Amanda Desiree attended the Locus Awards 2019 on Saturday, June 29, 2019, in Seattle, WA. Here are her recollections from the event.
I was fortunate to attend the Locus Awards in Seattle last weekend. Robert McCammon (RMC) participated in the first panel of the day, “Playing in the Historical Sandbox” (“Subtitled ‘While Avoiding the Turds,'” joked moderator Daryl Gregory (DG), who’s had experience with small children, sandboxes, and wildlife), along with Amal El-Mohtar (AEM), Molly Tanzer (MT), and Connie Willis (CW). The panel was to focus on sci-fi or fantasy works set in historical eras.
What follows is my recollection of the Locus Awards gathering, not a true recording, and there’s a lot I don’t remember. For instance, I don’t remember what county Daryl Gregory’s parents came from; he mentioned it during the panel, I know it started with a ‘C,’ and after looking at a list of counties in Tennessee, I’m pretty sure it was Cocke County, but I may be wrong. Still, I think this report gives a fair idea of how things went.
RMC arrived first and spent a few minutes chatting with members of the audience about their favorite sci-fi books and authors, including Alfred Bester and Chuck Palahniuk. Gradually, the other panelists trickled in. When CW arrived, she approached RMC and pinned a piece of paper to his blazer: it was a badge of shame for not complying with the Locus Awards dress code of wearing a Hawaiian shirt. RMC was wearing a plaid shirt beneath a blazer.
“I’m the Hawaiian shirt police,” she announced. “I have so little control over everything else in my life, but I have control over this, and I’m going to enforce it. Robert McCammon says he brought a Hawaiian shirt, but I don’t believe him. He’s a writer, and they’re liars. If you’re not wearing a Hawaiian shirt, you’ll get one of these (a paper with ‘No Hawaiian Shirt’ and a number printed on it) and we’ll raffle off a Hawaiian shirt for you at the banquet.” Then she called out a man in the audience. “Stand up, Hugh.” He was wearing a toned-down green paisley Hawaiian-style shirt and a dark blazer. “You see, he almost squeaked by in that, but then he went and put a tasteful blazer on over his shirt.”
“But it’s cold in here,” Hugh protested.
“Being tasteful isn’t the point! The goal is to be tacky!”
“I didn’t know about the instructions,” AEM apologized, “but someone helped me out (a man had given her a Hawaiian shirt to wear over her clothes just as she sat down).
“I did bring a Hawaiian shirt,” RMC insisted. “But I’m a writer and a liar.” He really did have one, and he’d changed into it by the time of the autograph signing.
After that excitement, the panel began. During the introduction, the panelists described how their work related to the topic—or didn’t. “My books are often categorized as horror, but that’s a misnomer,” RMC explained. “I’ve written a series of historical mysteries involving an early detective in the colonial period, but I also have a long history with science fiction. As a boy, I collected science fiction magazines like Analog, Fantastic, and Amazing. But my mind wasn’t developed enough to understand them. I had to keep reading and re-reading the stories until I could grasp what they meant.”
AEM is a PhD candidate finished with all but her dissertation. “I write short fiction mostly, although I do have a novel about time travel, This is How You Lose the Time War, that’s technically not out until July, but because it’s a book about time travel, it’s on sale here this weekend.”
MT has written a trilogy. “They made me call it The Diabolists’ Library, which I think is a mouthful. The first two books are out now and I’m getting ready to submit the third one. Each book is set in a different time period and involves people using magic to summon up demons and fairies.”
CW has written a variety of novels and stories, not all of which are set in the past, “but I somehow manage to work the Titanic into all of them.”
DG said he’s only dipped his toe into writing historical science fiction. (Not entirely true: his book Pandemonium is an alternate history of sorts and a really fun mélange of comic book tropes, science fiction fandom, and pop culture references). “My last book (Spoonbenders) was set way back in the 1990s. I’d forgotten some of the details of that time, like how the internet worked back then.” His forthcoming book, yet to be titled, will be set in 1940s Tennessee, “a time and place that my parents, aunts and uncles experienced.”
His first question for the panel was about whether writing science fiction in a historic context differed from writing it in general. CW didn’t think it did. “History is the foundation for humanity, for life,” so setting a story in the past didn’t change the nature of people’s feelings or desires. “What is different is all the research that you have to do. I come across so many details that I can’t use, so many incredible historical coincidences that nobody would ever believe. On stage in a play, you can turn to your audience and say, ‘It really did happen this way!’ but you can’t do that when you’re caught between the pages of a book.”
MT admitted to getting caught up in research too. “I try to treat historical detail the same way I treat sex and violence in writing: if it contributes to the story and it advances the plot, keep it. If not, get rid of it. I have to remind myself, ‘Nobody cares how fast the carriage is going. So it took two weeks to get there? I’m the only one who’s interested in that.’ If I put in all of this detail that I think is cool, three people who read this book are going to say, ‘She sees me!’ and the rest are going to go, ‘What is this?’ I don’t remember who it was that said, ‘Don’t parade your facts as if they were hostages,’ but it’s definitely something to keep in mind.”
“Choosing which facts to include doesn’t just apply to writing historical fiction,” AEM observed. “We’re rewriting history all the time simply through the facts we choose to curate, like when we uncover queer narratives, or discover that people of color lived in Europe.”
RMC noted that the major difference in writing a historical setting is the lack of technology. “In contemporary fiction, you have to deal with cell phones, usually by putting the characters in an area where they don’t get service so that they can be isolated, and that’s been done so many times.”
“Isn’t that part of the horror?” AEM joked, “Not being able to be isolated from technology?”
“Is it difficult to portray the language and the details of the time period?” DG asked. CW spoke about how she tries to capture the flavor of the age through one specific detail that makes the setting real to the readers rather than trying to pack in a number of period details.
“I know how that sounds: ‘Just find the one perfect detail.’ But there are times when I’m doing research and I’ll feel a chill because I come across something that completely embodies the way things were. I was researching the spread of the plague and I read how church bells were used to communicate a death. That was the social media of the time. That was how towns communicated across distances. Each town had a church and they would ring the bells when anyone died: nine bells if a man died, three bells if a woman died, and one bell if a child died. After the signal, they would ring the bells for an hour. You would hear the bells ring…and then they would ring again…and then again immediately after. Then they would ring continuously. And then they would just stop. Then the bells would start ringing in the next town over…and then in the one after that…and in the one after that…and in the one a little closer to you. You could hear which direction the ringing was coming from. That’s how you knew the plague was moving closer to your village. To me that showed just how isolated these people were at that time.”
DG used something similar in his book. “Where my parents grew up, it was a tradition to ring the bells for the number of years the deceased had been alive. The towns were so small, you could figure out who had died just by knowing their age. That’s part of the suspense in my plot: the characters are counting the bells to see who it is that’s died.”
“I won’t get over those bells. I’m going to be thinking about that all day,” AEM remarked. “That, to me, is more important than trying to capture the perfect detail that will embody a time period: finding the detail that establishes the distance between that period and where your readers are now. I can’t imagine anything comparable to that type of warning system today.”
RMC had modern-day examples: “Tornado sirens in the South. Civil defense warning systems. You couldn’t tell where those were coming from.”
“I’d like to return the conversation back to the original question of using language,” MT said. “I never watch the extras on DVDs, but I made an exception once, by special request, for the series “Deadwood,” The creators admitted that they intentionally made the characters cuss more than they would have in real life. They chose that “I’d like to return the conversation to the original question of using language,” MT said. “I never watch the extras on DVDs, but I made an exception once, by special request, for the series “Deadwood,” and it was fascinating. The creators admitted that they intentionally made the characters cuss more than they would have in real life. They chose that aesthetic because they didn’t want the characters saying ‘Criminetly!’ all the time. They never would have said ‘fuck’ so often. That was a deliberate aesthetic choice. My own writing tends to be very modern. “I often look at slang dictionaries to pick out interesting words for my books, but I won’t try to replicate the language completely. One of my books was set in Victorian England and I’m very un-English. If I tried to write like a Victorian novel, it would sound even more grating. For the most part, I write in a contemporary style. Some people like it, and their reviews say, ‘This was so easy to read!’ And other people will write, ‘That’s not at all how people talked back then!’ and I know my books are
not for them.”
DG grew up in Chicago, but his parents originally came from Cocke County in Tennessee. “I was raised in the city by hillbillies. I went to school and used phrases nobody had heard of, like ‘a skip of snow,’ to mean a light dusting of snow. I thought those were words my family used, but they were regionalisms.” He tried to capture some of that regional flavor in his current novel, but used the language sparingly. “I only wrote one paragraph in dialect and that was when a newcomer was trying to make sense of what the characters were saying. I wanted to capture the way my uncle Albert talked.” DG gave a fair impression of Charlie Brown’s teacher, garbled and loud. “None of us could understand him, he sounded like he was shouting everything.”
“That was the Cocke County in his background,” RMC observed. “Because everything is so spread out and people are far away from each other, they do shout, ‘WOOOOO!’ to let you know they’re coming and when they get closer to where they’re going, they’ll call, ‘Woooo!’”
CW remarked, “You may be able to capture the feel of the language in one particular place at one certain time, but you’re not going to get the whole region. I found that out when I made the mistake of asking a bobby a question. I couldn’t make out a word he said; he had a broad cockney accent. I’m thinking, ‘Here I am in my own time, in my own language—supposedly—and I’m lost.’ I’d never be able to understand someone in another country in another time.”
“Sometimes when I look through a slang dictionary, I’ll find a word I like so much that I start using it,” MT revealed. “For instance, I came across the word ‘fufura’ [at least that’s what it sounded like; I’ve searched online using various spellings and haven’t been able to find the word], which is a big to-do, and now I’ll say things like, ‘Did you see the big fufura on Facebook today?’ Some of my friends have started picking it up too. I’m interested in how friends’ language shapes the period.
“In your studies of the language of the Old West for ‘Deadwood,’ did you read about how the language of the period became elevated due to the traveling theaters?” RMC asked MT. He cited a book called The White Buffalo about the topic, but added that it might not be available in print anymore. “We’ve lost so many great books.”
MT appreciated the suggestion. “I did see something once about why Katherine Hepburn talked the way she did. It was a dialect that was taught to actors at that time, and it became influential.”
“It sounds to me like you want to make your works more accessible to your audience, but I don’t think that’s always desirable,” AEM said. She mentioned a book (whose title and author I didn’t catch) written from the point of view of a Neolithic mentally disabled child. “The author used a lot of Germanic words, no Latin words, and many of them were monosyllabic. It was an alienating experience trying to relate to this character. I think it’s important to give the readers that experience of being stranded in the past and of being in an alien world sometimes.”
CW chimed in with a couple of other examples of complex works and their merits, but ultimately deferred to Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
“I ask a lot of my readers in my books and I don’t want to ask too much too soon,” MT cautioned. “One of my books is about an apprentice wigmaker in the 1700s. I’m expecting my readers to care about the details of wig-making and that’s a big ask, so I feel like I should make the rest of the book easier to grasp. And I should introduce the big asks a little later in the book.” She joked, “I wish I could rent my mom out to screenwriters of sci-fi and fantasy movies. If she doesn’t understand it within the first five minutes, go back and rewrite it. I don’t want to have to keep answering questions like, ‘Who is that? What’s going on?’ throughout the movie. ‘We’re on an alien planet…We’re in another time…’”
DG asked the authors for their opinions of using real-life historical figures in their works. CW had very strong opinions about this. She ripped into Philippa Gregory for The Other Boleyn Girl. “It’s ridiculous, the things she says. There’s no historical basis whatsoever for Anne Boleyn having an incestuous affair with her brother. That’s superstition. ‘Oh, you have a monster baby? It must be God’s punishment.’ And thanks to the book and the movie, people are believing it when they should be throwing that book against a wall.”
Reflecting on accuracy versus drama, AEM remarked, “I’m glad there are organizations defending Richard III’s reputation, but Richard III is also a really good play.”
CW continued. “I saw a movie with Paul Newman playing Buffalo Bill that was completely inaccurate.”
“Was it directed by Robert Altman?” RMC asked.
“Yes! It portrayed Buffalo Bill as a huckster and a drunkard and a womanizer, and he wasn’t any of those things. At the end of the movie, Sitting Bull is murdered—that really happened—but Buffalo Bill is shown as if he didn’t care. When he finds out Sitting Bull is dying, he stays where he is. In reality, he went to see him and to try to help.” CW was clearly offended by the misrepresentation of these figures. In her own works, CW doesn’t use a historical character’s real name; she’ll refer to them by a pseudonym while still making it clear who the character is supposed to be.
AEM described how much she enjoyed the novel Lent about Savonarola. “Most books take a position on what type of person he was, but this book explored many different perspectives and philosophies he might have held as he’s essentially living the same life over and over. But then I read another book where the character’s name was ‘Sarola’ and it was clear it was supposed to be Savonarola.
MT discussed how she handled the figure John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, (“He was portrayed by Johnny Depp in the movie The Libertine, but not accurately.”) in her book A Pretty Mouth. “I wrote about his school years and how naïve he was before being exposed to these ideas. That was a period of his life that isn’t well-documented and that we don’t know much about, so I felt safer using it.”
MT mentioned that she got an alert when an academic cited her story in his paper. She was flattered and wrote to him to ask how he had known about her work. “He said, ‘Google.’ So much for deep research.”
AEM didn’t have experience with writing historical figures herself, but did share an anecdote about dealing with real historical events. “My book involves the creation of multiple time lines. That’s how the time travel is accomplished. I couldn’t decide at one point if my characters were using pound coins or pound notes at that period. Then I thought, ‘Why am I worrying about this? It doesn’t matter what really happened. They can do whatever I want them to do. I have an out for this.”
RMC didn’t respond to the prompt at all. Since he has used actual figures (e.g. Lord Cornbury, Daniel Defoe) in his work, it would have been nice to learn more about his approach.
Unfortunately, the discussion had run so long by this point that DG was prompted to wrap it up and there was only time for one question. “One brief question,” DG emphasized. The chosen woman asked the panelists to share an example of an unbelievable coincidence they’d encountered in their research.
“It’s not in my own work,” CW said, “but John Adams said in 1776 that if the slavery issue couldn’t be resolved then, that it would tear the nation apart within 100 years. And he was right. But the writers of the musical and the movie 1776 decided not to include that quote, even though they use many other actual historical quotes, because they didn’t think anybody would believe it. Instead, they use other comments to indicate Adams’s opinions.” Everyone else passed on the question; whether that was because they didn’t have an example in mind or couldn’t provide it within the limited time available, I don’t know. I really enjoyed the informative, impassioned discussion and would have liked to ask a question of my own. It’s too bad there wasn’t more time for audience participation.
One more panel on YA literature followed, scheduled opposite a round table “donut salon” about editing anthologies, and then it was time for the mass author signing.
The autograph session was only scheduled for half an hour, which didn’t seem like nearly enough time to me. I’d think at least an hour, or even 45 minutes, would have been more appropriate to give everyone a chance to circulate and have all their books signed. The autograph session took place in the same space as the dealer’s room where the nominees’ books were sold. Curiously, the vendor only had copies of Swan Song and not the nominated book, The Listener.
The session was informal enough that I was able to chat briefly with several of the authors, and even got to talk for a bit with Mr. McCammon and ask him a couple of questions. I saw people in line with boxes of books for him to sign—which he did. One guy had an ARC of Mystery Walk, which I’d never seen before, that looked pretty cool. I also spoke to a fan named Josh who had driven up from Oregon that morning just to attend the book signing, since the Locus Awards event itself had already sold out a couple of weeks prior. It was fun to chat face to face with other fans; I haven’t had that opportunity before.
The Locus Awards banquet itself was an irreverent, entertaining event hosted by Connie Wills with assistance from Daryl Gregory. To kick off the fun, we had party favors at the tables: each place setting featured a Hawaiian lei and a small stack of genre books donated by the publishers. People at my table tried to bargain with one another for books that they wanted, and someone from another table even came by wanting to trade for a certain title.
The first hour was allotted for eating. Then came the first true event, a raffle for one of Willis’s books (each guest had received a ticket at registration).
Afterward, as threatened, came the Hawaiian shirt raffle. The numbers of half a dozen unmutuals were called, and as they went up one by one to claim their new Hawaiian shirts, the audience greeted then with a mixture of applause and cries of “Shame! Shame!” One winner objected to being called out.
“I object too,” CW agreed.”Robert McCammon asked me if this man’s shirt qualified. I thought it did. I pointed out that it’s not a Hawaiian print, but it’s got wine bottles and glasses in a Hawaiian style shirt. And he (the guy wearing the shirt) said, ‘I misunderstood. I thought we were supposed to wear wine shirts.”
The giveaway shirts were impressive. The best one featured a print of stars and rocket ships in blinding neon colors.
Next came the Hawaiian shirt and trivia contest. The loudest shirt at each table was chosen and the wearers went to the front of the room to answer questions about events and pop culture from the year 1976. The top prize was a plastic banana signed by various authors. “We started with a real banana,” Willis explained,”but one year somebody ate it. The next year, the winner put the banana in the freezer, but if you do that, the peel turns brown and you can’t see the autographs,” Hence the plastic banana. Runners up received plastic eyes on a stick or Arcturan finger traps.
Finally, Gregory read the names of the nominees and winners in each category. The award for best horror novel was one of the last to be given. Paul Tremblay won for The Cabin at the End of the World. That book also won the Stoker Award for Best Horror Novel; McCammon and Lisa Morton awarded it to Tremblay in absentia.
This event was a lot of fun and I’m glad I got to attend it. I’ve never been much of a sci-fi or fantasy fan, but maybe I should become one so I can come to gatherings like this more often.