Conestoga 9 – Tulsa, OK, July 15 – 17: George R.R. Martin, Guest of Honor
I had always envisioned Oklahoma as a fertile patch on the geographic expanse known to most as The Great Plains, commemorated in songs. They don’t tell you though that a walk through the “rippling fields of grain” is really a phobic’s worst nightmare in the making – that swarms of locusts hopping on you make for great memories. They don’t tell you that the when the “wind comes sweeping down the plain”, they mean wear a back brace, forget the hair and just be lucky your head isn’t permanently attached at that awkward angle.
This is Oklahoma. Tried and true. Land of The Beeves. And….where I live, Land of the Toothless Wonders. But, a fantasy fiction Mecca as well?? I thought surely not. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
When news came to me of the Conestoga 9 Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature Con being held in Tulsa, I must have read that web page over 3 or 4 times, until it finally sunk in – a con here in Beefland and what’s more – George R.R. Martin making an appearance in a town one hour away from me?! I had to go.
For those of you who don’t know who George R.R. Martin is (shame on you!), he is the author of A Song of Ice and Fire (ASoIaF), an extraordinary tale of medieval history, involving the lives and loves of royal families in the world of Westeros. It encompasses 3 books, A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, with the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, scheduled to come out around November 8th. Martin has written a variety of other novels, novellas and short stories as well, both in the fantasy, science fiction and horror genres.
What follows are my impressions of the 3 days – conversations, pictures, panel discussions, and the like. While I’ve tried to remain objective, I’ve discovered that’s near impossible, as I am, first and foremost, a fan. I hope you enjoy it.
July 15th, Friday – Opening Ceremonies and Dinner
Opening ceremonies began at 6 pm. Armed with copies of ASoIaF for signings and a private dinner invitation with Martin (courtesy of my so-called “SP Reporter” status – they didn’t really ask what SP was), I hopped in the car and drove an hour to Tulsa’s Sheraton Hotel, arriving at about 5 pm. Walking through those front doors, I was in no way prepared for the experience that lay beyond or the culture that I was about to be introduced to – the “con” people. I registered, hung the plastic badge around my neck and investigated a bit. Walking down the hallways, I saw a variety of sights, from clusters of knights and mages exchanging pleasantries, to falcons resting on the arms of their owners. Peeking in a few doors, I could see there were various sessions going on in many of the rooms, but being somewhat timid at interrupting the sessions, I made my way to the Dealer’s Room. As you entered, table upon table were filled with paperbacks and hardcovers, with bookshelves lining the aisles. A wide assortment of novels were on display, from authors like Pratchett to Eddings to King. Towards the back of the room were tables displaying all sorts of vendor wares – from chess pieces to bookends to swords and axes. The guys from Red Griffin Productions were very helpful in explaining many of the con activities, plus they had some pretty cool outfits I thought….and some magnificent swords.
After making the rounds, I headed back down the hallway, dodging dogs, falcons, ferrets and cats, when suddenly one of the doors on my left swung open and I got a glimpse of a panel of speakers. One was standing – and as he looked out the door, I found myself looking straight into the grinning face of George R.R. Martin. With only a moment’s hesitation, I darted in and found a chair off the side and tried to catch the last 15 minutes of a panel discussion revolving around Meisha Merlin Publishing – the problems they experienced with trying to work with authors and artists. Martin gave his perspective on the difficulties and advantages of working with different publishers and mentioned that he had some problems with book cover and illustration artists not meeting their deadlines, and causing delays in his schedule. I mentioned that I enjoyed the maps most of all – that I liked keeping pace with a story’s plot, by tracing locations of events and travel. He mentioned that maps weren’t that big of a deal for him, but that he recognized that his readers enjoyed them. As the last 15 minutes of Q&A came to a close, the con administrators came in and shooed us out so that they could get the room ready for Opening Ceremony festivities. After wandering around a bit and chatting with some friendly people, we reassembled back in Salon E for one of the funniest ceremonies I’d every witnessed. The room was packed – I stood in the back against the wall so I could see everything – and it was at that moment, that I knew my Minolta camera’s flash was failing. I had been having trouble with the flash previously and did bring a cheap disposable backup camera – but was hoping I wouldn’t have to use it. Unfortunately, the room was quite dark – so I apologize for the quality of these pics – all pretty much grainy and out of focus. Anyway, Bradley Denton, author, editor and Toastmaster for this conference, was outstanding and so funny, many of us were doubled up with laughter. The panel was composed of Martin, Brad Foster, the Artist Guest of Honor and a few Fan Guests of Honor. Martin is seated second in from the left.
It was during this ceremony, that Denton explained what the Conestoga 9 was really all about. I thought it was a fan based conference – for the fans, by the fans. But as I slowly looked around, I realized that I wasn’t surrounded by fans per se – I was surrounded by authors – some very famous authors. This conference was indeed put on by fans, but most definitely geared towards the hosting of science fiction and fantasy authors from around the world. The panel sessions offered by these authors were on a wide variety of topics – writing techniques, writing across genres, legal issues of concern to writers, pros and cons of writing a series, to name a few – all of which were presented in a workshop setting for the benefit of fledgling and experience writers alike. While I did find much to keep me busy, I was surprised to find that particular theme prevalent throughout the con.
After the ceremonies were concluded, about 20 of us met at the Regency Room for dinner – a small, rather intimate room with round tables seating about 5 persons at each. After some great conversation and the serving of dinner, Martin rose from his seat and spoke a bit about the writing of ASoIaF. He told us that the story didn’t always flow that easily for him and that some characters were more difficult for him to write than others. He also noted that he writes the story in character blocks – perhaps he feels like writing about Jon Snow one day or Tyrion Lannister the next. He sees it not so much as an historical progression of facts, but as a character development – which is clearly how he’s writing it….and I believe, why his books are so good. The character’s fairly jump out at you from the pages. He told us that his favorite character to write about is Tyrion and that he sees much of himself in him….that he identifies most with this character than any other.
Almost inevitably, a few guests asked about the rationale behind the split of A Feast For Crows (the next book due for US release on November 8th) into 2 books: A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. In response, Martin noted that his publisher refused to publish a volume with 2,000 or so pages, citing binding issues, and informed him that he would either have to cut some text or settle for the 2 book approach. Obviously, the latter was the only workable solution. Given that, Martin could have split the book into Feast 1 and Feast 2, but decided against that approach and preferred writing the two books in parallel, covering concurrent time periods, splitting the characters between the two. He noted that Feast would be coming out on November 8th in the US and that he had only 500 pages left to complete A Dance with Dragons. (There was much joy and toasting in that little room at this news.) After a few more questions Martin sat back down and we all took turns going up to congratulate him, shaking hands and chit chatting with him a bit. All in all, it was a most wonderful evening – one that I certainly won’t forget anytime soon.
July 16th, Saturday – Martin’s Interview with Dr. Eldevik
Saturday was jam packed with events….sessions with titles such as “No Elves: Fantasy Without Tolkien” and “Death of Star Trek/End of Star Wars”, to name a few. But I chose to attend the Guest of Honor interview of course – thinking that it would be a great opportunity to hear more about A Feast for Crows and hopefully present another chance to ask some questions of Martin. I was sadly mistaken.
The interview started off well, with Dr. Randi Eldevik asking questions about his older works – his science fiction short stories such as The Second Kind of Loneliness, The Hero, With Morning Comes Mistfall and The Sandkings, among others. However, somewhere along the line Dr. Eldevik started asking about Martin’s naming conventions in ASoIaF, inquiring where some of the character names came from and noting that they were not following the medieval naming conventions that should be correlated with the story. This dialogue went on for some minutes, with her pressing Martin to the point of irritation, where she crossed the line of interviewer to that of interrogator. In many instances, Martin had his mouth open for quite a few seconds trying to respond, yet she wouldn’t let him get a word in edgewise and continued her berating fixation on this topic. In the end, as people were sighing and fidgeting, Martin finally was able to cut in and state that most of his readers read English and that there was nothing wrong with using English names in his books.
Now granted, Dr. Eldevik may have a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard and be a specialist on languages and literature of the Middle Ages, but that gives her no license, in my book, to put on an exhibition the likes of what we saw – purely an exercise in rudeness and a total lack of concern or consideration for her audience. The sighs were quite loud by the time Martin silenced her and as we were filing out of the room, I heard one fan who was standing next to me yell Who the f*** cares about NAMES??? This interview was supposed to be for the FANS.” – and he said it more than loud enough to be heard by Martin and Eldevik, both of whom were still up on the podium. Anyways, here’s her take on what happened.
Immediately after the interview ended, we were ushered to the very long book signing line, where I had a chance to chat with a few people about Martin’s works, many of us debating what will happen in A Feast for Crows – who will die, who will live. Some people had brought stacks of books for signature; I only brought two. We found out that the limit was three, but for those people that brought half their libraries, they could still get them all signed – just three at a time, returning to the back of the line for the rest. Martin was very gracious and had a smile and a few words for each fan.
July 17th, Sunday – Martin’s Reading from A Feast for Crows
I returned on Sunday, primarily for this reading. For one hour, I sat, along with about 50 other people, utterly spellbound, as Martin read a chapter from A Feast for Crows. It was the piece where Jon sends his friend Samwell away from the Wall for his own and others’ protection. Martin’s voice, his various inflections and accents for all the characters, was superb – it was as if you were standing in the deep shadow of the Wall, feeling the bitter cold seep through your boots and the snow crunch down into depressions with every footfall. I could hear the horses snuffling in the cold and could see them shifting their weight from hoof to hoof, their tack softly clinking, their breath drifting up in wispy clouds as Jon and Sam said their goodbyes. You could not hear a sound in that room though, except for Martin’s resonant voice – I looked around and saw people sitting motionless, entranced with every word. There was magic in that room that day.
My decision to attend the Conestoga 9 conference was rooted in one motivation: to meet George R.R. Martin….and that I did. A genius of a man, as colorful as his outlandish characters with a wonderful raucous sense of humor that would make little old ladies pale, I found Martin to be warm and gracious, yet still have the wherewithal to set people like Dr. Eldevik in their place when needed. He mentioned repeatedly that his fans meant the world to him and I could see that they did. He always took the time to stop and chat with people – even when he was clearly tired. But it made no difference – he truly adores his fans.
The Conestoga 9 experience was something very different for me. I had no idea about the “con” cultures and the groups that frequent these conventions. There are very close networks of people throughout the world that travel from con to con, holding parties in the convention hotels, with authors making the rounds every night, visiting with old friends and well known fans. Martin had mentioned these parties to me and commented on how much fun they are – but until then I had no idea that a subculture such as this even existed. What an eye opener….and a very pleasant surprise. I wonder if they can stand the inclusion of one windblown Oklahoman to their group? I sure hope so. Either way, the next major World Con will be in LA next summer. I intend to be there. Until then…..