This interview is sadly the last one I was able to do before my deadline arrived, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I originally met CSE Cooney when she and some of my siblings were performing with Flock Theatre. She’s written several poems and novellas, getting them published through small traditional presses, and is part of a band of authors called the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadors. Her main site can be found here.
1. What, in brief, is your history with publishing? As far as you know, is this a common experience, or were there special factors?
I really can’t speak for anyone else’s experience, although from what I’ve witnessed, the combination of mentoring, submissions, beta-readers, writing groups, and networking is all part of many people’s processes. I didn’t know that when I was 18, though! When I was 18, I met my mentor, Gene Wolfe. He took a look at the first few chapters of the novel I was working on, wrote me a letter–full of both critique and compliments–and recommended I start out writing short stories and submitting them. After I’ve gotten short stories published, he said, I’d have enough credentials to present myself to an agent or publisher when I submit a novel.
Gene also took me to my first writing convention. It was there I met the editor of Subterranean Press, Bill Schafer, who ended up publishing “Stone Shoes,” which was my first pro-rate sale. At different conventions over the years, I also met the editors who published my first poems. I’ll never regret this–ever–but it has made me wonder from the first if editors published me only because they liked me personally and not solely on the basis of my work. People have told me time and again that no editor would publish something bad on the basis of personality. However, I do think having a face to set to a submission name never hurt me!
Fourteen years later, I have had many short stories, novellas, and poems published. I am currently looking for an agent for my novel. I think that if I had written more novels instead of short stories, and began looking for an agent sooner, in my twenties, I might be further along in my career now. But I might not be as good a writer. It’s hard to say. There was a three year chunk in college while I was only writing for my classes. Perhaps this was a necessary break; again, who can know?
For me the publishing process has been arduous, surprising, occasionally frustrating, and mostly splendid. The only thing I know for sure is that everything happens so much slower than I thought it would when I was a teenager! Which is not everybody’s experience, I think. But it is most people’s.
2. What was the best part about being published? How about the worst?
There is a sense of unreality when you hold your own book in your hand, and look at your byline and think, “That’s me. This is the house that I built.” A kind of euphoria.
Sometimes it’s even enough to make you forget the true difficulties of working with small presses, which are great fun, but usually only run by one or two people, who have pretty full lives of their own. Publishing books in a small press is not their only, or even their major, source of income. Communication can get hairy, especially in this age of social platforms, when one expects immediate responses. Deadlines aren’t always met on time, or ever. Promises get broken.
On the other hand, other small presses perform quickly, are enthusiastic and helpful, and one’s relationship with them grows into a kind of long-distance friendship, which is really cool.
3. How do you connect to your audience outside of writing? I know you have a site and a LiveJournal.
I do have a LiveJournal. And a Facebook page. And a website. And, now, on my friend Amal El-Mohtar’s insistence, a Twitter. I like to blog the big things (I like to blog in general), but I’m on Facebook more than anything. My friend Julia Rios, one of the editors of Strange Horizons, likes to tease me and say, “You always have CONTENT.” But I do pop my head up and…assert my personality as often as possible. This will sound callous, but I mean it in the most earnest possible way:
If people like you, they might buy your book for your sake. Then, if they like your book, they’ll buy your next book for the book’s sake.
It’s another way to get your foot in the door. It’s sort of like that Irish curse: You’ll know writers by their limping.
4. What about other authors and people in the publishing industry?
Again, I can’t speak for others. Some people are geniuses, and their work is worthy of recognition right away. Some people are geniuses and aren’t recognized for the first few decades they’ve been writing. Some people start out with novels and stick with them. Some people only write in the short form. Some people are far more garrulous and social than I am, and their pool of friendly, professional acquaintances is wider, and therefore their chances are broader. Some people are brilliant and have bad luck. Some people are awful and are blessed by the gods. I don’t know! I only know that I have been helped so much, and there is an honor system of returning the favor to writers younger than myself. People are pretty conscious of this mentoring system in the Speculative Fiction community. It’s something we talk about often.
5. Is there any other non-writing work you do for your books and poetry?
I have done a few lectures, many readings (at conventions and the like), and performances as well. My training is in writing and acting. I have my BA from Columbia College Chicago, which is an arts school. A few friends and I decided that a group we had far more likely a chance to boost our own signal than being tiny flames on our own. Together, we could become a beacon. Plus, we’re all stage-trained and musically trained. So we formed a performance group called The Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours. We excerpt and dramatize sections of our fiction. We write and sing music. We recite our wicked, mythic, storytelling poetry. And we just went on our first mini-tour.
6. Is there anything you’ve learned from experience that you wish you’d known before you began?
I suppose it would be to know how slow all of it is, and to have started earlier and more aggressively. I’m pretty timid in any new given situation. I wish I could tell my younger self (as many people TRIED to tell me) to spread my net more widely. To be courteous but not so tender as to retreat in the face of defeat. To submit a hundred times more than I did. To write faster. To read more.
But so much can only come from experience. There is no possible way that me telling my younger self could have changed much; my brain needed to change. It needed years to grow and mature and to specialize in this particular career. Maybe the truth is that I’m a slow bloomer. Maybe someone else will be able to read this at 18 and have it all by 25. Everyone has their own speed, their own time.
7. Have you run into any real differences between publishing fiction and poetry? Or between short and longer works?
There are fewer markets for poetry than for fiction. For fiction, there are fewer markets for novellas than for short stories. I write more novellas than anything else. Often short story markets also have a poetry department.
The main difference between selling short works (be they fiction or poetry) to magazines and small presses and selling longer works like novels to large presses is that for the former you are working directly with the editors, if not the publishers themselves, and for the latter, you have to ally with an intermediary, an agent, who knows the business end of books in and out. I’m in the process of questing for an agent myself right now, and it’s trickier than you’d think. People have compared it with dating. If one were dating around for a business partner instead of a romantic relationship. I haven’t been on my quest long enough to come up with a comparison of my own yet; the dating one doesn’t quite work for me.
8. Which would you usually recommend to a new author, self publishing or traditional? Why?
Oh… This is a tricky question. Part of me would recommend traditional first. Writing, in a weird, is weirdly communal. Your story comes through you first, raw in its early form, then polished through the draft process. Usually it passes through the hands of other writers who are your friends: beta-readers or writing groups, that sort of thing. Then when you submit it, it can come back to you with useful rejections from editors (who have seen hundreds, thousands of stories) telling you why the story wasn’t working, or why they couldn’t publish it. Alternately, it could be accepted and go through undreamed-of changes that improve the story beyond anything you could have done to it.
If you self-publish, most of those latter steps go right out the window. Your product may still be beautiful and unusual, but perhaps not as honed.
Now, if one has tried all the traditional venues, and your product is perhaps TOO unusual, too beautiful, too strange or interstitial or liminal, or you know it’s good, but you also know there are a billion others like it, and the magazines and small presses can only choose the absolute best. But you know yours is just as good – and besides, you already invested all this time in it, then I think exploring self-publishing is absolutely spiffy.
But part of me says, publishing is changing. Technology is changing. The world is changing. Change with it. Do whatever. Do all the things. Make money by writing. By fair means or foul, sell your work.
I think casting a wide net, getting both feet and a head through the door, boosting your signal, spreading out in all directions can all be necessary in this business.
Of course, that makes focusing on the craft a little harder. So. Artist’s choice.
9. The industry’s been changing, especially in recent years with companies like Amazon getting into the publishing game. Do you think this is for better or worse? Why?
Oh, I have no idea. I’m going to let better minds than mine decide. There are plenty of articles on this very subject all over the internet. I rarely read them. It’s hard enough to find the time to write, much less speculate on if I even have a future in it. I think that as self-publishing gets easier, big publishers are going to get more… refined. I think the market will be inundated with all kinds of unfiltered, unedited manuscripts and it might be harder to get to the good stuff. But then, publishers of big presses haven’t always (in my opinion) only published good stuff. Not by any means. Unfortunately, this part of the industry is one that’s never really interested me. I’m probably the poorer for it. But I only have so many hours in my day. And I’d rather be writing.
10. I saw you’re looking for an agent. What made you decide to do this?
It’s just the next step! I have a book I’m really excited about: Miscellaneous Stones: Assassin. It’s the first in a trilogy. I think it’s supermarketable. And I’m not up to the task of self-publishing it. In a sense, I feel the book is better than what I can give it, in that sense. It deserves a team of professionals, from the copy-editor to the cover-designer. And I’m not those people.
11. Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours. There’s got to be a good story behind that—even just the name.