10 | An Interview by Jean-Paul L. Garnier
An Interview with Cora Buhlert, Winner of the 2022 Hugo Awards for Best Fan Writer
Jean-Paul L. Garnier
Garnier: You’re the 2022 Hugo Award winner for Best Fan Writer, what was the experience like, and how did it differ from being a finalist in past years?
Buhlert: It was an amazing experience, though it would have been even more amazing, if I had been able to actually attend Worldcon in Chicago, rather than sitting in front of my computer at home in evening gown and tiara at 3 AM German time. But thankfully, I got the full Hugo finalist experience in Dublin in 2019 as accepter for Best Fanzine finalist Galactic Journey.
The actual winning experience was somewhat surreal. Because I was accepting virtually, I was in the virtual green room with the other finalists who could not attend in person. When our category came up, we were sent to a breakout room, from where they could project us onto the big screen in the auditorium in Chicago. In the green room, there was a livestream of the ceremony running, but in the breakout room, you could not see or hear the livestream because of echoes and interference. So, I never actually heard my name announced as the winner nor did I hear the applause until I watched a recording of the ceremony on YouTube later.
This is also why 2022 Astounding Award Shelley Parker-Chan had that deer-in-the-headlights look, when she was announced as the winner. Because Shelley lives in Australia, she was also accepting virtually and had not heard her name announced, so she had no idea that she’d won. After this, I told Alan, the great Chicon volunteer who was handling the virtual part of the ceremony, that maybe they should send us a message who won in breakout room, if we couldn’t see or hear the announcement.
When Best Fan Writer came up, fellow finalist Alex Brown and I were sent into the breakout room. I thought, “Okay, that’s it, Alex won” (and a most deserving winner they would have been, too). And then a chat message appeared saying “The winner is Cora Buhlert.” And that’s how I learned that I had won a Hugo, via Zoom chat message.
When you’re a finalist, you’re usually nervous and barely pay attention to at least one category before yours. But once your category has been called and you didn’t win, you can usually relax and enjoy the rest of the ceremony. However, if you win, you’re so stunned that it takes some time to calm down and relax. And so, I completely missed several categories and had to look up who won later.
Garnier: How long have you been a fan writer, what are some of the projects you’ve worked on, and how does it differ from your writing of fiction?
Buhlert: I started my first blog in 2002. It ran until 2006 or 2007, when I got too busy with my MA thesis and work. In late 2010, I realized that I missed blogging and started up a new blog. At first, the only visitors were bots and it took two months to get a comment that wasn’t spam. So it took me ten years from starting my second blog to getting my first Hugo nomination and twelve years to winning.
Most of my fan writing still happens on my personal blog www.corabuhlert.com, where I have the freedom to write whatever I like, whether that’s essays on whatever piqued my interest, reviews of forgotten vintage SFF stories, many of which have never been reprinted, interviews with fellow SFF writers and fans, episode by episode reviews of TV shows or goofy photo stories featuring my action figure collection.
My other main fan writing outlet is Galactic Journey, a science fiction fanzine that covers SFF magazines and books, movies and TV-shows, science and space news and the occasional political or lifestyle topic – but with one twist: Galactic Journey covers the science fiction and science fact of 55 years ago, i.e., it’s currently 1967, the summer of love has turned to fall and Star Trek has just started its second season. As Galactic Journey‘s West German correspondent, I review SFF books, movies and TV-shows, including the legendary West German science fiction TV-show Space Patrol Orion last year, but also write about the increasingly violent student protests of the second half of the 1960s. Because the so-called “summer of love” was actually very violent in Europe.
I also have occasional pieces appearing elsewhere, e.g. at File 770, Journey Planet and The Drink Tank. I even had an essay about the link between sword and sorcery and horror in the souvenir book for the 2022 Necronomicon as well as a parody piece in the one-off print fanzine The Gatekeeper.
Garnier: How has working as a translator informed your writing of fiction and non-fiction?
Buhlert: Translation gives you a deeper insight into how languages work and also how they differ in structure and vocabulary. Occasionally, you run into situations where one language has a word that simply has no equivalent in the other language, which makes expressing certain ideas and concepts very difficult.
For example, there are several German words which have no decent English equivalent. And no, the ever popular “Schadenfreude” is not one of them, because you can express the same sentiment by using the verb “to gloat.” Mostly, the words a language is missing are words that don’t even occur to native speakers that they might be missing.
“Spießer,” i.e., a very conservative and stuck-up person, is one German word I really wish had a decent English equivalent. “Spießer” exist everywhere and you can find words to describe them, but you don’t have a single handy word that encapsulates the meaning and you also cannot hiss it disdainfully like the German term.
Garnier: What challenges have you faced as a German author working in English speaking markets?
Buhlert: It’s harder for someone from beyond the Anglosphere (i.e., the US, UK, Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand) to get noticed. First of all, if you come from a non-English-speaking country (and for some countries in Africa and Asia, where English is an official language, even if you come from an English-speaking country), some people will simply assume that you cannot possibly speak English well enough to write in what is not your first language. I have actually had someone leave a long rambling comment on my blog to tell me that I’m obviously too stupid to understand English.
Physical distance is also an issue, because a lot of the big cons happen in the US or UK and attending takes time, money and also the privilege of being able to get a visa at all, something which is a huge issue for SFF writers from Africa, but also from the Middle East and some countries in Asia and Latin America. It’s probably no accident that I was only nominated for the Hugo after I had attended two Worldcons and one Eurocon in person, took part in programming and met a lot of people.
Luckily, magazines and publishers accept electronic submissions now . . .
When I started submitting stories to SFF magazines in the early 2000s, e-mail submissions weren’t a thing yet, so I had to physically mail out manuscripts, get international reply coupons from the post office and also pay the high international postage. In the early years, I paid more in postage than I ever earned. Worse, some editors never even bothered to reply, because dealing with international reply coupons was too much of a hassle for them. Luckily, magazines and publishers accept electronic submissions now, which has made submissions so much more accessible to people from beyond North America. This is probably also the reason why you see a lot more fiction by writers from Africa, Asia or Latin America published these days, because submissions are easier, cheaper and more accessible.
Garnier: What do you think the role and importance of fan writers, reviewers, etc. is for the publishing industry?
Buhlert: Fan writers, reviewers, podcasters, book bloggers, etc… are the backbone of the SFF industry. For while there are some paying outlets which discuss and review SFF such as Locus, Tor.com or io9 as well as monthly SFF review columns in newspapers like the Guardian or the Washington Post, most reviews of SFF books, movies and TV-shows as well as discussion of the genre in general are done by unpaid fan writers for the pure love of and sometimes exasperation with the genre.
It is important to remember that the SFF industry needs us fans, because we are the ones getting the word out about new books, TV-shows, movies, comics, etc… and basically doing unpaid promotion for them.
There is something of a dilemma here, because a review of the latest Marvel or Star Wars show is also unpaid PR for Disney, a huge corporation which does not always treat creators well – see the whole #DisneyMustPay issue. The most important thing is to remember that we are not employees of the various corporations. Just because a publisher sends you a free book does not mean you are obliged to give it a positive review. And just because you happen to enjoy the occasional Disney or Warner Bros product doesn’t mean you cannot criticize both corporations for their behaviour.
Garnier: What themes and issues do you foresee being important in the fields of SF/F?
Buhlert: In the past ten years or so, we’ve seen an explosion of SFF with non-western settings and characters as well as LGBTQ characters. I think this trend will continue and we will see more stories from previously underrepresented voices and perspectives, whether those are familiar stories told from a different point of view or entirely new types of stories.
The wave of fairy tale and other retellings seems to be ebbing, which is fine by me, because I never particularly cared for this trend. In science fiction, stories about robots and artificial intelligences, often told from their point of view, continue to do well, probably because robots and AI have made a step forward and are playing a bigger role in our daily lives.
After a decade of grimdark SFF, more hopeful and positive works seem to be on the rise with subgenres like hopepunk or cozy fantasy growing in popularity. Climate fiction has supposedly been the next big trend in science fiction for years now, but it seems to be more popular in mainstream fiction, where “climate change will destroy us all” is still a new topic, whereas science fiction has long since moved on to “okay, climate change is here, so what do we do now and how do we solve this?”
In fantasy, sword and sorcery seems to be making a tentative comeback after being dead for thirty years or so with an explosion of small presses and magazines reviving the subgenre. Whether this is a true revival or a flash in the pan remains to be seen.
Garnier: What advice do you have for people interested in getting involved in fan writing?
Be patient . . . because getting traction takes time. And most importantly, have fun.
Buhlert: Start a newsletter or blog (basic WordPress and Blogspot sites are free) and get writing. Don’t worry about finding your niche, because that will eventually emerge. Besides, you can have more than one niche. For example, I’m the person who reviews forgotten vintage SFF stories, but I’m also the person who does detailed commentaries on SFF awards and the person who posts goofy toy photo stories.
Connect with other fan creators and consider writing guest posts and articles for other people’s blogs and zines. Because fan writing is very much about community.
Be patient, if no one responds or comments at first, because getting traction takes time. And most importantly, have fun.
Garnier: What are you currently working on, and what’s coming up next for you?
Buhlert: I have a couple of non-fiction articles coming up such as a profile of C.L. Moore in issue #0 of New Edge Sword and Sorcery Magazine and an essay about watching anime in 1970s and 1980s West Germany in Rising Sun Reruns, edited by Jim Beard, both of which should already be out by the time this interview appears. Later this year or early in 2023, I’ll have an essay in Foundation and Philosophy, edited by Joshua Heter and Josef Thomas Simpson, as well as a flash story in 99 Fleeting Fantasies, edited by Jennifer Brozek.