It sounds like a dream, yes, but that’s the experience (or part of it) of World Fantasy 2011. Don’t get me wrong: it was a wonderful time! I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to connect and reconnect with so many other fantasists. Professionally, this was my best convention yet. And it’s always, always a great and rip-snorting good time! I’ll try to hit some of the highlights here.
I’m not the only one who noticed the eeriness of the girl in blue. Apparently that same portrait hangs in ALL (or many?) of the rooms in this hotel. Con-goers were talking about her, and there are mentions of her all over the Internet, and not only by those who attended this convention. One blogger I’ve read hung her shawl over the painting so that the eyes wouldn’t follow her. Fortunately for me, the picture hung in my roommate’s half of the room, so she didn’t really bother me.
One of the best things I heard at this year’s convention was an anecdote told by Neil Gaiman. He’d just finished writing a major novel, and when he ran into the novelist Gene Wolfe (who has been called “our Melville”), he gleefully exclaimed, “Gene! I’ve finally figured out how to write novels!” He says Gene looked at him pityingly and said, “Neil, you never figure out how to write novels. You just figure out how to write the one you’re on.” That is most certainly true! I know the basic rules of “good writing,” but invariably, every time I’m working on a book, I find a host of reasons that I can’t apply those rules in this case. Maybe on the next book, but not on this one. See, this one is different . . . They’re all “different.”
At an excellent panel on fiction for children and young adults, William Alexander said this: “I love books now, but I’ve never loved books more than I did then.” He meant “than I did when I was a kid.” So it’s an immeasurably worthwhile and noble and wonderful thing to write for that audience — to aim our work for the time in readers’ lives when great stories have the maximum emotional impact. That idea makes me happy, and it makes me tremble with the awe and the tremendous responsibility it involves. It makes me glad to be alive in this world with this amazing privilege, this calling. Think about it! Writing books for readers — including young readers. What else IS there? Where, I ask you, would you rather be? What would you rather be doing?
Did you know that what was HUGELY popular among Dickens’s work during his lifetime was not the works of his that are mostly read today? They’re not the Dickens books that we study in schools and turn into movies and read at Christmas teas. In his day, crowds thronged the docks in New York, elbowing and jostling, nearly pushing one another into the harbor as the ships pulled in — waiting for copies of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop to be unloaded. We don’t know for sure which books are going to stand the test of time. So take courage! Write the stories that you must write, and don’t worry about the market. History will be the judge. Do your best, writer — that’s all you need to do.
The sea is the home we cannot return to. That’s the fear and the allure of mer-beings. If you follow them into the waves, you drown. In the sea or in the air, we are vulnerable from all sides. (Yes, Steven Spielberg was onto something very big in Jaws. That’s why it remains the greatest film ever made.)
* * *
The ancient race of serpent-beings reportedly runs all through world mythology. Also this: vampires, werewolves, and sea beings that predate humankind — all world cultures have these myths.
* * *
Our treatment of what we don’t understand says a lot about us.
* * *
In the fiction of former eras, social class created the barrier between lovers. Now it’s often species. She’s a human, he’s a vampire. She’s a human, he’s a werewolf. Whoa! — my own flash of insight just now: he’s a human, she’s the Evenstar of her immortal people! Yes, Tolkien started it!
* * *
One panel posited that the main sources of the zombie craze are HIV and Alzheimer’s. Diseases that you can’t come back from . . . it’s your loved one’s face, but your loved one is no longer there. To defeat a zombie is to defeat death.
* * *
Do you see why I fight tooth-and-nail to go to this thing every year? As one long-suffering friend of mine put it: “Yes, I can see how that convention is Freddie Nirvana.”
“The Call of Cthulhu” was inspired by an earthquake that happened in the same year and season as when Lovecraft set the story! I never knew that. (My own “A Tale of Silences” was inspired in part by a series of earthquakes that rocked Japan.)
The constant, repeated cycle of building and collapse: Lovecraft was onto this. Sociologists and scientists of his day mostly thought that civilization was an ever-rising curve, that ours was better than anything before. Today, we’re increasingly aware of wondrous, fantastically-advanced civilizations that preceded ours — civilizations which have vanished. Lovecraft knew!
* * *
The things that survive the millennia are the dark fears of humankind. Someone asked at a panel what the panelists thought would be the equivalent of the Homeric epics from our own present time — what will be the literature that survives and is known a few thousand years from now, if the Earth is still here? Without missing a beat, Tim Powers said, “Lovecraft.”
I’d say he has a point. I’ve always taken great delight in the fact that our oldest work in any form of English is Beowulf — a monster story. (I’m dancing like Snoopy!)
Personally, one of my favorite panels was one on airships. That was quite important to me, because I seem to use so many of them. There’s one (albeit in a minor role) in the book I’m trying to get back to now. There’s the Jolly Jack in Dragonfly. And the airships are the real stars of The Fires of the Deep. It was designing them that got me started on that book.
Putting a sail on a fantasy airship wouldn’t make sense, you know. You can’t tack against the wind if you’re in the wind with no resistant surface beneath you. That’s the sort of wonderful nerd facts this panel was brimming over with. Yes, I took a lot of notes!
* * *
Trouble is our best friend as writers. (Trouble for the characters, that is.)
* * *
Did you ever think about the connection between The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings? In both stories, after the great adventures, we come home to a home that isn’t in its perfect state anymore. It needs cleaning up. There’s still some work to do.
Peter S. Beagle
Peter S. Beagle was another highlight of this year’s convention. What a truly astounding writer! I took along my copies from childhood of The Last Unicorn and A Fine and Private Place and got him to sign them. I’ll try to reproduce my conversation with him.
(He was wearing a shirt that said “What Would Buffy Do?” I knew from previous years that he is an enormous fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as am I. It’s a brilliantly-written series.)
Me: I like that shirt! I know you’re a great Buffy fan. Me, too!
PSB: I would have sold my CHILDREN for the chance to write for that show. And they would have agreed to it — readily.
Me: Ha, ha! Yes! [Pause. He begins to sign.] You can see I’ve brought along my old, treasured copies of these.
PSB: Yes! These old Ballantine editions are wonderful.
Me: I love Gervasio Gallardo. I’ll buy any book that he’s done the cover for.
PSB: Absolutely. [He is genuinely friendly and treats fans like people, smiling and making eye contact.]
Me: The Last Unicorn meant so much to me when I read it as a teenager.
PSB: It was a HARD book to write. Tamsin was fun. But this one was . . . like pulling teeth.
Me: Wow! Well, thank you very much!
PSB: You’re welcome!
One of the very best times at this year’s convention was listening to Peter S. Beagle’s reading on Sunday. When you hear Beagle read, you know you’re in the presence of a master. He read a new story of his in its entirety, and he is truly an enchanter with words. At the end, I was misty-eyed at the sheer wonder and aching beauty of it.
There she is: Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse books, those Southern Gothic Vampire Mysteries. The TV series True Blood is based on those books. My agent introduced me to her — she shook my hand and actually chatted with me — very gracious lady!
* * *
I also got Tim Powers to sign my copy of Declare. He’s always super-nice and a real joy to hear on panels. We celebrated our mutual left-handedness.
* * *
And then there’s the man in black, the man of the hour . . . the creator of the Sandman graphic novels, books such as American Gods, Coraline, Stardust, The Graveyard Book, Anansi Boys, Smoke and Mirrors, Fragile Things, and others. He had a big hand in the screenplay of that latest Beowulf film, too. Here he is!
So after I circulated through the mass book-signing on Friday night, collecting the signatures I had come after, talking with friends old and new, I went and got into Neil Gaiman’s long, long, long line. We were allowed three books apiece. I had bought three copies of The Dangerous Alphabet: one for myself, and one each for two dear writer-friends who couldn’t attend the convention this year. Waiting in line wasn’t bad at all. It was a chance to meet another writer and an artist (the people on both sides of me) whom I probably wouldn’t otherwise have gotten a chance to talk with. So yes — it was a historic night. I met Neil Gaiman face-to-face. We exchanged actual spoken words!
Neil Gaiman, October 28, 2011, San Diego
One of the funniest experiences this year was a completely unintelligible panel. I won’t name names, but we all settled down to listen in anticipation, because the topic promised to be highly interesting. And I’d guess it was, but only the panelists themselves know, because they had a mumbled conversation that no one beyond six feet away could hear! I’ve never seen anything like it. Very near the beginning, when it became obvious that not just the moderator, but everyone on the panel was mumbling, an audience member yelled, “WE CAN’T HEAR YOU!” The panelist who was speaking glanced up at the audience for one instant, then turned back to the moderator and continued mumbling. In ones and twos, people drifted out and left quietly and politely through the double-doors.
San Diego sunset
Another highlight was the evening — Saturday, I think — when some friends and I ventured into a part of San Diego where there were shops and restaurants. We had a delectable Mexican dinner, but the best part was getting to see a Zombie Walk! I’d heard about them before and seen my cousin’s photos of one, but the real thing was very cool to behold! What seemed like about a hundred people had made themselves up as zombies (this was the weekend right around Hallowe’en). Some looked basically like unkempt (living) people – rumpled clothes, messy hair, maybe trickles of “blood” on their faces or shirt-fronts. But some had gone all-out, with elaborate makeup and costumes. In a long, growling, glassy-eyed procession, they shambled down the crowded market streets, sometimes “devouring” a friend in the crowds of spectators. Children watched in delight. Babies cried. Dogs barked. Shopkeepers came out to admire. Many of these zombies were teenagers, but sometimes whole families had gotten into it. One lady was an utterly terrifying zombie bride, with a bouquet of wilted flowers, a wild nest of hair, a desolate face, a dusky dress that scraped along the pavement like dry leaves . . . boy, she gave me the SHIVERS!
But my favorite was a young woman with a ratty cascade of hair and an artfully-applied pallor — and blood, and ripped-up clothes; I’ve always had a thing for dirt-streaked women. She LOCKED her gaze onto mine as she approached, and her expression was what I can only describe as an undead come-hither look — very seductive. She turned her head to keep staring into my eyes as she passed me, and even after she passed. I think she could tell I considered her a highly attractive zombie. Boy, was that fun! Quite an erotic moment. If the zombie apocalypse really happens and we all die, I hope she’s the one who eats my brain.
* * *
Another great adventure was going to Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, which is ALL fantasy and horror (mostly fantasy)! Bookstores do not get any awesomer than that! Boy, do I wish we had one of those close to home! They have a permanent signing station built right in, a counter with a curved cutaway section and a chair for an author to sit in, with a great writing surface. Tamora Pierce was signing on the day we went, and she had an unending line of fans for the entire hour or so that we were in the store. I looked at the calendar of events, and they have giant-name authors coming all the time! Good argument for moving to San Diego: Mysterious Galaxy!
These two (above) pictures were taken on the way back from that store. We successfully managed the train and bus systems!
* * *
What else? I had wonderful and productive meetings with my agent and with the staff and friends of Black Gate. I met some amazing writers. Talked with friends I see only at World Fantasy. Made some new friends.
Okay, the best time of all at this year’s convention was getting to do my public reading. Oh, was that a good time! I had a fantastic audience this year! My heartfelt thanks go out to two excellent friends from the Dealers’ Room (you know who you are!); to the ladies I met on Friday night, who actually CAME on Saturday, as you promised — and brought a posse!; to my ever-faithful Pittsburgh compatriots; and to John O’Neill, editor and publisher of Black Gate, who not only attended the reading himself but gathered up several of his friends and dragged them along! To all of you who attended, laughed at the funny parts, sighed with happiness at the cool parts, and cackled with relish at the other cool parts, THANK YOU! You all made it an unforgettable convention for me, and you renewed my focus on who I am and what I need to be doing. Thank you!
* * *
Tinkerbell is mean in the actual book. She actively tries to kill Wendy.
* * *
Charlotte’s Web didn’t win the Newbery in the year that it was eligible; the book that did is now totally obscure. Kids still ask librarians for Charlotte’s Web, even when it hasn’t been assigned.
* * *
One panelist said, “Buffy is one of the most accurate portrayals of high-school life ever.”
* * *
Harry Turtledove pointed out that the rowers in the Greek and Roman ships were professional rowers, not slaves. Slaves weren’t used in that capacity until the Middle Ages! So, much as we love Ben-Hur, his stint as a ship-rowing slave isn’t historically accurate. Which is okay — it’s still a great story. After Salamis, it was a badge of honor for Greek citizens to have scars on their bottoms from the rowing benches. They would go around showing off their bums to one another: “I was at Salamis! See?”
* * *
“You can be old and cool and funky and wonderful. Stop being afraid of death and decay!”
* * *
Neil Gaiman said: “We make our living telling lies, and the lies are all true.”
* * *
Oh! One panelist — in fact, it was Robert Silverberg — quoted my favorite line from The Aeneid: “One day we’ll laugh even about this.”
That’s pretty much the news from World Fantasy 2011 in San Diego. Did we all get out of the hotel maze, or are some people still lost there in the surreal dream? I hear the zombies are moving in. Hot zombie chick, if you’re reading this, you can send me one of your ears any day!