them myself. I got other people to edit my writing, of course. I’ve probably put out 50-60 zines at this point, and I wrote most of them myself. But I did it enough that other people started submitting their writing to me to be released. All of that came out with the zine publisher Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness. In 2005-06, I was living in a squat in Amsterdam and a group of squatters were looking to put out Lawaai, a bilingual magazine for the squat scene there, and I ended up on the layout team for that. When I moved back to the states, I started SteamPunk Magazine. I had no idea it would be as big as it was… I literally only knew maybe two people who knew what steampunk was back then. But that project blew up right away, and suddenly I was a semi-professional publisher and editor.
BTS: Did you study writing or editing craft in school? Learn as you go? Take classes?
MK: I actually studied photography. I’m blessed though, to be in a family of writers… all three of my siblings and my dad all regularly write fiction, and their guidance did the world of good for me. Plus my dad used to run a zine in the 80s himself, so I grew up around the idea.
BTS: What’s your role with Steampunk Magazine and Combustion Books?
MK: So I founded SteamPunk Magazine and edited the first several years of it, publishing it under the name of my zine publisher, Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness. After a while, I burned out on the project and passed it off into the capable hands of Allegra Hawksmoor in the UK, who published it with Vagrants Among Ruins. Then, in 2010 I think it was, I was sitting around with a few other SteamPunk Magazine contributors and we decided it was time that we started a book publisher. Allegra passed the magazine back to us, and it quickly became our flagship product as a publisher.
Nowadays, Combustion Books is a collective (we work without bosses) of four people. We make a lot of our decisions collaboratively, but each person takes on a certain amount of responsibility for themselves and we try to stay out of their hair. Personally, I do a lot of the editing and I do almost all the book design. We’ve got people who work on managing submissions, doing PR, keeping books, etc. as well.
BTS: What is SteamPunk Magazine’s mission?
MK: SteamPunk Magazine prides itself on keeping the “punk” in steampunk. Almost everyone involved in the magazine (which has a whole editorial team outside of Combustion Books… I’m the only overlap between the two groups) is more into the DIY side of steampunk, and we really try to publish steampunk material that pushes the envelope of what steampunk culture can be. We like to see steampunk as a lens to look through with which to better understand society and its faults rather than as a shiny brass veneer to paint over the atrocities of our age.
BTS: How many issues do you put out a year?
MK: We publish rather irregularly, to be honest. It’s unpaid for everyone involved, including myself as the managing editor, and it can be a bit much to handle. We try to put out a few issues a year. The first issue came out in 2007 and we’ve got 8 out now and another coming this year. But to be fair, we put out big, meaty issues. The last issue was 108 pages, I think, and the next issue is looking to be the same size at least. And we have no ads… 108 pages of content.
BTS: What’s your selection process?
MK: We publish a mix of fiction and non-fiction, and it looks very, very different between the two. We get a ton of fiction submissions, almost more than we can handle. Allegra Hawksmoor is the fiction editor, and she and a couple of friends sort through the slush and pull out the promising bits, then shine them up, select them, and pass them along to me. Non-fiction goes through me directly, and it’s like pulling teeth to get good how-to articles for the magazine. Steampunk makers are too busy making things to take the time to write how they do it! So I’ll usually work very closely with non-fiction writers who have something interesting to say, in many cases basically writing or rewriting their how-to for them (with their grace) in order to make it publishable. But fiction, we reject a very high percentage of the stories we get. We only publish 5-6 stories an issue and only put out 1-3 issues a year.
BTS: How long does the typical accepted story take to publish from acquisition through editing to actual release?
MK: We’re different than most magazines. We’d probably be more honest if we called ourselves a journal. We have no set publishing schedule. But when we’ve got a submission window, we post it on the website and around to forums and blogs and social media. That submission window might be around 2-3 months long, and we’ll take fiction submissions during that time. Occasionally, but rather rarely, we might accept a story before that deadline is up, if it’s absolutely perfect for us. Usually, the deadline window will pass and the fiction editors might take a few weeks to figure out what’s publishable. We contact the authors and let them know, then get the stories off to the artists while the stories go through their editing phase. When things are running smoothly, we’ll get the magazine out within about 2 months of that submission window’s close.
BTS: Do you do all the editing or do you have staff or independent editors?
MK: SteamPunk Magazine is ever-shifting. At the moment, there is an editorial collective of 5 editors: myself (the managing editor), Juan Navarro (art editor), Allegra Hawksmoor (fiction editor), Belle Cooper (reviews editor), and Katie Casey (web editor). Juan wrangles a whole crew of artists, Belle wrangles a whole crew of reviews writers. In the future, the managing editor position is actually going to rotate through guest editors, to give the magazine a unique voice with every issue.
BTS: I hear from agents and authors that steampunk is not selling these days. Cherie Priest’s agent told a friend that at World Con. Do you see a drop in interest in the genre these days?
MK: You know, from a fiction point of view, this might be true. From what I can tell, the SF industry goes through cycles and fads, and each one exhausts itself somewhat quickly and fades back, not to obscurity but to a less-intense furor. So steampunk novels might not be the new big thing anymore. But steampunk culture is just growing and growing. I genuinely thought steampunk was going to peak in 2008. And then in 2009. And then I gave up guessing when it would. Maybe it is now? But I doubt it.
BTS: Tell us about some of your authors and memorable stories from past issues?
MK: Some of my favorite people in the world I met through my work on SteamPunk Magazine. And I’ve had the privilege to publish some really, really interesting stuff. One of my favorite writers for the magazine is Professor Offlogic, whom I’ve never met in person but correspond with somewhat regularly. He’s the archtypical mad scientist off in his quest to design a better world of DIY windmills that power vertical gardens and he dreams of countries offshore on abandoned oil rigs.
The first story I published in the magazine that really got me was probably “Uhrwerk” by John Reppion. John is a professional comic book author in the UK, and I was shocked to realize that I was the first person to publish his fiction. It’s a simple tale that presents itself as a history, complete with footnotes, that follows a mad scientist musician as he hangs out in the gutters and busks. Beautiful prose and a fabulous tale.
In the latest issue of the magazine, I’m really haunted by “The Paraclete of Pierre Simon Laplace” by Jamie Murray. It explores the madness of genius, invented language, and imperial war all at once.
BTS: What are your long term goals/plans for this?
MK: Personally, I’d love to just be the layout editor for SteamPunk Magazine, so I can focus more on my own writing and on other Combustion projects. That’s part of why we’re moving to a guest editor method of editing. Hopefully we’ll find our rhythm and stick with it more regularly too, even if that rhythm is one printed issue a year with regular web content along the way.
BTS: Do people have to buy subscriptions? Where can they find and read the zine?
MK: Nope. I decided at the very beginning that I wasn’t going to take people’s money if I couldn’t promise them a product. It’s definitely cost us financially to lose that source of revenue, but we’d rather be free of commitments that we’re not certain we can fulfill. But one thing we try to do with the magazine is to keep it free of content that will get outdated… it’s full of DIY how-tos, fiction, history, essays, and the like instead of the latest gossip, so we actually keep all the past issues in print and sell them regularly.
The first seven issues of the magazine are bound up in one anthology, SteamPunk Magazine: The First Years, and issue #8 is available for sale on its own. Issue #9 should be out by the end of the year.
Since the beginning, we’ve made the PDFs of the magazine available for free download as well.
You can buy the magazine from us, combustionbooks.org or from Amazon or pretty much any major book distributor, and a decent number of brick-and-mortar stores. You can download it from steampunkmagazine.com.
BTS: Any tips on the SteamPunk Magazine story and subjects you might like to see more of?
MK: There are always these trends in steampunk. If you can, avoid them. Last issue, it was steampunk american civil war. I love Cherie Priest and her work, but her popularity has… inspired… a lot of people. And I can’t run more than one American Civil War steampunk story per issue. What I’d really like to see more of is less male-centric, heterosexual-centric work. More stuff that takes inspiration from somewhere other than the UK or the US. More moral ambiguity. More challenging stories. Less steampunk cliches.
BTS: Before we go, tell us a bit about the key players at Combustion. Who are they? What are their roles?
MK: There’s four of us now. There’s me, Margaret Killjoy. I do design and editing. Then there’s Professor Calamity and Mathilda from The Catastrophone Orchestra (a writer’s collective). They handle most of the backend, like the mailing and bookkeeping, as well as are the source of probably most of our best ideas. Then there’s Maria, our new PR person and copyeditor. All of us table events, do presentations, and all kinds of other things.
BTS: What does Combustion publish besides the zine?
MK: Our big title coming out this year is A Steampunk’s Guide to Sex. We just did an incredible kickstarter for it, reaching 650% of our goal. It’s got contributions from Alan Moore, Molly Crabapple, Lady Clankington… all kinds of interesting folks. We’ve got a bunch of steampunk titles, like my What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower (an interactive, non-linear book), Catastrophone Orchestra which collects a lot of stories that appeared in the magazine, and A Steampunk’s Guide to the Apocalypse.
We also put out another magazine, Graceless: A Journal of the Radical Gothic, which has proved even more irregularly scheduled than SteamPunk Magazine but the issue that’s out is a great read. And we distribute Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness titles too, so we’ve got all kinds of titles outside the genre fiction world.