From a tale of discovery in New York of the 1920s, it's on to present day United
Kingdom. The following is another tale of discovery, and seems to parallel the way
that many other fans (ourselves included) became immersed, in stages, into science
In our first encounters with 'real' writers most of us are probably a little awe-struck, and easily impressed, but fannish Maturity would imply that we grow out of it. Okay, it's easy to get blase about meeting Terry Pratchett (at least over here it is) when he's been GoH at a dozen cons but at the same time there is, as Janice Eisen says in a letter to Mimosa 17, a sense of community engendered by the close association of pros and fans. This is still *SF* fandom, after all, and however tenuous the link sometimes gets, it never disappears entirely.
Not only that, but I have had some great times mixing with the pros as much as the fans. Iain Banks is a case in point. Although he wasn't the first big name Skiffy writer I ever met (that was Bob Shaw at a signing session), he was probably the first I got to know. It was my first convention, Novacon 16 in 1986, conveniently held in Coventry where I had just started college, and a gang of us from the recently founded Coventry Polytechnic SF Group turned up on the Friday night expecting...well, I don't know what we were expecting. Simo had been to Hitchhikers Guide cons I think, but the rest of us were all true neos, and didn't know anybody.
Unfortunately the bookroom closed at 6, so we adjourned to the bar, where I met somebody I did know: my local SF bookdealer from back home, Peter Pinto, who obviously knew his way around these events. I decided to ask for an introduction, as there was somebody I particularly wanted to meet: Iain Banks, whose The Bridge had become my first ever hardcover purchase just a week earlier. Peter didn't know Iain, but he knew a man who did.
"Do you see the guy across there with the beard?" I did. "Well, ask the man with his back to you talking to him. He will know." Okay.
"Excuse me, sorry to interrupt," I said, very politely, "but I've been told that you can introduce me to Iain Banks."
"No, but he can," he replied, indicating the aforementioned guy with a beard. Okay, so I turn to him to be told:
"Hi, I'm Iain Banks and he's John Jarrold."
At this distance I don't know if I behaved like a total neo after that or not, but now I knew somebody and from talking to Iain I got to meet a few more people as they gravitated towards him. I later learned that this was only Iain's second or third convention and he was still very much a newcomer, too.
Something else I remember from that convention is buying some books by authors unknown to me previously simply because they were at the convention and could sign my copies. It sounds like a strange way to discover new writers but I certainly got lucky with a couple of them: Lisa Tuttle and Kim Stanley Robinson.
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The reason I knew about conventions at all was the British Science Fiction Association, so a few years and a couple of fanzines after that debut I became joint editor of its fanzine Vector (and later BSFA Co-Ordinator) which gave me new and different opportunities to meet with the pros. I started interviewing authors; the first was Clive Barker published in Critical Wave, which is a strange experience in itself. (Interviewing, I mean, not Critical Wave, though I'm sure Steve & Martin probably have a few tales to tell. Like who was behind the spoof Wavering Criticism?) It gave me an excuse to approach these people without coming over like a nervous neo. It got me a fascinating two-hour conversation in private with Howard Waldrop, tea at her home with Josephine Saxton, and drunk in several places with Jenny Jones. It worked fine mostly, until the night I saw Chris Priest in The Wellington, and went across to talk to him about our recent correspondence over a certain Mr. Ellison. Chris and I were then joined by his companion, a woman I didn't know, although she looked familiar. Chris introduced her:
"This is Leigh Kennedy."
"Oh." I was stunned and I think I did something stupid like go down on my knees. This woman had written two of the best books I had, and have, ever read (and re-read many times over). Poor Leigh was embarrassed but I don't think anybody else noticed, and we later had a more sensible conversation. As I left she asked me to send her a copy of my fanzine.
Chris Priest, too, is, in his way, uncomfortable in public. He won't make a speech at a con, though he has consented to a stage interview. So when Paul Kincaid asked him to be his best man, Chris's response was "I won't have to make a speech, will I?" On the day itself, several of us speculated on the Best Man's Interviews:
Paul Kincaid: So how long have you known me, Chris?
Chris Priest: About ten years or so.
Paul: Do you have any embarrassing stories to tell that Maureen hasn't heard yet?
Sadly it wasn't to be, as Chris dived for cover at any hint of the word speech.
# # # #
Despite my reaction when I met Leigh Kennedy, I quickly learned that authors are people too. Although I still like having some of my favorite books signed, it is mostly the ones I consider friends who write the crazy dedications, like Mary Gentle. So I persuaded her to be GoH at Chronoclasm by agreeing that she wouldn't have to make a speech; I would interview her instead. (Mary's way of breaking down the fan-pro divide was to make me suffer as well, as if I wasn't having enough trouble with that convention.) And Geoff Ryman, too, who wrote a piece for the Programme Book about another guest, Colin Greenland. Both wrote very personal messages of differing sorts in my books.
Mary's publishers had arranged a bookstore signing on the Friday afternoon of the con, and so I met up with her at the shop to find a local radio crew and a handful of readers. I'd brought the proof of Mary's latest, Rats & Gargoyles, sent to me to prepare the interview, and this provoked much fascination amongst those who had never seen a proof. One man, flicking through it, went as far as to comment on the author's inability to spell(!). Mary remained calm, but when she returned the book to me I found it inscribed as 'Drats & Giggles'.
Another advance copy I received was Geoff Ryman's Was, which I took to a publisher's party that Geoff attended. He'd just signed it when someone saw and asked for a look. Suddenly my copy was being passed around, and it was a good ten minutes before I was able to discover that Geoff had written:
You Bastard! I love you, how could you break my heart like that?
Oh well, cordially yours,
I know, Geoff, I should have expected something like that. Okay, maybe not quite like that, but still crazy. What about all these publishing types who don't know Geoff's humour? What about the woman I'd been chatting up, who perhaps knew that Geoff is gay, but didn't know me? Or maybe Geoff had noticed that.....?
# # # #
The non-fans I talk to about conventions are often amazed that I mix with these writers, especially the big names like Barker, Pratchett, and Banks, but these are mostly just people who have been around at the cons I attend, that's all. And as with the Mary Gentle signing it is often when the non-fans enter fannish circles that the funniest incidents occur. Iain Banks was at the centre of one of these when he launched his erotic novel about whisky, Carnal Drams* (hmm, maybe that would have been a better book?), at the Edinburgh Book Festival a few years ago. A few of us had found our way into his reading and signing, and afterwards convened in the beer tent. Iain's parents had come across for the launch so we left him to entertain them, after arranging to meet again later. I ran into him at the bar, however. He broke off his conversation to greet me.
"Kev! What are ye having?" I declined since I was buying drinks for some of the assembled fans too. "Go on, have a whiskey," he insisted and ordered before I could say anything.
After a brief chat, Iain then took his drinks away and the guy he'd been talking to before my arrival turned to me and asked:
"Do you know him then?"
I still don't know what the best way of dealing with questions that dumb really is.
# # # #
It also makes it easier at work to talk about the weekend I've just had at Novacon, very much a relaxacon, in terms of the authors there. Bob Shaw, Harry Harrison, Dave Langford, Brian Aldiss, Chris Evans, Rob Holdstock, Freda Warrington, Iain Banks have all been around Novacons at least for years, but the younger writers were there too: Graham Joyce, Peter Hamilton, and Stephen Baxter.
Of course, there is the down side to knowing these people. At a Fantasycon some years ago I'd been talking in the bar to M John Harrison and his partner, SF editor Jane Johnson, prior to Mike doing a reading from the then unfinished novel The Course of the Heart. When Mike began his reading we followed him in, and I naturally sat with Jane. This was a mistake. Mike finished reading and invited questions. Silence, so he looked at me and repeated the question: "Any questions? Kev, you must have a question." Help.
# # # #
There are still authors I'd really love to meet, both as an admirer/fan of their work; I'd like to interview them because I think they could be interesting people: Martin Millar, Terry Bisson, Elizabeth Wurtzel. And there are some authors I'd love to meet again. But I don't go to conventions to meet the Guest of Honour, I go to met my friends, and occasionally my friends happen to have been Guests of Honour. I think that's fair.
* Actually Canal Dreams.
All illustrations by Kip Williams
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illustration by Sheryl Birkhead