A-kon '08: Helen McCarthy and Peter Beagle's panel


On the con schedule, it was called "Gossip" with those two writers, but really, it was last year's Storytelling panel all over again, which was not a good thing so much as a magnificent concession to the fact that life doesn't always hate me; when I saw it was going to happen again, I squealed like a little girl on crystal meth. Y'see, Peter S. Beagle is the gentleman who wrote The Last Unicorn, and Helen McCarthy is my other hero, a British lady whose pioneering credentials include several interviews with Hayao Miyazaki himself, the first anime book by an English speaker, and co-authorship of The Anime Encyclopedia.

I'll say it again: getting to sit down and listen to these two for an hour is like reliving every awesome story your awesome aunts and/or uncles ever told you as a kid, except that we heard a lot of grown-up topics instead of the ear-quarter trick or the monster that lives in your socks (thanks, Uncle B!). Hit the jump for some highlights from a spot of quiet time at A-kon.

I came in a few moments late, no thanks to my cohorts and their spaghetti-eating ways, and almost immediately had to relocate closer to the front, as Peter's voice only carried a few feet; if anything, he was quieter than last year. Helen was saying that everyone carries their own stories as they live their lives, and it's not enough just to walk around breathing and eating and stuff, as the significant thing is to be alive. It's writers' jobs to tell these stories, especially considering the way people marginalize differences between themselves and others, as if that was a bad thing. (This is the kind of thing that can easily sound sappy or trite when said just to try to sound profound; trust me, nothing sounds insignificant out of Helen McCarthy.)

One of the more surprising things we heard was Helen's description of the British school system--do we have any Brits who can confirm her diagnosis of a stale, plodding and head-patting sort of dinosaur, over 200 years old and afraid to so much as admit that some people are cleverer than others? She said British schools hate competition, very different now than the the fearsome Mother Superior who taught Helen and her classmates when she was young. Mother Gabriel sounded like my favorite teacher from high school: their philosphy could be summed up as "You should be as smart as you can," which kids these days really aren't told at all, so long as they can pass enough standardized tests. Sound familiar to anyone?

Young Helen, growing up in a large Irish family, also got the vivid impression that it was women who really run things, as the men - her words! - spend so much of their time in the pubs. At that point, Peter likened men to "collie dogs," in that they're very pretty and good for some impressive tricks, if not too much else; he also told us about a cartoon he saw in New York that predicted men having to go through "mannograms" when females finally take over The World, and guess what'll be squished between those damn X-ray plates? It horrified him just a little, in certain areas, but he laughed, as we did, which human beings do when we're shocked or scared or weirded out by things. One example of this principle Helen shared with us:

As she was on a bus in the middle of a lovely day in the U.K., two girls about 11 years old were giggling, whispering, obviously a couple of best friends from a local primary school; they were both well-groomed, fresh-faced, and polite, just walking by to get off the bus, when Helen overheard one of them say something that shocked her so much that she just had to start laughing hysterically--that she couldn't actually repeat. Of course we pestered her until she relented, warned us that it'd be offensive, then told us the second girl, in response to something Helen hadn't heard, matter-of-factly said to the other, "Lick my clit, bitch."

From there, as you'd expect, the conversation segued into guns, and Peter wanted to know, if a statistic about there being more guns on the planet than people was true, or something even close, "Who's got mine?" He also asked us that age-old rhetorical question: if black people vote for Obama and women vote for Clinton, what the hell are black women supposed to do? They demurred from talking further about politics and the bitterness inherent therein, so they steered it back onto a safer course with Peter's confession that he hadn't known any WASPs as a kid: everyone was Catholic or otherwise not WAS, and it wasn't till he was a grownup that he met some of them. It really struck me when Helen told us why she likes to come to conventions and similar events, because however diverse we all may be, we're united at the most basic level by our love of stories, be they in written or visual form, and it's hard to find that sort of appreciation these days. In poor societes, storytellers are highly valued; not so much when the Internet can show you anything you like in seconds.

The last really amusing bit of the panel was their comparison of how Helen's mother and grandmother read to her in the cradle, and Peter was tasked as a young father with reading to his variously aged kids and wife things that would entertain everybody. When he read The Old Man and the Sea, at the story's most tragic climax, his youngest son visibly shrank, and shrank, and was finally heard to mutter, "That shark is poopy." It stuck with Peter so thoroughly that he said he had to be carried out of Jaws when he tried to see it in the theater!

If I have any brains, next year I'll get a recording in some form of this panel - pleaseplease let there be another one - because rattling off "He said this and then she said something funny and then he did too" does these speakers no justice whatsoever. Also, it'll make my job easier, because today is my fourth anniversary and I have to go get dressed up and stuff. Back atcha with Anime Hell next time. 

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Aoi   gamer profile

'Ello, luvs. I be a sometime editor o' Jtor, dependent on my school and work schedule. Thanks for reading! Remember, the first one's free. more + disclosures



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