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Once and Future Con

WFC: author signing
Virtually all of the writers and artists attending the 25th World Fantasy Con signed autographs in the ballroom of Providence's Westin Hotel for two hours Friday night, November 6. (All photos by Donna Andrews)

The sound smacked you in the face as soon as you took your first step down the stairway into the basement room of Providence's Trinity Brewhouse. Another step down, and you started taking body blows. The sustained warble of forced laughter shrilled over the throbbing bass of a dozen impassioned declarations and the brief grace notes of clinking beer glasses. 

Holding court between a pair of murals depicting mad brewmasters, Avon Books publicist Andy Heidel regarded the stampede towards the spanakopita and smoked salmon with the same, almost benign smile as the velociraptor mounted over the stairs. Schools of writers and editors, agents and artists shifted left or right, packed too tight to breathe, much less wriggle free. But nothing could stop them from talking -- or eating. 

"Avon always has the hottest parties around," Heidel said. "At the San Antonio World Fantasy Con, the air-conditioning broke, and the temperature reached a hundred degrees." 

"Yeah, but they had great shirts," piped someone from the crowd. 

Welcome to the World Fantasy Convention (WFC), held this year in Providence, R. I., November 4-7. People in the book business call WFC "the professional con," where stars and would-be stars of fantasy, science fiction and horror come to connect with the editors, publishers and agents who can make or break careers. Where other con organizers like Ed Kramer of DragonCon or Lance Ozsko of of Eurocon 2000 come to solicit guests and memberships for their respective events. Or perhaps, to gain pointers for future World Fantasy Con bids. 

A floating con like the mystery genre's Bouchercon and the annual Romance Writers of America (RWA) conference, WFC's awards and panels share similar prestige. But unlike many entertainment-related events, World Fantasy Cons advertise little and strictly limit attendance. 

WFC: Lynn Flewelling & Kim Headlee
In her panel Lynn Flewelling (left), author of the Nightrunner Series, discussed the role of maps in setting the scene for high fantasy. When asked for a closing remark for "The Heroine's Journey," Dawnflight author Kim Headlee said, "Buy my book," and brought the house down.

WFC organizers assume attending professionals will outnumber fans and that most attending fans seek to lose their amateur status as quickly as possible. Writers or artists moderate panels that typically include as many editors and publishers as they do writers or artists.  

Panels can run until after midnight. Some doggedly pursue themes indistinguishable from college lit courses -- "The Evolution of Published Short Fantasy" and "The Heroine's Journey," for example.  

WFC: Janny Wurt
In addition to commissions, writer/artist Janny Wurt paints the covers for her novels, including the most recent, Grand Conspiracy.

But with relatively few, relatively experienced fans, most of whom already know the guests' stock stories, panels tend to mutate like the creations of Providence son H. P. Lovecraft. A panel on the merging of literature and art featuring, among others, artists Jill Bauman and Don Maitz quickly evolved into a spirited session on what writers should do to get better covers, led from the audience by Maitz's wife, writer/artist Janny Wurts .

Art and literature closely linked 

Words and pictures work together in fantasy and science fiction. Perhaps more than in any other genre, people do judge science fiction, fantasy and horror books by their covers. Bauman recalled a nervous new writer calling her cover "the face of my book." 

David Marshall of Britain's Pumpkin Books agreed. "The single most important marketing tool for any book is the cover. You should always ask for a consultation on the cover in your contract," he noted in a panel on marketing horror fiction, echoing advice heard in nearly session. 

As a result, science fiction and fantasy cons celebrate genre artists, collaborating with professional organizations like the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists to stage large art shows and sales. In Providence, three bays of steel tubing and pegboard turned an anonymous hall of the convention center into a preview of the museums of the 22nd century. 

WFC: Diane and Leo Dillon
World Fantasy Con Artist Guests of Honor Diane and Leo Dillon sign books following the Fantasy Art panel November 7. The Dillons' art graces works ranging from Aida to World's End.

Fans and artists called this year's WFC show particularly choice. Nearly all the major names in fantasy art -- from Bauman to WFC guests of honor Diane and Leo Dillon, to Bob Eggleton, to Maitz, to this year's World Fantasy Award winner Charles Vess, to Ron Walotsky, Michael Whelan, Wurts, Stephen Youll, and too many more to list -- displayed their treasures like exotic birds attempting to attract a mate. In response, publishers and art directors whispered offers on the mezzanine or used the din of the publisher parties to cover their deals. 

But the real winners may have been the "pre-published" artists who scoped out the techniques of the masters up close and personal. Favored too were the fans, who might not recognize the artists' names but certainly knew the pictures. A stroll down the bays became an ambulatory retrospective of the classics, from Isaac Asimov to Roger Zelazny, speeding from Arrakis to Pern and points beyond at the speed of sight. 

A Dearth of Monsters 

Despite the much-advertised connection between this WFC's location and Lovecraft, the only thing remotely monstrous about the occasion was the unexpected convergence of con and parents day at a local college. Area restaurants couldn't cope, leaving some con-goers to forage in the unusually generous con hospitality suite. 

WFC: Josepha Sherman and Esther Friesner
Josepha Sherman (left) and Esther Friesner signaled the end to Friday night's autograph session by forming a conga line out the door.

The "con people" who opted to wait in the two- and three-hour lines for restaurant tables proved indistinguishable from the "university folk," even to hotel restaurant managers who thought they could tell them apart. Blue jeans and windbreakers differentiated the more casually dressed writers and artists from editors, agents and publishing staff in sport coats and ties, but not from harried parents.  

The few attending Goths blended seamlessly into the various student bodies. You needed to listen closely to realize they were talking about writer Laurell K. Hamilton's morning reading instead of the latest episode of The X-Files or Roswell

Not-So-Fast Forward 

As befits a major conference on the eve of the millennium, attendees spent a great deal of time discussing "whither fantasy." But few could agree on current trends, much less commit to futures they could not control. 

"Fantasy vastly outsells science fiction, and that's different from the past," artist/writer Vincent Di Fate noted in a November 7 fantasy art panel.

"What is outselling science fiction is genre fantasy," objected Paper Tiger editor Paul Barnett, who later described "genre fantasy" as standard (or classic, depending on your perspective) tales of quests and rebellions. "Cutting edge fantasy probably sells less than genre science fiction," Barnett added. 

WFC: Charles de Lint
World Fantasy Con Guest of Honor Charles de Lint signs autographs following a panel on the workings of fictional magic November 6.

Editors and agents felt more comfortable with the notion that horror was making a comeback. "Now there is something to that," Penguin Putnam Senior Executive Editor Ginjer Buchanan said. "We've been hearing rumblings from our sales force for two or three years. People are interested in horror again -- not necessarily at the level of the Eighties, though. That's why we're testing the waters with the Poltergeist: the Legacy [television series tie-in] books."  

Some writers fretted that the current generation of editors and marketing directors would repeat the demand-and-glut mistakes of their Eighties' predecessors. But Buchanan noted that the certain types of dark fiction never stopped selling. "Vampires never went away," she said, though she conceded the short story market for vampires and other archetypal figures remained spare. 

Much more intriguing to Buchanan, however, were the ways a new wave of writers and television producers found to reinvigorate fantasy and horror for younger audiences.  

WFC: Samuel Delaney
Science fiction legend and World Fantasy Con Special Guest Samuel Delaney uses sword and sorcery as a medium for social satire.

"People will always be interested in vampires, but it's not something that speaks to young people," Buchanan said. "That's what [Buffy, the Vampire Slayer creator and producer] Joss Whedon did so brilliantly. The concerns of vampires are not the concerns of young people. All that repressed sexuality -- kids today are not repressed. 

"It's like [the television series] Highlander. I did a Highlander tie-in book [White Silence], but the issues are not young people's issues. Immortality? They all think they're immortal." 

Buchanan also foresees light-hearted, young adult adventures getting a shot in the arm from J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. "Harry Potter is a phenomenon, and a phenomenon always has coattails. There were techno-thrillers before Tom Clancy, but he brought in a number of people like Stephen Coonts. There were legal thrillers before Scott Turow, some of them more significant in terms of literature, but [Turow] defined the genre. And one of the people who succeeded him surpassed him in terms of fame and sales -- John Grisham." 

Looking back over four days of panels and conversations with writers at all levels of skill and fame, one couldn't help but wonder who would become the next shining star. And what he or she brought away from World Fantasy Con 1999. 

Jean Marie Ward 

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