Famous in Finland, Fixture in France
I arrived in Helsinki on the Wednesday night, got picked up at the airport by my Finnish translator, Nina Saikkonen, and knew we were going to hit it off as soon as I spotted the Soundgarden patch on her army surplus / parka style coat while we stood outside the airport having a fag. It was just fricking excellent to meet Nina. I know just how hard she worked on the translation -- know even more now that we've met and talked in person. Like, how it nearly drove her round the twist at times, how her left arm stopped working so she had to type one-handed, how everyone involved fell ill at some point, how it was touch and go whether the book would be ready for the Helsinki Book Fair, how Nina discovered, with wonder, that translators can have the same weird thing that writers get -- where it's no longer you writing, but the character talking through you. She had that with Seamus Finnan, she said; at times it just stopped being a laboured translation process and instead she was reading the English and the Finnish Seamus was just dictating his lines to her. Heh, we were joking that since there's less of Seamus in INK, she can always slip in a few extra scenes, since Seamus talks through her now. (Though I'm not sure Nora Varjama at Like, would appreciate an increased word count in a sequel that's already a fair bit longer.)
Anyway, there was just time to check into the hotel (and a fucking nice hotel it was too!) before being huchled off to a wee restaurant called Manala for food, wine and an interview with Jussi Ahlroth for Helsingen Sanomat, the big Finish broadsheet, their equivalent of the London Times. This was only really meant to last an hour or so, but I think my blathering stretched it to an hour and a half or longer. Hey, Jussi knew his stuff -- and my stuff, of course -- so the whole interview started a good few places on from the dreaded "So you right this sci-fi stuff, yes? Or is it fantasy? Are we talking aliens or elves?" No, Jusi was asking the sort of questions I love to get me teeth into, so the poor photographer who was meant to take my mugshot for the article had to sit and wait for us to finish gabbing before he had his chance to exploit my inner media slut. (I suspect I make for a good subject; I'll pose for as long as you want, wherever you want me, shameless attention-seeker that I am.)
So after some quick shots out on the streets of Helsinki, it was into the pub next door to Manala -- Urho's -- where a good few of the Finns I'd met at Åcon and/or Parcon were already waiting -- including the awesome Moominhanna, as she will henceforth be known to me. I have to confess that night is something of a blur, not because I was wasted but because I was high on seeing everybody again. So it smooshes into the following night, which was the SF Society's fortnightly meeting in the same pub, and I can't honestly say who I caught up with on Wednesday and who I caught up with Thursday. Toni? Jukka? Maija [sp?]? Nini? Juha? Sari? Too many friends! Too many names and faces! My little pickled brain can't handle all that input, I'm afraid. To be honest, it was such a whirly wondrous week or so of catch-up overload that I'm not even going to try and keep track; I'll just hope I don't offend anyone by failing to mention them. (As soon as a gathering gets into double figures, I'm screwed -- even leaving aside that thing of unfamiliar names with phonemes that aren't quite the same as in English being really fucking hard to keep track of. Oh, for the Singularity and an HUD that can remind me, three hours of blether later, the name that just didn't quite take in my buzzing brain.)
Anyways, I can't even really remember how that first evening came to an end, but after a good night's sleep in my swellegant hotel room came my first visit to the book fair, a wee double-header interview thing -- with Finnish writer J. Pekka Mäkelä being interviewed by Nora and meself being interviewed by Nina -- more photographs and a chilled-out interview (over beer, of course,) with Toni Jerman for Tähtivaeltaja. I hooked up for dinner with the folks from Like (mmm, reindeer!) in a wee restaurant close to the book fair, then headed off to Urho's again. Originally there was a plan to just spend a wee while there before heading round to a book fair soiree of some sort, but of course once settled in a pub with some very nice stout on tap and all my Finnish friends to chat to, well, I was just having too much fun to leave. Johanna Sinisaolo was there too, which was awesome, though I didn't really get a chance to talk with her till late on. Did I mention how good Troll: A Love Story was? DId I forget completely or did I just drunkenly reiterate it over and over again ("Issh a fuggin aweshome book!!")? I have no idea. Either way, it all ended up with a bunch of us snaffling some red wine from Moominhanna's and heading back to my hotel room to drink it (or -- *ahem* -- spill it) in a re-enactment of the åwesome Acon (including Toni asleep on the floor, popping up occasionally at the side of the bed like a vampire meerkat.) It were ace.
Of course, I suffered for it the next day, when I had a TV interview first thing, an interview which I can't imagine them getting much usable footage out of, given the way my hungover mumbling indubitably exacerbated the incomprehensibility of my accent. I doubt I said much worth listening to, but if I'm lucky they couldn't tell. Hell, their best bet would have been to get Nina to "translate" it into actual answers rather than zombie-talk. I was so whacked that it didn't really register on me that the board of press clippings had two big-ass articles on little old me, that the Helsingen Sanomat had given me basically the full front page of their culture section. Thankfully, I had time to catch a nap and recover before another interview (with Jussi Ahlroth) on stage, before the biggest crowd I've talked to so far, I reckon; then there were signings at the Like book stall, and another interview with Nina again, where we got to talk about the whole gnarly subject of translation.
At some point we passed by the Like stall again, and they'd sold out already. The book, it seemed, was doing pretty fucking well. How well? We passed by again later and there were more in stock, but only a dozen or so; from the sounds of it Like were having the most excellent problem of barely being able to keep up with demand. It was probably around this point that the reality made its way through the dissipating fug of hangover. Cause, yeah. Front page of the Helsingen Sanomat culture section. Their equivalent of the London Times. People were, so I'm told, pointing me out on the fricking tram. When we ended up in Bud's bar in Kallio, the "seedy" boho district of Helsinki, to have a drink with some friends of Nina's -- e.g. the most hospitable Ville, bless him, and Mikko the film-maker who must've had a hell of a job trying to understand my increasingly rattling prattle as we talked about art and the investment of self you put into it -- people were actually asking to have photographs taken with me. Like an actual famous person. It's a concept I find completely crazy, cause I'm just... well... me. ("But it's great that you see yourself on the same level as us," said someone at one point. "But of course I fucking do," says me, "cause I am!") But, yeah, by the end of Friday night I actually felt like a bona fide celebrity -- Hal Duncan, famous in Finland. The whole thing was as silly as it was swell for me, cause I totally can't take it seriously, with the old Scots saying of "Aye, ah kent his faither" always ringing in my head. Still, doesn't stop me from enjoying the attention, like a kid who got the star part in a school play. It's great fun when you get to play at being famous for a night.
From that night on I was crashing with the wonderful Moominhanna, friend from Åcon, friend for life, who'd kindly offered me a sofa bed if I was ever in Helsinki. When news came through that the trip was in the offing, I'd been straight on the email to her, blinking my wide eyes innocently. Oh, Hanna...? You know how you were saying...? And so we'd arranged an extended stay, with me hanging on for the full weekend rather than leaving on the Friday or Saturday when all my offical duties were over. This is, I now know, the Moomin way.
Having never read any Moomin books as a kid, my only experience being with the animated cartoons (which everyone I talked to there roundly dismissed,) I was unaware of the anarchistic awesomeness that is the Moomin philosophy -- the open door for visitors, a warm welcome for wastrels like meself. Now I've seen it in practice, and yes, it is a truly glorious thing -- a sense of hospitality any Glaswegian would be proud of. Part of what was most awesome was getting a little break from playing International Author on the Saturday when -- after an interview with Jukka whose-second-name-I-can't-spell at the SF Society stall, and a brief stint signing more books at the Like stall -- we headed to the gallery opening of young painter, Topi Ruotsalainen. Not only did I get to be the one having stuff signed for them for a change, but I got to meet Hanna's family and friends. Hell, I got to admire Topi's work. Particularly in some of the larger canvasses which aren't up on that site there's a subtle injection of the strange into the domestic that I just love. And as I understand, he's hit that point of being able to survive on the sales, so it was great to see his paintings up close and personal, at the point when his talent is really paying off. That was one of the highlights of the trip, actually -- being a friend of a friend, kicking back in the warm glow of someone else's success.
That night it was more reindeer on the menu, and lingenberries, in a swish restaurant with Toni, Hanna, Juha and his girlfriend, then off to a pub to catch up with the SF crowd again, to drink whisky and salty liquorice liqueur. I got an awesome birthday present from Tero in the shape of an ingenious kid's book called This Is Finland, funny as fuck and educational too! There was beer and blether and more blether and more beer. There was another pub, by which point we were all very, very drunk. There was much manly hugging when it came to the goodbyes at the end of the night, and while I do (vaguely) remember the walk home, I suspect my brain sort of switched off at the door of Hanna's flat; I was no sooner inside than I was in bed and asleep.
Sunday was a day of chilling out. Moominhanna and I had a nice long lie in till an eminently sensible hour of the afternoon, then took a trip to the Amos Anderson Museum to see an exhibition of 30s Finnish artists and a kick-ass installation, as recommended by Topi -- the Gottberg-Kåhre Project. I won't say anything about it, cause the artists don't themselves on the accompanying flyer, preferring for people to come without expectations; all I'll say is if you're in Helsink, go. I only wished I knew Finnish or Swedish, so I could have watched the documentary on the top floor about the collaboration between these two artists, one a painter, the other a sculptor.
I had my usual utter indecision when it came to talk of teatime and Hanna asked me what I fancied eating. My mind immediately goes blank in such situations, and had it not been for a casual mention of a new Spanish place I'd have had us wandering around for hours probably. As it was, as soon as the word "tapas" was mentioned, well, it was, "Why do I always forget tapas? I love tapas!" So tapas is was, then a wee beer and a few phone calls later we ended up in Chaplins, a nice little laid-back place with some cool sounds on the stereo and some even cooler folks to chat with -- mainly comics guys, as I recall, one of them over from Germany. The quiet night did end up with us drinking till last orders in DTM, Helsinki's main gay club, which meant me dancing my ass off to the Black-Eyed Peas, but it wasn't that wild a night, honestly.
We had a quick visit to the Like offices the next morning to meet the team, then a jaunt to the warehouse to sign some books. See, all my official duties were meant to be over, but by then, of course, it was obvious to all concerned just how well the book had done at the fair. First edition sold out. There couldn't have been more than fifty left in the warehouse, most of them earmarked for bookshops, I believe, so it was already being sent off to the printers for another print run before I left. And Nora, knowing I was still in town, had organised a signing in a bookshop and a last-minute interview with a press agency for the next day, before I left. Sweeeeeeeet! as they say. Do I have a problem doing extra PR malarkey becuase the book is doing so well? Do I fuck!
The rest of the Monday was relaxation anyway, wandering round Helsinki, lunching in a delicious pizza place. I caught up with Juha again -- giving Moominhanna a much-needed respite in which to buy groceries and not be punishing her liver -- and we headed for a rather lovely beer bar, a brewer's bar kind of place with their own brand of smoky beer and chocolatey beer both of which were exceedinly yummy! Not to mention the giant toasties! Nina and Jukka joined us later and we sipped lovely beer at a leisurely pace until closing time.
And then, after that last minute bookshop signing and interview the next day it was off to the airport. I said me goodbyes to Nora and co at the bookshop, and to Jukka Halme, who'd dropped by on his way to work, hugged my wonderful translator Nina out at the taxi rank and tried to make it clear just how great it was to meet her and hang with her -- but even gushing doesn't do it justice. I ain't ashamed to say that I was feeling all emotional at that point, so when it came to saying goodbye to Moominhanna at the airport, well, remaining gruff and manly was just a lost cause; I genuinely had to wipe the tears from me sentimental Scottish eyes. Still had a big-ass lump in my throat as I sat at the departure gate, waiting for my flight to be called, thinking about what a time I'd had.
But with an armful of Moomin books as a birthday present, to see me through the flight, and remind me always of the friendships I've found in Finland. It was halfway between Helsinki and Heathrow, I think, as I read the scene where Snuffkin uses hattifatters to distract the Park Keeper while he tears down all those nasty notices that say "Don't sit on the grass" and suchlike, that I knew exactly why Moominhanna was so sure that I "must read this." And absolutely 100% right.
But there's gotta be a horrible come-down after that, right?
Well, no, actually. Cause I only had one day in Glasgow before flying out on another international jaunt, this time to Nantes, for my second Utopiales. And that meant arriving at the hotel just as Ian Mcdoald and his lovely wife, Enid, were getting back from dinner, which meant hitting the hotel bar and chinwagging before even dumping my stuff in my room. Which meant happily calling bonsoir! as French friends from Imaginales and the previous Utopiales swung by -- like the ever-lovely Jeanne-A Debats. I don't really do the whole British reserve thing, you know, so I just love that kiss-on-either-cheek greeting thing; when you haven't seen someone for half a year or a year, it's so much more expressive.
Nantes felt like just a flying visit though, I have to say -- only two full days and a smidgeon either side. Still, I managed to fit a fair bit in. Friday morning I had a group excursion with some of the other guests and their wives to the Jules Verne Museum, and to the local library to see some authentic manuscripts -- which was pretty damn cool, fascinating for the drafting and editing method he used, and the red pen comments of his editor. Better still, when I made it back to the con I pretty much immediately started bumping into all the folks I was hoping to catch up with -- like the Swiss posse, for example, Sébastien Cevey, Lucas Moreno, et al., and awesome illustrateur, Zariel, who as you'll see here put together a wee paper for the festival, with a story from Yours Truly. Most importantly though was my "definite tu," Annäig, who was my official interpreter and shepherd at Épinal and pretty much the same -- only not officially so -- in Nantes.
And -- imagine this in an excited kiddy's voice -- Annäig took us to see the giant mechanical wooden elephant of Nantes!!!
The what? you say.
The giant mechanical wooden elephant of Nantes, silly. It's awesome. Richard Morgan and me missed it last year, see, so Annäig promised she would take me, and she'd been talking to Robert Reddick on Facebook, cause he's a really nice guy who it was most excellent to meet and hang out with, Annäig having adopted him as well, and anyway, he didn't know about the giant mechanical wooden elephant of Nantes at all, but had just heard people talking about the elephant and not known what they were on about, so Annäig told him she had a surprise for him, and I had to not tell him where we were all going in Annäig's car, and then we drove away and he asked how far it was to Annäig's home town because I think he thought we were going there, only we weren't, and he had no idea so when we arrived at the place with the giant mechanical wooden elephant of Nantes he was, like, totally, WOW, and then we went into the workshops and, and, and, and I got to sit in a giant mechanical wooden blowfish, and pedal, and pull the chain that made it's flipper flip, and steam came out its mouth and everything, and it was awesome!!!
(I did feel a bit sorry that Robert didn't get picked by the young guys who were demonstrating les Machines, when he was just as keen as me to have a go in one, maybe even more so; but I reckon that just means he has a damn good reason to come back.)
Anyways, we made our way back to the festival by way of a bar, for a wee beer and a blether, and then a supermarket, so's I could pick up some beer for the room party I was reckoning as a necessity that night, given that the hotel bar in Novotel closed at half twelve the previous night. Back at the festival, I started spreading the word and it was then, I think, that I found my French translator, Florence Dolisi had arrived, which was cause for more celebration; though it wasn't much more than a quick wee drink because by then it was pretty much time to get something to eat, myself, Annäig and some friends heading round to l'Usine. That kangaroo was most tasty, I must say, perhaps even more tasty because of Annäig's horror at the consumption of cuteness, heh -- also because I found a co-conspirator in one of Annäig's friends, Muriel, a fellow red-wine drinking, bloody-meat eating carnivore. (I think Muriel was the right name. Apologies if I'm mixing people up here.)
So, yes, there was the room party after that -- or was it two, or even three room parties? See, we started off in my room, drank all the beer (I should have bought more, I realised fairly quickly,) then took the wonderful Catherine Dufour up on her invite to her room party, only for everyone to be kicked out of there when someone came up from reception to say we were making too much noise; so we figured the best idea was simply to reconvene back in mine, since my room only had neighbours on one side. Whatever, a good time was had by all, and I go to chat with Florence a bit more, and Catherine, and to meet Pierre Jouan whose written some very nice things, I understand, about both Vellum and Ink.
The next day was the busiest for me, starting with a panel on whether or not the 21st century was spiritual -- which largely became, I think, a panel about what the hell spirituality is. There was a lot of interesting opinion there, but I don't think I contributed much, to be honest. It's the sort of subject where I am pretty opinionated meself -- opposed to anything which implies transcendance of the flesh, the whole Cartesian duality of soul and body -- but with the so much depending on how you define your terms, it's the sort of subject where people can be talking at cross-purposes at the best of times. Add the vagueness that comes from (albeit excellent) translation, and the fact that the translation would occasionally cut off for a second because my mic seemed to be interfering with my headphones, and I sort of didn't want to be throwing in my tuppence-worth based on miscomprehension of the points being made by others.
Also on the agenda was a round table thing with all the nominees up for the Prix Européen Utopiales, at which Ian Mcdonald made a shamefully -- shamefully, I say -- late entrance, prima donna that he is! And the signings, of course, where I met Aliete de Bodard across the table, and chatted with Ian, David Wingrove and basically whoever was sat beside me, in between making me scribbles on dead tree. I kind of like that multiple group signing sessions set up they have in Utopiales and Imaginales because it gives you that chance to chat with other writers you might not know that well. I mean, I know Ian from many cons over the years, but had mostly been sat at the other side of the table from David whenever we were in the bar; and the signing sessions are pretty much how I got chatting to Pierre Bordage last year, as I recall. The downside is maybe where people coming up to get books signed are basically approaching you on a whole... status differential that can make it a bit awkward. It throws things off, makes it all feel a little unnatural; so I would have liked to get a chance to chat to Aliete, for example, in more informal circumstances. It all feels a little too much like you're giving someone an audience for my liking, which always makes me worry about coming across as an arse, which in turn makes me all self-conscious and babbling, which makes me worry if I sound all patronising if I'm interested in the person on the other side of the table and.... argh! Does that make sense?
I think one of the things I like about Utopiales or Imaginales or WFC in the US or Fantasycon in the UK, over a more traditional US/UK con, is where the higher proportion of pros, semipros and aspiring writers, editors, illustrators and so on, actually works against that division between Guest and Fan. Most guests, I suspect, most writers that you might want to chat with, actually don't really want to be the one holding court, attentive fans hanging on their every word. And when you only have a few pros around, in a lot of cons I've been to that seems to be how it pans out. Maybe fans are a bit reticent in the presence of a "real writer". Maybe writers feel like they need to earn their guesthood as a raconteur. Maybe nobody really wants it to be that way, but it just happens because there's that sense of a different status. Either way, I've found that the barriers seem to come down when you have a higher proportion of pros, because as soon as the guests don't necessarily know who's a guest and who's a fan, and the fans don't necessarily know who's a fan and who's a guest, well, everyone is just another citizen of Conventionland. Which is the way it should be, I reckon.
Anyways, there was a bit too much buzzing around for me to recall much other than Robert Reddick's impression of a bull elephant seal, a quick interview Annäig did with me for... ActuSF, yeah? Florence Dolisi and myself comparing tastes in men as we waited for the Priz Européen Utopiales to be announced. (It went to Stéphane Beauverger's Le Déchronologue, which sounds pretty damn cool from what I heard at the round table thingy earlier.) Getting a present of a big bottle of Leffe from a chap in a big black cape whose name I can't remember now, which is annoying because we met last year and it was really fricking cool of him to go out of his way to "repay hospitality" as he put it, and especially well-timed. I remember saying in Finland that not only did I not care if I lost the prize in Nantes, but they could actually publicly strike Vellum off the list, renounce it as pure merde, piss on it on-stage, and I wouldn't give a fuck cause I'd had such a good time in Helsinki. And yanno, having yon fellow come up after the awards ceremony with a bottle of Leffe in the name of pure sociability -- I can honestly say I was still having such a good time in Nantes to feel even remotely disappointed. I kinda feel really at home there, having got to know so many fine folks. I was totally chuffed when someone commented on the fact that with two Utopiales in a row and Imaginales in between, I was pretty much part of the scene now. That tickled me pink, I gotta say.
So. Then it was off for dinner at a very nice restaurant with Ian and Enid, my translator, Florence and Ian's translator, Jean-Pierre (ouai?), and our editor, Gilles. Mmmmm, oysters! The evening was rounded off nicely with a visit to a nearby pool hall and bar which turned out to be where most folk from the festival had ended up, so they could talk rather than shout over the thumping dance music (as I understand) that was going down at l'Unique. Much beer was drunk, some of it from the "Giraffe", a huge towering tube of beer with a tap at the bottom, both civilised and dangerous. (Well, at least consumption wasn't measured as in Pilsen, site of the sudden-death beer match between meself and Juha.) I chatted to Pierre Jouan a bit more there, got some good tips about French writers translated into English, and eventually, come closing time, staggered back to my hotel room where the survivors helped me polish off that bottle of Leffe. Had a great long chat with Roland Wagner that extended well after all alcohol was gone actually; so I bleieve I finally made it to bed sometime between six and seven.
And then... well, sadly, Sunday was the last day of my too-short trip. As if in sympathy the skies had opened up by the time I surfaced, and it was absolutely fucking bucketing down. I checked out of the Novotel and wandered around the festival bar to say my goodbyes, frustrated that there were so many folks I hardly felt like I'd had a chance to talk to at all -- Jean-Claude Dunyach, Benjamin Chaignon, and on, and on, and on. Hell, when the taxi outisde the Novotel at midday turned out not be mine, and ten minutes later mine still hadn't arrived, I was really quite OK with the idea of being stuck in France, throwing myself on the mercies of Annäig and Florence, giving them my best puppy-dog eyes (even if they are cat-lovers) and allowing myself to get soaked by the rain just to add an extra level of pathos as I trembled my bottom lip and said, "Oh, noes. I can't possibly catch my plane now. Whatever will I do? Wherever will I stay?"
But alas, nothing gold can stay, as Robert Frost once said. Book fairs or festivals, those wonderful holidays in Conventionland all have to come to an end, and before you know it you're on a plane out of there, or worse, in the departure lounge of that hub airport -- Schiphol or Heathrow -- listening to all the Glaswegian accents of those around you, and all you have left is that automatic ouai when someone asks you a question, or kiitos when the barman gives you your change.
You know, Glasgow is absolutely going to have to host another Worldcon soon, so's I can go with zero commitments whatsoever and just spend a week hanging out with my European mates. (Cause, hey, that would also mean I could try and crowbar my American amigos into coming over too, cause as much as I love Utopiales I'm pining for that WFC bar, dudes -- Chris Roberson, Allison Baker and meself pretty much parked there for the duration. Sigh.) I mean, I'm keeping me fingers crossed for even a slim chance of return trips to both Finland and France -- cause believe me, I'd jump at it -- but if Mohammed can't afford airfare to the mountain, can't the mountain get the ferry to him or something? Yes, that's utterly selfish of me, but I don't care. I want the chance to catch up with my mates even if I don't make it over again next year. Nay, I demand it! And the world must satisfy my whims! Or I will pout -- pout, I say!
Trust me, I will do my puppy-dog eyes. And you will weep. Yeah, verily even the cat-lovers will weep before the pathetic misery of my puppy-dog eyes.