Suppressing votes is the crime of the century, after all,” says Mysti Berry, the editor and publisher of the Low Down Dirty Vote anthologies of crime fiction inspired by the theme of voting. With proceeds going to nonprofits that fight for voting rights, Berry has released three volumes so far, the latest this spring.
BookLife’s reviewer praised the new volume’s stories as “diverse,” “playful,” “upsetting,” and “inspired and inspiring.” As Berry and her writers take the pulse of a democracy in crisis, we caught up with her to discuss her initial inspiration, the power of crime fiction, and the fresh anger and innovation that propels the newest collection.
Can you speak about the power of the crime story to reveal truths about a society?
Crime fiction requires us to take a long look at the gap between who we pretend to be and who we really are. Crime writers aren’t looking for happy endings; we’re looking for answers, and the answers are often unflattering. We need to keep reminding ourselves, so that the next time we’re tempted to do something stupid like overlook a corrupt man’s bad acts, we’ll remember that it’s possible to do the right thing, even in a corrupt organization.
The title for this series came to you in a flash, right?
It’s funny, because titles are usually the very last thing that comes to meand often a title never comes; I just have to scour the finished manuscript for a pithy phrase. But back in 2017 I was talking to my husband about how voting had always been this bright shining symbol, like libraries and hospitals, that we’re more than a bundle of selfish animal impulses attached to opposable thumbs. After the second election in my lifetime where the popular vote was different from the Electoral College vote, I felt low. During the discussion, the phrase “low-down dirty vote” popped into my head. My lifelong limited political awareness had helped create the opening for this voting rights erosion—so what could I do to help stop it? Well, I knew some very good crime writers, and I had this title, and enough tech skills to be sure that publishing an anthology was within my ability.
This anthology would be different in two ways. First, writers are paid as close to market rate as I can afford because writers should never work for free. Second, 100% of the sales—everything that would have come to me as publisher—is donated to the cause: 2018’s volume benefited the ACLU, 2020’s went to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and this year it’s Democracy Docket.
Do you remember what it felt like when the first stories came in?
Okay, this is embarrassing but true. A few years ago I saw the diamond exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. Walking from glittering case to case, I fantasized about smashing the glass and snatching handfuls of diamonds because they were so fabulous and I wanted them! Well, that’s honestly how I felt when the stories for the first volume came in. I felt rich. Not metaphorically rich but physically and emotionally rich. Here I was, getting to read stories written by writers at the top of their game, trying new points of view or structures or themes, and they were mine and mine alone for a while.
The series has published several debut authors writing memorable stories. Is that important to you? How have you found these new writers?
Initial credit goes to Catriona McPherson, who said: “Sure I can contribute, but I know this new writer—would you give her a look?” If you know Ms. McPherson, you know she is a person of quality, so I said “hell yes,” and her new writer, Kris Calvin, delivered a warm and sweet take on the theme.
Catriona’s request planted a seed in my brain about new voices. So I reached out to friends from my MFA program—yes, I have an MFA, but I never let it get in the way of a good story!—for volume 1, and encouraged the other writers I knew to recommend a new person to me. For volumes 2 and 3, we held open submissions.
Honestly, I was slightly embarrassed that every writer in volume 1 was white and, as far as I know, straight and cisgender like me. All very fine writers, but this was to support voting rights defense, so I should have people of color, LGBTQ+ authors, people representing the communities most at risk when we start suppressing votes. That was on me to fix. The second volume had better diversity, and volume 3 is the most diverse yet. If we’re going to survive these times with democracy intact, we need to hear each other’s stories, listen, believe, and understand each other.
You note in the introduction to this third volume that, this time, the stories seem powered by greater outrage than before, and that some are now taking on a speculative edge, pushing the boundaries of a traditional crime story.
It’s been so interesting! Many stories are drenched in anger and frustration. It makes me worry a bit about our national mental health. But it makes for powerful storytelling! There’s a mini theme of “biting the hand that feeds you,” which I think reflects our frustration with the whole dark money political situation and the inherent unfairness of growing wealth inequality. I saw it in Miguel Alfonso Ramos’s story and Misty Sol’s and a few others. Pat Canterbury’s soft, kind voice makes a great contrast for the ugly story she has to tell, rooted in actual Sacramento history.
David Corbett and Travis Richardson write with a passion and fury that surprised me. I feel like every congressperson and senator who is iffy on voting rights should read both stories and then ask, “Is this really what I came to D.C. to do?”
One of the hardest things about this collection was choosing between traditionally told stories and those written in new ways—different structures, following perhaps a different set of rules than I learned from screenplays and traditional crime fiction.
How does it feel to be three books in? Are there plans for a fourth?
I hope we fix a lot of things in the 2022 election, because I am not sure if I’ll publish a fourth volume or join the Handmaids. It feels that dire.