Welcome back to the conclusion of our interview with Ariane Wolfe and Mark Anderson, co-chairs of the Nova Albion convention.
Part 1 can be read here.
AA: You mentioned that it takes a group of dedicated volunteers to launch a convention, just how many might that be for Nova Albion?
AW: About 50, all told, with 6 very talented and passionate department heads at the helm.
AA: And how were you able to get them involved?
MA: They owed us money… Seriously, these are people doing this through the love of the genre and a good time. We try our best not to get in the way of that.
AW: Most of them are either from that first group of friends who helped produce the first event, or their friends who they’ve brought in to join the fun. We’ve had a few people contact us from the website or social nets, but the majority of our volunteers have been in from the start.
AA: That’s really great to have so many people not only interested but actively wanting to help out and participate. A convention is generally a collection of activities, discussions and displays. Where do you get ideas for your programs?
AW: A lot of the ideas have come from what we would be interested in going to see… as folks interested in Steampunk and related genres, and who have gone to various cons over the years, what would we want to sit through? Who would we actually want to go listen to or ask questions of? We were hugely fortunate to have Tofa Borregaard heading our Programming for 2008 and 2010; she has a great feel for what will interest people, translate into a good topic or presentation… this year she handed the torch over to J. Daniel Sawyer, who has been working with her and he will be taking over Programming for 2011. Dan has already expanded it to include a fourth track and we’re really excited to see where it’s going. We’re also still open to ideas and we have room for new speakers on the roster… so if anyone wants to submit an idea, we’d love to hear it!
AA: Hmm, an opening for new speakers… J When someone does submit an idea, what do you look for in a good program topic?
AW: Something that will both interest and educate folks, a subject that’s genuinely interesting to us, or that brings something unique to the table. We try to expand into areas that aren’t being covered, to get a bit more diverse than people expect, so there are some pleasant surprises. We started with two tracks of programming in 2008 – discussion panels and academic presentations (which is actually far more interesting than it may sound). For this last Exhibition, we added a third track to our programming – hands-on workshops and Maker demos – so that people could see various contraptions such as a Tesla Coil in action, learn how to make leather or metal pieces for their costumes and maybe have something to take away with them.
We also like to offer a very loose interpretation of what is “steampunk”, and encourage people to let their imagination run a bit to see what they can find. I recently went to hear Cherie Priest do a reading, and one of the things she said really stuck with me as a good example of this. I guess some people have written to her or found her online and commented about how she’s written her zombies, how some of the ways she described the city of Seattle weren’t accurate and the like… which completely neglects that the book is a work of fiction! It doesn’t need to be “accurate” (and really – who’s the authority on “real” zombies, anyway?)… regardless of what certain aspects of her writing are based on, that world is her own creation – so it’s hers to imagine and write as she will. I come from a background in historical re-creation, and I love the historicity (or Alt historicity) behind steampunk! But before you tell someone they’re “doing it wrong” or not being accurate (“Hey, that can’t be steampunk – he’s not wearing goggles!”), I think you have to stop yourself and say, “wait – what *is* steampunk? How many different things can it be?” and then keep expanding on that to see how wide you can make that definition.
AA: One of the big draws in any convention is the Guests of Honor. Where do you look for Guest of Honor, speakers, and performers?
AW: From within the Steampunk community, from the Bay Area… we look for folks who are diverse and interesting, who will have ideas that can be chewed on for a while or will give performances that stick with you as an extraordinary thing to have experienced. we do a lot of poking around online, getting recommendations by word-of-mouth, and we’re often contacted out of the blue from people who have heard about the Exhibition and want to be a part of it.
AA: Is there anything you look for in particular in a GoH?
AW: Again, folks who are interesting, offer a diverse array of talent, and really have something to share with everyone. We have had an amazing lineup of speakers and performers in the past, and 2011 is starting to really come together, too! One of the things I really wanted to bring together was the Friday night Ball… I am a big fan of the PEERS and Gaskell Ball events, which are period dance gatherings here in the Bay Area. So each year we have hired a band (in 2008 it was The Brass Works, and in 2010 Bangers and Mash) that can perform Victorian ballroom dance pieces such as waltzes, polkas and the like. Our Guests of Honor have included luminaries in the steampunk genre such as Jim Blaylock, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, Phil and Kaja Foglio and Gail Carriger; Makers Jake Von Slatt, Jon Sarriugarte and Kimric Smythe… for 2011 we have Cherie Priest, Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett joining us, amongst many talented others. We try to bring in folks who have a lot to share and love doing so… because again, it’s a dynamic and participatory audience, and the bar is very high.
AA: Another fun aspect that people look forward to is the vendor’s room. What types of vendors do you seek out?
AW: I feel like our Vendor Halls are kind of a point of pride. I have been to Sci-fi and Fantasy conventions over the years, and when I decided I was going to start a Steampunk event, I went to a couple more cons, to get a feel for what folks wanted to see there. There was a theme to each, and I hoped the vendors would reflect that, and help to set the stage for the rest of the event. Some of the merchants were wonderful, with well-made hand-crafted items and creative stock, but a lot of them sold manufactured, cookie-cutter stuff that it felt like they’d brought in because it was an event with a table they could sell at, or because it’s what they always brought to cons, so why change for the theme?
From the start, I wanted to be able to offer a new and different experience, based more on the way that historical re-creation events have done it, so that the event would feel less like a convention and be more of an experience… where the vendors are part of the whole aesthetic, not just there to sell things. There are obviously limitations when you’re working with a hotel space rather than creating an entire environment – but I wanted to see how steampunk I could get our vendor hall. So I started going online and looking for vendors who sold steampunk or Victorian goods… going to ETSY, to the Steampunk Workshop’s links page and elsewhere in the community… I wanted the vendors to be people who were really excited about doing a steampunk event, and who would (if you’ll pardon a bad pun), gear their stock towards the theme. What happened was, we got an overwhelming response, and the first vendor hall sold out – with 100% of the vendors having steampunk items for sale.
For 2010’s Nova Albion we expanded on that idea, moved into a larger hotel and sectioned off more space for the vendors. We were more careful about balancing the goods, having learned that a LOT of steampunks like to make goggles and rayguns, modify hats and sell clockwork jewelry… which was all wonderful and lovely so long as you have other things as well! So we expanded the search, talked to folks about what represents Steampunk for them, and did our best to have a more diverse offering – but still all related to the genre. The tables were all taken about 4 months out from the event, with a waiting list.
For next year, we’ve moved once again, so we can expand even further. This time we not only have more space for vendors, we’ve got them in three locations so that vending is a bit better integrated with the rest of the experience. The vendor areas were about 90% full 7 months prior to the event date, and at this point we’re pretty much entirely sold out, with a few people on the waiting list, hoping to get a last-minute space.
AA: Getting the word out and getting noticed to make sure people know about your event can be a whole project in itself. How did you promote Nova Albion beforehand?
AW: Any way we can! (she said with a grin). Like Mark said a little earlier, it really does take a full year and more to plan Nova Albion. So during the prior year’s Exhibition, we advertise what the next year’s theme will be in our program, the Calliope, and offer pre-sale Passes for the following year. We go to other steampunk events and gatherings when we can, and try to have cards or flyers to hand out or fun promotional ribbons.
During the months leading up to an event, we’ll do a press release or two – as it gets closer, we start to feature different aspects of it on our website and encourage folks to join our RSS feed, so they can know what’s new and interesting coming up. We have offered free pairs of tickets for contest winners and such to help promote the Exhibition, and participated in stuff like Tor Books’ Steampunk Month. Social Networking sites like FaceBook and Twitter are great tools too… though I think you have to be careful you don’t inundate people with frivolous updates. If you constantly update your group’s status or send out daily notes, it can start to sound too much like you’re always wanting to sell people something, or like you’re electronically jumping up and down saying, “Ooh, ooh – look at me, look at me!” Nova Albion is a small non-profit, and we need to advertise and get more people in each year so we can make enough money to do it again… at the same time, I’m pretty hugely against marketing blasts and spam; I feel there has to be a balance between getting the word out and promoting our event, and making sure we’re not annoying people. We also send out email missives to folks who’ve bought tickets in the past – but again, we like to keep those kind of few and far between so each one is fresh and interesting, not repetitive and annoying!
For our merchants, we go through the Vendor Halls at our event and give our current vendors the opportunity to grab their space for the next one ahead of time at a discounted fee – so that way, some of them who already know they want to come back, can get their payment out of the way at a lower cost, and we can get an idea of who we’ll have with us, what other goods we’ll want… then they can go back home after the event and let their customers and fans know they’ll be at the next one.
AA: If you had unlimited access and an unlimited budget, what is one item you’d leap at to offer at the convention?
AW: Airship rides! How cool would it be to have a dirigible tethered out in font of the hotel?
AA: I would love to go on such a ride! After all, it is part of my name! What advice or suggestions do you have to people who want to be involved in or produce a convention?
AW: Do it! When my original partner and I put on the Steampunk Convention in 2008, no one had ever done one before. It was an idea we were both passionate about, and we just said, “Well, let’s do it! I’ll be there are plenty of folks who’d love to go to one, so… let’s make it happen!”. Even with a background in events, I hadn’t done anything like that before, and we made a lot of it up as we went along. I think the one thing I’d warn someone though is not to do it if they’re in it for the money. I think I can paraphrase what my dad once said about the music industry, and apply it here… “you know how you make a million dollars in the Exhibition industry? Well, first you have to start with TWO million…” OK, so maybe it’s not quite that bad… but it’s not a huge money-maker, and you’ll probably spend more out-of-pocket than you think, especially at first. Doing something like this is a labor of love – if you don’t really love it, there are easier ways to make a buck.
AA: Aside from Nova Albion, what other steampunk things are you involved with?
AW: I am the Fashion Editor for the online steampunk zine, Exhibition Hall (yes, heh – in my copious spare time!). One of the things I try to do with that is give folks a sense of what the dress of the time was or might have been, and show how to modify clothes they may already have, into great steampunk outfits. At the Exhibition, we have a costume contest so people can get acknowledged for the fantastic attire they’ve made and put together… it’s a cool circle, and it keeps people involved, it gives them stuff do to.
In 2009, we put on an event called “The Indescribable Delights of the Clockwork Caliphate”, which was a wonderful dinner event at a fantastic restaurant in Oakland called Tanjia. It was a great deal of fun, with amazing authentic Moroccan food, a wonderful belly dancer named Amira, live eclectic folk music by the Brunos Band… we haven’t repeated it yet though, because while it was a wonderful evening, we had been hoping it would be a fundraiser for Nova Albion, and it just broke even. So while we might do it again at some point… it didn’t prove a useful way to generate money for the Exhibition.
In my own time, I do a lot of reading (I’m about to start The Windup Girl, having just finished Gail Carriger’s Blameless and Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker before that), and quite a bit of costuming for Nova Albion, Dickens Fair and various other events. We try to make it out to the Maker Faire and the Handcar Regatta… we don’t often get out of California to attend other events, but I’m ever-hopeful!
AA: Those are fun hobbies to have, and some great books to read! What are your interests outside of steampunk
AW: Reading (whenever I get the time), various types of dance, horseback riding (at any opportunity), a little sewing, raising some amazing kids! I don’t have a lot of free time, between the Exhibition, my dayjob and the family… when I can roll it all together, it’s a bonus! Costuming and historical re-creation has been a passion of mine since I was in my early teens. I spent quite a few years working the Renaissance Faires in both Northern and Southern California and the Dickens Fair since around 1995. Now I have a 12-year-old son and a daughter who’s nearly 18, and Mark’s daughter is 15; our kids participate in both the Dickens Fair and Nova Albion with us, so it can be time we all get to spend together as a family, doing stuff we love. Dickens Fair runs for 4 weekends starting the day after Thanksgiving, and we have 3 weeks of workshops before that – so for those 7 weeks (and really for a good couple of months beforehand as well for most of us, what with costuming, character study, rehearsals and all), we’re completely immersed in the recreation of Victorian London.
AA: That’s really great that all of you can enjoy something like that together. Do you find any overlap or influence of those interests with steampunk.
AW: There is definitely a huge overlap and influence for me, from Dickens Fair into Steampunk! First, it forms the basis of the time period and the general aesthetic. When you’re a cast member, you spend three weekends in workshops and rehearsal prior to the opening of the fair – it’s kind of an intensive academy of How to be Victorian; you learn how to walk, speak, dress and act like a denizen of London; we take classes in everything from Victorian or Cockney language and how to dress your part, to street theatre improv techniques, what a day in the life of a typical person was, what was going on historically during Victoria’s reign, inventions and industry of the times… and how it all looked through Charles Dickens’ eyes. I’ll throw out a shameless plug for a minute here, for anyone along the west coast – the workshops and participation are open to anyone who wants to be a part of it… if you go to their website, dickensfair dot com, you can get all the info to be a participant or even just to go and experience it as a patron. I really recommend it for anyone who’s into steampunk and has the opportunity to go. I think it’s an amazing way to submerge yourself in what it might have felt like to be “there and then”… it gives you a sense of how an alternate history might have been shaped, where it could have gone, or why it would have, from a visceral point of view. There’s also usually a “Steam Explorer’s Day” for patrons during the run, where folks show up with all manner of gadgets, goggles, explorers’ togs and such and it’s a huge amount of fun.
Second, a few names for you – H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Sherlock Holmes. I know, I know – “one of these things is not like the others” – but while we’re referencing Sesame Street songs… “who are the people in your neighborhood?” One of the things that’s so neat about the Dickens Fair, from a steampunk and Alt History perspective, is getting to walk the streets of London or go into the Adventurer’s Club and see and if you want, talk to both real and created characters from that period in time. There is also a group there called, “La Legion Fantastique”, who portray characters from the works of Jules Verne. They’ve always got something wonderful and steampunky going on in their corner of the fair – and they’ll be at Nova Albion in March as well. Sorry – I can go on for hours about Dickens Fair; but it really is a unique and amazing place!
Ariane, that’s all great information! Thank you for joining us for this interview!
For more information about the upcoming convention, please visit the Nova Albion website