HAVE YOU EVER STURDLED AN ARMADILLO?
Austin bat, as opposed to...
The Associated Writers Program Conference is where I finally realized I need a break. Not a break from travel but a break from meeting people and always being “on”. I’d come to Austin after having spent a lot of time promoting City of Saints and Shriek, and just generally doing a lot of PR and making a lot of contacts. All of which I love to do—it really is fun on some level. But when I got to Austin I realized I couldn’t go from doing that 24-7 to being on the road and doing it 24-7 as well. (The flight to Texas was hellish--turbulence the whole way and people throwing up in the bathroom and the wings waggling a bit too much even during touch-down.)
So I went AWOL a lot while in Austin. (I also missed Ann, who couldn’t come with me.) I had a lot of great conversations with some great people, fulfilled all my obligations, and got a lot of value from the conference. But I also spent part of two afternoons walking along the river path—a wonderful green area stretching for miles, with ducks and swans and interesting people all along the way. It was a great stress reliever, along with finding time to use the weight room. (One odd note: lower humidity than Florida but I have to say, I sweated more in Texas than I can remember sweating anywhere. It was ridiculous.)
I also went off with my old friend Tom Winstead (who used to be my partner at the Ministry) and his wife Marty a couple of times—once to visit Mike Moorcock and then have fish tacos and beer, and another time to the fabled Salt Lick. The Salt Lick was literally in the middle of nowhere, about 20 miles outside of Austin. It’s a famous Texas barbecue place, with a parking lot that can, and needs to, fit hundreds of cars.
Oddly enough, a pagoda-style Hindu temple and compound had been built on the other side of the road just a fourth mile from the Salt Lick. Marty had warned me it could be disconcerting, but nothing prepared me for seeing it over the rise of a hill. “Oh my gawd,” I said with a quick intake of breath. Other anomalies: the road into the commune was lined with what looked like faux Victorian street lamps. The filigreed gate didn’t match the pagoda or the peacocks wandering around all over.
Matt Cheney and I had lunch with Eric Marin from Lone Star Stories and the writer Rick Whitten-Klaw, who works at Half-Price Books. (Rick recently wrote an article about his grandfather and his relationship to Betty Page.) I didn’t know what to expect from the outside, since it looked like it might only deal in remainders, but they had an excellent rare book room as well as plentiful and eccentric non-rare stock, and we had a pleasant lunch at a Thai place right next store. I resisted buying any books, though, since there are a thousand and one things Ann and I are saving for this year…and besides, the World Fantasy Award books are just beginning to pile up like driftwood after a hurricane.
That night was the reading at BookPeople and I was really excited. Reading with Moorcock, Kelly Link, Gavin Grant, Brian Evenson, and Matt Cheney was pure pleasure. Not to mention I got to meet Peggy Hailey, who was really nice. (Peggy and Rick are editors for Revolution SF.) I read a fun bit from Shriek, a piece of my story in ParaSpheres, and closed with a funny font note from City of Saints. It went really well. Everyone did a great job, but I think it was Matt, reading a new story, who really caught my attention. I was also quite embarrassed when I realized my drinking of a large chai not only necessitated a quick exit for a moment toward the end of the Link reading but also had given me those just wonderfully annoying burp hiccups when air bubbles collect in your throat (despite having to stifle the hiccups, I think, frankly, that I killed).
The event had been set up to feature ParaSpheres, a new cross-genre anthology from Omnidawn Press that I recommend highly. It’s 600 plus pages of high quality original and reprint material by an amazingly impressive bunch of names. You can buy it here. Ken and Rusty from Omnidawn were on hand to preside over the reading and also had a booth at the book fair, where I also hung out at off and on throughout the conference.
Afterwards, Ken and Rusty took us all out to a great restaurant and we proceeded to sample the local beer and have a great time talking about a variety of different subjects, including but not limited to, cats on leashes, cats not liking travel, the political situation, small press feuds, writer workshops, etc. But my favorite moment was when Kelly Link turned to me after dinner and asked, “Have you ever sturdled an armadillo?” Various visions of what “sturdled” could mean raced through my head—from the obscene to the simply gustatory. “No, I haven’t,” I said, probably with a look of alarm on my face. Not to worry, though, the word in question was “startled.” (And I still had not—although I was able to impart the information that armadillos can bloat up with air and then float across bodies of water, such as rivers.) I much prefer the question with “sturdled,” however.
The next day, Friday, Tom and I headed over to Moorcock’s place and spent a relaxing four or five hours having lunch and shooting the breeze with Mike and his wife Linda. The house is a historical building with a plaque and everything, and I was much dismayed when, after knocking on the front door and not getting a reply, I turned the doorknob and it came off in my hand!!!! At the same time, I heard Mike saying from behind the door, “We don’t open this one much—it’ll be easier if you come around the side.” Imagine my dual horror and relief. I’d just contributed to the decline of a historical building but I had time now to reattach the damn thing so Moorcock’s first view of me wouldn’t be one with me holding his doorknob in my hand. That accomplished, we went around to the side and proceeded to have a great afternoon.
Saturday was the nonrealist fiction panel, which I thought went great, and which I videotaped. My favorite presentation—just from its careful layering—was by Laird Hunt, whose books I must now pick up. But all of the panelists—also Link, Evenson, myself, and Cheney—did an excellent job. I was most struck by the subset of each presentation that overlapped the others, because no one said these same things the same way, and in the different ways these similar things were said, they became quite different, and you could see different parts of the audience reacting with more or less enthusiasm based on that fact. I think Matt may post part of Laird’s presentation, and talk about it further, so I will just direct you to that link when it becomes available. My own presentation was created specifically for speech-ifying and thus, as a bunch of talking points and bullet points, is not really right to reproduce here.
I was sharing a room with Matt (who could never quite get the soft-hard feature on his auto bed right, but that was his problem, not mine) and Saturday night we had dinner in a little local restaurant (which, ironically enough, had some of the worst live music I’ve ever heard) and then wandered around the capital building, the fabled party-atmosphere Sixth Street, and then stayed up talking and drinking (at which point, around 12:30 in the morning, I interviewed Matt for the documentary I’m doing—surprisingly coherent, I must say). That was a lot of fun.
As for the conference, I have mixed feelings about it. I loved talking to the people I met—like my fellow panelists and Richard Nash at Soft Skull Press and Allan Kornblum, the very knowledgeable founder of Coffee House Press, among many others—but just from the descriptions in the AWP Conference Program Book, I felt that some of the panels were trying too hard. There seemed to be a lot of extraneous bullshit that was just about filling another hour of time. That said, it was a huge conference and there were lots of great panels. I just didn’t feel like making the effort, which is more of a reflection on me than anything else. As you can tell from Matt Cheney’s blog there were definitely panels worth going to. And if you are a mainstream literary publisher—a university press, an indie press—it’s a conference you really much go to. I’m sure that Small Beer picked up a ton of contacts relevant to books they’re publishing this year, such as the Alan DeNiro. I got a lot of out of it too—interviewing several key people and getting some valuable insight into things related to my own efforts this year. But I’m not sure if I’ll go back next year or not. It’s a feather in one’s cap to say you’re a presenter at AWP, but, on the other hand, there were a good thousand of us presenting, so…
However, one thing I know for sure: I love Austin. Absolutely love it. It reminds me in climate, temperament, size, and culturally very much of all the best of Brisbane, Australia, one of our favorite cities. And it too has a river running through it. Except, their bats are much smaller than Brisbane's. They've got to work on bat size in Austin...