Of course, humming right along with all of this anticipation was a big ol’ boat-load of dread. I am not really the most…charming…person alive. In fact, most days I spend more time with fictional people than I do with real people. And I think that’s best for everyone involved. Not to mention…I think we all know that Flannery is the undisputed queen of covering book events. I mean, videos? Photos? Quotes? Funny anecdotes? Near perfect recall? Why oh why did she set the bar so very high? But…I vowed to do my best.
The event wasn’t crowded, and seemed to be made up of a lot of really dedicated fans (one man had a stack of copies of The Windup Girl and admitted to buying it whenever he saw one anywhere). I got to chat a little bit with some really nice sci-fi nerds and I was able to provide expertise, re: the correct pronunciation of China Miéville’s last name.
Paolo Bacigalupi chose to stand (and walk around) while he spoke to us which made the talk a lot more relaxed and casual, not to mention exciting. He’s a very animated speaker! He introduced himself by making fun of the various ways that his last name is mispronounced and announcing that he was very nervous to be standing in front of us and giving a talk. He admitted that he sometimes has panic attacks and needs to calm down by watching films and relaxing his mind. This prompted one audience member to quip about his coffee cup, asking if he had coffee in there or if it was chamomile tea or even vodka. (It was decaf!) This also made yours truly extremely shy about taking photos or videos. When a seemingly nice and intelligent person announces that he’s nervous, it just feels rude to stick a camera in his face. But I did snap a few discreet pictures of horrible quality.
[As a random aside, my roommate in college was named Nita, and I spent weeks and weeks learning to pronounce it the correct way – sort of like “Nee-tha” but with less emphasis on the “th.” I was very impressed by Paolo Bacigalupi’s pronunciation: it was perfect!]
Unfortunately, that first sequel attempt was “very bad” (in his words). His editor apparently told him that it had “six major themes” and that he “hadn’t developed a single one.” He described it as his written search for “a purpose” for the sequel - picking up, examining, and discarding each one unfinished. (Still seems like a worthy exercise if it led him to The Drowned Cities!) He ultimately decided to throw it out and start all over again, keeping only a single sentence about the drowned cities, which I think evolved into this scene:
Tool laughed at that.
“Nothing so mystical. Human beings hunger for killing, that is all. It only takes a few politicians to stoke division, or a few demagogues encouraging hatred to set your kind upon one another. And then before you know it, you have a whole nation biting on its own tail, going round and round until there is nothing left but the snapping of teeth.”
He mentioned that he’d been watching and listening to a lot of Rush Limbaugh, Anne Coulter, and Sean Hannity (seriously…it would be abnormal not to have panic attacks when listening to that lovely crowd) and also following coverage of the Wisconsin State protests and he was amazed by all the arguing, feuding and stalling that was (and still is!) going on. All of this disagreement and vitriol just bogs us down and consumes us, so that we aren’t focusing on the real problems that our world will soon be facing.
Then we were treated to a reading from The Drowned Cities. He is a great reader: he does voices, makes facial expressions, and seems to really enjoy his own work and his characters. When reading a description of Mahlia’s missing hand and stump, he held his hand behind his back. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not but it was really interesting! I wish that I had a video to show you but I totally chickened out on taking one. Luckily, someone else was *ahem* brave enough to take this video of him reading at another event (thanks internet!):
He also related a concept from Slovenian philosopher Slavaj Zizek – that as adults there are uncomfortable, distasteful things that we know about but don’t want to know about, so we set them in the background and pretend they aren’t happening (he mentioned, for example, the carbon footprint of his book tour). With Ship Breaker, he said that he hoped to reach the people (children) who still had a chance to change this world and make a difference. He also mentioned the inspirational nature of sci-fi: how certain concepts created by science fiction authors can inspire real world invention (he gave the example of Neil Stephenson’s metaverse and the real world Second Life). He said that he was attempting some of that with the creation of the clipper ships in Ship Breaker - with their wind power, parasails, and hydrofoils.
But even with all of these topics (sustainability, inspiration, adventure), he said that he was surprised and pleased that Ship Breaker ended up being a family story – how we define our families, who we rely on, and who we have to cut out of our lives.
He spoke a bit about breaking free of ingrained writing and reading prejudices. He was really excited to make Nita an Indian princess (he mentioned that his wife is Indian) but admitted that while writing her, he couldn’t help continuously picturing her as a blonde/blue-eyed stereotypical Disney princess, because of all the conditioning that his brain has received over the years. He was eventually able to bring his mind around by writing repeated descriptions of her on the page.
Another funny thing he mentioned was that Kanya (from The Windup Girl) was originally a man! And apparently, after he changed her character to a woman, he suddenly felt compelled to describe her physically more often than he had before. He described having to break through his own mental pattern and resist treating her differently than her male counterpart.
Because I got to meet the lovely Sash from Sash & Em! And she was sweet and funny and cute and she took the best picture of the night. Later, I really wanted a picture of the two of us, but we were in the parking lot and there was no one around (except this weird guy muttering random women's names behind us). I admit that I totally chuckled on the way home, imagining this hypothetical scenario:
Imaginary Catie: Thanks for coming to talk to us today! I really enjoyed it!
Imaginary Paolo Bacigalupi: Oh, sure. Did you want...a picture? *gestures at camera*
IC: Yeah, would you?
IPB: Of course...maybe your friend there could...?
IC: OH, actually what I meant was...would YOU take a picture...of US?
Sadly, we were left with the last refuge of the desperate photographer: the awkward self portrait, taken by your own weirdly stretched arm. And that's how we got these beauties: