What was your first experience at a science fiction/fantasy con like?
Ooh, I know this one! It’s a part of my origin story. (I think every fan has an origin story; and every writer starts out as a fan. Some of us remain so.) Thing was, I’d known about fandom since I was a teenager, but it was mostly something that happened somewhere else, and required money I didn’t have, and social skills that were not at my command. I had friends who were quite heavily involved with the BSFA and fanzines, and I did some work with them, but I never went to anything - until I moved to Newcastle and actor-friends from Oxford phoned to say they were involved with a play at this SF con in my new city and could they come and stay with me to save the hotel costs? And I said yes of course, and when they turned up they took me with them to their first rehearsal so I could meet the author, and he was some ridiculously tall fellow called Geoff Ryman, and that was that, really. I went to every rehearsal, became official prompter/scene shifter/gopher, and we lived at the con all weekend. That was Mexicon in 1984. Which means, good lord, I’ve known Geoff thirty years come August...
How do American cons differ from those in Great Britain and elsewhere?
Hmm. My immediate response is that British and European cons mostly happen in the bar - but that may just be my perspective, because I mostly happen in the bar. And US cons have con suites, which just don’t exist in the British consciousness but ought to. (The first North American con I attended was WFC in Montreal, and I still remember my confusion: What? We can have breakfast here, and we don’t have to pay for it...?)
There must, of course, be differences more significant than food and alcohol - though I think with the globalisation of community through the internet, what might have been starker differences a generation back are being broken down. British cons are following an American lead in terms of diversity, anti-harassment policies, equal representation, those changes that everyone wanted to happen organically and just weren’t.
What are your most vivid memories of FOGcon?
On panels, that would be a moderater smiling down the table at me - during a discussion that had led inexorably to British accents and their effect on Americans - and saying, “Chaz, tell us, how does it feel to be fetishised?” (I may have sunk beneath the table at that point.)
Away from panels, it is inevitably all about the conversation, Mostly, as above, in the bar. Last year the hotel had to apologise; we couldn’t have another bottle of the Acacia pinot that we favoured, because we’d drunk it all...
What makes a convention special to you, and what makes you want to go back?
Partly it’s wish-fulfilment: from the moment I heard that there was to be a new literary SF con in SF, I wanted it to be our con, the one we’d go to every year. And lo, ’twas so...
Mostly, though, that’s because FOGcon feeds me with everything I like: it’s small, it’s based in the literature and in the conversation, it attracts interesting people and invites interesting guests. Most of the friends I’ve made in the Bay Area come to FOGcon; some of them I first met there. This is my whole notion of con-going, that it leads to relationships that continue beyond the weekend, that knit the successive annual weekends together into something significantly more than the sum of their parts.
When you go, do you prefer being an audience member, a panelist, a moderator, or something else?
Mostly (see above!) I prefer being a barfly. I don’t attend a lot of panels, though I do enjoy readings. I have this notion of myself as far less educated and articulate than anyone else in the genre, so panels stress me probably more than they ought to. I do not moderate (the first and only time I ever did, one panellist had a stand-up row with a member of the audience and stormed off in a huff; apparently this was neither the first time nor the last for that particular writer, but even so, it was enough for me). I’m professionally interested in marginalia, the stuff that happens on the side and at the borders; this gives me a legitimate excuse to hang out in the bar, in the conversation.
Any tips for first time con attendees and/or shy fans?
It may seem obvious, but writers can be shy too, even after many many cons. We’re there for the same reason you are, because we love the genre; talk to us. We most of us like that. Those of us who don’t or can’t will sidle off, so then just let us go. There’s always someone else to talk to. Surviving your first con is just about being mannerly, really: neither barging in nor holding back unduly.
What is special about genre fiction readers & writers?
Please see above, re: conversation. I think it was John Clute who first introduced me to this notion, that every new book in the genre is in conversation with what has come before; and cons by definition are in conversation with each other and earlier iterations of themselves. That’s what fandom is, a cocoon of conversation that has grown up around the core, the books themselves. I don’t think it happens in the same way with any other genre; I’ve worked in mystery and romance, and there just isn’t that same envelope of attention. It helped, I think, that when I discovered SF in my teens, in the ’70s, it was still just about possible to have read everything: so that the conversation was founded on a profound knowledge of where we were coming from. These days not even Clute can read it all, but that foundation still underlies everything we build.
What projects are you excited to share with FOGcon fans and participants?
Heh. If I say “Kipling on Mars”, then I think I have said enough...
Who would be on your dream panel & what would you talk about?
Oh, ask all the easy questions, why don’t you...? Let’s see, then: I’d want Geoff Ryman (why haven’t you invited Geoff yet?), and Neal Stephenson, and Guy Gavriel Kay. And we’d talk about the weight of history going forward, and how that too feeds into the conversation; and how it’s as important in science as it is in literature, that whole shoulders-of-giants thing; and how our own culture has and holds its shape because of others all around us, like cells in a honeycomb; and, and, and...