My Report from NerdCon: Stories, Part Two – The Authors

 

While the variety shows and special events were fun, and the panels and workshops were informative, while being around a crowd of like-minded people and be able to rub elbows with all sorts of fun folks is wonderful, what makes NerdCon: Stories so memorable for me is how it gives me the opportunity to interact with so many authors that I admire.  This happens most often during signings, but this year, there were a few extra surprises awaiting me.  Let me tell you about it all…

 

The Kaffeeklatsche

I was ecstatic to be chosen to participate in one of the two dozen Kaffeeklatsches that were a new feature at this year’s NerdCon: Stories. These Kaffeeklatsches were hour long sessions where 12 pre-selected attendees got to sit around a big table, drink coffee (and tea) and shoot the breeze with one of the featured guests. I know, sweet, right?

ncsmtandersonI had the incredible luck to be selected to attend a Kaffeeklatsche with National Book Award winning M. T. Anderson. To prepare for the session, I listened to and read interviews, paged through reviews of his works, and bought copies of his futurist YA novel Feed and his non-fiction book about Dmitri Shostakovich and the siege of Leningrad in WWII, Symphony for the City of the Dead. (I also checked out his heralded historical novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party from the library, but didn’t get a chance to read it before the conference.)

It wasn’t too long before I was wondering why this guy had flown under my radar until now.  Everything that I read of his, and about him, made me feel incredibly lucky to be selected to meet him.

When I arrived at the appointed room, the only seats left were the ones next to the man himself.  Never being shy at these sorts of events, I settled right in.  Folks were already chatting amongst themselves; the lights were pleasantly dim, and sitting around a table rather than in rows staring at a podium gave off a comfortable vibe. The coffee was even pretty good, considering.

I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account of everything that happened at the Kaffeeklatsche, or encapsulate all that was said, not only because I don’t have that good of a memory but also because that would be counter to the whole casual idea of the event itself.  And it was a good, fun, casual conversation amongst a small group of like minded people.  Yes, M. T. Anderson (who actually goes by Tobin, his given name – he said that M. T. Anderson was strictly his professional author’s name; he went with that rather than his “real” name early in his career because he didn’t want to be labeled with the authorial name “if the book writing thing didn’t work out” – my paraphrase) was the default for most of the questions, and he handled them graciously, and was also very adept at keeping the conversation moving if it bogged down or lagged.

But the talk quickly became a conversation, a back and forth between all of us in the room, sometimes about research techniques, sometimes about how to write outside of your own frame of reference, sometimes about expectations and frustrations.  It was especially fun to have a wide range of ages in the room, and some of the most interesting conversations came from the youngsters in the group – one young woman was in the seventh grade, another was just graduating high school and working on college applications.  They voiced both a great enthusiasm for literature and a frustration with a lack of resources at their schools, along with what they took to be a lack of… let’s say imagination and support from their teachers.  Those of us in the room that were older agreed with many of their points and encouraged them, but hopefully also gave them perspective on why it is that they sometimes were being reined in rather than allowed carte blanch to range out.  Perhaps having an award-winning, successful, admired author in the room listening and commenting had something to do with the feeling of legitimacy – and excitement – to all that was being said.

It certainly was a wonderful experience, and hat’s off to the organizers of NerdCom: Stories for adding this feature to their roster.  The convention would have been fun, regardless, but being able to attend a Kaffeeklatsche with such a distinguished – and erudite, and gracious – author made it an afternoon to remember.

 

The Signings

At last year’s NerdCon: Stories, signings were hugely popular.  The con handled them very well:  sectioned seating areas were set aside for each author an hour before their signing and once those seats were filled, the signing was closed.  This ensured that everyone who had a seat would be able to interact with the author, and while waiting you could relax and chat with those around, rather than having to stand for potentially hours in a long, snaking line.  It was a good thing, too, because last year there were scads of people who wanted to have books or posters or convention programs signed.

For some reason, this year, the signings – although subject to the same guidelines yet in a more spacious and comfortable area – were sparsely attended, even for the “superstars” such as Patrick Rothfuss and John Scalzi.  This, however, proved to be a boon for those of us who did attend signings, because it meant rather than a quick, keep-it-moving interaction with an admired author, we could engage in actual conversations without feeling like our time talking was threatening someone else’s time.  And because the authors didn’t have to talk to so many people, the conversations they did have were deeper, more genuine (I mean, c’mon, after a while these little interactions have to become rote!), and so very wonderful.

Here are the signings that I was able to attend.

 

ncsjscalziJohn Scalzi   I had less time with John Scalzi at his signing than with any of the other authors because he was so popular – and why not?  It seems he was everywhere at this year’s NerdCon: Stories, either moderating panels or taking part of a variety show or being one of the participants in the Superfight competition or an epic lip sync battle.  In fact, when he sat down at the start of his signing session, he warned us that he was still somewhat out of breath, because he had just come from practicing his lip sync routine.  He said that although he was middle-aged and not exactly in the best of shape (he apparently had tried a particular move and almost lost the use of his knees!), he was going to give it his all, and fling himself all over creation!  (Which he did, it was hilarious and wonderful – check out the video if you haven’t already.)  Even though I only had a few minutes with him, I felt that during those few minutes it was only him and me and he was actively listening; not merely going through the motions but being thoroughly, completely present because he truly enjoys people whether there is a horde of them in an auditorium or one-on-one in a book signing.  Will he remember me?  Heavens, no, I was one of hundreds.  But I sure will remember him, for many, many reasons.

 

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MariNaomi   MariNaomi was the unknown treasure that I discovered at this NerdCon: Stories (there’s always at least one).  An award winning author and illustrator (comics and graphic novels) and the creator/curator of the Cartoonists of Color Database and Queer Cartoonists Database, I was taken by her soft-spoken grace and thoughtful responses in the “Self Promotion:  Getting the Word Out” panel on Friday afternoon.  Then, when she read from her graphic memoir, Turning Japanese, in the Friday afternoon variety show, I was enchanted with her story of searching for her heritage.  When I saw that she was signing on Saturday, I grabbed a copy of Turning Japanese from one of on-site vendors and waited my turn to approach her.  She was so wonderful!  When I stepped up to talk to her, she took my copy of her book, and said, “What would you like me to draw – a fluffy cat, a not-fluffy cat, a dog?”  She was creating drawings in the books as well as signing them!  On the spur of the moment, I asked her if she did red pandas, because my daughter loves red pandas, and I knew it would make her smile.  MariNaomi frowned (but with a smile, you know?) and said that red pandas were the one species she didn’t like – she found them kind of “full of themselves, you know?”  But, she reflected, she had seen a video of a startled red panda, and it was so funny that it made them less arrogant to her.  I told her how much my daughter loved red pandas, and how she looked forward to going to the red panda exhibit at the Minnesota Zoo, and Ms. MariNaomi said, “Well, then let me draw you a red panda!”  And she did, pulling out her phone to look at photos of red pandas to use as a reference.  Then we talked about how I’ve only recently started to get into comics and graphic novels (there’s my daughter’s influence again!), and we talked a bit about Gene Luen Yang (who she knows) who recently received a MacArthur Genius Grant.  She’s a delightful woman, and full of wonderful insight and simple yet compelling art.  She gained a new fan in me!  Self-promotion, FTW!

The red panda that MariNaomi drew in my copy of "Turning Japanese"
The red panda that MariNaomi drew in my copy of “Turning Japanese”

 

ncs-mrkowalMary Robinette Kowal   I met Mary Robinette Kowal at last year’s NerdCon: Stories, and we’d been corresponding a bit over the years, what with my posting reviews of her work at LitStack, and participating in a Month of Letters (which she started, and still champions).  But I was nevertheless nervous about seeing her this time – I had done her wrong.  You see, this past Christmas, LitStack editor-in-chief Tee Tate had contacted Mary about getting me a set of her Glamourist History books (since most of mine – the ones I actually own – are ARCs), but Mary had told her, “What if I do one better – do you think she’s like a manuscript of the book I’m working on?”  Well, duh!  So a few days before Christmas, what should arrive in my mailbox but a typewritten copy of the working manuscript for what would become Mary’s newest novel Ghost Talkers, signed, sent from Mary herself!  I was rendered absolutely speechless.  It’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten!  I read it eagerly, and loved it all, even the places that read, “(fill this in later)”.  And when I read the finished novel just a few weeks ago (yes, there will be review on LitStack soon), I was taken with how the finished product had grown and coalesced since the working copy I received.  But much to my chagrin, and for reasons that I cannot explain or rationalize, I did not send her a thank you note.  Imagine that!  Knowing how Mary loves the idea of handwritten correspondence, I still couldn’t seem to find the wherewithal to send her a thank you note for such a wonderful gift!  So when I showed up at her signing at this year’s NerdCon: Stories, I had brought along a small token of my appreciation, not in order to gain forgiveness but simply to apologize for my lack of good manners:  a small box of local chocolates with a swirling of orange ganache; fine, but not ostentatious.  Mary’s eyes lit up when she saw the chocolates – “You don’t know how badly I need these!” she exclaimed.  While I’m still ashamed for my lack of acknowledgement of her generosity, I felt that I had, at least in a small way, redeemed myself.

 

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Dessa   I didn’t have anything for rapper Dessa to sign.  I do have a copy of her book of poems, Spiral Bound, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find it at home when I was getting ready to head out for the conference; it probably had gotten loaned out to someone.  I was thinking about taking my daughter’s favorite Dessa t-shirt for her to sign, but then my girl wouldn’t be able to wash it!  Still, I wasn’t going to let a lack of merch keep me from talking to a woman that I’ve seen in concert (both solo and with her collective, Doomtree) and admired for years.  Besides, I caught her at the end of her session, when she was getting ready to leave.  I wanted to take just a moment to tell her how much my son loved Doomtree (he’s a huge fan) and how much I love her work, and how proud I am of being able to claim her as a fellow Minneapolitan.  “That’s so nice!” she kept saying.  “You have this line,” I told her, “in Kid Gloves, and it’s one of my favorite lines of all time:  ‘I get nervous at parties, but I’m bedrock at hospitals.'”  She nodded – I think I’m not the only one who got slammed by that line.  “It’s just, my daughter, she has health issues… I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals with her, trying to be strong.”  She murmured something, I think about how she was sorry about the hospitals, but I didn’t want to keep her.  “Thank you for telling me that,” she said, then someone else rushed up, wanting her to sign a NerdCon: Stories poster before she left, so I moved on.  A few minutes later, though, she passed by me and said, “Hey – make sure you tell your son ‘hi’ for me!”  So I did – the next free moment I had, I texted my son, “Dessa says ‘hi'”, and I smiled, knowing how confused and delighted he’d be.  He was.

 

ncspbacigalupiPaolo Bacigalupi   Paolo Bacigalupi is one of my favorite authors.  Not just of science fiction, or speculative fiction, but one of my favorite authors of all time.  His works are not only gorgeously rendered, incredibly compelling and exciting, but they also are socially charged, folding in such real-life issues as GMOs, corporate greed, the distortion of public information, immigration, racial discrimination, water rights, and so on.  He’s a down to earth yet incredibly intelligent and perceptive person, and I swear, his heart has to be two sizes bigger than most folks’, because he cares so much about the world we live in.  We almost didn’t have him at NerdCon: Stories this year due to health issues; he’s had to cancel most of his appearances for months and he told me that making it to this convention was a near thing, but luckily he was able to attend after all.  We had a wonderful conversation about his writing process – specifically, how he got feedback during his writing process, and we compared his process to how other writers handle theirs; he talked about the pitfalls (for him) at seeking too much outside feedback early in the process, which then could have him worrying  more about what others might think, rather than concentrating on the writing itself  (my paraphrase – he said it far more intelligently and gracefully).  He also shared with me two ideas he had for upcoming projects, which are still in the nebulous stage -they sound intriguing and quite wonderful.  Even though they are probably years away, I can’t wait to see what he will be coming out with next!

 

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Wesley Chu   I am just enamored of Wesley Chu.  I follow him on social media (as I do most of the authors that I’ve mentioned here), and have met him once before when he came to Minneapolis on a publicity tour for his science fiction “Time” series debut novel, Time Salvager.  At NerdCon: Stories, I had not one, not two, but three interactions with him, even though two of them were short.

The first one came after the conclusion of the “Sotto Voce:  Finding Your Voice” panel, which he took part in and I attended.  After it was over, I was able to talk to him for a few minutes.  I thanked him for reminding us that there is a process to writing, and for many writers, that process must be maintained in order to meet deadlines.  This does not preclude a writer finding his or her voice, but that the writing must continue, regardless, and the voice then comes out in the distillation process (my paraphrase).  Often, we tend to think of writing as some great ethereal outpouring of genius – and sometimes it is.  But sometimes, oftentimes, it’s just a slog, a need to keep going, to get words on a page and keep the story moving forward.  So yes, the voice is vitally important, but at any given time it emerges in the editing process, not the initial creation.  I think this is a very important point that fledging writers need to keep in mind.

When I visited with Wesley at his book signing, we talked about many things, but the most fun was telling him what I liked about both his “Tao” series, and his “Time” series.  I was honest, I told him that I liked The Lives of Tao and The Deaths of Tao better than The Rebirths of Tao, but I really enjoyed both Time Salvager and Time Siege as much or more than the Tao books.  (He apparently doesn’t hear that very often!)  There were two things that really impressed me with the Time series books. The first was that while time travel was a huge factor in the books, the series is not about time travel; it merely is a convention used to move the story forward.  And his main character, who is a time traveler, does not know how the process works – he merely uses it, because it’s part of his job.  “I know, right?” said Wesley, “When you drive a car, you don’t necessarily know how it works, you just know that it gets you places!”  (Again, I’m paraphrasing, although he did say, “I know, right?”)  The second thing I really appreciated about the Time books is that the main character is an alcoholic, and Wesley treats that very realistically – no miraculous recovery, and a constant battle to keep the character’s yearning for alcohol from sabotaging his life.  I said that I thought it was quite courageous that he didn’t make the alcoholism simply become a non-issue when it became inconvenient, and he confided that his agent told him to take it out.  “Oh, no,” I said, “Don’t you dare do that.”  He smiled.  “I really appreciate you saying that,” he told me.  I’m glad I was able to truthfully give him that feedback.

Then he admitted to being very excited about his newest book, The Rise of Io, which takes place in the same “world” as the Tao books, because he absolutely loves his main character, Ella – and she is a delightful character.  I’ll be writing more about that when I post my review of The Rise of Io, but it is indeed a wonderful read; he’s justified in being proud of the book.  We chatted more about Ella, and about other things, as well, but it was incredibly empowering to have such a talented writer treat me like, well, like a real human being with valuable comments.

Later, I saw him one more time, after he participated in an epic Dread campaign (Dread being an RPG where, instead of throwing dice to determine the success or failure of their actions, players must remove blocks from a giant Jenga tower).  Wesley ended up being the hero of that game, saving the day with four successive, epic Jenga pulls when it looked impossible.  As everyone was leaving the auditorium where the game had taken place, I noticed Wesley emerging by himself.  “Hey, Wes!”I called, “Way to save the day, man!”  He saw me, and recognized me, and smiled.  “I kind of did, didn’t I?” he said, obviously still pumped by the experience.  “Do you RPG much?” I asked him.  “Never!” he replied, “That was the first time!”  When I expressed amazement, he added, “That’s the first time I’ve ever played Jenga, too.”  “Wow, man!” I said, “You really are a superhero!”  He laughed, and we continued walking side by side through the convention center, chatting about how he had a huge drive ahead of him in order to get home to Chicago, and my wondering why he didn’t fly.  “Well, with the baby and the stroller and all the stuff, it just wasn’t worth it.”  (Wes is a new father, and he had brought his wife, Paula, and son, Hunter, along to the conference.)  After a few minutes of friendly banter, he turned and said, “I have to go this way,” and as I waved him off with a wish for a good drive home, he turned and waved at me, and said, “See you around!” and then disappeared into the crowd.

“See you around.”  Just like you would say to a friend.  And at that moment, I did feel like Wesley Chu was my friend.

Now, I’m a realist.  I know that Wesley Chu may, possibly, be considered an acquaintance, but a friend?  That’s stretching it.  But at that moment, it felt good.  It felt like I had indeed, for a short time, been a friend to not just an author I admire, but to another person who, truth be told, is not all that much different from you or me.  And that realization, I think, was the best thing to come out of NerdCon: Stories, in the end.  That when it comes right down to it, we are all connected through our stories.  The ones that get published, the ones that we tell to ourselves – and the ones we live every day.

And they all, every one of them, are glorious.

~ Sharon Browning

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