Blood Feuds and All the Feels: TorCon 2021 Highlights

Relive Tor Books and Den of Geek's second virtual convention with panels featuring Holly Black, Gillian Flynn, Ryka Aoki, and more!

TorCon 2021 logo against a teal background
Photo: Tor Books

This piece is sponsored by Tor Books Logo

For the second year in a row, Tor Books and Den of Geek have presented TorCon, a virtual convention bringing the exciting panels and dynamic conversations of a book convention to your computer screens. This weekend built on the success of the inaugural con with over 30 authors from Tor Books, Forge Books, Tordotcom Publishing, Tor Teen, and Nightfire matching wits and being candid about their emotional, scary, and hopeful writing processes.

The weekend started off spooky, with horror trivia and thoughtful conversations from female thriller writers, then transitioned into a bevy of gay delights by way of deep dives into emotional storytelling in SFF and upcoming fall reads to make you shiver with antici…pation. Panels ran the gamut from one-on-ones (with assists from Den of Geek moderators) to panels playing games in real-time, all for your entertainment. Check out the highlights below, with links to relive the livestream fun or check out the events for the first time if you missed them live!

Visit the TorCon Bookstore here.

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Catriona Ward in Conversation with Gillian Flynn

Listening to one of today’s gutsiest thriller writers Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects, Dark Places) chat with Catriona Ward, author of the highly-anticipated The Last House on Needless Street, felt like listening in on the pivotal conversation in a mystery, where everything slots into place. “No one goes from skipping along the street to becoming a monster,” Ward said, “it’s incremental. You turn around and look back at your footsteps and you don’t realize you’ve walked the path to monsterhood.” Between this empathy for the monster and their frank discussion of female culpability in horror, it’s no surprise to learn that Gone Girl‘s ending was the easiest of Flynn’s shocking conclusions to come up with.

Moderated by Den of Geek Books Editor Kayti Burt, the conversation tackled the inherent creepiness of unreliable narrators and whether the authors know their books’ dynamic twists when they first sit down to write. A sense of place is extremely important to both writers, from the eponymous house—and its Bible-reading house cat—in Ward’s forthcoming book to the themes that ground Flynn’s stories. “Whether it’s about what it’s like to grow up in extreme poverty in the ’80s with Satanic Panic and reclaim that mentality, or female aggression and violence and what it looks like cyclically,” Flynn said, “it just happens that the mystery is the way for me to attach an engine to it and give me the discipline to actually tell this story.”

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Chaotic Storytelling—Take 2!

Last year’s most chaotic panel returned with a new batch of ambitious authors ready to pants, not plot, their way through a speculative story in front of a live audience. How do you get from Gladys the tortured mummy in Stephen King’s castle to one of Keanu Reeves’ many incarnations saving the day? By tripping over some security lasers that emit glitter, of course. Enjoy this glimpse into the minds and creative processes of J.S. Dewes (The Last Watch), Jenn Lyons (The House of Always), Christopher Buehlman (The Blacktongue Thief), Andrea Hairston (Master of Poisons), and Neil Sharpson (When the Sparrow Falls), with plot twists and surprise d20 rolls supplied by moderator Drew Broussard of LitHub.

And while most of the panelists agreed that they were unlikely to collaboratively co-write a novel—unless it was a project like Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar’s This is How You Lose the Time War—they relished the opportunity to tap into their more unpredictable sides and go with the first plot ideas that popped into their heads without that self-editing voice. After all, as Lyons reflected, “sometimes fun is destroying stuff.”

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Nightfire Family *Blood* Feud

Tired: Family Feud. Wired: Gathering a temporary coven of authors from Macmillan’s newest horror imprint Nightfire to answer horror trivia submitted by the Tor staff. Guided by moderator Lee Mandelo (Summer Sons), these masters of thrills and chills had to answer burning questions such as… What’s the most common hiding spot in a slasher film? Which tropes are the most beloved? Who’s the scariest serial killer? (Spoiler: The shark from Jaws makes the list.)

In addition to guessing at their editors’ and publicists’ answers, the panelists let us into their own brains for some fascinating insights. Thomas Olde Heuvelt (HEX, Echo) once passed out while giving blood, while Cassandra Khaw (Nothing But Blackened Teeth) has a soft spot for Sophie Kinsella’s rom-coms. Gretchen Felker-Martin (Manhunt) has to purposely scare herself to get in the zone, while Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Certain Dark Things) fondly told childhood stories about a spot known as Blood Alley.

“We like to be scared because we all have our little dark sides to ourselves,” Olde Heuvelt said, with Khaw praising how the genre creates a space for people to process fears. Moreno-Garcia pointed out that horror doesn’t necessarily have to scare to be effective, that its tropes are in conversation with other genres and familiar stories retold. And Felker-Martin summed it up best: “Horror is about looking at things you don’t want to look at until you can expand your sphere of empathy enough to encompass them.”

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James Rollins in Conversation with Holly Black

Holly Black kicked off our conversation with the thrilling news that she’ll be publishing her first adult novel, Book of Night, with Tor Books! While Black is embarking on a new stage in her writing career with this series, for James Rollins it was like coming home: The thriller writer returns to epic fantasy with The Starless Crown, the first installment of the ambitious Moon Fall series in which he applies his love of scientific discovery on the fringes with a story that he carried in his head for over a decade before putting pen to paper.

With Den of Geek contributor Natalie Zutter moderating, the conversation delved into the authors’ shared love for the band Dead Can Dance as well as the appeal of liminal spaces—from the Faerie court to a twilight realm on a tidally-locked planet—and characters with a foot in two worlds at once. Both authors enjoy writing fantasy characters who fail to honor that old adage to be careful what you wish for, with magic bringing as much potential for world-ending disaster as for life-changing joy. As Black pointed out, “The difference between curses and wishes is just shading.”

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Revisit the discussion for talk of non-Chosen Ones, fantasy jewelry, swamp bats we would die for, and the pop culture getting these authors through the pandemic. To that end, could there be some Lupin-esque heists in Book of Night? “Maybe” Black teased. “I hope so!”

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All the Feels: Emotional Storytelling in SFF

“With all due respect,” Becky Chambers (A Psalm for the Wild-Built) said to the more stoic authors on this panel, “if you’re not crying when writing a book, then what is the point?” Kerstin Hall (Star Eater) joked about how to “hack” readers, but quips aside, moderator TJ Klune (Under the Whispering Door) guided these authors in a soul-searching conversation about how they put themselves into the emotional highs and lows of their SFF stories. “It’s all about contrast, isn’t it?” asked T.L. Huchu (The Library of the Dead), comparing their writing to how artists work with light and darkness on the same canvas. “If you have these highs, when the really messed-up stuff happens, you’re bringing the characters down from a height, which creates a greater effect.”

From infusing the worldbuilding with feelings to constantly stepping back from the text and taking the temperature, these authors of everything from cozy sci-fi to cannibalistic family sagas never lose sight of the intense relationship on both sides of the page. Part of being a writer, as Alex Pheby (Mordew) pointed out, is letting readers meet you partway by “letting them have space in the text where they can engage their own feelings” instead of being prodded by the author to feel a certain way. Most important when writing from a place of trauma, Lucinda Roy (The Freedom Race) said, was for the author to be sure that they had come to terms with their own emotional starting point: “Have I reconciled my spirit to this trauma in such a way that I can stand back from it and write about it in a way that will be useful to others?”

Despite the name of the panel, it was still a heartstring-tugging surprise to see the panelists get emotional over their brief time together. When asked about inspiration, Roy said of her fellow authors, “Those kinds of people are my people.” Aww, right in the feels.

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Ethereal & Eerie: A Glimpse at Captivating Fall Reads

Bless all the authors on this panel for candidly saying that in most cases they would not want to live in the worlds they’ve created—especially because for many of them, like Catherynne M. Valente (The Past is Red, Comfort Me With Apples) and Lee Mandelo (Summer Sons), their books are set in a version of our present. As moderator Seanan McGuire (Where the Drowned Girls Go, Across the Green Grass Fields) pointed out, “Would I have written a book about where I am now if I wanted to stay?”

The panelists spoke about how they set the proper atmosphere for their novels, from Valente cribbing from an actual Florida HOA agreement to Freya Marske (A Marvellous Light) recreating a real manor house she visited in England. The most pressing question is which came first, the world or the characters? For Alix E. Harrow (A Spindle Splintered), it was walking out of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and saying, “I want to Spider-Verse a fairy tale.” While Zin E. Rocklyn (Flowers for the Sea) drew upon her “very deep respect” for the water (“that shit is scary and it’s our least explored area of the Earth”) to create the world first, her character came immediately after: “I wanted to mess with something that was catastrophic and bleak.”

What with releasing new books during spooky season, of course talk turned to tried-and-true Halloween reads and especially favorite eerie bookish characters, including We Have Always Lived in the Castle‘s narrator Mary Katherine Blackwood (Shirley Jackson sure knows how to write ’em) and the eponymous protagonist of Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. And how do these authors get in the proper eerie mindset? Everything from Rocklyn’s Spotify playlists to Valente and Mandelo each needing to do no more than step outside into a nearby cemetery. It’s gonna be a great fall ahead.

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Charlie Jane Anders in Conversation with TJ Klune

If this were an in-person con, Charlie Jane Anders (Victories Greater Than Death) and TJ Klune (Under the Whispering Door) would have been all over the place, appearing on and/or moderating in a variety of other panels. It was such a treat, then, to see the two of them in devoted conversation, led by Kayti Burt. The two found a lot of common ground, from writing for both YA and adult readers, to debating the benefits and drawbacks of standalones versus series, to speaking candidly about trans identity and asexuality.

As Burt astutely pointed out, both authors go to great lengths to depict kindness and empathy even within their more traumatic or grim stories. That intentionality is for the readers’ sake, Klune said, speaking about his YA superhero series The Extraordinaries and the second installment Flash Fire: “Queer kids deserve to have a book about queer kids that isn’t about the angst of coming out and homophobia; queer people should be able to read about happy queers who do stupid things.” And while Anders often finds that she establishes the tone at the start of a project, she’s aware that tropes can sometimes lead the story in a darker direction and that she as the writer can choose to diverge from where a story may seem like it’s turning grim: “Most tropes aren’t the boss of me! They work for me, not the other way around!”

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Space is Gay!

With books like Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbit, Charlie Jane Anders’ Victories Greater Than Death, and Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars, it comes as no surprise that space is becoming increasingly gay. But moderator K.M. Szpara (First, Become Ashes) keenly started off the panel by asking the authors to define what they even mean by space. For Aoki, it was the sense of needing space: “If there’s any world you sometimes need a break from, it’s the world we live in as queers.” Anders likened the genre, with its interstellar jaunts and gallivanting, to one of the very best romance tropes: “It’s like there’s only one bed, but with the entire cosmos around you.”

“There’s only one pod!” the panel chorused, and we knew this was going to be a gallivant for the ages even if we were stuck on terra firma. But it wasn’t just riffing: When asked what should be made gay after space (dinosaurs and cyberpunk came to mind), Aoki brought up the necessary point that our work in space was not done: “Don’t just make it gay,” she said, “make it queer and trans.”

This panel had some of the most sparkling witticisms of the con, with this self-appointed starship crew of authors plotting a gay space heist involving tactical ballgowns, robbing Elon Musk’s inevitable space bank, and knowing exactly where to hide a body on a space station. Even when discussing more serious topics such as the need for queer scientists and educators (in addition to sci-fi writers), Aoki had the panel and audience cheering: “Imagine Bill Nye the Science Bi!”

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Conjuring the Diaspora: Myths, Legends, and Classics Reimagined

Moderator Lily Philpott began this panel, about the intersections between the Asian diaspora and speculative storytelling, by acknowledging how vast the diaspora is, inviting the panelists to each speak about their ancestors and formative myths and legends. With these authors based on three different continents, no two people had the same perspective on identity. To wit, in discussing the disparate influences on Light From Uncommon Stars, Ryka Aoki said, “I’m not doing that to show you how many places I can be, I’m doing this to show you how many places I am.” With regard to rediscovering one link to her family history in Japan while losing another, Aoki said, “I refuse, with this book and with many of my books, to see myself as fragmented.” Whereas Nghi Vo (The Chosen and the Beautiful), whose family is Vietnamese and Hakka Chinese, said that while she appreciated the discussion of wholeness, “I have no interest in being whole. I have plenty of identity in fragment.”

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As for what drew them to SFF, for Aliette de Bodard (Fireheart Tiger) it was because it’s fun! “I think on some level what I’m trying to find were these stories my grandmother would tell me as a child,” the French-Vietnamese author said, “and that sense of wonder you had when finding a dragon or turning a mountain and meeting the mountain spirit.” Interestingly, Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun started out as more historical palace drama but eventually turned fantastical, especially playing with the what-if aspect by adding magic. “One of the appeals of fantasy for me is you can approach issues side-on,” said the author, who grew up in a Cantonese-speaking Malaysian-Singaporean community in Australia. “With fantasy, you can conjure up characters who evoke those same issues, like with gender, but it’s cloaked by a softening layer that makes it vague. So many true people with their own experiences can see themselves in it.”

“The experience of the diaspora is one of monsters,” Vo said. “If you start with monsters, you start in horror and SFF. When you’re operating from a place where monsters want to eat you, and realize you’re a monster as well, you have to figure out how you’re gonna eat everyone else—that’s where I’m writing from.”

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Jo Firestone in Conversation with Joe Pera

Unfortunately, this is the only TorCon event that was truly live in the sense that there isn’t a link to rewatch Adult Swim star Joe Pera (Joe Pera Talks With You) and Punderdome creator Jo Firestone dryly yes-and their way through discussing Pera’s first book A Bathroom Book for People Not Pooping or Peeing but Using the Bathroom as an Escape. A boon for socially awkward and/or overstressed readers everywhere, the book was a challenge for Pera in translating stand-up from the stage to the page, and a delight in collaborating with illustrator Joe Bennett.

Kayti Burt led the audience Q&A, featuring such pressing questions as the best wood on which to display this book in a bathroom (teak). Pera hopes that the book, intended to be read in the duration of a short but much-needed bathroom break, will be a meditative guide but not necessarily recognizable by name: “Sometimes, like with stand-up, it’s best when someone stumbles upon it and has no idea who you are,” he said, “and feels like they’ve discovered something more personal that talks to them.”