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Promoting “Canadian speculative fiction”: two U of T alumni discuss running literary magazine

Chatting with Alex De Pompa and Kerrie-Seljak Byrne about Sunburst-nominated Augur Magazine
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IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY
IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

Alex De Pompa is flashing a great smile as he describes his childhood summers at his family’s farm in Nova Scotia. Over 50 acres of trees, hillocks, and streams — ample space for the young De Pompa to pretend he was a character in an adventure story with the bow and arrow his father had made him.

“I would spend every summer of my childhood there,” he says. This early, regular exposure to nature gave him an appreciation for wonder, and later, this imaginative play-acting would lead to a love for speculative fiction — science fiction, fantasy, and the more agile genres between.

De Pompa and I are talking in the Bora Laskin Library of the Faculty of Law at U of T, where he is a third-year JD candidate. He is also the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Augur Magazine, a literary magazine for the fantastic that recently started in Toronto and is growing fast.

As of 2020, Augur is the only Canadian publication to receive recognized status from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the premiere guild for writers and artists of science fiction and fantasy (SFF). This recognition is given to magazines that pay writers a standard professional rate of 11 cents per word.

This recognition may also give Augur-published stories greater attention for the Nebula Awards, which are some of the most prestigious awards in SFF publishing. They might well be on their way to winning one soon, as a story in their very first issue has garnered a nomination for the local equivalent, the Sunburst Award for the best Canadian speculative writing.

I’ve asked to meet with De Pompa to learn how three U of T students set about creating Augur, and how life has changed since. We emailed the night before; our exchange included the magazine’s publisher Kerrie Seljak-Bryne, who founded the U of T SFF journal and blog, The Spectatorial.

TV: How did Augur begin? Why create a Canadian science-fiction and fantasy magazine specifically, over other genres of literature?

Kerrie Seljak-Byrne: Augur began because I’m never happy until I’m working on a project. Combine that with my love of reading, my decision to not work a nine-to-five publishing job, and my desire to grow our speculative fiction community, it was an easy choice.

Why speculative fiction? Because it’s what we love to read. For those of us who are writers, it’s also what we love to write.

Why Canadian? Because there are so few Canadian speculative fiction magazines, and even fewer that pay. There just weren’t enough opportunities for people to publish speculative stories — so we created one.

Plus, we knew we’d need grant support. We already wanted to support Canadian and Indigenous creators, but knowing that grants shared that desire made it exceptionally clear to us what we needed to do.

Turns out we weren’t wrong. Now we receive over 3,000 submissions per year. Our all-volunteer staff is almost 30 people big, and our stories have been recommended by Maria Haskins, Charles Payseur, Locus Magazine, and the Nebula reading list. It’s been a pretty wild ride.

TV: How did the founders of Augur meet? Was it through The Spectatorial?

Alex De Pompa: Yes and no! The three founders of Augur are Kerrie, Mado Christie — former senior editor — and me.

Kerrie and Mado knew each other from online writing forums back from high school, but reconnected when they both ended up at U of T.

Kerrie founded The Spectatorial and was its editor-in-chief in 2013, during the final year of their undergrad. I first met them when a short story of mine was published in the second volume of The Spectatorial.

When Kerrie first had the idea to start an independent literary magazine, they reached out to me and Mado to help them to plan the magazine that would eventually become Augur.

TV: What kind of stories are you looking for at Augur?

KSB: Our sweet spot is stories that are too speculative for classic Canlit ‘literary’ spheres, and too quiet or ‘literary’ for many speculative spheres. That said, we also publish both of those genres. We’ve had everything from a quiet meditation about a relationship by the ocean, to a steam-punk fairytale, to a magical robot. An Augur story is more of a tone than content.

ADP: And since one of our major goals with Augur is to foster an inclusive space that centres marginalized voices, we’re especially interested in stories that feature marginalized characters.

TV: Augur began as a Kickstarter-funded publication. How have things changed on the funding side as the magazine has grown?

KSB: We have three sources of revenue: grants, subscriptions and issue purchases, and crowdfunding. Right now, we’re dominantly reliant on grants and crowdfunding, as many magazines are. My hope is that in the next five years we’ll develop a recurring subscription base that’s strong enough to support our issue costs.

Otherwise, we’re looking at a diverse set of programs now. This year we’ll run a literary magazine, launch a conference, and we recently partnered with a reading series. In future years, we hope to run workshops and potentially even launch a small independent press.

We’re going to launch our second Kickstarter on February 1, where our goal is twice what it was in 2017 — we’re hoping to raise $12,000 in 28 days. Cross your fingers that we make it!

TV: When is the next submissions cycle? What advice do you have for people hoping to submit?

KSB: If you’re a newer, younger, or emerging writer, try and write short. Under 2,500 words. The longer your stories are, the more immaculate they must be. Every issue has a budget, and it costs us as much to buy two 2,500-word stories as it does one 5,000-word story. Your odds are better if you write shorter just by virtue of how many words we can afford to buy. That goes for many per-word magazines.

Then send us wonder. Just your wondrous or uncanny or fabulist or dreamy stories. Make us feel something, even if we don’t know what it is. The best way to get a story through is to immerse us in it.

ADP: We’ll open to submissions again in June 2020!

You should always read the publication that you’re planning on submitting to. If you read the publications you want to submit to, you’ll gain a better understanding of the tone and content that they are looking for.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get an acceptance! We publish about one per cent of the pieces that we receive and lots of other magazines have similar numbers. If you get a rejection, don’t take it as a sign that you’re a bad writer. A rejection just means that your piece wasn’t right for this publication at this time — that’s all.

Get back out there, keep writing, keep submitting, and keep the faith.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.