They say everything happens for a reason, but they never tell you what that reason is. As if they have just given you the first part of a story and it is now up to you to finish it.
It’s half past six on the evening of 12th August as I join a seemingly never-ending queue in Forbidden Planet, London. I’m standing there meekly, surrounded by fans enthusiastically conversing about Robin Hobb, who is signing her new book, Fools Assassin, out on the day. The sad truth is, I haven’t read any of her books… Yet.
What’s more, the fact that she has already read an interview I did with her editor, Jane Johnson, makes my position even more embarrassing. Hence I arrived here this evening trying to get her first book, Assassin’s Apprentice, as advised and strongly recommended by Gemmell Legend award-winning author and friend, Mark Lawrence. Mark is also known as the creator of super villain Jorg Ancrath, so there can be no messing around here. I steel myself. I might never have been to a book signing before, but I know my bookstore. If only I could just push past these few hundred people to get to the shelves. And I do.
The Forbidden Planet Megastore is an enormous piece of amazing sci-fi/fantasy heaven. They have a huge selection of signed books, an amazing collection of graphic novels and geeky merchandise. They have regular events, signings and very helpful, lovely people working for them. If you’re ever in London, I very highly recommend a visit.
So, anyway, a little later I’m standing meekly in the queue, pretending I’m not that crazy woman who just waded through an entire crowd to discover that ALL Robin Hobb books have been previously removed from the shelves and transported to a big table near the signing. I compose myself, trying hard not to show how completely out of place I feel amongst her readers, avoiding eye contact, in case they start chatting to me and asking questions, as if I am in some sort of danger of being found out and immediately evicted from the premises. But as I’m trying, rather unsuccessfully, to hide I catch sight of a friendly woman with long brown hair, waving to me from the front, near the signing desk. I know her. She is Jaime Frost, HarperCollins publicist. But for all I know she might be waving at someone else, right? Behind me? No. She’s calling out my name now, giving me an amused look upon seeing my utter confusion. And that’s me, right there, very neatly captured: Crash-landing, as usual, right into the middle of things from another planet, but getting the green light to go, even so.
Time passes. Eventually I’m ready to leave the store some time just after eight, happily posting on Facebook about my dedicated copy. Despite being one of the last in the queue, I don’t get to talk much to the author as she has another billion copies carried to her table to be quickly signed, so instead I have a quick chat with Jane Johnson. She spots and compliments me on the thorn rune necklace I’m wearing and I inquire about her time at the Edinburgh Festival with George R.R. Martin. I also ask her to sign two of her own wonderful books that I’d brought with me – The Salt Road and The Sultan’s Wife.
After this I walk through a rainy Covent Garden to check out another event I’d booked a ticket for: ‘Fantasy in the Court’. All I know is that there are supposedly many authors taking part and you can get your books signed. I arrive there (already bearing no less than three signed books) to find people happily chatting away in Cecil Court and as far as I can tell no signings going on whatsoever. The little bookshop is absolutely packed and it’s almost impossible to get close to the shelves and choose anything. I only truly recognise one person in the crowd, who also notices me and very kindly turns to say hello – Joe Abercrombie. Although I had briefly met him here just about a month previously, he has since been on a US signing tour, where he presumably met many readers, so inside I’m somewhat flattered he recognises me – even if I had given him a bloody huge chocolate-whiskey cake on that occasion. (It was the launch party of his new book, Half a King, after all.)
Right now I’d like to buy one of the other books of his that I haven’t read yet. I decide on The Heroes, but I’m told at the till that they only have his old books at higher prices, and Heroes would be around £60. Knowing I’m seeing him the next day at Fantasy Faction’s Grim Gathering I choose not to proceed and finding the crowded, loud bookshop a little too much, I decide that perhaps this event is not for me after all and that I should leave.
I’m just stepping out of the door when I suddenly come face to face with fantasy author / military officer Myke Cole, with whom I did a quick interview last year for the Bloody Cake News Facebook page, and since I follow him on social media we interact online every now and then. He’s very friendly and quickly introduces me to his beautiful girlfriend, Mallory O’Meara and various other people he’s chatting with. One thing leads to another and I end up having a great night out, meeting both new people and ones I already know, rounding it all up in a nice tapas bar in good company, including Viking expert fantasy author Snorri Kristjansson and two of the loveliest people I ever met in publishing, Jo Fletcher books’ very own Andrew Turner and Nicola Budd.
The next day is Grim Gathering day. It’s actually the sunniest, warmest day we’ve had all week, as if even the Gods from above would want a clear, pleasant view of the proceedings. And we’re all in for a treat!
Fantasy Faction, led by Marc Aplin, somehow manages to bring together four gritty fantasy authors we all want to see in the same panel: Peter V. Brett, Myke Cole, Mark Lawrence and Joe Abercrombie. There is a happy, excited buzz downstairs in Waterstone’s Kensington Bookshop as we gather, filling up the space completely. And though I cannot claim to be a big expert on panels, I would say this one works like magic. It’s intelligent, interesting, funny and most of all, highly entertaining. A fellow blogger, Jaco van der Byl, captures it perfectly when he writes:
“Their personalities are unique and quite complimentary. Peter V Brett is thoughtful, confident, and well-spoken. Myke Cole is a philosophical motivational speaker with a shotgun. He’s a veteran—thank you for your service, sir— and still works for a police department and the Coast Guard while being a god in his “spare” time. So, his personality makes sense. Mark Lawrence is soft-spoken, and commands a great deal of wit. Joe Abercrombie is the loud-mouth, but in a good way. He’s charming, charismatic, and naturally funny. Good best man material.”
Many times, when Myke Cole says something, I find it so inspirational; I feel like wildly clapping afterwards. I feel especially motivated when he talks about how arts should never be restricted and that you should always head towards things you are scared of. I think there might be a video online about all this soon, so I won’t go into great detail. Suffice to say, that we enjoy it a lot and it seems to come to an end all too soon. The panel is followed by a book signing, where all four of them are awesome enough not to just sign, but even doodle in my books.
For my part I prefer dedications in copies I’m currently reading or about to read to having them in perfect hardbacks destined to sit on bookshelves untouched. For this reason I ask Mark to sign a David Gemmell book for me I haven’t read yet (and since I often see people commenting on how their styles are similar and given that he’s won the David Gemmell award this year, this just feels appropriate). The store doesn’t have Myke’s first book I’m yet to read, so I get the most recent one, Breach Zone. Once again I almost get The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie, but a guardian angel presses a Half the World ARC into my hands while I’m queuing, which having just read and reviewed Half a King, it’s prequel, I’m most pleased and excited to receive.
As for Peter V. Brett I buy his first book, The Painted Man, and as a little story on the side I explain to him how I couldn’t really get into it before, but I want to give it a second try. Basically last year, after I finished King of Thorns and entered the ranks of Mark Lawrence’s more serious fanatics, I was looking for something to distract myself with. This was a time when I felt like murdering every single cheerful reviewer of the Emperor of Thorns ARCs, (THE BASTARDS!!!), while I was brooding at home about the unfairness of the world, most terribly EoT ARC-less. The Painted Man was the first of many books I picked up to soothe the pain. Nothing helped. But this is all fine, because I’m ready now and I know that this is an exceptionally good fantasy series (all my friends who have read it tell me so). And really, he’s a very popular author, if not the most popular out of the four and being honest, I’m nobody. So there is no harm in telling him all this with an apologetic smile, it’s not something that is likely to bother him, after all.
But as I finish my piece I see something behind those eyes. I couldn’t call it hurt or even disappointment. It’s like a dark shadow flying swiftly past the sun. It’s the tiniest, unconscious flicker that breaks my heart on the spot and makes me feel like running away to find a quiet corner and reading the book immediately, so I can tell him how much I loved it.
I feel really bad even later, as we’re all in a pub, but when Mark hears about it, he still gives me a powerful little speech on how good The Painted Man is, as only someone who repeatedly broke my heart with his own books can. He loves Peat’s books and I’m really not sure how to reassure him that this negligence on my part will soon be rectified.
During this event I meet a number of other people I was looking forward to seeing in person. Author T.O. Munro, whose excellent Lady of the Helm I’m currently reading, is definitely one of them. I also get introduced to Ace Books legend, Ginjer Buchanan, who I have huge respect for. It’s great to chat with other readers I only ever see online and the evening goes by too quickly.
Something I will never forget, though, is watching Mark Lawrence talking with his readers, who stand around him in a circle in front of the pub. To be more precise it’s him talking endlessly, enthusiastically and his audience drinking it all in, mesmerised, their smiles reaching their big, bright eyes as they listen.
Only the previous day Mark tells me how he himself was always anti-social. ‘I knew a guy,’ he reflects, ‘a math genius, completely hostile to company, but when he needed to “turn it on” the whole room focused on him – he held everyone in his hand… a kind of magic…”. Bullshit, Mark, I think to myself smiling, since he IS that guy, right there! It’s like watching precisely a kind of magic you cannot name, but it touches your soul and you know it to be true. You know it to be right. Our ancestors were sitting around the storyteller a long time ago at the fireplace, enchanted just like this. I try to take some photos of them, but the pictures fail to give back any of this. As if modern technology still hasn’t really learned to capture what’s important to the heart.
Two days later I’m accepting an invite to a birthday party not to be missed. Apparently there will be a magician, face painting, cake and everything. We are to celebrate Jo Fletcher books’ fourth year anniversary party.
That evening I walk into The Fox at Excel, which I find to be a massive pub, full of folks, convinced that I cannot know more than five of them at most, but as it happens I find one of them, Michelle Herbert, almost straight away. We soon find Andrew Turner together, who to my great disappointment decided against dressing up as Batman as originally planned, and other friends we met earlier this week.
Having said that, my general impression throughout the night is that people are very friendly and easily approachable. They are all happy to make your acquaintance and network. In fact, if you tell them you’re a blogger, they give you their cards straight away. Seriously. You fancy an author/publishing person and want to find out more about them? Just say you’re a blogger. I swear, it works like a charm.
Very soon, on my way to the bar, I bump into an American novelist friend, Daniel Polansky, who is the author of the excellent noir fantasy trilogy, Low Town. He gives me the last copy of his new short story, ‘A Drink Before We Die’ (fittingly, while we wait to be served at the bar) and then introduces me to a number of other authors, including Robert Bennett and John Hornor Jacobs, while in turn I introduce him to Wesley Chu, I’d also just met.
I manage to chat a little with all of them. Robert’s much acclaimed book, City of Stairs is coming out in hardback here, in the UK. We get an excerpt at the party, which I quickly get signed. Also, he’s one of the most hilarious guys I follow on Twitter.
About two hours later Dan tells me that he’s leaving soon, so I ask him to look after my bag for a few minutes while I quickly look around to see if I can find Jane Johnson and her husband to say hello. I do a few circles and eventually come back to the table disappointed, at which point someone tells me to check outside as many people are out there.
I walk through the downstairs area once more, through the doors and eventually make my way towards the tables. It’s fairly dark outside and I cannot see Jane anywhere, but suddenly I spot one of her authors sitting right in front of me.
I hesitate to ask him, but there is Dave Lally, a BSFA membership officer I had met earlier at the bar (and whose card I’d received, ha!) sitting with him at the table, and he’s inviting me to come closer, saying it was OK. So I walk on, looking at an author I would recognise anywhere, and tell him ‘Sorry, I’m looking for Jane Johnson. I really didn’t think it was going to be you I’d find here instead.’ He smiles as we shake hands and informs me that he’s definitely not Jane. Not that I cannot see that the person who seems to find my introduction so amusing is in fact none other than George R. R. Martin.
Damn, I think to myself as I remember my bag being with Daniel, who is leaving soon, so I explain the situation and politely ask if I can come back and sit down once I have retrieved it. An artist sitting at the table turns to me and tells me that they don’t want people hanging around. But George, ever so kindly, doesn’t even let her finish her sentence and reassures me that it is fine.
So I walk back to Dan a little dazed and end up returning with my bag and him. I quickly introduce him to George, they shake hands and it feels like we are just two kids thoroughly excited by the prospect of being allowed to sit with and listen to the grown-ups talk. I feel fine. And calm. But truly I’m still in some sort of shock as I tell George about my previous interview with Jane, emphasising how I think it’s fascinating to see authors through their publisher’s eyes, that an interview with them can be sometimes even more interesting than what you’d hear from the author, himself. He really doesn’t know what to say to this revelation. I expect by now he has a wide range of polite answers to being asked for interviews, but perhaps he’s yet to find one to this new kind of approach I’m so enthusiastically presenting him with.
For the next hour or probably more I mainly just sit there quietly, watching him curiously and listen to the conversations. I decide I like George. There is just this fantastic positive energy to him, matched by fierce intelligence behind those eyes, mixed with joy and a fair amount of mischief. There is a line about J. R. R. Tolkien in The Pitkin Guide to Tolkien by Robert S. Blackham, which says:
“Tolkien often demonstrated high spirits – sometimes on New Year’s Eve, he would dress up as an Anglo-Saxon warrior or a polar bear and chase his neighbours.”
Somehow, observing George, I wouldn’t really be surprised, if I heard similar stories about him.
For now he sits there like a Godfather of modern fantasy, while people keep appearing every five minutes to pay their respects. The closer ‘associates’ get to sit down and stay longer and as such, Lord Grimdark himself appears after a while and joins the table. I cannot help but grin as I shake Joe’s hand the third time in four days. This ‘bloody’ woman is just everywhere.
As Daniel has left some time ago, it’s actually quite nice to have someone else around who I already know and whose books I read. I understand more from their conversation as I observe the two men, who undoubtedly have a mutual respect and appreciation for each other’s works, blithely interacting. I also sneakily take a picture of them, each, as surely no one is going to believe this of me otherwise.
Once Joe leaves too I end up talking to George’s friend, Melinda M. Snodgrass, who sits between the two of us. Melinda, who has known George for a long time and also created the Wild Card Series with him talks to me a bit about herself and both her and his influences. She’s absolutely lovely and supportive as she asks me about myself and patiently listens to me rambling on about my impossible journey that within a year saw me being pulled into the very heart of SFF from absolutely nowhere.
I passionately talk to her about The Broken Empire series that changed my life so completely and my friend, Mark Lawrence, at which point George looks up at us, too and asks: ‘Is this that thorn guy?’ A simple question in a London pub that triggers immense joy and wild enthusiasm in fans across half the world as Mark posts about it online the next day.
The evening eventually comes to an end and as we’re standing up George steps towards me to shake hands again and say good-bye. I’m absolutely melted by the gentle kindness he’s showing to me, something I will remember and carry with me for the rest of my life – like a token woven into my own story as a reminder when I next read a story of his or write mine.
Encouraged by all these events I decide to actually buy a day ticket for the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention for Sunday and see what a WoldCon is all about. I’ve heard somewhere that it is the biggest in Britain to date, even that it is the biggest so far full stop, but one thing is certain, it is huge. Just the pocket programme guide is 240 pages long. I’ve never been to the Excel (Exhibition Centre London) before either and the only thing I can compare it to as I’m walking through its large main corridor punctuated by many cafes is an airport.
Arriving at my first ever convention day after attending the Jo Fletcher party on Friday also makes me feel like I’m now here for school. There is a vast timetable and the first class I pick is with Myke Cole, who takes part in a panel discussing drones. He’s being his own charismatic self, his explanations both interesting and enjoyable. He has a certain air of command to him, confidence and thoughtfulness, which all makes me think he must be really great to work with.
Next I go and attend another panel with Mike Carey on it. Mike Carey is a British writer, author of the Felix Castor novels, writer of Hellblazer, adapter of Gaiman’s Neverwhere and writer on X-Men Legacy and Ultimate Fantastic Four for Marvel Comics. Earlier this year I reviewed his book, The Girl with All the Gifts, which was most excellent and I cannot recommend it enough. Today he’s talking about writing and pitching comics with Maura McHugh, Paul Cornell, Debbie Lynn Smith and Mary Talbot. It is fascinating to hear about creating comic books from a writer’s perspective and the collaborations between writers and artists.
Once the panel has finished I go and say hello to Mike, but as we’re both bound elsewhere we decide to meet up later in the afternoon. I leave the room and attempt to find in the programme guide where Scott Lynch’s reading will take place. Except it’s not there. Though I’m pretty sure there is one in two minutes because I’d seen it online the previous night.
I’m hurriedly flipping through the pages but I just can’t see it anywhere. Maybe there is a separate section somewhere for readings? To get out of others’ way, as they are all rushing to their own things, I slump into an empty chair and spend the next five minutes searching for the damn location in vain. By this time I’m quite annoyed because I’m certain I’ve missed it. In the end I solemnly resign myself to doing something else instead and look up briefly for inspiration. But as it happens there is no need to look any further. Scott Lynch, himself, is less than a metre away, right in front of me.
At least I think it’s him, as I’ve only seen him in pictures before. He stops briefly at a water cooler on my right to get some water as I’m staring at him in disbelief, then he rushes on with three people around him which in turn makes me shoot up from the chair and dart after him. It’s not easy but I somehow manage to overtake him as we’re all speeding through the corridor, so I can see his face again and ask if he is indeed Scott Lynch.
He confirms my suspicion and I inform him happily how I’m coming to his reading. ‘That’s great, then you can maybe show me where it is!’ He says with some clear frustration in his voice. It turns out they went into the wrong room by mistake and were now also looking for the right place. Someone in his team, however, seems to know where we’re supposed to be, so we’re just all following the person hoping she’s right.
We rush through corridors, stairs, go out of the building through one door, come back in again through another, all the while I just can’t believe my luck and start enthusiastically babbling to him randomly about mutual friends and acquaintances, how I’m supposed to know how great his hair is and God knows what. To his credit he endures it with remarkable patience while he’s clearly annoyed by running late and as we’re racing through the massive building side by side in such a peculiar manner, it’s not unlike one of those hilarious scenes you see in television comedies.
Finally we come to a small corridor with doors on both sides and lots of people waiting outside. For a heartbeat I hesitate. Maybe they haven’t gone in yet? But I’m not going to lose sight of him now and I fling myself after him through the last door. It’s full of people. Definitely the right place. There are no more free seats but I can stand at the wall, just next to the door. He apologises for a sore throat as he sits down to the desk and starts reading. I can’t help grinning as I take a few pictures of him, broadcasting my good fortune online and eventually happily melt into his keen audience.
Half an hour later it’s Joe Abercrombie’s turn to take over and read from his own book. To my astonishment a few people stand up and leave with Scott. I have no idea why they are going or what those noisy people still outside are waiting for, (what else can be more interesting?), but I take one of the seats quickly, so when Joe walks in I’m already smugly sitting in the middle of the first row (where else?).
There is some discussion taking place at the door regarding the lack of free seats and that is the moment when it dawns on me that all those people waiting outside are there, because with no more free seats left they were not allowed in. I silently gulp as I realise how I would have never made it in had I known where the reading was going to be in the first place. Funny how sometimes only by being lost you can get to the place you were meant to be.
Joe very generously offers his chair to a person, so one more fan can be let in and proceeds to read standing from his upcoming book, Half the World. I feel the title ‘Joe Abercrombie reading’ does not do credit to the business we are being presented with and it should be immediately renamed as ‘The Joe Abercrombie Show’ – in the best possible meaning of the phrase. Joe Abercrombie is a natural entertainer, who seems to enjoy the attention and we are all happy to give it to him. He is captivating, he’s funny, he’s energetic. He hardly looks into the book as we are treated to a highly enjoyable theatrical performance. He reads the first chapter, then answers a few questions and the half an hour flies by quickly.
If at this point, you are still with me reading this, you are doing great! And I’m impressed! With both of us! 😀 So let me tell you how I make my way to the Second Stage where Jane Johnson is about to interview Robin Hobb. No one is getting lost this time. There is a huge queue in the middle of the building in front of the auditorium, indicating where everybody is heading. I join the end of the queue fifteen minutes before it starts and, guess what, somehow I still end up in the first row. Maybe only because I’m alone, but to be fair no, I don’t know how. The acoustics are very good however and there is a huge screen, too, so everyone can see and hear every word of the superb conversation very well.
There are a lot of interesting things mentioned during the good hour we all sit there and what strikes me the most, having yet to read her books, is the extraordinary planning work cleverly reflected in the series. Robin Hobb tells us how she is very fond of puzzles and how seeds of storylines are carefully planted throughout the books to grow, flourish and bear fruits at much later stages. They also talk about the importance of the editing process and how much work is still being done once Jane points out parts she feels need more clarification.
I have recently written my own little first short story, which I have shown to a friend, who pointed out a handful of things needing further explanations. At that point I felt a little disheartened for not realising those things myself before and not entirely sure if I can even break up my precious writing now and stick in ‘stuff’ for further clarification, but their honest account of the serious work they do together when editing a book comes as a great comfort and encouragement.
I leave the auditorium feeling motivated and much taken with Robin Hobb, as a person, to go and find another one of the coolest authors I’ve ever known, Mike Carey. The X-Men comics were amongst my favourites back when I was just a teenager and the thought of meeting and chatting with someone who actually wrote the series for a while is amazing. However, once I find him and we sit down in one of the eateries, it’s The Girl with All the Gifts that I start talking about. He tells me that the movie they are making from the book is coming along nicely. He also tells me what he’s writing about currently, which I’m not sure I’m allowed to say, so I won’t, but the concept leaves me with the same feeling The Girl with All the Gifts had on me – chilled to the bone by the very idea but wanting to know more.
We talk a lot about writing and I listen to him awestruck. He makes me realise something I guess I have already known, though we all sometimes just need to have things thoroughly spelled out for us. As he speaks he reminds me that fantasy as such has no limits and through the many books and stories he mentions I become more and more aware that when it comes to my own writing, I’m holding back. Somewhere on the way I’ve built walls around my imagination that feel safe and grown-up, despite the fact that some of the best stories have the craziest ideas behind them, and I feel my eyes are re-opening to a world full of possibilities.
Also, not that I’m not impressed with him writing another novel, being involved in movie making, television series making, comic writing, taking part in events and I don’t even know what else, what I consider a particularly amazing achievement is finding out he wrote two novels together with his wife, Linda and their daughter, Louise. He laughs, as he tells me, that of course there were many arguments, but this collaboration helped him immensely to be able to write Melanie’s character so convincingly later in The Girl with All the Gifts and also taught them a few things about each other and themselves.
After a while we leave the café and walk to the market, which is set up within one of the huge halls. While we are both looking at books at one of the stalls, he finds a copy of the first novel he wrote with his wife and daughter, The City of Silk and Steel, buys it and dedicates it for me on the spot as we stare on, lost for words, with the Forbidden Planet staff. Of course, when he hands me the book I cannot thank him enough for the kind gesture. I feel very humbled by the generosity and benevolence that he and so many other people throughout these events have treated me to. I share some of the highlights with friends in the upcoming days, who in turn encourage me to write about the seemingly incredible and very fortunate events. So I arrange the new books on the shelves, my thoughts on the paper, all the while pondering where to take things from here.
They say everything happens for a reason, but they never tell you what that reason is. As if they have just given you the first part of a story and it is now up to you to finish it. Every step I take becomes a sentence in it, every decision a turn. This is my story. What’s yours?