Thoughts on Winning the John W Campbell Award

 

durham-theotherlands.jpgIt’s awesome on a variety of levels, beginning with the evening itself. This huge auditorium. Tons of people. Massive screens on either side of the stage. Oscar-style production. There’s me feeling incredibly nervous, at the verge of something huge but with no control over what might be about to happen. There’s the fact that my family was with me, and that my kids were so nervous and excited they literally couldn’t sit still. There’s watching the faces of the finalists come up on the screen, and there’s hearing my name announced as the winner. There’s bowing my head to receive the tiara from Mary Robinette Kowal. There’s holding Neil Gaiman’s Hugo as cameras clicked away. There’s George RR Martin coming up to congratulate me, mentioning that he’d been a finalist for the very first Campbell – and hadn’t won…
There’s the way that every day since I keep remembering that this award is part of my permanent record. In a small way my name is carved into the history of science fiction. How very, very strange and wonderful. I’m still giddy.
But… let’s not get too carried away. I’m also aware of a host of grounding realities. Do I think I’m really the “best” new writer of science fiction around this year? No way. I don’t know what “best” means in relation to something like this. I was up there with a diverse group of talented writers: Aliette de Bodard, Felix Gilman, Tony Pi, Gord Sellar. They’re all doing award-worthy work. You’ll be hearing plenty from each of them in the years to come.
Awards are fickle and imperfect. Winning one only marginally has to do with merit. This year the pieces fell into place for me, but getting there meant many random things just happened to line up in my favor.
Consider all the authors that are NOT eligible. So many amazing writers never get into contention because they may have published one short story a few years ago, and then not published anything else until their breakout novel. (Can you say Pat Rothfuss?) It’s cruel, but that’s the reality of eligibility for the award. The clock begins ticking when you have your first sf publication, no matter how small. And that clock only ticks for two years. After that you’re out.
Consider that this year was free of the big names that have been up there recently: no Joe Abercrombie, no Scott Lynch, no Brandon Sanderson, for example.
durham-acacia.jpgConsider I had published three novels before Acacia: The War With The Mein. I wasn’t a “new” writer, but I was – technically, luckily – a new sf writer. I hadn’t published a word of fantasy until my six hundred page novel began my Campbell clock ticking. It was really dumb luck that I had a clean slate – certainly nothing I planned out.
Consider that the process of voting and vote tabulation is numeric voodoo. My win was technically secured by three votes. Three votes!
All that said, I’m darned happy with the outcome this year. I’ve been around publishing long enough to know that things are stacked against you all the time, at every level. You work hard, stay in the game, don’t lose faith in yourself or your work, but in the vast majority of cases the slot machine that is big success doesn’t line up a winning display. When it does… jump for joy, grab the coins, buy a round of drinks for your friends! And remember that come Monday morning you still have to go back to work.
That’s what the Campbell means to me as much as anything else: that I’ve got work to do and that I’ve been nudged to get on with it.


David Anthony Durham is the author of the award-winning Acacia: The War With The Mein and its newly released sequel, Acacia: The Other Lands. David has a great blog and loves conversing with his fans. He has begun writing the third novel in the Acacia trilogy.