Editor Interview – Elliott Dunstan

To count down to the start of the submission period of our first anthology, CHRYSOPOEIA, we’ve put together some interviews with each of our editors! First up is ELLIOTT DUNSTAN. Elliott is the lead editor for Alkimia Fables, a resident of Canada and has his own blog up at elliottdunstan.com. 

In preparation for submissions opening, read over the Submission Guidelines and Upcoming Calls here!


What draws you to a story – the first thing that catches your interest and makes you want to read it?

DUNSTAN: Prose – sharp, interesting prose, wrapped around an idea. It doesn’t have to be perfect English (in fact, I’m all for artful butchering of languages) but for me, it does have to paint a picture, whether an emotional or a physical one. All the best first lines or paragraphs shoot for a particular idea or image right off the bat, and that’s what will catch me like a fishing hook.

The funniest thing about this, about the idea of using language, is that even utter nonsense can drag me in absolutely relentlessly. One of my favourite books is Stephen King’s Misery, and these are the opening lines:

“umber whunnnn
yerrrnnn umber whunnnn
These sounds: even in the haze.”

That – the idea of haziness and uncertainty and fog – that’s what you need to know, going into Misery. If you have that, and the title, you already have everything you need before reading that novel. And perhaps a few trigger warnings.


What’s your favourite piece of ‘classic’ media, and by contrast, something obscure or lesser-known that inspires you?

DUNSTAN: I’m really bad at picking favourites, but I feel like one of the only people who genuinely enjoys The Great Gatsby. I fully subscribe to the theory that Zelda Fitzgerald wrote some, if not all, of the novel – and it really is a good novel! (Novella, by today’s standards, I suppose.) I feel like a lot of the pushback against it by current readers is due to a desire to preserve the 1920s as ‘fun’, whereas Gatsby is pretty relentlessly cynical about the age it takes place in. And then you have the people who hate the 1920s and think it’s glorifying it, who I think just haven’t read the book at all.

My obscure favourite… Uh, well, I have a lot. But for this, I’m going to pick Then Again by Elyse Friedman. It’s a book about growing up traumatized, Jewish and mentally ill, and being forced into somebody else’s vision of your past – Michelle Schafer is invited home after twenty years to a ‘Blast from the Past’ party, hosted by her brother in a fully-reconstructed version of her childhood home. Including actors for her very, very dead parents. The writing is absolutely top-notch, and the premise walks the line between absurdist and dark. And yes, I recognize that neither of these are fantasy – but there’s SO much good literature out there. Why limit yourself?


What are your personal feelings on the limitations and possibilities of genre and medium?

DUNSTAN: I’m a big, big fan of experimental formats, and not necessarily in the sense of ‘be as weird as possible for the sake of weirdness’. More in the sense of… How does a particular format engage with your reader, with your audience? What part does the reader play in the story? The most obvious use of this is obviously metafiction and choose-your-own-adventure stories, and the next step down is The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, in which Bastian as the reader is an inescapable part of the tale. But it’s at work in choices as simple as present tense versus past tense as well. Is this a retrospective tale, or one you’re watching as it happens? Or future tense – a rarely-used tense where you feel like an oracle, or a dreamer? Point of view is the same, again.

Genre is, to me, very similar. I personally think genre labels can be just as inhibiting as they are useful – they create expectations that readers unconsciously or consciously follow, and writers end up binding themselves by those expectations. If you’re reading a fantasy work, your capacity to believe whatever happens next is less constrained than if you’re reading, say, a cowboy western – but it’s still constrained by what is Acceptable In Fantasy. It’s why I like magical realism and fabulism; there’s less definition, and more ability for the genre to simply describe what probably falls into it.


What interests you about urban fantasy as a setting?

DUNSTAN: I will draw attention to that word – setting. Urban fantasy is so, so much about setting – it’s about the way cities live and breathe. Much of high fantasy is very pastoral, owing to its Tolkienesque roots. And that’s wonderful! Many of us need more talking trees and forest spirits in our lives. However, for a lot of writers that simply isn’t our reality anymore. Urban fantasy lets us explore the mystical and strange in settings we know and understand, without us having to spend, oh, three hours looking up how pumpkin farming works. Not that I’ve ever done that.

The other thing about urban fantasy is that – done right – it can’t ignore the reality of diversity. Even the bad ones, you can see the holes in their world where the Indian convenience store owners or their black schoolmates or the Asian grocery mart should be – especially the ones set in New York or Los Angeles. Twilight, that much maligned trendsetter of paranormal romance, as much as I personally despise it, had a Native American tribe of werewolves. (The actual accuracy of their depiction is besides the point; but it’s certainly a far cry from the standard Noble Savage Elves.)


What are some stories or identities you’d like to see more of?

DUNSTAN: I am particularly fond of Jewish diaspora tales, particularly people who reconnected with Judaism later on in life; also of autistic main characters, characters with personality disorders (borderline and narcissistic, in particular; when they show up it tends to be overwhelmingly negative), and characters with complex relationships with their own sexuality and gender. Messy queer narratives are fantastic – often the path to “I Am This!” isn’t clearcut, or some folks never even get there. We make mistakes, we have unhealthy relationships, we do bad things to each other and apologize clumsily with hands that can heal and hurt with equal force –

I’m also very interested in the short- and long-term effects of trauma, and how much it can differ from person to person. There’s actually an episode of Grey’s Anatomy (I know, I know) that handles this absolutely beautifully – in the aftermath of a shooting that killed several doctors, the main cast stars in a documentary. Most of the cast has PTSD, and they all respond to it so differently, some of them healing faster than others, and it’s one of my favourite and most surprising representations of grief. While actually examining the trauma in question isn’t necessary for this anthology and setting, it’s certainly something I welcome and enjoy reading and editing. It is, however, just as effective when it underlies other narratives as a quiet shadow.


What are some tropes in media that you feel are overdone, harmful or just hit personal gripes?

DUNSTAN: The perfect trauma victim; the (usually) woman who quietly suffers, cries out her pain once, maybe twice, and maybe walks around sadly. She’ll have associations, but they’ll be mild, and the kind of thing a Helpful Person can guide her through. Her trauma doesn’t intrude on her day-to-day life, and it’s never, even once, disabling. Bull. I’m sure trauma victims and survivors like this exist, but it’s so hard to see, over and over again. I want to see trauma reactions that are messy, and varied, and don’t make sense, and don’t stay within the lines. Socially unacceptable reactions to trauma, “unreasonable” reactions to trauma.

The other one that I’m tired of – that most everybody I know is tired of – is ‘bury your gays’. The dead queers. I don’t care how angsty you’re trying to be, if your first targets when you want to kill characters are the queer and LGBT+ characters, then that’s a problem. I’ve heard a whole range of excuses for it too, ranging from ‘if they’re only introduced to die it doesn’t count’, to ‘when X author/writer does it it’s fine’. If you have a miniscule amount of queer/LGBT+ characters compared to your straight ones, and they’re the ones who end up dead, I have questions. Same goes if they’re the ones who end up maimed, or hurt, or traumatized.


What fictional character would be your ideal roommate?

DUNSTAN: Inej Ghafa from Six of Crows. We’d be chill. Barring that, probably Liliana from Magic: The Gathering, because nobody would ever try to steal our stuff. That’s how you get cursed. Or turned into a zombie.


What element would you most want to be in the Alkimia setting?

DUNSTAN: Probably Earth, actually. The idea of getting to move things with my mind is pretty cool, and it seems less prone to easy disaster than some of the others. I love all the elements though! And besides, there’s way to have all of them cause major trouble, if you know which buttons to push. *evil laughter*

Keep an eye open for Alkimia Fables’s first submission period, opening August 17th!


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