Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Pork pies in the gardens: my FantasyCon 2014

FantasyCon 2015 is coming up soon. Not sure yet if I'll be there this year, but if you're on the fence about going and wondering what it's like, here's my report on last year's event, originally written in November 2014 for the BFS Journal #13.

Eating a pork pie in the lovely grounds
of the Royal York Hotel.

I wasn’t in a great mood heading off for this year’s FantasyCon, which took place from September 5 to September 7. The plan had been to go with Mrs Theaker and both children, but a school entrance exam on Saturday torpedoed that plan, and so I made my way to York alone. The hotel (a charming Premier Inn five minutes from the convention hotel) already had the children’s beds ready, so that made me rather glum.

But the 75% reduction in Theakers at the convention had some benefits: I saved a good deal of money, and I didn’t have to wait till the kids were back from school to set off. So I arrived at the hotel in good time for the opening ceremony. It was overshadowed by the absence of Graham Joyce, obviously not a good sign given what we already knew of his health. FantasyCon chair Lee Harris filled in, and introduced us to Kate Elliott, Toby Whithouse, Charlaine Harris and Larry Rostant, each of them taking a turn to make a few comments.

The first panel I attended was the end of Doctor Who: Space Messiah, where Guy Adams, Mark Morris, Juliet E. McKenna, Caroline Symcox and Joanne Harris were being moderated by Jonathan Oliver. I wasn’t there long enough to hear much, but what I heard was interesting.

Paul Cornell and Caroline Symcox hosted a FantasyCon edition of Pointless, which was very good fun. Lots of audience participation, good-natured hosts, challenging questions – even the crying of a hungry baby couldn’t spoil things. It was nice to see an event at which regular attendees (as the contestants) were the main focus of attention.

I didn't spend much time in the dealers' room, not having much money free to spend or anywhere in the house to keep any books I might buy, but I was surprised to see one blogger selling off pristine, unread review copies and ARCs for a pound each. Selling ARCs is frowned upon at the best of times, never mind doing it in direct competition with booksellers and publishers in the same hall.

In the evening I was on my first panel since 2010 (panels not being something I ever volunteer for), my first ever as an actual panellist, on “Awards and their value. What are they good for? Which are the important ones? Who really benefits?” The moderator was Glen Mehn, who did a brilliant job of bringing everyone into the conversation. The other panellists were publisher Simon Spanton, agent Juliet Mushens, and author Charlaine Harris (who talks exactly like Sookie in True Blood), which meant there was a wide range of views on the panel. Apologies if I spoke too loud – I didn’t realise there were microphones!

What I learnt then about preparing for a panel is to focus on your own position and perspective; that’s why you’re there. The publisher, author and agent talked about how awards affected them, so all my notes covering those angles were useless. I should have concentrated on what awards mean to me as a reader, a fan and an awards administrator.

There wasn’t much programming at this convention for later in the evenings, certainly none of the entertainingly blotto midnight panels I’ve attended in the past. I spent a bit of time in the Joel Lane bar, where a karaoke began. Many attendees proved to be skilled in the art of making tuneful noises come out of their mouths, not least the FantasyCon chair himself.

Once it got to the point that most of the singers taking part were young women, I felt any further interest I showed in the event might be open to misinterpretation, and headed up to the main bar to send some maudlin texts to Mrs Theaker and make notes for the AGM. I got a delicious pizza from the bar, and had a good chat with the BFS’s new events organiser Richard Webb, who seems like a very sensible chap, as well as some other nice people whose names I failed to note.


“The Pen vs the Sword” (“Writers who also happen to be swordfighters discuss the myths and realities of the sword in fiction – and demonstrate their skills with the blade!”) featured Marc Aplin as moderator, with Fran Terminiello, Juliet E. McKenna, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Clifford Beale on the panel. The discussion was fascinating, and extremely useful for anyone whose fiction features people fighting with melee weapons. (So pretty much everyone at FantasyCon!)

Fran Terminiello and Juliet E. McKenna
show us how to fight.
The only problem was that they left it a bit too late to get onto the meat of the practical demonstration, and took it into the adjoining room, which tempted away much of the potential audience for guest of honour Charlaine Harris’s conversation, and it made quite a racket until the doors were solidly closed.

Adele Wearing soldiered on, and did a great job of interviewing Harris, who cheerfully laid out the failures that led to her current success. It was good as well to hear that her political differences with Alan Ball, and the direction in which he had taken True Blood, hadn’t affected her respect for him as a writer.

I left the panel “Surprise!” (“Why do some shock twists leave an audience in awe and others make them feel cheated?”) as soon as a panellist said “I’m sure everyone knows the ending of…” because it was clearly going to be a spoiler-heavy hour, and I’m the kind of person who doesn’t read the Radio Times listings till after I’ve seen Doctor Who. My own silly fault: what was I expecting?

Charlaine Harris and Adele Wearing
in conversation.
“Beyond Grimdark” (“Is the trend for mud, misery and moral bankruptcy on the wane in SFF, and if so, what’s next?”) featured a certain amount of eyerolling on the panel as one panellist explained why his novel really did need a rape scene, because it was an integral part of his female character’s story.

“She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Sister” was I think my least favourite event of the convention, with the moderator Roz Kaveney and one panellist talking at length between themselves, even to the point of leaning back to literally talk behind the back of the panellist sitting in the middle. It didn’t feel well-prepared, the moderator not having many questions, and the panellists unable to offer many examples of female friendships in fantasy and seeming to assume they don’t exist.

All seemed a bit odd to me, given that my television had been tuned by the children to the “female friendships in fantasy” channel for the whole of the school holidays: Winx Club, Monster High, Ever After High, the Tinker Bell movies, The Wizards of Waverley Place, Aquamarine, H20: Mako Mermaids, Rainbow Magic, Every Witch Way, etc.

I haven’t read any books by guest of honour Kate Elliott yet, but listening to her in conversation was enough to make me want to change that. (The forthcoming Very Best of… looks like a good place to start.)

I left the panel “Who’s Missing?”, a discussion about authors you should be reading, fairly soon after it began, because my stomach was threatening to drown out the panellists. After eating, I arrived late for “Tea and Jeopardy” with Toby Whithouse, and entrance was denied (or at least discouraged) because it was so full. A shame for me, but good that the event was so popular. I suppose if you asked the three hundred or so people at FantasyCon for their favourite writers, you’d get hundreds of different replies, but podcasts are more like television and films, in that they are not so numerous and there’s more commonality.

Latimer, the butler from Tea and Jeopardy, stayed on to be scoremaster for my favourite part of FantasyCon, “Just a Minute”, hosted by Paul Cornell. The guests were Kate Elliott, Stephen Gallagher, Gillian Redfearn and Frances Hardinge, and what made it so enjoyable is that this year they played it for real, with challenges flying thick and fast. Stephen Gallagher’s win was well-deserved.

If my fellow Theakers had been there, the FantasyCon Disco (sponsored by Gollancz) might have been another highlight of the convention. As it was, I looked on with a frown for a few seconds and scarpered upstairs.

That took me to the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club, a long, free-form event at which I felt rather like an intruder. At the beginning, everyone sat in a circle and took turns to say who they were, receiving a round of applause in return. It felt a bit culty, a bit happy-clappy, but it was a good event to have at FantasyCon, because it got lot of people talking and gave anyone (like me) who didn’t fancy the bar scene a chilled-out, friendly place to go. The interview with Gollancz’s Simon Spanton was fascinating, with readings from Laura Lam and Edward Cox being warmly received. The latter talked about how his novel had been completely rewritten to make it more commercial.

By the second break in SRFC I was pretty worn out and approaching a certain level of grumpiness, and I had the AGM in the morning, so I headed back to the hotel and watched Solomon Kane on TV. (Not a great movie, but better than expected.)


Sunday morning we had a short meeting of the BFS committee in the bar, and it was good to meet the people I’ve been working with for the last year. The AGM (on a bit later this year, at 11 a.m.) was rather less fun, because I refused to change one of my proposals to suit everyone else, leading one attendee to yell, “They’re not your awards, Stephen!” No, but it was my proposal and I’m glad I didn’t change it, even if that meant it failed! I’d rather have the proposal I wanted fail than have a proposal I didn’t want go through in my name.

The awards ceremony was in the afternoon, after the banquet. I missed the beginning of the banquet, because I was gluing the names of the award-winners onto the awards – which were still a bit sticky. Next year we’ll know to get them unpacked sooner so that they have time to dry. But I soon caught up and the food was the best I’ve had at a FantasyCon banquet. The ceremony itself went a bit haywire at first, with the PowerPoint setup getting muddled up – at one point thumbnails of all the slides appeared on screen at once. But host Paul Cornell handled it all with grace and aplomb.

I had to go on stage to accept the prize for best comic or graphic novel, on behalf of Becky Cloonan for Demeter. Slight panic in that Paul, when reading out the nominees, did not say the name Demeter in the way I’ve said it all my life. What to do? Say it his way or mine? I assumed he was right and said it his way, but felt my inner nine-year-old scowling at my capitulation. He knows I’m always right, even when I’m wrong.

So that was my FantasyCon. I’m not really a convention person, I think. I’m not a pub person either, and the social side of a convention feels like a big pub to me. But there were lots of interesting panels to attend, lots of interesting panels I didn’t have time to attend, and a very pleasant, welcoming atmosphere. It was good to see so many new faces on the panels. Elsewhere, I was constantly amazed at how generous people were with their time (and how often talking to people would garner choice nuggets of gossip!). It’s not really my thing, socially, but approached as a work convention for my publishing hobby I found it very useful.

I was right about one thing, the Very Best of Kate Elliott was a very good place to start – I recommend it highly! FantasyCon 2015 will take place 23–25 October 2015, at the East Midlands Conference Centre and Orchard Hotel, Nottingham, UK. FantasyCon is one of the cheapest conventions around, especially for BFS members, and even more so if you book early. Even now, tickets are only £55 for BFS members. Join the convention here.

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