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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
The rest of the weekend followed in a happy blur of luncheon talks, panels and readings, poolside introductions, and late-night bar conversations.
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.
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.
Following dinner, everyone moved poolside. I had spied a set of chairs around an unlit firepit earlier in the day...
My hope was to retire there after dinner if given the chance.
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!
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.
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.