Monday, November 14, 2011

SpoCon 2011: Meandering ... Part Four

SpoCon 2011:
Meandering Through Spokane’s Home Grown
Science Fiction
Fantasy Convention


Wally Lee Parker

(all rights to this material retained by the author)

Part Four
“When you’re writing urban fantasy, you need to ground it in a specific place.” 

            As noted before, probably the main drawing card for the wife and I was the appearance of novelist Patricia Briggs.  Currently a resident of Washington State, she’s located her bestselling ‘Mercy Thompson’ urban fantasy series along the state’s southeastern border, in the dry-lands plateau towns of Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco — locally known as the Tri-Cities.  Though we’d missed our first opportunity to see her on the convention’s opening day, late the next morning Patricia was scheduled to have her portrait painted by the artist responsible for all the dustcovers used on her Mercedes Thompson novels, Dan Dos Santos.  An hour and a half had been set aside for what the convention’s pocket guide described as an “interview and chat.”
            The designated room was not large.  So — to insure we’d find a good spot — we dropped in on the prior event — a panel discussion titled “Classic Sci-Fi You Might Have Missed & the Importance of It” — and claimed some space on the cushy upholstered bench lining the back wall.
            Once the panel had finished giving us their opinions on a wide range of sci-fi literature, they left the room and a young fellow I assumed to be one of the convention’s staff carried a tripod mounted spotlight in and began adjusting the beam toward a chair he’d placed down front.  I guess the quality of the highly realistic artwork appearing on the covers of Patricia’s novels had me expecting something else.  So it came as a bit of a surprise when I figured out that the kid adjusting the light was the artist.
            Patricia came in and sat in the indicated chair.  Santos positioned his own chair and easel so we could see over his shoulder as he worked.  Once the two had agreed on a pose the writer could hold for a prolonged period, Dan began to sketch and the two began to talk to each other as well as take questions from the audience.

            As a brush of dark lines began to trace across the white canvas, one of the viewers asked Dan why he was holding his brush “that way” — holding the brush’s wooden barrel at the very tip.
            As the artist explained, “When I have a project going, I need to force myself to work.  You can’t be a professional artist and only work when the urge hits you.  If I have a commission, I allot myself no more than two weeks to get it done, and that means I’m spending a lot of time at the easel.  So one of the things I have to consider is fatigue.  Here I am doing the basic portions of this portrait.  That means I have to be far enough away from the canvas that I can see both the subject and the lines I’m laying down at the same time — I have to be far enough away from the canvas that I can judge the proportions, the relationships, of all the lines accurately.  If I choke my grip toward the bristles, I either have to extend my arm out straight, or pull my shoulder in very close to the canvas.  The further back I can grip the brush and still have the necessary control, the less I have to extend my arm and the less fatiguing it becomes.  I do tend to move forward on the brush and closer to the canvas as I move into finer and finer details.  But I still as a rule want to remain as far back as reasonable.”

            Regarding the working relationship between a cover artist and novelist, Patricia said, “Usually the publisher doesn’t want the two getting together to discuss a cover beforehand.”
            “The writer doesn’t get much to say about the cover,” Dan added.  “That’s because the author doesn’t always know what’s best for sales.”
            “That’s a nice way of putting it,” Patricia laughed.  “I was at a writer’s conference and one of the authors was complaining about their latest cover.  And I had to agree that it was really, really bad.  When asked what he would have done different, the writer gave the group his ideas and they were much, much worse.”
            Dan noted, “If I’m doing the cover for a book and a copy of the text is available, I’ll read it.  Otherwise I ask the publisher for a detailed synopsis.”
            Patty added, “For pretty much the whole Mercy Thompson series, Dan’s been doing the covers before I actually write the book.  So I look at Dan’s covers, then I write.”
            That brought a laugh — and a question of whether a writer can choose the cover artist.
            “Generally the writer’s not asked,” Patty replied.  “Dan did the first of Mercy’s covers.  When that book took off, the publisher started paying more attention to what I wanted and I was able to ask that the next cover be done by Dan too.”
            When asked why she set the novels in Washington State, Briggs answered, “Because I live there.”  And that brought another laugh.
            “When you’re writing urban fantasy,” she explained, “you need to ground it in a specific place.  My obvious options were either Spokane or Seattle.  We all know Seattle is a great place for cafés.  And now that a number of novelist have proven it a good place for vampires and werewolves too, I started thinking about the novelty of the Tri-Cities.
            “The Tri-Cities has the nuclear reservation and the umpteen agencies involved with that.  We have several Indian reservations nearby (the Yakama reservation to the west and the Umatilla Indian Reservation — a confederation of the Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla tribes – to the east/southeast).  And we have the rivers (the confluence of the Snake and Columbia).  We have all that neat stuff.
            “Walking into the Tri-Cities is like walking into a Wal-Mart,” Patricia went on.  “It feels very much like suburban middle-American.  It feels very Anglo Saxon Protestant.  But that’s not at all true.
            “Richland has one of the highest per capita PHD rates of any city in the United States.  And you can hear just about any language you want in the Tri-Cities.  There’s a huge Spanish speaking population and quite a few East Indians too.  Then the Russians, Laotians, Chinese and Japanese.  It’s just an amalgam that the casual visitor doesn’t seem to see.  I think any community so successful at covering up its true nature — in lying about itself — would also lie about a resident subculture of werewolves and vampires.  That’s why I made the Tri-Cities the grounding for my Mercy Thompson novels.”
             Patricia added that casting Mercy as a working-class protagonist — as a Volkswagen mechanic — seems to add extra tension to the stories since the lead character also has to include the everyday minutia of making a living in her list of challenges.
            And as for challenges, Patricia was asked for a comment regarding the vampires’ daylight twinkling effect in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series.  In essence she replied that since there were no real vampires to reference, each writer had the right to alter the current mythology to fit their own premise.  Whether or not those alterations were acceptable to vampire fans would be determined by the readers.  In the case of the Twilight series, that determination seemed fairly evident.
            Then Patricia specifically noted, “From the perspective of a plot device, I think making her vampires daylight tolerant was a very smart move.”  She went on to suggest that the traditional reaction vampires have to daylight gives humans a tremendous advantage over them.  Making the vampires capable of daywalking with their only worry being that of discovery not only rebalances that power in favor of the vampires, it also allows the vampires to socialize with humans in a much broader swath of ways, and that adds greatly to the potential intricacies available within the various plots.
            The portrait took almost two hours.  Before leaving the conference room, both Patricia Briggs and Danial Dos Santos took time to sign my wife’s copy of the author’s latest Mercy Thompson novel, River Marked.

My wife Pat and Patricia Briggs.

My wife Pat collecting a autograph from artist Dan Dos Santos.

Danial Dos Santos

            We left the Doubletree Hotel Sunday morning before the clock on our room ran out.  There were still a few people running through the lobby in Lyrca Spandex, though the fan population had obviously started dropping well before the coming afternoon’s closing ceremony.
            SpoCon later reported over one thousand had registered for 2011’s three day event, and planning was well underway for 2012.

From the 9th floor of the Doubletree Hotel - looking southwest.

From the 9th floor - overlooking Riverfront Park.

… this series is concluded …

Jump to Part #1 of SpoCon 2011.
Jump to Part #2 of SpoCon 2011.
Jump to Part #3 of SpoCon 2011.

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