Conversation With Rachel Ayers
Rachel talks about her hosting of an Alaskan burlesque show, her job as librarian amid the US culture wars, writing for Tor.com, the need for writers to learn about the publishing and marketing side of the industry.
Rachel Ayers lives in Alaska, where she writes and hosts shows for Sweet Cheeks Cabaret. She has a Master’s in Library and Information Science, which comes in handy at odd hours. The DM for her D&D group is constantly exasperated by her need for more research texts to read in her spare time, especially as they are a homebrew group. She dabbles with oil painting, knitting, and making burlesque costumes and pasties. Her fiction appears in Metaphorosis, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Radon Journal, and the upcoming anthology Fall into Fantasy; she is a regular contributor at tor.com. She shares speculative poetry and flash fiction (and cat pictures) at patreon.com/richlayers.
Rachel is also the author of the poem “They Came In Tiny Ships” from Radon Issue 2.
How did you come to be the host for the cabaret show Sweet Cheeks?
I started out with Sweet Cheeks Cabaret by writing a script for them, because they wanted to have an event that was more story and less variety show. I wrote the telenovela themed script Forbidden Desires: A Tale of True Love, True Revenge, and True Pasties. But they were also looking for more hosts for ongoing shows, and I fell in love with burlesque the first time I saw Sweet Cheeks. Not long after that, my alter-ego Trixie Heart was born and took to the stage.
Do you incorporate your poetry into your hosting, or does the hosting influence your writing?
I have a lot of theater background and I love to be on stage. It’s a weird existence and expression: not really me and not really not me. I think the same is true with writing: you have to put yourself into it, either way, and that’s what people connect with. It can be daunting, terrifying, and wonderful, all at the same time. Now my experience with cabaret is starting to sneak into my writing as I’ve begun writing tales of space burlesque and robot dancers.
Tell us about your job as a librarian as the profession is continually catapulted into mainstream consciousness amid the culture wars?
Being a librarian was wonderful and exhausting. Collection development was a dream job for a long time, and I was lucky enough to spend years in that capacity. Within our culture, libraries are going through a terrible time. I often think of the Anne Herbert quote, “Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.” As such I think libraries are at the forefront of a class war in America. It’s not necessarily what librarians sign up for, but especially in public libraries, librarians will find themselves overwhelmed with needs to fulfill and little to no resources to fill them. Libraries have become catch-all places for people who need everything from Internet access to those who are suffering from homelessness, but libraries are still funded as though they are just the “places where you go for books.” Obviously, this is a hugely complex topic and there is discussion about it in libraries and communities all over the country, and I am barely skimming the surface in these few sentences. I just ask, if you are reading this, remember that your local librarians are heroes!
You wrote a compelling piece about the magic that libraries offer. You detail many of the offerings that can aid future authors and curious minds, but your focus is largely on written paraphernalia. Do you have any thoughts on the other services that many libraries provide to address inequities in access within their communities?
A library is, essentially, a way to give people equal access to information. Information technology and information sharing has exploded over the last decades in ways that we never imagined, and that’s become a many-faceted issue that, again, I think, reflects class struggles in American culture. As long as there are new ways to share information, librarians will be chasing them down the information superhighway (to use an antiquated term from only decades ago) and trying to figure out how everyone can have access. There are librarians on TikTok, Roblox, and at your city council meetings.
During the largest swaths of Covid-19 shutdown, I heard a lot of people refer to librarians as “second responders” in emergency situations. Not the ambulance or fire department, but what do you do after the literal lives have been saved, to salvage the rest of the life? Boots were strapped on, sleeves were rolled up, and librarians started checking out Wi-Fi hotspots and implemented curbside checkouts and coordinated city resources to keep us on our feet as much as possible during the unprecedented time. People dealing with new tragedies need help navigating social systems, and I think that’s where librarians are often able to step up and be truly effective.
You’ve mentioned that taking writing classes or workshops sometimes fails to prepare authors for the business side of writing. What hard lessons have you learned in this arena?
Once I settled on Creative Writing as my undergraduate degree, I got a lot of practice at writing and a little at editing, but none at submitting work or selling my writing. (I was able to offer some feedback on the coursework and I found that the next class did get an assignment to submit their stories to the wider world of publishing, which was weirdly a great lesson in how to make small changes.) Still, I graduated with no idea of what the publishing world was like, certain that I’d be a successful novelist in a year or two, and with no idea, honestly, of what I was even doing.
Writing classes and workshops tend to be targeted toward the writing itself, and there is, indeed, a great deal to learn about the art of writing, the structure of story, and the sheer persistence it takes to get words on the page, day after day. But none of that helps with the next step of publication (aside from the fact that if you don’t have anything to publish, you definitely won’t get published). My post-graduate lessons have been cobbled together from experience and finding some great resources.
I highly recommend Jane Friedman’s wonderful book The Business of Being a Writer, as well as the myriad accessible resources on her website. I’m also a tremendous fan of the Submission Grinder, run by the venue Diabolical Plots, which gives authors free access to a huge database of venues to submit to, as well as an addictive amount of analytics on their own submission habits over time, which at the midpoint of a writer’s career are as important as their writing habits.
I’ve also greatly enjoyed my experience in the Radon Journal Discord community, which has been a wonderful and unexpected resource for writers that has tended to focus less on writing craft and more on opportunities, support, and industry information. There are many writing groups that tend toward craft, and they are valuable, but I encourage any aspiring author to also find or create a group that is focused on the business of publishing as well.
In your poem “They Came In Tiny Ships,” each couplet references “they” as tiny aliens smaller than our pinkies who came to rule, fix, and mourn us. Further expanding on your vision of these creatures, do you see them as foreign aliens, or are they native to our world? Where do you envision them going in your mind after the poem’s conclusion?
As far as I can recall, I got the first seed of an idea from some dandelion fluff and thought it would be funny if we were invaded by aliens that were too tiny to be effective. Then I thought that would also be fairly tragic, if they arrived just in time to see us destroy ourselves, even though they came to help.
I’d like to think “they” could fly off to some other planet with creatures that they could save, and that they would remember us and tell stories about humans.
You've written several articles for Tor.com. How did you step into this role, and how did you decide what to write about?
I pitched the above-mentioned article on Library Magic to the nonfiction editor, and she gave me an enthusiastic go-ahead. This was probably my fourth or fifth pitch to Tor. (So if they pass on your first idea, keep trying! Just like everything else in writing!) I followed up with another idea to feature retellings of a fairy tale I love, The Wild Swans. Well, there are a lot of fairy tales and the editors have been pleased to make this a semi-regular feature, so I’m able to share my love of retellings (and get great recommendations from other fairy tale fans).
Your most recent article for Tor is about the literary subgenre lovingly known as competence porn. How did you first learn of such stories, and are you a general appreciator of competence in real life?
I noticed how satisfying meticulousness was a long time ago. I think I was watching a video of someone refilling a fountain pen, or something like that, and their movements were very precise and graceful. It was such a practiced set of movements that accomplished the task with such seeming ease. I also feel this way when I watch a great live performance, and I encourage you to notice the same thing next time you watch someone perform in front of a live audience. The performer’s confidence will relax the audience. We can feel it when someone is uncomfortable or unprepared onstage and it makes us tense. But when they go through their performance with competence, it is sheer joy to witness.
Then at some point, my brother recommended Leverage (because I love The Italian Job, the newer one with Mark Walberg and Charlize Theron) and I got hooked. That was certainly how I encountered the term competence porn as I went on a search for MORE LIKE THIS PLEASE. The article came about after a comment on another article on Tor.com discussing comfort reading/viewing, where I expounded on my love of the competence porn dynamic, and my editor saw the comment and asked if I wanted to write more about it.
And sure, I’ll take competence over incompetence any day. But the cooperative aspect of competence porn (at least as defined by myself in the mentioned article!) is perhaps my favorite part of the dynamic. The “pass the baton” effect is a joy to see and a great relief to experience; if one person is in over their head, a team member will step in and get us through the next step. For example, If I’m a great writer, and you’re a great editor, hey, we could accomplish some things!
How would you describe living in Alaska to someone who's never visited?
It’s slightly terrifying all the time.
Okay, mostly it’s pretty normal. People wear an amount of fur that I found shocking when I first moved here. Everyone sleeps more in winter and is manic all summer. Anchorage is a medium-sized city and has most of the amenities you’d expect from living in a city. But it’s also like living in a national park. The air is fresh, the walks are wooded. There’s a huge park and reserve half a mile from my home. I’ve only seen a bear there once (so far).
Your Patreon seems to be quite successful at nearly $200/month. Do you have any self-marketing advice for other writers?
I feel like I’m truly terrible at self-marketing. It’s sooo awkward! A lot of this has come with persistence over time. (I’ve had the Patreon going steadily for almost six years now and just gently, occasionally ask people to check it out). Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking allowed me to give myself a lot of grace on this. Often people will say no, but sometimes they say yes.
I don’t know that I can offer any advice beyond keep writing, keep improving, and get your work out there where people can find it.