Apex has always had a reputation as a writer’s magazine. I still remember discovering it alongside Strand and F&SF in the magazine section of my local Barnes & Noble. I took a chance on that little digest and was introduced to a host of up and coming writers that now dominate genre fiction. Over the past decade, I’ve watched Apex grow in stature, garnering awards and dedicated readers by taking chances on new writers and unusual ideas. The magazine is in the middle of its annual subscription drive, and I wanted to take the opportunity to sit down with managing editor, Lesley Conner, to talk about the behind-the-scenes process of discovering new talent and what we can expect in the future.
JG: When I’m editing an anthology, I’m accustomed to reading a thousand submissions to get down to twenty-five stories, but I do that once every two or three years. At Apex Magazine, you see that volume every month. I’m sure readers and perspective writers would love a window into that process. How many stories get handed up to you from slush readers in an average month? And how many of those end up in the conversation when it’s time to put together the issue?
LC: You know I’ve never really thought about how many stories get bumped up to me out of the slush pile, I just read them and try to not fall too far behind. Since you asked, I did some digging … Holy moly! It’s a LOT! Looking at the number of stories currently sitting in my queue, I would estimate that our slush readers bump up between 100 and 200 stories to me each month. That is out of 800 to 1,200 submissions. (I suddenly understand why I always feel like I’m behind on slush!) Of those, I push maybe 20 or 30 on up to Jason Sizemore.
The final decision of which stories make it into each issue of Apex Magazine always comes down to Jason, but we do discuss some stories more than others. Usually these are stories that either I am WAY excited about—sending Jason a 5am text that reads “Read the story I just sent you. NOW! It is so good! I want it!”—or stories that for one reason or another Jason isn’t 100% sold on but he feels something is there worth looking at closer. That’s when I put on my English major hat (which is usually stuffed under the bed, dusty and unused) and he and I pull apart the story, discussing everything from theme to pacing to characterization. Maybe this proves what I dork I am, but I love when we discuss stories this way.
JG: It’s always difficult to answer that “what are you looking for question” with more than broad platitudes about snappy prose, great characters and strong plot. Tell me about a story that came up through the slush that you fell in love with and championed. What grabbed you about it? What made the story special to you.
LC: “Blood on Beacon Hill” by Russell Nichols is a story I pulled really hard for. Mainly because I didn’t want to like it. I know, that sounds horrible, but hear me out. First, it’s a vampire story. I don’t know about you, but I am burned out on vampires. I don’t want to read them anymore. Second, it’s a looonnnngggg story. Over 7,000 words! I pulled it out of the slush pile and started reading it one Friday afternoon. The sun was shining and it was warm and I was sleepy and did not want to spend half an hour reading another story. I wanted to take a nap. Probably not the best frame of mind to be in when reading slush, but there you are. So I start reading this story, grumbling to myself, wanting to be done, and the next thing I knew I was hooked! I got to the end of it and all I could think was “Wow! That story was amazing!”
I sent it up to Jason. I tacked on a note saying something to the effect of “To Kill a Mockingbird meets Jerry Springer with vampires! I know, I know, but trust me, this is great!” Honestly, I expected him to reject it—long vampire stories are a hard sell—but I couldn’t get the story out of my mind. If you’ve read the story, then you know To Kill a Mockingbird meets Jerry Springer with vampires describes it pretty darn well, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about race and family responsibilities. It’s about knowing that no matter what you do society is always going to see you in the wrong. It’s about your father expecting you to do things his way, society believing you’ll do things another way, and desperately wanting to be allowed to just be you and find your own way without the expectations pressing on you. It’s a wonderful story, and I kind of want to go read it again right now.
JG: You also select the art for each issue. I know your grandfather was an artist and your father has a degree in art. You grew up surrounded by it. We’ve talked about Dali and other genre inspiring artists. Favorite painting? Favorite Apex Cover? What goes into the process of selecting a cover for the magazine?
LC: Hmmm, I don’t know that I have a favorite painting. For me that would be like choosing a favorite book—an impossible task that lends itself to hours of conversation with me showing you a bunch of artwork. But there are several artists who I count among my favorites. As you mentioned, I adore Salvador Dali. He’s the first artist where I recognized that I liked his body of work, rather than just an individual piece.
As for favorite covers, both Adrian Borda (issues 71 and 93) and Marcela Bolivar (issue 87 and upcoming issue 96) are absolutely amazing! I actually own prints from both of them because I love their work so much. I also think the cover for issue 94 is incredible. The artist is Caroline Jamhour, and her use of color is something else. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for more from her!
Finding cover art for the magazine is one of my favorite tasks. I heavily rely of artists’ portfolios on DeviantArt. When we need to line up some art, I’ll spend a couple of hours browsing the site. Typically I’m not looking for anything in particular. We don’t try to match artwork with stories necessarily, so instead I’m looking for a certain aesthetic, something that screams “Apex” when I see it. Luckily, I don’t seem to have much problem finding that. Actually, I tend to find too much that I love, but that’s great! We end up with amazing covers and I get to discover and correspond with artists all over the world.
JG: Elevator pitch time. Make the case for checking out a free issue online and then subscribing.
LC: Month after month, Apex Magazine publishes some of the biggest names in genre fiction such as Walter Mosley, Lavie Tidhar, Damien Angelica Walters, and Nisi Shawl, plus strives to find bold new voices just breaking onto the scene. Each issue is available to read online for free, helping to make sure that fantastic short fiction is available to all, but subscriptions are what keep us going. So if you enjoy superb storytelling, give us a try, and then, if you like what you see, pick up a subscription for less than $20 for a year and let us deliver each new issue to you.
JG: Behind Lesley Conner, managing editor, lurks Lesley Conner the writer. Your first novel debuted last year. Tell us a little about it and what you’re working on now.
LC: Thanks, Jerry! Yes, I do also write in addition to editing. My first novel is titled The Weight of Chains. It’s an alternate history horror novel set in 15th century France based off a real life serial killer named Gilles de Rais. De Rais was into the occult and hired a wizard to raise a demon for him. The Weight Chains explores what could have happened had the wizard been successful. You have two extremely evil forces battling for power and control … the outcome is not pleasant, but it was a hell of lot of fun to write! If you enjoy serial killers, and demons, and medieval history, then it’s the book for you!
My new novel is quite a bit different. It’s set in the not-too-distant future when conservatives have pushed Prohibition back into effect. As a result, the culture and such of the 1920s has come back in fashion. Think speakeasies and jazz and sex mixed with the supernatural and a murder mystery. The idea is based off a woman who wrote for The New Yorker during the 20s. She would write reviews of the speakeasies and that idea fascinated me. So I wanted to give a modern twist while holding on to the historical charm.
Revive the Drive runs from March 27 – April 17.