Last night, I stumbled back into my flat and I slept hard. Head hit the pillow, lights went out. For ten glorious hours, I was submerged in deep, (mostly) dreamless sleep.
See, it was Can*Con this weekend.
I’ve talked about Can*Con before. It’s a SFF convention in Ottawa, and my favourite con by far. This year was no exception. It felt like the platonic ideal of cons.
Good professional things happened. My workshop went really well. I spent time with dear friends. I scored some sweet stuff in the dealers’ room. Fun food expeditions were had.
I could ramble on about how great the weekend was, and leave it at that. But I want to take a moment to dissect why Can*Con works.
Can*Con was inaugurated in the nineties. After going on hiatus for a time, it was resurrected by Derek Künsken (who just released his debut novel, THE QUANTUM MAGICIAN!). He currently co-chairs the con with my pal Marie Bilodeau. The Ottawa writers’ community is lovely and vibrant, and most of them are involved in the con on some level, whether on the programming or corporate teams.
So what makes this a good con?
When a con attempts everything, it ends up with nothing. Cosplay, media, literature, gaming, science, and history attract different audiences and need different skills. Spreading yourself thin to hit them all dilutes the con’s purpose. Some cons fragment into self-contained enclaves; others just end up feeling watered-down, and can’t progress beyond surface-level skimming of their topics.
Can*Con has two main focuses: literature and science.
There are some history panels, of course, and I taught a podcasting workshop. The focuses allow some room to breathe, but all programming aligns with that basic mandate.
Accessibility and inclusivity aren’t after-thoughts. They are incorporated into planning from the outset. There is also a designated Accessibility Coordinator.
Pronoun stickers for badges, a dealers’ room designed with mobility in mind, all-gender washroom availability, a quiet room, accessibility seating in programming rooms—these are all givens. Accessibility and inclusivity are non-negotiables.
Is it perfect? Of course not. But identified shortfalls are met with commitment to refining and improving—not denial and shirking of responsibility.
Get the Right People
Convention teams need a carefully curated mix of personalities and skills sets. After all—those personalities and skill sets become the con.
It’s a diverse group, but there is a common factor: commitment to the convention’s mission and values. Without that, you’ve got no coherency in your team, which translates to no coherency in the con either.
Just a little bit. Every con has a personality—which in turn influences the audience it attracts. Author and storyteller (and my friend) Nicole Lavigne describes Can*Con as “the little con that does.”
At this point, it’s the best game in eastern Canada. And it got there partly by saying it was. It’s a bit like performer A.E. Shapera pointed out…if you claim you’re famous, eventually people make you so.
Commitment to Harassment Policies
Again, there are always procedures to refine and improvements to make.
But the commitment to upholding the current code of conduct is total and absolute.
End of story.
It takes a lot to make a convention. It takes even more to make a convention work. As I reflect back on the weekend, I keep coming back to this:
A convention is its community.
I feel very fortunate to call this community—and this con—my friends.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Ēriks Ešenvalds’ wonderful piece, “Northern Lights.” It starts with a Latvian folksong, and then changes to the writings of American explorer Charles Francis Hall, set to music. The piece reminds me very much of The Flying Dutchman.
I have just returned from three days’ camping along Georgian Bay. It was stunningly beautiful landscape and a much-needed break, but now I am exhausted. As such, no real post this week: just some pictures and a very special “What I’m Listening to this Week.”
What I’m Listening to this Week
“Wanderer’s Lullaby,” by Adriana Figueroa, is a gently lilting piece based on a music box theme. The lyrics are perhaps a little self-indulgent, but they are also exactly what I needed to hear this week.
This week, I kicked a few more pieces of the new novel into place, which felt good. It’s at a peculiar stage: I know the general plot arc, but I’m not ready to start writing. Partly, I need to know the characters better. But also, there’s more substance and under-the-surface thinking I need to figure out.
It felt too superficial. A colourful facade with nothing beneath. And so, I’ve been continuing my research: not only delving into Toronto history, but also theories of the Gothic and the sublime.
Including this roundtable on Southern Ontario Gothic!
Coles’ notes: Southern Ontario Gothic blends realism with terror, generally through explorations of family dysfunction, decay, decrepitude, and repressed trauma. In Southern Ontario. The conversation is well worth watching in full, especially for its characterization of Canada as a haunted country, which suggests a way to reconcile some artistic problems I’ve been having.
I was particularly struck by Jane Urquhart. First of all, because she reminds me of Elizabeth Hand—slightly in mannerism; greatly in her razor intelligence.
But also, because of this:
I think that, as an author, I write about what intrigues me, and then it’s later that somebody else decides that whether or not I’m part of some kind of movement.
The genre was handed to the writer. The writer did not think to him or herself—“I know, I’m going to write something in the Southern Ontario Gothic genre.” I don’t think writers think like that. They don’t invent genres.
It was interesting. It’s not even that I necessarily disagree with her—I just want to explore these ideas further.
I think there is often a bumblebee-doesn’t-know-it-can’t-fly phenomenon going on with the development of new literature. Look at steampunk: K.W. Jeter only coined the term after he, Tim Powers, and James Blaylock had produced early examples of it. And once you have a name for something, once you have tropes—that’s when the family resemblances start appearing in subsequent works, whether the author intended them or not.
So what about when the genre is already established? I mean, the Creepy Play was initially code-named “Southern Ontario Gothic.” I wrote the script knowing exactly which genre it was.
But then—as Urquhart said, the genre was handed to the writer. I didn’t fit the story to the genre; I fit the genre to the story. (“Oh, wow, this is a dysfunctional family shot through with degeneration and repression—in Southern Ontario—I think I know what shelf this goes on!” rather than, “I want to write SOG, so I’d better build a family on the brink of collapse…”)
Going further with the bumblebee theory, I know some writers who refuse to read anything in their genre, for fear of contamination. For me, though—I fall back on my Stonecoast training. If you’re writing a Gothic novel, you read other Gothic novels. You read the early ones; you read the most recent; you read the literary criticism surrounding them. It’s important to understand where the genre came from, how it developed, and what people are saying now. Because it’s a dialogue—and you’re part of it. How can you contribute if you don’t know what’s been said before?
As for writing what intrigues me—I’m intrigued by the haunted, the degenerate, the many shades of family dysfunction. I’m intrigued by the liminal space between realism and the fantastic: the place where the worlds cross. I’m intrigued by the mountain of CanLit I’ve consumed this year: but I want to add magic.
So no—I don’t think (most) writers set out to create genres. But I think it is useful to have some idea of what you’re working with; what you intend to do. It’s like painting: tempera, oils, and watercolours all behave differently, and they all create different effects.
Perhaps we don’t name the movement. But surely, we imagine its form and colours…
What I’m Listening to This Week
I cycled back to a lovely Scottish-Gaelic piece. There’s still something about this music that makes me want to write all the things…
I’m tired, and depleted, and there is so very much to be done. But in fairness, it’s not wholly unexpected; this is a transitional period. Heavy lifting and shifting ground comes with the territory. As my mom put it, it’s like a monkey swinging through jungle: you can’t let go of the old vine until you have the new firmly in hand.
(Well, you can—I have done in the past—but you have to accept the risk of falling.)
I’m mostly just whining, to be honest. Because I’m uncomfortable, because I’m tired. But I keep telling myself that things will be better on the other side—I just have to get there.
I have noticed one thing, though: this whole past week, I’ve been yearning to find a secluded cabin and stuff myself with art. Paintings. Books. Music. Preferably surrounded by woods and lakes, with no people around. Introvert heaven.
Which is how I know I’m tired. It’s the spiritual/creative equivalent of my anaemia-driven oyster cravings. This is my subconscious’ way of trying to replenish the energy I’ve put out.
And so I’ve taken some concrete steps (I believe in taking concrete steps). In a month’s time, I’m heading north to Georgian Bay for some trees, water, and dark starry skies. Only for a long weekend, but I’ll take what I can get.
In the meantime, I’ve been stuffing myself with art. Late last week, I took a rare day off. I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario, which is rapidly becoming one of my favourite refuges. (The knot in my chest dissolved within minutes of entering the galleries.) It was a fairly short excursion; I mostly wanted to see my favourite paintings and splurge on fancy espresso.
But I did play a little game. Sometimes when I’m learning about my characters, I take them to museums. That is, I wander museums and I let them chatter quietly in the background. What’s familiar to them, what’s weird, what are they drawn to?
For instance, I like Victorian Romanticism and Impressionism, like this:
My protagonist very quickly decided she likes twentieth-century abstract art: “The ones that look broken, but aren’t.”
So I suppose I was working even while off, but I know her better now. I’m not ready to start writing this novel yet, but we’re getting closer…
Then I explored the new Grange Park (gorgeous) and hit the library to restock on books (more CanLit, plus a collection of Octavia Butler shorts).
While I feel vaguely guilty for not working in the midst of so much happening, these are the things which keep me going. They give me enough energy to get through the woods, grab the next vine.
This feels like a turning point. I just need to hold on a while longer.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Back with my pal Handel, and the “Amen” chorus from the end of Messiah. I’ve been absentmindedly singing this all week, albeit with the words to the Sanctus. Not sure what’s happening there.
In any case, enjoy the supporting strings and percussion, along with the graceful dance between the vocal lines. The tenors have a particularly beautiful moment around the 2:19 mark. And at the very end— no uses expectant silence like Handel!
This is a difficult post to write. It’s painful and awkward, and potentially upsetting. Which is also why it’s important.
This year is “Canada’s 150th birthday.” It’s the sesquicentennial of “our nation’s birth.” Break out the beavertails, deck yourself with maple leaves, and bask politely in our universal health care and handsome prime minister, eh?
This is complicated.
I’m going to start with the simplest quibbles first and work my way up. On a purely historic, pedantic note, “Canada” was an entity long before 1867. Europeans have been calling it that since the 1530s. Indigenous populations were here millennia before that. This is the 150th anniversary of the British North America Act taking effect, that’s all.
That’s just me being persnickety. Let’s move on to the hard stuff.
We have a reputation, we Canadians. We’re polite. We apologize a lot. We’re tolerant, diverse; we value multiculturalism.
Look, there’s no easy way to say this: we treat Indigenous peoples appallingly, and we have for well over 150 years.
I’m not even sure where to start. With residential schools? With broken treaties? With erasure from the historical narrative? The effing garbage-fire of that “Appropriation Award” controversy? Repeated drinking-water crises on Canadian reserves? Epidemics of suicides? The 1,181 indigenous women murdered and missing between 1980 and 2012? The fact that those are only the documented cases?
And it’s not just in the past. It’s not just something that happened in 1867, or 1787, or 1653, or 1535. We’re not done. It isn’t over because it’s 2017: the same history plays out again, and again, and again. How could we be over it, when our country rests on the foundation of such a colonial legacy?
Add another layer of complexity: generally speaking, I’m happy to be Canadian. It’s in every bio I write. “KT Bryski is a Canadian author and playwright…” There are many things that Canada does well. We’ve a lot to be proud of.
But we’re also this:
And hey, while we’re at it, we’re also this:
And yet, we are also these things:
And I don’t know. I don’t have answers. I don’t have suggestions. All I have is a thorny mass of conflicted feelings that I’ve been trying to sort through for over a year.
But perhaps there are two things to consider:
Canada tells itself that we are pluralistic. Our ideal nation-self is one which contains multitudes.
Then perhaps – does “all of the above” get closer to an answer? Can multiple Canadas coexist simultaneously? Can I have strong ties and affection for my country, whilst also being ashamed of its cruelties and failures?
Because Canada does have things of immense beauty and kindness. It also has many things which are horrific beyond words. There is light – I do believe that – but we’ve clung to our “sunny ways” for so long, we have failed to acknowledge and remedy our darkness.
And to even begin to do that, we need to do the very thing that, historically, we suck at.
We need to listen.
Listen. Own it. Listen some more. Repeat.
Happy Canada Day.
What I’m Listening to this Week
A remixed English folk ballad, because reasons. Here’s “The Three Ravens,” which kind of forgets about the ravens halfway through and becomes an allegory instead. You know, as a lot of old English poetry does.
But there’s some beautiful harmonies that remind me vaguely of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. I’m slowly starting to ponder a novel – and I suspect I’ll be listening to this song much more in the coming months.
There were a lot of things we could’ve talked about today. Last week, I had multiple friends suffer loss, which got me thinking again about the nature of grief and the transient randomness of life. Last week, my story “Her Hands Like Ice” appeared in Bracken Magazine, and it might have been interesting to trace its development: from a winter’s observation to published story. Last week, more terrifying things happened in the United States, which renewed my will to resist. Last week, I continued wrestling with difficult, painful thinking about Canada’s 150th anniversary—what, precisely, are we celebrating?
Plus, I’m working through one of my biannual freakouts. I get one around October and one around February: like clockwork, every year. (Here is last February’s.) I’m fairly certain it’s linked to a mild seasonal disorder, which is comforting when I’m convinced that I’m a talentless hack with no future – it’s not Real, it’s linked to the light.
So yeah. A lot going on.
In the end, though, I think this is what I’d like to discuss.
Last week, I read Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: the Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. It’s part memoir, part hymn to writing and art. It’s a short book; funny and poignant by turns. But in one chapter—no, they’re more vignettes, really—in one vignette, she talks about work as being like meditation. The trick to both is this: you must notice when your mind has scampered off like a caffeinated squirrel, and bring it back to centre.
Nothing more, nothing less. Simply coming back to that point of stillness, again and again and again.
In a funny way, it makes me think of canoeing. Dipping your paddle into the water again and again. Developing a rhythm. And if you stop—distracted by mosquitoes, maybe—or alarmed by storm clouds—you simply breathe. Readjust your grip. Begin again.
You do get to a point of stillness, canoeing. (Actually, I’ve got a lot more experience kayaking, but I think the principle’s the same.) The rhythm itself becomes a lifeline. How to you get across the lake? Stroke by stroke. Nothing more, nothing less.All of which to say: I don’t know what lies upstream. There is a lot going on. But I know that I can put my paddle to the water. Again. And again.
What I’m Listening To This Week
I got onto a musical kick this week, listening to Wicked and Moulin Rouge! for the first time in ages. “Come What May” has been on repeat – Moulin Rouge! is one of my very favourite movies. It’s wonderfully opulent, unabashedly sentimental, and utterly romantic: jewel-toned, like a Pre-Raphaelite painting.
It’s so over the top. It works so well.
I love conventions. They’re exhausting, they usually involve consistent forays beyond my comfort zone, and I absolutely love them. You’re packing several hundred like-minded people into a hotel for three days and talking about the things we love. What’s not to like?
This was my first Can-Con, and Marie Bilodeau, Derek Künsken, and their army of committee members and volunteers put on one heck of a party. Honestly, I’m so used to being the token Canadian in the room that it was wonderful to spend time with writers from my neck of the woods. You don’t have to explain yourself, in a funny way.
It’s impossible to distill conventions down into 500 words. So, in a nutshell: the programming was stellar, the other guests and attendees hugely welcoming, and it was a great time. I saved five Six Stories, Told at Night beer coasters for future giveaways…the rest found their way into the hands of Can-Con attendees. The reading/performance also went well—thanks to everyone who came out! I met/chatted with a ton of fantastic people (here’s looking at you, SM Carrière, Nicole Lavigne, Sheila Williams, Jay Odjick, Fanny Darling, Eric Choi, Krista Walsh, Lesley Donaldson, Gillian Clinton, Madeline Ashby, Tanya Huff, and many, many, many more). I caught up with old friends as well.
Contented sighs all around.
Beyond the sheer enjoyment, I come away from Can-Con 2016 thinking about three things in particular:
It gets easier
Marie caught me looking a little overwhelmed the first night. Somewhere like Balticon, I can walk into a room and know more people than not. Can-Con was different, because I only knew a handful of people.
But then I remembered: my first Balticon was actually super awkward, because I only knew a handful of people. My first Dragon*Con was super awkward, because I didn’t know any people.
The first time at any convention is awkward, because it’s the first time. But here’s the thing I’m noticing: these situations are getting less awkward as time passes. Partly, I’m accreting a more solid, wide-ranging bedrock of people I know. And partly, I’m better able to deal with the initial butterflies.
The second night felt like Balticon: that same comfort and good vibe. Having awesome people helps, of course—but also, it gets easier.
This is where I belong
Connected to the point above. There’s just something when you hang out with other writers. You’re on the same wavelength. Attending this con brought that home even more.
I’m young, and new, and relatively inexperienced—but this is where I belong.
It’s the long haul
Being young, and new, and relatively inexperienced, it can be easy to look at all the mountain still ahead and wonder if you’ll ever make it.
But then you keep going. Always, you keep going.
On the Sunday, Can-Con held a meeting about joining SFWA. It was a great opportunity to chat with writers further up the peak, and it stoked the fire in my belly.
I want this. I want this so badly. It’s a long game: I doubt very much I’ll be strolling into the Nebulas next year. But you keep going. Always, you keep going.
If we want it badly enough, we don’t really have a choice, do we?
That was my Can-Con 2016. Thank you very much to the organizers, con committee, hotel staff, panellists, vendors, volunteers, and attendees. Your hard work is greatly appreciated, and you should be very proud. I can’t wait to come back next year. 🙂
What I’m Listening To This Week
“Falling Slowly” hails from the musical Once. Unusually for me, I preferred the movie to the stage version (the medium fit better, I think—the visuals just work better on film).
Anyway, it’s a wistful little piece, perfect for continuing to ride the wave of wistfulness that is Six Stories, Told at Night. Enjoy!
Cover reveal and podcast announcement! Huzzah!
Our new audio drama, Six Stories, Told at Night releases soon—Episode 1 should drop on Sunday, August 14th. There will be links aplenty once that happens, rest assured.
Six Stories, Told at Night has been generously funded by the Ontario Arts Council. What does this mean? It means that, after years of podcasting on a shoestring, I could finally afford to do things properly. Custom music, pro rates for voice talent (an actor AND a singer, oh my), and a gorgeous cover image.
Would you like to see this gorgeous cover image?
Of course you would.
It’s designed by Starla Huchton, after all.
Here it is:
I am so incredibly grateful to the Ontario Arts Council. Someone, please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I’m the first fantasy podcaster to receive government funding? While that’s neat for my ego, it’s also highly encouraging.
You guys, the government funded an independent podcast. Not only that, the government funded an independent fantasy podcast.
Ten years ago, not many people knew what a podcast was. Not many people outside the community took them all that seriously. While podcasts have since grown more mainstream, this feels incredibly validating. It reaffirms that yes, podcast fiction is legitimate art. It shows that podcasts have changed the way we tell stories—maybe not quite the way we all imagined ten years back, but nevertheless.
And it reaffirms the legitimacy of speculative fiction outside its community. For those keeping score at home—earlier this year, a straight-up fantasy story about cannibal ice monsters won the largest short story contest in Canada. Now Six Stories and its fairy tales contribute to the arts in Ontario. It makes me feel very honoured, very blessed, and very humbled.
It’s been a wild ride. Blythe sounds phenomenal, of course—I think this may be my favourite vocal performance from her. I can’t wait to show you what we’ve been working on. See you next Sunday!
What I’m Listening To This Week
So here’s how I do this: I literally just find whatever song has been most played on my iPod over the past week. That’s it.
Sorry. Not sorry.
This song has acquired a very special poignancy for me. Music starts at 1:04.