I can come to your library, book club meeting, or conference to talk about how to help your readers find their next good read. Click here for more information including RA for All's EDI Statement.

Friday, January 15, 2021

HWA Diversity Scholarship Recipients

As I have mentioned here in the past, I was part of a team that created the Horror Writers Association Diversity Grant. From the information page:

The Horror Writers Association (HWA) believes barriers—often unseen but very real—exist which limit the amount of horror fiction being published by diverse voices. The goal of these Grants is to help remove some of the barriers and let those voices be heard.

While the HWA Board worked on the guidelines [myself included], I recruited library leaders to seed the first of the $500 grants. With $500 donations from ARRT, LibraryReads, NoveList and my company, RA for ALL, we guaranteed there would be 4 recipients in year one. But then, we also encouraged others who agreed with the mission of the grant to donate what they could. Our coffers filled up, from companies like Night Worms and Cemetery Dance to just individual library workers and horror authors, and after we were inundated with applicants we were able to offer 6 grants this year.

Below is the official press release, but before I get to the recipients, I want to call out the committee and publicly thank them for their work. Fellow board member, Linda Addison led the team. Linda is one of the founders of the HWA's Diverse Works Inclusion Committee which produces our monthly Seers Table. She is also the definition of a living legend. She has the help of HWA members Grady Hendrix, Larissa Glasser, V. Castro, and Maxwell I. Gold.

For more information about the HWA Diversity Grants, please visit here.

To see the official announcement on the HWA website, click here. But I have also reproduced it below. Please look up these authors' work and consider adding them to your collections.


The Horror Writers Association (HWA) is pleased to announce the recipients of the 2020 HWA Diversity Grants:

Jacqueline Dyre (they/them) is the editor and publisher of Novel Noctule. You can find them in the sunshine state, drinking poorly-made coffee and consuming psychological horror in lieu of meals.

Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki (he/him) is a Nigerian speculative fiction writer, slush reader and editor. He has been awarded an honourable mention in the L Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future Contest, twice and won the Nommo award for best short story by an African with his short story The Witching Hour. He has been published in the Selene Quarterly, Strange Horizons, Tor, Omenana Magazine and other venues, and has works forthcoming in several anthologies and magazines. He has co-edited several publications, including the Dominion Anthology (2020), the Best of African Speculative Fiction Anthology and the Bridging Worlds non-fiction anthology, forthcoming in 2021. He is a first reader in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and a member of the African Speculative Fiction Society, Horror Writers Association, Codex, BSFA, BFA, and the SFWA. 

Gabino Iglesias (he/him) is a writer, editor, professor, and book critic living in Austin, TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs and the editor of Both Sides. His work has been nominated to the Bram Stoker and Locus awards and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel. His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. His fiction has been published in five languages and optioned for film. His reviews appear in places like NPR, Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Criminal Element, Mystery Tribune, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other venues. He's been a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice and has judged the PANK Big Book Contest, the Splatterpunk Awards, the horror category of the British Fantasy Awards, and the Newfound Prose Prize. He teaches creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University's online MFA program and runs a series of low-cost online writing workshops. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

Nicole Givens Kurtz (she/her) is an author, editor, and educator. She's a member of Horror Writers Association, Sisters in Crime, and Science Fiction Writers of America. She's the editor of the groundbreaking Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire. She's written for White Wolf, Bram Stoker Finalist in Horror Anthology: Sycorax's Daughters, and Serial Box's The Vela: Salvation series. Nicole has over 40 short stories published as well as 11 novels and three active speculative mystery series. You can support her work via Patreon and find more about her at http://www.nicolegivenskurtz.net.

Tejaswi Priyadarshi (he/him) is a dreamer in the horror/thriller genre. He derives inspiration from Stephen King, Michael Crichton, Dean Koontz, Takashi Miike, Alexandre Aja, Eli Roth, Quentin Tarantino, and the Ramsay Brothers.

His first book The Psychopath, The Cannibal, The Lover was India’s first splatterpunk novel. It was released in July 2020, and has since remained on multiple bestselling charts, scaling its way up to be Amazon India’s highest rated Horror Thriller with 175+ ratings.

He is currently working on his second novel, trying to amalgamate Horror, Crime, Thriller, and Social Satire. You can often find him writing fiction at a bar counter, appreciating Independent Pop music gigs, and holding screenings of all sub-genres of horror/thrillers. However, nobody knows why he adamantly screens Purani Haveli so often. Email him at tejaswi.priyadarshi@gmail.com if you want to discuss anything under the sun; “How to Prep for a Zombie Apocalypse” is his favorite topic, because, what if!

Sumiko Saulson (they/them) is an award-winning author of Afrosurrealist and multicultural sci-fi and horror. Ze is the editor of the anthologies and collections Black Magic Women, Scry of Lust, Black Celebration, and Wickedly Abled. Ze is the winner of the 2016 HWA StokerCon “Scholarship from Hell”, 2017 BCC Voice “Reframing the Other” contest, and 2018 AWW “Afrosurrealist Writer Award.”

Ze has an AA in English from Berkeley City College, and writes a column called “Writing While Black” for a national Black Newspaper, the San Francisco BayView. Ze is the host of the SOMA Leather and LGBT Cultural District's “Erotic Storytelling Hour.”


About The Horror Writers Association

The Horror Writers Association (HWA) is a nonprofit organization of writers and publishing professionals around the world, dedicated to promoting dark literature and the interests of those who write it.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Please, I'm Begging You...Don't Bring Back Fines!: A Call to Action Flashback

One of the best things about 2020 was that libraries were forced to suspend fines to patrons for overdue items. And then, the other day I saw a tweet [which I cannot find again] from a library with a "friendly reminder" graphic reminding patrons that fines were restarting in 2021 so get your items back. [smiley face]


I actually yelled at my computer. What is wrong with you people? You got rid of the fines; don't bring them back. There is still a pandemic. People need access to materials. Charging your users-- who already pay for the service- an extra fee is well, in my mind, it is a definition of evil. And remember, I am a trustee of a library. I am not some idealistic, head in the clouds, person. I know you can do it, financially. Just turning on "Automatic Renewals" in our ILS reduced our small library's fine income by 73%! Automatic renewals are great customer service because they only renew if no one is waiting AND they also give you an extra check out for your circ stats. And that is worth way more than the 10 cents you get for the fine. 

I am going to stop angrily babbling and send you to the more eloquent plea I wrote in March, 2020 .

RA for All Flashback: 


Call to Action: Time to Get Serious About Fine Free

Today I would like to talk about going Fine Free. This is an issue I have been passionate about and involved with for many years as a Library Trustee.

Our small community library went fine free in September of 2019, but it was something we were working toward for over 2 years before that. We actively worked to make our budget work without fine money to prove to ourselves we could do it before we took the fine free plunge. And we did it before Chicago Public Library.

But here is the thing, fines have been suspended at just about every library in America at this point. You are all going to get by without fines. Why not use these extraordinary times to finally join me in the fine free plunge?

I travel around the country for my job and everywhere I go ask ask about their fine procedures. I am well educated on this issue and have heard it all. From a library whose city MANDATES that every city department get 5% of their budget from fees [this is horrible but true] to libraries that have no finical recourse to start open other than donations and fines.

I understand how fines actually effect libraries and their budgets. I am not naive. I have been on the finance committee at my library for 19 years. I managed a department budget at a library [less well off than my own community], I work with every type of library you can imagine and their financial situation is something I discuss with leadership as part of my pre-training planning. I am extremely well versed in library budgets.

Now everyone is forced to figure out life without fines. Budgets are going to have to be balanced. You will NOT have an option to charge your tax payers even more. [See when you put it that way, and that way is the truth, it sounds evil-- because it is!]

Also, we are closed to the public and we are going to need to find ways to help our patrons after we reopen. Many will have less disposable income and more need for the library. You want to pile it on even more when they are struggling to feed their families and recoup lost wages because they were too preoccupied to remember to return something? Come on people! This is so wrong and awful. I mean it always was but now you can see it more clearly.

I worked through the 2008 downturn in a low income community. We saw a huge uptick in usage and people were also incurring more fines. I worked for a city that not only encouraged us to fine our patrons but then took the fine money for the city coffers and didn't allow us to reinvest it in the library.

You know what I did during that time, as a Manager? Waived as many fines as I could from the RA Service desk. I even stepped in to circulation and waived fines. I flouted the rules because I cared about my patrons. And you know what? I received zero punishment or write ups. All I did was foster good will at our library.

Side story-- the turning point for me was the day a non-English speaking mom sent her son [bi-lingual] out to the car to get their laundry quarters to pay a fine so he could get items checked out for a school project. I never said no to anyone with fines again. [Items that needed replacement were a different issue, although if something old got damaged, something we weren't going to replace anyway, we waived].

This time, you don't have to do Civil Disobedience to stop fines. They have been suspended for you.

I am urging all of you to reach out to your managers and supervisors, or if you are one, take a stand. Your budgets are going to take a fine hit. Now is the time to redo the budgets and figure out how you will get by without them. And then...


We cannot help our patrons by being open right now, but we can help welcome them back. Their taxes are enough to ask from them [and if they are not, work to get your community the support you need for a tax increase; telling them you will suspend fines will go a long way toward winning those extra dollars the correct way]. Extra penalties have never been okay, but even more so now. Let's not make it harder on people.

Every excuse your leadership had as to why they could not stop fines has been proven false. There are no fines now. They have been stopped. And look, you are still functioning. Let's make that the new normal. 

I urge all of you to do what you can to advocate for fine free. Enough libraries have proven you can get by in normal times without fines, so now that you are forced to get by without fine income, you at least have proof it will work over the long term.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

NoveList Day of Learning: February 10, 2021

Today I have an exciting announcement from NoveList. To celebrate To celebrate NoveList’s 25th year of connecting books, readers, and libraries, they are hosting an all-day event for NoveList customers focused on strategies for your library to help your readers on February 10th. This day is called:

Other Duties as Assigned: A NoveList Day of Learning

You can click here for the full details laid out in a pretty fashion. I will be presenting as part of this event, and below I will list the basics of what you can expect. but I need to let you all know how to sign up because this event is different than most NoveList CE opportunities in that you have to be a subscriber. And herein lies many administrative hurdles because as you and I know, the people who use NoveList and want to participate in the training may never see the email allowing them to signup.

Here is the official word from NoveList marketing about how you, the average library worker, can either ask for the email to be forward to you or how you can sign up all on your own:

"This email [for signup] is going to anyone we have listed as a contact who works at a library that subscribes to any NoveList product. A contact would be anyone who ever contacted us for support or subscribes to EBSCO newsletters. In the email we asked those contacts for forward the email to their coworkers.


If someone does not get the email and wants to attend they can email us at novelistcommunications@ebsco.com. We will verify they are a customer and give them the link to register."

I really hope as many of you as can signup. I am very excited to be a part of this full day event. Below is the schedule for the day, but again, the official announcement is here and sign up is ONLY for NoveList subscribers [although my slides will be available here on the blog that day.]

I hope to see some of you there. 

Other Duties as Assigned: A NoveList Day of Learning

2020 was different. Your jobs are different. Your lives are different. We’d like to give you the chance to explore some of those “other duties” you’ve taken on as libraries have closed, opened with restrictions in place, moved services online, and figured out how to keep serving your community while not knowing what tomorrow held. NoveList librarians and guests will discuss strategies for collection development, readers’ advisory, and online programming. In between sessions, catch 15-minute microtrainings of how to apply some of the concepts speakers discussed to the products you have. This special event is open only to subscribers of NoveList products. During lunch we will have highly interactive breakout sessions where you can discuss with colleagues strategies and solutions to the challenges you are facing right now.

Date: Wednesday, February 10th

Time: 10am – 6pm Eastern Time (EST) Also available in GMT and AEDT

10:00-10:15am Welcome from NoveList Vice President Danielle Borasky


10:15-10:30am RA Evolution:  Going to Where We Have Been Before

Duncan Smith explores how our future is contained in our past.  The fundamental pillars of RA service: discovery, discernment, delivery have not changed but the ways we are providing these services has.  The balance between these three has, and the relationships that these changes enable provide libraries with opportunities to reclaim their importance in the reading lives of their users.  Sit back, relax, and enjoy this talk that bounces from Emily Post to Star Trek.


10:30-11:15am Flip Your Focus and Think Like A Reader: RA Basics Renovated

Readers' Advisory is a service that has evolved from a transactional experience to a whole library conversation. Join Autumn Friedli and Becky Spratford as they share tips on how to encourage all staff to use their own love of their favorite books to help any patron find their next great read. Presented in four segments – Sharing Anything Whether You Read It or Not, Conversation Starters, The Art of the Handoff, and that final step, Inspiring All Staff to Help with RA Service – Autumn and Becky will share their easy to replicate and customize tips and tricks to providing vibrant and interactive service to all readers.


11:15 – 11:30am Microtraining: NoveList Plus


11:30am-12:15pm Islands in the Stream: Navigating the waters of Collection Development

2020 was the longest, most topsy turvy year. You may have escaped it only to find you have new roles and responsibilities. If Collection Development is one of your surprise other duties as assigned, you are not alone! Robin Bradford and Kendal Spires will help make it both easier and enjoyable.

12:15 – 12:30pm Microtraining: Core Collections


12:30 – 1:15pm Digital Storytelling: Moving Your Storytime Online

Do you have questions about how to transition your storytime online? Join Amy Godfrey, of Little People, Big Questions: Conscious Storytime, and Brierley Ash, NoveList Metadata Librarian, for a presentation about telling stories using digital tools. Learn about different platforms available, advice about live versus prerecorded events, tips for engaging and interactive storytimes in a digital environment, and more!


1:15 – 1:30pm Break


1:30-2:00pm Concurrent Breakout Sessions A

Space for these highly interactive breakout sessions is limited to the first 150 registrants. Breakout sessions will not be recorded.

Readers’ Advisory: During the Pandemic and Beyond

Readers’ advisory has been online for as long as there’s been an online, but many readers newly discovered that they could ask their library for reading suggestions on Facebook or send an email to get personalized reading recommendations. Chat with other library workers about RA successes (and learning moments) during 2020 for ideas to bring into 2021.


Collection Development Challenges When Your Services are Limited

Collection development changed in 2020. The entire nation suddenly discovered that libraries have digital materials and usage skyrocketed. Libraries who have reopened found patrons clamoring for print again – or not wanting print materials at all. All of this means new challenges for collection development. Take this opportunity to chat with your colleagues about your collection development challenges and solutions and hear theirs as well.

2-2:15 Break

2:15-2:45pm Concurrent Breakout Sessions B

Space for these highly interactive breakout sessions is limited to the first 150 registrants. Breakout sessions will not be recorded.

Promoting Your Library’s Collection

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, digital browsing on your website, newsletters, form-based readers’ advisory, book displays – the options for promoting your collection are vast. Hear from your colleagues and share your stories about collection promotion in a moderated discussion.


Programs, Events, and Services: How 2020 will Inform 2021’s Plans?

In 2020 many library workers suddenly had to learn how to host book clubs, storytimes, author events, craft programs, and more virtually. All these new programs had to be promoted – online. Chat with your colleagues about what worked for your library, what didn’t, and get ideas for your 2021.

2:45-3 Break


3 -3:45pm Surprise! Contactless Browsing to Keep Readers Coming Back

Patrons are unable to browse the stacks at many libraries, making finding new reading material particularly challenging. If your patrons are in a reading rut or need a contactless (and fun!) way to discover new books, you’ll want to hear from Elena Gleason about Hillsboro Public Library’s wildly popular "surprise bundle" program. It’s something your library can do, too! Elena and Kathy Lussier will also discuss ways libraries of all sizes are innovating new browsing experiences for their patrons, ranging from high-tech to no-tech.


3:45-4 pm Microtraining: NoveList Select Dashboard


4- 4:45pm Email Newsletters: Easy as 1-2-3

Learn the ins and outs of email marketing from Samantha Bonnette and Jessica Lin. Keep in touch with your patrons virtually and learn how to start your own email newsletter from creation to implementation to celebration. Understand your metrics and learn how to get more eyes on your library, services, and events.


4:45-5pm Microtraining: LibraryAware

5 – 5:45pm #Library: Digital Readers’ Advisory

Need help reaching your readers? Explore tips and tricks for effective form-based and social media reader’s advisory for all audiences from Monique Christian-Long and Yaika Sabat. From targeting different ages to finding the recommendations you need, you’ll get an overview of how to help your readers outside of the library.


5:45 – 6pm Closing remarks from NoveList Vice President Danielle Borasky

Click here for all of the details

Email novelistcommunications@ebsco.com if you haven't seen the email. They will verify you are a customer and give you the link to register.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Writers to Watch via PW and General Comments and Ideas Around "Debuts"

I am a big fan of debut authors. I love reading books by new voices almost as much as I love a new title by my favorites. I love debuts so much I am the jury chair for "First Novel" for a major award [and have been chair or on the jury for many years]. 

This week PW published  "Writers to Watch Spring 2021." Click here or on the image below to read about these authors and their upcoming titles. They seem great and I am already planning on which to request.

Consider adding them to your collections, yes, but also consider making a display [in person and/or online] of debuts. Both new voices as one display, but another fun idea I always enjoy, is making lists and displays of super famous author's first novels. 

Take your most popular authors and make a display of their first books. Even James Patterson's first book is a gem-- he won the Edgar for best first novel for that one.

Start with some of the authors who appeared on all the best lists. [Here's a link to LJ's Best Books 2020 portal to get you started.] I have done this before and patrons love it. It's like you unburied a treasure for them.

I have also had great luck using debut novels in book club, especially if the author is super popular now and their debut was more than 5 years ago. The chance that most participants have read something by a popular author is high and their previous experience with that writer, enhances the discussion.

So let's start with the up and comers of 2021, but while we wait for those books, let's look back on debuts from the past.

Click here or on the image to meet the authors and read about their upcoming books.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Curbside Patrons And Discovery

I am working on my annual Year in Review presentation where I recap the year that was in RA Service and Adult Leisure Reading. That presentation is on January 27th. Details are here.

One of the big problems in 2020 [among many] was rethinking book discovery in a social distant environment. I have an entire slide on this issue and have offered suggestions throughout the year on this blog. However, as I was looking through past posts, I realized there was something I have been saying in presentations but never posted about. Today is about rectifying that.

When you provide curbside delivery of requested items, you need to think about more than the transaction in front of you. Think about their next visit. Think about helping them find something else to put on hold. Think about promoting more titles and services. Think about their overall library experience. Or as I like to put it more succinctly, think of your curbside patrons as a captive audience!

Look passive RA is the idea that you are providing avenues for discovery and reading options without the patron engaging you directly. Think displays, lists, shelf talkers, etc.... In the before times, when our buildings were open, we all had tried and true ways to do this; many things we did without thinking because they were working.

And then....everything changed.

Obviously, early in the pandemic our concerns were very immediately-- how to increase our access to digital materials, how to keep providing services, how to be safe. But once people got curbside going and figured out their quarantine procedures, a few started upping their game when it came to passive RA.

The most common of these has been the "surprise bag." Many libraries are doing this for adults and children. The patron fills out a basic RA preferences form and the staff grab a bag full of books. With fines obliterated by most libraries because of the pandemic [temporarily, although I will have a post on that issue later this week], this was easy to do and lots of patrons loved it. Also, people can't browse in person, so this allows them to browse at home. It's been great way for libraries to boost circ stats during closures, yes, but it is also recreating a bit of the fun and serendipity of a trip to the library for leisure readers, a way to recapture a bit of joy of the in person experience from a safe distance.

But here's the real talk. Your curbside patrons are not only your most committed and engaged users but they are also A CAPTIVE AUDIENCE. We should be focusing our passive RA, heck, all of our promotion, on them.  Here are some very easy to implement actions you can use to engage your curbside patrons. Some are very simple, others a bit more complicated, but all can be done easily as long as the entire staff is working together:

  • Add a list to every package. You can have general list of new materials for the interest areas covered by the books in the package or genre specific. Or just general lists of books that are on display in the building. Just something to let them know of other titles. 
  • Make these lists in a bookmark format and have a place where people can check any titles they want placed on hold. They can write in their info so you can place the holds for them when they return their curbside items.
  • Place a comment card in each book. Make an index card size form asking patrons to review the book. You can mass produce these to be easily stuck into the book. Just ask for name, card number, a star rating [give them stars to fill in] and 2 sentences about what they thought. If only 1% of your curbside people return these, you have enough titles to make a "Patrons Recommend" list online and a physical display in the building. Also, the practical information you get back about helping that specific reader is invaluable. If they include their card number you can put books on hold for them. [I would add a check box to say they are okay with that.]
  • Make fun conversation starter cards. Create a stock of various questions printed on quarter sheets of paper and leave room for answers. Crowdsource the entire staff to come up with fun, open ended questions. The team building opportunity alone on this endeavor is worth the work, but then you can also use the answers to create more resources to help others. You can even use the conversation starter prompt as the title of a future list or display. Ideas to get you started: 
    • What is your favorite type of book?
    • What is your least favorite type of book?
    • What book do you recommend to everyone you know?
    • If you had to start your personal library from scratch, what is the first book you would buy?
    • What is your go-to bookish gift?
    • Where do you get book recommendations for yourself [other than the library]?
    • If you could only read 5 books ever again, which 5 would you choose?
  • Promote your other services, especially virtual programming and book discussion meeting. If you have an email service to let people know that their curbside is in, these virtual events are best shared in that format as links can be included. 
  • And speaking of emails/texts to alert patrons that their curbside is in, you can also use that to share any of the items listed above.

There are three morals here. The first is the one I have been repeating: take advantage of the captive audience of curbside patrons and use it to up your RA game. The second is slightly more subtle and more about your staff. Curbside is hard on the staff running the service. As a Trustee I have been kept in the loop about the entire process. Our frontline staff are working very hard to sort, quarantine, pull, and fill orders. Like a lot of you, they are doing this while we are also opened for limited in person library service.

Now, to ask them to also provide lists and conversation starters is too much. These are activities the rest of the staff can work on, both creating and compiling. This will help bring the staff together around serving patrons and help us all to make curbside more fun and personalized, something we are all feel is lacking now that this socially distant service has dragged on.

And third, you need to understand that we are going to have to keep doing this forever now. Even without a pandemic, people are now used to curbside and are not going to let you shelve it [pun intended]. If you could do it during a health emergency, you can do it all the time-- so they will think. Obviously it gets much harder if we are at full capacity, but I would argue that it helps your RA service and circulation numbers to keep curbside going, especially if you are checking out those surprise bags which up the circ stats from 1-2 books per visit to 4-5.

Right now we all need more chances to reconnect with each other in a way that is more meaningful than just the transaction itseld, and a captive audience is a great way to recapture some of what we have lost.

If you already do some of these [or other] passive RA services through curbside and want to share your experiences with my readers, let me know.

And see some of you at my presentation on the 27th. Slides will be available for everyone that day. 

Friday, January 8, 2021

Meet Usman Malik: A New Must Know Voice in Dark Fantasy and Horror

Yesterday, I posted the links to my current horror review column in Library Journal. As part of that issue I also conducted an interview with one of my STAR review authors, Usman Malik. 

The interview was edited for length in the magazine, but here is the full, unedited interview we did. Malik offers many names of non-American or British influences that are worth a closer look for your collections. I am so happy that I could bring you this interview so that you can learn more about this rising star.

Click here for access to my review of Midnight Doorways. It is the epitome of "dark magic;" some of the stories are still with me and none of them are predictable.


Usman T. Malik is a Pakistani-American writer and doctor. His fiction has been reprinted in several year's best anthologies including The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy series and has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, the Million Writers Award, and twice for the Nebula. He has won the Bram Stoker and the British Fantasy awards. Usman's debut collection Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan has garnered praise from writers such as Paul Tremblay, S.A. Chakraborty, Ken Liu, and Joe Hill, and will be out in early 2021. You can find him on Twitter @usmantm.

BS: American audiences have gotten to know you through your stories that have been included in some of Ellen Datlow’s critically acclaimed horror anthologies. What is it about horror, and specifically the short story form, that excites you as a creator and a reader?

UM: I've been gravitating to uncanny literature since I was a child. I remember watching a Bollywood horror movie called Taikhana (The Room Beneath) as a five-year old -- I don't know where I watched it; perhaps at a cousin's? -- which featured the reanimated corpse of a black magic practitioner that, wrapped in a grimy shawl, killed intruders in the underground chambers of the mansion it haunted. The terror and awe that monster inspired stayed with me for years. Perhaps it was a jolting realization that I, too, was mortal, dispensable. As I grew older, I realized horror fiction and film woke me up in a way other genres didn't. I love realism's commanding sense of history and the present, science fiction and fantasy's sense of wonder, but horror has a sense of dark wonder and beauty that can pry open one's brain in a different way. A lot of golden age SF is 'adventure stories dressed up with lasers' as Ted Chiang once described it and gets pulpy very quickly, but even the weakest of horror fiction or film, for me, is psychologically rich and incisive. Horror can be more human and, paradoxically, more real than realism sometimes may be. This is especially apparent to me in Pakistani English literature, which, dominated by realist fiction, has more stereotypes and tropes than genre fiction does. Interestingly, in my experience, that makes any genre work by emerging Pakistani writers more compelling and unique than its realist counterpart.

A short story spins and condenses fear in a way novels often can't. The rise and swoop of the short form makes the eventual punch that much more powerful. That may be exemplified by the fact that otherwise decent horror novels fail their endings more frequently than good horror stories do. Another thing about short stories is you can experiment with form and substance more freely: you're not bound to the whims of industry and marketing, which sometimes happens with novels.

BS: You are a dual citizen, American and Pakistani and live in both places. You are also a medical doctor who writes speculative fiction. These dualities define you as a human, but how do they manifest themselves in your work?

UM: Dualities and forking paths have pretty much defined my career trajectory. Had it not been for my brother's visit to Florida from Pakistan in 2012, I'd have remained a physician who never took up the pen; his leaving prompted a fit of homesickness that made me desperate to do more than medical work, which was burning me out. Had I not decided to fly off to the World Horror Convention in Salt Lake City, a con I'd never even heard of till three days before the con weekend, I'd never have met up with other writers of uncanny or horror fiction.


The SF critic John Clute once told me migration is self-exile. It was a startling statement that has reverberated in my head and my fiction to this day. I've never truly felt at home in either Pakistan or the US since I moved to the States more than a decade ago. That nearly umbilical severing led to heartache, nostalgia and a deep sense of loss for me that I had difficulty coming to terms with for years. Later that feeling of being unrooted got compounded by the fact that I could neither devote myself entirely to writing nor could I become A. Rae Gilchrist's 'compleat physician'; I was compelled to be both by forces beyond my control. 

I do think that duality has seeped into most of my work. My characters are often consumed by seeking. Several of my stories, as Brian Keene pointed out to me once, are often about real or imagined childhoods. Overtime, I have learned to pick the best of both worlds: medicine and literature; Pakistan and America. And while I hope that that might bring a sense of grounding to my work, I hope it does not lead to absolute stasis.


BS: Let’s talk about your most recent release, your first collection. You are not only presenting 7 of your own stories, or fables as you call them, but also black-and-white illustrations by different Pakistani artists.

UM: As a child, some of my favorite books were illustrated editions of Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and other canonical writers. These books boasted sketch art and color plates by artists like Arthur Rackham, Harry Clarke, Edward Gorey, and Gustave Dore. I loved their fierce and evocative imagery; in some ways it made the fiction more tangible, more real. I suppose when time came to put out my debut collection Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan I wanted my stories dramatized in a similar fashion, yet I wanted them done my way. These were stories of people who looked like me and acted like me; why should any visual representation of their inner or outer landscapes be any different? Therefore, we reached out to nine Pakistani artists and designers whose collaboration has meant that the collection has sort of become a community project showcasing the best of Pakistani speculative art. 


As to why I call these stories fables, if fables are lies that narrate useful truths, these are tales of living, breathing people whose fears and fantasies are contemporary yet also ancient. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said about his work, "In Mexico … surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America." This is very much true of the Indian subcontinent and South Asia.  

BS: Who are the non-American or British creators who have most influenced you? Those you wish more American readers had access to. 

UM: I grew up grounded in Urdu literature. Writers of pulp fiction and what we might call middle grade or YA fantasy, horror, and spy stories such as Mazhar Kaleem, Maqbool Jahangir, the great A. Hameed (who also penned the most popular Pakistani TV series for kids called Ainak Wala Jinn (The Bespectacled Jinn), Isthiyaq Ahmad, all heavily influenced and perhaps shaped my reading preferences as a child. I also read and listened to a lot of Urdu poetry, sung or recited on TV or radio; if you live in India or Pakistan, it is impossible to escape poetry. Don't be surprised if an Uber driver in Pakistan quotes an entire chapter of Iqbal, Faiz, or Ahmad Fraz during your ten-minute ride to the grocery store. Naiyer Masud is perhaps the most important post-Partition Urdu writer of the short story. His work runs in the vein of Kafka and occasionally

Thomas Ligotti, yet the minimalist, almost Hemingway-stringent style of his prose lends it an unparalleled uncanniness. It is criminal that he is not better known to the masses in the Indian subcontinent, let alone in the West.

BS: You recently had a novella released through Tor.com too. Can you

tell us about that tale, and also how you approach that format differently from a story?

UM: I rarely plan for a story to be a novelette or a novella. There are certain things I want to do in a new story, perhaps an interesting concept, a particular image, voice, or narrative structure, and I follow through on that. Some ideas need less space, others more. This particular piece, a novelette called City of Red Midnight: A Hikayat is a feminist retelling of an Arabian Nights story. I wanted to structure it like a tale from A Thousand and One Nights with stories unfurling into more stories, the layers

of fantasy suctioning the reader deep into a labyrinth of interconnected fantasies till it all coalesces and blossoms together. Doing that required a bit more space, so it became a novelette.

Having said that, I do tend to sprawl as a writer. There's only one story in my collection Midnight Doorways that's shorter than five thousand words. Perhaps I'm a long form writer, after all, who just hasn't had time to write a novel yet.

BS: Why do you think horror is so popular right now? In general, where do

you see the genre going as it basks in its current mainstream spotlight? And specifically, where do you want to take it in your work? 

UM: Horror is always in vogue; readers and viewers just don't accept it under that moniker all the time. From 1995 to 2010 or so, it was sold to the mainstream under various genre umbrellas: dark fantasy, dystopian fiction, crime, thriller, literary fiction, supernatural thriller, mystery. From Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006) to Justin Cronin's The Passage (2010), a mass audience loved and consumed horror under various guises. Meanwhile, excellent horror kept thriving in the small presses and writers such as Paul Tremblay, Gemma Files, Stephen Graham Jones, Tanith Lee, and Jeff VanderMeer continued to churn out excellent horror fiction. Over time, because they were brilliant, several of them 'broke through' and that along with the success of newer writers helped horror re-accrue the respect and wide acceptance it enjoys today.

As to why it's especially popular right now, our current sociopolitical environment isn't cozy, to say the least, and horror, as a genre, is very good at crystallization of contemporary anxieties. Its symbols and metaphors allow us to capture the zeitgeist in tangible terms. Horror fiction and filmography allow channeling of national and personal uncertainty into drawable, often subversive conclusions. That is no mean feat. I suspect the genre will continue to grow strong as long as capitalistic concerns don't overshadow the quality of the art produced in its name.