Champagne and S’mores

If Chicon7 was a village of science fiction fans and creators meandering from panel to party to presentation; ICFA34 was the fantastic equivalent of Cheers, a bar where you could usually find a seat, the faces were familiar, and the more time you spent there, the more likely it was that everybody would know your name.

Sofia Samatar, me, Nancy Hightower, and Kat Howard.(Photo by Jim Kelly.)
Sofia Samatar, me, Nancy Hightower, and Kat Howard.(Photo by Jim Kelly.)

My first time at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA), I was grateful for the presence of a few friends; for even though attendance was in the hundreds rather than thousands, it was still easy to feel overwhelmed in a crowd where so many people already knew each others.

ICFA Group picture by the pool. (Photo by Bill Clemente)
ICFA Group picture by the pool. (Photo by Bill Clemente)

Neil Gaiman was one of the Guests of Honor this year, and my first night in Orlando, I found myself at a dinner table with familiar faces (Kat Howard, Maria Dahvana Headley, Peter Straub, Neil and Amanda, as well as a few I had only known online, among them Charles Vess, John Clute, and Ellen Klages). We had a thoughtful chat about WWII survivors and their secrets/stories on the walk over to dinner, and a lively conversation full of laughter over dinner and wine. I could not have asked for a more wonderful beginning to ICFA.

The evening ended as did so many at ICFA, in the hotel bar with new and old friends. However that first night we were treated to a performance of Radiohead’s “Creep” by Amanda on her ukelele. The bar was silent as the small crowd listened. The song choice seemed perfect in so many ways.

Amanda Palmer at ICFA (Photo by Andy Duncan)
Amanda Palmer at ICFA (Photo by Andy Duncan)

Although I had planned to be a quiet observer this first time around, Nancy Hightower asked me to fill in on her panel “Transforming Fact to Fiction” after she had two cancellations from flu-stricken authors not in attendance.

Nancy and I. (Photo by Andy Duncan)
Nancy and I. (Photo by Andy Duncan)

Together with Nancy and Greg Bechtel, we had a lively 8:30am panel on Thursday morning. That was also where I met the amazing Sofia Samatar, whose novel A Stranger in Olondria, is due out this month (take note: Pre-order your copy form Small Beer Press today!)

Team Heliotrope: Nancy Hightower, Maria Dahvana Headley, and Kat Howard.
Team Heliotrope: Nancy Hightower, Maria Dahvana Headley, and Kat Howard.

The rest of the weekend followed in a happy blur of luncheon talks, panels and readings, poolside introductions, and late-night bar conversations.

Bespectacled with Peter Straub. (Photo by Ellen Datlow)
Bespectacled with Peter Straub. (Photo by Ellen Datlow)

I am grateful for the opportunity to spend time with Nancy, Maria, Dora, Peter, Gary and Stacie, and happy to have met so many wonderful people: Greg and Sofia, Francesca Myman and Liza Groen Trombi from Locus (to which you should subscribe if you don’t already), Katherine Pendill and Helen Pilinovski, Andy and Sandy Duncan, and others.

Nancy, me, and Katherine Pendill at the Awards Dinner (Photo by Bill Clemente)
Nancy, me, and Katherine Pendill at the Awards Dinner (Photo by Bill Clemente)

The last night of the conference was the Awards Banquet, a rather gala affair where writers, editors, and academics donned suits and gowns to sparkle, sip cocktails, and celebrate.

ICFA Group picture by the pool. (Photo by Bill Clemente)
ICFA Group picture by the pool. (Photo by Bill Clemente)

Following dinner, everyone moved poolside. I had spied a set of chairs around an unlit firepit earlier in the day…

The firepit in daylight.
The firepit in daylight.

My hope was to retire there after dinner if given the chance.

Around the fire (before the s'mores).
Around the fire (before the s’mores).

The server was kind enough to light the fire. I ordered a drink and was happy to sit and people-watch. Friends popped by to sit and chat, then moved on. At one point, Neil came by, and I mentioned that there was only one thing missing from a nearly perfect moment: marshmallows. (I made a mental note for next year.)

Neil went on to visit with other friends, but a few hours later he returned with friends…and marshmallows!

S'mores! (Photo by Andy Duncan)
S’mores! (Photo by Andy Duncan)

Apparently Sarah Pinborough had never had s’mores, and someone had been kind enough to run out and purchase the necessary ingredients. Sarah, Neil, Peter, Maria, Kat and others gathered around and shared the spoils.

It was the perfect way to end the evening. Marshmallows and cocktails, conversations and joyful hugs. I went to bed so full of happiness.

The next morning most people were leaving, and those of us who remained eventually met up in the lobby where we sat on laptops and phones, reconnecting with the outside world.

Until the tornado. Yes, tornado.

A few of us took refuge in the windowless inner room of the tavern restaurant, well-lit with emergency lighting even when the power went out.

In the restaurant to ride out the storm, a.k.a. "tornado bunker."
In the restaurant to ride out the storm, a.k.a. “tornado bunker.”

Liz Gorinsky, Lara Donnelly, Maria, Nancy, Sofia, Greg, and I were treated to champaign and potato chips, salad and sandwiches by the attentive servers. Dora eventually joined us, and we rode out the storm safe in our little bunker, sipping champaign by lantern-light and talking.

The tornado passed, and we disbanded to our separate flights home, dinners, and downtime. Power eventually came back on, and we came together for last time in the bar, this time joined by Jeff and Anne VanderMeer in the large booth in the back. I was excited to get the chance to leaf through Jeff’s Wonderbook. Nearly complete, it is a masterpiece in image and text about the craft of writing.

Then an early morning flight, and my first ICFA was over.

I believe in the importance of communities: creative, social, etc. We have the ability to choose our tribe, to invite into our circle people with whom we connect, people who make us laugh and inspire us to be more. When I came back to Chicago from Germany in 2009, I was hungry for a community of writers. I am so grateful to have found them.

We may not reside in the same cities or even the same countries. We may see each other in person only a few times a year, but we savor those connections. So much of our time is spent alone at our laptops or with notebooks in hand, but places like ICFA remind us that we are not alone. They allow us the time and space to reconnect with our tribe of mad creatives. It makes the tweets and emails, pictures and blog entries even more real when we know that eventually there will be hugs and champagne and sometimes even s’mores.

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In the Company of Wolves

I became involved with the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame because I believe that Chicago has an important literary legacy deserving of attention. After two induction ceremonies where we celebrated historical writers, it was time to look at the contribution of writers living and working in Chicago.

The Fuller Award (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

After some discussion, it was unanimous, and we moved forward to create a new award, the Fuller, to honor a lifetime contribution to Chicago literature. (You can read more about the significance and symbolism of the award here.)

Poster & sculpture design by M.C. Matz (

There was no question in my mind that Gene Wolfe should be the person to receive the first Fuller Award.

His work is rich, innovative fiction worthy to stand beside many of the literary giants that have shaped not only Chicago’s literature, but modern literature as a whole.

There was briefly a question of “genre writing,” but if we take a look at the literary landscape, the fantastic is an important part of it. Homer, the greatest epic poet of Ancient Greece wrote about Odysseus’ adventures among gods and men. Dante’s La Divina Commedia drew upon medieval Christian mythology in a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Shakespeare incorporated folklore and fairies into his plays. Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Oscar Wilde all introduced elements of the supernatural in their works.

Considered to be some of literature’s greatest writers, many of their stories would likely be considered Fantasy and Science Fiction by today’s genre classification. Somewhere along the way, mainstream literature became aligned with realism, but if we look back on the literary spectrum, we see that much of it is saturated with the unknown, the mysterious—the fantastic.

Gene’s work is like that—fantastic and significant.

After talking with Gene and receiving his gracious acceptance, I corresponded with Neil Gaiman. A long-time champion of Gene’s writing, he was my touchstone. After Neil, I contacted others: writers, editors, family, friends; and they responded with overwhelming enthusiasm.

Again and again they confirmed what I believed, that people love Gene Wolfe.  Upon meeting Gene, a respect for the writer and his words evolves into a genuine affection for the man.

March 17, 2012 brought us a day of unseasonably warm weather and sunshine. We headed toward Barrington Hills, stopping for a delicious lunch at the Happy Buddha; and as I looked around the table during our meal, I was once again reminded how blessed I am to have these dear friends in my life. Many of them had been up late the night before, helping me to fold, cut, paste, and package. Even friends who couldn’t attend the event had pitched in to help in during the months before the event. (Thank you!)

A few quick errands, and we arrived at the Sanfilippo Estate for final touches and setup.

I love this photo of Trillian Stars in front of one of the many steam engines on the Sanfilippo grounds. (Photo by Kyle Cassidy.)

Soon after the guests arrived, and while I waited for Neil and Maria Dahvana Headley in the Carousel Pavilion, I received texts from the folks at the house with updates on guests’ arrivals and the progress of signings and check-in.

Teri Goulding pins the boutonnière on her father, Gene Wolfe. (Photo by Carl Hertz)

Bill Shunn Michael Swanwick, and James Wynn have already posted their accounts of the evening, accompanied by photos and videos.

Lawrence Santoro signs the beautiful commemorative posters created by M.C. Matz. (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

Others will surely do the same, and in many ways their perspective is better than mine because they entered into the evening as participants, stepping into the “container” that I helped to create with the assistance of talented friends. It’s like a magic trick, best enjoyed by the audience (but savored in a different way by those who know the trick).

Terra Mysterium (photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

The afternoon was a whirlwind of rehearsals, tours, photos, and the eventual start of the ceremony.

Gary K. Wolfe (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

After Gary K. Wolfe’s inspired introduction, Neil’s reading of “A Solar Labyrinth,” and his heartfelt presentation of the Fuller, Gene took the stage.

Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

His speech was so gracious and genuine, so smart and witty—so very Gene.

Gene Wolfe (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

After Gene’s speech, I knew I could relax. I never doubted that Terra Mysterium’s performance of Gene Wolfe’s “The Toy Theater” (adapted by Lawrence Santoro) would be wonderful, and it was.

The Toy Theater, performed by Terra Mysterium (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

Once the organist R. Jelani Eddington took the stage, I slipped into the foyer where I could still hear the music.

Maria Dahvana Headley and Valya Dudycz Lupescu (Photo by Carl Hertz)

A small group of us had gathered there: Neil, Peter Straub, Carl and Mark, Audrey, Kyle, and Maria, and 8 Eyes Photography.

Neil and Valya (Photo by Carl Hertz)

Neil told me that Amanda had called at precisely the moment when one of the marionettes was singing “Coin-Operated Boy” during the audio-play. It made me smile. Neil had been such an invaluable ally, and I liked being able to slip in a little echo of Amanda into the evening; the song was a perfect addition to the story and the setting.

Neil Gaiman and Audrey Niffenegger (Photo by Carl Hertz)

So much followed, from fun photos on the grand staircase to the Great Coat Closet Party of ’12, while in the adjoining music salon Jelani played Star Wars on the 8,000-pipe Wurlitzer.

Great Coat Closet Party of ’12, (Photo by Carl Hertz)

I love this incredible circle of creative people in my life. They don’t all appear in the photos here, but I remember their contribution. I couldn’t have done it without them. The evening was proof that together we can make magic.

Kyle Cassidy, Valya Dudycz Lupescu, Trillian Stars, Peter and Beth Sagal, Neil Gaiman, Maria Dahvana Headley (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

After the performance and more photos, we moved to the magnificent Carousel Pavilion which looked so lovely lit up in antique lights. Chef Jeramie Campana of Wild Asparagus and his team treated us to a delicious meal.

(Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

Peter Sagal was the perfect toastmaster, fabricating quirky biographical anecdotes for each speaker as he introduced them.

Peter Sagal (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

Each of the Special Guests who took to the podium offered his or her own perspective on Gene and his work, beginning with Gene’s daughter, Teri Goulding, who talked about how proud her mother, Rosemary, would have been.

Therese Goulding (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

Rosemary was not well enough to attend, and her absence was felt by all who loved Gene. In my own small way I had had tried to include her by attaching a few small sprigs of rosemary to Gene’s boutonniere.

Luis Urrea (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)
Dr. Elizabeth A. Hull (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)
Jody Lynn Nye (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

Following the speeches, dinner, dessert, and cordials, Greg Leifel, the Foundation Director at Sanfilippo announced that guests could ride the antique carousel. The crowd cheered, loudly, then ran to stand in line. What followed is best expressed in a few photos:

Michael Dirda (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)
Terra Mysterium (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)
Jill Thompson, Neil Gaiman, and Kyle Cassidy (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

Joy. Wonder. You can see it reflected on their faces in photos and in this video by Bill Shunn:

That carousel evoked such a joyful response. I could think of no better way to end an evening that honored a man whose stories delight so many people. To see his face lit up, to see him so happy—it was the perfect way to close the night.

Gene Wolfe and Rebecca Bushong-Taylor (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

Maura Henn, and Kyle and Trillian, were staying with us, and some of the guests met us back at our home. Joined by Peter Straub, Gary K. Wolfe and Stacie Hanes, Jennifer Stevenson, and others, we had cocktails, wine, and cheese, and sat around the living room relaxing in various stages of exhaustion and inspiration.

Then it was over.

When the house was quiet, Kyle, Maura, and Mark chatted while I fell asleep on the couch. In the morning it was like a fantastic dream.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting photos from the evening. Slowly they have begun to appear online.

(Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)
Maura Henn, Maria Dahvana Headley, Valya Dudycz Lupescu, Trillian Stars (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

The photos help to make it more concrete, just as writing this blog entry helps to tether it to reality, as if written words can keep An Evening to Honor Gene Wolfe from drifting off into that nebulous realm of dreams and memories.

In life, we are lucky to meet people who inspire us. Sometimes we encounter them through their work—stories and images that strike a chord. Sometimes we are lucky enough to have them for friends. This weekend was filled with both.

Valya Dudycz Lupescu, Gene Wolfe, Walter Dudycz (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

Thank you to everyone who helped to make it happen.

More pictures from the evening can be found at: 8 Eyes Photography

And more accounts of the evening by:

William Shunn

Michael Swanwick

Magic and Mischief

Trillian Stars