Leaf through the pages of Bull Spec and you'll find many surprises—especially for a magazine that runs more on fervor than funds. There's the high-quality short story "Ancilla" by Brenda Cannon Kalt, the appreciation of Ray Bradbury by Richard Dansky and the overall breadth of North Carolina literary talent represented.
Billed as "a magazine of speculative fiction," Bull Spec brought North Carolina authors of science fiction and fantasy together, giving many a platform to gain their first attention from readers, other publications and agents. Its run as a print magazine ended earlier this year, but as a personal passion project for an IBM software engineer who shepherded it in whatever bits of free time he could find, it was an impressive achievement. It's a tangible reason to name Samuel Montgomery-Blinn a winner of this award. But, in truth, he's being recognized more for his intangible role as a community builder, a role that continues as Bull Spec lives on as a website.
Examples of that community-building could be found in the author events held in conjunction with the release of each issue of Bull Spec. Montgomery-Blinn, working closely with local bookstores such as Quail Ridge and the Regulator, helped pull together and promote nights that featured readings by speculative fiction authors, which attracted other spec fic authors. New connections were made, new favorites discovered. Conversations ended with plans for other appearances. New tendrils wove through the North Carolina spec fic community, strengthening its bonds and enhancing its visibility.
Deflecting credit as if he's surrounded by the sort of futuristic force field that you might find in a Bull Spec story, Montgomery-Blinn is quick to point out the efforts of others, from writers to bookstores to NC State faculty member and two-time Nebula Award-winner John Kessel ("NC State has been a factory for fantastic spec fic for years," Montgomery-Blinn says). But, if pressed, he will admit that becoming a community meeting place, so to speak, is one of the magazine's biggest successes.
"We all know about each other a little bit more now," Montgomery-Blinn says, comparing today to when Bull Spec began. "There was already a really good scene with writers supporting each other. We've had a growth in active writers groups and an explosion in the number of conventions."
He's especially proud that although the magazine couldn't pay a lot, it did pay enough to meet the standards of the Science Fiction Writers of America, which meant authors it published would be eligible to join that group. Doing so allowed them to network and gain even more exposure.
One goal when starting out "was just raising the visibility of the local authors," he says. Through the years it felt really good "to see someone who had a small story first published in Bull Spec have more published elsewhere" and become recognized by a wider audience—even a national one. Artist Cynthia Sheppard received a nomination for a prestigious Chesley Award for her work on the cover of the Spring 2013 issue.
Now Montgomery-Blinn continues Bull Spec's mission in an online-only format. There are some tweaks to the formula. The website doesn't publish original fiction, but it has series such as "Coming to Town," which interviews spec fic authors with upcoming Triangle appearances, and "The Hardest Part," where authors write about the hurdles of getting their work published, allowing others to learn from their process and thus grow the spec fic community further. He also hopes to publish a healthy number of book reviews. And, of course, if there is an author appearance, writers-group meeting or other event in the spec fic family, you can discover it at the Bull Spec website—and probably find Montgomery-Blinn, a tireless attendee, in the audience.
Montgomery-Blinn is married, has a son and a daughter, and is currently working on a project involving Watson the supercomputer for IBM. Obviously, he has a busy life. Why devote so much time to Bull Spec?
"I'm just really invested," he says. "I'm invested in what my friends are doing. I really like good books and I want interesting new ideas. I want to be inspired and I want to be surprised. You come to a place like the Triangle where so many writers are good. I'm going to be reading what they're writing and I want to share it."
It's a passion that developed in childhood. "I was bred to be a reader," Montgomery-Blinn says. "Growing up on a farm we had chores and books." He recalls Robert Heinlein's Space Cadet as being one of the first books he read. It was a gift from his father, an avid reader of science fiction. Being able to put a copy of Bull Spec in his father's hands was a personally gratifying moment for Montgomery-Blinn.
Last Friday, he was excited about attending noted author William Gibson's appearance at Motorco later that night to hear him read from his new high-tech thriller.
But, before that, Montgomery-Blinn had a few posters to put up, spreading the word about an upcoming event with North Carolina authors. After all, the work of supporting a community never ends.