Editor of the Year (2021) – Lee Murray – Lit Retreat

Q1. Lee, it’s wonderful to have you with us for this Q&A. Please tell us about your humble beginnings as an author.

Thank you for having me. Here’s a picture from my humble beginnings as an author, my first book, a memoir called “All About Me” which I wrote and illustrated when I was five. Self-published on newsprint and stapled together, just one copy of this work was produced, and for forty-five years it was in the possession of a collector (my mother) until it passed back to me some years ago. Some would argue that it’s not my best work, but everyone has to start somewhere.

All About Me by Lee Murray
All About Me by Lee Murray

Q2. Could you tell us more about your passion and career as an editor?

My real passion is writing, but editing is a close second as it has been an important tool for progressing my career as an author. It’s helped me to improve my writing through the application of techniques and structures I’ve encountered in other people’s work, and it’s been instrumental in growing my writing network, allowing me to discover my ‘tribe’ through various anthology projects.

Q3. What are you currently reading outside your editorship?

This week, I’m fortunate to be reading a sneak preview of Tori Eldridge’s upcoming stand-alone dark fiction novel Dance Among the Flames, a dark magical realism tale about a desperate mother who rises from the slums of Brazil to become a powerful wielder of Quimbanda magic. I’m a big fan of Eldridge’s Lily Wong thriller series, so this is a special treat. I’m also reading a preview of Were Tales: A Shapeshifter Anthology, edited by S.D. Vassallo, which I believe is due for release in September 2021 from Brigids Gate Press. It’s the first publication from this small press and the line-up is stupendous, a veritable who’s who of horror fiction, opening with a poem by Cindy O’Quinn, closing with the indomitable Jonathan Maberry, and including stories from the Garza sisters, Eric Guignard, the entire Daughters of Darkness team of Faye, Ellis, Derwin, and Dillon, and poetry from Stephanie Wytovich, Christina Sng, Sara Tantlinger, and Linda D. Addison. Still on the topic of shapeshifters and witchcraft, on my nightstand is The Witch Boy, a YA graphic novel by Molly Knox Ostertag, which belongs to my daughter and which she’s keen to discuss with me just as soon as I’ve read it. I’m re-reading Xinran’s The Good Women of China as inspiration for a poem I am working on, and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale as background reading and research for another work. There are some other things, but that’s enough for now…

Q4. Do you sometimes subconsciously start editing any form of literature you are reading for pleasure?

Like many editors, I suffer from this affliction, and at times it can spoil the reading experience. (It also interferes with my writing as I don’t seem to be able to turn off my inner editor, constantly revising as I go.) However, when I’m reading a book for pleasure and the narrative is sufficiently engaging, while I still might see those editing issues or minor editing decisions that I might not agree with, I’m able to overlook them in pursuit of the story. Of course, even with the best intentions, errors will slip through the editing and proofing process. I always have empathy for the poor editor when that happens; if they’re anything like me, they’ll have slunk into a corner to berate themselves for not catching it. But things get missed, especially when you’ve worked closely with a text, reading and re-reading it multiple times.

At the Bram Stoker Award ceremony held virtually in May, emcee Jonathan Maberry, editor of the revived Weird Tales magazine, described anthologies as being like ‘crack’ to him, and I’m inclined to agree—although I tend to think of them like a sampling from a delicious dessert smorgasbord, or a box of dark chocolates. Curating anthologies is an unusual art, and I’m always interested to see how different editors will approach these works. From the outset, editor-curators will have a certain vision for the work, an idea of the finished product, but contributors will take that vision and expand on it, or subvert it, in exciting and unexpected ways, so the final publication may be very different from the pitched project. Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women is a good example of how a project can evolve, because our contributors took our premise and smashed it out of the ballpark with their exquisite stories, full of fury and insight. Part of this might have been due to the lack of previous horror literature by writers of Southeast Asian descent, but I suspect the pandemic, and the anti-Asian sentiment it engendered, may have played a role in the final tone of the anthology. One of our contributors also mentioned our editorial confidence in her ability to deliver something exceptional in this space as being a key factor.

Lee Murray holding her Bram Stoker Awards
Lee Murray holding her Bram Stoker Awards

I’m always interested to see how an anthologist selects stories to fit a theme, and the order they place stories and poems in a book, because, while some readers will dip into an anthology, reading here and there as the whimsy takes them, many readers will read from front to back. In that case, I’m interested in the journey the editor chooses to lead us through: the opening story, which sets the scene; the workhorse stories which consolidate on that opening; the shorter or lighter palette cleansers; and the final statement which leaves the reader reeling, or perhaps tinged with hope. Sometimes, the anthologist will have chosen to structure the work to manipulate the pacing, or to guide us over the steppingstones of motif, perspective, or tone. It’s fascinating to try to deduce an editor’s reasoning and to experience the work in the way they intend. With Black Cranes, together with my co-editor Geneve, we took the radical approach of using Asian beliefs to anchor the stories in the work. For example, Rena Mason’s “The Ninth Tale”, a dark fairytale based on the shapeshifting fox spirit of Asian myth, we placed ninth, whereas my own story, “Phoenix Claws”, which referenced the number four, an unlucky number in Chinese tradition, was placed fourth in the line-up. Even the finer detail is interesting, as editors might take a variety of approaches with a particular work. They might include a mixture of UK and US spellings according to the contributors’ home languages, for example. They might decide to leave in certain idiom and language markers to give a stronger sense of place or to anchor the story in a certain era. Like I said, I find it fascinating to examine anthologies in this manner.

Q5. As both a person of color and a woman what are the challenges you have faced in your career?

Sometimes I feel I am invisible. For example, I once sent out a group email to colleagues letting them know that I had digital copies of our collaborative novel (with Dan Rabarts) available for award consideration. Of those who responded, apart from those who knew me, every response came back with the salutation “Dear Dan” even though my photo appeared at the top of the page, and I had signed the email with my name. It seems when a man’s name appears anywhere, people feel he must automatically be the person to address. Where he can, Dan tries to gently remind people that I play an equal role in our collaborative partnership, but he really shouldn’t have to fight these battles for me.

On being a Chinese-New Zealander: the very first anthology of stories and poems by Asian-New Zealand writers was published in May of this year, which gives you some idea of how long it has taken to bring Asian voices to the attention of publishers in this country, despite their cries to the contrary. Just as the book was about to go to press, I learned from the editors that they hadn’t included me because they were simply not aware of me or my work, despite my being an active member of New Zealand’s literary community for over a decade. I suspect this has something to do with my being an author-editor of speculative fiction and horror, genres still scorned by literary commentators and gatekeepers as ‘not proper literature’. However, without a ‘control-me’ to test my theory, it’s hard to say for sure. Over recent years, I’ve sent several pitches to local publishers for works which draw on my Asian-New Zealand experience, but I have yet to receive even the courtesy of a reply. Whereas, as an Asian woman editor, I am frequently asked to donate my time and expertise to projects where previous editors have been offered a fee. Of course, I can always say no, but precisely because I am an Asian woman, saying no is something I find extremely difficult. I’m trying to be bolder. More visible. Unquiet.

Q6. Which writers and/or editors do you look up to?

How about a little showcase of three fabulous editors with whom I’ve have the privilege to work?

Marie O’Regan (Trickster’s Treats #3)

When publisher Steve Dillon approached me to guest-edit the third volume in Things in the Well’s popular Trickster’s Treats series, my workload was spiraling out of control. While I was keen to contribute, I didn’t feel I could spare the time.

“What if I could pull together some sub-editors?” Steve said. “What if you had an experienced co-editor?”

He must have sensed my hesitation. “Name an editor you dream of working with,” he said.

“Marie O’Regan,” I replied. I figured I was safe. At the time, Marie was co-chair of an international convention; her workload had to be even heavier than mine.

“Give me a few days,” Steve said.

Which was how I came to co-edit Trickster’s Treats #3. It was a pleasure to work with Marie. An experienced editor of ten volumes of speculative work, her insightful and tactful responses were a revelation. For more information about Marie’s editing and curating work, check out her website.

Dan Rabarts (Baby Teeth, At the Edge)

My editing collaboration with Dan was an accident; the result of an online response to a reddit thread and Dan’s call for a community building writing exercise by local speculative writers. The project got out of hand and eventually we had enough flash fiction stories for an anthology. Well known in local circles as a short fiction specialist, Dan had initiated the online exercise, so he was the obvious choice to edit the work, but because it was a big task for a first-time editor, I came on board to share the load, the pair of us teaming up to co-edit Baby Teeth: Bite-sized Tales of Terror, and later At the Edge, both multi-award-winning anthologies of speculative fiction by our antipodean colleagues. Later, we went on to collaborate on other projects, including programming a national convention, participating on panels and readings, a screenplay, and our Path of Ra series of supernatural crime-noir novels. We’re currently working on a crime short story in that world, as well as a film treatment. Dan also writes individually, and anyone with a penchant for quirky, action-packed high fantasy steampunk (with recipe ideas on the side) should check out his hilarious Children of Bane series. To find out more about Dan check out his website.

Geneve Flynn (Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women)

I can’t tell you how excited I was to meet Geneve Flynn that day in 2019 while we were both waiting for a panel presentation to begin. To discover someone who shared my experience as an Asian woman author-editor or horror fiction was like unwrapping a fortune cookie promising an auspicious future. I enjoyed every moment of our collaboration on Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women. Gene is even more exacting and diligent than me—working with her is like having a CMOS in your back pocket. But it isn’t just her grammatical precision and her tireless work ethic that make her a good editor, Gene also has a keen understanding of story structure and form, and a knack for knowing how to coax the best from her authors. Her own career as a short story writer is just beginning to take off and I can’t wait to see where it takes her. For more information about Gene’s work, visit her website.

And a quick shout-out to the thirty horror editors who were kind enough to offer the tips and strategies published in Mark My Words: Read the Submission Guidelines and Other Self-editing Tips (with Angela Yuriko Smith), a webinar hand-out which accidentally turned into a book.

Q7. List your favorite hobbies.

Reading in bed with coffee.

Reading at the beach.

Reading in hammock in the back yard…

I also like walking, watching movies with my family, cuddling my dog, and caravanning with husband. Chatting with my mum. Soaking in the spa pool under the stars. Painting.

Q8. Tip for aspiring editors?

If you are an editor, you are worthy, and you are worth it.

Q9. Thanks again for agreeing to this interview, Lee. Lastly, what do you have in store for us in the near future?

Thank you, Nisar. It’s kind of you to ask. I have some short stories coming in various anthologies over the next few months; many of these were held over from the pandemic, and October should see the release of my first poetry collection, an unexpected collaboration that has me jumping with excitement. I can’t say too much about yet, but readers who are interested might like to sign up to my newsletter for updates and sneak previews.

Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning author-editor from Aotearoa-New Zealand (12 Sir Julius Vogel, 3 Australian Shadows), and a two-time Bram Stoker Award®-winner. Her work includes military thrillers, the Taine McKenna Adventures, supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra (with Dan Rabarts), and debut collection Grotesque: Monster Stories. A Shirley Jackson, Aurealis, and Imadjinn Award nominee, she is proud to have edited seventeen volumes of speculative fiction, among them Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women and Midnight Echo #15. She is co-founder of Young NZ Writers and of the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, HWA Mentor of the Year for 2019, NZSA Honorary Literary Fellow, and Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow for 2021 for her poetry collection Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud. Read more about her here.

Nisar Sufi

Content Writer, Indie Horror Author, Book Reviewer, Film Critic and Fortune Teller @knowthyfuture