Dr. Phoenix Alexander is a speculative author, scholar, teacher, and curator. His work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Escape Pod, The Dark, Deadlands, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Black Static, and Science Fiction Studies, among others. He is a full member of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA), and served as a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2021 and 2022.
As the Science Fiction Collections Librarian at the University of Liverpool, Special Collections and Archives, he managed the largest collection of cataloged science fiction in Europe, including the archive of the Science Fiction Foundation. He currently heads the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy at the University of California Riverside Library, one of the world’s largest collections of science fiction, fantasy, horror, utopian literature, and related genres.
Thanks to Phoenix for pausing his busy schedule to talk with me!
MYNA CHANG: Your expertise encompasses such a wide swath of the speculative universe; I hardly know where to begin. Perhaps we could start with your work as a speculative fiction collections curator. I think that sounds like the coolest job in the world, and I’m eager to hear more about it. What do you do?
PHOENIX ALEXANDER: Thank you so much for inviting me to speak in such a wonderful publication! It’s a real honor. I’d have to agree with you: I really do think my job is the coolest in the world! As a curator/special collections librarian (the titles are kind of synonymous), my responsibilities are really varied, with each day having the potential to look very different from the next. That said: replying to emails is a constant! These can cover everything from research requests, to offers of donation, invitations to collaborate, emails from students/faculty… the list goes on, and it really speaks to the imaginative reach of the materials I work with, both in the Eaton Collection and Special Collections more generally.
Away from the desk, I also provide teaching support to both university and public communities, program outreach events such as exhibits and talks, and build relationships with potential donors and creators to develop the already-expansive science fiction collections. I’m particularly interested in acquiring materials that represent the range of SF/F being created: from LGBTQ2S writers, disabled writers, and writers of color in particular.
It’s also important for me to attend conventions, conferences, and book fairs to really foster a sense of community with the SF/F community, and advocate for UCR (and special collections and archives writ large) as welcoming spaces for particularly marginalized creators, whose works have historically been undervalued or even neglected as objects worthy of care and study.
As a queer person writing SF/F myself, it has been a joy to marry these various passions within my current role as Klein Librarian at UCR.
MC: Teaching graduate classes have been part of your university work, and you also lead workshops for authors. What topics do you like to cover?
PHOENIX: In my previous role at Liverpool, classes primarily combined teaching the long history of SF/F and its fandoms with hands-on workshops on using primary sources. These included authors’ manuscripts, correspondence, printed books, and periodicals such as fanzines (often produced by Amateur Press Associations) and magazines. I like to emphasize the relationship between texts and paratexts, in particular, influenced by the non-fiction of Samuel Delany: the way that SF/F can circulate in non-formally published spaces/forms to make a kind of vernacular imaginative language.
MC: Not to give away my age, but it wasn’t easy to find science fiction in my hometown library back in the day. It’s been wonderful to watch spec fic emerge from the shadows. Are there now many libraries with special science fiction and fantasy collections? How long have they been in existence (in general)? Does each collection have its own unique personality? Do you see more such collections taking shape?
PHOENIX: Yes! There are quite a few science fiction and fantasy collections around the world. To name just a few: Texas A&M’s Cushing Library, the Merrill Collection at Toronto Public Library, collections at the University of Iowa, San Diego State University, and of course, Liverpool University.
MC: How can the average fan of speculative fiction access and enjoy these collections? For the aspiring speculative author, are there secrets we should know about these fantastic libraries? How can we utilize them to enhance our own writing?
PHOENIX: Many people don’t realize that you don’t always need to be a student of a university to visit special collections and archives! Many are open to the general public. The first step is to visit the library webpages, browse the catalogs, and then make an appointment to visit the reading room and put in a request for materials you’d like called up. Obviously, policies vary between institutions – and people need time to retrieve your materials – so as a rule of thumb, try to give folks at least a week of notice.
Secrets? Well, I suppose you might call this a secret: far from being closed-off spaces of rarefied knowledge, special collections and archives departments are really excited to have researchers come in and use their materials! One piece of advice would be to follow unexpected threads: call up an item that seems unfamiliar or intriguing, because it might just contain something that hasn’t been written about yet. Also, ask staff who have been working with such materials for recommendations, as they know the materials most intimately. Again: usually, everyone is happy to answer your questions!
I think just spending time in a library is inspirational – particularly when it comes to authors’ correspondence, journals, and manuscripts. Such items really give an insight into how much time things can take; there is no such thing as an ‘overnight’ success. Personally, I find being around these materials really inspiring, at least in setting professional goals, if not directly feeding into my plots and world-building.
MC: You have an impressive educational background. Tell us about your formal study. I’m especially interested in the subject of your dissertation, and your inspiration for taking this path.
PHOENIX: That’s very kind of you to say. It’s been quite varied, to say the least! In high school, I thought I wanted to be a visual artist, and ended up going to fashion school for three years, which proved to be… a very effective character-building exercise. This is why I don’t tend to get stressed out by my work much these days; you don’t know stress until you have to slash apart your entire runway collection, because the models you receive on the day of the show are far beefier than the models you fitted your garments to, and then you also have to run across London to source the right buttons and pins to literally lash them into their outfits…
I then returned to the study of literature, which was my first love, and completed a BA and MA at Queen Mary, University of London, focusing on ‘post-colonial’ writers who used surreal, or non-realist, literary forms. This then led me to science fiction as a field of inquiry: in particular, how African American writers used the genre to imagine alternative political futures.
Moving into the field of special collections and archives, I really want to help build trust between them and marginalized creators. I touched upon this earlier, but – for instance – academic institutions have not always been fully respectful or appropriately stewarded materials from such creators. Library catalogs can be filled with harmful or outdated language, preventing access and imposing taxonomies that misunderstand and misrepresent the cultures from which some materials arise. Care, conversation, and an ethical approach to librarianship is something that is very important to me.
MC: I want to focus on your fiction writing (which I love), but first, can you tell us about the scholarly articles you’ve published? What are you working on now?
PHOENIX: Sure! So I just finished up a book chapter on queerness in 20th-century British zines; this is coming out in a book called ‘Queer Print Cultures’, published by the University of Toronto Press later in the year. I also published a distilled version of my Ph.D. thesis in Science Fiction Studies, which I’m particularly proud of: ‘Octavia E. Butler and Black Women’s Archives at the End of the World.’
MC: I’m curious about how you find time to pursue your fiction. You’re busy! Do your other areas of work inform your creative energy? What types of stories and characters do you like to write, and what themes do you explore?
PHOENIX: I really have to write! It just builds up if I don’t do it. I’m not a regular writer, nor a prolific one: but when it comes to the actual writing itself, I’m a fast typer. Usually, ideas percolate for a long time in my head before I put anything to paper, so when they’re ready, I can put out a draft in about a day. As I mentioned, my work does inspire my writing endeavors; just being around the material is exciting!
In terms of stories, characters, and themes I like to write about… gosh, that’s a big question. I actually start with a theme or concept *first*: the ‘spine’ of the story. The characters are the scaffolding around it. I like stories with unexpectedly ‘happy’ endings – at least, a happiness that the characters would not have recognized as such at the beginning of the narrative. I LOVE horror. I am a very humdrum, goody-two-shoes, non-risk-taking person in real life, but I adore putting my characters through it and making wicked monsters. ‘Alien’ is my biggest inspiration, thematically!
I’m also increasingly drawn to the erotic. Here’s a hot take: there isn’t enough sex in mainstream SF/F publishing. I don’t mean Erotica as its own genre: I mean sensual, lustful characters and situations that inform or season the action of a narrative. I suppose the sterile, clinical nature of SF is a cliché to invoke, but an accurate one, at least in my humble opinion.
MC: My first taste of your fiction was the fabulous drabble, “Memory Rain,” in Martian. Do you often experiment with varying lengths and forms in your writing?
PHOENIX: Thank you very much! That was actually a much longer story that never found a home. I distilled it into a drabble and was really grateful that Eric Fomley picked it up for Martian.
I would say I don’t experiment so much with length as I do with form and structure – and I think I’ve gotten to the point now where I can kind of tell when a story is ‘done,’ and when I’m just spinning my wheels.
I’m currently editing a Greek-Cypriot space opera – I was fortunate to finally land a wonderful agent this year! – which is really exciting. Novels are their own creature; reading exhaustively for the Clarke Award for the past two years has been really instructional in terms of what makes a narrative work (or not).
MC: Are there any trends you are watching in the spec fic world? How do you see the genre evolving?
PHOENIX: Yes! A lot of post-apocalyptic ‘back to nature’ type narratives, unfortunately, quite a lot of un-nuanced ‘gender plague’ books – but a whole lot more non-Western works in translation, and works by under-represented folks. It’s great to see awards such as the Hugos, Nebulas and Nommos reflect and celebrate this.
How is the genre evolving? I’ll answer a different question: I would like to see works that are increasingly experimental and fragmented in their form, as I think they have much to say about how our collective psyche is shifting in the face of the proliferation of media and information in the 21st Century. Texts such as Richard Flanagan’s ‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’ and the astonishing movie ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ do this brilliantly.
MC: What’s next for you?
PHOENIX: Well, as I write this (August 12th, 2022), I’m just completing my second week at UCR Library, which has been an absolute blast – albeit a very busy one! The rest of the year will involve getting to know the vast Eaton Collection, attending a few conventions (namely WorldCon and LosCon!), and perhaps even meeting with an agent or two… watch this space!
MC: Where can we see more of your work?
PHOENIX: For a comprehensive and up-to-date list of my work, please visit phoenixalexanderauthor.com. Do also check out the amazing research guides at UCR Library’s website: SCUA Research Guides | UCR Library.
Thank you so much, again, for this opportunity.
PHOENIX ALEXANDER is a queer, Greek-Cypriot librarian, and author, of science fiction and fantasy. He is the Jay Kay and Doris Klein Librarian for Science Fiction and Fantasy at the University of California, Riverside, where he works with one of the world’s largest collections of SFF. He holds a Ph.D. in English and African American Studies from Yale University. An active member of SFWA, his work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Escape Pod, The Dark, Deadlands, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Black Static, and Science Fiction Studies, among others. He is kept in line by his two demanding cats: Purrince William the Furred and Ridley Scott.
MYNA CHANG (she/her) is the author of The Potential of Radio and Rain. Her writing has been selected for Flash Fiction America (W.W. Norton) and Best Small Fictions. She has won the Lascaux Prize in Creative Nonfiction and the New Millennium Writings Award in Flash Fiction. She hosts the Electric Sheep speculative fiction reading series. More at MynaChang.com.