Not a lot of people know this, but the Triangle area is crawling with robots, vampires, zombies and aliens.
Well, stories about them, anyway. North Carolina, and the Triangle in particular, is home to a busy community of writers in the realm of speculative fiction – the polite term for genre writing like science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Last year, the North Carolina Speculative Fiction Foundation – a new organization founded by local publisher Samuel Montgomery-Blinn – announced the winner of its inaugural Manly Wade Wellman Award for North Carolina Science Fiction and Fantasy. Wellman, an award-winning sci-fi writer, was a longtime North Carolina resident and major figure in the Golden Age of Science Fiction in the 1940s and 1950s.
The 2014 Wellman prize was awarded to author Mur Lafferty for her book “The Shambling Guide to New York City.” Eerie but essentially light-hearted, the book is the first in a series chronicling the adventures of a human travel writer for a supernatural publishing company.
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Lafferty’s book was among six short-list nominees selected from more than 70 novels published in 2013 by North Carolina authors. The award was voted on by the combined membership of North Carolina’s leading science fiction and fantasy conventions: IllogiCon, ConCarolinas, ConTemporal, and ConGregate.
The value of conventions
Sitting at a table toward the back of Durham game store Atomic Empire, Montgomery-Blinn said that, in the world of speculative fiction, such local and regional conventions are the backbone of the writing community.
“We have a great science fiction community here, a great gamer community,” he said. “And a big part of that is because we have so many conventions.”
In recent years, Montgomery-Blinn has been instrumental in bringing that community together as publisher of Bull Spec, a magazine of speculative fiction that he founded in 2009. Sold in bookstores and game shops, Bull Spec published eight print editions in total before transitioning to an online-only publication earlier this year.
Montgomery-Blinn said that, while he’d hoped to keep Bull Spec going as a regional print publication, the operation was just too costly. But the online version, at bullspec.com, features the same mix of content – short fiction, essays, poetry, reviews, interviews and comprehensive calendar listings of upcoming events.
The North Carolina Speculative Fiction Foundation, also established by Montgomery-Blinn, is a way to expand the community brought together by the print publication. “We knew we wanted to start the award, and I went with the foundation to maybe give it a chance to grow into something more,” he said.
For her part, author Lafferty said she was thrilled to have earned the inaugural Wellman award. “The Shambling Guide to New York” is Lafferty’s first professionally published novel, via the sci-fi imprint Orbit Books. Lafferty had previously self-published several stories and novellas, and also worked as a freelance writer for magazines and gaming publications.
Speaking from her home in Durham, Lafferty said that the genesis of the “Shambling Guide” series actually came in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“I just thought about this idea of a woman who was a writer, and wrote about New Orleans, and who loved her city so much that when she died and rose from the dead, she just wanted to keep doing it,” Lafferty said. “I wrote a little 4,000-word story about her showing off New Orleans to the undead.”
That story eventually morphed into the idea for a series of supernatural guide books for the monster (or “coterie”) community – zombies, vampires, retired Norse deities, what-have-you. Lafferty’s initial inspiration was itself resurrected earlier this year with the publication of the second book in the series, “The Shambling Guides 2: Ghost Train to New Orleans.”
In addition to dreaming up supernatural travel books, Lafferty is also co-editor of the popular science fiction podcast magazine Escape Pod.
“People send us stories just like any magazine, we have our slush pile,” Lafferty said. “When we choose a story, we schedule and find a narrator for it – people who can speak different language or do different accents – and we release it on a creative commons license. People can share it, but not change it.”
For new writers, regional publications like Bull Spec and podcast magazines like Escape Pod are a way to get stories into circulation with a wider audience. Both Bull Spec and Escape Pod pay writers the “professional rate” as established by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).
Lafferty said that the strong community of speculative fiction writers in and around the Triangle is largely due to Montgomery-Blinn’s work with Bull Spec and the North Carolina Speculative Fiction Foundation.
“It’s almost entirely around Sam,” she said. “I don’t know what kind of magic he has, but Sam has done an amazing job of bringing people together.”