A Conversation with P. Alexander: Cirsova Magazine

Thursday , 17, November 2016 2 Comments

Scott Cole: From the Cirsova zine submission guidelines: “Original short stories between 2000-7500 words, specifically those in the vein of Leigh Brackett, Jack Vance, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard” What other old school authors do you enjoy and hope influence the content?

P. Alexander: One of the reasons why I list so many is that it’s so hard to narrow it down to just a few. There are so many great writers from the pulps and on into the New Wave that even if I listed dozens, I’d certainly leave some out that I would’ve meant to include.

Otis Adelbert Kline, who’s better known these days as R.E. Howard’s executor, wrote a number of stories in the 20s and 30s in the same vein as Burroughs, but I’ve noticed his bent is on space princesses who are light-sabre-wielding, army-leading heads of states.

Up through the 50s, Ross Rocklynne was considered one of the ‘big names’ of sci-fi, though he’s largely forgotten today.

Probably my favorite story that I like to point to if someone asked “what are you looking for” is Raiders of the Second Moon by Basil Wells. In it, a Nazi-hunting astronaut has crash-landed on a jungle moon, becomes a Tarzan-style jungle man, and with the help of his talking ape friends, rescues a jungle princess from a skull temple of invisibility-cloak wearing death cultists. It crams all of that and a Shakespearean happy ending into about 8 pages.

SC: Your recommendations on modern SF authors?

PA: The obvious answer would be “Any Cirsova contributors”, but it’ll tread dangerously close to ‘playing favorites’ territory to give examples. So, I’ll throw this curveball and recommend Matthew D. Ryan, who’s about midway through writing his Ashes of Ruin series. The best way I can describe it is “Vampire Hunting in Lankhmar”. If you dig Leiber’s Fafhrd & Mouser stories, his books are must read and one of the only ongoing series of novels I’ve not only committed to but am recommending others to commit to.

SC: Thanks for the suggestion. I’ve just downloaded Drasmyr, the prequel to the Ashes of Ruin series (note: as I type this you can get it for free from the AMZN Kindle Store). My copy of Ill Met in Lankhmar is part of The Science Fiction Book Club Collection. I didn’t know that Leiber was an accomplished science fiction and horror writer. Believe he won awards in all three fields (SF, horror and swords & sorcery). This has got me to thinking that I can’t really name many modern authors of fiction that can produce solid work across multiple genres. Stephen King comes to mind as I tend to enjoy his non horror work such as Four Seasons more than a lot of his horror. I do know that Castalia House has authors successfully crossing genres. John Wright comes to mind (SF and Fantasy) along with Peter Grant (SF and a Western!).

PA: I think that something that a lot of writers from and familiar with the period of early SFF take advantage of is the common wellspring of genre-fiction that is the unknown. Real-world adventure stories, Sword & Sorcery, Horror, and Science Fiction are all about the Unknown, whether it’s discovering it and making it known, fighting against it, or just being terrified of it. The best SFF writers are able to approach that from different angles and philosophies and get a wide array of stories from it in ways that defy modern genre markers. Just like how Lovecraft has some very sci-fi stories, Leiber and Stanislaw Lem have a number of sci-fi stories that feel like Lovecraftian horror because of their approach to the unknown and uncanny as a source of not just mystery but fear.

SC: I like your mention of the Unknown. My two most recent interviews with CH authors validate your point. Personally, I enjoyed how John Wright fleshes out the unknown in his Moth and Cobweb universe while Peter Grant’s Brings the Lightning is about a journey into the unknown. Even dystopian literature such as 1984, and Brave New World highlights your point. Both Orwell and Huxley were certain in their pessimism and their novels were a means to discover what was causing them unease and making it known. Not so sure about Huxley but know Orwell’s intent was also to fight against it.

PA: Here’s where I have to turn in my literate SF nerd card; I’ve never gotten around to actually reading Huxley or much Orwell outside of Animal Farm and a few passages of his non-fiction and commentary. At one point, I used to enjoy dystopian science fiction until I got the feeling I was living in one. A lot of Lovecraft’s fear of the unknown sort of foreshadowed the post atomic age; Lovecraft’s dangerous cosmic sciences beyond man that would portend our destruction reflected the unprecedented advances in science and understanding taking place during his lifetime. In the post atomic age, much of that fear comes from the exploration of what those advances have done for better or, often, worse. But the mad scientist trope exists because we understand that there are scientific discoveries that are potentially dangerous in the wrong hands; the mad scientist is a “what if” on a micro scale, while the dystopian society is that “what if” on the macro scale.

SC: Don’t worry about that. Orwell only dabbled in fiction and concentrated on political observation: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism” (from his essay Why I Write) and social and spiritual subjects informed a lot of Huxley’s work. Based on your Lovecraft observation I’d say one of Orwell’s worries was how modern communication technology could negatively affect the culture: “As far as the mass of the people go, the extraordinary swings of opinion which occur nowadays, the emotions which can be turned on and off like a tap, are the result of newspaper and radio hypnosis” (Looking Back on the Spanish War). His experiences in the Spanish Civil War and his fear for the future based on those experiences eventually led him to write 1984. Not by coincidence did Winston Smith work in the Ministry of Truth. Just like your feelings that Lovecraft’s work just hits too close to home for comfort a lot of what Orwell had to say is perfectly relevant to our time.

PA: Absolutely. It’s usually small things that come true and carry on with deeper meaning into the future. Not necessarily the big end of the world stuff. We don’t actually have to worry about something like the China Syndrome, but, as in “The Whisperer in Darkness”, what if Academia is compromised, untrustworthy and has a hidden agenda that might not be in your best interest?

SC: And let’s add a modern twist: what if Academia is compromised, etc., has an agenda that is not in your best interest and you have to go into obscene levels of debt to “the old ones” to pay for their agenda?

PA: There’s a lot of potential for a story there, though it would be one very hard to get right. I suppose one could use that as headcanon for the Miskatonic School for Girls cardgame.

SC: Just read “The Whisperer in Darkness” and have to admit that even though I have read and enjoyed Lovecraft I didn’t know he was a Robert Chambers (The King in Yellow) fan (also have to admit I didn’t know about the King in Yellow or the Yellow Sign until watching the excellent Season 1 of True Detective).

Tell me if I’m off base here but when reading Lovecraft and Robert Chambers I enjoy the richness of their prose, something I feel is missing in modern fiction. They tell a “slow story” and it takes a lot of getting used to. There is subtlety and a need for the reader to supply a lot of imagination that isn’t necessary in the television age. I find myself skimming through the passages at times, even though I know I should slow down and enjoy the narrative for its own sake.

PA: Along with Poe and Dunsany, Chambers is probably one of Lovecraft’s most recognizable influences on the Mythos, though unlike Poe or Dunsany, you never hear much about him. The only works of Chambers I’ve read have been those collected in The King in Yellow (mostly because that was the only Chambers I’ve readily found). It offers an impressively dark vision of the future and portends some of the seedier and decadent elements of the roaring 20s and Weimar Republic. It feels like something that should’ve been written after World War One, not two decades before. The actual setting of The King in Yellow cycles strikes me as being far creepier than what mainstream Lovecraft fandom has managed to shoehorn into the Mythos.

As for being able to slow down and enjoy narratives, I think that the short format is much more conducive to that. When you’re not focused on finishing a book, you can take a bit more time to enjoy the story.

SC: Why Cirsova? What need prompted you to create this Zine?

PA: I figured if you wanted something done the way you wanted it, you needed to do it yourself. I love short fiction, but I was pretty disappointed with the sort of short fiction that’s been coming out of a lot of the bigger-named outlets. I thought “even if people are writing the kind of fiction I like, these guys sure as heck aren’t buying it.”

So, I started Cirsova as a semi-pro outlet that would encourage and support authors who were trying to sell stories in the neglected vein of action-packed science fiction and fantasy that I loved.

SC: The submission guidelines are pretty thorough. Based on your experience with Cirsova what should the modern aspiring SF author work on? What are the common pitfalls you see in failed submissions?

PA: I was pretty particular in what I was looking for, and I think that those guidelines really helped us get top quality stories. For our first issue, we bought just about all of the stories that were submitted to us, and they were all great. For our second submission period, we got a ton of stories, and so many of them were good, we not only filled our second issue, we filled a third and fourth issue.

We ended up buying almost as many stories as we turned away, and many we had to turn away just because we didn’t have space.

Really, check what the submissions guidelines are looking for and what an outlet has bought in the past. Know who you’re writing to. What would go great in a magazine like Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Grimdark or Red Sun would probably go over like a lead balloon in Analog, Clarkesworld, or Beneath the Ceaseless Skies and vice versa.

There were some stories that I enjoyed but just didn’t fit what I was looking for. There were other stories, however, that were so outside of what I was looking for that I wondered if I needed to add more details to my submission guidelines (they usually involved elves).

One problem I’ve seen is that people will write prologues or first chapters and submit them as short stories. You want a short story to leave you wanting more, but you don’t want it to stop before there’s a pay-off. I’ll point back to “Raiders of the Second Moon”; you can tell a story where more than one thing happens to the main character and there’s satisfying resolution in very little space.

SC: Conversely, what aspects of a submission make you sure the author has great potential?

PA: One nice thing about short fiction is you can typically tell if a story has potential within the first few paragraphs. Almost right away, a cool premise, a cool setting and a cool character are established. If they haven’t been, there’s something wrong. I can accept a slow burn, but even there, you can tell by the opening hook if it’s going to be worth your time.

SC: Any luck with getting players to play a D&D campaign in your original Cirsovan universe?

PA: No, but at this point, I wouldn’t want to. I don’t think it would be fun for players. If I were to ever run a game that focused on pirates and highway banditry (for which it was initially intended), I’d probably just come up with something new instead of trying to shoe-horn it into a low-to-no-magic setting with more history and background than actual adventure. If anyone is interested in “playing” in Cirsova, I’d recommend they read the branching-path gamebook I wrote a couple years back (City at the Top of the World).

SC: Any future plans to feature Cirsova in your writing (is City at the Top of the World influenced by Cirsova)?

PA: City at the Top of the World is a “prequel” to the Cirsova setting. The setting featured the last city of a decadent mystic race that players could have visited, done drugs in and experienced some of the setting’s limited magic. City at the Top of the World kind of explains why they’re down to one city.

At one point, I tried to write a gamebook that would’ve encompassed the opening chapters of what the D&D game set there would’ve consisted of, but it got bogged down in the ‘you-can-never-go-home’ prologue. After a dozen choice nodes and few thousand words leading to ‘everyone you know is dead, time to go on an adventure’, I didn’t much feel like writing the adventure. At least not with that beginning. I ended up working on some other writing projects, instead, but the magazine eats up a lot of my time, so I’m still struggling to finish a short novelette that may or may not show up in a future issue.

As for the Cirsova setting, someday I may revisit it, but I don’t have any plans to do so presently.

SC: Note to readers, I have Kindle Unlimited and you can borrow City at the Top of the World for free with Unlimited or purchase for $2.99 in the Kindle Store.

I enjoyed it, especially as I remember the branching path books which had a short run of popularity, way back when. If you didn’t like that genre I wouldn’t pay the $2.99 but for those wanting a well written diversion which requires thought on your part to move the story forward, it’s well worth it. I don’t think there is a perfect outcome for the protagonist in this one. I thought I had chosen well but ended up in a life of ennui. Check it out.

PA: I’ll admit, it’s more experimental than the sort of story I’d want to tell now, especially in that medium. But I wanted to see how a sort of Dunsanian horror-fantasy played out as a multi-path story and to play with the idea of agency in a rather hopeless situation.

In some ways, it’s like a Weird Fantasy version of Daredevil Park, where most endings were grim and the ‘good’ ending was “shut it down; just shut it all down, for the love of…” Ironically, for the protagonist of City, the best outcome (though not the canonical one) is probably the one where everything that happened to her was simply the dream of the White Lady of Polaris.

A lot of this story and the old Cirsova setting itself are influenced by Dunsany’s Gods of Pegana. The short prose poem The Eye in the Waste is just so inexplicably creepy, I can’t help but feel like countless authors from Lovecraft to myself have tried (and usually failed) to capture and recreate that absolutely terrifying vibe which that story gives off. Even looking at it now, it makes me shiver. It goes back to what I said about the Unknown; there’s not a big evil monster or a wizard beyond the desert; just another desert, and another and another, several where no human foot has ever set much less returned from, and at the heart of it is something that knows things that you do not and never will.

SC: I don’t have an off the top of my head example of an author that captured the essence of the horror you described but the unending nothingness does remind me of unpleasant dreams…..

PA: Dunsany is really able to capture that feeling in a way that very few writers can. One of my aims with City at the Top of the World was to try to tap into just a bit of that strange dreaming vision of the uncanny and bizarre. I especially wanted to grab onto that moment when, just before waking, the dream is at its most lucid right before spiraling into the chaos that prevents one from recalling those final moments that still made sense.

SC: I’m a Dungeon Master and interested in the Cirsova universe. Any chance you will release an e-book or zine edition; of what you have already created?

PA: Frankly, a lot of what’s there isn’t very good or particularly interesting. The best stuff I stole from Dunsany, Moorcock, and Elderscrolls in-game fiction. Trust me when I say you’re better off reading a couple authors of the Appendix N list (particularly Vance and Leiber) and making something up yourself. I ran out of steam before I could even finish histories/descriptions of all the cities. Even if I ever did finish it, I don’t feel like the quality is there to justify an e-book edition of the Encyclopedia of the Cirsovan Empire unless I did substantial rewrites. If anyone is really curious, all of the old ‘Encyclopedia Entry’ posts are still available on the sidebar.

SC: What are you playing now?

PA: Right now, the group I’m in has been playing a highly modified version of Warhammer Fantasy RPG. The setting is the same as the old DCC game we were playing a while back, but this has had more of a focus on urban intrigue. Which means turf-wars, gang-fights, finger-snapping musical numbers… It’s turned into a cross between Stalker and River City Ransom. Either you find a profitable protection racket or you die scrounging for copper and scrap-metal in the monster-infested abandoned half of the city.

While we haven’t kept up with regular session reports, my DM has a website here that will certainly give you the gist.

SC: In one of his Sensor Sweeps, Jeffro linked to a review that recommended Cirsova to: “Readers who would rather avoid any fantasy that could have been written later than the 1970s will certainly welcome this new small magazine”.

Major criticisms in the review included the fact that a story had a “complete absence of women” and that some stories relied upon “racist stereotype”. I guess I’m one of those that would “rather avoid any fantasy written later than the 1970s” as I didn’t notice anything outlandish.

PA: That was an interesting review for a number of reasons. First of all, though we clearly weren’t to the reviewer’s tastes, he was at least able to acknowledge the quality of product and saw that there were some people who would be interested. And it’s really an issue-by-issue thing, too. The first issue had a handful of stories with women as protagonists or significant characters (Cassandra from Melanie Rees’s Late Bloom, Nezumi and Fuyu from Donald J. Uitvlugt’s Hour of the Rat, Thorne from Brian K. Lowe’s Rose by Any Other Name, and Vraala and Ra’Ana from Abraham Strongjohn’s At the Feet of Neptune’s Queen); the stories in Issue 2 just fell differently, because they were selected from our big batch of accepted submissions primarily to complement Hernstrom’s novella (which took up nearly half the issue) and Cole’s new Dream Lords story. The reviewer might have felt differently had he been sent that issue, or issue 3 whose featured novelette has a woman living as a man in the tradition of the Albanian sworn virgins as a protagonist.

I don’t like to talk about Cirsova’s diversity, because I feel like it’s actually a disservice to our contributors to hold them up and say “Look, we found this or that minority; see how diverse we are?” It’s gross to me, frankly, but I feel like I see a lot of that going on. I won’t hold our contributors up because they’re a part of this or that identity group; I hold up our contributors because they write fantastic stories. That’s what really matters.

Sexuality (far more than ethnicity) of characters is one spot where it can be particularly difficult to write in a way that will appeal to most readers. This is because SFF is primarily a romance genre; there’s a catharsis when the main character ends up with their true love—when circumstances prevent this, it’s tragic (for instance, the tragedy of King Kull is that despite the obvious importance of love, the institution of marriage, and the idea of marrying for love, he himself never finds someone to settle down with; he has no heir and Volusia ostensibly falls to serpent men). But there has to be an empathetic level of connection between the reader and the character, and common sexual preference certainly gives the reader a foundation. Writing romance between heterosexual couples in a way that is realistic and entertaining is difficult enough; George Lucas forever branded himself an inhuman sexless weirdo because of how poorly the romance between Anakin and Padme was handled. I’m not saying it can’t be done or that it shouldn’t be done; I’m just saying to be aware that what may look like Midnight Cowboy to you could look like Ren & Stimpy’s Adult Cartoon Party to others. That said, if anyone wanted to tell a serious, straight-faced gay Sword & Sci-fi story, I’d strongly recommend first checking out Fist of the North Star, particularly the second season.

As for the general advice I’d give, tell a story in which interesting things happen. One complaint I’ve seen is that people aren’t actually writing stories, just mood and message pieces. If you’re using a story simply as a vehicle to push a message, it’ll fall flat with just about everyone who isn’t there just for the message in the first place. Avoid strawmen. Read stories from before 1950. For more detailed advice, awhile back I wrote a column on 5 tips for writing successful short fiction.

SC: I’ll check out Fist of the North Star. Hopefully, they “tell a good story” which is the heart of your five tips.

PA: Fist of the North Star is amazing; it’s a story about love, sacrifice, and family set against a post-apocalyptic wasteland where one man will protect the weak from the strong because of his intense sense of justice. It asks the question of whether a cruel and merciless hero (Raoh) can save humanity from destruction by imposing bloody order or if a strength derived from love for others above self (Kenshiro) can redeem mankind. But it also has a lot of really ripped dudes weeping as they cradle the shattered husks of their fallen foes because man-feels.

But yes, absolutely, tell a good story!

SC: Finally, how is Cirsova Magazine coming along? Any good news concerning increased readership and distribution?

PA: It’s a slow burn, but it’s been steadily increasing. We’re up to 100 “subscribers” through our 4th issue which just came out. We’re still looking for a means beyond kickstarter to do actual subscriptions, but we haven’t found anything yet that will both offer our readers a digital and physical subscription and maintain the levels of quality that our print edition has.

We have distribution primarily through Amazon, though people interested in our really fancy dust-jacketed hardcover editions can get them through Lulu. We’re also experimenting with Smashwords for additional digital distribution beyond Amazon, though I don’t know that we’ve seen many sales through that platform yet. The good news is that the last couple months has shown that people are starting to buy the back issues from Amazon. Ideally, these residual sales will help get us to where the magazine is self-sustaining someday. We want to keep buying stories and paying at least semi-pro rates.

We’re slowing down a bit for 2017, because the pacing of putting out a quarterly magazine when you’re running the show almost entirely by yourself is grueling and because we’re not in a position where we can sustain that level of activity without risking mental and financial burn-out. We didn’t really consider maintaining the pace we went with this year; we DID end up with so many great stories that we doubled the size of our winter issue, but another part of why we wanted to get out four issues in 2016 is that many awards require magazines to have published at least four issues to be eligible. We’re looking at putting out two issues next year and already have many of the stories picked out. I can promise you, we’ve got some great stuff coming up.

SC: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Looking forward to the next issue. Understand that you’ll slow down the past in 2017 to avoid burn out but what is the rough date you expect the next release to come out?

PA: Absolutely, it’s been a pleasure! The Winter issue just came out, so we’re probably going to be gearing up to take pre-orders for 2017 soon. We’re expecting our Eldritch Earth issue (Issue 5) to be out probably around late March or early April, while Issue 6 should be out probably around September. From there, we’ll have to see. If we get a sudden windfall, I may be tempted to put out three issues, but I’m wanting to set a little aside for other projects.

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