Gollancz Fest 2016

Gollancz Festival 2016

The weekend of the 17th and 18th September saw science fiction and fantasy publisher Gollancz put on its annual Gollancz Fest event, a two-day affair giving fans and writers the opportunity to mingle, network and discuss their shared love for the genres. Taking place at the beautiful Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road and the slightly less beautiful Phoenix Artist Club just across the road, it was split up into a range of sessions including workshops, panels and even a party, meaning fans could pick and choose what they wanted to attend over the two days.

With tickets for each session costing either £15 or £25, and knowing well how tiring these sorts of events can be – not to mention expensive, with the inevitable book purchases – I chose to attend two of the panel sessions and the Saturday evening party, which was to celebrate the 10th anniversary of four particular novels. First published ten years ago, these four books have just been re-released in lovely hardback editions, and three of the four authors were in attendance:

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch.
The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie.
The Stormcaller by Tom Lloyd.
The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson.

Sadly Brandon Sanderson wasn’t there for the weekend, but the other three bravely joined in with the activities over the weekend, answering questions and signing many, many books! All told it was an excellent weekend, with some fantastic discussions and discoveries, so I thought I’d give a quick rundown of some of my thoughts and recollections.

Saturday’s panels
Kicking off at 3pm, the Saturday afternoon session saw authors discussing the relationship between utopia and dystopia, writing inside or outside of your comfort zone, humour in fiction, and finally logistics in fantasy. Across the four panels there was a fantastic range of authors spanning the spectrum of styles and genres, including fan favourite Scott Lynch, veteran author Christopher Priest, and even bestsellers Joanne Harris and Ben Aaronovitch.

For the most part the panels were well-compéred, focused and natural feeling, and the authors were uniformly enthusiastic and interesting. The first two panels, Utopia vs Conflict and The Comfort Zone saw a nice balance between the authors referencing and promoting their own work and generally talking about the craft and thought behind writing as they saw it, both panels generating some fascinating conversations. A highlight for me was the amiable, eccentric Christopher Priest heading off on tangents and regaling us with stories of his early days pitching books to various publishers. I also decided that while Ezekiel Boone spoke eloquently and passionately, his novel The Hatching contains WAY too many spiders for my liking. I’ll have to wait for his next one to get involved, I think.

Ironically the panel focusing on humour fell a little flat, suffering from slightly underprepared compéring and as a result taking a little too long to really warm up. All three authors professed to not think of their work as overtly humorous, which was an interesting statement from the lot of them, and while Ben Aaronovitch had some really interesting comments about his characters and the need for humour to be natural and not forced, there was a sense that he was holding back to avoid dominating proceedings. As he was comfortably the most entertaining of the three, that was a bit of a shame.

The final panel, focusing on logistics in fantasy and amusingly entitled Does Anyone Need a Wee?, saw a lot of discussion around world building, in terms of how much detail is really needed and why. Much was said about bodily functions in general, with the consensus largely that it’s better to hint at goings on than actually show it…unless you’re Stephen King. Generally speaking the panel agreed that unless an author really loves figuring out how everything in their world works, it’s usually enough to show just enough so that it feels real to the reader, even if behind the scenes the houses are a bit wobbly.

The party
As soon as the fourth panel finished, two big queues formed for book signings on either side of the room while venue staff took away the rows of chairs and replaced them with free-standing tables for the party. Up to now things had seemed nicely organised and efficient, but such was the size of the queue waiting to get books signed by Scott Lynch, the point at which the doors were opened to the party was pushed back and back. It was all very friendly and amiable, but I’d definitely say a little more planning and organisation would have gone a long way here.

To be fair to the Gollancz team, with Scott Lynch proving easily the most popular, there were a bunch of staff pulling people out of the queue to get books signed by the other authors. It would have helped though to have had someone from Gollancz at the head of the queue ensuring people were only getting a single book signed, or at least making sure nobody stood talking to Scott (or any of the other authors) for too long, holding the queue up. They might have prioritised people who weren’t staying for the party too, to make sure those people could get their books signed and get away before the party began.

Still, once the doors re-opened and the party began it was a nice opportunity to mingle and chat with authors, Gollancz staff and other fans. It was pitched as a launch party for the 10th anniversary editions of the four books I mentioned earlier, but in truth it was a more general event overall. The three of the four authors who were in attendance spent an awkward but amusing fifteen minutes or so up on stage talking about each other’s books, but after that it was back to mingling, drinking and chatting as most of the authors from the whole day had a well-earned glass of wine or three.

In truth I’d have maybe preferred a little more of the organised entertainment and a little less being left to mingle, as we had all paid to be there, but it was nonetheless an enjoyable end to the day. Of particular note was a conversation with Alex Lamb about the responsibility of the author to throw as much craziness into a book as possible, for the editor to then tone down if necessary, and also a quick chat with Scott Lynch about his love of gaming. As if we couldn’t tell already that he was a gamer!

Sunday’s panels
After being escorted through the still-closed bookshop at a frankly ungodly hour for a Sunday morning, the panels opened with the three 10th anniversary authors in conversation, discussing what has changed for them in the ten years since their books were first published. This was the first panel (that I’d attended) which wasn’t compéred, instead the authors were encouraged to discuss and promote their own books and then left alone to talk. Scott, Joe and Tom did a fine job of choosing topics and keeping conversation going, especially considering the early hour (and probably a hangover or two). Of particular interest was a conversation around working habits and the perils/advantages of being a full time writer.

Following swiftly on came Ben Aaronovitch and Elizabeth Bear in conversation, once more sans compére, in which the pair proceeded to mostly talk about what they dislike in fantasy fiction. Once again Ben dominated proceedings, but once again he had the most interesting and entertaining things to say, including commentary on his self-confessed slow writing processes and his ex-journalist friends’ exasperation with him. Elizabeth Bear seemed largely happy to take a back seat, flitting around between topics when she did talk, always with a big smile on her face.

For the third panel Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter, both of whom have a new book available, spent almost the whole time discussing The Medusa Chronicles, a book that they collaborated on together. Picking up where an old Arthur C. Clarke short story left off, it sounds fantastic – a modern day take on Clarke’s classic sci-fi style. There was a great sense of mutual respect between the two authors, and with an empty chair on stage representing Clarke himself in absentia it was obvious how much they respect the old master. Baxter is clearly an expert collaborator, and his stories of working with Terry Pratchett on the Long Earth sequence were full of fondness for another absent legend.

The final panel saw Ed Cox, author of the Relic Guild trilogy, essentially interviewing Joanne Harris about her book The Gospel of Loki. Clearly a huge fan of Harris, Cox proved an enthusiastic and capable interviewer, encouraging the audience to get involved and asking some really interesting questions. Harris has clearly got a huge amount of knowledge and experience of her craft, and talked eloquently about her thoughts and ideas for the book. At times she came across a little too teacher-esque (unsurprising, as an ex-teacher) and a touch pretentious, but there’s no denying her insight – overall it was another excellent panel.

The books
Aside from the author panels I was looking forward to getting my hands on some new books, and part of me was hoping that there might be the odd early/pre-release available. Alas that wasn’t to be – the lovely new 10th anniversary editions of the four key books were all available, alongside a fair selection of new and back catalogue titles from the attending authors, but there wasn’t anything in the way of sneaky pre-releases. To be fair that’s not really surprising, but it might have been nice if there had been one or two exclusives other than the nice but not very exciting notebooks and posters that were on sale.

Most of the books were standard editions, however the four anniversary editions stood out with their elegant, understated designs. They’re available everyone, including book shops and online retailers, and at £15 RRP are priced well for the standard. Definitely worth checking out for anyone who likes a nice hardback.

Alongside the event, Gollancz were generously running a weekend-only 99p ebook sale on all the usual online platforms, featuring a host of books from across the range of attending authors. What a great idea – I was certainly making notes during the panels of authors and books that I was getting excited to read, so I checked out the sale afterwards and picked up a load of books for next to nothing! They could definitely have made a bigger deal of this – there was nothing at the venue letting non-Internet savvy fans know about it, which seemed odd.

Parting thoughts
I was impressed by the event as a whole – there was a great selection of authors, all of whom (at least those I saw) had interesting things to say, a nice mixture of topics in the panels, and for the most part the organisation was good. Thankfully for every (occasional) awkward pause there were plenty of spontaneous tangents and laugh out loud moments! Arguably the compéring could have been a little better, especially as these panels were entirely focused on pre-prepared topics as opposed to audience questions. For future events I do think a bit more thought should go into the organisation of signing sessions, and making sure that all of the compéres are fully confident and prepared to make sure that the panels run as smoothly as possible.

I’m sure everyone who attended had their own individual aims and hopes for the weekend – for me, I was just looking forward to hearing the authors talk and getting some inspiration for new authors and new books to read. In that, it was a successful weekend. It was pretty good value for money, although the icing on the cake would be to offer something exclusive for attendees to get hold of, beyond posters and notebooks.

Did I enjoy it overall? Absolutely. Will I go again next year? Yes, yes indeed.

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