Getting ready to go to Nottingham for Fantasycon last Thursday, I told myself resolutely that this was going to be a weekend about the art, craft and business of writing. If only for a few days, I was going to be an author again, not an EU digital VAT campaigner. Not just for my own sake and sanity – though that was a large part of it – but because the convention deserved my full focus. I was going to be Mistress of Ceremonies and that’s not a gig I’ve ever done before so I was intent on not making a hash of it.
Making that conscious decision soon paid dividends. On the drive up, I found I didn’t want to listen to the radio or any music. Solitude and lack of distractions meant I could think through various ideas I’ve been mulling over for my forthcoming story in ZNB’s Alien Artefacts anthology. Being away from email, social media and those stacks of paper on my desk about EU digital VAT really helped. By the time I reached the hotel, any number of things were slotting into place. Excellent. Better yet, on the writing front, I woke up on Saturday morning and about two minutes later, suddenly realised what I need to do to rewrite the opening chapters of the As Yet Unsold Novel which I had out on submission to a few agents earlier this year but which only gathered ‘interesting, thanks, but just at the moment, no thanks’ responses. Which means it needs more work but I’ve been struggling to find the time to even think what that might be, uninterrupted, in recent months.
That said, it seemed an awful lot of people at the convention wanted to talk to me about VAT once I got there. That was fine, though. Actually, it was a lot more than merely fine. I got involved in this campaign because I could see just how many people I know personally and professionally, working in independent and small press publishing, were going to be hit really hard by such badly framed legislation. So having them take a moment to say how grateful they are for all the EU VAT Action Campaign is doing was welcome validation for all that time and effort.
My first MC duty was hosting the convention’s opening ceremony where I covered the practicalities briskly and focused on introducing the Guests of Honour. This was always going to be a pleasure. I’ve admired and liked Jo Fletcher since first going to conventions a decade and a half ago – and she publishes excellent books. I met John Connolly some years ago in Dublin and found him as rewarding to talk to as his books are to read. While I’ve never met Brandon Sanderson before, I find his work very enjoyable and mutual friends have always spoken very highly of him. The four of us talked a little about what brings us to conventions, and keeps us coming back. It was immediately apparent that the weekend was going to be about sharing our enthusiasms with established pals and with the new friends we’d be making.
The programme was packed with good things as well as new faces and voices. Alongside the full schedule of readings and book launches, the Fantasycon 2015 organisers’ efforts to broaden participation meant 170 of the 500 pre-registered con members were on panels. Bringing new perspectives and different experiences to even the most familiar topics does make such a positive contribution. My own panels were extremely rewarding; on the uses writers make of history in fantasy (and pitfalls to beware of); on writing fight scenes, and on the uses writers make of religion in genre writing, which has a different array of pitfalls. These were all wide-ranging and constructive discussions, with keenly engaged audiences. As seemed to be the case through the entire programme for the whole weekend, judging by the chats I had with other writers at various times in various bars.
As MC I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Brandon Sanderson, who really is a thoroughly nice guy as well as a consummate professional. It’s great to get a chance to ask the particular questions that have intrigued you about an author’s work and career. Like why has he written about Evil Librarians when most writers see them as heroes? What sequence of events led to him taking on the challenge of completing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time? How does he manage to write so many different things?
There was one question I didn’t have to ask. We talked about Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane – the book which got him back into reading as a teenage boy after so many stories had disappointed him. I remember the impact it had on me but I’m ten years old than Brandon and have been reading fantasy for as long as I can remember. What was the book’s appeal to someone without that grounding in the genre to see how Hambly was challenging conventions? It turns out a large part of that was Jenny Waynest’s struggle to choose between family and wizardry, since young Brandon could see the choices and challenges women face over pursuing careers in action in his own family. Enthralled, he headed straight for the library’s card catalogue to see what titles came after Dragonsbane. Turns out those were Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey and Dragon Prince by Melanie Rawn. So that made the ‘what’s the origin of strong female characters in your work?’ question wholly redundant!
In between times, as MC, I got to play with the venue’s tannoy system, to announce the Guest of Honour programme items. Oh…. the temptation. I mean, it’s just cruel giving a writer that sort of job. Granted, I don’t have the baritone for ‘This is the voice of the Mysterons’ but how about ‘Warning. You have ten minutes to reach minimum safe distance.’ in calm and cultured tones? The possibilities are endless – but I resisted as that wouldn’t have been professional. In any case, there was more than enough hilarity to go round. Particular highlights on Saturday night included a live edition of Tea and Jeopardy with Brandon Sanderson as the guest. If this writing thing doesn’t work out for him, I’d say he’s got a good chance at a career in sitcoms. Then Gillian Redfearn chaired a game of Just a Minute with contestants John Connolly, Jo Fletcher, Juliet Mushens and Gareth Powell. Hilarity doesn’t begin to describe it. If you ever see a group at a convention hysterical with laughter over the word ‘boudoir’ you’ll know that they were there.
Sunday was back to serious stuff, for me at least. The MC’s role included presenting the British Fantasy Society Awards and this year, I was to do pretty much the whole thing, rather than having guest presenters for each award. So I had some thinking to do. It’s been a year of controversy over the Hugos which has spilled into conversation about genre awards in general. I didn’t feel I could ignore that – but at the same time, this ceremony wasn’t about that. So here are my opening remarks.
“There are a great many science fiction, horror and fantasy awards. Different countries, different conventions, different communities use them to celebrate their particular interests and enthusiasms and as a rule, those of us looking on take the opportunity to make note of books or writers or artists working in whatever media which we might not have come across before. This all contributes to the wealth of shared knowledge that makes speculative fiction such an endlessly inventive genre.
Which is why this year has felt so exceptional, and not in a good way, to so many of us. We’ve been unwilling onlookers as those who for whatever reason have felt excluded from one particular convention’s awards decided that the way forward isn’t dialogue but attempts to direct and to dominate the conversation across our genre.
What has that got to do with today? Well, as far as I’m concerned, it makes it all the more important and all the more pleasing, to celebrate the British Fantasy Society’s ongoing determination, with all the hard work that entails, to broaden participation at all stages in these awards in recent years, to welcome newcomers to nominating and to voting, to encourage everyone to have their say and to feel included. And let’s take a moment to honour the memory of Graham Joyce who was absolutely bloody determined that was going to happen.
Which is why it’s a genuine pleasure and an honour for me to present these awards today, on behalf of the British Fantasy Society and the ever growing Fantasycon community.”
I’m pleased to say nods and applause around the room endorsed this view. So on I went with the Awards. You can find the full list of winners here and it was lovely to see the recipients’ mingled astonishment and delight, as well as hearing the cheers and whoops from their families and friends. As well as the applause and heartfelt congratulations from everyone else with no personal stake in this year’s nominees but simply there to celebrate and reward their peers and colleagues.
Okay, I’m clearly a bit slow on the uptake. I genuinely had no thought of being honoured with an Award myself. Yes, alright, I knew Ramsey Campbell would be presenting the Karl Edward Wagner Award but I didn’t think anything of that. Ramsey’s the BFS past-president and it’s the Committee’s special award so I assumed it would be going to someone Ramsey’s worked with or has some other significant connection with. Then he started reading the citation and I realised he was talking about me. As well as editorialising and embellishing the words he’d been given as only Ramsey could, so if he writes something spine chilling about a monstrous creature rising from a vat of eldritch mess, you’ll know where he got the idea. And everyone cheered and clapped and well, if I don’t say so, Jo Fletcher will repeat her editorial note from Facebook saying I should mention the standing ovation…
I didn’t know what to say. I was utterly astonished. To the extent which my elder son describes as ‘I cannot brain!’ I suppose that’s because over this past year, my writing and my VAT campaigning have been so entirely separate in my own mind. Yes, I’m doing this because of the legislation’s disastrous impact on the book trade but I’m working alongside people striving just as hard because their own industries and interests are equally if not even more badly hit. And to get things done about it requires complete focus on the matter in hand. So as I say, the two things have been wholly separate for me. While the BFS Awards are for writing and allied trades in artwork and editing, surely? Well, evidently the Committee knows better and chose to honour me for both my writing career and for this past year’s work on the EU digital VAT issue, on behalf of all those affected.
You may rest assured that I am deeply and sincerely honoured. And if I’d been able to brain on the day, I would have said something rather more coherent along these lines.
So that was my Fantasycon 2015. Memorable in so many ways!