“Hey Look, It’s Joe Haldeman!”: A First-Time Convention-Goer Looks at World Fantasy 2010
I had never attended a major speculative fiction convention until this year. And the World Fantasy Convention is a huge one for a first-timer to go diving into. It’s an especially scary dive if you’re someone like me, who is only starting to emerge from the years of amateur writing into some level of the professional. I’ve won a major writing award, have some stories that will soon be published, and even have an agent and a novel making the rounds at publishing houses, but I felt like a Lilliputian among Brobdingnagians when I entered the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Columbus, OH on 29 October 2010 with the Thirty-Sixth World Fantasy Convention already in motion. There I was, lugging my heavy suitcases from the taxi from the airport, and already around me was a throng of people with their convention badges swinging from their necks and deep in the business of “convening.”
The main reason I had never gone to conventions before (aside from some swing dancing confabs — a different world entirely) was because I didn’t have any people to go with or meet there; most of my close Los Angeles friends are not involved in SF fandom to any degree. I didn’t want to go solo and feel lost in the huge ocean of a major convention. I know my personality — I’d likely leave the convention in a few hours in a sort of junior-high-school-dance-wallflower fear.
But this time, I had the best network and support team possible, the Black Gate folks. This was not only a chance to go to a huge convention, but a chance to meet the people who had formed an important part of life during the past four years, and who until then were known to me as emails and voices on the phone. I finally got to meet John O’Neill, Bill Ward, John Fultz, Jason M. Waltz, and the man responsible for getting me involved in all this in the first place, Howard Andrew Jones, but for whom . . . well, you know the rest. Without Howard’s encouragement, I don’t think I would have pushed myself to be a better writer the way I have over the last few years.
I arrived at the Hyatt Regency at 5:30 p.m. that Friday, and immediately noticed the folks wandering around with the badges. (Which have handy pen and business card holders — the first sign I received that the people who put on big cons know what they are doing.) I registered at the desk, received a heaping bag of books that almost broke my arm (Jason Waltz’s anthology Rage of the Behemoth was in there, and I traded one of the books I didn’t want for the Pathfinder novel that precedes Howard A. Jones’s Plague of Shadows) and immediately started to wonder how in the world I would get all this voluminousness into my suitcase. (UPS Shipping on premises, thank Athena). I got lost getting to the elevators, cleverly disguised behind the second floor bar where most the convention’s action takes place, and gathered myself in my room.
Downstairs in the Dealers Room, where I realized I had not brought enough money along with me, I met Bill Ward, John Fultz, and Jason M. Waltz for the first time. When Howard and John O’Neill got back from a brief trip out of town, we went up to the third-floor book-signing in the ballroom.
And it was here that I trembled at the majesty of what was around me. The room was filled only with simple tables covered with white cloth, but the name placards spoke of legends, announcing that some of the people sitting behind them were the same ones who wrote material that had entertained me and inspired me even as far back as elementary school.
Howard helped me walk up to the first set of celebrities: E. E. Knight and World Fantasy Award Nominee James Enge. Most of the time during the convention that I spent talking to James concerned Latin and making jokes about the ablative absolute. Geekdom of another kind, sorry.
Other writers I met at the signing of huge importance to me: David Drake (I’ve already posted about that), Joe Haldeman, Tim Powers (the second time I’ve met him — and he remembered me), Eric Flint (he also remembered me from the Writers of the Future ceremony), Stephen R. Donaldson, Sarah Monette, Peter Straub (I asked him, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”), F. Paul Wilson, and Guy Gavriel Kay. Gene Wolfe, probably the most eminent writer at the convention, had too long a line leading up to him.
The encounter with Stephen R. Donaldson was a memorable one. His Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever were the first epic fantasy novels I read after finishing The Lord of the Rings. I had no books to sign because I had come on a plane with little room for extra baggage, but I only wanted to go up and tell him that I remember how powerfully Lord Foul’s Bane struck me when I read it in sixth grade. His response was, “Well . . . you weren’t exactly the audience I was writing for.” (With a rape in Chapter Seven, no kidding.) I answered, “I was a precocious kid.” I then explained I was sorry I had nothing for him to sign, and the convention-goer next to me handed over a first-edition hardback of White Gold Wielder and told me it was a gift.
So, not only did I get Donaldson’s personalized signature, but I was able to walk two tables over and have the cover artist, Darrell K. Sweet, sign it as well. I then talked briefly with the famed illustrator about those wonderful covers he did for the Heinlein juveniles, which were also a huge part of young SF-reading life.
That evening I took part in a podcast recording about sword-and-sorcery. Many people were involved, including Howard, John O’Neill, John Fultz, Jason Waltz, and James Enge. I made gratuitous reference to both Cornell Woolrich and Frederick Faust during the conversation. Because that’s who I am.
I thought I would attend a slew of panels during the next day and half, but I found out that at the World Fantasy Convention you really only have to stay in one place and a panel literally comes to you. Just spending time behind the Black Gate booth put me in contact with editors, writers, publishers, and people I either really wanted to meet, or had no idea that I really wanted to meet. The surprises were continuous: “Hey, look, it’s Joe Haldeman!”
I ended up going to only two panels, one featuring Howard A. Jones, and the other John O’Neill. The first was a sword-and-sorcery panel with Howard, Scott Andrews, Martha Wells, Patricia Bray, and Jonathan Oliver. The second was a thinly attended panel (or maybe just the room was too big) with the odd title of “Why H. P. Lovecraft Is Still Funny.” The panel members were Lovecraft scholar extraordinaire S. T. Joshi, our own Mr. O’Neill, W. Paul Ganley, Lois Gresh, and Robert Killheffer. The topic was weird, but Joshi’s fountain of knowledge about Lovecraft, and his unusual description of the bizarre autobiographical qualities in “The Dunwich Horror” and The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath were incredibly interesting. Joshi also repeated the most unintentionally hilarious ending of any Lovecraft story ever written, the revision piece “The Diary of Alonzo Typer,” which concludes with the fictional author scribbling away in his diary: “—am dragged away toward the cellar. . . .” Insert Monty Python and the Holy Grail joke here. (“Perhaps he was dictating?”)
Later that evening, at the Mythoscon party on the fifth floor, filled with mounds of pizza cut at hideous non-Euclidean angles, I got to have a fun sit-down talk with Mr. Joshi. Never has blabbering about H. P. L. been more enjoyable.
Ah, yes . . . evening parties. Parties to me are usually dancing parties, so loosening up around SF&F nuts of all degrees was quite mindbending even before adding liquor. Each night the fifth floor suites filled with shindigs thrown by publishers like Tor, Edge, and ChiZine. But Mythoscon still wins for that pizza stash. Wow. Cyclopean.
Saturday evening featured the massive Black Gate reading, which gathered so many authors that it lasted over three hours. James Enge opened with “This Crooked Way.” I had the privilege of reading after Martha Wells, and it was the first time I had ever done an attended reading. (My previous readings were all to the bathroom mirror.) I have two stories coming up in the next year and a half in Black Gate: “The Sorrowless Thief” and “Stand at Dubun-Geb.” Both are part of my “Ahn-Tarqa Cycle,” a slight nod to Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique and Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, only with a lot more dinosaurs. Although “Stand at Dubun-Geb” is the more action-oriented piece, I chose to read from “The Sorrowless Thief,” which was the first story of Ahn-Tarqa I ever finished, and the the first work of short fiction that I felt was worthy to appear in a professional publication. (I’ve always been more of a novel writer, honestly — it’s the form in which I feel most comfortable.)
I would like to thank John Fultz for his very kind words later about my reading. This was the first time that anything “Ahn-Tarqa” has gone public, even though it has already had a significant impact on my professional writing life. However, until I opened my mouth with the first sentence from “The Sorrowless Thief” on that Saturday night, only a small group of friends, a few relatives, some editors, and my agent had been exposed to Ahn-Tarqa.
The next day featured the awards banquet, held in the same ballroom as the signing on Friday night. Our own James Enge, who pulled off the brilliant/obnoxious feat of getting nominated for Best Novel with his first novel, did not win in his category. The H. P. Lovecraft-head statue instead went to China Miéville for The City and the City. However, as one of James’s friends texted to him afterword, “It’s no shame losing to a juggernaut.” No, not at all, and James has an amazing novel that we love and a great career ahead of him and he’ll get the statue eventually.
The highlight of the awards ceremony was the brief but moving speech from Gene Wolfe when he accepted the award for Best Collection for The Very Best of Gene Wolfe, a collection of his best short stories. Elderly and fatigued, Wolfe took the stand and said: “There really are two people accepting this award. One of them is me. The other is the young man who wrote those stories. I wish to God you could have met him.” He then spoke to Rosemary, his wheelchair-bound wife to thank her, and you could hear the whole auditorium tearing up. It was a simple speech, but filled with such humility and gratitude, a man so thankful he had a career as a writer, and that people love his work.
As the banquet wrapped up, I experienced “End of Con Blues.” Everyone told me that this always happens; after all the energy of the weekend, with your brain running on high because of the influx of brilliant, talkative people all around you, seeing it wind down and saying goodbye as people depart is almost funereal. I stayed one more evening in the hotel to take my afternoon plane back to L.A., but all the rest of the Black Gate crew took off not long after the banquet. But I had met enough people over the weekend that I had no trouble finding a group to chat with and share the pizza.
At midnight, it became the 1st of November, so I went up to my room to start National Novel Writing Month, which would continue over the plane ride home. I am now at 27,500 words in eight days.
I don’t know what the next con will be for me. Conventions are an expense, and money is a touch tight at the moment. But I will be at World Fantasy next year, since it is in San Diego, a short drive south for me.
“Hey look, it’s Joe Haldeman!”
Really great con report, Ryan. You managed to pick out many of the highlights for me, as well.
I think you and I were chatting with Rodger Turner when Gene Wolfe and his wife Rosemary emerged from the elevators. I know Gene only very peripherally — we both attended a small local reading organized by C.S.E. (Claire) Cooney a while back — but he stopped to talk to us, and readily accepted my offer to help him push Rosemary’s wheelchair into the ballroom.
I was halfway across the ballroom when I noticed that Gene had been completely mobbed behind us. Poor Rosemary took that moment to look up, realize that Gene was no longer pushing her chair, and look around for him in mounting confusion. Gene had vanished by this point, so I stopped to introduce myself. But it wasn’t until I thought to mention I was a friend of Claire’s that she relaxed and gave me a big smile. (See? It’s always the Black Gate connections that smooth things over.) 🙂
I wondered where you got that copy of WHITE GOLD WIELDER from! You didn’t have it when you entered the room.
Your performance was one of the highlights of the Black Gate reading. It’s a great story, and I’m looking foward to getting it into print.
And finally… 27,500 words in just 8 days? Wow. I think that even puts Howard to shame, and that’s saying something!
Really looking forward to your Ahn-Tarqa Cycle (and novels)…
the convention-goer next to me handed over a first-edition hardback of White Gold Wielder and told me it was a gift
All I can say is “wow”. What a great tribe we belong to.
I guess I was reading this blog too fast the first time around. That part with Gene and Rosemary is so great. Their daughter Teri posted this article to her Facebook page and alerted me to it.
Again, and again, and again, I wish I could’ve been there. But I will be there next year – with BELLS ON! And I, too, will blog about it. Just like Ryan Harvey.
Celebrity? I think my only qualification for that is that I expose my crotch when I get out of a car.
(It was chewing gum, I tells ya!)
Glad you had a great first World Fantasy. My first WFC was key to my career.