Sophie’s Adventures in Wonderland – BristolCon 2014

SAM_5104Okay, so before the week comes to a close, I want to share with you all my experiences of being a newbie at my very first convention, BristolCon!

Last weekend I ventured to Bristol, UK, town of my birth, to go to my first convention, BristolCon. It was held at the rather posh Doubletree Hotel (part of the Hilton chain) and has been running for the past six years. Its creator and chairman, fabulous fantasy writer and awesome fellow Grimboldian author, is Joanne Hall.

Joanne Hall & Paul Cornell

Being nervous as hell, the kind of nervous that seems to grow an orange in your throat so you can’t swallow, lose your voice and feel like you might pass out, I pressed on. Not only was it my first sci-fi/fantasy convention, but I would be meeting my lovely publisher too for the very first time, the extraordinary Sammy HK Smith of Grimbold Books & its imprint, Kristell Ink. I was a sweaty mess the moment I turned up, an embarrassing habit I have when very anxious and something I hoped nobody would notice though I was sure everyone would.

The daft thing was, while frantically moping my brow, I needn’t have been so worried. Within minutes my nervousness evaporated and seemed completely out of place in such a friendly environment. Everyone was SO kind, SO welcoming and utterly awesome! In fact within moments my phrase of the day was, “ten buckets of awesome!”

I arrived late, just after 11am, cursing myself for the notorious congested Bristol traffic and just missed Joanne Hall’s reading, something I had desperately wanted to see. With guest badge and lovely goodie bag in hand, which included an awesome free book by one of my favourite authors, Michael Moorcock, and a free Grimbold Books bangle, I headed to my first event – a fascinating discussion on the weather of Middle Earth! SAM_5118 For a nerd like me, it was manna from heaven. It was chaired by Bristol University’s Professor  Dan Lunt, who really brought Tolkien’s magical creation and the science of meteorology together. His climate change computer models were incredible and showed how JRR Tolkien really did have an understanding of geography, geology, meteorology and working eco-systems. Unsurprisingly, Dan Lunt found that the places on Earth most like The Shire, were areas in this country, particularly Lincolnshire and Leicestershire and an area in the south of New Zealand’s South Island. Having spent four months in New Zealand myself, backpacking in 1997/1998 (the inspiration behind my own Darkling Chronicles), I witnessed first hand what an amazing and inspiring place NZ is. The majesty and unspoilt grandeur of its landscape is so perfectly fitted to Tolkien’s Middle Earth. It still blows me away that when I watch the LOTR films, it’s like watching a personal travel movie for me, I see places Peter Jackson used that I actually stood in and that inspired me too, long before the films came into existence!

Anyway, it was a brilliant talk. I particularly loved the fact, that in climate terms and ecology, the place on Earth most like Mordor is…Los Angeles! Oh and in the darkened room, I managed to get away with shouting “Yes!” when I came across the awesome Grimbold Books advert in BristolCon’s lovely programme booklet! SAM_5102

Jim BurnsAfter the talk, I decided to try and find my very good friend and fantasy comic genius, Will MacMillan Jones, but me being me, I got rather side-tracked and ventured into the Art Room. WOW!!!!! Not only were there some seriously awesome artists and pieces of work in there, including canvases and prints by the very talented Evelinn Enoksen, and some very cool armoury, I came across a true genius of the fantasy/sci-fi world, legendary illustrator, Jim Burns! I have been a fan of Jim Burn’s work for many years and here he was in the flesh, surrounded by his astounding work! I was dumbstruck. Eventually I sidled up to him and introduced myself. We chatted for about half an hour. He talked about meeting Ridley Scott just after Alien back in 1979/1980 and how Ridley Scott was in the works to direct Frank Herbert’s epic Dune, a movie later directed by David Lynch. He talked about meeting John Hurt, an alcoholic mess at the time but lovely guy and how after the Dune project fell through, Ridley Scott’s people approached him to see if he would be interested in working on another project, my all-time favourite movie based on one of my all-time favourite books. Yes, I’m talking about Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, made into seminal epic, Blade Runner!!!!!! I was speechless…well, for about ten seconds. BLADE RUNNER!!!!! WOW!!!!!! Jim showed me the artwork used for Deckard’s flying car that he drew. AWESOME!!!! What an amazing artist and what a genuinely lovely chap. Even when our conversation was rudely interrupted by a bloke who clearly had all the social manners of a camel, Jim was the epitome of graciousness, allowing this bloke to talk brashly at him and interrupt everything he said. It didn’t matter, Jim Burns was and is a star! I immediately bought his beautiful book and had him sign it. Wow! It already has pride of place amongst my art books!

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After that, I sort of wandered around in a slight daze until I bumped into a lovely chap called Alistair Sims, who I recognised from chatting to on FB as being the owner of a gorgeous new bookshop in Clevedon, Books On A HillSAM_5025 We got chatting and went into the dealer’s room for me to find and introduce him to my friend, Will MacMillan Jones, who was one of the dealer’s at BristolCon, selling his very funny books, The Banned Underground, which had Jasper Fforde no less complimenting him on! And there in front of Will, in his cool ‘Man from Del Monte’ hat, was my lovely publisher and fellow fantasy writer, the irrepressibly cool, Sammy HK Smith and fellow Grimbold author, the wonderful Irish firestorm (and my personal Sat-Nav), Robyn Jane Fulton aka Ellen Croshain! What lovely lovely people!! Despite my sometimes loud and apparent bubbly exterior (having been a teacher for 16yrs you automatically learn to hide yourself behind facades of smiles and confidence, you couldn’t do the job otherwise), but in reality, I am actually very VERY shy and not confident at all. So for me, meeting new people is always a big thing and something I’m not terribly good at. But immediately I felt so comfortable around them and instantly really liked them both. Phew! Lol, I cannot tell you how different Sammy is from my last publishers, not just in how professional she is (she knows everyone and everything!) but in how friendly, honest, open, fun and just awesome she is. We all hugged. I’d known Sammy, a fellow AWB member (Alliance of Worldbuilders) since the Alliance started back on HarperCollins Authonomy in 2010, but it was so great to finally meet my gorgeous friend in person! 😀 Ellen, Sophie, Sammy

SAM_5018After chatting ten to the dozen, I followed my new friends through BristolCon’s plethora of wondrous tables, rooms and events. We ended up going to another panel, called ‘Influences on Authors’, (with Paul Cornell, Joanne Hall, Piotr Swietleik, John Baverstock and Jessica Rydill) which was a brilliant, spirited and humorous discussion which came up with some very unexpected topics, including Dan Brown and JK Rowling (both of whom I’m not fans of) and how different influences affect each author’s writing and their own personal ‘voice’. Listening to Joanne Hall on the panel, was a treat, and after the event I finally got to meet her!!! An amazing author and all round fantasy/sci-fi queen, I was utterly in awe of how she organises and runs this brilliant con, lol, I can hardly organise my bedroom! It’s funny what a small world it is though, I’d actually known Jo and been friendly with her for years on Authonomy, knowing her under the name of Hierath to my Tollam. It was only last year when I finally realised that Hierath and Joanne Hall were one and the same person! In amongst the audience, I also noticed another familiar face wearing a T-shirt with a quote you can’t easily forget, “Like the Wizard of Oz, only with whores and gore!” from Prince of Fools. I asked Sammy to confirm it, yes, it was Mark Lawrence! (the one in the white T-shirt in the background behind Alistair) SAM_5021

We headed back to the bar, where Sammy introduced a very shy me to an equally shy Mark Lawrence, he of the staggeringly successful Broken Empire series that has been giving GRR Martin a run for his money! I was rather in awe of Mark I don’t mind admitting and made some daft reference to him wearing a cooler T-shirt than mine (which he was). We left him and sat down giggling like naughty school children and made poor Alistair blush with our moomin (boob-age) antics! Lol, already I’d noticed how wearing my White Mountain dragon sketch emblazoned across my boobs, drew a LOT of attention! The sentinels

After some more giggles and serious writing chat, we ventured back into the con and went to see ‘The Fragmentation of Fandom’ discussion panel with, amongst others, Jasper Fforde! Ummmmm…definitely my ‘dish of the day’! I’m aware that I should have been listening to him but was just staring. Oh dear! We then grabbed a load of fabulous free books from the table outside and also met the lovely Karoliina Leikomaa who had been on the panel for Fragmentation of Fandom too and fantasy writer and reviewer, Sarah Jane Higbee, who had also been a teacher!

We retreated back to the bar and after drinks and shared chips, yum yum, we met the deliriously witty Anne-Mhairi Simpson who introduced us to her awesome card game, ‘Be the Bard’! What hysterics!!!! 😀

I cannot tell you what fun I had and just how daft I was to be so nervous.

BristolCon is TEN BUCKETS OF AWESOME and so are all the people I meet, especially my new and old friends. I shall definitely be making BristolCon a date in my diary EVERY year from now on. An absolute must for all fantasy/sci-fi fans, writers, readers and lovers of great literature and dark thrilling tales!

Highlights? All of it!

See you guys next year! 😀 xxx

SAM_5114Fenn endorsing Grimbold Books!SAM_5014Influences panel

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New Zealand Odyssey Part VII – Volcanoes, Fendellin and the Road Less Travelled.

I left the bubbling visceral wonders of Rotorua and headed south, deeper into the heart of New Zealand’s North Island. Driving on long mostly empty roads in blissful sunshine with ‘The Cult’ blaring out of my rental car, I found myself with a constant smile on my face.

I headed towards Lake Taupo, a huge sunken supervolcano or caldera and not only the country’s largest  freshwater lake, but the largest in all of Australasia. The 485-square-mile caldera itself, not visible due to the lake waters, was the world’s largest known eruption in the past 70,000 years and tends to blow every 1,000 years. It’s overdue.

Stopping off first, I came to the extraordinary Huka Falls (Huka meaning ‘foam’ in Maori) and the Waikato River. One of New Zealand’s longest rivers, it suddenly narrows from 100m across to only 15m , as its squeezed into a granite canyon before dropping in a series of falls and rapids. The last waterfall being the most impressive, as approximately 220,000 litres per second tumbles over the final drop. Standing on a viewing platform perched just beside it, with the roar of the falls in my ears and the water vapour drenching me, was thrilling, but it was the astonishing colour of it which surprised me. The purest brightest blue.

I eventually left the falls, utterly soaked but gloriously happy and followed the highway south to the town of Taupo, nestling on the shores of Lake Taupo. The lake, more of an inland sea, is enormous, the town though, was small and welcoming. Cruising in an unhurried fashion along the lakefront and stopping for views, I found a cheap motel to call my base for the next few weeks. I dumped my equally enormous backpack, now getting almost too heavy with mementos to carry and checked into the Lakefront Motor Lodge. To my delight, my little room overlooked the lake and had the most stunning views.

I walked along the lakeshore losing myself in the beauty of it all and splashed out on a restaurant for my first evening meal. To describe Taupo as picturesque, is to do it a disservice. Watching spectacular sunsets over its shifting waters night after night, with the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park clearly visible in the distance, it became like a dream world for me and…a dream I didn’t want to wake from.

I spent lazy days exploring the town itself with its marinas and harbours, little shops and lack back bistros. Venturing out I visited the aptly named, the ‘Craters of the Moon’, a geothermal and volcanic lunar landscape that brought to life once more, just how powerful mother nature is. Then I tried some of the hot springs in the area. The sensation of having a very hot bubbling public bath, is strange to say the least, but oddly liberating (…no, I kept my bathing costume on at all times!).

But always, it was the volcanoes on the horizon that kept drawing me in. Packing some small provisions, I headed south, skirting around the eastern edge of the lake, towards the National Park.

Stopping halfway, I ventured off to the Kaingaroa Forest, the largest manmade forest in the world! Made entirely of plantation pines, with a few native ferns and species struggling to survive beneath the canopy, it was the strangest, spookiest forest I have ever visited. I loved the feeling of isolation but the silence was overwhelming, no birds, no animals. So alien to the rich diversity of the Waipoua Kauri Forest in the far north, or any of the woods I had wandered in.

Following the State Highway south as it hugged the lakeshore, I passed through Turangi at the southern most tip of Lake Taupo,  and entered the Tongariro National Park, one of only 28 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Trying to keep my excitement in check, I left the main highway or Desert Road as it’s known and came to the much smaller Lake Rotoaira. Sitting on the lake side I had a picnic lunch, watching black swans glide effortlessly as the mountainside behind vented sulphurous steam into the air. Everywhere I went, I found myself saying the same thing over and over, “I’ve found my Fendellin, I’ve found my Fendellin, ‘Lost Kingdom of Dragons!”

“Pass now beyond the mountains white

Where frosted rivers leap and spring,

Amongst the golden grasses light

Where fÿrrens dwell and soar and sing.

 

A land as old and fair as stars

Of snowy peaks and moonlit seas,

Of darkling woods we travel far

To gaze upon its silvery leaves.

 

Far East beyond heart’s lost desire

The birthplace of the eldest kin,

Through rising sun on wings of fire

Lies forgotten Fendellin.”

As I travelled further south, nothing could have prepared me for the awe-inspiring spectacle of Tongariro National Park’s crowning glory, its three active volcanoes, Mount Tongariro, the perfect cone of Mount Ngauruhoe and the monstrous size of the explosive giant, Mount Ruapehu!

Leaving the State Highway, I took the road less travelled into a world of epic fantasy and landscapes on a grandeur I could never have imagined before. Raw, untamed, magnificent and the true stuff of imagination!

Climbing the lower slopes of Mount Ruapehu, still steaming from eruptions only a few months before, camping beneath the stars in a sea of yellow gorse as I watched the sunsets bathe the volcanoes in gold…I found myself profoundly moved and in tears so many times, yet I have never felt freer.

Little did I realise while I was immersed in the whole majesty of it, that only a few years later, a certain Peter Jackson would use the same landscapes which had become such an inspiration to me and my first novel, ‘White Mountain’. As I travelled around, I kept seeing real-life locations for my ‘Darkling Trilogy’, suddenly brought to life in front of me. Watching the ‘Lord of the Rings’, some four years later, was made even more surreal and magical as a result, not only by recognising places I had visited but by seeing parts of my Fendellin used as their Mordor, my Kallorm used for their Fangorn! Very strange but thrilling!

But my awe-inspiring and magical odyssey was not over yet…