There were lots of interesting panels today, and it was frustrating to try to boil them down into the ones I wanted to see.
My first choice was “Retelling Old Stories: The New Fairy Tales.” I’ve got all the modern fairy tale collections edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow and many other rewritings, so I was eager to hear this discussion, and it didn’t disappoint. The first question addressed by the panel was the obvious one: why rewrite fairy tales? Jessica George and Valerie Frankel both answered that fairy tales have to be rewritten if they are to make any sense, but Graham Joyce wondered why anyone would want to make sense out of them, finding their skewed sense of reality to be the point. He noted that fairy tales start to explain the world where psychology leaves off, and that they speak to dangerous forces, which are dynamic to manipulate for the writer. John Connolly disagreed slightly, arguing that fairy tales are very psychologically acute, and that they were originally written to tell people about the nature of the world — and still do that today. But he agreed with Joyce in stating that he believed the power of the stories is reduced when they are explained too completely. Everyone was in complete agreement that the most evil force for fairy tales is Disney! It makes the tales far too cuddly, when they’re intended to be frightening.
The next panel was entitled “The Crystal Ceiling,” and dealt with the question whether there is still prejudice against women who write fantasy and horror. The answer: you betcha. Indeed, it’s indisputable: if you count up the numbers of reviews of books written by women, compared to reviews of books written by men, the ratio is 70% to 30% in favor of men. Yet readers are largely middle-aged women. So why do men get all the money and fame? Malinda Lo answered simply that we live in a patriarchy, which got plenty of knowing laughs from the largely female audience. Kate Elliott pointed out that the reviews themselves also play into this; when a woman is reviewed, her book is described as flawed, while a man’s book is reviewed as flawed but important. Charlaine Harris wryly pointed out that she is often told she’s lucky that vampires are so popular right now; no one ever suggests that her books sell well because she writes well. Nancy Kilpatrick pointed out that women both write and read horror, but it’s considered a male audience, and a largely teen-aged male audience at that, so that women have trouble getting published. How do we defeat this tendency to write women off as readers and writers? Vote with your pocketbook, everyone suggested. Buy, read and review books by women!
I’m not usually all that much on readings when panels are available, but I couldn’t resist a group reading from Ellen Datlow’s latest anthology, Blood and Other Cravings. Elizabeth Bear read from her story, “Needles,” which she described as an homage to “Near Dark.” I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this story when I get home and can dig the book out of my “read next” pile. Barbara Roden read from her story, “Sweet Sorrow,” another tale that I’m looking forward to completing. Nicole LeBoeuf’s “First Breath” was short enough for her to read the entire tale. She’s a new writer to me, but I’m betting she’s going places, because this tale was touching and horrific at the same time. Steve Rasnic Tem nearly had me in tears with “Miri,” which I definitely need to finish, even though he did tell me that the melancholy tone of the first few pages was no accident, and that the tale is not very happy. It’s beautifully written, though.
As Neil Gaiman is a guest of honor at this convention, an afternoon session featuring him and Connie Willis in conversation was a real treat — and very well attended. Willis and Gaiman began by saying that they thought they really ought to talk about where they get their ideas. They noted that authors always mock readers for asking this question, but then agreed that it really is the most important question, really the only question — though there’s more to it than that. It’s not so much, “Where do you get your ideas?” as it is, “How do you get from an idea to the finished product?” Gaiman noted that sometimes stories are written not so much for the reader as for the author, as a way to work out or work through a particular problem. A story, he said, is the only place one can really tell the truth. Stories are not trivial, not an escape; they are the place for the hard truths to be revealed and impressed upon us.
The two then discussed how they came to know they wanted to be writers. Both agreed that it’s something that had always been in their minds; it was a given; there was never a moment when either of them said, “I’m going to be a writer.” Willis said that she had a moment when she knew what kind of writer she wanted to be, and that was when she read about Jo in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Gaiman told a story of his first-ever sleepless night, when he was 21 or 22 years old and realized he was at a crossroads: he could get a normal job and go through life hoping to find time to write, or he could really be a writer. If he failed at writing, then he’d fail, and he’d go out and get that job. But he didn’t want to find himself on his deathbed never having tried. Those of us in the audience who have jobs and hope to find time to write as the years slip away found ourselves with goosebumps at this point. Willis pointed out that those who write but haven’t published are just as much writers as those who have worldly success, stating that you have to write for yourself first and foremost. Both agreed that if you’re a writer, you write. Some days it flows; other days it’s awful, slogging labor. But at the end, when you get the pages to proofread, you can’t tell which parts you wrote which days.
Finally, someone asked them where they get their ideas, the very question they said was the only question at the beginning, but which they’d avoided ever since. Various sources were suggested, such as misreading signs or seeing the oddities of a Tupperware party, but basically if I had to boil down what they said, it would be that they believe you have to pay attention, all the time, and capture those fleeting ideas that float through your head as random thoughts. More than anything, though, a writer has to write. This is such universal advice that you’d think wannabe writers would constantly be at their computers; but it’s much harder to put into practice than one thinks. It was a lively, delicious conversation, inspiring to both readers and writers.
My day ended with the massive signing session that’s become a hallmark of the World Fantasy Convention. I hadn’t brought books with me to be signed, and I hadn’t yet picked up an armful of new books in the dealers’ room, so I used this time as an opportunity to meet some authors I’ve long admired. Melinda Snodgrass, who wrote many of the scripts for Star Trek: The Next Generation, was delightful in person. Louise Marley and I had a great conversation about her book, Mozart’s Blood, which I reviewed not too long ago. Meeting authors has to be the best part of a convention.