Conversation With Lex Chamberlin
Lex probes publishing industry revelations garnered from publishing degrees, story psychological vs. physical action, querying debut novels, ideal writing environments, and their publishing industry journey.
Lex Chamberlin (they/she) is a nonbinary and autistic writer of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. They hold a master’s degree in book publishing and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and they reside in the Pacific Northwest with their husband and quadrupedal heirs. Find them online at lexchamberlin.com.
Lex is the author of the short fiction story “Ascendant Neither-Nors” from Radon Issue 4.
Have you found your master's degree in publishing to be a boon for you?
A couple of years ago, I might have said no. I stopped writing for a long while after I graduated. Because I didn’t want to move somewhere like New York, I worked in an unrelated field for almost six years. But at this point, I’m grateful to have it. I finally found a remote job in publishing last year, and I started writing again in late 2021—it’s nice to have a solid grasp of what traditional publishing entails, now that I’m both working in and pursuing it. I like predictability.
What publishing industry revelations did you uncover in your studies?
The biggest thing was that most books don’t earn out their advances and are lucky to sell a couple hundred copies. There are so many books being published all the time, and publishing houses, especially larger ones, will often put a lot of money and effort behind just a couple titles at a time and hope that their profits cover the losses on the rest of their list. It’s not fair, but if your book isn’t designated a potential top seller, it may not get as much publisher attention as others released around the same time.
I do feel like learning things like that allowed me to really clarify to myself why I’m doing this, though, and develop a healthier relationship with the idea of success. I like to make up worlds and systems and explore ideas through fiction, and when I don’t do that for a while, I’m less happy. So I do it, and if I can sell it, great. If not, I’ll share it with friends or just enjoy what I made by myself—I’m my target audience, ultimately, and sometimes that has to be enough.
With an undergraduate degree in philosophy, do you find yourself writing more characters who explore philosophical issues?
It isn’t a conscious effort on my part, but I think it’s inevitable that my work is going to play a lot with philosophical issues, just with how ingrained that interest has been for so long. This is especially so around ethics and metaphysics, but also things that used to be in the realm of philosophy and are now considered psychology or political science. My characters frequently grapple with the moral weight of what they’re doing or try to dance around thinking about that while indirectly considering it anyway.
Do you believe that psychological action can be just as exciting as physical action scenes?
Absolutely. I love physical action—I do martial arts for fun, and all my favorite fiction involves fighting of some kind—but psychological action is where the story is. It’s that difference between story and plot, internal and external. You want both, but there are a lot of revered stories where very little happens externally, and it’s hard to think of beloved examples of the reverse. I say that kind of sadly, as a genre writer, because big external ideas are so exciting to me. But if there’s no character stuff going on in addition, it does end up kind of hollow.
How is the process of querying your debut novel going?
I have discovered why this phase of the process is nicknamed “the query trenches.” But one thing that’s made it easier lately was the revelation that it really is silly to have a dream agent—that’s something that’s widely warned, but I didn’t believe it initially. I had one, got rejected by them, and a couple months later learned that they’re known to very frequently drop clients if the first book doesn’t quickly sell. Ended up feeling like I dodged a bullet a bit there, which was a nice salve.
How does writing a novel compare to writing short stories?
It’s very different, for me. To start with, I outline a lot more for longer forms, to avoid writing myself into a corner or losing steam, whereas I can make my plan for a short story pretty vague and still end up alright. I also use Scrivener instead of Word for novels, to stay better organized, since there are a million more reference sheets I create for something longer. And the routine is a lot more structured: for this book, I dedicated weekend mornings to it for about nine months, while I worked on short stories during the week just whenever I felt like it.
I will admit that the novel I’m querying now is the first one I’ve actually been able to finish. I got over 50k words into two others before (not through NaNoWriMo, just coincidentally around that length), and both of those projects died quiet, boring deaths. I think if I’d been writing short stories alongside them, though, they might have made it too—I just need to complete things regularly in order to keep going. I’m not a fast writer, and not having anything I can share for months at a time really discourages me. I’m now always writing shorter things while I’m writing something longer.
Do you find certain themes, images, or ideas cropping up across your body of work?
For themes, probably alienation, ethics/morality, and the purpose of survival come up the most.
Images . . . I think a lot of my stories end up showing some kind of bodily injury, difference, or transformation. I joke that I want a robot body all the time, because of the ways mine has been difficult or painful so frequently. So readers are definitely going to see androids, humanoid creatures, or humans who turn into something else pretty often in my work.
As for specific ideas, I’m always coming up with new apocalypse scenarios, and shapes of tyranny to resist. I especially like terrible odds in that resistance, and characters who commit to it anyway.
What does your ideal writing environment look like?
I had to think about this a bit. For creative work, I kind of need to be the only person in the room, to have a closed door, and the option to have music or quiet. I don’t need a window but having interesting lighting helps (I have purple string lights and a color-changing Death Star lamp). I like having things to fidget with around as well, two screens if possible, and always snacks.
How have your experiences with personal identity informed your interactions with sci-fi, fantasy, and horror?
I’ve frequently felt like an alien, a fantasy creature, or a horror myself. I didn’t know I was autistic until I was 29, but I very much knew I was weird from the beginning. I have a lot of identities, inherent and chosen ones, that the wider culture can be pretty hostile toward, and I think a sense of connection to alienated creatures, and creatures who see themselves and the world from a kind of unsanctioned perspective, just drives me toward these genres in an inevitable way. I love exploring characters who are literally or figuratively monstrous, and how that aspect of them may or may not be morally neutral.
What has your journey in the publishing industry been like, especially as a person with a non-mainstream identity?
On the day-job side, my experience in publishing has been going to grad school (terrifying), trying and failing to freelance copyedit for six months after that (worse), taking a job that involved some editing but was otherwise unrelated for almost six years (bad), and eventually looping back to the field when remote work opened things up a bit (good).
I do feel like a lot of connections and promises evaporated once I graduated, which was weird. But it's hard to discern what factored into that. It’s also worth noting that I’m usually perceived as a cisgender woman, I’m married to a man, and my sexuality rarely comes up in conversation. I do know for sure that being autistic has impacted my ability to network, and that’s especially unfortunate because that’s such a large part of publishing in general. But at my current job, I felt safe enough to disclose a couple months in, and they’ve been very accepting and accommodating—I feel very lucky in that way.
On the writing side, I got back into it in late 2021, and I’ve had four publications so far, all in 2023. I’ve had hundreds of rejections, but there are too many variables to narrow down the reasons in most cases—I usually don’t dwell on them. Outside of demographic-specific calls, if my identities are impacting my submissions or queries at all, I don’t think I’d know unless someone directly told me. Either way, I’m going to keep writing my silly little stories.