Joe Sullivan: You’re well-known in speculative fiction, as Managing/Senior Editor at Lightspeed and now as Editor-in-Chief at Nightmare. What was your path into professional editing?
Wendy N. Wagner: I started out as a volunteer! I had a friend who was volunteering as one of John Joseph Adams’s editorial assistants, and she realized he needed a few more hands on deck. Since I’d just sold him a short story (for his anthology The Way of the Wizard), he knew I was a decent writer, so he let me jump into a few anthology projects. We realized we worked together really well, so I just wound up sticking around.
If you have the time for it, volunteering is a great way to make connections and learn new things in this industry. When I first got serious about writing, I had a job, student loan debt, and a toddler, so going to a big workshop wasn’t remotely feasible. But I had an internet connection and a few hours every day after my daughter went to sleep. I used them the best that I could!
The second question in and I’m already going to ask you to expound on the nebulous. Genre fiction, especially horror, seems to thrive when an old trope is brought back and reimagined and reinvigorated by a group of talented writers for a brief window. Are there any current themes in horror that seem to be irrupting(or at least bubbling under the surface) in your inbox at Nightmare?
I’ve been working at Nightmare since 2014, and in that time I’ve definitely seen some trends in the genre. For some reason, between 2014 and 2019, sin eaters made a lot of appearances in the slush pile!
Strangely, I haven’t seen any serious trends showing up in the last six months. There’s been a small increase in vampire stories, I think, and of course a ton of evil mermaid stories (that’s the influence of Mermaids Monthly Magazine, a one-year-long themed project). I’m kind of hoping the success of Stephen Graham Jones’s novella The Night of the Mannequins and Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy might spark a resurgence in slasher stories. But you can never predict these things: I thought we’d see a zillion witch or historical horror stories after The VVitch came out, and that never really came true.
I personally think there’s been a thematic resurgence with the Faustian bargain. But it seems to have more of a self-sacrificial twist to it. You published a story with us last year, “The Deer God,” which to me is a great example of this–and I believe you’ve developed this story into your soon-to-be-released horror novel The Deer Kings? I thought the Deer God was a great character. Will he be returning in the novel?
Thank you so much for your kind words! “The Deer God” is one of my very favorite stories that I’ve written. And the Deer God himself is definitely my favorite monster. He’s so powerful, evil, and yet weirdly banal—like I love the fact he’s such a big fan of Rick Astley.
That Faustian bargain lies at the heart of both the short story and the novel, but the novel really looks at the concept both more broadly and more deeply. It’s the story of a man (his name is still Gary and he still loves to go running, but other than that, he’s a totally different character than the guy in the short story) who is forced to move back to his hometown when his wife gets her dream job. Once he arrives, he realizes that there’s a cult in town that’s worshipping a creature he and his friends summoned when they were young teens. Now he has to reconnect with his old friends and remember what kind of deal they struck with the Deer God—before the cult targets Gary’s family for their biggest and most dangerous ritual.
I’ve also seen a little bit about your Neon Hemlock novella The Secret Skin. Is it a ghost story? What can you tell us about it at this point?
The Secret Skin is definitely a ghost story! It’s a gothic tale set in the 1920s, about a young woman who goes back to her family’s mansion on the Oregon coast to help watch her niece while her brother honeymoons with his second wife. Of course, a lot of terrible things have happened in the house, and none of the characters are quite what they seem, so there’s lots of mysterious and spooky moments. If you like haunted houses and stories about families with dark secrets, it’s a book for you.
It’s not uncommon for a writer to take a break from writing as they become more in-demand as an editor. How have you managed to get your magazine work done and still have time to produce novel-length fiction? You’re certainly reading more contemporary horror as an editor–do you find that this is helpful for your writing?
Oof. Sometimes striking that balance is so hard. It’s so easy to let the magazines suck up all of my time, because there are definite deadlines and because there are so many people depending on me to take care of things. I could never let JJA down, for example.
For me what works is making a schedule and sticking to it. I like to get in some of my own work in the morning and then use the afternoon to focus on editing. I usually use evenings to read slush or work on author promotional stuff. I think I’m writing much more slowly now than I used to, but at least I’m getting a little bit done on most days.
I tend to take most of my inspiration from nonfiction and the visual arts, so reading a lot of new horror stories doesn’t really seem to stir up my brain. In fact, it can be really draining. When I’m reading a lot of submissions—and we get about 1200 when we open for our two-week submissions periods, which happen twice a year—I find myself quite tired and depressed and I struggle to get to any of my own work. It’s kind of terrible! I’m hoping I can find a way to feel better while I’m slushing.
Lastly, are there any John Joseph Adams editor tips or tricks you’ve picked up along the way that you can share?
JJA is an absolute wizard of titles! Just about any time we get a story with a title that’s only one or two words long, he will ask the writer to dig deeper and find a longer, more evocative story title. And a big part of that is because a title is really the only selling tool a short story has. Like books have covers and blurbs and back cover material, but most people will only ever see a short story’s title.
Coming up with an exciting title can be difficult, but John can always find some cool line in a story and tweak it until it’s the perfect title. I’m really trying to figure out how he does it!
Wendy N. Wagner is the editor-in-chief of Nightmare Magazine and the managing/senior editor of Lightspeed. Her short stories, essays, and poems run the gamut from horror to environmental literature. Her longer work includes the novella The Secret Skin, the horror novel The Deer Kings, the Locus bestselling SF eco-thriller An Oath of Dogs, and two novels for the Pathfinder role-playing game. She lives in Oregon with her very understanding family, two large cats, and a Muppet disguised as a dog.