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INTERVIEW Jo Fletcher and Juliet E McKenna on World Fantasy Con 2013

Can it already be two months ago since we all gathered in Brighton for the fantasy event of the year? Now the dust has settled, two of those involved tell us how it went

As the year draws to a close, we look back on some of its highlights and of course of the biggest British events of the year was World Fantasy. It took place in Brighton and saw the industry gather for panels, discussions, an art show, kaffeeklatsches and setting the world to rights in the bar.

You can read our report from the event and from the Gemmell, British Fantasy and World Fantasy awards, in issue 243 of SFX, on sale now.

First we spoke to Jo Fletcher of Jo Fletcher Books :

I thought at first it would be hard to pick a highlight from such an exciting convention, but of course it's not: 37 countries were represented in Brighton (India was a late addition, and Iceland missed off by accident) – and that's 41 if you include England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as separate countries . . . That's the first time in its 39-year history that it has truly felt like a world convention, and frankly, it was thrilling. Fantasy has always been a genre that crosses borders – it could be said it started with myths and fairy tales, after all, and every country has its own myths and fairy tales, sometimes with similar elements, and sometimes very different indeed.

But it was also an incredible moment opening the Jo Fletcher Books party and realising that after two and a half years of working insane hours, I have a list that any fantasy publisher would be proud of: that was a wonderful moment. My only regret were those few authors who weren't able to make it (mostly for family reasons) – and Alan Lee, who I think would have been chuffed to see Fearie Tales in such demand. Next time.

SFX : There were some initial rumblings around some of the panel titles ("Broads With Swords", "If You Can't Write, Edit an Anthology"); how were these panels actually received at the event - did people get into the proper spirit of them?
JF:
I was absolutely gobsmacked at the "rumblings": the titles were in some cases – (pretty obviously, I'd have thought) – intended to be ironic and/or light-hearted; in all cases they were intended to spark debate. (Did anyone seriously think the convention programmers were suggesting anthologists can't write? When one of the chairmen is Britain's most prolific and most decorated anthologist of dark fantasy and horror?) Two agents on the agents' panel told me they all accepted the tongue-in-cheek concept and ran with it, as a result putting a slightly different spin on it and dealing in a different way with the similar questions which arise every convention. A few people – many not even convention attendees! – were very vocal in their disapprobation, and I think that's an awful shame – not least because it's just a title : it's surely the actual discussion that's the important thing. I think most people took them the way they were intended, and yes: they got into the spirit pretty quickly. Every panel I attended was packed, and there were a lot of conversations which started amongst the panellists and continued in the bar into the night – that to me is the mark of a good programme. Were all the panels brilliant? I very much doubt it; just because someone is a good writer or artist doesn't necessarily mean they make a great panellist. But did everyone try to make their panels interesting and thought-provoking? Yes, I am sure they did.

I know there were those who weren't interested in the Machen stream, believing it had nothing whatsoever to do with current publishing, but one of the things WFC has always tried to do is to make sure the old writers are not forgotten; that we remember our roots. Without Machen, we might not have had a Ramsey Campbell, and without Ramsey, maybe Adam Nevill would have gone in a different direction...

SFX : The event played host to at least three awards ceremonies ( Gemmells , World Fantasy, which you hosted, British Fantasy). How important are they to the atmosphere of the event? Were you surprised by any of the winners?
JF:
This was the first time the David Gemmell Awards had been presented at WFC, but it's not the first time other awards have been presented here. They are not part of WFC per se, but because there is a huge crossover audience, it made a lot of sense to give them the space, both literally and figuratively. As for the British Fantasy Awards: from time to time they are presented in tandem with the World Fantasy Awards – not just whenever the World Fantasy Convention is held in Britain (when Fantasycon in effect becomes part of the larger whole), but some years the winners are not available to Fantasycon but are at WFC, so we've re-announced them then.

Are they important to the convention? Most definitely! The awards banquet and the presentation of the World Fantasy Awards are the highlight of the whole weekend: a chance for the writers, artists and other professionals working in the field to be publicly acknowledged for the work they have done (or are doing).

Was I surprised by the winners? I am always surprised by at least one category, sometimes more – but not necessarily a bad surprise! The World Fantasy Awards are unique as they are the result of both popular votes and judges: the members of the sitting and past two conventions put two nominations on each shortlist, added to the judges' choices; the judges then select the winners (and yes, the popular choice has won on frequent occasions). There's also a judges' panel straight after the awards, when they get a chance to explain their thinking that can lead to some interesting points, especially if it's been a controversial year!

SFX : Many of your authors were there, including Amish on his first visit to the UK and debuts like David Towsey. What was their experience as newbies to this convention?
JF:
Judging by the emails I got after everyone got home, everyone got something out of it, even if it was just a chance to meet people they'd met via social media or through reading their books. There were some gripes (it wouldn't be a convention without gripes) and the hotel itself had a lot of physical problems, not just the lack of free wi-fi but the woeful disabled access (although the staff and the con staff were wonderful, running about like mad things showing people the hidden lifts and so on.) But that's a typically British problem, not helped by the fact that there are very few hotels in the UK large enough to hold a convention of this size, and most of those are listed buildings like the Metropole. A lot of Americans in particular were incredulous to discover our laws don't include knocking holes in listed buildings to provide better access!

But leaving those problems to one side, I think those of my authors who came from the other side of the world relished the chance to be part of a wider community – I was pleased to introduce David Hair, who lives in New Zealand, to as many Australians as I could (the nearest country with a thriving SF/F scene) – and Amish, who is a true superstar in India, loved his first real experience of meeting fellow fantasy writers (although I should add that The Shiva Trilogy is not sold as fantasy in India; it's a strange mix of religion and history!). Some loved the panels; some loved the chance to hear legends like Terry Pratchett and Brian Aldiss, or to see Neil Gaiman on home turf. Best of all were those who said they realised that they were no longer alone, that there are other writers, all sharing similar problems – and joys – out there. I saw the makings of several friendships that I felt would go on to be lifelong relationships start that weekend. That is a good convention.

SFX : There were some big names in attendance, veteran writers from Britain, America and beyond - did you meet any of your heroes for the first time?
JF:
I am lucky enough to have met most of my heroes over the years, often at this very convention. Richard Matheson's death was a great loss, but this was not going to be my first meeting. I didn't get a chance to talk to Susan Cooper as long as I'd wanted, but it was wonderful presenting her with the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement. And lovely to see Tanith Lee again – she has a story in Fearie Tales which is a real delight. And my new BFF is the wonderful Joanne Harris (although she might not realise it yet!). She too gave me a story for Fearie Tales , but I'd not met her before [that] weekend.

And there were some foreign editors I'd not met before, and a lot of new authors just starting their careers... in fact, it's going to take a couple of days to update my address book. That's one of the joys of WFC!

Head to the next page to read what Juliet E McKenna has to say about the convention...

We also spoke to author Juliet E McKenna :

SFX : What was your highlight of World Fantasy Con 2013?

JEMcK: Having Robin Hobb sign my advance proof of Assassin's Apprentice , which I've treasured since I was given it by a Harper Collins' sales rep back in my book-selling days in 1995. "You'll like this," he said, "and I think it's going to be big." He wasn't wrong.

SFX : Anything that you're not sure about, things you'd hope to see improved at future conventions like this?
JEMcK:
I can't recall when I was last in a convention hotel with so many stairs. I was finding the endless up and down demanding by the end of the weekend and I'm fit and mobile. Finding venues that are fully accessible for every fan is a must for organisers these days. More obvious signage and information would have helped quite a lot too. "Ask a Redcoat" isn't always the most practical option.

SFX : There was some controversy around some of the panel titles ("Broads With Swords", "If You Can't Write, Edit an Anthology"); how were these panels actually received at the event? You were on the women-in-fantasy one, I believe - was it well received?
JEMcK:
I wasn't at the anthologies panel so can't say anything about that. "Broads With Swords" was well received by the audience on the day, primarily because we discarded the actual premise in the first 30 seconds as having no bearing on what's been written by and about women in epic fantasy for decades now. We discussed some of the issues about writing women characters, with and without swords, and with the audience's help flagged up a tremendous number of female authors well worth reading.

That said, I can absolutely understand people's irritation with the tone of this and other panel titles, and I am heartily sick of women (and writers of colour in other instances) being shunted off into separate panels rather than being used in more balanced fashion across an entire programme. We're not "other" - we're not new or strange. We're here and we deserve the same professional respect as our male peers, especially given the damage that lack of visibility does to female writers' careers. It's long past time that everyone in fandom started working to drag SF&F out of its slough of cultural inertia.

SFX : WFC is largely a professional event - how much was work for you and how much was pleasure?
JEMcK:
As a writer, all conventions are work, and barring a very few and far-between incidents, all conventions are a pleasure so I can't really draw a line there. Conversations with fellow writers and newly-met fans alike were a mix of book stuff, personal stuff, enthusiasms on both sides. That said, I did make sure to make time for conversations to tick key professional planning boxes, and no, I'm saying no more about those...

SFX : The event played host to at least three awards ceremonies (Gemmells, World Fantasy, British Fantasy)... how important are they to the atmosphere of the event? Did you attend and were you surprised by the results?
JEMcK:
Family commitments meant I had to leave early on Sunday so I wasn't there for the Awards after the banquet. I'm thrilled for Graham Joyce in particular, and generally, for all the winners. I was at the Gemmell Awards as a long-time supporter and it was lovely to see the artist Didier Graffier win the Ravenheart, underscoring the international scope of those particular awards. I think awards are a really good way of drawing people's attention to books they might not have otherwise considered. I also feel it's important to celebrate excellence in our field, since the mainstream still largely disdains speculative fiction.

SFX : WFC played host to a dozen parties! Is that the real reason why people go to a convention, to drink with old friends...? Which was your favourite party?
JEMcK:
It's not the only reason we go ... but yes, catching up with friends in person, after months swapping email or tweets is one of the really big plusses of conventions. And what could better than doing it with a glass of wine in hand?

My favourite party? Tough call. I think it'll have to be a tie between the Gemmell Awards "Legends" Anthology launch and the Gollancz-Bragelonne celebration.

SFX : There was some industry luminaries there, esteemed writers from Britain, America and beyond - did you meet any of your heroes?
JEMcK:
Yes, but not nearly enough of them! I did have the great pleasure of meeting Stella Gemmell, who's a very fine writer in her own right. I highly recommend her novel The City . I never got to meet her husband David, alas. A chance encounter with the wonderfully amiable Garth Nix proved hilarious as I'd been chatting to him as we walked into the hotel and then when I saw his badge, I had a spontaneous fangirl moment. Sooo professional...

SFX : Thanks both!

For an alternative perspective, SFX reader and forum member Michaela Gray has written a blog about her experiences as a volunteer redcoat at the event. The official website of 2013's World Fantasy Convention can be found at www.wfc2013.org . Next year's event takes place in the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia, and you can book your membership here .