Friday, November 4, 2011

Seven Days in Neverland, Or What the World Fantasy Convention, Esquire Magazine and the U.S.S. Midway Have in Common

You’re forgiven if you read the following as a single, continuous name-drop. That’s exactly what it is, because the last week in my life has been all about other people—wise people, gifted people, astonishingly wonderful people. This is a gathering of my memories of them, before my feet settle entirely on the ground.

The trip should have been simple: fly to San Diego, spend one hour on a panel and two days in the embrace of the fantasy community, bracket the convention with family time with my cousin Jon and his awesome better half, Christy. That simple plan lasted about five minutes. Here's how it actually played out:

Two weeks before WFC: my niece Prachi announces her engagement (CONGRATS, you two!). Soon thereafter I find myself making arrangements to rendezvous with her and her fiance the day after the convention. No problem; can’t wait.

One week before WFC: a caller floors me with the news that I’m a finalist in the utterly bizarre Esquire Magazine contest described in a previous post, and that they’re ready to fly me to New York on Halloween day. No problem; I can cut the trip short and still see everybody.

Six days before WFC: finally get my panel assignment. Going to be mighty well prepared.

Three days before WFC: my cousin gets called for jury duty. At least we’ll still have nights.

Two days before WFC: the weather gods announce that the northeast is going to be mauled by an early snowstorm. Blackouts guaranteed. I fly off worrying how my wife Kiran will keep herself and the animals warm.

Wednesday, 26 Oct: Hartford to San Diego. Prepare for my panel. Listen to the audiobook of Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land and am almost in tears. Dinner with Jon and Christy. Best Mexican meal in ten years.

Thusday, 27 Oct: Exploring San Diego in the blazing sun. Drive to the beach at La Joya--sea lions, pelicans, osprey, tidal pools. Ask myself, bewildered, why I’ve been in New England for fourteen years.

Arrive that night at the WFC convention center (huge, hulking, green; visions of Gaddafi’s compound) with sand in my shoes. Registration desk abandoned. Undocumented, I go in search of Karen Lord’s reading (from her World Fantasy Award-nominated Redemption in Indigo), meet her agent Sally Harding desperately seeking the same room. Lord’s reading is brilliant and mischievous, and it’s a shame to slip away before it’s over—but my own panel’s starting.

Nothing remarkable here. The would-be moderator [I won’t name him; he has twice in my hearing introduced himself as “moderately famous” and so requires no further boost] has failed to notice the [m] beside his name in the panel description, and promptly hands off that responsibility to Barb Galler-Smith, who rises nimbly to the occasion. We discuss “The Ship (or Dirigible) as a Fantastical Character” and I try to steer us away from the predictable question: “What if the ship is ACTUALLY ALIVE, you know, with ITS OWN BRAIN and maybe A FACE, and, LUNGS, and KIDNEYS…” but the draw of such questions is irresistible. The hour passes. I’m overjoyed (will always be overjoyed) at the chance to sign some books.

Friday, 28 Oct: Mad joy. Writers, writers, writers. Bump into Lord early on and find she’s even smarter and funnier one-on-one. Coffee with Rani Graff (Graff Publications, Tel Aviv) and fantasist Kate Elliott; her son has told her she must read Red Wolf. More coffee with Jonathon and Shawna Burgess, of Alaska. Jonathon is not only at work on his own fantasy novel, but has twenty times my experience at sea, and I quake to consider the mistakes he may unearth in my books. Too late now. Quick hellos to Nalo Hopkinson, John Connolly, Mishell Baker, N.K. Jemisin. Great, boisterous panel with Connolly, Graham Joyce, Pat Murphy and others, fighting about fairy tales. Went to Daryl Gregory’s book launch party (best beer & nicest host in the compound) and saw Liz Argall, who I have missed for her bright goodness and knowledge of animals. Meet Rome Quezada, senior editor at the Science Fiction Book Club. Daryl is charming & deadpan funny, as ever.

Then comes dinner, with my own wünder-agent, John Jarrold; and Betsy Mitchell, outgoing and legendary leader of Del Rey. Around our table lumber giants in the field--Tim Pratt, Greg Bear, Robert Silverberg—and I am a little boy again, agog.

Parties afterwards—loud, packed, overwhelming. Peat Brett and Sam Sykes are lobbing missiles of wit; they also introduce me to the incredibly impressive Myke Cole. Myke is a writer, soldier and three-tour veteran of the war in Iraq, with a three-book deal from Ace (Shadow Ops) soon to burst upon the genre.

Back home, the snow has begun.

Liz Gorinsky, Paul Kane, Guy Gavriel Kay, Diana L. Paxson
Saturday, 29 October: More, and more intensely, the same. Jonathon Burgess tells me of almost dying on his father’s fishing boat. Silverberg tells me that much SFF disappoints him at a craft level; “the music of the language” just isn’t there, he says. Lunch is peanuts and dry granola. The hotel staff are trying to extort $150 from Karen Lord to pick up her mail. There’s a panel on wishes and Faustian bargains, chaired by Guy Gavriel Kay, who is so erudite that the other panelists tend to answer “Yes” [full stop] in reply to his long, qualifier-rich questions.

At happy hour I’m happy to see Scott Lynch, however briefly; he is a mystery presence to be sure. Then it’s an interview with Gillian Redfearn, editorial director of Gollancz, my beloved U.K. publisher. I’d met Gillian only once (I work directly with Simon Spanton), but quickly discover that the Dread Power she holds over the heads of writers has not kept her from being the nicest person you’ll ever meet. As our chat winds down I learn that she’s going to New York the same day I am. In a matter of moments it’s decided: she will be my +1 at the Esquire event. Minutes later, alone among the Gaddafi flower beds, I begin to wonder what the hell I thought I was doing. Why should this worldly editor waste her valuable New York time at a party with some random author? Especially one hosted by a magazine dedicated to the proposition that all men deserve Louis Vuitton.

Too late. Next panel. Holly Black and Patrick Rothfuss discuss fairies. Apparently the better sort are nasty. Back home, no power; my dear wife is walking around the house in Gore-Tex and gloves.

Dinner with Theodora Goss, now Professor Goss (as well as an amzing author). We take the tram to Old Town, San Diego, and have such an intense discussion that we don’t notice that the restaurant is filling up with the gory undead. A zombie crawl has ended here; when at last we look around us we see nothing but bloody, decaying mouths gulping tequilas and chile relleno.

Parties follow, interminable and welcome still. At N.K. Jemisin’s event we play Twister, and I deport myself acceptably until felled by Liz Argall, who goes on to fell all who come before her (lastly Scott Edelman) in this game she’d never played before. Five or six people I wanted to see are mysteriously elsewhere, though. I am staggering home sore and puzzled when Karen Lord appears out of the foliage and tells me of “the British party,” on an upper balcony. Spotting my hesitation, she tugs my sleeve decisively. The next phase of debauchery begins.

Sunday, 30 Oct: Thank God I’m a lightweight drinker. No hangover to speak of, though I’m so exhausted I can barely think. Still I recover enough to enjoy the day immensely when Prachi and her fiance, Shreyas, pick me up at Gaddafi Gate. We have a great meal at the San Diego seaport, then march the waterfront under the blazing sun, stopping to admire the Star of India (beautiful, ancient fore-and-aft rigged tall ship). H.M.S. Surprise (from the film Master and Commander) and the U.S.S. Midway (on which the Japanese surrender was signed; these WWII aircraft carriers served as my size model for I.M.S. Chathrand, the giant sailing ship in my series. They are H*U*G*E when you stand in their shadow, but small beside today’s equivalents). 

^^^^^^^^^^^  WORLD FANTASY COVERAGE ABOVE
vvvvvvvvvv   ESQUIRE/NEW YORK COVERAGE BELOW

Monday, 31 Oct: Flight to New York. Gillian and Myke Cole are on the same airplane. When we land, Gillian takes off so fast I’m certain she’s rethinking this whole Esquire adventure. But there’s no escape from baggage claim, and there I learn that she’s actually quite looking forward to it. This should set my mind at ease, but doesn’t.

Trains to Penn Station, then a short march to the hotel, which is adjacent to the Empire State Building. In my room there’s a king-size bed, and Rihanna, staring up at me from the cover of a complimentary Esquire. She is dressed in chocolate shavings, or perhaps they’re strands of seaweed from La Joya. Quick glass of wine downstairs with the other finalists, then a beer with my friend David Bell, who is kind enough to journey all the way to the hotel vicinity after a work day that lasted until eight. David tells me that his father handed him Esquire in his teens, along with the stern explanation that it mattered, in the late 20th century, how any serious man presented himself to the world. It had an effect, David admits.

Tuesday, 1 Nov: Ascent to the Esquire offices, in the Hearst Tower. The Hearst lobby is a silver double-escalator parting an aluminum tidal wave, flooded with light from a vast, remote upper atrium. Matrix agents (ear pieces & all) guard the entrance ferociously, but we are whisked inside and high into the stratosphere. Here, in the Esquire conference room, we work for three hours with Colum McCann, National Book Award winner and one of the most amazing fiction writers alive. Colum is a passionate and generous teacher as well as a brilliant mind, and that time was just amazing. The other finalists, who I’m getting to know in moments and snatches, are all delightful: strong writers from immensely different backgrounds. One is retiring from 15 years on the radio in West Virginia, another a smoke jumper who parachutes into Montana forest fires. All their stories are superb.

Halfway through the workshop, I slip away & put on my glad rags in the men's room, fearing there won’t be time later on. David Granger, Esquire’s editor-in-chief, surprises me with my pants off. He is unflappable, not to say unaware of me.

Suddenly it’s five o’clock: time to meet Gillian downstairs & escort her up for a cocktail hour hosted by Mr Granger, in his eyrie on the 44th floor. But the drink is not to be. There’s no one to be spared to escort us through the bunker defenses at ground level: once outside, I’m out. That’s quite alright with me, actually: I feel somewhat lost among the impeccably groomed.

There’s Gillian at the corner, in good spirits and a cocktail dress. She’s not put out to be locked out, and we have a pretty great time finding our way by train to the Brooklyn waterfront. I forget when I learn (but am amazed to learn) that this is her first visit to New York).  After staggering around in the windswept darkness awhile, we take shelter in a humble Italian restaurant, down some beer and calamari, and then it’s showtime. A few more twists and turns, and we reach the Esquire Apartment.

Oh, that place. Picture a huge, turn-of-the-century garment factory on the waterfront, crowned by an immensely wide, four-story tower with 14’ tall clock faces looking out the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, lower Manhattan and the East River. Now hollow out the inside, all the way to the roof. Run a big glass elevator straight up the middle, wrap a glass-and-hardwood staircase around the elevator, and build floating hardwood floors at various heights as one ascends. Place multiple delux bars and expensive sculpture on each floor. Glass in the clock faces, leaving the cast iron arms and frame in situ. Sprinkle with aquaria, light shows and hanging crystal spheres, add loud music and fancy hors d’oeuvres. Blow in beautiful people as one might insulation, until the place is bursting with them.

Gillian Redfearn on the roof
That’s the scene. I think I'm ready, having glimpsed the apartment’s website. As it happens I can barely speak. The best I can manage is to turn to Gillian and say, “Welcome to New York—we do this all the time, you know.”

We finalists read our tiny stories in rapid succession beside the Steinway. How anyone is able to digest all ten is beyond me, but they seem to. People actually come forward and speak to us intelligently, and the compliments feel sincere. They’re readers, these beautiful people. At the microphone, I think unaccountably of a green stuffed dinosaur that my poodle once disemboweled.

Events soon start to blur. Lisa Consiglio of the Aspen Writers Foundation (which co-sponsored the  competition) makes a gracious speech, thanking Esquire for its 78 years of commitment to serious writing (a compliment very much deserved; forget the crack about Louis Vuitton). Don Julio (the tequila company) gives away all the tequila the masses can drink—including, if you ask especially, glasses of Don Julio 1942, aged in oak. Specially trained barmen smoothly transfer our drinks from glass to plastic (classy plastic) before we step out on the rooftop patio, lest we drop something lethally. I wonder if they will be transferred back again when we descended (no). 

Posing with Adrienne Celt, one of the finalists
A stranger high-five's me. An old, white-suited man with a cane lets me help him down the Cinderella staircase. A young woman lolls on a divan beneath a fur that could hide a grizzly bear. Jon Fine of Amazon stands on a landing, larger than a grizzly, power streaming from him like waves of heat.

After meeting Josh Ritter, who plays two f---king brilliant songs for us, I get up my courage to say hello to him and find an incredibly friendly, down-to-earth soul in the space filled by the unapproachable star a moment ago. His talent is shattering. So is the fall my camera takes when a stranger tries to take a photo of me with Colum McCann—later I download some earlier shots, the Fuji’s last full measure. In a fit of generosity the man presses five twenties into my hand, then vaporizes—poof—before I can speak. 

To my delight, Nate Ochs (the smoke jumper) wins the competition: his story is beautiful, and he had not written a word in ten years. It will appear next year in Esquire.

Late that night, after Gillian catches a taxi back to Manhattan, and the Agents herd us gently out the doors, and Jon Fine doesn’t quite persuade us to join him at a bar called Superfine (or rather, as he puts it repeatedly, SUPERFINE!), we finalists drift in a dream back to the hotel. There we shed our glad rags and pull on pajamas, pile on & around Nate’s bed, toast him, and laugh & bemoan the writing life for so long that at last even the street below grow quiet.

The next morning we scatter, and real life resumes. My plan had been to cap the trip off with a quick trip down to Occupy Wall Street. But to go there for an hour seems almost a shameful act—that is to say, an act, not a commitment—and the truth is I long for home. I’m there by evening; Kiran and the animals and the restored electric lights draw me in. Fantasies are fine things, but I have stumbled, exhausted, back to waking life.

6 comments:

merumsal said...

What a madcap, surreal set of travels from start to end! Glad you enjoyed the Esquire experience; we know winning isn't needed to have fun ;) It was great meeting you at WFC2011, and I look forward to our next mutual con attendance.

Jon Burgess said...

Wow! You had an even crazier trip than I did!

Your description of the New York trip is amazing. Aside from the glamour and glitz you describe, it's a place I've always wanted to see. Likewise, it was great meeting you in San Diego. Keep in touch!

Janeite42 said...

Sounds like a fabulous week! (I love your description of the Esquire Apartment.) And I'm glad everything was all right when you got home. Thanks for signing all my books.

Janeite42 said...

Oh yes, I forgot to say that your comments on the ships & dirigibles panel sounded well thought out and à propos. The discussion did keep trying to veer off in the direction of sentient craft, and especially to spacecraft, which as I see it aren't really sentient themselves but are controlled by AI with personality, and I don't think that counts. Anyway, thanks for your comments.

RVSR said...

It was SO terrific to meet (or re-meet) you all in San Diego.

Merumsai: you're right about the winning/fun disconnect. I think I got more joy out of Nate's win than I could have if I'd taken the big prize myself.

Jon: this is the first time I've seen any New York glitz; often what one notices is the way the garbage competes with the foot traffic.

Janeite: thank you for bringing me books to sign, and for being a friend to my books & reading generally. And for explaining the source of the massive continuity of ducks.

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