This last Saturday (October 10, 2009) I was a guest, along with my friend Bob Salvatore, at the Wordstock festival in Portland, Oregon. This was my first Wordstock, and though I’ve attended different sorts of conventions, book fairs, and conferences before, I have to admit I hadn’t heard of Wordstock until we were invited, several months ago. It was presented to me pretty much like this: “Do you want to go down to Portland one weekend in October and do some kind of event with Bob?”

“Sure,” I agreed, “why not?”

Then as the event got closer I started getting busier at work, farther behind on The Fantasy Author’s Handbook, and started regretting agreeing to go. I’ve always been a little on the shy side—you could call it Social Anxiety if you want to over-aggrandize it—and the closer it got to the day of the event, the whining began in earnest.

Finally it worked out that I would fly into Portland from Seattle on Saturday morning (an adventure in itself, in my first ever flight on a prop-driven commuter plane) get there pretty much just in time to check in, do the event with Bob and a signing after, have dinner with Bob, his wife Diane (who travels with him to conventions and signing tours), and our publicist, Sara Easterly, spend one night in a Portland hotel, then back on the little plane to Seattle.

Okay, I could force myself to do that.

The moment I walked into the convention center in Portland I wished I’d let them fly me in on Friday and out Monday morning so I wouldn’t miss so much of this outstanding event. I freely admit that I’m one of those people who always thinks he’s going to hate everything then leaves giddily surprised by how much fun I had. It’s sad, really. I’m pathologically unable to look forward to anything. Probably nothing thirty years of intensive psychotherapy can’t fix.

The flight from Seattle took fifty minutes —thirty minutes actually in the air—which is the second shortest plane trip I’ve ever taken. The shortest was twenty minutes gate-to-gate from Chicago to Milwaukee the first year I went to Gen Con after moving to Seattle. The Seattle-based travel office at Wizards of the Coast apparently didn’t refer to things like maps and had no idea that by the time you navigate the airports you could drive back and forth between Chicago and Milwaukee twice. Anyway, flying actually is shorter than driving going from Seattle to Portland if for no other reason than neither of those airports are nearly as big as O’Hare. Nothing moves fast at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, except maybe the tempers of the passengers.

When I had been given my itinerary from the Wordstock people it said that the best way to get to the convention center was on Portland’s light rail system. I’m a suburbanite at heart and have never regularly used public transportation. If I’m admitting things, like that I always think I’m going to have a bad time everywhere, I may as well admit that I’m a terrible snob when it comes to public transportation. But something hit me in the air somewhere between Seattle and Portland and I made the completely uncharacteristic decision to go ahead and take the light rail from the airport to the hotel. Anyway, I thought, it’ll save me having to front money for a cab.

Safe landing in Portland and I found the MAX line, and using the instructions in the Wordstock packet, jumped the red line to Pioneer Courthouse Square then their walking directions to the hotel. I was never lost once, the train was actually kinda fun, and there I was.

A shout-out here to the grand old Benson Hotel. Everyone there was terrific and the room had a great feel to it—another reason I wished I’d stayed an extra day or two.

But there wasn’t too much time to settle in. I wanted to figure out how long it would take to get to the convention center via light rail, and if I was lucky, make it in time for a reading by one of my favorite crime authors, James Ellroy (of The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential fame). I came in a few minutes after he’d started but sat in rapt attention to his curmudgeonly, okay maybe a little arrogant, but fascinating talk. He’s quite a showman and could teach more than one author more than a thing or two about how to read his own work.

Best quote of the day—I had to write it down—was from James Ellroy in regards to his  own novel, American Tabloid: “Time Magazine said it was the best book of the year. Would Time Magazine shit you?”

He answered questions and fended criticism with equal aggressiveness. He’s like the dad from Shitmydadsays, but Ellroy swears more. He’s a conservative and I’m not, kind of a prick, too, but I don’t care. I love his books. The guy is the heir apparent of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Read him.

Between Ellroy and the next author I wandered the floor a little, my heart aching for all of the little booths populated by those beautiful, beautiful artifacts of a culture still just trying so damn hard: the literary magazine. I almost swooned with memories of my own long-lost Alternative Fiction & Poetry, and remembered my then-girlfriend, now-wife and I sitting at a little table at something I remember being called Swampfest (but that might not be it) in Madison Wisconsin, punchily joking that we were invisible, and selling three magazines. Fight on, you glorious bastards, you literary magazine publishers. Fight on, comrades.

Then this book propped up on a table caught my eye—wait a minute, I thought. I’d just tweeted (or is it twittered, or twitted . . . whatever) about that book! I’d seen another tweet about it, which led me to a blog that led me to the authors’ web site for the book—and there it was, and there were they. I waited my turn, picked up a copy of the book, and chatted with the co-author, Paul Guinan, while he signed it for me, drawing a picture of the eponymous robot, Boilerplate. Then I paid for it, and you should, too. I’m really not even kidding a little bit. Buy this book. What a great surprise!

After that I wandered back over to the Powell’s stage, which is where Bob and I were scheduled to speak, and the name on the big screen behind this very unassuming, regular guy on stage read Jamie Ford. His name rang a bell, and I hadn’t heard from Bob or Sara yet, so I sat down. Jamie Ford is the author of what is turning out to be one of the darling debut novels of the past few years. I really liked the guy. I liked what he had to say and how he chose to say it. I loved that he talked about his love of James at 15. I thought I was the only one who remembered that one. I only hated him for one thing, he thought of the title Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet before I did. Bastard! That’s a truly great title. I promise, Jamie, I will buy your book, and try not to hold it against you.

During his Q&A, Jamie Ford offered this advice to aspiring authors, which he attributed to someone else who’s name he couldn’t recall: “Allow yourself to suck.” Marvelous advice, which I will steal. Look for it in The Fantasy Author’s Handbook. He elaborated a little. He didn’t mean, of course, that you should intentionally write badly, or attain to writing bad fiction, but you should write. If it’s bad, learn from it and do better next time, and a little better after that, but don’t stop yourself from writing for fear that what you’re writing isn’t good enough. Better a little bad writing that no one ever reads than you don’t write at all and never write Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

I wish I could have stayed for the rest of his presentation, but I was pulled away by my obnoxiously vibrating cell phone. Bob, Diane, and Sara had arrived. I met them at the doors to the convention hall, and we were running a bit early, so we got a chance to walk the space together for a little while. We met a great guy from Powell’s who’s name I wish I could remember. Then we talked to the stage manager for the event, who’s name I wish I could remember. I might need to start carrying a notebook around with me, or ask for people’s cards. As a reporter, I suck, and that aside, I’d have loved to have given these people credit by name. They deserve it.

Anyway, then we went back to the “VIP Room,” which was weird for me. I’m not generally a VIP Room kinda guy. Diane Salvatore and I tried the oxygen bar. It smelled good, but I can’t say it did much else for either of us. Someone gave me a little red pin that read: DON’T BE A PICKY READER, which I pinned to my shoulder bag for all the world to see, because I agree with the sentiment.

We were then summoned to the stage and the talk itself seemed to go by in a flash, though it was an hour long. Bob and I talked about the difference between shared world and novelizations, our fantasy roots, the trials and tribulations of maintaining a shared world and a cast of characters for more than twenty years, the perils and pitfalls of moving the world forward, and we disagreed on World of Warcraft. Hopefully someone recorded it and there’s a transcript available somewhere. I was brilliant, and Bob was pretty good, too.

After our little dog and pony show, Bob and I were hustled off to the signing area where they had a table all set up for us. We had about fifty people in line already, and I was gratified that the people at Powell’s had brought a bunch of copies of A Reader’s Guide to R.A. Salvatore’s The Legend of Drizzt along with The Ghost King, so I had something to sign as well.

Bob signed the first book then a very loud voice came over the PA and in no uncertain terms announced that Wordstock was closed for the night and everyone must leave immediately. This engendered groans from me, Bob, Sara, Diane, the two guys helping us from Powell’s and Wordstock, and the whole line of readers. We all laughingly chose to ignore it. We signed a couple more books then they turned off most of the lights. We pressed on, cheerfully signing in twilight darkness while a security guard circled us like a slightly peckish shark. Finally, one of the Wordstock guys came back and reassured the people waiting in line that there was no problem, they could stay until everyone got their books signed.

The fans were friendly and it was great talking to them. That oddball bit of scheduling—stage interview at 5:00 followed by a signing at 6:00, but the exhibit hall closes at 6:00—was the only weakness exhibited by the Wordstock people, and they cheerfully made it right. No one who wanted a book signed was turned away.

I think we were all in a great mood when we left the darkened Wordstock behind. I wished I could have come back for Sunday’s events, but drowned my sorrows in a fantastic dinner at The London Grill, in the Benson Hotel. Used to be I thought the only reason to go to Portland is to go to Powell’s, which is an unassailably great bookstore, but they’ve got some terrific restaurants, too, and nice people, and a hippy plays guitar and sings next to the Starbucks in the airport, and there’s that great light rail system that even snobby Phil learned to navigate like a local.

Thank you Wordstock and Powell’s. Thank you, Sara. Thank you everybody who made it possible, and I hope you’ll invite me back again. If you don’t, I’ll just pay my own way and show up as a fan.

Wordstock rules!

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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7 Responses to WORDSTOCK 2009

  1. Jamie says:

    Hey Philip–Just as I left the stage, I remembered who said, “Allow yourself to suck…” It was Brandon Sanderson. Great quote!

    And I picked up Boilerplate too. Lavishly done, detailed in an almost OCD kind of way.


  2. Hanna says:

    Hi Phil:

    I was one of the Wordstock folks, hovering in the black shirts, protecting you and R.A. from the uniforms in the author signing area after the festival closed. Just wanted to thank you for your kind words and return the sentiment: We love all you authors, especially the adventurous ones. Let’s just call it a “mutual admiration” society. We hope to see you again next year.
    p.s., I’m not sure who your stage manager was, but the very friendly guy from Powell’s is Scott. You can find him at the Hawthorne location most days of the week.

  3. Linda Crum says:

    Oh, please, before you write again, learn to spell “rapt attention.”
    BUT, I have never missed a Wordstock; it is the best. Also, of course, public transport in Portland: many of us have no gas-guzzling private vehicles at all.
    Thanks for coming.

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