I hadn’t been to Europe in over ten years, so I was about due. Trips of this length have their drawbacks – costs being one, and exhaustion over the sheer logistics to get there being another. I’m pretty introverted, so navigating the astonishing mob of people en route to other places can be a nightmare.
But if you want to live life to the fullest, well.. you have to do uncomfortable things sometimes.
London is a mad, bustling place, and had the same sort of cost/benefit issues for me that NYC has. My spouse and I spent five days or so in London doing all the usual tourist things, and also managed to sneak into Pornokitsch’s launch party for The Book of the Dead, which was a fine time. I’m not going to mention folks we bumped into this trip because wrap-ups of the “I met X and X and…” variety always exclude someone, and often make me sorry for all the folks I missed. I also know that I, for one, am always saddened when I’m forgotten in someone’s wrap-up. And due to the number of folks I spoke with this trip, it’s inevitable I’ll miss someone.
Though London is fun to visit, I couldn’t survive living there in the crush of people. Small spaces filled with people are anxiety-inducing for me, even getting in seven miles a day of walking to burn off adrenaline. We did all the tourist things you’d expect – the Tower of London, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and lots and lots of time spent navigating the underground to get where we were going.
It was a relief to hop on a train to Brighton and roll up to our hotel, the Granville, which was right next door to the con hotel and half the price(!!). After the snooty, elitist tone of the World Fantasy Convention’s communications, I expected an awkward, annoying con that actively sought to boot people out for a variety of plebian infractions. Instead, I had a lot of conversations with folks who *also* felt they were unwelcome at the con and who all said, “Fuck `em” and came anyway. So hey, we all felt unwelcome together!
The programming descriptions were, sadly, laughable. My spouse opened up the programming book and made an exclamation of horror at the panel descriptions. “Why is Neil Gaiman – Neil Gaiman! – on a panel about whether or not comics are important? Is this 1975?” Pretty much all of the panel descriptions had this same tone-deaf, “We’re stuck in 1975!” vibe to them (of course, I can’t imagine a panel in 1975 saying there weren’t any women writing epic fantasy but Leigh Brackett, but I digress), so I encouraged him to just look at who was actually on the panel and decide to go based on the panelists, not the descriptions. The panelists would all just talk about what they wanted to talk about instead of the weird panel description.
For the most part, this seemed to be what happened, and most folks who attended panels seemed happy with them, even if the programming itself was a little thin (I think even ConFusion, which is a rather small con, has more programming than this WFC did).
What saved WFC for me were the number of wonderful people in attendance. The con space itself was a labyrinth, but there was so little programming that once you’d run around it a couple of times, you could figure out the layout. I had a great time meeting new folks both at the parties and in the twisting hallways, and even got to have lunch with my Del Rey UK editor, Michael Rowley. I hadn’t had an editor lunch since 2007 when I first met Juliet Ulman after she initially bought God’s War for its prior publisher, so that was nice and “real-writer-like.”
I admit that one of the most uncomfortable parts of WFC, for me, was seeing how many people treated it expressly as a networking opportunity. I mean, yes, it is, but these folks had lists of folks they needed to meet and connect with for strategic business reasons. I felt a little overwhelmed by that, because I was mostly still at the “Oh, lovely people from Twitter I’d like to chat with, this is great!” place, and the strategic way a few writers approached the con weirded me out a little. I just like to have a good time. Maybe that’s not smart. Maybe I should be smarter. But I like making real connections instead of forced ones. It leaves off a lot of pressure.
I had a lot of people tell me they read my blog, which was nice (I’m sometimes astonished at the stats for the bigger posts, now), and one very honest young fan who said they’d read the first 100 pages of God’s War and couldn’t get into it, but they were looking forward to the epic fantasy, which looked like a book that would be much easier to get into. I admit I do hope the more reader-friendly epic will serve as a gateway drug to the God’s War books.
Though Brighton was less busy than London, Brighton was very much a work event for me, so I was very happy on Monday to hop on a train and head north to Edinburgh. The train ride was lovely, and our B&B was even lovelier. I didn’t believe there was a B&B in the world that could get 45 5-star ratings. But after staying there, I totally understand why. It’s a private home with just one room, and the owners – Stewart and Stephanie – were just lovely, wonderful people. B&B’s can be awkward, especially when you’re the only guest, but my spouse and I felt comfortable with our hosts immediately. They cooked a hot breakfast for us every morning, and their 16th century riverside house was… well, exactly what you would expect a 16th century riverside house to be. Lovely, lovely. Can’t say enough about how amazing this place was, and you should all check it out if you plan for a stay of any length in Edinburgh.
Edinburgh itself was much more my pace. We did a lot of walking – up to Edinburgh Castle, across town to the base of Arthur’s Seat (though not up it – next time!) and through many gardens and winding places. We even stopped by The Elephant House, the coffee shop where Rowling wrote Harry Potter, which has an excellent view of the castle, and did an underground tour of some old vaults. We did much of our shopping here, since I was very careful of our budget the first two-thirds of the trip. Once we got to Edinburgh and still had money, it was time to do all the gift-buying. Mostly, Edinburgh was me recharging and having a real vacation after the madness of London and socializing in Brighton. I was talking to a wonderful young woman at the Pornokitsch party in London and admitted I was an introvert, so these events were few and far between for me. Her eyes widened in disbelief and she said, “YOU’RE an introvert??”
What can I say? I’m good at faking it.
For me, social events are like theater. This was one of the greatest gifts that taking high school theater gave me: the ability to pull on the “Chatty author” role and step into it, like stepping onto a stage, and then step out of it to go recover afterwards. I’m severely introverted in a way my spouse is not, so it was interesting to go back to our room and compare notes after social events. I tend to obsessively go over interactions afterward and figure out how I could do better or prepare better for them afterwards, and flog myself for every mis-handled communication. My spouse can just go in and be himself and have a good time. I try not to self-censor when I’m in a conversation – I basically just pull down my filter and resort to loud and friendly – but afterwards I pick over things obsessively. Perhaps this is not entirely normal, and I did start to wonder if maybe I had some severe social phobia because I’d been so anxious and exhausted the whole trip. But then we ran off to Edinburgh where the crowds were gone and the pace was slower, and I found myself totally relaxed. I think that sometimes we think that it’s we who are broken when it’s simply that the pace of life, perhaps, that we find ourselves in just does not suit our temperament. Sometimes it’s not us that’s broken, it’s the environment. I am simply much better suited to a rural pace of life and smaller parties.
But America, in particular, celebrates extroversion and it’s extroverted people who get ahead. I figured this out early on, and I’ve had to work out how to step into it when I need to in order to succeed in any way. Alcohol does indeed help, as it dampens the obsessive over-analyzing, but I’m capped at 3-4 glasses at a time due to my illness, so I can’t have a roaring good drunken time quite like a used to.
Pushing extroversion, however, isn’t necessarily a good thing, because different types of jobs require different skill sets. One disastrous example is when they moved away from hiring introverted, analytical, conservative folks to give loans and manage money at the big banks and instead hired on extroverted, risk-taking, exuberant sales folks. The implosion of the US’s financial infrastructure was only a matter of time. Sales folks are great at many things – but taking the long view and weighing long-term risk generally isn’t one of them.
Most writers tend to lean toward introversion (though I certainly know a few who are very outgoing) because being quiet and observing the world, then making sense of it, tends to be a skill that goes along with wanting to step away from people. It’s harder to catalogue an event when you’re inside it. Being able to step away and make sense of it is a gift.
Our trip back to the US ended up being much better than the trip in. We had a rollicking train ride back in from Edinburgh where we chatted with a group of men from Glasgow headed to Newcastle for a birthday party (they brought a small liquor arsenal with them), a backpacker from DC, a student from China, a businessman from Nottingham on his way to an interview, and a couple from Kuwait who were on holiday. It was an astonishing mix of folks with really interesting stories, coaxed out of them (and us) by the backpacker from DC.
It was this surreal mix of wonderful company that symbolized the trip best for me. My spouse had never been overseas, and he’d come back from parties in Brighton and say, “I talked to someone from Finland, and Russia, and Scotland and Italy… all at the same table! That would never happen in the US.” This trip was wonderful for the epic mix of folks – the fascinating conversations, the different perspectives. We get so stuck in the US, so wrapped up in our own bullshit, that it’s easy to forget there’s a whole other world out there, one with different expectations and experiences. There’s a world much better than the one we have, a world on a different track.
Tricia Sullivan said something very interesting at the Apocalypse panel at the con, and to paraphrase, it was something like: When we talk about apocalypse what we’re talking about is the end of a very specific kind of living. It’s the end of the nine-to-five commute to an office where we sit for eight hours every day, and pick up our groceries at the corner store. But it’s the end of the world for only a very small subset of folks. When our little version of what we consider civilization crumbles, millions of people will simply go on living the way they always have.
And it reminded me that as the US slides into despair and infighting, as the US’s influence continues to recede and our infrastructure crumbles, well… the rest of the world will continue on. Because they invested in other things. Because they saw a different future. Because they’re building something different. And that heartened me. The collapse of one thing just means the rise of something else. Societies need to be able to adapt to change. The ones that do it best will thrive. The ones that don’t: won’t.
And on that chipper note, I’m going to get back to writing my Umayma noir book. Because there’s nothing more inspiring to a writer than not writing for a few weeks.