Heather Shaw is an editor, writer, performer, mother, lindy hopper, and bookkeeper living in Berkeley CA with her husband and son. In addition to editing Persistent Visions, she has in the past edited poetry, erotica, catalog copy, and technical manuals. Her fiction has appeared in nice places like Strange Horizons and The Year’s Best Fantasy, and she’s performed everywhere from small stages in San Francisco to the Lollapalooza poetry tent back in the ’90s. In her spare time she enjoys rehearsing jazz numbers from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s with the Someday Sweethearts, a chorus girl group she belongs to, making up games with her son, and sewing all the things.
Give us some background on the magazine you edit, Persistent Visions. Who founded it, and when, and how did you become editor?Back in 2015, Christophe Pettus came to me with the idea for Persistent Visions. As a longtime fan of science fiction, he was distressed by the Sad Puppy situation, and was complaining about it on Twitter when it occurred to him: he could bitch about it, or he could do something productive, like start a magazine that specifically gave marginalized voices a platform. We met and discussed his vision, and what I could bring to the table as fiction editor. I’ve been writing and publishing and going to the occasional con for over a decade, and know a lot of people in the field, almost all of whom write and read the kind of stuff we wanted to feature. I’d also edited an erotica ’zine (Fishnet) published by Christophe in the past, so he knew and trusted my taste in fiction as well.
It took us some time to get the website up and running, and do all of the internal organization that goes with any project. I started by soliciting stories from writers I knew and liked before we had our submission system in place. I got some good stuff from that, but I was a bit blown away by the flood of submissions that came in when we opened our call to everyone. I’d never edited for a magazine paying pro rates before, and we’ve had a lot of interest. Many of the stories in the slush pile were from people I’d never heard from before, so it’s been a great journey of discovery for me.
Does Persistent Visions have a mission statement, or is there a particular niche you aim to fill in the field? What sets you apart?
We aim to mainly feature stories by and about other voices – stories about women, people of color, people with disabilities…. As I say in my guidelines, I’m looking for ‘‘stories that include a diverse cast of characters, that challenge conventional assumptions regarding race, relationships, gender, neurodiversity, disability, and sexuality in thought-provoking, exciting new ways. Show us the people we will be, or illuminate the path we’re taking to get there. We want science fiction and fantasy that is truly revolutionary, and that embraces the variety of human experience in all of its glory.’’
One of the best things I’ve discovered in the year we’ve been buying stories is that my own assumptions have been challenged. Writers have found ways to incorporate their examinations of these topics with SFnal tropes that have truly delighted, surprised, and touched me. ‘‘The Sound of His Voice’’ by William Jablonsky springs to mind. The story is about a mother dealing with her son who has been infected by a zombie virus, and the amount of prejudice she gets while trying to manage her son in public is familiar to any parent, but particularly those whose children have unusual difficulties or come from marginalized backgrounds.
I’m also pleased to have found stories about even more universal human experiences, which just happen to have characters who aren’t the usual cis-straight-white-male default we see too often. Amy Ogden’s ‘‘To Touch the Sun Before it Fades’’ is set on Pluto, and is a story about losing a loved one when you’re too far away to see them before they pass away. The main character and her family in the story are polyamorous, but the story isn’t about polyamory. I love stories that do that – just present people with unusual lifestyles as regular characters. It helps normalize ideas that some people might not otherwise have experience with.
Your magazine has a focus on diversity and new writers. How do you encourage submissions from a wide range of authors?
We put a wide call out when we opened for submissions, I personally pinged authors I knew who came from a wide range of backgrounds, and I made it clear that I would prioritize stories by and about those with marginalized voices. We have a checkbox on our submission form where you can let me know you’re a new author (that is, never sold a SFWA eligible story before). We don’t ask for race or other details (although I have started asking for pronoun preference once I’ve bought a story, so I can refer to the person properly in my editor notes), but some authors have chosen to mention these things in their cover letters. It isn’t a make-or-break factor – I have published stories by white people who appear to be cis and straight and male, and just being something other than that isn’t going to make me buy a story that isn’t up to our standards – but it is definitely a factor I consider each time I buy a story.
I’m delighted by the number of authors from other countries I see. It’s definitely more of a challenge to edit those stories – when I was doing Hannah Onoguwe’s ‘‘Tony(e)’’, I found myself googling Nigerian words and customs, and I asked her questions to make sure I was understanding what she wanted to present about the culture, so I wouldn’t accidentally cut something just because I didn’t get it at first.
I’ve noticed that I have certain habits I’m developing as an editor. I’m pretty harsh when it comes to descriptions of a woman’s body – if you have a paragraph where you introduce three male characters and one woman, and you only tell me what the woman looks like, I’m not likely to trust you as my kind of writer. I have bought stories that had some problematic, fat-shaming lines in them that I have asked authors to cut, if they didn’t otherwise contribute to the narrative.
Feminist and body size issues are easier, however, than issues pertaining to groups I’m not a part of. I don’t want to publish a story that has a character with autism if that story is going to upset that community by getting something wrong.It’s the same thing with stories about trans people, or stories about people with disabilities, etc. This is when that friendly note in the cover letter, letting me know the author’s experience with, or membership in those groups, is so helpful! I am much more likely to trust a member of a community to get it right than someone else – although I definitely have seen great pieces by folks who fit into the latter. I do my best to keep up with the current acceptable ways of talking about these things, because I know we’re all capable of making mistakes now and then, despite our best intentions. I want our magazine to get it as right as possible, though!
What’s happening next? Are there any upcoming stories or projects you’re particularly excited about?
There’s one story coming up, called ‘‘RIBSian Joke’’ by Avi Naftali, that I read once and got that glorious tingly feeling you get when you read a really great story. When you get to buy that story, and get it illustrated and help show it to the world, that tingly feeling becomes such a high! It’s the kind of surreal piece that’s close enough to magical realism to give it a dreamlike quality – that sense of the familiar mixed liberally with great dollops of whimsy. I get something new out of it every time I read it, and I’m really excited to be publishing it.
We’re coming up on our one-year anniversary (we launched at WorldCon last year, though we won’t be represented in Helsinki this year, alas), and we’re starting to look at putting together audio books and anthologies of the stories we’ve published. I’m hoping to put together a reading at a local bookstore soon that features authors who’ve been published in Persistent Visions so far (living in the San Francisco Bay Area means I have a decent pool to choose from here, too).
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you or the work you do?
I’m still a writer, even if this magazine is taking up the majority of my writing time lately! My husband, Tim Pratt, and I are launching a Kickstarter in June for The Christmas Mummy and Other Carols, a collection of all of our holiday stories that have been featured in Podcastle every year for the past eight years, plus some additional and new holiday pieces as well. I am one of the rotating hosts of a monthly local event in San Francisco called Saturday Write Fever, where writers get 30 minutes to write a monologue based on a prompt, and then actors have five minutes to rehearse it before performing it on stage. It’s an instant, mini-new-plays festival, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s the second Saturday of every month at the Exit Theatre, and I would love to see more of the SF/F community come out and show their stuff there!