Lauren Owen was up first. Her debut novel The Quick was published in 2014 by Random House. It combines her love for the late Victorian era and vampires. She shared this love with us in her talk. We got a full history of the vampire in literature in one of the coolest lectures I’ve attended in Durham (and I’ve seen Theology’s rock star Professor Douglas Davies give a lecture dressed as a duck!). Lauren took us from Lord Byron and Mary Shelley through to Bram Stoker and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here’s a list of cool vampire material she recommends, Google them if you are into the undead:
Owen concluded her talk with a reading from The Quick. At this point the room grew silent as she painted a scene of two friends reuniting after one of them had purposefully turned into a vampire. Her writing style reminded me of Wilkie Collins, the scene’s atmosphere of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel, and her character (Augustus Mould) of Bram Stoker’s own Dr. Seward and Professor Van Helsing. As a fan of all three, I know what I’ll be reading next.
Then along came Richard Morgan (of Altered Carbon and A Land Fit For Heroes fame), taking over the room as only a former teacher can. His charisma was undeniable and the general excitement grew as several people in the audience were clearly long-time fans. Rather than giving a talk like Owen’s, Morgan read us a passage of his work-in-progress Thin Air. We were quickly transported from the late Victorian era, where Owen had left us, to an unspecified distant future in which humans have colonised Mars and there’s all the neon, grit and extropianist technology beloved by cyberpunk fans all over the world. Then he let us shoot him down with questions.
Morgan talked about interviewing scientists in search of future technologies for the colonisation of Mars. He also talked about how he introduced and justified said future technologies to readers in his work. He discussed the concept of genetic updates, given to us in fictional futures, to make the human body suited to life in hostile environments. He also discussed his views on the perceived optimism of the ‘60s and ‘70s – He is optimistic too, even today. Morgan also addressed the struggles of aspiring writers, advising us to persevere and, if possible, not to follow his own writing process (revise as you go “it’s very labour intensive,” he said). The conversation then steered towards the flaws of communism and how to make the best of the capitalist system we live in. Things got a bit political, in the best way possible. This revealed the ways in which sci-fi and fantasy comment on the contemporary human condition and how genre fiction is more than swords and laser guns.
The exec then announced a little break at the Kingsgate Cafe, to take place before the panel and Q&A. I wavered between my wish to drown the authors in questions and my need for coffee – mostly because there was a bit of a queue already to pick Morgan and Owen’s brains. I decided to let the fans ask first.
We returned and the tables were rearranged to form a panel (con style!). It started with the society’s questions about the general perception of the sci-fi and fantasy genre, its development and future. The guests gave their views openly, each coming from their own experience not only as authors but as readers of the genre. Then the Q&A started: Morgan addressed questions on the difference between his experience in writing novels and writing for video games (Crysis 2) and comics (Black Widow). The mention of his work with Marvel’s Black Widow immediately brought up the issue about sexism in American comics and the economics behind it. Following this, Owen talked about her origins writing Harry Potter fanfiction and then transitioning onto her own fiction. She expressed excitement at the way things are changing for the audience: particularly their ability to respond to a writer’s work, thanks to the internet. She also explained the benefits of fanfiction and how it can enhance the experience of readers without damage to the canon. Morgan agreed and expressed his dislike for stretching out good content for money through the endless output of sequels, prequels, etc. He argued that in fiction and entertainment less is usually more. Owen added that authors need to leave space for the reader’s imagination to flourish.
On further advice for aspiring writers, Morgan said to “work towards that bittersweet ending” you really want to write. Whilst Owen said to write for yourself first and to worry about your audience only on the second pass through your manuscript. They were both extremely encouraging and didn’t instil anything but excitement for their vocation.
At five o’clock the meeting adjourned. As we were all escorted outside by the exec, I reflected on all that I had heard on the current state of society, the contrast between our Victorian past and the future of space colonisation, and the way the lines are blurring between all the different genres of fiction, entertainment mediums and the writer/reader divide.
What would I say to people wondering whether to attend next year? You’ll rarely have an opportunity quite like it.