There’s little moments in every writer’s life, when he or she realises something’s changed. You’ve upgraded. When I sell a story to a good market, when I’ve nailed a third act in a novel, or even I signed with my agent. I recognized that I’d leveled up; hit a new milestone.
But there was nothing little about my experience at WorldCon 75, where it occurred to me, perhaps for the first time, that I am a writer.
See, having never gone to a con of any sorts before, and being in the almost non-existent literary scene in Australia, I’ve only ever met authors briefly at rare book signings. And that’s assuming you have more than twenty seconds to blurt something out before you’re moved along and they’re seeing to the next person standing in line behind you.
So I don’t think I was ready to make my con debut WorldCon, and see everyone. My literary heroes, people I’ve been reading since I was ten years old, creators who’ve inspired me, annoyed me, entertained me, gave me food for thought: all in one place at once. In panels, in the cafes, in the bar, everywhere.
And thing I was especially not ready for: being among them. After seeing my name on the program, alongside the best and brightest of the genre, I knew I wasn’t here as a passive observer. I was here as a writer among other writers.
I hadn’t just leveled up: I’d reached a whole new level of its own.
Five minutes in: I’d ran into the wonderful Aliette de Bodard, who gave me a hug and said how cool it was to meet me. I didn’t have time to tell her the exact thing before she mentioned how much she liked my story in the anthology she blurbed: Where The Stars Rise. It’s one thing to write a story you love. It’s another to have someone you very much admire tell you to your face it provided them with reading pleasure.
Commence me wandering the corridors, picking out writers. Ken Liu. Ted Chiang, Daryl Gregory, Thomas Olde Hevult sipping coffee in the cafe. Robert Silverberg in the exhibit halls, Gay and Joe Haldeman in the auditorium. George R. R. Martin, casually rocking up in the main foyer (and yes, I got a photo). Ian McDonald, Ian Whates, Michael Swamnick knocking back G&T at the bar. People I’ve only interacted with over social media, people I’ve been reading for years. Now I get to see and meet them in person.
Except I’m not just meeting them. They’re meeting me.
Again: at book signings, you’re not an individual. You’re just another person in a line who presents the lofty author with a paper for them to scribble on. Then that’s it: they’re seeing the next person and you’re already forgotten.
Here, I got to sit down with Ian McDonald and talk to the man, level to level. Not as a slack-jawed idolatric fanboy to whom the concept of sex is frightening, but as another nerd who also writes about robots, far-future gang wars and exuberant cultures. I got to catch the train with Ken Liu and hear him tell me he enjoyed my essay in PoC Destroy SF. I got to tell George R. R. Martin I was from StarShipSofa (“Oh, the podcast, right?” I remember him saying. He also mispronounced my surname as “Sazzle, but that’s another story) and see him nod as he realised I was the guy who reprinted his undiscovered story The Men of Greywater Station and put it online for the first time. It was a down to earth, man-to-man experience where I was a fellow writer/editor who knew a thing or two about the craft. And all these Very Prestigious Writers actually listened to me. I wasn’t just another twenty-two year-old bloke from Down Under: I’d had work published that was noteworthy. I could sit down at the table with the best and brightest and contribute to the conversation.
I remember walking into the foyer and meeting Ted Chiang, the Ted Chiang. Admist our conversation about “smarter” SF cinema, I never got the impression I was speaking with the genius who birthed Arrival, but a quiet, intelligent man who was genuinely interested in what I had to say. Hell, having drinks with Ian McDonald for about seven hours (he bought us all 81 Euro wine) and having him introduce me to Ian Watson and Pat Cadigan as “The Lord of StarShipSofa” put the stupidest grin on my face. I was no longer an unknown outsider: I was welcomed into this circle of mad geniuses as not only a writer, but as a person. After years of struggling to get noticed and while watching these same authors get book and film deals, talking to them as other human beings and finding that they care is probably the biggest career boost I’ve had in a long time.
But perhaps the biggest surprise was: everyone, and I do mean everyone, I spoke to was aware of StarShipSofa in some capacity. All I had to do was mention the show and the connection was made: they knew who I was. I’d talked to Mary Robinette Kowal for ten minutes straight before she saw my badge and exclaimed “oh, you’re that Jeremy.” Even outside of meeting authors and narrators I’d reprinted and worked with, I had people who recognized my name and said how much they loved the podcast. I think more people were surprised that I didn’t know how popular the show was. I knew people tuned in, but I couldn’t imagine this many people, or how highly they regarded it. To have people express what my weekly efforts of producing good stories means to them is incredibly humbling.
This is doubly true for my own writing. Unless people email in, you don’t know if anyone’s reading your stuff, let alone enjoying it. Here, I’d have people casually bring up my work in conversations. Stop me in the corridor to say they loved a piece I’d written. That they found the certain story to really hit home. They’d name the stories I’d written, tell me their favourite characters, their favourite moments. They compared themes they’d found across my stories (some more valid than others). I was told they loved my “icky flavour if sci-fi body horror”, which is apparently now my sub-genre. I was congratulated on acquiring an agent, and was told by many, many people that I’d landed a solid one. That my novel sounded “super cool” and they couldn’t wait to get their hands on it.
And I’m still reeling from the fact that people even read my stuff.
My work has left an impact on people. My long hours creating worlds and characters I love actually matters to people. The stories I struggled with, thinking no one is going to read this shit has people I admire approaching me to dole out praise. As a writer, you want for nothing more. It puts a certain responsibility on your shoulders to continue doing good work, because there are people out there paying attention to me as a creator.
Somewhere in the midst of all this: it told me that I am an author. People read, love, respect my work. And there’s no dialing down from that. Even if I were to never write another story, I will still be an author who is read and recognized. I won’t ever be able to go a con or hang out in a writer’s group be a nobody: there will be someone who knows me or has heard of me.
Which is equal parts inspiring as it is unnerving.
Cons can be exhausting. Being in fandom can be exhausting. Being a writer in fandom can be very exhausting.
Meeting your readers and admirers is welcoming. But if you hear it so many times in such a short period, it loses its charm. Recognizing people in every corridor, meeting someone you know almost every fifteen minutes, running back and forth to attend a lunch or meeting or panel or whatever for 16 hours a day? It wears you out.
I was scheduled to appear on two panels at WorldCon 75. Having never done panels before, I had no clue what to expect from talking to a room full of strangers about my so-called expert opinion about writing. Both panels went very well; the second one especially, where our room (see photo) was fully packed out. The discussion was fantastic, the questions were great, and people cared more about and our approach to our work. Hell, a Swedish blogger took notes on everything we’d said. I only wished I was on more of these panels.
I’d made plans with my fellow panellists after the event. But when we were done, I got swarmed. People wanted to talk more. That story of mine: where did that get published? That market I mentioned: how did I get published there? When could they find my work? What was my website, again? How could they submit to StarShipSofa? How did I get my agent? Could I perhaps mention them to my agent? What was my book about? How long did it take to write my book? Did I have any advice?
I’m trying to answer the best I can, while still looking for my friends who are disappearing down the narrow corridor, while answering my phone, while fighting against the surge of crowds, while still thinking that I haven’t eaten in seven hours.
For about ten minutes, I think I got a glimpse of what being “famous” is like. It’s not pretty.
Coupled with the built up strain of Being an Author in Fandom for 16 hours a day, everything crashed on top of me and I needed a quiet corner to hide in. I just couldn’t do people anymore. I loved mingling with my fellow writers. But I couldn’t take it anymore.
Now, anxiety ain’t ever going to be a problem I’ll have to deal with. I’m outgoing, I’m unserved, I’m an intense individual. Ask anyone who knows me. I’ve got skin thicker than a dragon. I’m probably in the top 5% tier of “can tolerable any bullshit” people.
And day three floored me.
Now that I’ve been on the other side of the signing table as it were, I’ve got a newfound respect for famous authors, actors, celebrities. I simply don’t know how they deal with the attention. How do you compartmentalize having someone want something from you at every corner? I’m nobody, just a guy who gets a few minutes of attention at a sci-fi gathering. Anytime, I could walk out the doors and no one would bother me. No one would demand a photo from me. No one would stalk me down the hallways, hoping to get a few minutes of my time. George R. R. Martin? Neil Gaiman? Not so much.
How do these guys manage to go on book tour without blowing their brains out?
So yeah. Being in the spotlight, even briefly, has a dark side. As humbling and amazing and ego-boosting it is to have people want to hear your advice or gush about your work, everyone has their limits. And trudging back to my hotel at 2pm with a pulsing headache, I know I reached mine.
I’m back in at work in Australia now. Back to being another average guy on a beach suburb. I take my laptop to the cafes to write, because that’s the majority of what being a writer means: writing. The cons, the panels, meeting the people who gush about your work: that’s all a bonus.
But after attending WorldCon, I know that there’s people out there who are taking notice of my work. People who remember me. People who are waiting for my next story, and are hoping they get to read my novel. I’m a recognized name in the field, and my literary heroes are aware of me as both a writer and editor. I sat on the same programme with George R. R. Martin, Robert Silverberg and Cixin Liu. I’m still getting fanmail for my panels and having photos of me get tagged on social media.
And I’m sitting here, still trying to figure out how it all happened.
WorldCon changed my outlook as a writer, and made me feel like a real, genuine writer for the first time. It’s made my long hours doing something I love so much more rewarding. It was the family reunion I never knew I had. A really messed up, half-mad family, but a family nonetheless. And I’m already counting down the days until the next one.
So long, and thanks for all the lutefisk.