I love history, legends, myths, folklore, and fairy tales. As such I was surprised that I had completely missed the publication of European Monsters by Fox Spirit Books last year, when I learned about the imminent publication of the second book in that series, African Monsters. I was intrigued, so I asked its editors, Margrét Helgadóttir and Jo Thomas whether I could interview them about this latest instalment in the Book of Monsters series. Luckily they said yes, so here we are. African Monsters was published earlier this month and can be obtained from various retailers. I do hope you’ll check African Monsters out, because looking at its table of contents it is bound to be a collection well worth your time.
Let’s start with the basics. Who are Margrét Helgadóttir and Jo Thomas?
Margrét: First, thank you for taking the time to talk with us. I am Norwegian-Icelandic, currently living and working in Copenhagen, Denmark. I started to write fiction in English about three years ago, mostly short stories. My debut book (The Stars Seem So Far Away) was released early 2015. I also edit Winter Tales, anthology to come in February.
Jo: Thank you for having us. I’m a Brit who doesn’t really get out of the country much, although I was born in the Bahamas. I’ve been writing for a while and have a couple of books (25 Ways To Kill A Werewolf and A Pack Of Lies) published with Fox Spirit Books along with the Monster anthologies.
How would you introduce people to the Fox Spirit Books of Monsters series?
Margrét: We feel that the majority of the world’s monsters are forgotten or misunderstood, or even neutralized through popular culture. Our mission with the series is to give the monsters a renaissance, to re-establish their dark reputation, to give them a comeback, so to speak, let the world know of their real terror.
What inspired you to create an anthology of monster stories drawn from African myths and folklore?
Margrét: African Monsters is actually a part of a world tour where we will investigate the monsters of the world. We started with Europe in 2014 and we’ll continue with Asia in 2016. We started with Europe since that is our local environment and it felt natural to continue with Africa, mostly because I have lived in several countries there and have a familiarity with much of the folklore.
Jo: As Margrét said, we have a desire to re-establish the scary side of monsters – and to introduce people to traditions that may have fallen by the way side with the tendency to the Hollywood interpretation of horror. The initial thought had been for monsters around the world but we had to narrow our view to Europe to have a manageable pitch for an anthology in the first instance. Things have expanded since then with our publisher, Adele Wearing at Fox Spirit Books, allowing us to extend into a world tour.
Looking at the table of contents, it looks like you have exclusively African authors or authors of African descent in your line up. Did you actively try to create it that way or happenstance?
Margrét: This was a choice we made. The Europe volume consists of contributors from the whole world, but we felt when we planned African Monsters, that we should also use the opportunity to show the world the multitude of great authors and artists from the continent. I am very happy we decided this, as we can clearly see how rich the stories in the book are and how strong voices they give us.
What was your selection process like? Did you invite submissions or did you have an open call?
Margrét: These books are invitation only. We do this mainly because we want the monsters represented as widely as possible, but also the authors. We research quite a lot for possible contributors who we feel have a writing style that fits the books, and then it’s a combination of network and luck. We have been incredibly lucky so far, most of the authors we have contacted saying yes to contribute.
African Monsters contains both short stories and graphic stories. What prompted your decision to include graphic stories?
Jo: While I’m not as well read in graphic stories and art as I feel I ought to be, I know there is a wealth of talent out there that never gets as wide a viewing as it ought. I guess I managed to argue it into the pitch well enough to get a couple of stories into the European Monsters anthology. I was allowed the same again for the African Monsters and I’m hoping the new tradition continues despite the fact that I have to bow out for at least a year with my recent relocation. We also considered poetry for a while but, unfortunately, things didn’t line up. (Although some kind of anthology of illustrations and poetry is on my list of things to pitch if I ever find more time for editing.)
Margrét: Since I edit the next volume, I am happy to tell that there will be graphic stories in Asian Monsters as well.
What’s next for you? Any appearances or conventions planned?
Margrét: We are planning a launch for the book in London at the beginning of the year. Several of the authors will read from their stories, and both editors will be present, so I hope people will show up. We are also working on a possible event in South Africa, but this is not entirely decided yet. Follow Fox Spirit Books for update on these two things. Personally I don’t attend many cons, since I live a little bit on the edge of the world, but we’ll see what the year brings. Like Jo, I have recently relocated, so it’s a matter of time and money available.
Jo: Aside from the launch, I’m committed to being at Satellite 5 in Glasgow in May. I managed four conventions in 2015 and I found I quite enjoyed attending but I’ve just relocated so I’ve not been in a position to mark out my calendar for 2016. Given how far in advance tickets are available, I may be too late for a lot of the things I’d like to attend.
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than stories and books?
Margrét: Too many things probably, but I am quite concerned about climate changes, world politics and refugees. I can also often be located in history museums and galleries and I love to track down street art in cities I visit.
Jo: Definitely too many things. There is far too much to see / hear / smell / taste / touch / experience, and my past is littered with hobbies that I had to give up because I didn’t have enough time. The three things likely to come up in conversation with me, though, are dogs, swords and the natural world.
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
Margrét: Check out the anthology Winter Tales, coming in February from Fox Spirit Books. About twenty dark stories and poems from authors like Mat Joiner, Ruth Booth, Masimba Musodza, Tim Major, Jan Edwards, James Bennett, and Adrian Tchaikovsky. I’d also like to point people in direction of AfroSF volume two, published in December and edited by Ivor Hartmann. It’s a lovely collection of science fiction novellas by African authors.
Jo: The only thing I can think to add to this is that Fox Spirit Books will be coming out with an illustrated book about Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) in 2016 under the Vulpes imprint. That would be those swords I mentioned before…
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
Margrét: I tend to sort them by authors, and then I have a system within that on author’s nationality and finally genres.
Jo: Authors in alphabetical order. Unless it’s a collection, in which case they’re sorted by editor. Unless it’s a series that have multiple editors or authors, which tend to be organised in in-Universe chronology. Unless– Actually, I’m going to go stare at my bookshelves and work out what the system is again…
Margrét Helgadóttir is a Norwegian-Icelandic writer and editor living in Copenhagen. Her stories have appeared in several magazines, journals and print anthologies. She’s co-editor of the fiction coffee table books “European Monsters” (2014) and “African Monsters” (2015). She’s editor for “Asian Monsters” (Dec 2016) and the anthology “Winter Tales” (early 2016). Her debut book “The Stars Seem So Far Away” was published by Fox Spirit Books early 2015.
Jo Thomas (at least this one) is a speculative fiction author and editor who has had a number of short stories published. Projects due in the next year include a novel and an anthology.