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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Honoring Gene Wolfe

Last weekend I sent out the first announcements about the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame’s Evening to Honor Gene Wolfe. I haven’t been this excited about an event since my book launch last October.

There’s a question often asked at parties and dinners long before it became popular as an internet meme:

“Whom would you invite to your dream dinner party?”

Sometimes the question is posed to allow for historical figures. Other times it includes fictional characters. Sometimes it’s limited to only five people, or to a single category like authors or musicians, comic book characters or holy people. The premise is basically the same: given the opportunity, what interesting people would you choose to invite to a party?

An Evening to Honor Gene Wolfe is a bit like my dream dinner party: Gene Wolfe, Neil Gaiman, Gary K. Wolfe, Peter Straub, Michael Dirda, Audrey Niffenegger, Michael Swanwick, David Hartwell, Luis Urrea,  Jody Lynn Nye, Patrick O’Leary, and Larry Santoro (plus there are more to be announced soon).


These intelligent, creative, and talented people are gathering at the fantastic Sanfilippo Estate to honor the incredible storyteller and talented writer, Gene Wolfe. Most famous for his epic series The Book of the New Sun, Gene’s writing is smart, beautiful, and stretches beyond the limitations of genre to create unforgettable characters and provocative stories.

“Wolfe is a writer for the thinking reader; he will reward anyone searching for intelligence, crafted prose, involving stories, and atmospheric detail. He is the heir of many literary traditions—pulp stories, fantasy, adventure stories of all kinds, and serious literature—and he makes use of all of them.” ~Pamela Sargent, Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers

Alongside our guests, characters from Gene’s short stories in their Steampunk finest will peruse Sanfilippo’s collections of antique music boxes and gambling machines, Tiffany lamps and phonographs, 65 coin-operated pianos and a street clock that stands 20 feet tall. Not to mention a 1881 Grant Steam Locomotive.

It’s a fitting backdrop for a wonder-filled evening.

Did I mention it’s a dinner party with many of my favorite people?

That means you are invited. Hope to see you in the shadow of the 1890 European Eden Palais Carousel.

Register for An Evening to Honor Gene Wolfe at the Sanfilippo Estate in Barrington Hills, IL  on Eventbrite