Interview: Emily Horgan and Zach Dickson
by Sonali Misra
Emily Horgan is a designer and artist based in Edinburgh, Scotland. After earning a degree in computer science, she turned her focus towards human-centred and inclusive design practices in user interface and experience design. Emily has written about a number of social issues, including gender, health and ethical technology. Her writing and artwork have been featured in The Irish Times, Image Magazine and Crimson. By day, Emily works as a product designer at a tech company in Edinburgh. Her passion for person-centred approaches along with her own experiences with hormonal health issues led Emily to identify a lack of personal narratives regarding hormones in mainstream publications.
Zachary Dickson is a PhD researcher in comparative politics at the University of Glasgow. His research focuses on political psychology, representation and legislative responsiveness. Zach also works as a freelance editor and has contributed to a number of projects and reports for national and international governmental organisations. Zach’s passion for amplifying the voices of minority populations motivated his involvement with So Hormonal.
Sonali Misra [SM]: How did both of you conceptualise So Hormonal? At what stage did you team up with Monstrous Regiment Publishing for it?
Zach Dickson [ZD]: Emily and I had been kicking around the idea of doing some type of art project or something along the lines of a magazine on the topic of hormones. We eventually thought it would be really cool to put together a book. We know Ellen and Lauren from Monstrous Regiment and we ran it by them, and they thought it was a great idea. We went forward from there.
Emily Horgan [EH]: The reason we thought hormones would be a really interesting idea to talk about was because, I guess from my personal perspective, I always had an interesting relationship with my hormones. Ever since I started my period, it was all of these different PMS (premenstrual syndrome) – I had the whole spectrum of PMS, basically, through phases of my life, which was [laughs] fun, to say the least. I guess that was what my experience of what hormones were, and what was really interesting was if we did an art installation piece, it would very much have been centred around my experience. But how it ended up was miles, miles better, because, as Zach had rightly said, if we did an anthology or collection of essays it would be a whole range of experiences. Thinking back, if we had gone down the route of doing something more singular like an art project, it just wouldn’t have made the impact that So Hormonal has had. And Monstrous Regiment obviously has a great history of producing anthologies, really diverse anthologies, and also Kickstarting projects. So, we were really drawn to them, because it felt like a good way to produce something. Having that interest upfront, there was less risk, I suppose. Knowing that they were interested from the get-go.
SM: When we hear of hormones, we may immediately think of ciswomen experiences. And, like you just mentioned, Monstrous Regiment does really diverse anthologies, and how you had conceived the project originally and how it turned out was very different. So, how significant was it for you to broaden the conversation about hormones?
EH: Oh, massively. I remember at the very beginning when we decided that it would be a collection of essays, I did a bit of research and made a list of topics that I felt would give good coverage to, well, what we believed to be the hormonal experience. Once we put out the call for essays, we got something like 75 or 80 applicants. The list was covered, and then some. In my perception of hormones, based on that list alone, we thought that we were giving a good amount of coverage, but actually we had no idea. So, I think we always had the intention to have a broad range of topics, but I think it was really the authors that pushed the boundaries of what we believed the hormonal experience to be and what made it so brilliant.
ZD: Yeah, the pitches that we received far exceeded anything we imagined, as far as different topics and different people’s experiences. It was definitely very eye-opening and informative for us, even after doing a limited amount of research on hormones. We were incredibly surprised and warmed by the different experiences that people have and it makes you feel not so alone in your experience with hormones because so many people experience them so differently.
EH: Even though we had that list of topics, what was most interesting was that we might have had, like say endometriosis was something that we wanted to cover, and we expected maybe one author to cover it. But what we found was that different intersections put a whole different perspective on that one topic, so one topic was actually multiple. So, what we thought was an exhaustive list, that list actually sort of spidered into tons of different perspectives on those singular topics. It feels like it’s kind of infinite in a way because the list itself is long enough, but then the way that people experience things is so different. We’re really proud of that aspect of the book. The 35 authors that are involved, it just shows that that’s only the beginning of that conversation. If we managed to get that much from maybe a call within our reach, which is quite small, what are the experiences really? It just shows a small drop in the ocean.
What we found was that different intersections put a whole different perspective on that one topic, so one topic was actually multiple.
SM: So Hormonal has been out for a month now. What has the reception been like?
EH: Super positive!
ZD: Yeah, honestly, really good. We’ve been kind of surprised at how well-received it’s been. So many people have said that they kind of felt the same way as some of the stories. They had never really been able to express it before, and that really spoke to them. It’s been great to have so many different perspectives and to have like a little bit of something for everyone. So, it’s not geared towards one specific audience. Different people might not relate to every story, but almost anyone can relate at least some stories. People have definitely commended that.
EH: Yeah, and given the current circumstance, people’s priorities might not lie in buying books –everyone’s struggling at the moment – so, it might not be the thing that people are spending their money on. But people are still buying the book, and I think the timing of the book coming out through obviously COVID has actually been a positive thing, in that all the authors got to come together and work in a small community, which is brilliant, and we got to pay people to contribute, which is also brilliant. On top of that, we’re more aware than ever now that people live and exist in society with hidden illnesses and hidden challenges in their own lives. We are made aware now with COVID because there might be people who might not be able to wear a mask and you look at them and think “Oh, I’m not really sure what it is about them that they can’t wear one”. Just because you can’t see someone’s health difficulties doesn’t mean that they’re not there. I think it’s great that that’s something So Hormonal touches on, and that we’re now experiencing through COVID this idea of, I guess – I don’t want to say ‘struggling’ because not all of the pieces really outline a struggle necessarily – but that people manage things in private. I think So Hormonal was able to put that in the public space, and it’s quite a good time to do that.
Different people might not relate to every story, but almost anyone can relate at least some stories.
SM: Coming to the editorial side of things – editing personal essays, especially about such personal topics, couldn’t have been easy. What advice would you offer to other nonfiction editors dealing with sensitive material?
EH: The safety of the authors was a really big thing for us. We really wanted people to feel safe to open up, and particularly with some topics in there. I think Zach said it best when we were editing it – there were some things there we thought, ‘Oh, maybe we should edit that back,’ or kind of control how that might be said, but Zach was very much pro of letting people saying it the way they need to say it. In fact, the editing process was quite simple because everyone was super talented, and we just wanted to support them in sharing their story in the way that they wanted to share it, as opposed to manipulating it into a vision of what we thought.
ZD: Yeah, I guess one of the benefits of editing an anthology is that you don’t have to curate it to be on a specific topic or in a specific direction. So, everyone had the opportunity to speak to their experience. We weren’t trying to restructure people’s stories, for the most part. We were more trying to fix little editorial things; it’s copyediting almost. We wanted people to share their experiences and share them in a way that they experienced them. To be honest, it was more administrative.
EH: And obviously, it was important to support writers and making sure that they felt that the essay was doing their topic justice. So, we may have supported some authors who had a story to tell but had never spoken about it before or they wanted to make sure that it was presented in the best way possible. We’d have calls with people or kind of rework their essays and give suggestions. But topic-wise, we didn’t do too much because it’s a lived experience, and people write best when they know what they’re talking about.
ZD: And they were all just great writers to begin with. There weren’t people that decided to write a story for the first time; everyone was talented. That obviously makes the editorial process easy.
Topic-wise, we didn’t do too much because it’s a lived experience, and people write best when they know what they’re talking about.
SM: I did wonder how that would work out for you because when I sent you my pitch, I just basically told you that ‘Hey, this is something I want to write about and this is the angle or approach I’ll take to it,’ but you never asked me for a writing sample or you didn’t know if I could write well or not. So, I found that to be an interesting approach, because it could have been the flipside where this was my first-ever attempt at writing an essay and that would have made your jobs a lot harder.
ZD: We may have done a little Google search [laughs].
EH: I don’t think we really did though, because there’s diversity in experience within the book but there’s also diversity in the exposure to publishing pieces.
ZD: Yeah, there were at least a few first-time published writers.
EH: Everyone was writing on things really close to them, so it was never going to come across as bad. The book is successful because you’re reading it in the mind of the author, so actually to a certain extent, we didn’t want them overly polished either, because you don’t want it to be some listicle like ‘5 things I learnt about my hormones’. You wanted to feel like you’re talking to someone. I think with your piece, that’s what was so great about it – it was literally as if I was sitting across from you and hearing your experience first-hand.
The book is successful because you’re reading it in the mind of the author, so actually to a certain extent, we didn’t want them overly polished either.
SM: It was a brave choice, I think, but it’s obviously worked out well since I’ve read the other essays in the book and they’re great. They’re all really diverse as well, as we’ve discussed, but are there any bits that have stayed with you the most?
EH: There were two things – the bits that resonated with me so that I felt like Oh my God, that’s me, and then there are things I just didn’t even think of, that I was purely ignorant of based on not having to experience that. I think those two things stood out the most for me – I am that person or I’ve never even considered that, and I can’t believe I haven’t. And also, some historical things; there are a few essays that touch on the history, the roots of some of the more systematic and oppressive aspects of healthcare – like the racism, misogyny, ableism present within it. It balanced out really well because those essays set the scene for why some of the other essays happened.
ZD: There weren’t a bunch of essays I personally related to as a cisgender man. But being able to read so many people’s essays that talked about things I personally haven’t gone through is such an educational experience. I think other cisgender men would benefit from reading some of these stories because it’s not really something you’re taught. You’re not even taught about periods, or PMS – PMS has this pejorative tone when it’s discussed. One of the essays that really stood out to me was HiddenInkChild’s essay on healthcare access at the NHS. They said that when they presented as a woman, their pain was interpreted so differently from when they transitioned and then presented as a man. Their claim then that they were in pain was automatically met with an ‘Alright, let’s just give you some harder drugs and some more medicine’ from the doctors. Whereas, when they presented as a woman, it was like, ‘Oh well, this is something you’ll have to live with’. That’s not really something a lot of men think about. You learn a little bit in all the essays, but that one was really eye-opening for me.
EH: One of the essays also speaks about how being a Black woman and receiving healthcare is dangerous, almost. There’s research done that shows that medical students still believe that Black people don’t experience pain in the same way as non-Black people do. We’re in 2020, and a part of me is shocked, but I know that it’s a privilege to be shocked by that because people experience that every day. What these pieces expose is that depending on how you present – whether that’s in your class, race, sexuality, gender – the treatment you get is different. Learning that we have a healthcare system that is based on those variables and not just on giving the same treatment to everyone was a real eye-opener and quite a hard truth to accept.
What these pieces expose is that depending on how you present – whether that’s in your class, race, sexuality, gender – the [healthcare] treatment you get is different.
SM: Moving to the publishing side of things, this was your first Kickstarter campaign – how was that experience for you? What tips would you offer to anyone else trying to crowdfund a book?
EH: We chose the best and worst time to do it. We started it in March, and the COVID-19 lockdown started at the end of the month, so it was chaotic. We started dewy-eyed and delighted, and then there were whispers of COVID but we thought we’d be OK. Then we got to the point where we actually considered pulling the campaign because we weren’t sure how respectful it was to what was going on in the country, but we kind of kept going just because there seemed to be a lot of interest. We’re just super lucky that people were so generous with their money at a time when things were so uncertain, when spending their money on things that might not be necessary to the day-to-day was a big ask. People still supported it, for which we’ll be eternally grateful. Regarding tips for a Kickstarter, I think there’s three key points in a Kickstarter – the beginning, the middle and the end – I know it sounds very basic, but it does go in waves. There were four or five days when I thought, ‘We’re not going to make it, and it’s awful because we want to share these stories and we’ll let so many people down!’. But knowing that there are these waves is a good thing to understand.
ZD: Monstrous Regiment has done a couple of successful Kickstarters, so obviously it was great that we had them to help us, but also the indie bookshops in Edinburgh. They contributed significantly; they are in large part responsible for making this book possible. So, having those networks and those connections was really helpful. As far as tips – I might be totally guessing with this, but like I feel like offering good packages or tiers and merchandise, I think that makes a huge difference because people see that they’re getting something instead of just donating. That might be a totally bogus tip, so don’t quote me on that [Whoops, sorry Zach, but we really liked this point!] but I feel like I would definitely donate to Kickstarters if I was also getting a book in return.
EH: We also had some interesting tiers. There was one that if you bought a book, we’d send another copy to an organisation or charity. I’m always intrigued by that one. And we also had one that donated tampons and pads to Bloody Good Period. So, things like that which are relevant to what we’re doing, it’s all about knowing your audience. We wanted to consider who would be interested in supporting the book, and then try to make it as worthwhile as possible for them to support it. And tote bags as well!
SM: Oh yes, everyone loves tote bags.
ZD: And we were lucky enough to have a talented designer who did all the cool merch and posters [laughs].
SM: Yes, we were definitely lucky to have Emily to design everything! So, looking at the whole process, from conceptualizing this to now when you’re just sitting watching the sales fly by, what have been your favourite and least favourite bits?
ZD: Least favourite… it was to read 80 actually really good pitches – I don’t think there was a single pitch, well one or two that weren’t on theme – but almost every single pitch we got was so good, and I wanted to hear every story. We were trying to figure out a way to pack in 80 stories into one book.
EH: We had only planned on publishing 18 to 20, and then we ended up with 35.
ZD: It was really challenging. We tried to cover as many different topics as we could.
EH: High point I guess – the pandemic as a whole was a weird backdrop to work on this book, but having that community of people was great. Even though we had planned on doing writers’ workshops and we couldn’t do those in-person, the purpose of the book was to build this community and start a conversation around these topics. But actually, it worked out really nicely because we were able to mail everyone and we had some video chats. Having that community of people to work with during the pandemic was a really nice feeling, because it’s hard to feel positive about such a terrible time, but having this to focus on actually made it a lot easier.
SM: Lastly, would you consider doing another anthology at some point?
ZD: We wouldn’t be opposed, but it will have to be on a topic that we are passionate about. We don’t have any regrets, if that’s what the overarching question is [laughs]. I think this was a brilliant experience and I think we’re both over-the-moon ecstatic about the reception and having got the chance to work with so many talented authors.
EH: I think the reason So Hormonal worked so well from our side is that it was a project we really cared about and were interested in. I think unless that happened again, it wouldn’t feel right to work on another such project. It wouldn’t feel right…
ZD: pumping out anthologies? [laughs]
EH: Yeah, yeah. It would seem like it’s a lucrative business for us, but the reason we did So Hormonal is because we genuinely cared about it and we saw an opportunity to support others in an area we were invested in too. So, unless we felt that we could actually benefit others by amplifying their voices, we wouldn’t feel right doing it.
SM: Thank you, this conversation’s been great. And I wish you more success for So Hormonal and your future projects!
You can read an excerpt from Sonali Misra’s personal essay in So Hormonal here. And you can buy a copy of the anthology on Monstrous Regiment Publishing’s website, indie bookshops such as Lighthouse Bookshop’s website (and their shop) and Portobello Bookshop’s website (and their shop), as well as Amazon.