Conversation with Emma Burnett
Emma explores life as a researcher and science fiction writer, slush reading, agroecology, food economies, and rejected favorites.
Emma Burnett is a researcher and writer. She has had stories in Apex, MetaStellar, Utopia, Elegant Literature, The Stygian Lepus, Roi Fainéant, Milk Candy Review, Rejection Letters and more. You can find her @slashnburnett, @slashnburnett.bsky.social, or emmaburnett.uk.
Emma is also the author of the short story “10207” from Radon issue 5.
Q: How did you discover your niche for science writing, both as an author of science fiction and as a researcher?
To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve fully settled into my niche yet. I write sci-fi, fantasy, horror, lit fic, mama drama . . . anything that fills the need for what I’m trying to say, or scream. Some of that has to do with my research, but a lot of it has to do with general life-ing.
Q: Do you see any common/overlapping themes between your academic work and your fiction?
Yes, absolutely! Over half my stories have food in them in some way or another, and many of them it’s a central theme. I’m a relative newcomer to fiction writing, so, originally, I think it was a way of processing stress or the things I was unable to say in an academic context (and sometimes in a parenting one).
Now, I think it’s a way of being creative with my knowledge in a way that’s really freeing. There are amazing stories around food, about people in food, about food doing weird plant things, whatever. I guess it feels like a nice mix of ‘write what you know’ and discovery writing.
There’s a bit of pressure there, too, though, to do service to food and agriculture. I want what I write to be palatable, but I also don’t want to over-simplify, to neglect or demonise people, or to really write anything upsetting about food (which I’ve absolutely done, repeatedly).
I also sometimes struggle to balance the academic tendency towards obfuscating and exclusionary exposition with the concise structures that often work in short fiction. Sometimes I get them mixed up.
Q: What was your writing process like for your story “10207”?
10207 was the very first piece of sci-fi that I wrote, and I love it like a sweet little baby kitten. I had to slash and burn a lot of it, re-write some, and then, later, when I was a little bit more skilled (and a little less delicate about my writing), go through the same process again. It was quite the learning curve.
It also felt amazing discovering that I could have a voice inside my head that was clearly not mine, and to put it down on paper. It was the first time I’d really acknowledged that voice, and I actually had to check with my therapist to make sure I wasn’t going insane . . .
In terms of the process of writing, I actually don’t have a good answer. I don’t have a process, because I don’t have to fight the page. I know that’s probably not a fair thing to say, lots of people struggle with a blank page, but for me words either flow, or they don’t. When they do, I can be incredibly prolific. And, if they don’t, I’m very forgiving with myself. My process was then, and still is: coffee and everyone around me shhhhhh.*
*The cats have no respect for this.
Q: How does being a slush reader impact your own writing practice and craft?
Slush reading is amazing. It’s a lot of work sometimes, but it helped me to see the difference between a yeah-that’s-pretty-good story and an amazing story. It helped me to read some exceptionally dire stories (bit of a comparative pick-me-up), as well as to stumble across some absolute gems (aspirational, motivational). Probably my writing has improved, but even more, I think my ability to gage where to send a story so as not to waste slush readers’ or editors’ time.
Slushing (and just being part of the background of a spec fic mag) helped me connect with other readers and writers, and from that my work has definitely improved. It’s meant that I have writing buddies and critique groups, and that’s a huge boost. We cheerlead each other, and commiserate with each other, and it feels like community. Everyone is pulling in the same direction, you know?
Also, and this did come as a bit of a surprise to me, but did you know that editors are real life people? Like for real real? I know that now. Because I’ve talked to some. Real people.
Q: Tell us about your specialty, agroecology?
Agroecology is the discipline that I work within that’s like an umbrella term for the type of agriculture most people I work with practice—working with, rather than against, ecology, when we produce food. It also fosters spaces for transdisciplinary research, diverse perspectives and relationships with food, and allows us to be activists as well as academics. The researchers, farmers, food practitioners, and policymakers who I know, they’re all pushing at boundaries, questioning paradigms, suggesting alternatives, trying to fix broken systems. They’re food rock stars.
Q: What brought you to focusing on food economies and coopetition?
I came to this because I had been involved in a food start-up after my MSc. We had a small farm, sold food locally, it was all very bucolic. Honestly, it was lovely. Also, it was hard work. Also, we were trying to solve food system problems by doing capitalism. After a few years, I wanted to take a step back to have a think about what it was we’d done, and whether it had (or ever really could) make a difference.
My PhD research ended up focussing on self-organisation, competition, and cooperation in local food systems. I looked at how people behaved when they’re under pressure (both the everyday variety, and the chaotic, omg it’s covid variety), what might drive them to behave that way, and what it meant for everyone involved. I’ve got results that show how important good resourcing, stable demand, and well-equipped staff and volunteers are to successful self-organisation (you can totes read about that here). And I enjoyed using the concept of coopetition (simultaneous competition and cooperation) in a new way – usually it’s only applied to the market economy, but a lot of groups in local food systems are solidarity or care spaces, and don’t get the same attention in the economics literature.
I love local food systems. I think they’re important for local economies, for food access, for skills-building and connection to the land, for nurturing variety and a diversity of foods and practices, for transparency and access to knowledge, and as a way to tackle the build-up of capital in the hands of a very few, very powerful people and corporations.
Q: How do you make time to write fiction in the midst of pursuing a PhD?
There’s this story I wrote, Hobbies (in Roi Fainéant), which talks about how every doctoral student gets really good at something that is totally unrelated to their research. The MC gets good at being a sharpshooter, and it’s both a little worrying and comedic. Whilst I don’t do that, the gist of the story is true. Every research student I know does something unrelated to their work, and we all do it really well because we’re those kind of crazy committed people.
Fiction is what I’ve ended up doing as my other-than-PhD thing. It’s my creative outlet, my screaming into the void, the thing that I arguably do at least as well as my actual job. My mother is an artist, so maybe I’ve always been looking for a way to do what she does with materials, only I found it in words.
Writing is also something that doesn’t have an age restriction on it. I feel like my stories get more colourful with experience, rather than anything timing me out.
I will say that sitting in front of a computer even more than I already was hasn’t made for the healthiest hobby. I’m doing some novel-writing now, and I’ve made a point of doing it by hand, in a notebook (I know, whaaat?), just so I don’t have to be sat at my desk while I work.
Q: Postgraduate researchers are often underpaid and underappreciated. Have you experienced this yourself?
Jesus wept, yes.*
*My supervisors have been amazing, though, so there’s that.
Q: How do you go about being a sustainable writer—finding fresh inspiration and taking care of your mental writing muscles?
Writing is actually the thing I do for my mental health, so this is a bit of a flipped thing. It’s a space to be whatever, say whatever. There’s no hallway monitor on your words or your thoughts when you write (although there is if you want to get those words published, but that’s different). I’m not a diary-keeper, it’s never worked for me. But I am a vomit-my-thoughts-and-emotions onto the page kind of writer, and when that distils into something with a narrative arc, it’s kinda cool.
That’s not to say that writing doesn’t have its drawbacks. It’s got a lot of rejection built in, a lot of criticism (constructive and otherwise), and it can be a bit lonely if you haven’t got writerly buddies. It took me awhile to find a good group of people to work with, and I’m clinging on to them like . . . something that clings. Runner beans, maybe? Or ivy.
Q: Your website has a unique "Rejected favorites" section where you display your most beloved unhoused stories. Have you found this page to help the stories get the attention they deserve or has a publisher approached you after finding them?
OMG, I love that you found that. I love that page. It makes me so happy.
No, no one has approached me about them, and I wouldn’t expect them to. Editors are so swamped, they’re spoilt for choice because there are so many incredible writers out there. These are stories I tried to place, and they didn’t find homes, and honestly I’m ok with that. Maybe some people will read them (ok, yes, I checked, that page gets about 10% of my website’s traffic), and I hope they get a kick out of some freebies. It’s like a blog, I guess, or self-publishing. Just something that people might get a kick out of.
Also, I think in both fiction and academic publishing, we don’t talk about our failures enough. Like, our average rejection rate (86%); or how many months it takes us to revise an article that’s been sent back with ‘minor’ revisions (3-6, unpaid); or how much sushi we had to buy to make us feel better after a pro-rate mag rejected us (more than the amount they’d have paid if it had been accepted). I like the honesty of a rejections page. I might put some of the awards I haven’t won up there, too . . .