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Convention Attention: Readercon Roundtable with Rose Fox, Rachel Borman, Veronica Schanoes, and Emily Wagner

Held in Boston every summer, Readercon focuses on imaginative fiction, and is just as famous for it’s guest lists and casual atmosphere as it is for it’s Shirley Jackson Awards and Cordwainer Smith Awards ceremonies. Guests of honor for 2015 include Nicola Griffith, Gary K. Wolfe and Joanna Russ, and recent guests of honor have included Kit Reed, Maureen McHugh, Gardner Dozois, Nalo Hopkinson, Charles Stross, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Peter Straub, and many many others. Being literature based, Readercon doesn’t advertise filk concerts, or a costume contest, or an anime or gaming room, or panels on martial arts or how to build a Dalek. This convention is all about the written word, and more specifically, the imaginatively written word. The Thursday evening events are open to public, and programming for Friday and the rest of the weekend includes panels, interviews, small discussion groups, readings and awards ceremonies. Visit Readercon .org for more information.

Rose Fox, Rachel Borman, Veronica Schanoes and Emily Wagner are involved with the programming and organization of convention, and were kind enough to answer a few of my questions about their experiences with Readercon and what makes this convention unique.
Andrea Johnson: Tell us a little about your involvement with Readercon .

Rose Fox: I apprenticed under longtime Readercon program chair David Shaw and then served as program chair for three years. I also briefly served on the Board and helped to draft our safety policies and procedures. Right now I’m sort of a legacy member of the safety and program committees, though I don’t take a very active role.

Veronica Schanoes: I started going to Readercon in 2008 or so, and have always enjoyed the con greatly. I became involved after the 2012 harassment problem when I ran the petition regarding the way the case was handled. I was asked how I would respond if I was asked to be on the newly formed safety committee and I said “I guess I’d say that I’ve put myself in a public position where it would be very hard to say no!” So here I am. I still love attending and being on programming, though I won’t be able to this year.

Emily Wagner: I went to Readercon off and on for a few years, and got involved in the Program Committee under Rose, then got more involved after the 2012 harassment incident. My wife and I went to our first ConCom meeting to discuss the con’s reaction to that incident, and then we were stuck. Last year was my first year as Program Chair.

Rachel Borman: I have been a Readercon volunteer since 2009 and have volunteered in some capacity in just about every room onsite during convention – registration, information, hospitality, track management. For four years, I managed the ConSuite – Readercon ‘s hospitality suite for attendees and this is my first year serving as Convention Chair.

AJ: The Shirley Jackson Awards and the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Awards are presented at Readercon . Have you had any interesting experiences surrounding these awards or their presentation ceremonies?

RF: I love the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Awards, because I grew up reading vintage SF. The year that Barry Malzberg announced that Stanley G. Weinbaum had won, and everyone in the room broke into spontaneous applause, I actually got a little weepy. It’s just so wonderful to hang out with people who have any idea who Stanley G. Weinbaum was!

VS: I know some of the people who were involved in getting the Shirley Jackson Awards up and running, so I always attend those, because they’re such a labor of love and respect. I guess I’d have to say my favorite experience surrounding them, though, was winning the SJ in the novella category for “Burning Girls” last year!

EW: Coordinating the awards with the people in charge of them is interesting but not in a fun story way. I do love hearing the cheers coming out of the Shirley Jackson room when awards are announced, and I love the way the community comes together during the Cordwainers.

AJ: What’s been your favorite moment at Readercon ?

RF: You know, most people wouldn’t think of Readercon as very performance-oriented, but all the things coming to mind are performances. Author and actor Geoff Ryman reading from the fantastical work of Mark Twain, putting on various hats and wigs to play different characters—and stripping to the buff (behind a strategically placed podium) to read about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Sonya Taaffe blowing us all away with her singing talent at the first Very Readercon nish Miscellany. Getting to participate in the Kirk Poland Memorial Bad Prose Competition, and in Amal El-Mohtar’s speculative poetry slam (where I was introduced to the work of some phenomenal poets). Hosting a group reading for contributors to Long Hidden, an anthology I co-edited with Daniel José Older, and hearing our authors bring their amazing stories to life.

Readercon ‘s also very social for me. I spent a wonderful hour chatting with Tom Disch at my first Readercon , and my inner teenage self still hasn’t quite gotten over being astonished that I’m on first-name terms with Peter Straub. I also get to hang out with brilliant critics like Gary K. Wolfe, Farah Mendlesohn, and Graham Sleight. And I’ve talked magazine publishing with Sheila Williams (Asimov’s), Gordon Van Gelder (F&SF), and Liza Trombi and Charles N. Brown (Locus).

Being Readercon program chair has the major perk that you get to call some of your favorite authors and tell them they’ve been selected as guests of honor. I’ll never forget the way Caitlín R. Kiernan said “Oh wow”.

I guess my most Readercon nish moment was at my very first Readercon , when I staggered out of a program room gasping “Every time I go to a panel, my brain gets three sizes bigger!” That was what got me interested in doing Readercon programming—the feeling that this convention makes me smarter.

VS: I love the academic-ish-ness of it (I am an academic, after all), but I really love that I get to be a writer while I’m there! I don’t think I have a favorite moment–it’s just all such a whirl of seeing friends I get to see only a couple times a year and listening to smart people talk and mouthing off myself! Lots of fun.

EW: Basically everything Rose said. But also there was this amazing thing that happened after the 2013 con, when we saw a blog post by a guy who’d gone to a panel on gender equality and power structures, talking about how he’d gone in out of curiosity but didn’t expect to get much out of it. He came out with all of these realizations that thinking about this subject in his worldbuilding was only going to make his fiction deeper and truer and more interesting, and it made him start to see the real world in different ways too, and that’s when Rose and I turned to each other and said “holy shit, we might actually be changing the world?” I realize how presumptuous that sounds but it was an amazing feeling.

We’ve gotten some pushback on the kinds of programming we’ve done the past few years to go along with our safety policies and code of conduct, but we’ve also had women tell us this is the first con they’ve ever NOT been harassed at. I wanted to throw a parade in that moment.

There’s also this amazing feeling when you know your GoH is just THE COOLEST PERSON because everything they say is a seed for three more panels. I think I always feel that way but Andrea Hairston last year really tripped that feeling for me. There’s just so much going on in everything she says.

RB: I love the people and I love their stories. I love being able to approach anyone – author or attendee – to ask who they would recommend I start reading next. This has always resulted in phenomenal conversations with lots of new books and authors on my reading list. There just is no single best moment for me.

AJ:What advice do you have for someone who is attending Readercon for the first time?

RF: Dress in layers. Go up to authors you venerate and thank them for their work. Expect to take notes on panels, not because there’s a quiz later but because your head is filling up with questions and ideas. Pack meal bars and snacks for those times when you realize you’ve just gone to six panels in a row and you’re starving.

VS: Don’t overschedule yourself – the panels are all really interesting, so it’s tempting to pop from one to the other, morning ’til night, but it’s easy to exhaust yourself that way. Pace yourself, and leave plenty of time for hanging around and shooting the breeze with friends.

EW: EAT. Do not forget. There will be a recap of that panel you’re missing online somewhere. Go to the things you’re not sure you understand. Go see readings by people you’ve never heard of. If you’re not sure what you want to do or worried you won’t know people, volunteer. It’s a really fun experience. C.S.E. Cooney’s mom came for the first time last year or the year before, volunteered, and had an amazing time, so much so that now she wants to be a volunteer for us forever. The people running volunteers are super nice, and we appreciate everyone who helps out so much, it’s a great way to get a sense of the community without feeling like you have to know people already.

RB: Raise your hand and asks questions in panels. Ask people with friendly faces for book/author recommendations. Visit the bookshop for books that have been on your reading list for a long time and for new finds you weren’t expecting. If you’re having a good time, carve out eight hours to volunteer and earn a free ticket to next year’s Readercon .

AJ: Part of the programming philosophy of Readercon is to “strive for panels that ask the next question”. What exactly does this mean? What types of discussion panels should attendees expect?

RF: Theodore Sturgeon used to sign letters with a little symbol after his name. In an interview with David Duncan, he explained, “It means ‘Ask the next question.’ Ask the next question, and the one that follows that, and the one that follows that. It’s the symbol of everything humanity has ever created, and is the reason it has been created. This guy is sitting in a cave and he says, ‘Why can’t man fly?’ Well, that’s the question. The answer may not help him, but the question now has been asked. The next question is what? How? And so all through the ages, people have been trying to find out the answer to that question. We’ve found the answer, and we do fly. This is true of every accomplishment, whether it’s technology or literature, poetry, political systems or anything else. That is it. Ask the next question. And the one after that.” I don’t know whether that’s where the Readercon founders got the idea to “ask the next question” with Readercon panels, but the philosophy is very similar.

When I was program chair, I would walk myself through a little imagined scenario with every program item idea: if I heard a panel of smart people talk about this topic for an hour, what questions would I have at the end of that hour? And then those questions, the next questions, were the ones worth turning into Readercon program item ideas. As with Sturgeon’s example, Readercon program items are often about “what?” or “how?”.

So for example, at the 2014 Arisia (another Boston-area convention that’s about five times the size of Readercon and has a much broader audience) there was a program item on time travel, aimed at writers. It asked pretty general questions: “Are some methods of time travel methods easier to portray and keep consistent than others? What of non-linear story narratives? Is the ending the best place to start? Can a time traveler be anything but an unreliable narrator?” That same year, at Readercon , there was a panel called “The Past Is a Terrible Place” that dug deeper into very specific aspects of time travel: “Compared to the present day, the past was filthy, bigoted, stratified, polluted, violent, and crude—whether thousands of years ago or yesterday. What possible appeal could travel into the past have? How does it vary based on your current socioeconomic status, or on the status you have (or can acquire) in the past with your knowledge of history, technology, and sociology?” These are questions that assume the audience already has some knowledge of time travel and is ready for a discussion that goes beyond the basics.

This isn’t a knock on Arisia at all—they serve a different audience than Readercon ‘s, and they do some interesting in-depth, graduate-level panels as well as basic ones. But ALL of Readercon ‘s program has that next-question vibe.

Readercon ‘s program items are also couched in language that’s rather different from what you’d see at most conventions. I searched through the past few years’ programs and found very few mentions of terms like “epic fantasy” or “rocketship”. The program item I quoted above doesn’t even use the word “time travel”! Instead it’s more specific: “travel into the past”, as distinct from the many other kinds of time travel that people have written about. That narrow focus is a very Readercon sort of thing. Meanwhile, we have program item descriptions full of academic language. My recent favorite: “Many analysts of fantastika, including Samuel Delany, James Gunn, and Jo Walton, characterize how the literature is read as the embrace of a formal schema that permits the reader to properly understand fantastic texts. But the idea of a protocol can be both a problematic concept and a limiting optic for examining how fantastic literature is read.” I’m a three-time college drop-out so I sympathize with the people who would find that daunting! But that’s why we have the Welcome to Readercon panel where longtime attendees explain the critical and academic terms that might be confusing for people who don’t have that background.

EW: I don’t think I can add anything to that, lol. It’s a lot to live up to as Program Chair, trying to keep this level of discourse going, and luckily we have a pretty solid Program Committee that also understands this philosophy, and our community of writers, editors, critics, and other panelists bring their best questions when they make panel suggestions so my job isn’t as hard as it might be.

AJ: Why are conventions like Readercon important for our community?

VS: I’m an academic; my job is to think seriously about literature. But I don’t think most people get to do that as often as I do, and Readercon is a space for people who love genre fiction to think about it seriously while also relaxing and having fun with each other. It’s a place where seriously lit talk is encouraged!

EW: I love that it’s a fairly small convention, because it feels very intimate at times. I know for new people that can sometimes be more intimidating than a giant convention where you can be part of the crowd, but I love being able to talk to writers I admire without feeling like they’re being mobbed. I love that we celebrate writers and books that are sometimes a little off the mainstream even in genre, and I love that we’re committed to finding newer and upcoming voices as well. I know for a lot of our panelists they’re thrilled to be on panels that dig deeper and get more specific than some of the other conventions they do, and I love that we’re in a place of trying to constantly challenge ourselves and our community.

RB: It’s important to have communities with shared interests who come together to voice opinions and learn together. I love that Readercon fosters that experience around my favorite genres of fiction and that it also offers a home for literary discussion of that which slips through the existing genre labels. It is an opportunity to rediscover literary giants that may have dropped off your radar screen, meet new authors who are going to be shaping the world of genre fiction in the years to come, and so much in between. There is no other experience like Readercon and that comes from the unique people who participate and a phenomenal program. I’m so proud of what Readercon has to offer and the open and inclusive environment which we are continuing to make a part of our core convention culture.

AJ:  Wow!  What a fantastic behind the scenes look at Readercon ! Thank you so much!

About Andrea Johnson (99 Articles)
Andrea Johnson also blogs over at where she reviews science fiction and fantasy novels and talks about other nerdy stuff. She's also an interviewer at Apex Magazine. Her apartment looks like a library exploded, and that is how it should be.
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