Interviewing Dancing Bear Books

by Gurpreet Sihat

This week, Independent Press, Dancing Bear Books is releasing their very first anthology, Little Book of Fairy Tales. To celebrate, I caught up with founders, Kristel and Lucy.

Getting stuck straight in… What was it that led to the two of you creating Dancing Bear Books?

We’re both avid readers and writers and we were just astounded by the lack of diversity within the publishing industry – particularly for BAME representation of characters, writers and editors themselves. We wanted to build something that reflected our love for inclusion and fair opportunities for all. We also strongly believe in the #OwnVoices movement and are very much favourable of stories that are inclusive of this movement in their writing. 

Above all, we want authenticity, sincerity and honesty; these are the qualities that drive good and meaningful prose.

And why a dancing bear? I’ve been wanting to ask that question since I saw your logo was a bear in a tutu!

We both adore the musical animated classic, ‘Anastasia’ and we named our company after a lyric in one of the songs. Dancing Bears, Painted Wings, Things I almost remember. We felt this captured our ethos because of the magic that the film encompasses. Also, both the musical and film, reference the image of a dancing bear – it’s fuelled by imagination.

One of the points on your mission statement is “to embrace diversity with regards to writers, narrative and characters.” I have a two-part question for you here. What does diversity mean to you? And how do you ensure that you’re being diverse?

Diversity means inclusion of everybody and giving a platform to voices that are usually cast aside. We are particularly fond of platforming BAME and LGBT+ narratives and writers as these are voices that we feel are left out in the mainstream more so than others. We’re not exclusive to this, we want equal representation for every group, but we feel this is our way of balancing the scales. Although we aren’t exclusive to diverse work, we aim to publish all manner of stories in moderation.

To ensure we have diverse stories, we have a screener for writers and characters within the submission and in the covering letter we encourage the writer to tell us about themselves and how they came to write the story.

How explicit is diversity in the stories you choose to publish?

For us, we care very much about the author. For example, we don’t believe that an individual should be forced to write about solely their race or sexual orientation because there is so much more to a person than just that label. What matters to us is perspective and outlook.

Living life a certain way will change your perspective on the world and that brings a whole new layer to the work. Although we care very much about the authors, we do also look for diverse characters in the work too. We try to strike a good balance between the two. Sometimes diversity is subtle, but it exists.

You recently partnered with Coram Beanstalk. How did that come about and why did you choose this particular charity?

We chose Coram Beanstalk because of our passion for nurturing young minds. Coram Beanstalk basically in essence provide literary facilitation for children and teach children to read who might be struggling. They make sure that children have a love and appreciation for the literary arts at a young age which is hugely important. Books provide another viewpoint; they engage us with empathy and help us to see new worlds and new perspectives. 

The majority of books that fall beneath the YA umbrella being published at the moment are fantasy and/or fairy tale retellings. Why should new writers choose to submit to you instead of the myriad of publishers out there that are also specialising in that area?

There are great deal of publishers searching for this kind of work at the moment, however, there are a lot of stories being cast aside because they are either incorporate themes that are too adult or too diverse. We strongly believe that underestimating the readers of today and their intellect is criminal. We’re on the lookout for work that engages the reader’s intellectual integrity and makes them question the world around them. We want complex characters and unique outlooks on stories. In the mainstream, work is very much based around popular clichés, and while we love a good love triangle or enemies to lovers plotline, we are looking for something a little bit more than that. 

We want stories driven by depth and unconventional ideas that aren’t usually associated the conventions of the fantasy genre. We also believe that Fantasy, of all genres, should support diverse characters. The default is straight, white man. Harry Potter, Bilbo Baggins, Frodo Baggins, Marty Mcfly. We want to be part of a growing movement that changes that.  

When reading a submission, what are the key things that you look for?

Be polite, be patient and be succinct. We care less about your vocational achievements and more about who you are as a person, why you are telling this story, and what lead you to telling it. 

A lot of people I’ve spoken to recently feel like the typical storytelling conventions – dead parents, abduction turning into true love, the wicked stepmother – are becoming tedious and moving from trope to cliché. How do you feel about them?

There is nothing wrong with a good ol’ cliché, just so long as it’s presented in an interesting way or within an interesting concept. The fact is, no story is original, there are only new ways to tell the story you want to tell.

New authors often don’t know the process of publishing. Could you run us through the route from finding that perfect book to getting it out there into the world?

I could write a book about this process, but here is a super succinct list of what happens. When we select a book, we’ll spend a really long time editing it and making it as perfect as it can be. We then go through design, production and marketing. It’s a huge and long process but it’s exciting and fun.

Now that Little Book of Fairy Tales is complete, what’s next for Dancing Bear Books?

THINGS! We have a shortlist of projects that we’ll be working on but there is a project that we’ll be opening our submissions for soon. Clue: It’s an anthology inspired by historical, fictional and mythological women.

And finally, if there was one book released in the past year you wish you could have published, or one author you wish you could have gotten your hands on first, what/who would it be and why? 

This is where we differ. We both have such different tastes so prepare yourself.

Kristel: [Book] Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins – I know it’s not fantasy, but I just think it’s fantastic. The representation and the discussion of being mixed race and LGBT are something that I would’ve loved to have put out into the world because it’s everything that I stand for. I’d love to see a fantasy inspired by this story.

Lucy: [Author] Shirley Jackson – She was so ahead of her time. Her discussion on trauma and mental health within her horror and thriller work has been completely influential on work that’s come hence. She’s creative, thematic and her prose is just stunning. Like Kristel, I would adore seeing this kind of work and voice with a little bit more diversity.

Little Book of Fairy Tales is available for Pre-Order on October 25th 2019

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