Posts Tagged ‘World Fantasy Convention’

Many Meetings: World Fantasy 2011

November 29, 2011

Doesn’t this sound like I’m describing a bizarre dream? I mean the kind you have at night, when you’re sleeping. Doesn’t this sound like one?

I’m walking and walking, but I can’t get anywhere. I can see the building I’m trying to reach; it looms in the near distance, behind a grove of dense jungle vegetation and some courtyards. The walkway I’m on doesn’t lead there. I cut through a gap onto a large expanse of concrete, its perimeter arranged with patio furniture. Famous writers, editors, and publishers are sitting in the shade of parasols. I walk to the plaza’s middle and discover it has no exits; even the gap I came through has vanished behind me. The palm trees are laughing. No . . . no, it isn’t the trees. It’s a party going on somewhere close by. It’s night now. I can see the warm glow of light from a verandah where the shapes of people are half-visible through the silhouetted fronds; I can hear them laughing and talking, but I can’t reach them. In a little fountain, stone lions spew water from their mouths. Suddenly there are archways all around me, leading off the plaza, each offering me a tantalizing avenue between hedge walls. I hurry along the most promising one, only to find a swimming pool blocking my path. I retrace my steps and follow another, which brings me to a snack bar that sells cups of coffee for one thousand dollars each. I know I’m staying here somewhere . . . this place is a hotel, and I have a room, but I’m not sure exactly where it is any more. I can almost swear the hedges and palm trees shift. For an instant, I’m sure I know the way now . . . but I come to a cast-iron fence. A few people wearing name tags the same color as mine wander along the other side of the fence. We stare at each other as if across a vast gulf that swallows sound. I can’t get to them, and they can’t get to me. We smile at one another and wander in our several directions. I glimpse Neil Gaiman on my side of the fence, not fifteen feet away. He’s clearly searching for a gate in it, too. I’m closer to the party now, farther from the lions. The palm trees are definitely chuckling. I’m not sure what day it is. Sometimes, just when I’m about to expire, I stumble into a suite staffed by wonderful volunteers where there’s free food and coffee. Now I’m back in my room on the second floor, looking down at the garden below, which is surrounded by a low wall with no doorways or gates in it. I tell myself that I can vault over that wall — it’s low enough — and then I can make another attempt at getting back to the building I was first heading for, somewhere beyond the hedges. There’s Neil Gaiman again, dressed in his customary black, a shadow flitting among deeper shadows. In my room, there’s a near-lifesize portrait on the wall of a little Victorian girl in a blue dress. She’s staring at me with piercing eyes. Wherever I go in the room, her gaze follows me. Somehow I understand that she alone knows the route through the mazes of this place where the stars blaze, where brown hills shimmer on the horizons, and where never a shred of cloud crosses the endless blue sky . . .

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.

San Diego, site of the World Fantasy Convention 2011

 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.

California: land of fantasy plants, brown hills, and a preternaturally blue sky

Before I forget: I’ve been thinking about steampunk again lately, probably because the book I’m trying to work on has some steampunk elements. [For more about steampunk than you probably want to know, I covered it in a blog entry two years ago–specifically:

Not long ago, I saw a brown T-shirt with these words on it: “Steampunk: When Goths Discover Brown.” I really like that. But a short while back, I came up with my own definition. “Steampunk is historical science-fiction for humanities people.” Don’t you think that’s pretty good? I’m not trying to exclude math and science majors who enjoy the genre — I know there are some of them, too. The point I’m making is that steampunk uses technologies that are comprehensible to non-scientists. Writers, poets, and artists can design fictional machines that we ourselves understand. All the parts make sense, unlike in real science. Steam technology and buoyant air bags that bear ships aloft are very satisfying to us laymen. See what I mean? Steampunk is the science of what should be. “This is how I’d build the airship, and this is how it would work in a romanticized world.” Irresponsible, you scientists say? Well, yes, on one level. But the story still has to work. It has to be engineered like the delicate clockwork mechanisms that steampunks adore.

But I digress! Groink! (That’s the sound of changing the subject with a monkey wrench.)

Groink-sssssssss! (That’s a steam-driven monkey wrench.) 

San Diego, October 2011

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.
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Our treatment of what we don’t understand says a lot about us.
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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.

Charlaine Harris

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!

Neil Gaiman

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!

WFC 2009 Part 5: Random Notes

November 22, 2009

What follows is a trip through my notebook pages from this year’s World Fantasy Convention — things I wanted to remember, many of which are authors and the titles of their books and stories, some of which may be misspelled. [I think I’ve noted the spellings I’m not sure of.] The stuff is in no particular order — it’s like a junk drawer dumped out onto the tabletop. It’s a starting point: the place to begin intriguing searches and maybe discussions. Feel free to jump in with corrections, information, comments, or further queries.

It’s from such soup that great ideas might come. (Artist Guest of Honor Lisa Snellings said “You can’t go wrong with a soup analogy. It’s all in there.”)

Poe . . . Stephen King . . . background in poetry.

The Last Unicorn poses a riddle that is never answered in the book: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” One panelist, frustrated for years, eventually caught up with Peter S. Beagle and asked him for the answer. He allegedly said, “The answer is either ‘Poe wrote on both’ or ‘Both have inky quills.'” Someone in the audience chimed in and suggested a third answer: “Both produce notes that are generally not musical.”

There’s a folkloric connection between ravens and the Tower of London — if ravens cease living in and around the Tower, England’s monarchy will fail; the royal line will break. So even now, there are special attendants who look after the ravens and make sure they’re happy living there.

There’s a curious relationship between wolves and ravens in the real world. They play together. Ravens will swoop down and pull wolves’ tails, and the wolves will snap and chase the ravens. (I’m not at all sure the wolves are “playing”. . . .) They also hunt together, helping each other for mutual benefit. Ravens will scout out likely-looking prey and call the wolves’ attention to it. Wolves will leave leftovers that ravens can eat. Ravens follow wolf packs, and wolf packs follow ravens.

The panelists were somewhat divided on whether the raven is more often a wise, instructive friend to humankind or a treacherous opportunist who is not at all our friend. In The Hobbit, the ravens living on and around the Lonely Mountain are long-term noble friends of the Dwarves. The raven who sits on the bust of Pallas in Poe’s “The Raven” may just be making mindless noise; it may be leading the narrator to consider his situation; or it may be mocking him and/or actively trying to push him over the edge. The panelists talked about the raven who leaves Noah’s ark and doesn’t come back, because it finds what it wants and needs elsewhere; they didn’t mention the ravens that bring Elijah food. (Have I got that right?) I keep coming back to the “Twa Corbies,” who will be making a sweet dinner of the dead knight — feeding on his heart, feeding on his “bonny blue eye,” and using his hair to weave into their nests. One panelist had a very good feeling about ravens she’s actually met; one always felt coldness from their eyes, and the sense that, if she died, they would gladly eat her. At Niigata University, there are abundant black birds — I’m not sure if they’re ravens or big crows — who come and hunt through the garbage and glare at passersby. I often get a very unfriendly feeling from them. There was, however, one early summer a couple years ago when I would often give little pieces of my lunch to a big one who would find me regularly and watch and hop as close as he dared. Of course I don’t think he was my “friend.” 🙂

Robert Chambers [I think], The King in Yellow

L to R: Jay Lake, Lisa Snellings, Garth Nix, Michael Swanwick, Donald Sidney-Fryer, Richard A. Lupoff, Zoran Zivkovic, Ann VanderMeer, Jeff VanderMeer: World Fantasy Convention 2009, San Jose, California

E.F. Benson, “Negotium Perambulans” (I may have read this years ago, and that’s what inspired me to include that inscription in Dragonfly, above the shaft where the Thanatops lives. It’s a quote from the Psalm, “Negotium perambulans in tenebris” — “The pestilence that walks in darkness.”)

“A Voice in the Night,” by William Hope Hodgson —  one panelist said a teacher read this out loud to them in gradeschool, and the room was utterly silent, and the kids were totally freaked out and never forgot it.

Same group, same caption

The Sun Bird, by Wilbur Smith (an excellent lost race novel) 

The Moon Pool, by A. Merritt — Lovecraft loved the novelette but condemned the novelization — which is probably the one I have on my shelf here.

David Hartwell’s The Dark Descent (I gather this is some kind of an overview of weird/horror fiction. Very intriguing.)

These next are all from Lisa Snellings:

It’s best not to write some stuff down. Sometimes when we do, when we capture the idea and put it down on paper, that satisfies us, and we’re done with it. Don’t worry: Good ideas persist. If it keeps coming back to you, it’s probably a good one. [This thought really made me nod in recognition. I agree.]

She says Ray Bradbury told her: “A general direction is better than a plan, because plans rarely work out. Keep working.”

The best ideas ring like a bell. The best ideas make you sweat. You just want to work, and don’t care if your shirt is on inside out. [Again, I recognize the truth of this. I’ve been there, now and then!]

In general, people who are successful work very, very hard.

Lisa Snellings says: “Why I’m never blocked: because I go to work every single day. It’s your job.” [Stephen King says pretty much the same thing in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.]

When you’re working or doing some kind of playing that you’re totally into and the rest of the world disappears, you’re in the Zone. For our well-being, our brains need to be in the Zone. It’s like a shower for our brains. She’s in the Zone often when she’s playing video games. But you can get there when you’re working, too — on art, music, writing, etc.

Moving back to general notes:

Garth Nix: “Some books are good enough to survive the most horrendous authors and constant exposure to them.”

He says “Sabriel” with a long a, as in saber.

Ellen Kushner: “Real life is a great impediment to grace and elegance.”

Tim Powers doesn’t read his contemporaries at all. He has a horror of ever being in a writer’s group, because he’d be expected to read the other group members’ manuscripts. (He says not to tell anyone about this; he hopes no one will post it on-line.) 🙂

When Ellen Kushner was a little girl and realized some other people didn’t like her, her father said, “Do you like everyone you meet? No? Then why should they all like you?” And she never worried about that again.

Something Garth Nix said that I really identified with: He’s a “story-driven character writer.” He knows very little about the characters as he begins writing. He learns about them as they go through the story, as they face the events and act. So he doesn’t try to figure out all that about the characters before he starts. I find this to be amazingly comforting, because I go at it the same way and always wondered if there was something wrong with my approach. This seems so much more real to me than filling out all those character sheets, writing profiles for them, pretending to walk around talking with them for months before you write your book, etc. I’m so relieved!

Someone asked if the panel was supposed to be 55 minutes or exactly an hour. Ellen Kushner said, “It’s 55 minutes. It’s a therapy hour.”

Ellen Kushner: “We live in an age that devalues the imagination.”

Some writer said: “I am all my characters, but none of them are me.”

Michael Swanwick pointed out how in Lud-in-the-Mist, the conflict is between magic (Faery) and the law. [True! In Lud, the modern people are in denial of the existence of magic, and to say “fairy” is like saying the worst swear-word, and their legal language has euphemisms for magical things.]

Swanwick: “At the heart of fantasy is mystery. The universe is unknowable. In sf, it’s the other way around — the universe is knowable and follows noble rules.”

Swanwick related how William Blake saw ghosts all the time. Blake drew a picture of the ghost of a flea to show people what he was looking at. [And this is me: still one of my favorite Blake-related quotes was from his wife: “I seldom enjoy Mr. Blake’s company. He’s always in Paradise.” Blake was in the Zone!]

Swanwick: The weakness of the “deal with the devil” story is that the very existence of the devil offering the deal proves the existence of the afterlife, testifies to eternal consequences, etc. — so who would take such a deal? [An old first-grade classmate of mine, no longer with us in this world, was a fine writer who actually took that into account in writing a “deal with the devil” story.]

Swanwick: “If it’s said in front of a writer, it belongs to him.” [Fred: By this point, most of my friends know this to be true!]

Guy Gavriel Kay: “If almost anything is done well, it can work.” [Isn’t that also extremely comforting? Your idea doesn’t have to be Earth-shaking. Just tell the tale well. Eight centuries ago, the Japanese poet Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) told his writing students: “Do not strain for novelty.”]

Guy Gavriel Kay liked the Emma Thompson film Sense and Sensibility — very good film overall — but he intensely disliked how the filmmakers played the manners of the time for laughs from a modern audience. They pandered to a modern audience. It was almost bad enough to kill his enjoyment of the movie. [At my first-ever writers’ conference — I was in high school — Paul Darcy Boles told me that a good thing about my writing was that I didn’t poke fun at my characters. If we write about people in a different time or culture, we have to let them be who they would be in that time and place.]

Modern readers are very averse to dialect. In the 19th century they loved it when characters spoke in dialect on the page, but not now.

Ellen Kushner made the point that, to represent the language of another era or place, you can use the rhythms of that culture’s language. One skillful writer she cited, to give French characters the “flavor” of speaking French in her English-language books, consciously employed the beats of standard French poetry. And the English lines do somehow give the illusion of being French!

Avoid trendiness in speech patterns. [Note to self: Do not have characters in an epic fantasy say, “Tuh. As if!”]

Deanna Hoak: “Copyediting is like bathing. No one notices it unless you don’t do it.”

Guy Gavriel Kay (on writing dialogue that sounds authentic): “There’s no formula for success, but there are avenues for authenticity. It depends on maintaining a consistent tone.”

[In my Hokkaido days, I was the D.M. for a small group that played Dungeons & Dragons in the parsonage of Asahikawa Lutheran Church. As a non-native speaker of Japanese, I spoke — and still speak — the language at one level of politeness: the standard, safe-in-all-situations level that foreigners are taught in classrooms. But Japanese has a huge range in levels of politeness, each appropriate in a different situation depending on the speaker’s relationship to the listener, their relative ages, genders, statuses, etc. Sometimes my D&D group would burst out laughing because my orcs spoke so politely: “Please drop your weapons. If you do not, this will turn into a fight! — Grrr! Aargh!”]

Everyone says read Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock. The direct sequel is Avilion. [I’m not sure about any of those three spellings.]

Lavinia, by Ursula LeGuin, is absolutely amazing.

Little, Big is evidently a great book.

Alice Henderson [sp?] has a really good-sounding horror novel set in Glacier National Park.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, by Alan Garner — apparently really excellent — one panelist whom I respected re-reads it every year.

In Cold Blood by Capote is really disturbing, really scary.

Final note: It would be a very good idea to read the World Fantasy Award-winning novels and runners-up each year. The ones that win seem to be highly original, hard to categorize.

And there we have it!

Let us go forth and read, write, love, and live!

Steampunk (WFC 2009 Part 4)

November 16, 2009

Dark dirigibles glide over a Victorian skyline. Fog swirls along the dark cobbles where a man in a cravat and tall silk hat passes with a tap, tapping of his goosehead cane. Mighty Engines huff in a subterranean labyrinth, from which pipes spread outward and upward, pipes upon pipes. At the turn of a dial, the lamps rush into gas-jet life. High on a tower of skeletal girders, a girl named Sparks Mahoney clambers upward, hand over hand, checking her progress through the telescoping brass goggles on her headgear. On the platform above her, urging her to greater speed, waits Mixmore, the faithful robot assistant she assembled in her father’s workshop — a robot with fire at his core and nary a microchip, his metal limbs powered by steam, which escapes from his elbow- and knee-joints in hissing gusts. But time is of the essence, for below the tower, swarming through the city, are the ever-hungry servants of Baron Doom. . . .

It’s a fashion in clothing and jewelry; it’s a literary movement; it has spawned radio shows and rock bands; it seems to transcend boundaries of age, ethnicity, and geography. Above all, its practitioners feel it’s fun and quintessentially cool.

I’m talking, of course, about steampunk. A year ago, I don’t think I’d even heard the term. (If I had, it hadn’t registered yet on my consciousness.) Then for awhile I was hearing the word and didn’t really know what it meant. Then someone told me, “It’s The Golden Compass. There are dirigibles. There’s no electricity.” Oohh.

At this year’s World Fantasy Convention, there was a fascinating and very informative panel on the subject. One panelist even came dressed in steampunk clothing, which to me looks a lot like goth but without the spectre of death. As I learned more, something occurred to me: without realizing it, I’ve been writing a form of steampunk for years.

Take Dragonfly: we’ve got the balloon, powered by a gas that flows through hoses and ignites. We’ve got gas flames that light up Hain’s Tenebrificium — which also has a giant, whirling, walk-through kaleidoscope powered by the weight, on pressure plates, of the people walking through it. We’ve got pumphouses — again, their machinery driven by twisted automatons (of a sort) who push and pull on levers that turn the gears. Chains slide and rattle behind the walls. We’ve got (scientifically impossible) coaches designed to crawl up and down stairways, the wheel-rims equipped with stair-fitting teeth. And as luck would have it, the Harvest Moon denizens dress, for the most part, like Victorians.

Power provided by pushing and pulling. . . . Doesn’t that sound like a more recent story of mine? The Thunder Rake in “The Star Shard,” with its Pushpull Chamber?

And how about The Fires of the Deep? Loft works for an organization called Watchworks (which name is nothing if not pure steampunk!), where a giant pendulum marks the passage of time. And the subterranean skies of Loft’s world team with airships, their furnaces burning solid krale to fill the balloons — krale, dug with leather-bladed scoops wherever the fuellists can find it — leather-bladed, to avoid cutting into a squirming meeval which could, if panicked or injured, strike a spark with its posterior pincers and blow the whole operation sky-high.

And the aspect of mechanical but non-electric things: the wind-up weapons of Loft’s world — the crickets and nailers — and his own weapon of proficiency, the shikanth, a separating handle, a cable, and a blade.

I could go on, but I think the point is made-and-then-some. But anyway, steampunk.

The panel at WFC was moderated by Deborah Biancotti; the other panelists were Liz Gorinsky from Tor, who edits a lot of steampunk; Ann VanderMeer, who with her husband Jeff has edited a voluminous anthology of steampunk stories; and writers Michael Swanwick and Nisi Shawl. So, here are some things they said:

They made the point that steampunk takes us back to an age when machines were understandable. In many ways, we’re afraid of the world today, a world that is increasingly incomprehensible to the average person. Steampunk is born of the desire to make something ourselves, to manipulate physical objects — to go back to brass screws and twine and lengths of pipe. The movement is all about making things.

Interestingly, one of the panelists found that people who have come into steampunk from the fashion end are often not aware that it’s a literary movement, and vice-versa! But the fashion folks design their clothing and accessories, and the literary folks read and write stories about characters who put things together.

It offers us a world put together partly from the old, partly from the new.

Panelist Shawl talked about how the fashion world of steampunk is very multiracial, but the literary world of steampunk, not so much; she theorized that steampunk “is a reaction against writers of color in the genre,” and, as such, is a trend to watch with caution. (Cyberpunk, she said, is largely a reaction against feminism.) But she added that there is a book by S. Barnes called Lion’s Blood and Zulu Heart, which is steampunk featuring characters of color. So far, the published writers of steampunk are mostly of a white/European background, but the fandom is much more distributed. Shawl made the point that people who were limited and disadvantaged by the Victorian era are now enjoying, through steampunk, an imaginary Victoriana without the baggage of the real thing. In fiction, we can use the best parts of an era. (John Fultz and I talked about this after the “dirty Middle Ages” panel — in our medieval fantasy, we want to keep things realistic, but we don’t really want to go on for pages and pages about lice and offal in the drinking water.) So anyway, with steampunk, you can have the fashions and the atmosphere, the clockwork and the gas lights of Victoriana without the prejudices and repressions.

The panel said that steampunk is much like the Society of (for?) Creative Anachronism (SCA) in that it tries to recreate an era as it should have been, not as it actually turned out.

Steampunk is still in its infancy.

The panel was divided over whether it’s a young person’s thing or an old person’s thing — it’s very likely both.

Someone said The Anubis Gates was more or less “the birth of steampunk.” (That’s Tim Powers, right? Or will I be coming back to correct this? I’m pretty sure that book was written by Powers . . . who said hi to me at the con, probably thinking I was someone else.) So it’s a very new genre. I’m sketchy on the details of this (maybe someone who knows can help me out here), but apparently in the mid-to-late eighties, there was a letter written to LOCUS that coined the term “steampunk.”

Michael Swanwick made the point that “punk” usually means a reaction against something. The Hippies, he said, were anti-technology, and were in favor of getting back to the magical land, the mystical Earth. Steampunk, then, may be seen as a reaction against that. It brings back the technology, but it’s “technology made good, done right.” Wholesome technology.

Steampunk is usually hopeful, fun, and optimistic, but it can have a dark side. At its beginnings in the eighties, it was almost entirely done in novels. Now we’re seeing steampunk in short fiction, too.

A great many writers of steampunk are computer people. Ann VanderMeer brought this up — she’s a computer person herself, who installs systems, etc. Back in the seventies, she said, computers themselves were much more physical. If you dealt with them at all, you dealt with code. You ran punch cards through slots. Today, computer use is much farther removed from the codes. Steampunk lets computer people get back to the hands-on, physical machines. (So it awakens nostalgia in computer geeks. [My words, not hers.])

“Punk” today has mostly a positive meaning — it conveys “edgy and stylish.” But the original punk was a reaction against style, against forms — the first punks were just having fun (with music, for example) — just seeing what would happen. Steampunk recaptures that sense of unfettered adventure, unlimited possibility. [For awhile, Ann played in an all-girls’ band called “The Guise.” Isn’t that a great name for an all-girls’ band?]

Liz Gorinsky said that, for the first time in a long time, we’re seeing huge masses of enthusiasm for something in speculative fiction. Many people who don’t necessarily read fantasy are going from the steampunk fashion world to discovering the literature.

The modern increased concern for the environment is reflected in steampunk: reduce, reuse, recycle. Make your own clothes. Put things together from parts you find lying around. Take things that you love — features of Edwardian clothing, architecture, etc. — and make it your own. There are dark fears in our present society: we’re running out of materials. Steampunk is, in part, an expression of our need to develop physical skills for survival in a dark time; perhaps we’ll have to make our own furniture, our own clothes, our own tools and basic machines.

Swanwick noted that there is great potential in steampunk — but to maintain the genre, we need to keep the deep, political underpinnings of the best steampunk writing. The real enemies of the movement are books that only scratch the surface: they take the trappings of it but have no substance; those are the works that will make it seem like a flash in the pan. Since it’s so early, we may still be waiting for the Great Steampunk Novel that will absolutely define the trend.

You can find this last part on the Weird Tales website, but it’s so good, I’ll try to summarize it here. This is by the Weird Tales editorial director Stephen H. Segal, from his article “Five Thoughts on the Popularity of Steampunk.” (And by the way, the site also has a very pithy definition of steampunk: “science-fictiony stuff built on Victorian-era technology and aesthetics” — now, isn’t that simple and to the point?)

Anyway, Segal says:

1. Steampunk is geekery that the genders can share. It’s “a way to masculinize romance. That is to say: Steampunk takes something stereotypically feminine that most boys hate — Victorian lace and frills and tea and crumpets — and says, ‘Hey, how about some robots with that?'”

2. It’s an aesthetic response to the science fiction in the culture. The point here is that the eighties and nineties (Star Trek: TNG) gave us science fiction that was clean, smooth, glossy, happy, and user-friendly — but not, according to steampunkians, exciting. It was predictable. Steampunk interjects grittiness, unpredictability, and spectacle. [Go and read how Segal says this — he says it a lot better and more funnily.]

3. Steampunk is like being goth without scaring your parents. Adults fear that goths take vampires too seriously and may want to make someone bleed. “Steampunks are — what? Weirdoes who take pocket-watches too seriously? What are they gonna do, vehemently tell you what time it is?”

4. It bridges the subgenre gap. More and more, writers and artists, filmmakers and musicians are mixing in elements of other types of fantasy, horror, and superheroics. “Steampunk is helping to bring us back to the days when the subgenre categories didn’t matter so much and it was all just a big lurching conceptual mass of ‘weird fiction.'” So now we’re seeing steampunk fairies, steampunk vampires, even steampunk Cthulhu. [Hee, hee — doesn’t that sound like fun? “The Shadow of a Dirigible Over Innsmouth” . . . “The Call of Cthulhu Through the Speaking Tube”. . . .]

5. Steampunk says: “The future: UR doin’ it wrong.” The future we were promised in earlier science fiction isn’t here and isn’t coming. “We were expecting Star Trek and we got Blade Runner: all the quirky little bits of science fiction have come true, but we lost the big dream.” Our scientific solutions have often not only failed to solve problems, but have ended up creating bigger, scarier ones. Steampunk lets us go back and try again.

I’ll close with this quote from Stephen H. Segal:

“Whether you’re reading and identifying with Girl Genius or making yourself a pair of functioning telescopic brass goggles, the fact is that when you have to get your hands or brain dirty puzzling out how stuff works, you can’t be blase about technological miracles — you’re forced to realize what miracles we’ve actually wrought. And once you’ve got that sense of appreciation, once you’re not taking all our modern-day scientific accomplishments for granted because you finally understand deep down that people had to sweat them out, experiment by experiment — it seems to me you can’t help but approach the world around us, here, today, with fresher eyes and a more adventuresome spirit. / I think that’s where a lot of the young people jumping on the steampunk bandwagon right now are coming from. It’s not just cool because it’s trendy — it’s cool because it’s inspirational. You know . . . like science fiction at its best always has been.”


WFC 2009 Part 3

November 14, 2009

There were a couple things I did differently about the convention this year: one was that I went to more readings than usual, and the other was that I attended two of the art-related presentations instead of going to purely book stuff. I was particularly impressed with Lisa Snellings, this year’s Guest Artist. She’s primarily an artist, but she’s an excellent writer, too, in how she frames her thoughts.

Highlights from the rest of the weekend were:

1. Seeing agent Joshua Bilmes for the first time since Austin in 2006. We laughed about how at that infamous dinner (our first face-to-face meeting — our first visual impressions of each other), Joshua had a bug of some kind and had completely lost his voice; all through dinner, he was writing on napkins and using gestures to express himself. I, on the other hand, had the 24-hour stomach flu [which I’m told doesn’t officially exist — there’s apparently no such thing as “stomach flu” — but I’m calling it that so you’ll know what I had] — so I couldn’t eat a bite, and spent the entire dinner trying not to pass out or throw up on anybody. We were both in much better form this year, and Joshua related that story to all the agency’s clients who were present at this year’s dinner.

2. Having lunch with Eddie, Joshua’s associate, the agent I now work primarily with.

3. Seeing S.T. Joshi, probably the world’s leading authority on H.P. Lovecraft, and having him invite me to the MythosCon party that night. (Mr. Joshi was the most influential early reviewer of Dragonfly, in Weird Tales — and although he can be scathing, he gave it a very good review.) The next night, Saturday, he and I actually talked one-on-one for about fifteen minutes.

4. Reconnecting with a lot of writer acquaintances I see only at the conventions each year and catching up on one another’s projects — as well as always making a few new friends.

5. At the mass book signing Friday night, instead of trying to sit and sign books (I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have any to sign, since it’s been so many years since Dragonfly), I walked around and got other writers to sign their books, which was a lot of fun. Since Garth Nix was one of the special guests this year, I’d brought my Abhorsen Trilogy for him to sign. He’s as courteous and down-to-Earth in person as he always seems to be. When he said something I didn’t quite understand, he joked about how his accent gets thicker when the jetlag kicks in (he’s Australian).

6. The agency dinner on Saturday evening was very nice — a chance to either meet or get reacquainted with some of my fellow clients of JABberwocky. The two newest clients actually received their agency contracts from Joshua right there at the restaurant, to resounding applause!

7. At the signing, I talked face-to-face with Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, Jay Lake, Laura Anne Gilman, Cecelia Holland, John Shirley, Jon DeCles, Richard Lupoff, Daryl Gregory, and probably several I’m forgetting. I was within scant yards of Robert Silverberg, though I didn’t actually see him because of the long, long line of people waiting to get their books signed by him. Ditto with Peter Straub. I finally saw Stephen R. Donaldson in the flesh! I was oddly surprised that he looked older than he used to look on book covers when we were reading him back in the eighties. (Duh, Fred!) Michael Swanwick was there, and I heard him on several panels — he’s very cool and always has great things to say. Lisa Snellings said hi to me in the art room. Tim Powers looked up from a conversation to smile and say a very bright “Hi!” to me in a hallway — I’m almost positive he mistook me for someone else! David Drake was at the con again this year, as were Guy Gavriel Kay, Scott Edelman, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Kij Johnson, Tad Williams, Lisa Goldstein, Ellen Kushner, Patricia McKillip, Darrell Schweitzer. . . . Jane Yolen won a Lifetime Achievement Award, but she had some speaking engagements and couldn’t be at the con this time. Writer Laird Barron always says hi to me, because we were both part of a dinner party organized by Gordon Van Gelder in Austin (just before I got the stomach flu) — but when Laird and I got to talking at the MythosCon party this time, I realized he thought I was someone else! Heh, heh — funny! — mistaken identities at the cons can be very amusing. [At the con in Saratoga Springs, an attractive young woman materialized out of nowhere and kept talking and talking to me . . . I wondered why I was suddenly so magnetically attractive . . . finally she started talking about “your magazine,” and I realized she’d seen me sitting at the Black Gate table earlier with John O’Neill and thought I was his assistant! Once she realized I wasn’t an editor, she vanished in a cloud of dust!] Okay — I think that’s the end of my fanboy rant!

8. I normally feel totally ignorant among such well-read company, but I was able to look cool twice: once, someone was looking for the word “Esperanto” (“What was that universal language they tried to get started?”) and I supplied it, and once someone was looking for the name “William Morris” (“You know, the wallpaper guy. . . .”) and I supplied it. I don’t get to do that very often — it’s one of those rare, rare occasions such as when I’ve read a book that someone else in the room (or his/her dog) hasn’t.

9. On Sunday, I had lunch with John R. Fultz, a widely-read and well-spoken writer of fantasy for Black Gate and Weird Tales, a writer for the comic books Zombie Tales and Cthulhu Tales, and creator of the graphic novel Primordia which is coming out in hardback in December. For a fantastic interview with John, visit:

10. It seems there’s always a clear-cut “final encounter” of the con, a meeting or image that sends me on my way. This time it was in the wee hours of Monday morning as I was leaving the hotel to catch my flight. Gordon Van Gelder was down in the lobby, too, waiting for the person with whom he was heading to the airport. We chatted for a minute or two about how it was too bad we hadn’t gotten a chance to chat for a minute or two. . . .

Okay — let’s move on to programming. These are the activities I attended:


Readings by Lori Ann White and Blake Charlton

Panel: “Poe’s Influence”

Opening Ceremonies

Readings by Janni Lee Simner, Catherine Cheek, and Louise Marley

Reading by Frederic S. Durbin — thought I’d better show up for that. Without me, he only would have had nine people, counting the sound lady and his agent. . . .

Publishers’ parties


Panel: “Writing Human Characters, Whether or Not Human”

Interview: “VanderMeer on VanderMeer” (The VanderMeers interviewed each other. It was quite entertaining as well as informative. Ann is the current editor of Weird Tales, and I was deeply impressed by her answer regarding her proudest moment. It wasn’t any honor or award — it was when a writer sent her his published book, which she read and absolutely loved, and then he told her how she’d sent him a rejection slip when he’d just been starting out, but it was a careful, detailed, instructive, and very encouraging rejection, and it pushed him to stay with his craft and not to give up. Ann got emotional telling the story — you could tell his letter had touched her. She said that’s why she does what she does.)

Presentation: John Picacio’s “Shelf Lives: The Art and Design of Book Covers” — a slideshow — fascinating!

Lunch with Eddie

Panel: “The Role of the Raven” (This was one of the best panels at the convention. The panelists discussed what ravens are actually like in the real world, what they were like in the Norse eddas, how Poe used his, and the role they’ve played and continue to play in fantasy fiction. More on this when we go through my “content” notebook!)

Panel: “Overlooked Early Writers of the Supernatural” (This was another of the absolute best this year!)

Panel: “The Last Resort” (This was a good one about the use of violence: what it’s really like to physically fight with someone; how violence is often used too frequently and/or casually by writers; how to find a balance and perhaps achieve violent tension without actual violence.)

Group Autographing



Panel: “Why Steampunk Now?” (More on this is coming!)

Presentation by Lisa Snellings: “Know the Soup You’re In”

Panel: “When People Confuse the Author with His/Her Work” (The panelists for this were Mark Ferrari, Scott Edelman, Ellen Kushner, Garth Nix, and Tim Powers. With a lineup like that, I would have gone to hear them if the topic had been the finer points of the tax code! And sure enough, it was fantastic.)

Panel: “Urban Fantasy as Alternate History”

Panel: “Coarse Dialog and Graceful Description — A Balancing Act” (#%*! Nice!)

Panel: “Notable Books of the Year”

Panel: “What Makes a Good Monster”

Panel: “The Sorcerer in Fantasy”

JABberwocky dinner



Panel: “Contemporary Rural Fantasy” (Another good one!)

Panel:  “Bad Food, Bad Clothes, and Bad Breath” (This was about what living conditions were really like in the ancient, medieval, and pre-industrial world. The panelists were incredibly knowledgeable — it was really fascinating. Did you know, for example, that in general, human longevity took a dramatic plunge when we started farming? We gathered together in communities, started wallowing in our filth and breathing on each other, and diseases abounded!)

Awards Ceremony

Panel: “Awards Postmortem” (The World Fantasy Awards judges talked about the task they had and how they made their decisions.)

Watch this space! As soon as I’m able, I’m going to do an entry on my “content” notes — a posting like the one last year that I called “Wisdom from World Fantasy” — and one on the Winchester Mystery House, which you won’t want to miss!

World Fantasy Convention 2009, Part 2

November 7, 2009

Moving along here: on Thursday the 29th, I went to the Winchester Mystery House. Let’s save that for a post unto itself: it was fascinating. I’d read a lot about it, and I’d wanted to see it for a long time. Never did I dream that one day the World Fantasy Convention would be held in the same city! I couldn’t not take the opportunity to go there! I went on that Thursday morning before the Con got started. The hotel desk person was very helpful in giving me directions. She looked up bus stops and times on her computer.

By the way, I need to add here that the Fairmont Hotel yesterday sent a message to the WFC organizers that they asked be passed along to all the members — it was a note of appreciation for how nice the attendees of WFC were! I thought that was really cool. The Fairmont hosts a great many conventions. (The counterman in the restaurant across the street was telling me how they get quite a few famous people through there, people from all over the world.) And the staff made a point of telling us that often, guests treat them like servants, or don’t see them at all. But they were deeply impressed that the World Fantasy people looked them in the eye, said hi to them, chatted with them in elevators, smiled when they passed, and said “thank you.” Apparently these things are not common sense, not a matter of course! So there you have it: people in the fantasy industry are good folks! (I know I did all those things — I appreciate it when someone gives me directions in a strange city, or makes my bed, or washes my towels, or brings me more packets of coffee. . . .)

So anyway, I got up early and took a bus at around 8:00. I wasn’t at all sure I’d gotten on the right bus, because it came earlier than it was supposed to (which never happens in Niigata). But the driver was incredibly nice. I didn’t have two one-dollar bills for the fare, so he said, “Just ride for free.” He talked with me on the way, which I didn’t expect — Japanese drivers aren’t allowed to do that — and he told me exactly where to get off. He even made a special stop for me within a few hundred yards of the Winchester House!

On the way back, another TVA driver told me which bus to get on — very helpful. I did get the gritty San Jose experience when one customer had heated words with the driver about getting his free day pass, and even moreso when a young white male, in his late teens or early twenties, made an absolute jerk of himself by riding his bicycle at a very slow pace in the middle of the lane right in front of the bus. The bus couldn’t pass him. The driver was Hispanic, and I’m pretty sure it was a racial thing — although the cyclist was inconveniencing everyone on board, regardless of ethnicity. The driver never blew his cool. He just drove along at the pace the cyclist allowed him, and he didn’t respond to the faces the cyclist made at him or to the rude gestures. One time, at a traffic light, the driver waved to the cyclist in a gesture that conveyed, “Why don’t you step aboard the bus?” This went on for a good ten minutes. The other riders on the bus were just clucking their tongues and shaking their heads in exasperation. Finally, the obnoxious cyclist planted himself in front of the bus at an intersection while the light was green — blocking us, blocking every vehicle behind us — and kept making faces at the driver, adjusting his hat, adjusting his earphones, etc. The light turned yellow, and just as it was about to go red, the cyclist rode off and turned right, off the bus route. So we had to wait through the red light. That’s something you don’t see in Niigata.

I had a great time browsing through the dealers’ room back at the convention. Now that I’ve been there for several years, there are booksellers I know and enjoy catching up with. The wonderful couple who own Ygor’s Books graciously offered to sell Dragonfly for me again, so I turned over the five copies I’d brought along, and they wouldn’t take a cent of the revenue, though I offered them 50%. We ended up selling three of the copies, plus I signed one that someone bought from another dealer, and I signed one that a guy had brought along with him to the Con from home. [I also signed two copies of Fantasy & Science Fiction for an attendee — the ones with my stories in them, of course!]

I bought two Arthur Machen books in the dealers’ room. I’d been reading some of his work recently and really liking it, so I thought this was a good opportunity. (By the way, at one of the panels, I learned how to pronounce his name. It’s apparently pronounced “Macken” — it rhymes with “blacken.” These were scholars talking specifically about how to pronounce it, so I have every reason to believe that’s right.)

Thursday night, my reading was scheduled in the Market Street Foyer. That was kind of odd, since readings are usually scheduled in rooms. The foyer was basically a hallway — flared wide at that point, with a chandelier overhead. It was outside a big ballroom. As I understand it, the organizers’ thinking was that the foyer venue might help to draw in people who were just passing by. I honed and timed and practiced and practiced my reading, and I thought the delivery itself went extremely well. But I just had 9 people, including the sound lady and Eddie (my agent) — so really, 7 people who came of their own volition and didn’t know me. To be fair, my reading was opposite the Google Books settlement meeting. I’m sure that drew some people away.

More to follow soon — please watch this space!


World Fantasy Convention 2009, Part 1

November 6, 2009

I once saw Valery Gergiev conduct the Kirov Orchestra here in Niigata (we’re not that far from Russia, so they do a Japan tour now and then). A friend and I had seats right back up behind the orchestra, so it was almost like being in the group, and we had a perfect view of Gergiev’s face, close enough to see his expressions. Gergiev is one of the most prominent and best conductors in the world; at least over here, the classical section of the music store is filled with his CDs. And watching him, one truly gets the sense of being in the presence of greatness. I can honestly apply the term “larger than life” to perhaps three or four people I’ve encountered in my forty-odd [VERY odd] years, and Gergiev is one of them. I had the sense that he was chiseled from something other than flesh and bone — a great, moving statue, whose baton seemed more a liquid than a solid.

Why do I tell this story now? Well, the final thing he did that deeply impressed me was that on the final encore, he put down his baton, got the orchestra started on a Christmas medley with a few beats of his hand, and then he walked away from the podium and leaned against a side wall, just listening, basking in the music, and letting the Kirov Orchestra shine forth. The clear message was, “It’s all about them. They’re the group you’re here to hear, and they’re awesome.”

My point is, this blog is all about you! You’ve proven this week that you can all carry on just fine when I’m away in San Jose. What we have here is a community. My role is to get things started with a wave of my hand, and then I’m just reading along. A “Table Round,” as we’ve talked about before! Thank you all for those fantastic Hallowe’en stories and movie comments. The rambling house was plenty lived in while I was away, and it’s so good to see lights on when I come home!

Anyway, I know you’re waiting to hear about World Fantasy. I’ve been incredibly busy since getting back (I finally just unpacked today, Friday, after getting back on Tuesday night!) — had to jump right back into teaching on Wednesday. I’m correcting student compositions, and I’ve got homework to do from my agent — which is a good thing — a very good thing — but being away for a week has its costs!

So what I think will happen is that this convention report will be spread out over several posts. That will work out well, actually, because there are several discrete topics to address. (I mean “discrete,” not “discreet” — don’t get all disappointed when I don’t bring up any scandals!)

It was a wonderful time — beyond wonderful! I can’t say enough about how important these conventions are in keeping things in perspective for me. Seeing the reality of the fantasy publishing world firsthand is both good and potentially terrible. On the one hand, it’s enormously uplifting to be among one’s own people — all those engaged in doing the same thing, valuing most of the same things, etc. On the other hand, for the faint of heart, that could be extremely daunting. The WFC always reminds me of just what a lot of incredibly wise, smart, erudite, brilliant, talented, experienced people are working in the field. It’s humbling — who am I to think I can write books among such company? But then again, the conventions reaffirm just what a wide and diverse family we are. The World Fantasy Award judges said that, too: their judging experience revealed what a vast assortment of books and tastes the fantasy field embraces. We’re a family with young and old folks, hopefuls and successful and streetwise and weary, ambitious and lazy, charismatic and unbelievably eccentric members . . . we’re a family with skeletons in the closet. But we are a family, and it’s good to reconnect in person every year.

When I came back to Japan, the first class I taught on that Wednesday was my writing class, and it went the best it’s gone this year. I think there’s something about that reaffirmation of my identity that supercharged me.

I have two sets of notes to work through here: my daily journal, and my WFC notebook, which I take to the convention each year. Of course I won’t bore you with every detail, but I guess I’ll start by hitting the highlights more or less chronologically. Then, in later posts, we’ll get into more of the content of the panels.

I noted that I do not like LAX, the Los Angeles airport. The security there is the most stressful of any I’ve encountered. If you can avoid flying through there, do so. I flew into there from Tokyo on October 28th, and then took a connecting flight up to San Jose. The scenery was quite interesting as I soared northward over California — so different from either Japan or Illinois — lots of low, brown mountains, and fields of various colors. In the Midwest, we plant vast amounts of things that are the same color. In California, they seem to plant little fields of different hues. Crayons, perhaps? Is that where crayons are grown?

I was proud of myself for doing the economic thing and taking public transportation from the airport to the hotel, instead of springing for a taxi. There was a free bus to the Light Rail system, and then I bought a $2.00 ticket at a vending machine and took the Light Rail to the back door of the Fairmont Hotel. I chatted with Peter, a writer who was going to the same place. I checked in, received my name badge and


Every year, attendees of the World Fantasy Convention receive a bag of new books and magazines that publishers wish to promote; and the bag itself bears the convention logo.

massive bag of books, and explored the hotel. The Wednesday-evenings-before-the-conventions are among my favorite times: it’s all still ahead of you, and people are just beginning to arrive, and you can get a feel for the place and venture out into the neighborhood for supper.

In the convention literature, I’d read that there was an O’Flaherty’s Irish pub nearby. So that’s where I went for dinner: the Smithwick’s was okay, the Harp was great, and the shepherd’s pie was out of this world! They had a really cool Hallowe’en decor: giant spiders dangling from the rafters, cobwebs strewn over the walls, and a bizarre skeletal bat near my table. I wrote a couple postcards and just soaked in the ambience.

Back at the hotel that evening, I took a nap, practiced my reading (for


The contents of the freebie bag are worth considerably more than the price of the convention membership!

Thursday night), and ventured down into the lobby late at night to see if anyone I knew was there yet. The first person I saw was John Joseph Adams of Fantasy & Science Fiction. We passed near the elevators and said hi to each other.

Okay: I think I’ll stop there for right now, but be advised that this will be a week of postings — I may not post every single night, but I’ll be back tomorrow night, and quite often until I’ve told the whole story of this convention. So if you’re at all interested, stop by often!

I’ll close with a couple tidbits from my WFC notes:

For one thing, one panel raved about Stephen King’s It, about how well constructed it is. Master craftsmanship, etc. I concur. For awhile back in 1988/1989, I was going around saying It was the second-best book I’d ever read. It impressed me that much.

Another fascinating thought that was brought up: The human condition is always being on the edge of survival. That’s why the true literature has always been about what’s out there in the dark.


My room in the Fairmont Hotel, San Jose.



World Fantasy Convention, 2009



Early morning view from the 18th floor of the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose.





Isn't this cool? My room looked right down at the pool. It was warm enough that I actually saw people swimming now and then! California is definitely sunnier and warmer than Niigata in October/November!

All Hallows Eve

October 24, 2009

We’ve talked before on this blog about attempts to recapture, as adults, those visceral feelings of excitement and anticipation we had as kids on the night before Christmas, lying in our dark bedrooms . . . or before our birthdays . . . or at the notion of school letting out for the summer or even for the weekend. I remember getting some of that feeling in the darkened movie theater, waiting for the feature to start.

Well, one time I’ve discovered that I experience that shivery, excited, tingly-stomach feeling as a grownup is in the few days before the World Fantasy Convention. I leave for San Jose on Wednesday the 28th, and I get back on November 3rd, so be advised that there won’t be a blog post during the Hallowe’en weekend. That very night, the 31st (Lord willing), I’ll be having dinner with my agents and some other clients of JABberwocky, the agency that represents me. (That wasn’t a typo in the name, by the way: the first three letters are the initials of the agency’s owner.) So this weekend I’m battening down the hatches, preparing lessons, packing, and timing & practicing the public reading I’m scheduled to do at 8:30 Thursday night, California time. Please hold a good thought for me — I’m desperately hoping even a few people will come to my reading. It’s awfully hard to draw a crowd when you’re an unknown writer, at a Con where so much cool stuff is going on. And I know none of my usual friends/loyal reading-supporters will be there this year. . . .

Anyway, I’ll take my camera along, and I hope to have a bunch of pictures to post next time.

If anyone wants to take a look at what the convention is all about, here’s the website:

And here’s a nice grid they made of what’s happening where at what times:

But anyway. . . . here we are in Hallowe’en week, and I hope everyone has been enjoying the season! One thing I did to celebrate was to rewatch the Buffy Season 2 episode “Halloween” — one of the classics. And I’ve been reading a couple things by the old-time horror writer Arthur Machen, who greatly influenced H.P. Lovecraft. More about that in the future. . . .

But for now, we need a Hallowe’en story, and here’s a true one, courtesy of my dad. This actually happened to him. He told and retold this tale throughout his life. There are no ghost stories like old family ghost stories, because you get to grow up with them; you get to hear them over and over, spanning different ages of your life. You internalize them, as the trees swallow the leaning fences.

When he was a child, the family moved from within the city of Taylorville to an old, two-story farmhouse in the country. It stood alone among the fields, isolated and dark against the sky, far removed from the homes of the nearest neighbors. Such houses still stand today; I’ve seen hundreds of them, lonely patches of human habitation amid the endless acres of whispering grain.

We’re talking about the end of the 1930s. This was an era when electricity was still somewhat tenuous in the countryside, and when they moved in, the power had either not yet been hooked up or not yet turned on. The family used oil-burning lamps for the first stretch of nights in the house. During the sunny Illinois day, they hauled in loads of furniture, clothes, and cookware, placing things as best they could in the rooms where it all belonged.

In the kitchen, they discovered a huge, heavy wooden cupboard that had come with the house, left by the previous owners. It towered from floor almost to ceiling in one corner. My grandma was delighted by its charm and solidity, and she gratefully loaded it up with her best plates and cups to get them out of harm’s way. The rest of the dishes would require more careful sorting. For the time being, they were left in some big metal washtubs set on the table . . . and perhaps in some boxes on the counters, on the floor.

Exhausted by the day of hard work, the family retired to the living room, carrying their flickering lamps. The adults sank into chairs and onto the couch, bone-weary. The children played on the floor in the reddish glow. Beyond the little circle of light, the prairie darkness closed in, filling the empty rooms, covering the fields. It was an era such as we can scarce imagine today, in our neon age, when the world is brightly lit 24/7. It was an age of quietness and impenetrable shadow.

Suddenly, to the shock and horror of all, pandemonium erupted in the black kitchen. There came the sound of the tubs sliding from the table, clanging and ringing on the floor — the sound of dishes shattering, silverware bouncing, glass breaking into shards.

The adults sprang to their feet, hearts pounding. Had some animal found its way into the house? Pans crashed; boxes tumbled; the terrible destruction could only be deliberate. Some vandal — a prowler? As the final blow, there came the shuddering impact of the great cupboard toppling onto the table, smashing its own glass doors and the table’s wooden legs, everything collapsing to the floor. Panes and lattices flew apart. Shelves splintered. Grandma’s best dishes — such as they were in that time when the Depression had been deeply felt — were now junk to be swept away. But why? What? Who. . . .?

Summoning their courage, seizing anything that might be wielded as a weapon, the adults raised their lamps and ventured into the kitchen, eyes wide, faces colorless, breath held. I can picture them as they must have approached that kitchen, a row of sheet-white faces peeping around the door frame at various heights.

As the wicks’ flames pushed back the darkness, the kitchen slowly became visible. And there . . . there in the unfamiliar belly of the ancient house . . . nothing was amiss.

The tubs remained on the table, stacked high with plates. The boxes rested on the counter and on the floor, still intact, still packed. In the shadowy corner, the grandfather of cupboards stood unperturbed, the glass doors secured, the rows of dishes guarded within. No damage at all had been done. There were no TVs, no radios blaring; no other houses nearby, from which a sound might have emerged. Nothing. Just a kitchen in a worn, brooding farmhouse, steeped in silence and memory. If it was a hallucination, then the entire household had the same one at the same time.

It was the first strange incident in the old house, but certainly not the last.

So Happy Hallowe’en to all! If anyone has a ghost story (or any creepy story) to tell us — whether it be true or not — please do so!

And here’s an idea: why doesn’t everyone stop by here on or around Hallowe’en night and tell us how you spent the evening — did you do anything seasonal? I’ll be away that night . . . the blog will be empty, and full of echoes. But that shouldn’t discourage you, on this night of all nights!