I went to Ad Astra last week. And it was good.
What? Whaddya mean that’ not a good story? Ugh. You people and your expectations. You must think I’m some kind of writer or something.
*checks occupation line on tax return* Oh. Well. Huh. Okay, fine. I’ll “try” “harder.”
Last weekend, I returned to Ad Astra, a nearby SFF con where my lovely cover artist, Desiree Kern, runs the art show. These folks regularly host high-caliber creatives as guests of honour, and for them to invite Little Guy me in to speak as a “professional panelist” (as opposed to last year when I did a pity-reading at 9pm in the basement on the first night) was kinda-sorta a big deal for me.
Although I popped my convention cherry last year, attending ConBravo in Hamilton and FanExpo in Toronto, I wasn’t there as a guest–I was a vendor, sharing a booth with Alexander Dundass, a local hardcore sci-fi author. Which was great! I broke about even on expenses, met some other creative folk, and had great conversations with new people. It taught me a lot. But it’s a whole different animal than being an official guest.
As a panelist, you’re presented as a person of authority. You’ve got an audience expecting you to divulge secret wisdom worthy of the time they’re spending with you. It’s a big honor, but also a big responsibility. I’d applied for over a dozen panels, mostly about fantasy writing, and I ended up with three.
But when I saw who I’d be speaking with, my extremities started sweating profusely. Seriously, I had to change my socks.
On Friday, I joined Lesley Donaldson and Jim Gardner for Inventing Real People for Alternate Histories (alt myth is pretty much the same thing, right?). There was a lot of discussion with the attendees–which I love; topics ranged from “Should you ever go back in time and kill Hitler?” (no) to “How do you put words in a famous person’s mouth?” (research + don’t be precious). I loved hearing how passionate Lesley is about Elizabeth I, the subject for her upcoming spec-fantasy, and Jim’s intricate ideas for different realities, like if the discovery of Rh+/- had been taken as blood markers for sin/salvation instead of science.
That panel eased me into public speaking (fear of which made me quit my Master’s program), so I was prepped for my reading on Saturday night. I shared space with Catherine Fitzsimmons, whom I’d met briefly at ConBravo, and she read from both Enduring Chaos (fantasy) and Halcyon (sci-fi thriller) to much applause. Personally, I couldn’t remember what I read last year, so I chose Cora Riley chapter 4, where Jack swears to Ishtar and Cora tries to rescue him; always a hit.
But by Sunday morning, I was so nervous I could hardly talk. I was short of breath and tunnel-visioned from anxiety. My next panel, Fairy Tales: Rewriting Grimm, Anderson & Aesop, featured two of the guests of honor: Anne Bishop and Charles de Lint.
NO BIG DEAL.
Going in, I already didn’t know why they’d assigned me to such a prestigious panel; by the time Alisse Lee Goldenberg and Marie Bilodeau joined the table, I was positive there’d been a mistake. These are all highly-respected, accomplished masters of their craft, bursting with experience and knowledge. I’m a self-published newbie with delusions of standing; what could I possibly contribute? So I put myself in the worst possible seat, furthest from attention, and hoped I didn’t elbow Anne Bishop hard enough to bruise her.
Then a beautiful thing happened.
In absence of a moderator, we asked each other questions and responded to the audiences’, which made for more material than we could cover. We discussed the pros and cons of Disneyfication, why we need fairytales as adults, what should/not be modernized, the challenges of adopting stories from other cultures, and changing the “damsel in distress” narrative. Not only did I start to realize I wasn’t out of place on the panel–I noticed how great it felt to talk with openly and passionately about my work. For the first time since I began writing the Forgotten Relics series, I felt like I wasn’t boring people with how the belief system works or Cora’s view of fairytales as life lessons. People asked me questions, nodded their heads at my answers, laughed at my jokes. For a fleeting moment, I felt like a Real Author. And it felt so. good.
By the time we ended, I was soaring on adrenaline and endorphins that carried me to Mental Health and Fandom. Of the panels I’d been assigned, I was most excited for this one (barf-inducing panic for the fairytale panel doesn’t count as “excitement”). I made a huge list of TV shows, films, and books I wanted to talk about in regards to how they handle depression, anorexia, suicide, autism, mania, and psychotic breaks. We did cover those things, but not how I’d anticipated; instead, the panel turned into an incredible session of folks sharing their own struggles.
Ada Hoffmann talked honestly about life on the autism spectrum and her views on society’s handling of those folks. Max Turner discussed the obstacles of identifying who’s having trouble and how to be a good ally. Patrick McDonald gave a harrowing view into the psychiatric system of the 70s and 80s–from the inside. I spoke about battling anorexia, depression, and mania. Audience members revealed intimate stories of how their lives have been touched by mental health issues, too. We encouraged and validated each other. It was intense–in a great way.
I walked away from Ad Astra 2015 with a lot to chew on. I’d met some incredible people (both behind the table and in front of it), successfully exercised my nascent extrovert skills, and gotten a taste of confidence in being an authority. But I’d also succumbed to anxiety, despair, and fuckitallitis a couple of times during the weekend; after all, I only sold one book, and all the industry info I got didn’t apply to “author-publishers.” A bit of a rollercoaster.
I drove back to Hamilton in my rented Jetta, though, I couldn’t ignore the tiny flame of hope down in my cold, black heart. Despite what my fear tells me, I’m actually good at conventions. I’m funny, curious, and grounded; I see people when I talk to them; I love encouraging aspiring writers; I want to hear about your character. Not because it makes me look good, but because I care, dammit. And, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I’m a good writer. My work is interesting and inventive; I just have a marketing problem. What Ad Astra showed me is that if I can relax and keep doing what I’m good at–maybe with a couple tweaks–the doors I’ve been pounding my head bloody against will open up.
So, like I said at the start: I went to Ad Astra Toronto. And it was good.