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Interview with Lesley Conner, Editor at Apex Magazine

I was honoured to pull up a pew with Lesley Conner, Managing Editor at Apex Magazine. We chat about the current Apex Kickstarter campaign, Jason Sanford’s upcoming novel Plague Birds and some of Lesley’s favourite Apex stories over the years. This was a ton of fun and do make sure you go here to back the Kickstarter campaign to ensure another year of Apex Mag putting out their own unique brand of weird, dark speculative fiction.

Hi Lesley, as a big Apex fan it’s a pleasure to get to chat to you about the Apex Kickstarter campaign! But before we dive into that proper, can you tell us a bit about who Apex are and the kind of fiction you publish for those who might not be familiar?

Certainly! Apex Magazine is a bi-monthly digital zine that comes out in beautiful eBook editions (PDF, ePub, and mobi formats), as well as being published online over the course of two months. Our team includes editor-in-chief Jason Sizemore, special fiction editor Maurice Broaddus, and our nonfiction editors Shana DuBois and ZZ Claybourne. KT Bryski is our podcast producer. And I’m the managing editor. Apex Magazine publishes dark science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Those stories that blend genre and push boundaries. The stories that are filled with marrow and passion, works that are twisted, strange, and beautiful. We strive to publish stories that will entertain you, while featuring work from a diverse community of writers. Our goal is to challenge your perceptions, rattle your beliefs, and shake you free of the expected path.

When the magazine relaunched this year I was beyond impressed with the quality of the stories. Two of my favourites were Mr Death by the wonderful Alix Harrow and Root Rot by the then unknown to me Fargo Tbakhi. What was it about these two stories that made you sit up and think “Yes. We need to publish this”, and what made them Apex stories in particular?

Root Rot. Oh…just thinking about that story makes my chest ache. And, I guess, in a way, that is the answer to your question. Apex stories are the ones that grab hold of you and pull you through. They’re the ones that leave you feeling breathless or with an ache deep inside. They typically invoke a strong emotional reaction, sometimes making you cringe but at the same instance you can’t turn away. You have to keep reading. And when you’re done, you need to read the story again. When I’m reading through submissions, when I come across a story like Mr. Death or Root Rot and it leaves me stunned at the end, flooded with emotion, that’s when I know it’s an Apex story.

On top of the magazine, Apex publishes novels and novellas too! I saw the cover art for Jason Sanford’s upcoming sci-fi debut Plague Birds recently and was blown away! How do you decide what art to commission for your covers and can you tell us what Plague Birds is about?

Thank you so much! Marcela Bolivar did an amazing job with the cover art for Plague Birds! She is so incredibly talented!  Most of the time, Apex doesn’t commission new artwork for our novels. I work with the author to find out what sort of image they’d like for their covers, and then I go on the hunt for existing artwork that fills that need. I then contact the artist to see if the rights for the art are available. Most of the time we’re able to find outstanding work that way, but for some novels, such as Plague Birds, we know original artwork will work best. I’m lucky enough to have worked with tons of artists over the years of finding artwork for Apex Magazine. When we decide to commission artwork, we usually have a good idea of which artist would work best.

Plague Birds is a genre-bending mix of science fiction and dark fantasy and the epic story of a young woman who becomes one of the future’s most hated creatures, with a killer AI bonded to her very blood. I am extremely excited to hear readers’ reactions to this novel! Jason Sanford is a fantastic author!

Plague Birds by Jason Sanford, releases September 21st 2021 from Apex Book Company. You can preorder the book here.

Ok so let’s dive into the Kickstarter campaign! What’s the campaign fundraising for and, given that Apex was self-sustaining for a long time prior to the relaunch, what’s the reason for needing to crowdfund at all?

This is a great question! The Kickstarter campaign’s main focus is to secure funding for 2022. As of right now, we have successfully funded four of the six issues slated for next year, and are super close to reaching funding for the fifth issue! We’re getting down to the wire, so I’m starting to get a bit nervous!

In 2019, we had to put Apex Magazine on hiatus, while our editor-in-chief Jason Sizemore dealt with some pretty extensive health issues. I won’t go into all the details here, but I will say that his entire lower jawbone was replaced with titanium and bone grafted from his leg. Multiple surgeries and a lot of recuperation have him back up and running, but it was a long road getting here! Apex Magazine was self-sustaining before the hiatus. We had a decade of publishing and 120 issues of the magazine under our belt. Ten years of building a subscriber base. People were able to subscribe direct through Apex, through Weightless Books, or Amazon’s Kindle Periodicals program. We had a LOT of subscribers through the Kindle Periodicals program. A lot. When we went on hiatus, we were removed from that program, which wasn’t a big deal at the time. Now Amazon is closed to new magazines for that program. It doesn’t matter that we participated in the past. That means everyone who prefers to subscribe through Amazon is out of luck.

We’re working to rebuild our subscriber base. We’re also building a patron base through Patreon. Despite working hard since we decided to bring the magazine back, we haven’t yet reached a subscriber/patron base that will completely sustain the magazine. Part of this is due to people not being aware that we’re back. Part of this is due to people not being able to subscribe through Amazon. And I’m sure part of this is because many people like backing projects through campaigns like Kickstarter. It gives them the chance to grab extra goodies from some of their favorite publishers.

Some of the authors you’ve committed to working with so far include Gabino Iglesias, Jennifer Marie Brisset, Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, Samit Basu and Lavie Tidhar. What kind of stories have you commissioned from them and why are you excited to work with these writers in particular?

Nearly all of Apex’s short fiction comes from our slush pile, which means if there’s a particular author we’d like to work with, then we need to try and get them when we do things like Kickstarters. So this year, Jason made a list of authors who we haven’t had much of a chance to work with, but who’s writing aesthetic fits Apex’s. Gabino, Jennifer, Bonnie Jo, Samit, and Lavie all said yes to his query. As for what sort of stories they’ll write, I don’t know. We’ll have to see what they turn in!

One of the pretty awesome reward levels is a Dinner With The Editors tier, with yourself, Jason Sizemore and the spellbindingly interesting Maurice Broaddus (author of Pimp My Airship). What’s your vote on the choice of cuisine and what literary insights and table talk can backers expect from Jason, Maurice and yourself?

I am not a picky eater, so really, I am up for almost anything when it comes to cuisine. Jason and I both love Indian food, so if we could find an Indian restaurant, that would be fantastic, but anything is fine. Mexican, sushi, Italian, American. As long as there’s good friends and good drinks, I’m happy! As for what to expect from Jason, Maurice, and I…that feels like a dangerous question! The three of us have worked together and been friends for years, so I think backers who would pick up this reward should expect to hear stories they won’t hear anywhere else. Plus, we’re going to want to know about you! Are you a writer? What do you like to read? Do you have any tattoos? Can I see them? (Okay, this question will probably only come from me, because I love tattoos, and I’ll definitely want to show you mine.) This reward is just a great way to get to really know Jason, Maurice, and I, and maybe make some friends. Jason and I did one of these dinners a few years ago with Brian Keene and Mary Sangiovani. The guy who bought the reward is someone who I still chat with through social media and I know Jason and I are both cheering on his writing successes.

There’s a whole bunch of Apex swag to be obtained too – really cool bamboo bookmarks, Apex stickers and a writing journal but I’m very interested in the Green Alien Tea Blend! I know we’re both tea lovers, so tell me a bit about this Green Alien Tea???

I do love a great cup of tea! Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about the tea beyond the Kickstarter description, which says it’s a citrusy ginger green tea. Jason gets to have all the fun! He went to hang out with the awesome Starship Tea Company and taste tested a few special brews. He texted me to ask me about some of my tea preferences, but I live too far away from Lexington to get to join in the fun. 😦 I really, really want some of that tea! Jason told me it was awesome!

Finally (and I almost feel bad about this question, but not bad enough not to ask it), what is one of your all time favourite stories you’ve ever published since working with Apex and why has it stuck with you?

Asking an editor to choose one favorite story is like asking a book lover to pick one favorite book. Or asking a parent to pick a favorite kid! Impossible! I’m cheating! Here’s some of my favorite stories we’ve published in Apex Magazine and why:

“Root Rot” by Fargo Tbakhi – As you mentioned earlier, this story is an emotional powerhouse! It blew me away when I read it in our submissions and I knew that it needed to be published by Apex.

“Captain Midrise” by Jim Marino– This is a story about an aging superhero and what all that can mean. It’s an incredibly sentimental story, that is light but sad at the same time. Honestly, it’s this combination of levity with sadness that makes it one of my favorites.

“Mishpokhe and Ash” by Sydney Rossman-Reich – This story made it through the Apex slush pile twice! We’d accepted it prior to the hiatus, and then had to release it. When we came back, Sydney resubmitted it. I had never stopped thinking about this story, which is an alternate history sci-fi tale, and when I saw it in the slush pile again, I immediately grabbed it, read it again, and sent it up to Jason. It’s an incredibly powerful story.

“Field Biology of the Wee Fairies” by Naomi Kritzer – When I read this story, I immediately fell in love. It’s about female empowerment and STEM and being true to yourself. With fairies! I’m pretty sure my note to Jason said, “This is the story young Lesley needed.”

“The Life and Death of Mia Fremont: An Interview with a Killer” by A.K. Hudson – If “Field Biology of the Wee Fairies” is the story young Lesley needed, then “The Life and Death of Mia Fremont” is the story grownup Lesley needs! This story! Ugh! It is so clever and so twisty and so perfect! By the end of it, when everything clicked into place, I was yelling “Yes!” out loud in my living room, which surely startled poor Mr. Oz (my dog).

“Throw Rug” by Aurelius Raines II – The last two were stories I needed. This story is one we all need. It’s quieter than a lot of the stories that Apex publishes. The speculative element weaves itself through the narrative so deftly that it’s nearly invisible, but there is something so compelling that you can’t stop reading. Honestly, I can’t wait to see what Aurelius publishes next.

“Blood on Beacon Hill” by Russell Nichols – I need to tell you a little story about this one. The day I first read this story, I had been reading submissions all day. Like, a mind-numbing amount of time. Way too long, if I’m being honest. When this story came up in my queue, I’d already decided it was going to be the last one I read that day. Then I saw the word count and groaned. This is a hefty story – more than 7,000 words. I started reading and groaned again. This is a vampire story! Ugh! I’ve read enough vampire stories to last me a lifetime. I mentally had to shake myself. I was tired, and if I was going to give this story a fair shake, then I needed to focus. I started to read again. What unfolded before me was so much more than a vampire story. This is a story about race, politics, family dynamic, and so much more. The courtroom style prose was reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, Teddy Attucks’ family was completely enthralling, and the ending is incredibly powerful. I finished reading “Blood on Beacon Hill” and immediately went back to the beginning and started reading it again. Russel Nichols gained a forever fan in me that day! If you haven’t read this story, stop what you’re doing, and read it now.

I could go on. Pretty much every story published in the magazine is one that I read and bumped up to Jason. I love them all! But I think this is a good place to start.

Great list of stories to read while I eagerly await the next issue of Apex Magazine! Thanks so much for chatting with me Lesley, this has been awesome. Good luck with the rest of the Kickstarter and I’m looking forward to much more dark, strange, weird fiction from Apex in the future!

Thank you so much for letting me pop by! It was lots of fun chatting, and I hope everyone will stop by the Kickstarter and consider backing Apex Magazine so we can fully fund all of 2022. All six issues will be funded when we hit $22,000. If we really stretch and hit $26,000, then we’ll add a bonus issue next year featuring Asian and Pacific Islander authors and artists! 

Make sure you go back the Apex Kickstarter. It’s running until Wednesday 18th August 2021 and there’s a ton of great rewards available but, most importantly, you’ll be ensuring a fantastic magazine continues to publish groundbreaking speculative fiction throughout 2022. Click here or on the image below to go to the Kickstarter page and thrown your money at this project!

Lesley Conner is a writer/editor, managing editor of Apex Publications, and a Girl Scout leader. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two daughters, and is currently working on a new novel. To find out all her secrets, you can follow her on Twitter at @LesleyConner.

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