Well, that was my first convention in France, and I have to pronounce it a great success. Where to start? Probably on the Eurostar.
Mostly when I go to conventions I fly. In the USA it is often the only sensible way to get from one city to another. But Europe has trains, which are a far more pleasant way to travel. Épinal, the home of Imaginales, is easily accessible from London, and indeed anywhere in the UK that is connected to London by train. You take the Eurostar to Paris, and change onto a TGV headed out east stopping only at Nancy before dropping you in Épinal. The journey takes around 7 hours, but that includes having a small amount of terrorization on boarding the Eurostar and allowing 1.5 hours to change trains in Paris. Gare du Nord and Gare de L’Est are only about 10 minutes apart, and almost as easy to walk between as Euston and Kings Cross, but if you have booked seats on specific trains you don’t want to have to worry about being late.
On leaving the station at Épinal the first thing that greets you (other than the warm French sun) is a large, free-standing billboard advertising the convention. Yes, that’s right, they have proper PR. What’s more, it is all done for them by the local tourist board and town council, because Imaginales is staged in conjunction with the town. They are delighted to have us, and very proud of the event. You can’t go anywhere around the town center without seeing advertising for the convention, and my hotel had it listed as one of the town’s major events in the guest services brochure.
To understand why this happens you have to know a bit about Épinal itself. The town prides itself on being the home of comics. Yes, that’s right, the whole idea of telling stories with a combination of text and pictures was invented in Épinal. Well, maybe not invented, but certainly the town was one of the primary centers of comic production in the world through the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Pellerin company and their “Imagerie” (Wikipedia.fr) was famous throughout the world. Some of their early work is very collectable, such as this print that is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Working with the delightfully named Humoristic Publishing Company of Kansas, Pellerin published some of their work in translation in America. They are believed to have been responsible for the first comic ever sold in the USA.
These days, of course, the world centers of comic production have moved to the USA and Japan. France still has a thriving Bande Dessinée industry, and comics conventions that are bigger than anything outside of Japan, but in Épinal it has all gone. The old Imagerie is now home to a museum celebrating comic art, but the town hasn’t forgotten its time on the world stage and that is why they are so proud of their festival of fantastic literature.
Visitors from outside France will doubtless be worried about language. It is an issue. If you go to Finland you’ll find that just about everyone speaks English. In Épinal the people in the tourist office only spoke French. I managed my hotel booking with a lot of help from Jean-Louis Trudel who was going to Imaginales to promote the Montréal Worldcon as well as his own fiction. However, if you book up well in advance there are hotels that have online booking in English. I stayed at an Ibis which charged around €70/night for the room. There’s also a Mercure which is a little more expensive but better situated for the con. If you are on a tight budget there’s a Campanile in a business park a couple of miles from the town center.
In the town itself most people seemed to have a little English, but probably just what they had learned in school. France has enough culture of its own for people not to need to speak English for access to entertainment. However, many of the French fans speak good English, and they were very helpful. Armed with my own school French, a dictionary on my iPhone and lots of patience from the French, I even managed on my own at times.
The convention takes place in a large park by the banks of the Moselle. Most of the convention space is in tents, but they are large, industrial tents, not the sort of thing you go camping in. We did get a fair amount of rain on the Friday, and one very heavy shower on Sunday, and nothing leaked. The ground was a bit muddy on Friday, but I had far worse problems from pollen than from the mud. When you look at the photos, check out the “Magic Mirror” tent, which is a permanent installation and rather spectacular.
As the primary purpose of the event (from the town’s point of view) is to attract tourists, admission to the convention is free. The point is that you put money in the coffers of local shops, restaurants and hotels. They also have stalls selling local produce at the convention. There were even bottles of the convention’s own-label wine. Obviously it was a local vineyard’s output repackaged, but it was a seriously neat idea.
From our point of view, however, free admission has very different benefits. In particular it means a lot of young people. The YA authors were doing an excellent trade in the signing area of the exhibits tent, and some of the panels they were on were packed out. There were even school parties, and I gather than the convention has a strong outreach program that involves writers going into local schools while they are in town. Jean-Claude Dunyach told me that he also did a prison visit this year. Quite what he was able to do for the prisoners wasn’t clear, but it gave him something to talk about when he went to the schools.
The central feature of the convention was the exhibits tent which was a long, rectangular structure. There was an open rectangle of tables down the middle for most of the length of the tent, and it was covered with piles of books. All of the author attendees had signing space. It was rather like the mass signing at World Fantasy, except that it kept going all through the four days of the convention. And of course it was open to the public. Around the outside of the tent there were booths for small press publishers, artists and small bookstores. At the far end was a relaxation area with food on sale.
The programming mostly took place in the “Magic Mirror” tent and in the one proper building. Both can accommodate a few hundred, but there is no giant program space. A smaller tent was used for readings and the like. The art exhibits were spread around. Some were in the main exhibit tent, others where in some space adjoining one of the program rooms, and I think the artist who drew the signature work for this year’s convention had his own exhibit somewhere, though I never got to it. There was no art show sales system like we are used to in US conventions, though several artists were selling prints from their stands.
Two art exhibits stood out. The first was a collaborative live painting exercise in which four artists started with a blank canvass and painted it through the convention. The other was an installation made from bits of old computers and other discarded electronic junk that was apparently the work of a class of school kids working under the direction of the artist. You can see both of these in the photos and video.
Programming was almost all in French. English-speaking panelists were provided with translators who could tell them what was being discussed, and translate their contributions. All of the writers I spoke to seemed happy with how this worked. There were Kaffleklatches too, except because this was France we couldn’t just have coffee. You signed up for either a breakfast or a lunch with your favorite author. Patty Briggs conducted her lunch in English. Jean-Claude was along to help translate, but told me afterward that many of the kids present were quite comfortable with English.
Topics for program items were many and various, and things went pretty much as you would expect from any other convention. The panel on the future of transport was quite good and had my French been better I would have participated. The one on “European Fantasy” got bogged down in exactly the sort of pointless anti-Americanism I would expect from a UK convention. The panel on podcasting showed that the French fans haven’t quite realized that you can’t make money out of the Internet. They are still surprised that so much good material is available for free. Audiences for readings appeared to be quite poor, which is a shame because Lionel Davoust is very entertaining when he reads.
There were a few visitors from other parts of Europe. I got to meet Andreas Eschbach, and gushed fannishly about The Carpet Makers. I also got to meet Andrzej Sapkowski who turned out to be a charming fellow – very amusing and with good English. I want to see him at UK and US conventions soon. Also present was Bernard Hennen from Germany. I haven’t read any of his books, but again he has good English.
As the con had no giant program space the Saturday night Prix Imaginales award ceremony had to take place off site. But because the town was staging the event we got the local concert hall, complete with the town’s jazz band which provided excellent entertainment. I was delighted to be able to live-blog the award ceremony, and huge thanks are due to Lionel for arranging everything with the tech people at the hall. The ceremony itself was very slick – no one made long speeches – and the award trophy, although made of plastic, is seriously cute. It is a representation of the town’s mascot, the furry, boot-wearing fellow who calls himself Le Marquis de Carabas (or Puss-in-Boots).
Obviously no convention is flawless. One thing that the French don’t do too well is manage operations. Indeed there didn’t seem to be an ops office at all, and poor Stéphanie Nicot was often run off her feet sorting out people’s problems. She needs staff, and better signage. Mostly things ran OK anyway, but there was a definite tendency for panels to finish on the hour, thereby causing the next panel to start late. No one got any more time that way, except the first event of the day, it just made things seem a bit disorganized. Also at one point we lost Bruce Holland Rogers. The program had him on a reading, he didn’t know it was happening, and none of the guest liaison staff had his cell phone number. That wouldn’t happen in Finland.
Talking of the Finns, it is useful to compare and contrast the two events. Finncon, because it moves around the country, doesn’t have the same tight relationship with the town that Imaginales has. Even in Jyväskylä, where the convention is held as part of a local arts festival, it is seen as something on the fringes, not the main event. In contrast Épinal is focused on Imaginales, and is somewhat more impressive because of it. On the other hand, the Finns have the anime hordes. Given Épinal’s history in comics, it is a bit of a shame that they don’t have more of a focus on anime and manga at Imaginales. The park is perfect for posing in.
Of course Finland is a fairly small country. Getting 6,000 or more people to a convention is an amazing achievement. Imaginales takes place over a holiday weekend and is 4 days rather than 2. It is also reachable in a day trip from Paris, and France is one of the largest countries in Europe. Stéphanie tells me that she thinks they had over 10,000 people pass through over the 4 days. It didn’t feel like that, but I’m not surprised. Indeed, the real surprise was that numbers were not down on last year. The dealers pronounced themselves happy, despite the recession. That’s very good news.
Huge thanks are due to a whole variety of people who helped make my stay enjoyable. I’m sure I’ll forget someone, but here’s a list:
- Bernard Visse, the town’s Director of Culture
- Stéphanie Nicot, the convention’s Artistic Director and a very fine short fiction editor
- Gillian Gray of Galaxies magazine for being my room mate and local guide
- Lionel Davoust for helping with the award ceremony and much translation
- Bruce Holland Rogers, David Anthony Durham, Hal Duncan and Patty Briggs for being great company
- Jean-Claude Dunyach, for translation and an interview
- Lucas Moreno, podcaster to French fandom, for his insights
- Stéphane Marsan of Bragelonne for listening to me witter on about my favorite books
- Andrzej Sapkowski for his jokes, especially the one about cats
- Sylvie Miller for her books and translation, and especially the rugby story
- Also Lucie Chenu, Héloise Mas and everyone whose names I have forgotten.
A number of those folks will be at Worldcon. Jean-Claude and Lionel both have work coming out in English this year, as does Pierre Pevel whose musketeers with dragons are apparently very popular in France. In July when I have a better idea of who will be in Montréal I’ll try to do some introductions.
My photographs are available below. A video diary is available here.