Editor, Firespinner, Nerd, Badass?: An Interview with Michi Trota

I had the honor of meeting Michi for the first time at C2E2, Chicago’s Comic and Entertainment Expo, following her panel: Racebending.com Presents Diverse Means for Diverse Works, which also featured Gabrial Canada, C. Spike Trotman, Professor Turtel Onli and Mary Anne Mohanraj. As a fellow Filipina myself, you can imagine my excitement when I’d learned that not only is she a Filipino in an industry where there aren’t that many of us, but she is a Hugo Award winner, an award given to the best in Sci-Fi and Fantasy.

Michi is an advocate for diversity in literature and media. She’s written numerous essays on the matter and has been interviewed by big news networks, such as CNN Philippines and The Chicago TribuneNative to Chicago, Michi is highly involved in the geek community here. Not only is she a board member of the Chicago Nerd Social Club, but she’s been a speaker at places like the University of Chicago, DePaul University, Chicago Humanities Festival, Chicago Wizard World, C2E2, and WisCon where she’s continued the conversation on geek culture, feminism, and intersectionality. All while she’s not performing with Raks Geek, spinning fire as some of your favorite characters, of course.

As the Managing Editor of Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, I wanted to ask Michi about her history in editing and writing. Unfortunately, professional editing is not a focus in the mainstream courses at Columbia. For myself, I didn’t even consider becoming an editor until I had a chat with author Heidi Heilig at C2E2 last year and even then, it wasn’t until I’d joined The Publishing Lab that I’d gotten to get a taste of what real editing is like. Hopefully, this interview will be able to shed some light on editing as a profession.

If this introduction wasn’t enough to impress you, just wait till you read Michi’s answers about life as an editor and a nerd.

© 2016 Bill Whitmire

Celeste PaedYou’re an editor/writer and a firespinner, two fairly contrasting professions. What kind of reactions do you get from fans of your firespinning shows when they find out that you’re also an editor for a sci-fi/fantasy literary magazine and vice versa?

Michi Trota: Generally the reactions I get are interest and curiosity as to how I got into those things, particularly firespinning. A lot of people ask how I manage to have the time for pursuing either while also working full time (neither are my primary source of income). The answer is, half-jokingly, that I don’t have as close a relationship with a Good Night’s Sleep as I’d like! I also enjoy pointing out that I can get inspired for performance pieces by some of the work I get to read as an editor. Firespinning and editing are both creative endeavors and I find they compliment each other very nicely.

CPI read your interview with Laura Pearson for the Chicago Reader and saw that you grew up writing fan fiction. Did you always know that you wanted to go into writing? 

MichiI’ve always enjoyed writing, thanks to my parents, who encouraged me to read at any opportunity, and wonderful teachers who supported my interest in writing when they noticed how much I enjoyed it. I originally wanted to be a marine biologist when I was in junior high, because I thought that a better understanding of biology would help me to be a better science fiction writer, and I thought there was a great deal of inspiration to be found about possible alien life when looking at deep sea and extreme Earth environments. I think I settled on wanting to make a career out of writing sometime in high school. I’m happy with the choice I made (except sometimes when I go on BBC Earth binges because marine biology is so fascinating).

CP: How did you get started in editing? Were there classes that you took when you were in college that got you interested or was it something that you naturally fell into?

MichiI was a yearbook editor in high school for several years and really enjoyed figuring out how to organize sections, writing and copyediting the written sections, choosing art and photos, the entire process. I felt that editing and project management were skills that were worth cultivating to compliment being a writer, and I enjoy “learning how the sausage is made” so to speak. I was lucky that the program through which I got my BFA required several classes in publishing as a business, as well as creative writing and literature credits, in order to graduate. I’m also really thankful that many of the editors who I’ve met have been wonderfully generous about sharing their experiences and advice in the industry.

CPSpeaking of fan fiction, we recently posted an article discussing the issue of submitting fan fiction for publication. What are your thoughts on the matter? (Fan fiction in this case is any piece of fiction short or long that is based on a previously published novel, movie, tv series, comic, etc., and includes things like fairytale retellings which have been on the rise. You can read the article here if you’re interested.)

MichiI enjoy reading a lot of fan fiction and the creativity is often really impressive. When it comes to submitting fan fiction, as with any publication, just do your research to see if that’s what the publication is looking for. Any fiction submissions should conform to the submissions guidelines for the publication you’d like to submit your fiction to, and fit with its aesthetic; if you’re unsure, you can always query.

CPDo you think there are any merits of being an editor AND a writer? Has being an editor improved your writing?

Michi: In my experience, understanding editing has been really helpful to me as a writer because it demystifies the process. Knowing more about the considerations that editors have when evaluating pieces has been useful in understanding how to better craft my initial drafts, and also in understanding how to work with an editor’s notes and suggestions on a piece. And as an editor, it’s helpful to know where a writer is coming from, which helps me make more useful suggestions and notes on a writer’s piece. Having more familiarity with both sides of that coin has really helped me nurture more collaborative professional relationships.

© 2016 Bill Whitmire

CPOne topic that has come up at various seminars and panels hosted by Columbia is the “blacklisted” writer. These are writers who will be rejected by a magazine or publishing house based on a history of giving editors a hard time for various reasons. Have you experienced having to “blacklist” someone while working for Uncanny? Do you think it’s fair that editors “blacklist” writers?

MichiI think it’s important to note that there really isn’t such a thing as a “blacklist.” At Uncanny, we select pieces for publication based on the merits of the individual pieces. Sometimes you’ll find writers and editors with whom working is not a good fit, which can definitely be disappointing, but that is not the same thing as “blacklisting” writers and editors. 

As a writer and an editor, I try to remember that it’s not always possible to work with everyone. What I’ve found to work well for me was looking for editors and writers whose body of work reflects a style and focus that felt as if they’d be complimentary to mine. It’s really helped me find mutually beneficial working relationships. 

With Uncanny, we encourage folks to be professional and treat each other as colleagues–it benefits all of us when editors root for each other and writers to do their best work and succeed!

CPWhat do you do when you come across a submission that has potential and would be a good pick for the magazine but it might require more effort in terms of working with the author or the writing itself?

MichiIt really depends on the individual piece.

CP: How does Uncanny go about finding editors? What do you think are the best qualities an editor should have?

MichiI became Managing Editor for Uncanny after the Co-Publishers/Co-Editors-in-Chief, Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, approached me about the magazine. We had worked together professionally on panels at conventions and knew each other socially through mutual acquaintances, so we were familiar with each other’s work. I’m grateful they felt my experience and background was a fit for their vision for the magazine.

Different publications will require different focuses and tastes from their editors, but generally, knowing how to juggle multiple responsibilities at the same time, and the ability to keep track of your deadlines are very important. Respect, understanding, and kindness are great qualities

–understand that writers aren’t an adversary, they’re your potential partners. Also know what you like, be willing to try new things, and continue evolving your awareness and skills of what’s going on in the industry and genre you’re working in.

CP: Question from our previous managing editor who is a fantasy writer: What trends are you you noticing within the sci-fi/fantasy genre while working for Uncanny? What trends seem to be on their way out? Do you think that there are some trends that will never grow old?

MichiThe great thing about SF/F is that the definition of science fiction and fantasy is extremely wide and varied, so there’s something for everyone. It’s been wonderful to see more diverse voices and perspectives reflected and recognized in the genre, particularly from writers outside of the US, and it really does feel like there are more and more people writing SF/F, which is great! I do think it’s interesting to look at how interpretations of dystopia morph to reflect current events, challenges like climate change, and the cultural issues we’re facing.

CP: For my last industry specific question, I want to direct it towards the creative writing students here at Columbia who are graduating (or might have actually graduated by the time this article comes out). What are some words of encouragement that you can give to writer or editor who is about to enter this industry full time?

Michi: I can’t stress this enough to new writers and editors: Your voice matters and there’s a place for you in the immense publishing community regardless of what genre you wish to work in. We are a community full of potential creative partners, and you are important to keeping that community growing and thriving. Don’t buy into the lie that “there can be only one” especially if you are marginalized person – all of our perspectives and stories are different and there’s room for all of us.

Writing, and editing, are processes that you’ll be working at continually to refine, and that’s ok! I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and the things that fire my imagination and make me want to lose hours writing now are not the things that inspired me then–and I’m still learning. It is going to be challenging, but you will figure out how to budget your time and income in the way that works best for you. 

Don’t forget to take care of yourself – good food, exercise, sleep, and supportive people in your life will also fuel your writing (seriously, take breaks to eat a snack, drink some water, stretch, etc). Remember, just because you haven’t accomplished what you think you should have by that time, it doesn’t mean you’re not working hard enough, it means you’re working at your pace. Be kind to yourself.

You’ll run into writers and editors who are tough to work with, but you will find those who can become true collaborators rather than adversaries, and those will be the relationships that truly help you (and those you work with) grow in your craft. You have a marvelous adventure ahead of you! 

CPLastly, do you have any upcoming projects or performances that you would like to tell readers about?

MichiIf you’re attending WisCon (an annual feminism in SF/F convention) over Memorial Day weekend, you’ll be able to find me on several panels, and Uncanny is also having a Space Unicorn party at the con to celebrate our three years of publication!

If you’re a SF/F writer, Uncanny is opening for submissions briefly next month from June 3 to June 10! Our submissions guidelines can be found on the website. 

Assuming the weather is kind on June 8th, we’ll be holding the next Chicago Full Moon Jam that evening. It’s a family-friendly, no-alcohol, free-to-attend event with drumming and firespinning, from sunset until 10pm. If you’ve never attended, you can check out the event’s FAQ page.

Also, Raks Geek has an upcoming 21+ show on Friday, June 16, 8pm, at Uptown Underground. There will be cosplay bellydance and fire around the theme of Starspace Fighter and a portion of the night’s proceeds will benefit Lane Tech Computer Science.

And Chicago Nerd Social Club always has info on nerdy themed events in the city, some of which we organize – you can sign up through our website form for our regular newsletter where we publicize these events. Our monthly bookclub meets each month at Volumes Bookcafe, and the novel for the June 12 meeting is Christopher Priest’s The Prestige.

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Thank you so much for interviewing with me, Michi. I honestly can’t thank you enough (as I’m sure you’ve noticed from my e-mails).

To see more from Michi Trota, you can follower her blog, Geek Melange, where she talks about geek culture, fandoms, and the issue of diversity and representation, or on Twitter @geekmelange.


Michi Trota is the Managing Editor of the Hugo Award-winning and World Fantasy Award finalist Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the first Filipina Hugo Award winner. She is an essayist, public speaker, fire performance artist, and serves as president on the board for Chicago Nerd Social Club. (Featured Image © Patricia Wilson)

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