Circus Comes to Town: Interview with E. Catherine Tobler

For today’s author interview, I’m thrilled to spotlight writer and editor E. Catherine Tobler. She is not only an incredibly accomplished author with novels, novellas, and scores of short stories to her name, but she is also the fantastic senior editor at Shimmer. So much greatness, so little blog space!

Recently, she and I discussed her upcoming novella, The Kraken Sea, out next month from Apex Publications, along with her future plans for her awesome Traveling Circus universe as well as her Folley and Mallory steampunk series.

A couple icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?

E. Catherine ToblerI don’t know that I ever really decided to be a writer. Growing up, I wanted to be a teacher or an astronaut, but the more school I explored, the worse teaching seemed to be, and I could never fully wrap my head around math. In high school, I took an extra credit assignment which was to write a short story about anything we wanted. I wrote a horror story and earned an A+, and never really stopped writing.

As to authors, I start with Ray Bradbury, because he took me to Mars for the first time. Kage Baker taught me how to love time travel and androids. Lewis Carroll taught me about portal fantasies. Laura Kinsale taught me about humor and romance. Agatha Christie and Elizabeth Peters introduced me to Egypt, and Elizabeth Hand keeps taking me to Highly Unexpected Places I Love. Nick Mamatas taught me about pacing and how to fly without scene breaks. Molly Tanzer showed me it was okay to flirt with ghosts.

Your novella, The Kraken Sea, is slated for release in June from Apex Publications, and it’s already garnered positive reviews from sites including Publisher’s Weekly. The story, which is part of your Traveling Circus universe, features monsters, trains, and time travel. In your work, you have an impressive track record of combining seemingly disparate elements into cohesive stories. You seem completely unafraid to make bold, genre-blending choices. When you’re writing, do you ever worry that certain elements won’t work together, or that those choices might be difficult sells since they don’t fall along established genre lines?

Absolutely. I have a circus story in submission right now that is from the steam train’s point of view (because naturally the train is possessed by the spirit of–oh, that’s a spoiler, ssshh), and I have no idea if it works. I wrote about school shootings in “Silencer, Head Like a Hole Remix” (Interzone #259), and never thought the story would sell given its real-life horror content.

No matter what one writes, there is always the worry that it won’t work. But the other side is, what if it does? Throw the element in, see what happens. Writing is fluid and never has to be linear. If the element doesn’t work, take it out. Put the element somewhere else, what does it do there? Maybe the element works upside down.

Mostly, jump off the cliff. You’ll figure out a safe way down or you’ll hit the ground–but what if you break on through and keep going? One doesn’t have to die at the bottom.

Your Traveling Circus universe is a wonderfully ambitious project. The stories, which have been published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, The Dark, Giganotosaurus, and other venues, are standalone pieces, but they create an engaging series if read together. After The Kraken Sea, can you reveal any of your future plans for this world and these characters?

The Kraken SeaI haven’t been writing the stories with an actual plan, she said with a nervous grin.

The first story, “Vanishing Act,” really came out of nowhere, the character and voice a tribute to a good friend. I had no plans to write a series, but then I wrote a second circus story, and realized that if I was very quiet, other voices began to make themselves known.

That said, there are a few aspects of the circus I haven’t explored yet—and The Kraken Sea was a big one, Jackson’s genesis!—but as I finish more stories, I see the ends of more threads peeping up from each, hints of what’s to come if one reads closely enough.

Congratulations are also in order for the recent release of The Honey Mummy! This is the third book in your Folley & Mallory steampunk series, and the second to be released from Apokrupha. What was your inspiration in creating this series, and how has the transition been to a new publisher? (I love those beautiful covers by the way!)

Aren’t those covers amazing? We were very lucky to find Ravven and her wonderful work because she’s a perfect fit for the atmosphere of the series.

Jacob Haddon and Apokrupha have been wonderful to work with. I wasn’t entirely sure what would become of the series when Masque/Prime said they weren’t interested in continuing the journey—I had so many more stories to tell—but then there was Jacob saying “hey, I dig what you’re doing, how can I help?” And here we are!

I have always loved Egypt, and my first thought for setting a book there was actually something in the distant future, where my archaeologist heroine would try to preserve the past as technology and the world took over. But I realized it might be better to tackle that issue in another time (see, put the element somewhere else, see what it does!). Eleanor Folley is anchored in a very modern future-is-rushing-toward-us world, but feels the pull of an even more ancient world. How does one preserve that ancient world, even as the modern age rushes in? How does one protect artifacts so they aren’t lost and so the people these artifacts belong to are still noted, honored, respected? Given that Folley has a deeply personal stake in those questions, it’s been great fun.

Many readers also know you as the senior editor of Shimmer. What inspired you to expand into the editing field, and what advice do you have for other editors out there? Likewise, do you have any tips you can share for writers submitting to Shimmer?

As with so many things, I never planned on getting into editing. I applied to read slush at Shimmer because I was told it would be good for my writing. It was absolutely great for my writing (and if writers ever have a chance to read slush, jump on that opportunity). The longer I stayed at Shimmer, the more I took on, until eventually I edited my first issue (#15!), and I just kind of stayed…

I am not sure I have advice for other editors–I am still a small fish in a very big genre ocean. But tips for writers when submitting include reading the guidelines, following the guidelines, and not to expect a critique in any editorial response. Critiques are for writing groups; editors don’t generally send them, unless we are asking for a rewrite.

2016 has already been an incredible year for your writing career: a novel, a novella, and your 100th story sale (and beyond). In terms of upcoming releases, is there anything else we should be looking for?

The next Folley & Mallory adventure arrives in October. The Clockwork Tomb will finally see this pair exploring a tomb, though it’s not at all what they expect. I also have more short fiction coming from Clarkesworld and Beneath Ceaseless Skies (another circus story!). This summer, my short story “The Indigo Mantis” will kick off The Book Smugglers’ Year of the Superhero.

Where can we find you and your work online?

For all things me, my website is This includes bibliographies, story and book lists, and my occasional blog, where I talk about writing, inspiration, and cake. I’m also on Twitter @ecthetwit, where I am generally full of nonsense.

Thanks, Gwendolyn!

Big thanks to E. Catherine Tobler for being part of this week’s author interview series. Check her out at her aforementioned website, and be sure to keep up with the latest issue of Shimmer!

Happy reading!