A couple of weeks ago Kelley and I flew to Florida, for two reasons. One, to see Kelley’s family in Stuart (recently voted the Number 1 Small Town to Retire To in America). Two, to see many old friends in Orlando at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts.
The visit with Kelley’s family was lovely—but I’ll let Kelley talk about that as and when she wants to. The travel itself is a whole other story, one I’ll be addressing in a separate post. What I’ll focus on here is ICFA, both my history with the conference and our experience of ICFA43.
I went to my very first ICFA in 1993. Or maybe it was 1994. Either way it was after Ammonite came out but before Slow River. My publisher, Del Rey, suggested I go—and even paid for it.1 Ammonite had won the Lambda Literary Award, was the runner-up for the Locus First Novel Award, had won the Tiptree (now Otherwise), been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA and others. In other words, although in early 90s Kelley and I were new writers with between us only a handful of short stories and a single novel, a few people at that first ICFA had already met us in person—Gordon Van Gelder, Ellen Datlow, Chip Delany, Brian Aldiss, and others—or, for a variety of reasons, knew of us.2 But most of the 300 or so attendees (then, as now, it was a small conference) were as new to us as we were to them.
I had a wonderful time. I gave a reading and was on a panel and spent many, many hours by the pool with a drink or in the hotel bar but, better, met many people who I still know and like today—academics, critics, writers, editors, and publishers—and, best of all, many people like me who do a bit of everything. As soon as Kelley and I were back in Atlanta, we decided we would go to the next one. We registered. Booked the hotel.3 Made arrangements for dinners and drinks with various people—even agreed to present someone else’s paper for them (she had a terrible fear of public speaking).
It never happened: that year I was ill. The next year we moved to Seattle. The year after that I was invited to something that clashed with the conference. The year after that, The Blue Place came out and I was busy travelling for that. And on and on. The conference moved from Ft. Lauderdale to Orlando. I would meet some of those we’d met i 1993/4 at other conventions and conferences and parties. We would talk about ICFA, I would get invited, I would want to go—but I was either too ill, or too busy, or too broke, or in another country.
Finally, in 2019 the planets aligned: we had the time, the money, and the energy to go. We registered. Signed up for a reading. Booked the hotel and flights… And my father died. We cancelled everything and flew to the UK.
But by now I was determined. So we registered, booked, arranged meetings—business and social—for the following March… And the pandemic happened. Kelley and I cancelled in February (I knew it was far too risky to be travelling) and the conference committee cancelled the thing as a whole just days before it was due to open. The 2021 conference was all virtual—I attended and did a reading from Spear—and just not the same. And then in September/October, the IAFA held a mini-ICFA: just 45 people and single-track programming. Kelley and I were vaxxed and boosted, Covid numbers were low, mask mandates and testing were in place, the Delta variant was in retreat, and we hadn’t been anywhere or seen anyone for two years. Also, it was a chance to see her family for the first time in nearly 3years. We went.
Out of those 45 or so people registered for the conference, at least 10 were old friends. We had a marvellous time. The weather was glorious; we spent a lot of time sitting out by the lake watching alligators and ibis and lizards. We went to a wonderful seafood restaurant one night, an okay-but-expensive restaurant two other nights, and ate edible food in the hotel the rest of the time—but fortunately we weren’t really there for the food. I convened and moderated the opening panel, with Maria Dahvana Headley and Gary Wolfe, on Once and Future Representation: how Arthurian legend is being repurposed to reflect us all. Mark, the book liaison, attended that panel—actually, I think everyone did—and was jazzed about Spear. Did I want it to be the featured book for the full-sized conference in 2022? There was one condition: I would, of course, have to attend…
I think I frightened him with the speed and ferocity of my acceptance.
In the years since we first attended, ICFA has grown considerably. Now there are multiple tracks, and too many attendees for any one to give more than one presentation—unless you’re the Scholar or Artist Guest of Honour. When you register you have to choose whether to do so as a Creative or a Scholar. In 2019 I had dithered—my PhD was fairly new, and I had an idea for a paper on legend and climate change—before finally deciding to read from So Lucky (which of course I never got to do because I was at my father’s funeral in the UK). But for 2022 it was a no-brainer: read from Spear, because just a month later it would hit the shelves.
The 2022 Artist GoH was to be Nisi Shawl—a friend from Seattle who we hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. The Scholar GoH was Farah Mendlesohn—also a friend, and my PhD supervisor, and her husband Edward James is a fantastic historian whose brains I always like to pick. And of those writers attending, Kelley and I either knew well—some were our former students now teachers themselves, some we had known for over 30 years!—or knew of and wanted to meet, everyone single one of them. I knew all the editors and critics (I think) and a good percentage of the academics, and was absolutely itching to meet a score of the others. So I was pretty sure we were going to have a good time.
Reader, we had a great time. It felt like coming home.
I attended a few programme items but sadly most of the things I would have attended if I could were scheduled opposite other things (there was one time slot where 3 of the things I desperately wanted to see were at the same time on different tracks, tuh) but mostly I just hung out and ate and drank and talked. So much drinking, so much talking! The last night, Saturday, I finally paid the bar bill a little before 2 am, got to sleep about 3, and then had to be up early to pack, then go to a group breakfast, then do a video interview before getting on a plane. I was so tired at breakfast that it took me about fifteen minutes to string a coherent sentence together, but then the breakfast—with ten people—turned into one of those magical I-love-talking-to-those-I-know-and-I’m-so-glad-I-got-to-meet-the-others meals I would not have missed for the world. So it was worth getting only fours hours sleep.
ICFA truly is a community: generous, collegial, smart, interesting, and relaxed. If you like socialising and you like long conversations about the fantastic over a drink, I urge you to go. It is not cheap; you might have to save up and budget carefully, but if it’s at all within your range it will be worth it. I feel a great sense of belonging. I’m certainly planning to be there next year. And from now on I’ll be going as often as I can.
There’s some talk about moving the conference to a more politically hospitable state—somewhere without anti-trans and anti-queer and anti-abortion laws on the books. I would love that to be somewhere in the Pacific time zone—much easier for us to get to.4 In practise I assume that what that will mean is Las Vegas, because anywhere warm and sunny actually on the coast will be too expensive, and places like Portland and Seattle a) don’t always have direct flights from other cities, and b) are not warm and sunny—a great draw in March for those of us from northerly latitudes. You can get from anywhere to Las Vegas, and in March it’s dry and sunny but not too insanely hot. My guess, though, is that move won’t happen immediately. Right now I’m assuming next year will be in Florida—and, hey, it will be another opportunity to combine family and friends in one trip.
And if you attend, you’ll probably hear me read from MENEWOOD…
1 If Del Rey hadn’t paid we could not have afforded the flight or hotel or time off. I was on the kind of visa that did not permit paid employment, and I could not get health insurance—these were the days before domestic partnership, before marriage equality—so we were paying my considerable medical expenses out of pocket from Kelley’s small salary. We were young, had just used our very last reserves to buy a house, and were living pay cheque to pay cheque.
2 But that’s a story for another time, and preferably over a beer or three, nothing is written down, and I have complete deniability.
3 By this time I’d been paid for Slow River and things were looking good financially—good enough to be wroth taking a risk.
4 I love Seattle but it’s a crap city to travel to and from. Particularly if you’re in a wheelchair and every time you change planes there’s the risk your wheelchair will be lost or broken—but that will be one of the things I talk about in more depth in another post.