So I guess that my trip to the World Fantasy Convention this year was kinda my debut at the establishment. I moderated a panel right out of the gate, spoke on two others. I’m one of the experts now. Got a book with my name on it and I didn’t have to publish it myself, even got paid pretty well. Thanks, Broken Eye Books!
So why didn’t I feel like it? Sure. WFC is pretty crazy high-powered in terms of attendees. Robert Silverberg and Alan Dean Foster and Joe Haldeman for crying out loud, and that’s just names from my youth.
But then every show has its own personality, and the bigger the show, the more steeped in lore and tradition it is, the harder it is for someone to find a way in. For all the talk of this being a gathering of like-minded folks, it often felt like going back to high school. But I say this as the goldfish intently studying the water that all the other goldfish are floating in.
Firstly, the venue. The Marriott over by LAX is a mid century holdover with a recent coat of paint. This is not a gripe. Though for my tastes, I’d have preferred a restoration, not a new coat of paint and decor that’s more 2012 than 1966. The location worked against total enjoyment as well. First, you’re flying into LAX, which is an example of a model that isn’t working any more with the infrastructure around it, that and all the passenger cars still insisting on swarming their way around the traffic flow. Take shuttles. Come on. Additionally, there just isn’t that much right around the hotel/airport within walking distance. This would not be a problem were there a downtown LA location (the food and sightseeing options there being nothing short of staggering.) Friday night I walked half a mile or more for Greek food instead of paying hotel grill prices for a just okay dinner. Sunday morning I walked more than a mile to a Mexican joint that I guarantee no other convention goers went to. Both trips were worth it.
So by design, you’re trapped in a part of LA which is more like a bunch of little mini HIGH RISE scenarios just waiting to take place. It’s a transit spot for capital, not even people, really. Which I guess is fine if you plan on not ever leaving the hotel. If you’re okay with high school. Fascinating from a sociological/cultural perspective but not nourishing.
Don’t get me wrong. The rooms were nice, even if the motion sensing lights plunged me into darkness more than once while working. Yes I went to my room and worked instead of doing bar-con. Sure, I went down there and went to social events, looking for familiar faces. And I’m grateful for the ones I found, thanks to you folks, should you be reading this. But it was a few minutes of pleasant talk and then dissolution, looking to the aggregate pods of talkers and faces who I neither knew nor knew me. Tough to scale that cliff face, at least for me. Yes. I realize that’s a me problem. I also realize I’m not the guy with a me solution other than to go out and take pictures of the palm tree apocalypse sunsets and uncanny scale of capital-driven construction along that end of Century Boulevard.
I’ll spare you my remembrances of the are from flying out of LAX as a kid, other than to say they sure chased a lot of strip clubs and adult theatres out of there since the eighties.
I suppose I should talk about the actual show, huh? Sorry.
I got there with enough time to check in, find out that I had made room reservations twice, change clothes and then get down to the panel areas. I should have showered to kill off the flop sweat but that wasn’t in the cards. My debut as moderator came at the hands of "California Screaming" which covered California as a horror setting, featuring Kary English, S. Qiouyi Lu and Laurie Tom. Lucked out with great panelists who had smart stuff to say about horror and setting and California as a place. And, importantly, the need to dig deep on location, particularly for horror, since a lot of horror is tied to history and trauma carried through it and all the things that make life worth living.
I had a whole hour between that and having to appear on "California Dreamin'" which covered the Golden State as a fantasy setting. You could write a thesis on this, much less spend an hour. This was somehow more worrying as being a moderator, all I have to do is keep the ball rolling. Here, I’m expected to actually say something interesting and yikes. Fun fact, most of what I had to say wasn’t directly tied to the fantasy genre, but rather writers and history well outside the genre. But if you’ve read this blog for any length of time or follow my twitter account, you well know what I feel about genre as boundary or even marketing term. I won’t repeat it here other than to say I practice expansio (ad absurdum). It keeps me sane.
Spent some time in the dealer’s room and looked at a lot of books I couldn’t afford, like Arkham House editions with Hannes Bok covers. It hurt a little. Walked to a Greek diner more than half a mile out, took a lot of pictures, surveyed the crowds at the social event (ice cream — I got mango and it was okay), surveyed the bar and then went back to work on a reread of QUEEN OF NO TOMORROWS. I was looking for breadcrumbs that I might’ve left myself to pick up and run with. This ahead of writing THE DROWNING CITY, which is a direct sequel. Found some. But that process goes into another entry.
Met a longtime friend for a drive over to Pann’s for breakfast. Chicken wings and eggs and hash brown and a biscuit. Inglewood PD eating all gathered at a table alongside cable crews and folks headed out to work later. A soft Googie time machine that I’m glad is still around.
Couple panels, the contents of which were largely exhausting. Mostly because they’re about the marketing of books and writing and I don’t think I can do that any longer. Not when I’m trying to marshal forces and get another book rolling. It’s hard enough to write what I’m going to write anyways much less second guess myself that I haven’t hooked the reader on the first line (they’re harder than last lines) or nailed the genre promise. Hell, I don’t have an agent even, and I don’t see how I’m getting one to be brutally honest. Feral authors don’t come with a built-in audience. And the book isn’t about quality, but about what will sell and I’ve wrestled with that for thirty years. The only way for me to win that game is not to play it. I’m sure the information was good for the audience, but for me it was kryptonite.
I found the audiobook publishing/production panel pretty solid, and well-timed since I’m looking at that in the future for my own work as well as some other related projects. But I kinda hit the wall on the two next panels I hit, covering mixed genres and science/magic in fantasy. Mostly because I learned that Amish SF is a thing and apparently a successful microgenre, due to the, wait for it, amazon algorithm, that finds readers respond readily to this. And yeah. I wanted to scream. But otherwise, discussion of these fields, at least in semi-public fora, tends to dodge around the issue of tone and taste. When that’s all it ultimately is. One person will declare “make-believe!” then throw up their hands and another will layer on quantum physics keywords to do the same thing and one gets a pass.
I still need to write my long piece about liking and loving a work role of gut-level personal opinion dressed up in reason and critique. I won’t here, but I’ll have to let it out sometime. That said, there’s so much that boils down to just this yet seems like it can be nebulously imposed as a legitimate boundary to be respected. Did Chandler write fantasy? No. Did he describe an absolutely fantastic landscape in Los Angeles and Southern California? Absolutely. One worth study if you can go in understanding that he did not share today’s political or racial or gender sensibilities in the slightest.
Afterwards, I retreated to the dealer room, got myself a subscription to LOCUS as I should’ve a long time ago. Then I made a jarring discovery. The title for my next book? The one that I loved so much? THE DROWNING CITY? Yeah. I saw it, or rather, one so close as to it that there was no way to salvage my using it. Sure, you can’t copyright a title, but you can’t just go around biting them either. Anyways, it was Paolo Bacigalupi's THE DROWNED CITIES and I should have googled it. I didn’t and now I get to pay the price for my foolishness. So that was a bummer. Also was the sneaking suspicion that the umbrella title I had come up for all six books (oh, don’t grouse, they’re very short) I had planned out was probably not going to work and I’d been trying to make it work for such a long time. That title being SMOKETOWN. So that was going to have to change, too.
All of which kind of combined to a stone bummerland trip. I walked in to the last panel of the day kinda reluctantly. I should have gone in head high instead. The subject was Afrofuturism, which seems an odd fit for favorite panel of the weekend, but it wasn’t and I’ll let you in on why.
These folks up there weren’t dissecting meaningless and ultimately entertaining bullshit as many of the other panels I’ve been on or watched were. This was Real. It wasn’t academic, but visceral, bodily, down deep. Nor was it about Afrofuturism per se, but Black experience in writing and existing in the world of these books and stories I’d been reading for such a long time. And yeah, complicity in the worlds around them. But not a surrender to that, not obliteration by that existing in a system that was fundamentally bigoted and yes built on racial supremacy. Not that this was all, but that it was a fact. That I could pretend to hold this at arms length but that time is past. I’m still processing it and still dealing with where and how I was reached. A high point of the show, but not a passive enjoyment. It was demanding and rightly so.
Headed off to dinner with a friend along Sawtelle Boulevard. Tsujita LA, a ramen house that specialized in a very particular presentation, tsukumen. In it, you get the noodles at room temperature and dip them in a very thick broth, thick enough that sticks to the ramen. Very tasty, though it cooled off a little quickly, and my chopstick technique was pushed to its limit and beyond. Then a little wandering up and down the streets and finally a trip to Ginger’s in Culver City. They do homemade ice cream and they do it very very well. Brown sugar bourbon and smoked whiskey coco make for a formidable combination.
Back to the show, back to being bewildered by crowds. Ultimately, I figured out that I’m a weirdo and was surrounded by geeks. Now I use both these terms with the maximum possible affection. But they’re different things, largely dependent on a base level of gregariousness, of which geeks have a much higher degree than weirdos. At least in my experience.
Played hooky for a good part of Saturday. Breakfast in West Adams after a wandering drive through south LA and watching a weirdly isolated storm roll in over the course of a couple hours. Then along the Miracle Mile to visit some mimetic architecture and the infamous Tar Pits. A sudden and brief and cold rain shower. Walking among walls of fossils and an oddly compelling matrix of ancient mammal bones encased in lucite, refraction of light through time itself and that’s a pretty good start to the morning.
Drive on down through Koreatown over to downtown and a visit to the Last Book Store there. It was all for research, I promise. And my penance? Having to carry them by hand afterwards. Chorizo and horchata with cold-brew coffee snack and shooting through the open sunroof of my friend’s Celica while trying to make the battery last long enough to get a few more shots and it’s a really great way to spend a day.
Oh, right. Since we’re in the BLADE RUNNER timeline now, I had to go visit the Bradbury Building. I mean, it’s right there across the street from Grand Central Market. It’d be dumb to not do it.
Back to the show. More argumentation over the future of the genre when it’s happening all around us already, and that maybe even discussion of the genre while the delivery mechanisms are being reassembled in real-time isn’t a thing that I can get with any longer. At least there was some admission of that, the graying of the audience, in particular the audience that was watching in the room. Though I had to ask which had been more read: Slenderman copypasta or the best-selling book to win an award for genre publication this year. And Slenderman is so five or ten years ago, right? Yeah. Keeps me up at night. But then horror as shared and homespun tradition has a long history. Maybe there’s no difference.
Wandered along Century again down to another tombstone for titans hotel tower and sushi for dinner. Of course the one roll on the menu that didn’t have avocado as a listed ingredient came with cliches of avocado wrapped along the top. Yeah, I had to send it back. The avocado-free version, though, was pretty tasty.
Back to the room to finish re-reading my “debut” novel. Yeah, long story, that. There was still lots of stuff I liked in it. And a few errors that I’d missed in the three proofing passes that made me want to stick my head in an oven. I got over it. It still played with a few ideas that I want to run with and as sinfully prideful as this sounds, it’s still something I quite like. Even if I can’t remember precisely the writing of some of the better lines or what source I was channeling when I wrote them down. Remember, the writer is just the conduit. Which is why only the writing ultimately matters, whatever is turned up in that process and not trimmed out or whatever.
Managed to talk my friend into another trip up to Ginger’s and it’s really a place where I could try each of the flavors and probably be happy with them. This time it was yuzu (Japanese variety) lemon and boysenberry paired with blood orange and dark chocolate chips. It’s as good as it sounds.
Sunday morning was a long walk to El Puerto Escondido, a little more than a mile from the hotel. The funny part about that section of town is that the pathway of titans, s shaped by capital, mutates pretty quickly and radically. Within a couple blocks, I was walking past razor wire-topped fences encircling industrial complexes and being told that I couldn’t take any pictures there because of course not. This gives way to gas stations and a scattering or barred and grated-window low structures that might be homes or sole proprietorships and none of them looking particularly welcoming. El Puerto Escondido was worth the walk, though. Though I’m pretty positive that they didn’t expect a white dude with a camera to be their first customer of the day. Pretty pretty sure that the guy behind the bar figured I was lost until I asked for chilaquiles in my ridiculous high school Spanish. Anyways, they were good.
Walked back, ducking under trees stunted by lack of water and shrouded in a mixture of jet fuel residue and brake dust. Yeah, that’s LA, too.
Got ready for my last panel: author as art director. I hopefully didn’t embarrass myself, but it’s tough to tell. My basic advice? Keep it as simple as you can, if you’re making your own covers. If you’re hiring an artist, be upfront with them and allow yourself to be surprised at the result. You don’t get to plan everything. Barbara Hambly showed off some examples of the kind of design work she’d done for her own books over the past several years, and there was some really good advice about working with an artist from Reiko Murakami. Much of it seemed like common sense, but somehow always slips through the cracks, right? But really, writers, plan out what you need the art to do before you fall in love with a gorgeously painted cover or artist’s portfolio.
Sat in on a solid panel about sensitivity readers which became more than that in short order lots of points made and questions brought up that can’t be easily answered because we live in a world that’s been made complex and for a long time, the realities behind that were denied.
Back to the dealer’s room for a couple books and lovely talk with Margaret Mannatt, who does a lot of appraisal work in addition to selling lovely books on the side. I really didn’t mean to pick them up, but it sorta happened. Given the opportunity, I’d do it again.
Then a couple hours of time passing at the lobby lounge. Note to people who glanced at my badge before making eye contact, I’m not famous at all. Caught the award ceremony for the World Fantasy Awards this year and don’t have a lot to say there. There was a lot of discussion about inclusion and family and I know that it was heartfelt even if not evenly distributed at times during the show. Again, I’m feral, so that works against me.
Bugged out, took an early flight, paid for that, packed my suitcase too heavy and paid for that, too. Overthought things and wrote a bunch in the long notebook I have going for the book series. I’m still not quite ready to start actual writing, but I’m getting close. Anyways, the book is about, to steal a little twitter meme: the Forger, the Rainmaker, the Water and the Thing That Remembers. I think it’s even got a title now.
As for shows like this, and say, Worldcon, they’re great when I’m on a panel or talking with folks or looking over things in the dealer’s room. I don’t quite know what to do with myself during those other times. And I can tell that while I’m of the family as it’s described, I’m certainly not in the family. Feral Weirdo. I’m better of with a cardboard box and an old towel, sleeping with one eye open. It’s a hard habit to break. It’s hard to remake yourself.