Well, World Fantasy Convention 2022 in New Orleans is over, and as usual, it is followed by my ongoing existential crisis.
Overall, the big positive of the experience was that it was New Orleans. Storied, marvellous New Orleans, capital of French North America, traded back and forth between the Spanish, French, British and the Americans, birthplace of Jazz and blues, center of Cajun and creole culture, gateway to the Mississippi and entrance to the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, the ultimate crossroads, alluring, magical, historical, every bit of it steeped in romance. There are other remarkable cities in North America, but there’s none quite like New Orleans.
I’ve wanted to see it my whole life. I remember being heartbroken by Hurricane Katrina, horrified by the devastation, but heartbroken by the idea that something unique and marvellous might be destroyed forever, that I’d never get to see it.
My brother, in a moment of insight, tells me I’m A to B. That my trajectory is a straight line, I am purpose driven as an arrow, launching relentlessly towards a target. I am object oriented. I couldn’t just go to New Orleans. I needed a purpose.
And the World Fantasy Convention gave that to me – a reason to be there.
I took advantage of it, arriving several days early to play tourist and go sightseeing, delighting in buying overpriced merch, because this was New Orleans tourist junk. I took the tourist tours on double decker buses and ghost walks, spent Halloween night on Bourbon Street, rode the streetcars to the ends of their line, took a ferry. I wandered all over the French Quarter, Algiers Point, the Waterfront and Riverwalk, Garden District, Business district, visited the Graveyards. Ate in restaurants. Made and hung out with friends. There was music and musicians everywhere, on streets, in restaurants, everyone playing. I love the way people spoke, the cheerful rush of words, the playfulness of the banter.
It wasn’t nearly enough. I didn’t eat courageously enough, didn’t visit the Pharmacy Museum, or go on a Swamp Tour, or just browse in a rich old bookstore. If I’d spent another week there, it wouldn’t have been enough.
As it is, I walked almost ninety kilometers in total, to the point where it was starting to physically hurt. (Although somehow, I still managed to gain ten pounds). By the time the Canal Street streetcar got to the graveyards, I was in pain and could barely hobble to the gates of the cemeteries, took most of the photos from the streetcar. I gave myself a day to recover, did it all over again, and ended in even worse pain the next time. But so what? When would I have another chance?
For New Orleans alone, it was all worth it.
The Convention itself? Set at the Hiate – a huge hotel, with two other conventions going on at the same time, and still managing to feel empty. The Hiate is one of those glorious monuments to excess, a huge cavernous interior space with glass elevators going all the way up to the 27th color where I was. From the railing, you could look all the way down practically to the restaurant floor.
I remember my first World Fantasy Convention; I think it was Madison Wisconsin. A much smaller hotel, a much bigger convention. That was where my friends, Dave Keck and Steve Erickson had hung out. That was an amazing experience; I met people, talked to them. I’m mostly uncomfortable in life; I feel so awkward and out of place so often. But in Madison, I really felt like I’d found a home, people like me, people who thought like I did and were interested in the things I was. I wanted to just keep going to them.
Sadly, after the first few, life caught up with me, and I wound up missing a large number seven or eight in a row. I’ve not felt the same connectedness going the last few years. Perhaps I made a mistake, both in my nonexistent writing career and my social networking. Perhaps I found something and let it slip through my fingers, never to be recaptured.
The New Orleans convention didn’t bring me that glorious sense of community and connection that I’d found in Wisconsin, or Calgary or Saratoga Springs. But it came closer than either the Montreal or Los Angeles conventions did – Los Angeles in comparison was outright painful in the sense of disconnection and futility.
Well, I did a reading. This wasn’t one of my best readings, but it was okay. The story was Furry Tentacles, it’s a hyper-literate parody of Lovecraft. I was mocking Lovecraft’s penchant for narrators who slowly put together random clues into a horrific conclusion – in this version the clues are ridiculous and the conclusion it builds to is insane. I was also playing with the idea that the sort of people, the drawing room detectives and stalwart English gentlemen that people like Brian Lumley or August Derleth invent to confront the mythos would, beneath the surface, have to be a deranged bunch. And I played with the language “he blushed audibly” and “he seemed to advance upon them in his seated position” there’s a nonsense there I find hilarious. I love the story. I’m not sure how well it reads out loud.
But I wanted to do something different and interesting for the reading – so basically, what I’d done was gathered six ‘reading stories’ – a couple of horror, a couple of fantasy, a couple of humour, and let the audience pick. That’s what they opted for; I don’t think it was the strongest choice.
I do like the idea of that sort of initial ‘audience involvement’ pick the story shtick. I may do it again, but next time, I might load the dice as it were. Maybe I’ll roll some dice or give everyone a number, to give the illusion of a randomly picked story.
The other thing I did to make it cool was to lay out my trade paperbacks along the wall for people to see, and at the end of the reading, gave away a couple to my audience members.
I dunno. I just want to make a reading something interesting and unpredictable, something with a bit of excitement. Some theatricality. I think I may practice a bit.
Oh yes – books. I brought a bunch of trade paperbacks with me. Not copies of everything, but several sets of collections of stories, including Drunk Slutty Elf. I sold a few which was stunning, gave a few away, autographed a few. I’d hoped that maybe I’d have been able to circulate them to Agents or Editors sort of a massive calling card. None of those people were there. The most impressive person I gave a book to was Walter Jon Williams, after he’d autographed one of his for me. He seemed to like it. Oddly, I think I felt a lot more confidence as a writer having them with me to show or give away – there’s something physical or solid to them, I guess that’s obvious. But it was definitely more presence, more confidence, than having an unpublished novel or a few Ebooks. I’ll probably do that again.
And it did mean that I had a reason to be sitting as a writer in the Mass Autograph session. I autographed books that people had brought, sold books, and had something to talk about with fellow writers.
I did two panels. The first one was the Audiobooks Panel. I had no idea why I was selected for that one. But on reflection, I’d had the experience of the Mermaid’s Tale audiobook, and I’d done about ten artificial intelligence audiobooks – most of them collections of short stories, so I’d done AI audio for literally a hundred stories, different formats, styles, voices, etc. So maybe I was qualified?
Maybe. I still feel they could have found fifty people more qualified than I was involved in either production or marketing. But I took it seriously, spent a few days researching the subject, and then another couple of days thinking and making notes. It paid off, I think I was informed, articulate and had a lot of ideas and insights for the panel.
The panel actually only scratched the surface of my notes and ideas. I think I may do a series of blog posts exploring audiobooks. I had no idea it was so explosive – the audiobook market is growing about 25% per year and estimated to continue through 2030 or 2035. Even simple math suggests near exponential growth. Already, for many traditional writers, it’s a large part of their royalties. There are all kinds of issues from gatekeeping, to the evolution of AI, etc. Plenty to write about.
My other panel was a last minute add on – I was actually qualified for that one – Horror (I have several short story collections, essays on the subject and an unpublished novel), Dark Fantasy (most of my stuff), and Grimdark (my big novel). Once again, I researched the subject, made notes. Did okay, though the panel overall seemed unfocussed.
And at this point, I’ll gripe. Hey, not looking at anyone in particular, but if you’re going to be on a panel, or moderating a panel, don’t half ass it. Read the description, figure out what the panel is about, and do your goddammed homework. Come to it prepared. Don’t just wander in, with whatever you have in your back pocket and wing it. That’s fine over a beer at the bar. But if you’re doing a panel, take it seriously. You’re presented and presenting as some kind of authority on the subject, and you have an obligation to do your homework, your research, to have some insights and observations.
You want to pontificate off the seat of your pants, or just rehash tired old shit because it’s just the same old same old? Go do it in the bar at half past one over a couple of pitchers. That’s fine.
But if you’re on programming, people are coming to see you, they have expectations. You owe it to them, you owe it to the convention, and you owe it to yourself not to be a shallow trite asshole, half assing your way through, offering up mush. Bring the A game.
I’ve got some people in mind on this, not just at this Convention, but others. But really, I’m not talking anyone specific. But if you’ve done panels and conventions, and this is stinging a little, then all I have to say is fork-yu! Do better!
Anyway, a reading and two panels at the World Fantasy Convention. I thought that was kind of a feather in the cap. I did reading and panels at the Montreal World Fantasy, and for the online Salt Lake City World Fantasy, but it’s not old had.
I enjoy doing panels – it works for my ‘A to B’ object oriented, goal oriented, purpose driven personality. I’m very comfortable with them, take them seriously, and do a good job. In contrast, hanging out at a bar is more stressful.
I’m not sure it does me any good. I hope. I dutifully add these things to my writers resume, hoping it might help me get a grant. I have some hope that maybe, directly or indirectly, doing these things will help make me credible in the industry, might inspire an editor or agent to notice, or take me a little more seriously if they look me up. Anything could help. Who knows?
But I enjoy them. And I think I did a good job with my programming this year.
As to the rest? Well, I attended some very good programming, and some awfully mediocre ones. I think the biggest disappointment was listening to Shawna McCarthy on the Agent/Author panel. She seemed bored and resentful, even sour. The panel was mostly going through the motions, with only a couple of people, Gerald included, trying to bring some life to it.
But that leads into the biggest disappointment of the Convention. There wasn’t much in the way of industry people. Previous World Fantasy’s were awash with agents, editors, publishers, traditional and small and medium press, writers and artists, including the big names and up and comers, people making deals in alcoves, new talent discovered over coffee, schmoozing at room parties. Publishers throwing parties.
Not a lot of that going on. Near as I can tell, none of that going on. The biggest writers there were Joe Haldeman, who attends all these things, Walter Jon Williams, and Charmaine Harris, all of whom are very respectable, but stood out largely because they stood out. There weren’t a lot of the big swinging writers or the big up and comers or the ambitious mid-listers. Mostly, I think it was people like me, or a couple of tiers above me. Small press writers, self pubs, new trad, people at the entry level, maybe a little beyond.
No parties beyond the de rigeur Convention room party – if there were, I wasn’t invited. In terms of industry people, there’s Shawna McCarthy and Ellen Datlow, as ever. Ginjer Buchanan, accepting a retirement award. Tachyon, a reputable small press, was there, but mainly as a bookseller, and mainly they’re about reviving fading stars not finding new ones, so that was a bust.
The World Fantasy Convention is supposed to be the big ‘business convention.’ And mostly it wasn’t.
A friend of mine, Gerald, said he attended these things to meet with his Agent and Editor, and they weren’t showing up to this one. He sold his first books at these things. But this was just dead for him, and if Kansas City is like this, he’ll probably not bother.
It may be fallout from Covid. The attendance was low. A lot of people stayed home. Montreal had even lower attendance, and no ‘business’ presence (being cross border in the Covid era didn’t help them). New Orleans fell short of the typical numbers for a World Fantasy, but was much better attended than Montreal.
But I have to wonder if we’re seeing a permanent sea change. Covid changed a lot of things, including the ways that people did business, with a lot more forced reliance on skype, phone, text and emails, and a de-emphasis of face to face and business trips. Maybe these shifts will stick. Once people start doing things a different way, they often keep on.
My friend Peter suggests that the decline of the business aspect, and the falling away of the industry people was apparent at World Fantasy, or beginning even before Covid. He attends all of them. Perhaps there’s an existing trend there that Covid accelerated. Certainly the publishing industry the last several years has been in a state of increasingly unpredictable flux, and I don’t think the money in books is getting better – it may be getting significantly worse.
We may be seeing the decline of World Fantasy as a business venue.
This would really suck, because there aren’t a lot of good paths or pathways to meeting agents or publishers or getting through. Everything I know about the business says that making personal contacts and connections is huge, and that just sending out email queries is an uphill battle. Gerald, as I said, sold his books at World Fantasy. If that’s over, or declining, where do we go? What do we do?
I don’t know. The next World Fantasy Convention is in Kansas City, so I’ll go there and hope for the best.
Bottom line, I didn’t meet anyone who was going to do my non-career any good. No cards from agents, no sniffs from publishers, no conversations with Editors, or pitches to small or medium presses. In that sense, this convention, like Los Angeles and Salt Lake City and Montreal before it was a failure for me. And I suppose like Madison and Calgary and Saratoga Springs way back in the day, but I had more hope then, more of a sense that it could happen.
Maybe the seven or eight years I skipped the conventions was my big mistake, the great lost opportunity. Maybe I sat on the sidelines, and my chance at a future passed me by. That’s … disturbing.
But if I didn’t meet anyone important to a career, I still met a lot of good people. A pair of writers from Kansas that Gerald and I seemed to adopt, they were shy, and really came out of their shells by the end. I remember sitting down talking horror enthusiastically with Penelope. Or discussing fantasy with a young volunteer with a shock of purple hair. Or just ruminating about what makes writing work with a couple of women.
Those were some of the best times, meeting people who loved writing like I did and just talking about it.
I talked to women who had quit their day jobs to write their novels or book series, who had plans, attended writer’s workshops. I admired their confidence. Admired? I was awed. Perhaps a little jealous. A little worried for them. Writing is a bruising industry, and a lot of us end up face in the pavement. But so courageous. I don’t think I ever had that bravery. But then again, I never had anyone to sustain me so I could quit my job and follow that star. I’m glad they do have that, and I so wish them success.
There were wonderful moments – going out to dinner on a balcony with Paul and Julie, while downstairs in the restaurant a jazz band played, and having genuinely authentic New Orleans food. Dragging Peter around on a bus or walking tour.
The Banquet was awful; I think I may give up on those things. Tough rubber chicken in New Orleans. In New Orleans, a city of amazing food and spectacular restaurants. I did get to sit next to Sonya Ransom a podcaster who went on to win one of the awards.
I had brushes with celebrity – at the end of the convention, walking through the airport, I spent an hour with Brendan O’Brien, the guest of honour, listening to him tell about getting into poetry as a youth, and hearing his pitch for a World Fantasy in Trinidad (I would totally go!), that was great.
Not quite so great – sitting next to a tall, Amazonian woman with shocking green hair who I’d seen at the convention. I asked her if she was a writer. She told me she was the artist guest of honour, Iris Compiet. Awkward! But we had a nice conversation anyway.
Good experiences. I remember one evening after a late night ghost tour, walking back to the hotel, a couple of kilometers away, with a couple of women from the convention, navigating our way through a city we only half understood, the three of us trading real life ghost stories – that was perfect. That was the moment I was who I strive to be – charming, charismatic, articulate and full of interesting stories, a bit dashing.
All too often at the convention, that better self was just out of reach – I felt aging and fat, my clothes not fitting right, the haircut awkward, a pathetic caricature, fumbling and out of place, pretending and failing, a pretender and failure who had no business being there. I’d feel ashamed and shy and tongue tied. Too often I felt like that guy. The better me, the charming, dynamic, dashing me, he was hard to find, and he slipped away so easily.
But I had my moments of on. I got to hang out with Walter Jon Williams a few times, and not come across as a goof. We didn’t have any heart to heart, but at least I was there and not embarrassing myself. I had him autograph a book – the first autograph I’d really wanted since Roger Zelasny. Gave him one of mine – which he leafed through. I don’t know if I remembered to sign it, and I doubt he’ll read it, but I still got to give it to him. That made me happy. He is one of my all-time favourite writers. I’m often reluctant to meet my heroes, all too often, those people you admire turn out to be awful in real life, or disappointing. But he was everything I hoped he’d be – thoughtful, brilliant, plain spoken, kind and well-traveled, one of those larger than life people. Someone you feel good about meeting. Someone you feel good just knowing that they’re out there in the world.
I need to thank him for the Convention. And by that token, I need to thank Peter and Gerald, Susan, Chris, Paul and Julie – people that made the convention for me, friends and faces I knew, and the people that I met who will hopefully be friends at the next one. It can be hard to be the stranger at the celebration, and they made me not a stranger.
It was a good convention. I’m glad I went.
And yet, and yet, and yet… failed in primary goal. No big deal, I’d failed repeatedly before, I was deliberately not putting pressure on myself, and just really committing to enjoying.
But at the same time, I find myself wondering these days about my choices. Writing is the star I follow. And I’m a good writer, maybe even gifted, possibly great. I’m confident of that. I know I’m good. I also know how little being good means or matters. This is what I want, what I’ve always wanted. This is the dream I’ve chased my whole life. Maybe not effectively or consistently but it’s always been there.
Back home where I grew up, no one could even imagine being a writer – the closest my Dad could come was the idea of being a journalist. But the one time in my life I think I impressed him was when I wrote a story, and he took it to the Mill to show his friends and coworkers. Maybe that’s what decided the path.
I’ve always been chasing that rainbow. No mentors, no writer’s retreats, no writing courses or fine arts degrees. Just the desire and the stumbling path forward, always chasing the rainbow in my clumsy stubborn way.
Chasing the rainbow. Is this the best thing that I could or should have done with my life? This capricious snakes and ladders, this satanic whack a mole game, where the rules constantly change, and the barriers move faster than the goalposts, and no matter what you’ve accomplished or where you’ve gone, it’s always the wrong thing and the wrong place. I love writing, but the business of writing amounts to buying lottery tickets, just with heartbreak and labour.
Chasing the rainbow. Is this the best thing I could have done with my life? I kind of think anything else I would have gone further, found greater rewards. That instead of where I am in my life, I could have done better. Had a family, had a real life.
Chasing the rainbow. Looking at where I am in this life. And feeling this sense of loss, of opportunities slipped away, that maybe the choices were wrong, maybe I needed to do something else. But now it’s too late, it’s all slipped away, and the doors are all closed. Time running out. I’m not a fool; I know that we all come to this sort of self-doubt, this existential crisis. We all hit this wall. Knowing that doesn’t really help.
I chase the rainbow because I don’t have a choice. I’m like a dog chasing cars. It’s a compulsion. I’ve quit writing, walked away from it. But I can’t not do it. I’m trapped in this pathology. And wishing I’d done something else with my life amounts to wishing I was someone else.
But I have to come to grips with the possibility, the likelihood, maybe the certainty, that I’m not going to catch the rainbow. I’ll chase the rainbow, but maybe I’ll never find it. Maybe the whole thing has been futile, and I’ve absolutely wasted my life.
That’s a hard thing to come to terms with. But I may have to come to terms. What do you do with yourself when you are forced to admit you’ve wasted your whole life?
“Malt does more than Milton can, to justify God’s ways to man.”
I guess I’ll live with it.
I can see that moment. I can feel it breathing down my neck. But I’m not there yet.
I’ll still keep chasing that rainbow. Let’s face it, I don’t have anything else. So why not? I’m not ready to give up. I’m not at the point, yet.
I remember there’s this Kafka story about a man who wants justice, so he goes to the Court and he tries to get in, but the guard won’t let him. He tries to bribe the guard, but the Gatekeeper only takes the money, and says “I’m taking this money, but I won’t let you in. I’m only taking it so you will know you tried everything.” In the end, he never gets in. Maybe that’s how my story ends. But if it was me in the Kafka story, I’d have punched the guard, I’d have bum rushed the place, set fire to the building, tried tricks and traps. Kafkas character just didn’t try hard enough.
I’m not done until I’ve tried everything I possibly can. I’m not there yet.
I’ll write more novels, self-pub more of the hard drive, submit stories, send out email queries. And maybe I’ll do one of these Retreat/Workshops that guys like Kevin J. Anderson or Dean Wesley Smith do, if those are the coming things.
Look out Gatekeepers. I’m not done. So next year – it’s Kansas City World Fantasy Convention, and North American Science Fiction Convention in Winnipeg, Cancon in Ottawa, When Words Collide in Calgary.