The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories is a queer short story collection from across the full spectrum of speculative fiction, from heart-felt fantasies, to wrenching science fiction, to creepy horror. There is something here for everyone, and I found myself drawn to the lovely imagery and all-too down-to-earth stories found within.
On this summery Sunday, I’m excited to celebrate this collection’s release with author Charles Payseur as he talks about putting The Burning Day together, short story crafting process, and more.
Crafting Short Stories
When you sit down to write a short story, how much do you know about it going in?
I’m much more of a pantser than a planner. At least, I have a tendency to get too lost in planning when I let myself, to the point that I kind of write myself into corners. So I don’t always let myself think about the exact shape of the plot. Rather, I focus on feeling. I tend to do a bit more character work ahead of time. And once I know the characters, I sort of let them go and follow behind. It’s not something that always…well, works. Obviously, it means that most of my works tend to be on the shorter side (the collection is entirely short stories and flash fiction). Sometimes, though, I do get a bit more into setting elements and things like that (moving from “Rivers Run Free” to “Undercurrents” required a lot of thought about the wider world building, but I still didn’t plan too much ahead of time about the plot). When I first sit down, I’m mostly concerned with just making a start. It’s usually after the first quarter, once I’m in, that I really know what’s going to happen. And sometimes that means I end up cutting a lot of that first quarter in revision, but it helps me at least to sort of find my way there through writing it rather than trying to plan it.
What comes to you first? The characters, the setting, the plot, or something else?
It varies so much by the story. With “Shoots and Ladders,” I had the title first and little else. Then the rules of the game. From there, the story sort of spun forth. There are some stories where that just happens, that end up feeling easy because I get a hook and it all spills out. Other stories…not so much. “Rivers Run Free” actually came out of a failed mosaic novel I tried writing set in a kind of steam Western. It wasn’t until I personified the rivers in a desert-like landscape, though, that things really clicked. Similarly, I wrote three fully different drafts of “Rubbing is Racing” before finally settling on the one that appears in the collection.
Some of the stories fall out of fairly real-to-me events. The original “Door Thirteen” is because I do work next to a door with a big “13” label on it. And I draw a lot on where I live and where I’ve lived. There’s a lot of the Midwest here, Illinois, and Wisconsin, from the mythology to the feel of isolation that comes from living in the North Woods. So sometimes it’s a memory that will start my creative work going. An object from my childhood (going through my old action figures became an important catalyst for “Little Blue Men”). I’m something of a mess, so my process starts all over the place.
Where do you usually go for inspiration?
Again, all over the place. It helps that my husband is a talented writer, and we can often talk each other through ideas to sort of firm up elements to where they’re ready to go. I write in my acknowledgements that all of the stories in the collection were my attempts to impress my husband and that’s true, so I suppose he’s largely to blame for a lot of my inspiration. Sappy, maybe, but I mean I’m not sure that I’ve ever managed to actually impress him so it’s still very much a work in progress.
As far as revisions go, what does your process look like?
I hate to keep answering that it really depends, but it does, and the biggest variable is if I finished it. If I didn’t, I decide if I want to keep going or edit sort of on the fly. I’ve been told you’re not “supposed to” revise a story until it’s done but I can’t always hold back. Once it’s finished, though, I tend to set it aside and return to it a few days later. Make changes, normally small ones. I’m fortunate to have a writing group locally that I can share things with, and after it goes out to them and I get feedback, it’s back to the mines. Once it’s polished enough to send out, I rarely make changes based on editorial feedback unless it’s a request to revise and resubmit. I find that editorial tastes are so varied and often contrary to each other that changing a piece based on one editor’s feedback just to submit it to a different editor is…well, not often the best use of time.
Putting Together The Burning Day
Did you get to group the stories? How did you decide the reading order?
I did get to decide the order of the table of contents. And I think I structured the collection around a few different things. By tone, certainly. I wanted to start with some energy, and so “Running is Racing” seemed like the best bet. From there, “Shoots and Ladders” keeps that kind of race idea going, though in a very different way. And I wanted the first half of the collection to sort of draw the reader in and down. Not all at once, so I tried to balance grim stories with more hopeful ones, but the middle of the collection gets pretty bleak. “The Death of Paul Bunyan,” “Door Thirteen,” and “The Sound of…” represent, I hope, a kind of bottoming out in the collection. A gut punch. And a place to build back from. From there, the focus lands much more on resistance, resilience, and revolution, and by the end I hope that people find a hope and fierce joy.
Along all of that, the collection is also vaguely structured in time. My earlier works are clustered mostly toward the beginning, and my newest work toward the end. I think that it’s an interesting journey in that sense, and probably not difficult to place in terms of where I was mentally and emotionally when I was writing. And there again I hope that the collection stands as a sort of marker for my journey as a writer.
How did you decide which stories made it into the final collection?
I went with the stories of mine that I liked most, and that fit into the general flow of the collection. I went back and forth on a few, cutting here, adding there. “Beyond Far Point,” for instance, is one that was on the border for me but I liked how it fed into my river-shifter stories, so I figured why not? It’s fun and quick. Other than that, it was basically down to if I still wanted people to read the works. Some stories of mine I’m glad aren’t really available to read anymore. But these…I do still very much like these.
Where did the title come from? Were there others that you considered?
The title was ultimately decided by the publisher, though there were other options that we’d considered. I think when I pitched the collection it was “The Sound of…Stories by Charles Payseur” but that didn’t quite work. I came up with a few that we considered (I like “A Sound Like Something Breaking” which is from “The Sound of”), and it was almost “The Death of Paul Bunyan and Other Strange Stories.” In the end, I was shown the cover with the title as it is and I loved it. I do like putting the heart of the collection, as it were, with “Burning Day,” because that is a rather personal story about exhaustion, relationships, and hope.
Is this the first collection you put together?
This is! In part because it just so happened that I had enough published fiction that I liked to put it together, and in part because writing in general has been something of a struggle recently. I think when putting this together I was in a place where I felt…well, if this is all I ever write, then this will be the record of it. I will have this book. Which is perhaps a little grim, but symbolically at least it’s something where I wanted to do this, to map where I’ve been, how far I’ve come. So that the path forward feels less burdened. More open. Not that I’ve decided really what to do or where to go next!
What are you working on now?
Well, to sort of go along with what I was saying before, I’m still in some ways trying to come to terms with my writing to date. This collection has been about the SFF side of things, but I also have a complicated relationship with romance and erotica publishing, and if anything it’s been something that’s made everything else a lot harder. Because in a lot of ways writing romance and erotica is something I really enjoy. It’s so fun, and allows for things that mainstream SFF just doesn’t allow (for all that there’s romance and sex in a lot of my stories). But queer romance and erotica publishing is…well, a mess. Almost every publisher I’ve worked with has either closed, has broken the terms of our contract, or both! It’s left me with quite a bit of work that has been un-published. And at the moment I’m kicking around what to do with that. Again, to sort of decide if I can put a lot of the pain that’s come from that journey to rest by maybe putting out a collection of just romance and erotica short fiction.
But! I’m also trying to get back into SFF in various ways. I spent much of the spring writing SFF poetry, and I might be about ready to send that out. And I have a few projects that I want to participate in, so I’m definitely still writing. I’ve also branched out into editing, too, and my first editorial gig, as series editor for We’re Here: The Year’s Best Queer Speculative Fiction, will have it’s first volume out in August. And, well, I also review a lot. That tends to keep me busy.
What are you reading now? Are there other collections or other books that you’re looking forward to?
I read so much. Parly for my editorial work, partly because short SFF is my coping mechanism. So I’m pretty much always fairly deep into short fiction and poetry (nearing 1000 works read this year). As for things I’m looking forward to…well, there’s the novellas from Neon Hemlock. Last year’s offerings from there were so so good, and this year promises to be just as awesome. A.C. Wise has a collection out soon now, too, I believe, that I’m looking forward to. I don’t even know when or what it might be, but I basically live in wait for more Birdverse work from R.B. Lemberg. The setting, the characters…it’s all a gift. Otherwise…gosh, I feel almost like I don’t even know what’s coming out. I’m sure there will be so much I want when I actually walk into a bookstore. It will be a magical moment.
Charles Payseur is an avid reader, writer, and reviewer of speculative fiction. His works have appeared in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, Lightspeed Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among others. His forthcoming short fiction collection, The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories, will be published by Lethe Press (Summer 2021) and his editorial debut, We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2020, is forthcoming from Neon Hemlock Press (August 2021). He currently resides in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, with his herd of disobedient pets and husband, Matt.