10 Questions with Bryan Young

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An editor at Big Shiny Robot! and contributor to the Huffington Post, Bryan Young has his feet in both the political and entertainment world.  He began producing political documentaries with the award-winning This Divided State in 2005.  He’s also co-written and co-directed films, scripted comic books and is the author of Lost at the Con (which we’ll be reviewing later today).

Lost at the Con is a book about an alcoholic political reporter forced to cover a geek convention in Atlanta.  He goes reluctantly into a world he knows nothing about.  I myself live in both worlds and it’s gonzo tale could also be called Fear and Loathing at the Geek Convention.  The book hits close to home, realistically portraying both worlds it deals with.  A great read, it’s funny, entertaining, completely insane and shows heart all at the same time.

A book dealing with both politics and geekdom seemed like a natural fit to shine a spotlight on.  Bryan was nice enough to take some time out of his day to answer our 10 Questions.

Graphic Policy: Lost at the Con is an interesting book that sees a political reporter assigned to cover a geek convention similar to Dragon*Con or Gen Con.  Where did the idea come from for the book?

Bryan Young: I’ve been to a lot of conventions and the idea first crystalized for me after a visit to Dragon*Con in 2009 and it was the most unique convention I’d ever been to.  I had a lot of interesting experiences there and was just so in love with the culture of it that on my flight home afterwards I jotted down a whole bunch of stories in my notebook.  I didn’t really think much about it until after the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con and I went to a Harry Potter fan panel and was introduced to the idea of Snarry slashfic.  After a conversation with Erin Kubinek, the cover artist, I was fascinated by the idea of what would someone like Hunter S. Thompson react to this.  He was a writer who seemed to get thrown into sports in a very similar way and that’s really where the idea came from.     It grew from there.  I started on it in September 2010 in earnest.

GP: What I found interesting having my feet in both worlds is that you capture them both so well.  Politics for all it’s glamour just seems to bring with it issues when it comes to personal lives no matter what the public sees, while those who go to events like geek conventions really are so open and happy, no matter what real life brings.  In a way, they both have masks.  Why do you think this duality seems to exist in both universes?

BY: Well, I think we’re all playing a part.  In politics, it’s not always a part we want to play.  I think it’s been best embodied on the campaign trail this year with Jon Huntsman.  I’m from Utah so I’m very familiar with him and, even though we don’t agree politically, he’s a very down to Earth and reasonable guy whom I never seen go on the attack against anyone.  Seeing him play the part of a politician you can see how uncomfortable it makes him, he’s dripping with it.  It’s a mask they wear for the public to hide who they are.  At a sci-fi convention, people are wearing masks as a release.  That’s who they really are.  There’s no embarrassment and there’s no hiding there. There are dualities everywhere, but the interesting thing is where they’re used and what they’re used for.

GP: The main character Cobb hates his life and you have him drinking heavily throughout the book.  A lot of my political stories involve alcohol, so drinking definitely occurs in politics, but why did you have it play such a prominent role?

BY: This comes back to the Hunter S. Thompson thing.  I am a big fan of his stuff and it seemed like so much of the gonzo style was informed by drugs.  I have zero experience there.  I have plenty of experience with booze, though.  And I’ll be honest, when I was at Dragon*Con, booze was so plentiful I think I had a drink in my hand from 3:00pm sharp until I went to bed every night.  My day job is a political documentary filmmaker (This Divided State and Killer at Large, both on Netflix) and I’ve been to plenty of film festivals where there are high profile people and politicians and what have you and they just hand you drink after drink after drink and I found that struggle of maintaining your composure in conversation and social situations fascinating.

GP: I found the section about celebrities at conventions really interesting.  Thinking about political conventions and geek conventions, it’s harder to press flesh with the celebrities at the geek conventions while the political celebrities seem to be easier to meet, why do you think there’s this strange divide when it comes to dealing with the public when they both rely on them so much?

BY: That seems an easy one to me.  Politicians depend on you to like them for their vote and a bad personal experience and seeming inaccessible can cost them your vote and the votes of all your friends.  A politician wants you to feel like you have their ear because they represent you.  With celebrities, there are many more boundaries as far as their personal lives and space are concerned.  Their job isn’t as dependent on public appearances and they’re so well liked in a lot of cases anyway that they can get away with anything and people will still like them.  If William Shatner killed a man tomorrow, we’d all shrug and say, “You don’t screw with James T. Kirk.”  If Mitch McConnell did the same thing we’d be up in arms until he resigned and got thrown in jail.

GP: Space Lincoln, where did the idea come from?  It had me laughing throughout the book.

BY: I’ve been going to a lot of cons and I take pictures of lots of costumes.  On Big Shiny Robot! we do roundups of some of the best and worst costumes from most conventions we attend and it was a costume I saw and took a picture of it.  It was in the last few years, what with the steampunk craze.  As I wrote the book, I’d consult my old pictures for costumes to pepper into scenes and that’s really all Space Lincoln started as.  After I wrote his first scene I knew there was something fun to be had there and I ran with it.  But he wasn’t in any of my outlines.  He came along as part of the journey of writing the story.

GP: I admit I can be a bit snobbish when it comes to going to conventions and make comments about “geek stench” and other quirky things you encounter.  None of it is meant in malice, and all of it’s out of love.  Did you find yourself having to pull back any bit at all thinking something was “too mean”?

BY: You know, I did have to pull back a bit on Cobb’s personality.  He was much more vile in earlier drafts and I knew people just wouldn’t like him.  And it was very odd for me since I really ignore that sort of thing as much as I can.  I used to own a comic-book shop and if I looked down on anyone because of their weight or their hygiene or stereo-typical hatred of everything then I wouldn’t have been able to stay in business.  Not because that’s what all my customers were like, but because I didn’t want anyone coming through that door and not feeling welcome.  So I did have to get out of my skin to write Cobb, especially when he talks to Star Wars fans.  I’m the biggest Star Wars fan in the galaxy and writing a character who knew next to nothing about it was more challenging than I can even tell you.

GP: Where’d the snarry come from?  I’ve her of slash fiction myself, but never that.

BY: I discovered it much like Cobb does.  Though I didn’t respond quite like he did.  I didn’t believe there was such a thing.  I made the mistake of googling it and was astounded.  There are websites with hundreds of stories and pieces of fan art depicting it…  It’s…  odd.

GP: The book’s theme really is about people finding themselves and being comfortable in their own skin, whether it’s Cobb, the homeless man Cobb befriends, or the con-goers.  In my personal experience those in politics seem to have a lot of issues being themselves and putting on masks.  Do you think this is an issue for people in general?

BY:  I think in our society we have a lot of work to do in making people feel comfortable as themselves.  Everyone feels like they have to put on a face at work or at school or when they’re on television.  And that’s fine to a point, but if it crosses over into making you uncomfortable with yourself as a person you really need to make a change.  And that’s what Cobb learned.

GP: Thinking about the 2008 Democratic Convention and my first trip to San Diego Comic-Con this year, there’s a lot of similarities between the two.  Do you think politics and the events surrounding them have turned to much into entertainment?

BY: I think that’s been true since CNN went on the air as a 24 hour news network.  And I won’t say I’m not guilty of it.  I’m the sort of guy who reads and watches all he can about the inside baseball of politics because I really can’t stand watching real baseball.

GP: You left the ending pretty open, any chance we’ll get a follow up?

BY: I’m always surprised by this question and I’m surprised I get it so much.  I felt like I ended on a moment that had a certain propulsion to it that you could fill the details in yourself, but I have come up with an idea for a sequel.  I don’t know if I’ll ever write it, but I’ve learned a thing or two about being on the other side of the convention circuit as an author.  I’ll just say that.

Thanks so much for your time.