Matt Reinhart, who creates extraordinary pop-up art books (including the brand new Transformers book that he demonstrated for the audience—the pop-up actually transforms!); Kami Garcia, the co-author of Beautiful Creatures, whose latest book, Unbreakable, was just listed on the New York Times’ bestseller list; Mike Underwood, author of Celebromancy; V.E. Schwab, the author of Vicious; and Lev Grossman, the author of The Magicians, and winner of the John Campbell award in 2011.
Ricca asked the panelists how they define the word “nerd,” and which camps they inhabit, nerdily speaking.
Reinhart said that when he grew up, “nerd” had too many negative connotations for him to embrace it now. He considers nerds to be people who are obsessed by thing “in a good way, not a creepy, stalker way.” Garcia prefers the term “intellectual badass” to nerd. She grew up wanting to be Magneto, and loves Buffy and Supernatural. Her husband gave her a Colt replica in the box as a gift when her book hit the bestseller list. Underwood grew up in New York, so he considered Peter Parker a neighbor, and loves the nerd community for its “infectious social enthusiasm.” Schwab gleefully declared herself a Super-Who-Lockian, and said she was part of the “John Greene generation.”
Grossman pointed out that he’s “super-old” and spoke in praise of video games (Atari, PONG, Apple 2E) and books (TH White, Piers Anthony, Anne McCaffrey). Then he stood up to show off his shirt, which featured Adventure Time’s Ice King reimagined at Eddard Stark. Reinhart turned to Grossman, and said, “Like you, I am old. It’s a lot different for the older nerds. Everyone is so connected now. There were no internets. It’s kind of wonderful to see such a huge community, and see people being very joyful about the word now.
Grossman asked Reinhart if he thought he’d been born too soon, and he said that he thought so. Garcia jumped in with a good point, though: “If we weren’t born earlier, we wouldn’t have been in the original Star Wars line.” The older panelists nodded in agreement. Underwood is happy that “there’s no way not to find the type of nerdery you want now.“ Reinhart is excited that we can do anything now, because people are willing to believe in fantasy and sci-fi stories in a way they weren’t before. He remembered that when he was a boy, if you went into a library with a comic it would be taken away. “Now librarians encourage kids to read comics, and understand that it’s just a different form of storytelling.”
Ricca asked if nerds have lost something now, as they’ve gained mainstream acceptance, but the panelists seemed to disagree: Schwab thinks that while on the surface things seem easier, there is still a difference between “true fans” and “fans of convenience.” She’s also excited that the accessibility of the internet has made it easier to discover fandoms. Garcia said, “There’s so much cross-genre now! Fantasy used to be fringe, and even sci-fi was fringe, but now that they’re in the forfront you can meld things. You can write sci-fi/horror, or fantasy/horror.”
Ricca asked how their nerddom shows up in their writing process, and whether they thought that genre writing lends tself to sequels because of the obsessiveness that is a nerd hallmark.
Underwood said that he correlated nerddom with passion and richness of worldbuilding. So if someone is writing and wants to do a series, they can imagine a world as one with many people and many stories, rather than just a few main characters. Schwab believes that nerds make good writers because ideally they have a good eye for detail. Writing also requires you to be “the original fan” of your own work, to give you the perseverance to keep going. Reinhart said that if he doesn’t get al lthe details right, people really notice. Because of this he goes to bed at night reading the Transformers Wiki. He wants to make something that people will be excited about. “I want to make it special for the fans.”
Grossman said being an older nerd gav him a massive tolerance for abuse. “When I was in [graduate school for writing], there were these guys were obvious stars, who got laid all the time, and everyone was super-impressed with them. I was super-impressed with them. But as soon as they went out into the world they disappeared. I think that being a writer means being vulnerable, but the first few times you do that you’ll produce things that are terrible. People will throw them back in your face. And when that happened to me, well, I’d been building up those muscles all my life, so it didn’t bother me as much. I just kept writing. Plus, I’ve evolved to never require sunlight.”
When asked to confess their nerdiest moment, there were a few moments of contemplation.
Reinhart’s was when he corrected a guy in line at a Transformers convention. Underwood’s was actually a job interview—he felt like he’d bombed the interview, but then ended up splitting a cab with his potential boss. After the two of them nerded out about Firefly all the way to the airport, he got the job! Schwab’s was when she got over her nervousness at the Tor.com 5th Anniversary Party by joining a massive and enthusiastic Doctor Who conversation. Garcia’s was the day she spent a day working the cash register at Mysterious Galaxy Bookshop to earn the right to meet Anne Rice, and then Grossman related his story of getting to interview J.K. Rowling—particularly the moment when the two of them “geek out about how it took some bones for Rita Skeeter to become and unregistered Animagus. Apparently Rowling said, “I know, right?” and Grossman replied with, “I know, right?” and just barely stopped himself from going in for a fist bump. Then Reinhart, at the panel’s request, told the tale of the time he spent at Skywalker Ranch when he was researching his Star Wars pop-up book. He found it surreal because the hotel section is just “like a really nice Days Inn” but when he went into the Lucas archive he was allowed to wear one of the original Darth Vader helmets, and hold a real lightsaber. The whole panel, and most of the audience, in unison, said “Wooooooooow.” But that was not even the nerdiest moment. That came toward the end of the day, when he told one of the archivists that a prop box was mislabeled. The man shrugged it off, but the next day the man sought him out to tell him he was right, and the box had been corrected.
Then they got to the most fun part of the panel: their best nerd artifact.
Underwood wanted a Force FX Lightsaber when it first came out, but it was too expensive. Over time, it gained a lot of psychic weight for him, and when he got his first book advance he bought it for himself as a reward. Schwab had a couple of things—a Filipe Andrade print, most of a set of Slytherin formalwear (she plans to get her wand on her first trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter next year) and, for four straight book, her advance money has gone toward byuyingthe complete Sandman. But the biggest one of all—in the late nineties, before anyone knew who J.K. Rowling was, a friend of her mother’s got her a signed first edition of Sorcerer’s Stone.
We were all silent for a moment.
Then the panel burst in simultaneously with plans to give Schwab a glass case for it, which she was then instructed to hang on a lanyard and wear around her neck at Comic-Con. Grossman then continued with his artifacts—copies of Neil Gaiman’s run on Miracleman, which he thinks is every bit as good as Watchmen and Sandman, and his first edition of The Magician’s Nephew. Reinhart said he didn’t really have one nerd artifact, but he does have over 2000 Transformers figurines (and even more Star Wars) and that they have all been played with, and are all loved.
An audience member asked how “underdogness” has defined each of the panelists’ work.
For Grossman, he was obsessed with Dudley Dursley, and with the idea of a character who didn’t get into magical school (apparently when he tried to talk about this with Rowling, her response was a snarky “Oh please.”) and this led him to write the character of Julia in The Magicians. He considers her outpouring of bitterness the best thing he ever wrote. Schwab has always written about outsiders, but she tries to focus more on people who outwardly belong, but never actually feel like they belong. She likes to look at sociopathic behavior, and flip the ideas of “hero” and “villain” on their heads to explore how we decide which is which. Reinhart was an Army brat, so he loved geek culture because that was where it was safe. He reiterated the sense of change he feels, that now underdogs are often celebrated. “When I was younger, it was always the coolest people who were the best. It’s wonderful that now everyone feels like they can be something.” Garcia said that she wasn’t really a classic nerd growing up—she had friends, but none of them shared her nerdier interests. “I did all their book reports.” Where things changed for her was going into a public school as a sophomore. She found a group of nerdy freshmen who were beaten up daily on their way to school. Garcia, being a trained fighter by this point, could defend herself. “I was not an underdog because I would hurt you if you bothered me.” So she started letting the boys sit with her at lunch, and basically took them under her wing. Underwood is actively exploring these issues through his writing. “I’m a heterosexual, cisgender whit guy, but I felt like an outsider because I was also a geek. And one of my characters is a bisexual Latina geek, and I’m trying to see if it’s viable to write her, and deal with her as an outsider.”
Finally Ricca asked about everyone’s upcoming projects. Grossman has just finished the third book in his Magicians series, and it should be out next year. Schwab is working on a historical fantasy with three alternate Londons, Garcia is writing the sequel to Unbreakable, and Reinhart is working on two more pop-up books—one for Game of Thrones, and one for My Little Pony. So we have more contribution to the greater Nerd Universe to look forward to!
Leah Schnelbach is fine with the terms nerd, geek, and dork, but not so much with dweeb. You can follow her Twitter-based geek-outs here.