[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]
Last weekend, I had my first stint as a Guest of Honor, and man, was that a different experience.
The event in question was the Sirens conference, in Vail, Colorado. It’s a new conference, just two years old, with a general focus on women in fantasy, and a theme each year. This time it was faeries (hence me being invited, for my Onyx Court books); last year it was warriors, and the next one will be monsters. Each conference has three Guests of Honor, women whose books feature strong female characters who fit the theme; I shared the stage with Holly Black and Terri Windling. Next year, it will be Justine Larbalestier, Nnedi Okorafor, and Laini Taylor.
Being a GoH there was amazing, stressful, and humbling.
Amazing because the Sirens staff went out of their way to treat me well (probably spoiling me for any future GoH gig). From the survival basket I got when I arrived, filled with medication and odds ‘n ends that would help me get through the weekend, to their assistance in setting up a launch party for my most recent book, they were absolutely fabulous.
The stressful and humbling take more explanation. I’ve been to a lot of conventions before, done panels and readings, and mostly those don’t scare me. They used to: my very first panel was at a World Fantasy Convention, one of my fellow panelists was the Guest of Honor, and I was moderating. I was nervous as all get-out beforehand. But about fifteen minutes in I realized I’d relaxed, and then I realized why; at the time, I was in grad school, and moderating a panel isn’t much different from leading discussion in a graduate seminar. (Less name-dropping of Derrida and Foucault, though.) Readings, I was mostly used to, because my college SF/F group had an event called Milk and Cookies, where people would sit around a fire and read stories to each other. It wasn’t a big leap to read my own work instead, without the pajamas and the snacks.
At Sirens, though, I was wired with nerves. Partly this was my own fault: I’d set up a few challenges for myself that were totally self-inflicted. For example, I decided to read from the fourth Onyx Court novel, With Fate Conspire, which I finished drafting right before the con; I do a lot with dialect in that book, with the result that to make the reading work I had to do both British RP and cockney accents. Also, for my launch party and the masquerade that followed, I had to worry about my costume, including a small crown that I was very afraid would have broken in transit to Vail. Other things were part of my GoH duties, like the keynote address I delivered over lunch on the second day. (“Why Is Faerie Ruled by Queens?,” which you can read on my LiveJournal.) I’ve taught class as part of my grad school experience, but a keynote isn’t quite the same. As I said to my fellow GoHs, the word makes me think of the keystone in an arch — like my speech is supposed to be some kind of crowning piece that makes the whole structure hold together. No pressure!
And this is where the humbling part comes in. I had a ballroom full of people sitting there listening to me. And not because the class was one of the requirements for their major, but because they’d chosen to come to the conference. Maybe I wasn’t the key element in that choice; compared to my fellow GoHs, Holly outsells me by about half a bazillion to one, and Terri’s had more influence over the field than I could ever hope to muster. Plus, of course, there’s Sirens itself, separate from the GoHs who come and go; the atmosphere of the con is a huge part of its draw. But some people were there because they were excited about me.
<pause for bogglement>
I . . . don’t have words for that. For what it felt like to sit behind a table and sign, not just a book here or a book there, but a steady stream of them, a small but constant line forming behind whoever was in front of me at the moment. To have people come up to me after the luncheon and say how much they’d enjoyed my keynote. To arrive at my launch party and find a room full of people eager to get their photographs taken with me, all of us in our shiny faerie costumes. Somebody made a crack about the paparazzi, as all the camera flashes went off, and it was apt; that was the most “celebrity” moment I’ve ever had.
Because I’m not a celebrity. I’m a writer with some fans, but I don’t come close to the following of Neil Gaiman or J.K. Rowling, or for that matter Holly Black. So I’m not used to the sensation that people are somehow honored to meet me. I’m honored to meet them, because ye gods — these are total strangers who have shelled out money for the words I’ve written. Without them, I’m nothing, just somebody pounding away on a keyboard. When they say nice things about my stories, I’m torn between wanting to listen to them forever and wanting to hide under the nearest piece of furniture, fleeing the embarrassment. It’s what I want; I write because I hope the stories in my mind will move somebody else the way they do me. But when I find out they have, it feels less like a victory on my part, more like a gift on theirs.
This is why, every time somebody apologizes for asking me to sign a book, I tell them I’m a long way from being tired of hearing that request. And the day I find it an annoyance rather than a privilege, somebody needs to hit me.
So I walked away from the weekend both elated and humbled. The audience for whom I write has some more faces in it now, filling out the ranks of the unknown. I’m honored to have met them. For their kindness and enthusiasm, I thank them all, from the bottom of my heart.