Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions #62

DECLASSIFIED! Seven Secret and Untold Stories From the Worldcon Press Office

By Chris M. Barkley:

Chris M. Barkley. Photo by Juli Marr

For many, many years, I have wanted to write a manual specifically to pass along my knowledge, feeling and opinions about working in and operating the Worldcon Press office.

For most people who attend any convention, they only see a fraction of what is going on behind the scenes, much like the tip of an iceberg. If those who complain about the things they see going wrong had any idea of the complex goings on that happens behind the scenes, it would certainly turn more than a few of their hairs white from shock.

And believe me, I’ve earned my share over the years but fortunately, I shave every other day so I’m not reminded of how I earned them.

From the 1983 Worldcon in Baltimore (ConStellation) to Kansas City in 2016 (MidAmericon II), I worked in the Press/Media Relation offices for the World Science Fiction convention a total of nineteen times; fourteen as a staff member, five as the head of the office — three of those times I was asked on a last minute, emergency basis.

After MidAmericon II in 2016, I loudly announced (and not for the first time, mind you) that I was permanently retiring from the position.

I might as well have been shouting into the winds of Arrakis because I seriously considered taking the Press Office position this year at DisCon III at the request of a senior concom member.

After discussions with the members of my MidAmericon II (whom, I might add, was the BEST team of con-workers I had ever assembled), I quickly found that none of them could attend the convention during the alternate date in December.

I declined the offer and felt some considerable remorse, since it would leave the convention without anyone to handle media relations. Conversely, seeing that there was still an enormous amount of time until the start of the convention, I realized that this would be an excellent opportunity to impart and pass along a considerable amount of my knowledge and wisdom and still help the convention. (In addition, I also offered my services as a consultant to whomever took the Press Office position.)

So, for the past five months I have been hard at work, remembering, compiling, writing and editing a concise manual that could be utilized for practically any convention, regardless of the genre or fan base.

In doing so, I also chronicled several incidents, humorous anecdotes and near apocalyptic stories that happened along the way. I have NEVER shared many of these stories publicly before due to the privacy issues and the delicate nature of some of these encounters. But, I feel as though enough time has passed that discussing them now will not cause too much embarrassment or shock to anyone in particular. Even so, in some cases, I have omitted the names of the participants for the sake of privacy.

The entire Press Relations manual, sans some of these stories, will be made available by Our Gracious Host on a separate link at the end of the column, and at the conrunner.net website in the very near future.

1) The One Where I Nearly Caused An INTERNATIONAL INCIDENT With the Soviet Union (ConStellation,1983)

ConStellation Hat. Photo by Craig Glassner/Pinterest/Hat of the Day

My career in the Press Office began at the 1983 Worldcon in Baltimore, ConStellation. YES, the very last Worldcon to hold a full dinner banquet with the Hugo Awards Ceremony. Here’s the late Steve Stiles take on the dinner: Beautiful Steamers at Fanac.org.

And somewhere, I STILL have my crab mallet from that evening. But, I digress…

It was my fifth Worldcon and I was bored. Up until then, I had been content with going to panels, shopping in hucksters room, perusing the Art Show and partying with my friends. The only other time I had volunteered at a Worldcon was a brief stint working a shift for a friend at the IguanaCon II Art Show in 1978.

So, midway through the first day of the convention, I made my way to the ConStellation Gopher Hole, filled out the appropriate paperwork and presented it to a woman at the desk.

I was rather perplexed when she asked where I would like to be stationed because I hadn’t really given it any thought. Then, she wisely asked what sort of background I had. I replied that I had been an English major in college, a reporter and film reviewer for my college newspaper and, until recently, had been a sf radio talk show host at a public access station.

“Well,” she said, “I’m going to send you down to the Press Office. They could use some help there.”

So, I reported to the Press Office, which was nearby. I have no recollection of who was in charge. But I do remember that one of my first assignments as a staff member was to escort several reporters to a special reception taking place later that day.

The future Academy Award winning film (and future Hugo nominee as well) The Right Stuff was premiering later that year. Fan writer Evelyn C. Leeper’s convention report noted:

Chuck Yeager (who flew the X-1) and Gordon Cooper (one of the original Mercury astronauts) were there to help Warner Brothers promote the film The Right Stuff (about the early space program), and they were both very interesting. (By the way, I recommend the book The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe.) There were also several other noted scientists and even a congressman to talk about the space program, etc.

I decided to hang out for a few minutes to watch the spectacle unfold before going back to the office. I was just about to leave when I noticed a tall, thin gentleman speaking with a distinctive accent I thought might have been Russian.

When I inquired who the man was, I was told by one of the hosts that he was one an envoy from the Russian Embassy who had driven up from D.C. to take in the convention for the day. He was standing about six feet away, laughing with another participant about something.

Laughing.

For a moment, my blood ran a little cold. Then I began to get angry.

Just two days before, Korean Air Lines Flight 007, a 747 aircraft headed to Seoul, South Korea with 246 passengers and a flight crew of 23, had been shot out of the sky by a Soviet interceptor. The crew committed a navigational error which resulted in the plane drifting too far off course to an area inside a restricted Soviet airspace, resulting in the destruction of the plane. There were no survivors. Among the dead was Lawrence P. McDonald, a conservative member of the US House of Representatives from Georgia.

At the time, very little information was available on exactly how and why this had happened. With the denials,suspicions, recriminations and military mobilizations occurring on an hourly basis between the Soviet and NATO forces, it was one of the most tense moments of the Cold War.

So, there I was, in the same room with a citizen of the Soviet Union.

Three feet away from me was a metal folding chair.

It would be a simple thing to grasp it in my hands, smoothly fold it together and smash it into the diplomat’s head.

So easy.

And if I did what I was thinking, I would probably have served a lengthy prison sentence and brought infamy and shame to my family, my newborn daughter, Laura, my friends and fandom.

So I turned my back to the Soviet diplomat and left the room.

In my heart of hearts, I hope someone expressed their displeasure with that fellow’s government and what happened just off the northern coast of Japan.

But that day, I knew it could not be me.

2) The One Where I Found Out Who Won The Hugo Awards For the First Time (LACon II,1984)

L.A.con II Hugo Award, (Photo from the Nippon 2007 Awards Design page)

I was VERY uneasy the very first time when I found out who was going to win the Hugo Awards in advance of the Ceremony. Usually, the Hugo Awards Ceremony Staff handles both the Hugo Awards results, nomination and voting statistics and the short press release that comes with them.

Needless to say, when I was working for the L.A.con II Press office in 1984, seeing the results of the Hugo Awards was not on my bingo card.

The convention was held at the incredibly impressive venue; the Anaheim Hilton and Convention Center, which were located right across street from Disneyland. My second tour of duty in the Press Office coincided with the largest attendance ever recorded at a Worldcon up until then, with almost 6400 members pre-registered in advance. With a strong marketing campaign by the convention committee, another 2000+ fans were walk ups.

Among the highlights (and by far biggest draw) was the first official showing of all three Star Wars films in an all-night marathon. (I was there and stayed awake through the middle of Empire Strikes Back and woke up in the middle of Return of the Jedi. I also remember staggering back to my hotel room as the sun peeked over the horizon to catch a few hours of sleep before I reported back at the Press Office.)

The biggest brouhaha I had to deal with came a few hours before; someone came in and said that a commercial LA radio station had announced that the Trilogy showing that evening was FREE to the public! I quickly got on the phone with the station and DEMANDED that whomever made that announcement should rescind immediately before the convention was overrun with people.

To this day I don’t know whether they did it or not. I do know that the showing was not mobbed, so there’s that.

Fast forward to the Hugo Awards Ceremony; that afternoon, manila envelopes the voting and nomination results were delivered to the Press Office. They were to be embargoed and kept in the office until after the Ceremony, when they would be distributed to the fannish and other news media outlets.

My boss, Fred Harris, looked in the envelope and noticed that the packet was missing a one-sheet press release with a summation of the winners. I remember that there were only three people on the team; Fred, myself and a woman I will call Linda for reasons of privacy (and I because I can’t remember her actual name).

Because Fred had to go to the auditorium and see to the seating of the press, Linda and I were charged with typing up a brief summation of the winners, xeroxing multiple copies and stuffing the envelopes.

Linda and I locked the door behind Fred and got to work. We looked, incredulously, at the winners in all of the categories and wrote up the summary in short order. Linda then went out, made the copies and returned to the office in short order.

When Linda and I finished, we sat down and just sat down and stared at each other. Beyond the Hugo Award administrators, we were the only people on the planet who knew who was going to win a Hugo that night. We were full of nervous energy and literally nowhere to go. Although Fred didn’t explicitly say so, we both felt as though we were going to be in the office until the end of the Ceremony.

After a while, I suggested we open the door for a little while so we wouldn’t feel so confined and Linda agreed.

The Press Office was located on one of the main hallways to the auditorium where the Hugo Ceremony. When I opened the door, there was a steady stream of people headed in that direction.

And then, something very improbable happened. As I was watching the crowd streaming by, I saw a very familiar face.

During the course of the convention, I made a lot of new friends, including one Glen David Brin, electrical engineer, astronomer and one of the emerging acclaimed authors of hard science fiction. His second novel in the Uplift series, Startide Rising, had already won the Nebula and Locus Awards for Best Novel and was heavily favored to win the Hugo as well.

Check that; it was GOING TO WIN THE HUGO AWARD that evening.

Once he saw Linda and I standing in the doorway, he made a beeline straight to us. Linda had never met him before and once he got close enough to read his con badge, her eyes got a bit wider and she looked as though she was going to go into shock.

“Hey Chris, good to see you! I’m on my way in right now. Are you guys coming too?”

I quickly explained that we had to watch the Press Office and that we might catch up with him later.

“That’s fantastic! Boy, I can’t tell you how excited I am about tonight. Wish me luck, huh?”

Both Linda and I sagely nodded and wished him well. With that, David Brin fairly bounded down the hall to his destiny.

When he was out of sight, both Linda and I looked at each other, went into the office and locked the door. We laughed hysterically for a minute just to throw off our nervousness. We stayed there until Fred came knocking on the door later.

So, your office may be asked to take custody of copies of the results before the Hugo Ceremony, to be embargoed and distributed to the press afterwards. Needless to say, it is vital that you, as the head of the Press Office, take full responsibility to keep the results safely under wraps.

They should be held strictly on a need-to-know basis: and you, personally, don’t need to know. As someone who has been privy to those results (on several RARE occasions) I cannot tell you how nerve-racking it is to walk around with that knowledge rattling around your noggin.

If you are offered the opportunity to know in advance, my advice to you is to try and avoid that situation or turn it down altogether.

DON’T DO IT! Enough Said…

3) The One Where I Took Over the Worldcon Press Office on Six Days Notice AND The Infamous Neil Gaiman and Rebecca Eckler Incidents (Torcon 3, 2003)

Another important thing to remember is that you cannot do this job alone. If you are lucky, as I have been over the many years, to have a number of trusted associates working closely with you at your convention, your chances of succeeding are quite good.

In 2003, the Toronto Worldcon (Torcon 3) faced a big crisis; it turned out that the person they had appointed to run their Press Relations office had done absolutely nothing regarding press contacts or registration in advance of the convention. Once I found out about the situation, I and my wife at the time, Naomi, volunteered to take over. I had headed up the Press Office previously at LoneStarCon II in 1997 on very short notice and I had a pretty good idea of how to set up an office in a hurry.

I immediately started calling and emailing all of the local media outlets to let them know that there would be a Press Office to help them with any of their inquiries. I also put a call out for volunteers on the Torcon 3 website and asked a few people in fandom I knew who could handle the job.

By the time we arrived in Toronto, I had done as much preparation as I could and hoped for the best.

One of the best examples of having the right person at exactly the right time came on the very first morning of the convention.

Anne Pinzow was a walk-on to the Press Office. She was (and still is, to the best of my knowledge) a writer and editor for a local New England newspaper and volunteered to help out at the convention as a change of pace. Needless to say, her skills and experience were put to the test almost immediately…

On the morning of the second day of Torcon III, our morning staff meeting was rocked by a headline in the Arts Section of the Toronto Star. Hugo Award Winning Fan Writer and Fan Editor Cheryl Morgan (who also served on the Press Room staff) chronicled what happened next and published her account in her fanzine, Emerald City (http://www.emcit.com/emcit097.shtml#Wheels):

The first major embarrassment that we suffered was on Thursday morning when an article appeared in The Star, a local newspaper, announcing that Neil Gaiman had won a Hugo for “Coraline”. This sounded terribly like a leak from the convention, but although we often give out the results under an embargo just before the ceremony, there was no way that the paper could have gotten word of the results that early. So we phoned them.

Here I must give credit to my colleague, Anne Pinzow, who handled the call, firstly for her patience in working through The Star’s automated call handling system, and secondly for the magnificent way in which she laid the law down. A Hugo, she explained, can make or break an author’s career. Winning it can be worth millions of dollars. And by suggesting that the results were known beforehand The Star was casting doubt on the validity and integrity of the voting process, and therefore on the awards themselves. It was a wonderful performance.

As it turned out, however, the editor in question was already duly contrite. Murray Whyte, the journalist who had interviewed Neil and written the piece in question had already phoned up and complained bitterly about his article being butchered. It turned out that what had happened was that an enthusiastic sub-editor had not understood the difference between being nominated and winning, and had “sexed-up” the article to make it sound better. There were red faces all round at The Star. They printed an apology on page 2 on Friday, and on Sunday they devoted half of page 2 to a report of the Hugos.

So, an utter disaster was averted, but just barely. And thankfully, Neil Gaiman, being a prince among writers, was a good sport about the imbroglio and did not hold up the scurrilous headline above his head as Harry Truman had infamously done back in 1948 (“DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN”) after winning the Hugo award for Coraline.

On the day of the Hugo Awards Ceremonies, I received a phone call from a reporter named Rebecca Eckler, a “lifestyle” writer from the National Post. She wanted a press pass plus one to attend the Hugo Awards. When I asked for the name of the other person she replied “Gollum” (which should have set off an alarm bell right then and there).

I told her that I would be in the press office with the badges and gave her instructions on how to find me. I had decided to skip going to the Hugo Awards and stay in the office to distribute the results of the Hugo Awards (with the stipulation that they were to be embargoed until the end of the ceremony) via individual email to newspapers and other media outlets. I released the staff to attend without any instructions other than seeing that any journalists were properly seated in a designated area.

In hindsight, those were not the best decisions. Here’s why:

Rebecca Eckler never showed up at the Press Office as she had promised. She and her companion turned up at the Hugo Awards pre-ceremony reception unannounced and were refused entry. Ms. Eckler, who was well along in her pregnancy at the time, decided to make a fuss at the entrance of reception, citing that she was a journalist and entitled to be admitted. None of my staff were there to ameliorate the situation or to alert me to Ms. Eckler’s presence.

When it came time for the nominees and their guests to be escorted into the hall at the beginning of the Hugo Ceremony, Ms. Eckler and her companion joined the line and were seated with the nominees! According to reports I heard afterwards (and her account that was eventually published in the National Post the next day), she eventually became bored and the two of them left before the end of the ceremonies.

The bottom line is that I, or someone on my staff, should have been present at the reception and at the Hugo Awards ceremony to mitigate what happened. While there was a high likelihood that a negative story about Torcon III could have been prevented, some prompt action could have stopped her disruptive behavior.

As a reminder of what happened, I kept Ms. Eckler’s press pass after all this time, pictured below:

Torcon 3 press badge. Photo by Chris M. Barkley.

There are several things that you, as the head of the press relations for your convention, should remember:

  • You are responsible for what happens on your watch, whether it’s your fault or not.
  • Someone with authority must be present at ALL of the important public events and functions of the convention.

4) The One Where I Won a Kentucky Derby Bet, ROYALLY PISSED OFF J. K. Rowling, Her Publisher and Solicitors, But Lived To Tell About It. Barely. (Interaction, 2005)

J. K. Rowling. Photo by TheLeakyCauldron.org

When I was attending Noreascon IV in Boston, I was asked by Vincent Docherty, one of the organizers of Interaction (the 63rd Worldcon) whether I would be interested in helping run the Interaction Press Office. Vincent, and apparently others on the convention committee, were very impressed with how I handled the office at Torcon III.

(Also, although my memory may be a bit fuzzy on the details; back in 1995, I had heard secondhand that that year’s Scottish Worldcon, Intersection, had no Press Office. And foolishly (if it’s true), had not allowed any reporters to cover the convention at all. Naturally, at the time, I assumed that they did not want a repeat of that situation. I tried to find any mention of this online but I was unable to confirm whether this actually happened or not. In any event, I am quite sure that someone reading this will either acknowledge as a fact or take great pleasure in correcting me at length that this is some sort of fever dream fairy tale. And so it goes.)

In any event, I accepted the position of being a deputy to a very nice fellow named David Stewart. Little did he know what sort of trouble I was going to cause for him…

One of the first things I did after accepting was to send in my paperwork for my first passport ever, which was issued out of the State Department’s New Orleans processing facility. (It holds a special place in my heart because I received it before Hurricane Katrina devastated the area in late August of that year. It has since expired but I still carry it with me as an alternate photo ID.)

But here’s how the 2005 Kentucky Derby factored into what happened:

That spring, I started making plans in earnest to make the trip to Scotland, which would have been my very first trip outside of North America. I was working a steady job back then but I wasn’t able to save up enough for airfare and expenses. But as March melded into April, I was still far short of what I needed to go.

When the first of May rolled around, I had a crazy idea; I could get enough cash for the trip by achieving a big win at the Kentucky Derby. It was a family affair; my then wife, my daughter, Laura and I ambled over the Lebanon Raceway just east of where we were living to enjoy the day.

About a half an hour before the race, we started making our selections. Naomi and Laura made several relatively small bets on the three of the favorites, Alex Afleet, Wilko and Bellamy Road. I had allocated fifty dollars for myself and spread out most of it on other horses. When I was down to my last ten dollars, my gaze fell upon a 50-1 shot, a horse named Giacamo. (And, unbeknownst to me at the time, had finished fourth in the Santa Anita Derby in his previous start.) I sighed, went with my gut and placed the bet. 

You can imagine dead reader, my utter astonishment when Giacamo, in 18th place after three-quarters of a mile, made a jaw dropping move to make up ground while moving six wide around the backstretch turn. He then turned up the jets, closed on and muscled past the leaders and WON by half a length!

I was speechless! I now had at least enough for my airfare and all I had to worry about was saving up for food, transport and lodging. Things were finally looking up. What could possibly go wrong now?

Until, that is, things went terribly wrong.

About a week or so before the Derby, I was feeling a little perturbed towards J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was due to be published in July of that year. At that point in time, Ms. Rowling, who won a 2001 Hugo Award for Best Novel for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, had NEVER publicly acknowledged winning it. I couldn’t even find it even mentioned on any US copy of the paperback edition.

So, being the volatile, hotheaded type fan that I was back then, I was determined to do something about it.

Since this was before the advent of Twitter and Facebook, I wrote an actual, physical letter to Ms. Rowling, lamenting the fact that there was no mention of the Hugo Award on The Goblet of Fire. I also pointed out that the World Science Fiction Convention was being held in Glasgow, just a stone throw away (relatively speaking) from Edinburgh and it would be awfully nice if she were to send the convention some sort of greeting.

Somewhere, there is a copy of that letter sitting in the files of Scholastic Books.

And at Bloomsbury’s headquarters in the United Kingdom.

And her solicitors in London.

And her literary agent in London.

Because I wanted to be SURE that my letter would make it past her gatekeepers, mind you.

Well, kids, my message got through all right. And the gatekeepers were not pleased.

NOT.ONE. BIT.

So a week or so after my triumph at Lebanon Raceway, I received several anxious emails from David Stewart and members of the convention committee, demanding an explanation of my actions.

You see, dear reader, I sent those letters signed with my name along with my official designation as the Deputy Head of the Intersection Press Office, a HUGE faux pas that tied my perceived diatribe with the convention itself!

Needless to say the letter made everyone angry (especially the solicitors, I was told) that some cheeky Yank was telling them what they ought to do.

Once I gauged the gravity of what was going on, I felt I had no choice whatsoever but to offer my resignation from the Press Office. My would-be boss David had a different and slightly sardonic reaction. He still wanted me to work in the office. Because, as I remember him writing in an email, “You mean he doesn’t have to work but I still have to deal with this? That’s not very fair, is it?” (I am sorry to report that David Stewart and I never had a chance to meet in person; he died after a short illness in 2006. I definitely owed him a pint or two. Ad Astra, David…)

Alas, things also unraveled at home as well; I was laid off from my job, my wife moved out to go the graduate school at the University of Dayton and the five hundred dollars was quickly consumed by bills. So I had to stay home that summer, much to my chagrin.

During all of this turmoil, I never heard (either directly or indirectly) about any reaction from Ms. Rowling herself. And yes, In hindsight, I think everyone would have been better off if I had just signed my name but I doubt that it would have had the same impact if I had not.

Because two things happened in the wake of this international incident; in July, J.K. Rowling did issue a brief statement welcoming the World Science Fiction convention to Glasgow and the next year, the designation “Hugo Award Winning Novel” started appearing on the paperback edition of The Goblet of Fire.

So, for what it’s worth, I am quite satisfied with that…

5) The One With Michael Chabon (Denvention 3, 2008)

Michael Chabon, circa 2008. Photo via Getty Images for Esquire

In 2008, I was back in the Captain’s chair of the Press Office and I was hoping for a nice, quiet convention with very few annoyances or controversies.

And for a majority of the Denvention, my wish was granted.

On the day before the Hugo Awards Ceremony, I received a call from a producer from National Public Radio’s Weekend All Things Considered (whose name is lost to history). He wanted to know if I could arrange an interview with the winner of the Best Novel category with their then current host, Andrea Seabrook.

Checking the programming schedule, I told the producer that four of the five nominees for Best Novel, John Scalzi (The Last Colony), Ian MacDonald (Brasyl), Charles Stross (Halting State) and Robert J. Sawyer (Rollback) were there. The ONLY author who was absent was Michael Chabon, whose World War II alternate history epic, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, was a heavy favorite to win. (Historical note: by the time of Denvention 3, it had already won the Nebula Award, the Locus Award, the Sidewise Award and the California Book Award Gold Medal AND had been shortlisted for the Edgar (from the Mystery Writers of America) and the British Science Fiction Association award. 

I told the producer that I would contact all of the nominees, including Michael Chabon, and have them contact NPR directly after the Hugo Awards Ceremony.

Consulting the sprocket program, I spent some time out of the office Friday afternoon tracking down Scalzi, Sawyer and MacDonald and they all readily agreed to be on the air if (or when) they won.

Charlie Stross was the only one I couldn’t find that day. I looked up any contact information I could scrounge up on Chabon’s whereabouts online but I came up empty. I left several messages with HarperCollins in New York and sent an email to his agent and hoped someone would get the message by the next day.

I was feeling quite chuffed that NPR, a network that I had been an ardent fanboy of since 1973 was taking some serious interest in the Worldcon. I told any friend or acquaintance who wandered by the office that I was setting up this fabulous interview with NPR that day.

That evening, I was at a bid party, minding my own business and enjoying myself when a very good friend (who shall remain nameless for reasons that will become very obvious) came in, spotted me, grabbed me by the arm and literally dragged me into a nearby vacant bathroom and closed and locked the door.

When I asked them what that was all about, they explained in a very excited tone that they had heard about the impending NPR interview and wanted to help. And before I could ask what sort of help, they blurted out that Michael Chabon was going to win Best Novel!

Now at that point in time I was a little crestfallen because I fervently try NOT to know who will win any of the Hugo Awards in advance but it seems as though every time I have tried to evade knowing, I’m cursed to find out. (I am truly grateful that they didn’t spill the beans about the rest of the rest of the categories, though.)

I thanked my “confidential source” and we returned to the party before anyone ( I had hoped) noticed that the two of us were conferring in a locked bathroom. 

So now, even though I knew who was going to win Best Novel, I still had to contact Charlie Stross and Michael Chabon, just in case any of the nominees caught up with each other and compared notes at some later date.

I finally caught up with Mr. Stross Saturday morning and imparted NPR’s request, feeling very badly about playing my part in this elaborate charade. That afternoon I finally heard back from Michael Chabon’s publicist, who informed me that he and his family were vacationing in Maine that weekend. I gave him the NPR producer’s contact information and told him to expect an announcement on who won later that evening.

After the ceremony, I sent the publicist an email with an official list of the Hugo Award results and hoped for the best.

I needn’t have worried so much. And the Sunday Weekend Edition featured the following interview with Michael Chabon: “Science Fiction Writing’s ‘Pulitzers’ Handed Out”

Here is the most pertinent slice of this interview:

SEABROOK: Can I ask you, what do you think of other work that’s going on in science fiction right now? Do you read science fiction?

Mr. CHABON: Yes I do. I still read science fiction, and I see all kinds of diversity. I think – I find a very intense ongoing kind of intellectual and aesthetic debate in the world of science fiction. The people who are reading it and the people who are writing it seem to me to be engaged in an ongoing conversation about the fiction that they love on a level that I think is enviable, that would be a credit to the world of mainstream fiction.

6) The One About George R.R. Martin (Chicon 7, 2012)

George R.R. Martin circa 2012, Photo by Nick Briggs/HBO

Chicon 7 was decidedly challenging for Juli and I on many fronts. For one, the Press Office was nowhere near the Information Desk or Registration; it was located near one of the main auditorium stages and a cluster of meeting rooms being used for panels. I had requested a meeting room for office space but was really disappointed when I found out that the “office” was actually a coat check booth. Fortunately, there was a small furnished room adjacent to the booth that was more than adequate to serve as the main interview room.

My partner Juli and I arrived without anyone else set to staff the office so we were trusting that we were going to attract some good volunteers out of the Gopher Hole. We were rewarded twice over when local Chicago fans Belma Torres and Dan Berger reported for duty. They were fantastic in the office and handled themselves very well during the convention. (Belma eventually moved to Australia a few years ago and subsequently got married there, Dan, his wife Terry and his two sons Alec and Ryan remain good friends with us to this day.)

We made do with the coat room as a base of operations and the Information Desk sent us a steady stream of registered and walk up journalists to cover Chicon 7.

Our one big hiccup occurred on the first day when several people from Logistics came by with several hand carts and requested that we surrender all the furniture in our interview room so it could be used on stage for several bits that had been planned for Opening Ceremonies.

Since the stage was not very far away from the office, I readily agreed. But I made them swear on a stack of fanzines that they would return the large couch and the three easy chairs as soon as the event was over because we needed it for several big interviews, among them a sit down with George R.R. Martin that was scheduled for the next day.

As the day progressed and Opening Ceremonies started, I began to feel a little uneasy about the arrangement. At one point I strolled over to the hall where it was under way and saw people lounging and having a good time with the audience. That was the last time I would see our furniture for the next 20 hours.

Because two hours after the Opening Ceremonies, our furniture had not been returned to us. I sent Dan Berger out to the Logistics to find out what happened. He returned a short while later and reported that no one in Logistics had any idea of what he was talking about.

Livid, I went to Logistics and demanded, in an usually loud voice, that we REALLY needed to find our goddamn furniture, immediately! The poor woman manning the desk promised to look into it and I fumed all the way back to the Press Room.

By the end of the day, the furniture had not been returned.

When we opened the office the next morning, there was STILL no furniture.

That’s when I decided we were going full vigilante on this situation.

Leaving Dan in charge of the office, Juli, I and another volunteer went to Logistics, borrowed several handcarts and started canvassing the convention hall rooms and hallways to find our furniture. We didn’t have to search long.

After checking the hallways and the Exhibits display, Juli spotted our couch in the Fan Lounge. Very quickly afterwards, we found the other lounge chairs nearby. We quickly loaded everything up and trucked it all back to the Press Office, just an hour before the start of George R.R. Martin’s interview.

The moral of the story is quite clear; if you loan out ANYTHING at a Worldcon, get it in writing and keep close track of it until it’s returned.

By the way, the Press Office staff returned the hand carts promptly to Logistics, because that’s how we roll…

7) The One With The VERY SAD Puppy (Sasquan, 2015)

Brad Foster’s Sasquan logo.

Sasquan was a very strange, tense and ultimately uplifting affair from start to finish.

The original co-Chair of the convention, Bobbie DuFault, died suddenly on the morning of September 14, 2013. Sally Woehrle, the other co-chair, took over in her stead. In hindsight, it was a portent of the terrible events that followed in the wake of this terrible news…

An arch conservative author, Lou Antonelli, made a scurrilous and false police report to the Spokane Police Department, claiming that Author Guest of Honor and Hugo Award Ceremony co-host David Gerrold was “insane and a public danger and needs to be watched when the convention is going on”.

On August 11th, 2015, the following message was posted on the Sasquan Facebook Page:

“The Executive Committee of Sasquan, the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention, would like to address the matter of actions taken by Mr. Lou Antonelli with regards to one of our Guests of Honor, Mr. David Gerrold. On August 1st, Mr. Antonelli participated in a podcast in which he stated that he had written a letter to the Spokane Police Department, in which he stated to them that Mr. Gerrold was “insane and a public danger and needs to be watched when the convention is going on”.

Normally, online communications between members is not something in Sasquan’s purview to referee.  However, Mr. Antonelli’s letter, which requested police action against Mr. Gerrold during the time of the convention, is within our purview. As such, we found that there was a strong possibility this act was a violation of our posted harassment policy[1], particularly if the letter had, in fact, been sent.’

Well, a long story shortened…

‘However, after the recommendation was made, Mr. Gerrold, as the aggrieved party, specifically requested that the Executive Committee set aside this recommendation on the grounds that Mr. Antonelli did apologize, is sending a retraction to the Spokane Police Department and because, as a Hugo Nominee, he deserves to attend the ceremony.

The Executive Committee has chosen to accept Mr. Gerrold’s request, and considers the matter closed as of this time. Ms. Bourget has spoken and corresponded with the Spokane Police Department, and they also consider the matter closed. We would like to thank Ms. Bourget for the calm professionalism she lent to the proceedings, and Mr. Antonelli and Mr. Gerrold for coming to a settlement that benefits not just them, but the Worldcon and its members.”

There were lots of right wing, racist and sexist authors who had themselves slated onto the nomination ballot and a majority of fans who regularly vote on and or attend the Worldcon were in no mood for such shenanigans. In response to the Puppies chicanery, an incredible number of people joined the convention; an astounding 5,748 fans bought Supporting memberships (ostensibly to outvote the Puppy coalition), bringing the total number to a whopping 10,350 total members.

But now, small, brief, editorial aside:

(RANT/ON)

Here’s the thing, as far as I’m concerned; the Sad/Angry/Rabid Puppy affair accomplished nothing for the usurpers who wanted to disrupt and/or destroy the Hugo Awards. Looking back over the past eight years it is quite evident that they utterly failed in style, substance and in an overall way, had very little significant societal impact. There has always been some generational tension between fans, editors, writers and artists in fandom. But in the days before social media, it played out more like a slow motion riot with the participants trading shots through frequently published fanzines or in person at conventions (with and without fisticuffs in some cases).

These reactionaries wanted to stop something that has always been inevitable in literature, change. When these elements of the so-called conservative end of sf fandom thought that their brand of warping spaceships, alien wars and far flung empires were being ignored by the Hugo Awards electorate, they decided to cheat by nominating slates with their own nominees. But by doing so, they just mobilized and galvanized what was already happening, that women, people of color, indigeonous peoples from all of the world and the LGBTAQ community and other marginalized folks were becoming the emerging voices of this generation. The Puppies were driven by the fear of being replaced or, even worse, erased from our collective history. Their fears were expressed in some very unflattering ways; racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia and a decided lack of empathy for people who pushed back against their narrative.

Those of us who were actively opposing them, were portrayed as being out of control radicals, unpatriotic, socialists and traitors. It became so turbulent that even the mere mention or promotion of a disenfranchised person was labeled as racist by them. And while they promoted themselves with a great amount of hubris as the tree and roots of modern sf fandom and literature, in fact they are just merely a branch of a much larger tree. To this day, they remain so dogmatic about their own importance, their false sense of privilege and so devoted to their own myopic point of view that they still don’t realize that they have done themselves and fandom as a whole, a great disservice by acting like an unruly mob without any sense decency or of cognitive dissonance. And yes, they did manage to make a big fuss and draw some attention to themselves but in the long run, their actions will be judged by history to be abhorrent.

If anyone wants to read a fairly comprehensive history of what went down may do so here: The Puppy Kerfuffle Timeline at Camestros Felapton.

(RANT/OFF)

And, if that weren’t enough, a series of forest fires completely surrounded the city, enshrouding the entire region in a haze of smoke and ash and casting the convention into something akin to a hellish, eco-disaster film.

Juli and I were called in to head up the Press Office in emergency mode (again) because the convention’s original choice had to drop out for personal reasons. Although this time, unlike many of the other times, we had a full six weeks notice to get the office up and operational.

In addition to all of this, I got personally involved. I stepped up and volunteered to be a Hugo Award acceptor for Analog author Rajnar Vajra whose slyly aware John W. Campbell-ish pastiche, “The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale” (published in Analog, 07/08-2014), had been slated onto the Hugo ballot by both the Sad and Rabid Puppy groups..

I made Mr. Vajar’s acquaintance in April 2015, right after the nominations were announced. He had posted on sf/horror writer Adam-Troy Castro’s Facebook page, vehemently condemning both camps and I quoted him (with his permission) in a File 770 column. I also offhandedly offered to pick up his Hugo and deliver his acceptance speech, too.

You can imagine how flabbergasted I was when Mr. Vajra emailed me in July asking if I would do exactly that. In a File 770 post soon after, I wrote:

Several months ago, after the nominations came out, I made the acquaintance of Rajnar Vajra, author of the Hugo nominated novelette, The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Story. Although nominated on the Sad/Rabid Puppy slate, he has vehemently disassociated himself from them. When other nominees dropped out of the Hugo Awards race, he bravely stayed in, because he believed in his story and vacating the nomination slot may have given the ballot yet another puppy candidate.  

I half jokingly told Rajnar that I would be happy to accept the Hugo Award on his behalf if it became necessary. He laughed it off at the time but a month ago, he found out that he could not attend. I was slightly aghast when he emailed me but I accepted because I knew what he had in mind.

I believe that Rajnar’s only loyalty is to his craft and to his readers. In his absence, he chose a person of color to represent him at the Hugo Ceremony as a pointed reminder of fandom’s diversity. Mr. Vajra has emailed his eloquent acceptance speech and if needed, I will proudly deliver it verbatim.

When Juli and I arrived at the Press Office, we were ably assisted by a well known Seattle fan, Margaret Organ-Kean, who agreed to serve as the Deputy Press Officer. I cannot begin to tell you how gracious and helpful she was in the office, especially during my prolonged absences because of my obligations to attend the Business Meeting and the Hugo Award Ceremonies.

On that Saturday afternoon, a very peculiar thing happened.

I was standing near the entrance of the Press Office when a middle aged man entered the office. He was white, middle-aged and looked as though he might need some help.

“Hello, how can I help you?”, I said in a pleasant voice.

He just stared at me.

I waited. He kept staring.

After about 20 seconds, I gave up, went back to my desk and sat down to keep an eye on him.

My partner Juli, who is white, witnessed this and decided to make a run at him while I watched warily from a distance.

He immediately perked up and said that he was looking for a reporter to give an interview. When Juli inquired why, he said that he was a John W. Campbell Award nominee for Best New Writer. (I am not identifying the writer because I don’t want to give this person any more publicity than he deserves. His fifteen minutes in the limelight has expired.)

Since this fellow was definitely NOT Wesley Chu, it verified my gut feeling that this guy was part of the Puppy delegation.

In overhearing some of his remarks to Juli, it was fairly evident that while he knew the Campbell Award was somewhat prestigious, he had no fucking idea who he was, his place his in the history of sf literature or, most importantly, what he stood for politically or on social issues.

The most amusing part of the conversation happened when Juli asked him about “The Tiara”.

His eyes blinked with confusion. “Tiara? What about a Tiara? I don’t know anything about that.”

“Well,” Juli said with some enthusiasm, “if you win, you get to wear the Ceremonial Tiara that comes with the Campbell Award.”

(For those of you who may have forgotten, The Ceremonial JWC Tiara was created in 2005 by the late sf writer Jay Lake and author Elizabeth Bear and, until recently, was handed down from winner to winner. Among the distinguished alumni who have proudly worn it have been DisCon III Chair Mary Robinette Kowal, Caribbean-American fantasy author David Anthony Durham and one John Scalzi, a frequent target and perceived arch-enemy of the Puppy crowd.)

“Uh, are you kidding?”

“Oh no,it’s a real thing. And you have to wear it if you win.”

I swear, his face actually blanched when he heard that he might actually be required to wear such an item on his precious, masculine head.

“No, no, no, I can’t do THAT!” he insisted. Juli turned her head slightly and could see the look of approval on my face. I winked.

But, no matter what his own political views, I had no objection to helping him. Our role in the Press Office is to provide journalists the opportunity to talk to and write about what was happening at Sasquan and that included any Puppy who wanted to talk to the media.

He left soon afterwards after Juli took his name and cell phone number and had promised to call if any reporter wanted to talk to him. Eventually, we arranged for him to talk to someone. I think it was Wired magazine, but I could be misremembering exactly who did. In any event, it’s lost to the mists of history as far as I’m concerned.

At the Hugo Awards Ceremony, the Puppies slate of nominees went unrewarded (including, unfortunately, Mr. Vajra, who finished third behind No Award). The only tangential thing they could claim as a victory was the Best Dramatic Presentation-Long Form win for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which was a HUGE consensus winner among all of the voters.

There was some good news that evening; for the first time ever, translated fiction won Hugos: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu) in the novel category and the novelette “The Day The World Turned Upside Down” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (translated by Lia Belt). Marvel Comics’s first volume of Ms. Marvel (written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Adrian Alphona and Jake Wyatt), the feminist minded sf thriller Orphan Black (“By Means Which Have Never Been Tried” by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett) and the aforementioned Wesley Chu won the Campbell Award (which was recently re-christened the Astounding Award for Best New Writer).

The Hugo Award results were delivered to the office AFTER the Ceremony for distribution to the press at my expressed request.

The cherry on top of all of these proceedings came at Closing Ceremonies, where I was presented with a Hero of Sasquan medal for taking over the Press Office on short notice.

When I accepted before a standing room only crowd, I told them that I was not the only person in the Press Office; I was only as good as the team of people I was working with. I profusely thanked them for all of their hard work and dedication.

Then I praised the person I called the TRUE MVP of the Press Office, my partner Juli. I held up a black stainless steel ring she had given me for my birthday. The interior of the ring has an inscription that is a quote from Amy Pond (a Doctor Who companion) to her husband, Rory; “I Love Your Stupid Face”.

I told the crowd what the inscription said and they laughed and cheered. And then I shouted, “I LOVE YOU, JULI MARR!!!!!” and the crowd went crazy!

When I returned to my seat, I asked Juli whether or not she had gotten any pictures of my speech.

“I’m sorry’, she said, “I was too stunned to take any.” I smiled and gave her a kiss.

Mission Accomplished.

I STILL LOVE YOU JULI MARR!!!!!

Sasquan medal and ring. Photo by Chris M. Barkley.

Download Chris Barkley’s Fantasy & Science Fiction Media Relations – Press Room Guide here:

22 thoughts on “Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions #62

  1. Pingback: Amazing News From Fandom: 9/26/21 - Amazing Stories

  2. I volunteered to work security for the showing of the three Star Wars movies. My biggest job was to yell at people to walk instead of run inside the theater before the movies started. (I still have the badge from the event, with the gold star on it that I got as security.) I didn’t watch much of the movies, because I fell asleep in the back room during the movies. (They started at midnight, right after the Indiana Jones movie that was up for the Hugo, and after clearing the theater before the trilogy.)

  3. Thanks to Barkley for his tireless efforts to do a decent Press Office for worldcons, an often thankless task. Back when I was doing SF CHRONICLE, he was always professional in his approach.

    I remember so much media coverage of the worldcon, in which film crews often tried to run roughshod over conventions. “We’re the Press, we can do anything,” they’d insinuate. Nope, not on Barkley’s watch.

  4. Chris and Juli and their Press Gang are amazing. Masterful. They make the world better, and we are better people when we learn from them.

    I met them at the 2016 worldcon, where I there to work on a documentary film (still in progress). This was my first worldcon, my first doc film, and I was swimming in new seas as best I could. They kept me from floundering. They helped in more ways than I can list.

    Chris, you are very wise, run a very good office, and bring out the best in people. Thank you again.

  5. I worked on the 1984 Hugo awards, and I didn’t know who won until we assembled the slide show on Saturday evening. (I wrote the **#$%^&! counting program that year. I *still haven’t seen the full set of results.)

  6. We weren’t sure the ConStellation Crab Feast was going to be the last Worldcon banquet, but we were sure it was the last time hundreds of fans were going to be given wooden mallets. Pounded in unison on tables, they made quite a noise.

    And the Steve Stiles comic about How to Eat Crabs is a treasure. It was given to all attendees, and many could use it to figure out how to approach their crabs and get some nutrition out of them. Many others were hopelessly lost, and quite a few decided they’d rather go hungry than even make the attempt.

    Chalker’s right that the crabs “eat ANYTHING,” and that does have some people leery of eating what are essentially scavengers — we don’t know what they’ve eaten to make their flesh so tasty. Not much makes me queasy, but I worked in the Mortuary Science department at my college, and I once heard the students talking about harvesting the crabs off a body found in the Chesapeake Bay. I don’t know that I could have eaten those.

  7. I probably have my crab mallet somewhere too. The instruction booklet was very helpful. The crabs were delicious, but you have to work for the bits of meat. And, yes, we made an awful lot of noise with mallets and tables.

  8. As ‘The poor woman manning the desk’ at Chicon, I will point out a few things in our defense:

    1) the head of logistics died less than a week before scheduled load-in so my friend who was supposed to be driving a truck suddenly became logistics head and I (who hadn’t even planned on going) stepped up as second. The late department head left us no notes or equipment lists, and his Second was planning his funeral so he was not available.

    2) We had no staff. We effectively Shanghaid 3 gophers who seemed like they had working brains and kept them as close as possible. Ask us sometime about how they didn’t know that that the hotel had 2 towers and they sent all the lobby signage up the wrong tower and we didn’t know until 2Am…So I suspect they are the ones who absconded with your couch.

    3) after you came to our office, I radioed my Lead to find out what was going on with the couch, I received word that my 62 year old department head with bad knees was trying to drag that $6+&((:(!!! Black leather couch down a hallway by herself. I’m surprised you didn’t hear my “THE FUCK.YOU ARE!!!” all the way down in Press! So I marched across the hallway to Green room and press-ganged 3 random guests or staff people to go to her aid.

    4) Our notes (such as they were, culled from 6 months of emails as we tried to reconstruct the logistics department) said it was to go back to Fan Lounge after opening ceremonies.

    5) By the end of that weekend, we probably could have funded a large portion of the next Chicon by selling raffle tickets to set that damned couch on fire in the remote parking lot, except that we would have had to figure out how to get it there!

    Moral of the story – if you run a department at a regional, let alone a worldcon, write up a document like Chris here is doing. Because this kind of thing happens, and there is a lot of institutional knowledge wrapped up in people’s brains, gods forbid anything happens again like what happened to Ken.

    And also, be kind to the other departments. You don’t know what they are dealing with. The fact that 98% of the guests and staff had no idea that the Logistics department was made up out of whole cloth by two very frazzled middle-aged women and anyone we could beg, borrow, or steal was a tribute to those 2% who helped us keep things from completely collapsing before load-out.

  9. At Intersection we did have a press office. This was headed by a professional journalist and award winning fan writer who is now running PR for a major international charity and we distributed a press pack; we invited enquiries and advance publicity but weren’t able to staff to a high enough level to be proactive throughout. I also think Vince did some radio interviews at or just before the beginning of the con.

    Additionally we had the national Channel 4 documentary presented by Craig Charles being made at the convention. This was a boost to the visibility of Worldcons in general but was, of course, broadcast after the con.

    Unfortunately “on the day” press coverage gives less benefit to the convention than many people would think. Meanwhile the profile of the Worldcon as an ongoing worldwide event is far from the level that we would like it to be. I think we suffer from not having anyone whose role is explicitly to do wider PR for the Worldcon, and for SFF, in general in the same way that WSFS handles trademark issues

  10. I think the quote goes something like:

    “Pros talk about the Hugos, SMOFs talk about logistics.”

    Work on conventions and you can learn a lot about loading docks and hand trucks.

  11. Tom Becker: That makes sense.What was I doing the morning of the first day of the Worldcon I chaired? Driving a Russian fan to a place he could stay for the con – which he hadn’t arranged for before coming. It needed doing andI was available…

  12. Tom Becker: My version, learnt from NESFA, would be

    “Pros talk about Hugos. SMOFs talk about volunteer numbers and art show hangings”

  13. I had no idea of the great power wielded behind the scenes by the people who haul grid panels and leather sofas….. We actually got accused of trying to rig the next worldcon site selection bid!

    (Chicon hotel did not allow decorations on walls, so if you wanted to hang things up at your party you had to get grid panels from logistics. We told people between what hours we would be delivering it, and not everyone seems to have understood that we meant it. So if you had people available when you were asked to, you got grid. If everybody decided to go out to dinner and assumed that you were an exception, you might not get grid. Because we were not going to be trying to maneuver grid cards through hallways full of drunk people But an actual complaint was filed with the Chair that we were picking and choosing who got grid in an effort to influence how the parties looked and thereby rig the worldcon site selection bid! Because bwa ha haa smof power trip or some such nonsense.)

    Honestly I was just glad that after the first night of parties I altered my cheery “Hi, this is Wendy from chicon logistics. We’ll be by your room between 11:30 and 12:30 to pick up your grid from your party last night. Please have someone in the room and available during that time” to add “Preferably someone wearing pants”. Because after the one guy answered the door buck naked except for a washcloth he was holding over his junk, I didn’t want to take the chance of repeating that experience.

  14. In Swedish student-driven activities, there’s a (mostly observed) habit of finishing your stint by writing (or adding to a previously written) document of “things to do, things to note, things THAT will go wrong and how you maybe can deal with it” (and other things like that) called, somewhat gruesomely, a “testament” (as in “last will and testament”, not as in “old” or “new”).

    On the whole, I think it is a good idea. It helps you to do better, should you be the person doing the job next time. It helps someone else, should they need to do the job and you’re not around for sage advice,

  15. @Ingvar, I know of one case with a local science fiction convention, where the person who ran the dealer’s room kept a large notebook that was literally entitled something like, “In Case I Get Hit By A Bus.”

    As it happens, he died suddenly and unexpectedly. The person who replaced him was able to take over relatively seamlessly, following the instructions in that notebook.

    Honestly, I really think that every department head of every convention should have a similar notebook. Just in case.

  16. Phandemonium, the organization that runs Capricon, got to learn this year the answer to the question “So what happens if the Treasurer gets hit by a bus?”

    That’s me. I got hit by a bus. In July.

    Because I was wearing a helmet, the only effects to the corporation were that our accountant had less lead time to prepare our tax returns then he would have liked, because I was waiting out concussion recovery protocol and couldn’t read a screen for about 5 weeks, and the Board President had to drive up to my place to sign some forms because I wasn’t mobile yet when they were due.

    But had I not been wearing a helmet? Several years ago we set up organization-wide Google suites with folders by department, and IT has access to all of them and can reassign them as need arises. In the Treasurer folder are the financials, tax returns, and audit documents from the last several years, a list of logins and passwords, and a basic procedures manual divided out by month. Yes, it’s two or three years old at this point, so I should probably update it, but had I been temporarily or permanently unable to keep doing my job, whoever got saddled with it next would have access to all of my documents, that instruction book, and every email I have sent or received while wearing the treasurer hat for the last three and a half years.

    After dealing with the Chicon “The highest person in the chain of command who is still alive the week before the con gets to run Logistics” nightmare, I was an early and enthusiastic adopter when this new system was proposed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.