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Stephen (R) Donaldson (in Bristol)

When I was in Canada and browsing the internet on Pete’s computer I happened to look at the appearances page of Stephen Donaldson’s website. He was due to do a series of Fatal Revenant signings in Britain the week I was due back, and I definitely wanted to go and see him.

This was the second time I’d gone to see Stephen Donaldson. The first time (and here’s your answer, Drew) was just after the release of the first book in The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and was organised by the British Fantasy Society, of which I was a member at the time.

I got the train to London from Bath (where I was at university) and arrived at the pub directly opposite the Old Bailey in plenty of time. So much so, that, not only was I the first person there, but the room upstairs where the event was to be held hadn’t even been unlocked. I sat on the stairs for a while reading (I’m pretty sure the book I was reading then was Windhaven by George R R Martin and Lisa Tuttle).

Eventually, a member of staff opened the room and I grabbed a seat in the corner and continued to read. A few other people wandered in, and, some time after the thing was due to start, we were joined by some of the BFS people, a Gollancz editor (I recognised them from the Society’s convention earlier in the year (where I’d also met Lisa Tuttle, as it happens)), and Stephen Donaldson. They sat at a table talking, and I sat at my table while I waited for someone to make an announcement, for Donaldson to give a talk or something of that nature.

I waited.

I waited in vain. Stephen Donaldson left less than an hour later. I’m still pissed off at the BFS for this fiasco. The format of basically just going up to the author and talking to him was a bit strange, but was probably appropriate for the limited number of people there (no more than a dozen, including Donaldson, the BFS people etc). But the fact that there was no explanation given – no one even had the idea of inviting those people in the hired room who weren’t participating to come and take part (I wasn’t the only one) – it really annoys me – possibly more now, thinking about it, than it did three years ago. Or possibly not.

I let my BFS membership expire with out renewing it. Take that, British Fantasy Society!

Anyway, Friday was a whole lot more successful – although not entirely so.

This time, I was burdened down with my laptop case – containing laptop, book (Lord Valentine’s Castle) and umbrella – my backpack – containing four large Stephen Donaldson books, a change of clothes, toiletries, towels (one for the body, one for the hair) – and a coat a little too heavy for the weather.

The turnout was pretty good – around 60 people – and nearly all of the seats set out in the Bristol Galleries Waterstones were filled. In front of the seats, next to a table and chair and a couple of Waterstones screens, was a larger table piled high with Donaldson books – mostly, of course, Fatal Revenant. My retrospective guesstimate was that there were about 60 copies of the new book in the pile, of which, 40 or so were sold. I’d already got mine from Amazon.co.uk, along with Hunter’s Run by George R R Martin, Daniel Abraham and Gardner Dozois.

About ten minutes after the scheduled start of seven o’clock, Stephen Donaldson was announced by one of the Waterstonians and we all clapped.

Donaldson wore jeans, light blue shirt and a blue tank top (ie, a sleeveless sweater, for those who may think a tank top is a vest). Of course, I recognised him from photos, and, equally of course, he didn’t seem quite the same. The was a certain very slight veiny ruddiness to his cheeks and nose, and his nose looked strangely bigger and blunter. His voice had more of a southern twang than I was expecting, but he is a New Mexican (or, at least, that’s where he lives).

He began by saying that the limited amount of time available made it a better proposition to dispense with the advertised reading (although his website had only mentioned a ‘possible reading’; Robert Rankin, when I came to see him at the same place (although in a different place inside the store) had also dispensed with his billed reading – although he made it up by reciting a ‘poem’ about a screwdriver). He went on to explain that people should ask him questions, and, alluding to the fact that people are usually reluctant to start doing this, he pointed out that he could ask himself questions, but this wouldn’t be very interesting as he already knew all the answers.

Questions were asked, though. His answers tended to be somewhat long and involved – each one was a coherent story or explanation, as if he’s given the same answer many times before – which, undoubtedly, he has. His stye of speaking was very fluent – no umming and erring, no repetitions or backtracking, although he would sometimes pause mid-sentence to gather his thoughts. In terms of personality, he came across much as he does in the Gradual Interview on his website – modest, but confident in what he’s saying.

His fluency of speech, I can imagine, is based on this confidence and on the constant rehearsal that booksignings and convention appearances bring – not on a general confidence in his own charisma and ability to do this kind of thing. Maybe I’m just projecting this last observation, but he has said that he finds tours and the continuous meeting and talking to people very draining.

I didn’t ask or attempt to ask a question. Yes, there’s the usual confidence issue, but, Stephen Donaldson has answered maybe a couple of dozen of my questions on his website over the last few years, so I didn’t feel much impetus to even think of one. (Actually, Pete inspired a question, but I’ll ask it on the GI.)

Most of the questions asked covered much the same areas that have been dealt with – often more than once – on the GI. They did go into further detail, though. He said that, having submitted the first Chronicles to every publisher in the US, when Lester Del Rey accepted him, he was inclined to think of the famous editor as God – and Lester Del Rey thought of himself the same way. He then wondered out loud whether he should go on to say something about Del Rey, implying that it was something quite ‘juicy’ – and he didn’t (or if he did, it wasn’t nearly as interesting as he made out).

The young bloke who’d introduced Donaldson inturrupted at about five to eight to call for a last question, then, on or around the hour, we all clapped again and got up clutching our books to form a queue. My books were still in my backpack; I had transferred them from the bottom of the backpack to the top earlier on in McDonalds, but it still took me a minute to retrieve them. By which time, naturally, the queue was fully formed and I tagged on virtually at the end with my hardback copies of The Runes of the Earth and Fatal Revenant.

I waited.

This time, I waited in … whatever the opposite of ‘vain’ is. (Findail – ha ha ha.)

Well, towards nine o’clock the Waterstones man told everyone still waiting to get books signed that we shouldn’t ask for messages in the inscriptions, unless you were willing to drive Stephen Donaldson back to London. So my internal dialogue over whether I could bear to ask for a message and if so whether it should be of the cheesy or whimsical variety was rendered moot.

(Whilst queuing, I’d left my coat over the back of my chair and my bags leaning against it – and for most of my hour’s wait they were out of my line of sight. I was a little anxious about my laptop, but I assumed it would be perfectly safe (if not perfectly sane – more Donaldson in-humour). The staff stacked the chairs away until mine was the only one left.)

I was leaning towards asking for the famous Chronicles quote ‘Be true’, but when my turn came I just put the two books down the post-it note another denizen of the bookstore had written my name on in front of the author. I said, ‘How’s it going?’ but just then he exchanged a few words with one of the members of staff and wasn’t listening. He turned back to me and started to inscribe my books … which were also his books.

I asked, ‘So, how often have you written “Be true” in the front of a book?’ He answered that after ‘Be true’ the most common thing people ask for is ‘Stone and Sea’ – a saying of the Giants in the Chronicles. He raised his hands and shook his head a little as if to say, ‘Beats the heck out of me why’, but neither of us could think of anything else to say at that point, so he carried on signing.

A minute later I was back with the other two books I’d brought with me: trade paperbacks of The Reed Stephens Novels (Reed Stephens being the pseudonym under which Stephen Reeder Donaldson wrote the detctive novels The Man Who Killed his Brother, The Man Who Risked his Partner and The Man Who Tried to Get Away) and The Man Who Fought Alone. The inscription I was considerin asking for for one of these was, ‘To Sean, from The Man Who wrote The Man Who books, Stephen Donaldson.’ But I didn’t.

(This raises the point of why I chose to bring those particular volumes when my favourite Donaldson books – in fact, my favourite series of books – is the intense and brutal space opera, the Gap series. Well, I only have those books in ‘A format’, mass-market paperback edition, and I feel that signed books should really be hardbacks – first edition, ideally – trade paperback, at the very least. So.)

I thanked him and shook his hand – and from what I could see, not everybody managed even the first of those things. Then it was off to Burger King for more healthy repast and then to Lawrence’s place for a night’s accommodation. Lawrence had been working until ten, and serendipitously enough I met him outside his front door just after he’d put his bike in the shed.

Stephen Donaldson predicts that book three in quartet of The Last Chronicles, Against All Things Ending (originally entitled Shall Pass Utterly until his editor pointed out that sounded like something to do with a bowel movement), will be out in three years time, with book four, The Final Dark, three years after that.

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