An Evening with John Scalzi

Myth 150Last Thursday I attended a book reading and signing by the outgoing president of SFWA (the Sci-Fi/Fantasy Writer’s Association), John Scalzi. I hadn’t read anything written by Scalzi except his blog, Whatever, which is actually quite good. It does just about everything that a good blog should — talk about the minutiae of someone’s life in an interesting manner, tackles big ideas on a fairly regular basis, and (best of all) cultivates a vibrant, engaged, respectful community. I’m impressed by the work he’s done with it for nearly fifteen years; a collection of essays from that blog, Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, actually won a Hugo Award. If that’s not a stamp of legitimacy for your blog, I’m not sure what is.

He read from The Human Division, a just-published collection of stories he first released online as a serial. That’s an interesting experiment to me; I have an idea for two serials released in a similar manner, and have been wondering about the best way to go about it. Now, I don’t have anywhere near the name recognition of someone like Scalzi, but I think it could be a minor success in its own right. The big question is if you can get avid readers — who are used to getting their stories all at once and ingesting them at their own pace — to accept an episodic form of long-form storytelling. I mean, there’s also the challenge of writing that kind of story; the structure of it is forced to change to match its form, and that’s not necessarily an easy thing to do. But if you can crack that nut, is that still something your audience would be willing to accept?

I don’t know the specifics of Scalzi’s experiment, but it seems like he’s done well with it. Books Inc. in Mountain View was standing-room only for the reading, and the crowd was lively. It was full of that special kind of geek who comes out to these things, those of us who’ve built our lives around sci-fi/fantasy, those of us who view our favorite writers as rock stars.

He read two bits: “Hafte Sorvalh Eats a Churro and Speaks to the Youth of Today” from The Human Division and “Who Gets to Be a Geek? Anyone Who Wants to Be” from The Mallet of Loving Correction, a yet-to-be-released second compilation of Whatever essays. They were both really decent; the short story bit really makes me want to go out and read Old Man’s War, and the essay has a lot of great points about geek culture and the nature of geekdom that reaffirms my faith in the community and broadens my perspective of it to be more inclusive, which is always a good thing. Scalzi knows how to work a room; he’s silly, but self-aggrandizing, which definitely helps with the whole rock star vibe.

Afterwards, because one of our friends actually got to know him at Clarion a year or two ago, we were invited out to dinner with Scalzi and his entourage at a crepery right across the street. I have to say, it was pretty surreal, and a whole lot of fun. We sat at the fringes of the party with a couple of other locals, and it was a good chance to meet our fellow geek neighbors who we never would have known about otherwise. The crepe I ordered — chicken and feta and mushroom — was rich and sooooo delicious, and I have to say the sangria I got to go with it was the second-best choice I made that day. (The best choice? Wearing my “Gamma Rabbit” t-shirt.)

The whole experience was energizing and inspiring. Scalzi is one of those guys who came up from the Internet, a blogger and online presence who “made good” and now has a thriving career to go along with it. He hasn’t jumped ship to the old guard of straight-up publishing, though. He spends a lot of time and effort on his blog, tries new publishing models that take advantage of the e-book format, and works with his publisher to experiment with ideas. It’s pretty cool to see him at work, to see him enjoying the fruits of all that labor.

More importantly, it keeps ME going. I’m not out to duplicate Scalzi’s success necessarily, but his passion and his desire to try new things, to see what sorts of things can be done with this place. I’m still in my infancy, but he’s provided a grown-up vision to look up to, a signpost that gives me some direction. It was definitely good to meet him and see what he’s about.

If you have any favorite authors, I highly recommend going out to see them if they’re anywhere close to your neck of the woods. It’s an experience every budding author should have, to meet the folks who’ve made it.

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