Neon Hemlock Press: A Small Press in a Big World of Speculative Fiction
The 2022 Nebula Awards novella category was a celebration of the form as well as that of community. It began when a veteran award-winner stepped back, leaving space for new voices, which led to a novella — published by Neon Hemlock Press — winning the award.
On May 21, Premee Mohamed won the 2022 Nebula award for best novella with her work And What Can We Offer You Tonight, published by Neon Hemlock Press. Set in a far future, people can be culled by the government for a single mistake. Climate change and rising seas have swallowed up the land. A courtesan’s friend is murdered, then comes back to life. It’s a stunning and powerful novella, and it was Neon Hemlock’s first Nebula award.
The path was laid when Martha Wells, author of the popular and award-winning Murderbot novella series, declined her nomination. This paved the way for three more speculative novellas to be included on the ballot. And What Can We Offer You Tonight was one of those novellas. It went on to win.
Publisher and managing editor of Neon Hemlock Press, dave ring, said he was ecstatic for Mohamed’s win and grateful to Martha Wells:
The Rise of Neon Hemlock Press: Different Forms of Community
With an award that has been around since 1966, Neon Hemlock Press is relatively new to the publishing arena. Nonetheless, in the past couple of years, the small press has become a staple in queer speculative fiction, namely in zines and novellas.
From 2015-2020, ring was the volunteer chair of Washington, D.C.’s LGBTQ Literary Festival. The idea for a press arose in 2019, when ring chose to run a chapbook competition.
“I had gotten some great writers to come on board as judges, but the press that I had hoped would be able to publish them wasn’t able to, so I decided to do it myself.”
The timing lined up; ring also edited the anthology Glitter + Ashes: Queer Tales of a World that Wouldn’t Die, which was a bright spot in 2020, a year punctured by the pandemic and police brutality.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about the different forms that community can take, and the stories in that anthology [Glitter + Ash] were no small part of that,” ring said.
Community and sanctuary are important to dave ring’s vision for Neon Hemlock Press. When asked about inspiration for the press, past and present, ring noted the example set by FIYAH Literary Magazine.
“Even though we differ in a lot of ways, the FIYAH team’s efforts and determination to create sanctuary and mentorship for Black writers in the field of speculative fiction is galvanizing as hell,” ring said.
Created in 2017, FIYAH is a quarterly speculative fiction magazine that features stories by and about Black people of the African Diaspora. As its mission states, FIYAH aims “to spill tea and throw shade in the most delightful way. We are intersectional and welcome our disabled, LGBTQIA, and neurodivergent brothers and sisters. Don’t hesitate to send us your stories. Don’t self reject.”
In addition to the magazine, FIYAH also created and hosts FIYAHCON and the IGNYTE Awards. Per its website, FIYAHCON is a virtual convention “centering the perspectives and celebrating the contributions of BIPOC in speculative fiction.” The IGNYTE Awards “seek to celebrate the vibrancy and diversity of the current and future landscape of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror by recognizing incredible feats in storytelling and outstanding efforts towards inclusivity within the genre.”
The 2022 Awards have not yet been announced, but Neon Hemlock has another book on the shortlist: Shingai Njeri Kagunda’s novella And This is How to Stay Alive.
The inaugural FIYAHCON was hosted in 2020 to much acclaim, becoming an example of how to run a respectful and efficient virtual convention, along with how to actively support and celebrate a community of marginalized creators.
“If I can curate a fraction of that energy, I’ll be pleased with my efforts,” ring said.
Insider Stories: The Neon Hemlock Vibe
With Neon Hemlock Press carving a space for itself, and with its recent accolades, there’s definitely been the rise of a “Neon Hemlock vibe:” queer speculative literature that appeals to the press’s audience and mission.
While alarming and exciting for ring, this vibe has been felt throughout the speculative community, with readers and critics showing vibrant interest in the stories Neon Hemlock puts forth.
“Projects tend to be driven by my particular tastes, for better or not,” ring said. “One thing I’m really actively courting is what I’m thinking of as ‘insider stories’. Stories written about and in conversation with the community that it’s about, as opposed to a more mainstream audience.”
Neon Hemlock Press’s Process: Involvement and Design
For readers and writers alike, it’s always important to note what a press is looking for. One such example ring points to is reading Anya Ow’s Cradle and Grave, which was part of Neon Hemlock Press’s 2020 novella series. ring described reading Ow’s submission as taking him “out of my body.” Set in a dystopian future, Cradle and Grave follows Dar Lien, who is a scout for scavenger runs into the Scab, an urban-zone infected by a mutagenic phenomena called the Change.
“I remember I sat up straighter and thought, damn I need to publish this,” ring said. “Of course its pub date was April 2020, so that book has had a difficult path through the world, but discovering Anya’s writing was just incredible and a highlight of my work.”
When a work is accepted at Neon Hemlock, ring makes sure that authors are involved in the process. Being involved in designing the cover is part of it, and Neon Hemlock’s range of novella, anthology, and zine covers are truly beautiful and memorable.
“Getting to commission art is the greatest sinful pleasure of running a small press, in my opinion,” ring said. ring handles all of the design for the covers and the process allows him to work with a variety of different artists. Authors and ring will brainstorm, collecting Instagram accounts of artists they are interested in working with. Once they trim it down to a shortlist, ring contacts artists to get quotes and see who is within the press’s budget.
“Caitlin Starling and I had such a great hivemind deciding on the type and design for her novella Yellow Jessamine that she still gets accosted at all hours of the day with font consultations,” ring said.
Expansion: Baffling Magazine
In addition to his love of novellas, ring was also drawn to short fiction, and had been mulling over whether to start a magazine. When the idea is strong enough — and makes sense — ring is willing to go all in.
Of course, there were finances to consider, but at the time of the idea, Neon Hemlock Press was just about to start breaking even. With the inclusion of Patreon, the idea of starting Baffling Magazine made financial sense.
“Or at least it didn’t make active unsense,” ring said. “When I decided to scale Baffling according to the success of the Patreon, that gave me an effective guardrail.”
ring reached out to writer Craig L. Gidney with the idea for a magazine, and he came aboard as co-editor. Along with bringing on writer Jewelle Gomez for the magazine’s first story, the rest, they say, is history.
Now Baffling Magazine is about to publish its eighth quarterly issue, emphasizing “queer weird” speculative fiction. The magazine is a pro-paying market, and its work has been lauded in other Book Riot articles (written by yours truly) and was included on the 2021 Locus Recommended Reading List (for “Illusions of Freedom” by Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe, published in October 2021).
“It’s gone by faster than I could have imagined, and I’m so proud of the tiny nightmares we’ve unleashed on folks,” ring said.
New Milestones: The Future of Neon Hemlock Press
In the span of a couple years, Neon Hemlock Press has risen and flourished. But there’s more still to come from this small press; ring is just getting started.
During 2022, the press’s first collection of short stories, All the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From by Izzy Wasserstein, comes out in July, alongside the publication of Baffling Year One, which is an anthology that collects the stories published in Baffling‘s first year.
“We also have three more anthologies, two novellas, some zines, and a handful of other surprises this year, too,” ring said. “I’m focusing on those while keeping stock of what sort of stories we’re elevating/sharing, trying to be mindful of what our place is in the conversation and where we/I can do better.”
ring has many plans and ideas for Neon Hemlock Press, and his excitement and gratitude for the press’s authors and community, is contagious. Given the challenges of the pandemic, a rising small press is always something to be celebrated, especially one that seeks to lift up marginalized voices. In a big world of speculative fiction, the signature “queer weird” and gorgeous language of Neon Hemlock’s books is a bright light. Surely, there will be many more accolades to come.