Sunday, May 30, 2010

Books, Barbra, and Bad First Dates

For the second year, I volunteered to take the helm of the Horror Writers Association’s presence at BookExpo America (BEA). For those not in the publishing world, BEA is the country’s largest gathering of publishing professionals during which new titles are unveiled, authors meet their book-buying public (namely, librarians, educators, and retailers), and lots of business is done. This year’s event was again held in New York City at the Javits Center, a worthy venue in its size and capability to handle the thousands of attendees.

This year I decided to stay in the city for the duration. Last year, I schlepped back and forth on the Long Island Railroad, which proved disadvantageous once I realized all the free books I’d score. So this year I loaded up Alexis (Yes, my car has a name – get over it!) with the HWA’s snazzy new trade show display and enough provisions to get me through the week, programmed Penelope (Yes, my GPS also has a name – move along people!), and started off. Now, those who know me know that I’m somewhat of a homebody, so driving into Manhattan from the eastern end of Long Island isn’t exactly an everyday occurrence. So there was, admittedly, a bit of anxiety. Over what, I’m not exactly certain, but there’s something intimidating to the uninitiated about the volume and speed of traffic in New York City.

But by the Queens Midtown Tunnel, I was getting the hang of the whole thing and holding my own. As I approached my hotel (chosen because it’s the city’s only lodging with its own complimentary parking garage), I scanned the block trying to locate the entrance to the parking structure. As Penelope informed me that I had reached my destination, I still couldn’t see it and panic crept in. And I passed my hotel.

Deep breathing ensued as I waited patiently for Penelope to chime back in with her recalculated route. But Penelope apparently decided to cop an attitude with me at that most inopportune moment and gave me the silent treatment (despite loud, expletive-ridden protestations to the contrary from yours truly), leaving me to quickly figure out the alternate directional flow of the busy city streets and decipher on my own. Happily, I managed to make it around the damn block, unscathed, and located the hotel and Alexis’ sanctuary for the next few days.

Once I checked in, I lugged our trade show display over to the Javits. Although I had all day on Tuesday to set the booth up, my compulsion to be ahead of schedule compelled me to at least drop off the container housing our display. Although the display packs neatly into a barrel-shaped container on wheels, it weighed a bit more than I had anticipated and I was schwitzing by the time I made it the three blocks to the Javits.

Our booth was in an excellent location in the 2900 section, right next to our friends at the Mystery Writers of America. Pleased, I dropped the container off, briefly scouted around (marveling at the construction of a few very elaborate booths some of the larger publishing houses were in the process of putting up), and then headed back to the hotel. Mission accomplished, I spent a quiet night in the hotel with a Lean Cuisine and a copy of John R. Little’s DREAMS IN BLACK AND WHITE.

Tuesday arrived and it was time to bring the last few things for our display (postcards, signage, and a revolving postcard carousel) over to the convention hall. Let me just say that I absolutely love this event. From the start of the convention, there is a palpable buzz of excitement in the air – plus, being around all those books makes me positively giddy. I made quick work of setting up our booth; despite a daunting amount of bars and crossbeams and fabric panels and lights, the display is surprisingly easy to assemble. During the set-up, I met Margery and Steve Flax. Margery is the administrative manager for MWA – and, let me tell you, the woman is packing some serious energy! Organization seems to be her middle name, even if her military-like efficiency was a bit scary at first. Steve is her husband, a nice guy who clearly shares his wife’s love of all things mystery and literary. Together, they made quite the team and I immensely enjoyed getting to know them a little better as the week went on.

Booth assembled, I awaited the arrivals of my trusty booth volunteers. Martel Sardina, fresh in from the Midwest, arrived first. Martel is one of those rare young writers who take advantage of every opportunity and experience (HWA-sponsored and otherwise) presented her, investing in her career the time and money necessary to make lasting connections and to put herself in the path of people who could be useful further along on her career path. She impresses the hell out of me, plus I enjoyed her company during Stoker Weekend in Burbank last year so I was thrilled that she signed up to volunteer at BEA. Editor extraordinaire Ellen Datlow arrived a little later, wanting to scout out the booth’s location for opening day of the exhibition hall the following day. I may tease Ellen (mercilessly at times, I suspect) but I have a profound respect for the woman. She is, by and large, the preeminent speculative fiction editor of our time, having edited too many anthologies and magazines to count. Plus, she’s just a sweet lady, knows just about everybody it seems (although she’s surprisingly shy by her own admission), and pulls together some of the best genre anthologies out there.

Tuesday night was the much-ballyhooed keynote address by one Ms. Barbra Streisand, who apparently has so much passion for design that she penned a book – aptly titled MY PASSION FOR DESIGN. I wasn’t particularly interested in hearing her talk, but I was frightened that the Velvet Mafia might somehow get wind of my skipping out on La Streisand and promptly rescind my membership, taking back that marvelous toaster in the process. So Martel and I decided to attend the event, getting decent seats about twelve rows or so from the stage, off to the right side.

So, how was Barbra, you ask? Streisand is a queen – a bona fide, bow-before-me-and-kiss-my-ring queen. There really is no other way to say it, phrase it, or otherwise communicate the essence of this larger-than-life monarch of modern-day pop culture. Everything about her oozes royalty, from her mannerisms to her speech pattern, from the way others react to her to the way everything in her path is staged just so for her arrivals and departures. Not content to simply stand before a podium and say what she had to say about this “passion for design” of hers, La Streisand had to stage her remarks within the context of an interview. Oh, yes, a full-scale, armchair interview complete with foliage behind her and a coffee table in front of her. (You didn’t expect her to actually hold her own notepad scribbled with her remarks, now did you?) And La Streisand wouldn’t deem just any interviewer worthy of grilling her about paisley pillows and damask drapes – no, she had to have a celebrity interviewer, here in the form of Oprah BFF/gal pal Gayle King (who took that six degrees connection to the talk show queen and is still inexplicably running with it!).

So the publisher introduces King, who in turn introduces Streisand (even the publisher of her own book is too common to be up to the task of reading an introduction in Barbra’s eyes). We are then treated to a little over an hour of La Streisand fawning over her own impeccable sense of style and feigning outrage over the color orange. High point in the program came when La Streisand neatly dodged a full-on stroke when King questioned her about why the flowers outside her house had to match the color scheme within. “Because the exterior of your home should be an extension of the interior,” Babs responded, her disdain of King’s suburban commonness apparent in her condescension. Good stuff, indeed. Suffice to say that La Streisand is about as detached from the economic crisis that has gripped most of our nation, as she is oblivious to the fact that while she was waxing philosophical about the many shades of red, the roomful of professionals whose industry is under siege by runaway technology, a generational apathy toward reading, and a declining literacy rate in this country might not give a rat’s ass about how her preference for certain colors is psychologically linked to her allegedly poverty-ridden childhood. Still, it was Streisand, and as a card-carrying gay man, I fulfilled my duty to listen attentively, even managing a moment of unobserved swooning when she delicately pushed a non-existent stray hair from her face with a pale blue-tipped finger.

So Wednesday came and the exhibitor hall opened to long lines of eager attendees ready to scavenge for free swag. Fellow author Gary Frank showed up bright and early, rounding out our volunteer quartet. The HWA booth was ready for business, with the always-fabulous Alexandra Sokoloff (just try to say or write her name without that particular modifier attached!) up to bat first with her book signing of THE UNSEEN. Unfortunately, St. Martin’s Press did not ship either her paperback copies of UNSEEN for her booth signing or her galleys of BOOK OF SHADOWS for her main autograph area signing – causing poor Alex to forfeit the latter while improvising during the former with hardcover copies of her first three novels that she had resourcefully brought with her. Always the consummate professional and eternal optimist, Alex did not let the shipping mishap stop her from making connections with those who stopped by our booth.

The HWA booth continued to rock throughout the two days, with our participating authors enjoying steady lines and giving away every single book they brought. Jonathan Maberry, who I swear is the hardest working genre writer today, and newcomer Roger Ma (author of THE ZOMBIE COMBAT MANUAL) enjoyed particularly long lines that stretched well into the next aisle. Ellen signed copies of BEST NEW HORROR: VOLUME TWO at the HWA booth, as well as THE BEASTLY BRIDE during a coveted spot in the main autograph area; Martel signed copies of the anthology BOOK OF DEAD THINGS; Gary signed copies of his two Medallion novels INSTITUTIONAL MEMORY and FOREVER WILL YOU SUFFER; Jameson Currier signed copies of his Black Quill Award-winning collection THE HAUNTED HEART AND OTHER TALES, as well as his new novel THE WOLF AT THE DOOR; Kelly Jameson signed SHARDS OF SUMMER and DEAD ON; and Connie Corcoran-Wilson signed copies of her new collection HELLFIRE & DAMNATION.

Also got to finally meet Dark Scribe Press’ go-to girl for fantastic book covers – Deena Warner of Deena Warner Designs. She was there with her husband Matt, a terrific horror author. You know when you picture someone in your mind and have that preconceived idea of how they’ll sound and act in real-life? Well, happily, Mr. and Mrs. Warner were every ounce the warm, personable couple I’d envisioned all these months dealing with them via email. Speaking with them was a delight, and I felt like I’d known them for years (well, I kinda-sorta have…). I did miss meeting their handsome little tike, Owen, on Thursday but managed to score a signed poster by children’s book illustrator (and frequent Jamie Lee Curtis collaborator) Laura Cornell for their new addition.

Overall, the new HWA booth was very well-received, particularly by those familiar with our past efforts. We spoke with numerous librarians and potential new members throughout the event, and made good connections with both MWA and SFWA. I had a nice chat with SFWA Board member (and former President) Michael Capobianco, and our booth and brisk activity may have inspired his organization’s future participation at BEA. I’ve always felt that the genre writing organizations should work more closely with each other so it was nice to exchange some ideas, share some information and insight, and make those personal connections.

Some other highlights of BEA 2010:

  • The swag! Since I had the car with me, I indulged in more of BEA’s infamous book booty this year. (This year's haul pictured above.) Brought home just over 50 free books, with signed copies of William Peter Blatty’s CRAZY, Cherie Priest’s DREADNOUGHT, Dan Well’s I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, Sara Gruen’s APE HOUSE, Emma Donoghue’s ROOM, and the legendary R.L. Stine’s FEAR anthology among the treasures. My two favorite finds: an unsigned galley of Michael Cunningham’s BY NIGHTFALL and a signed ARC of Justin Cronin’s THE PASSAGE, which I stood on line for with Steve Flax from MWA. If anyone doesn’t think that there are still “buzz books” out there, one had only observe the mega-marketing dollars Ballantine spent on Cronin’s BEA appearance – with billboards across the front of the Javits, badge holders emblazoned with the book’s title, ads in PW’s SHOW DAILY, and two mobbed author signings.
  • Meeting HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME final girl Melissa Sue Anderson, quite by accident! After coming off William Peter Blatty’s line, I noticed someone holding up a copy of a book with an attractive, familiar-looking blond on the cover. (At BEA, the harder working publicists will often go right out into the crowds when their author is signing with a copy of the book to generate more traffic on that author’s line.) Sure enough, I quickly realized it was Virginia Wainwright herself and made a beeline over to her autograph line. She was there hawking (er…I mean promoting) her LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE memoir THE WAY I SEE IT: A LOOK BACK ON MY LIFE ON LITTLE HOUSE. Looking no worse for the wear of the last nearly thirty years since her classic slasher, Anderson was quite personable – although she may have glanced around discreetly for security when I asked her to inscribe my copy of her book with “Happy Birthday to Me.” We chatted briefly about mutual friend and former castmate Lesleh Donaldson right before I realized that I hadn’t brought my camera with me(!). Photo op dashed, I was resigned to my one-of-a-kind signed book and my pleasant exchange with one of Crawford Academy’s elite!
  • One of the high points of the week for me – being the self-proclaimed reality TV junkie that I am – was meeting Ethan Zohn, a professional soccer player who became the winner of SURVIVOR: AFRICA. Folks may not know that Zohn recently battled a rare type of cancer called CD20-positive Hodgkin's lymphoma, with which he was diagnosed in May of 2009 and then underwent a stem cell transplant later that same year. Happily, his CT scan was clear last month and he is now in full remission. There was always something immensely likeable about Zohn on SURVIVOR amongst all the outwitting and outplaying, and news of his cancer just hit me hard for some inexplicable reason. Plus, he used his fifteen minutes of fame to give back to the world through several AIDS- and animal-related charitable endeavors – including Grassroot Soccer, a nonprofit organization that trains professional soccer players to teach African children, through a tailor-made curriculum, about HIV/AIDS prevention. In any event, Zohn is now trying his hand at writing – with a delightful interactive children’s book (I believe the first in a series) that finds his cartoon character likeness traveling to South Africa and exploring the culture and traditions with a soccer enthusiast friend named Tawela. It was a real honor to meet Zohn and to shake his hand, expressing to him how happy I was that he beat cancer. He signed a copy of his book for me and graciously posed for a photo to mark our meeting. Here’s wishing Zohn, one of the genuine good guys and a true survivor, much good health and happiness in his future. (If you’re a fan of Zohn’s like I am, why not consider clicking on the link above and making a small donation?)
  • Most surreal moment of BEA week came while standing on line for Justin Cronin. There I am minding my own business, trying not to feel the throbbing pain after three straight days on my feet, when I look up and see Dr. Ruth Westheimer – all forty-two inches of her(!) – standing not two feet away from me. Just strolling down the main aisle, sucking the life out of a candy wrapper of some sort. Now, not being one to let celebrities of any kind pass by without forcing an interaction upon them, I giddily (and, apparently, with a touch of what was perceived as acute psychosis) called out, “Hey! Hi, Dr. Ruth!” and waved like a six-year-old who just encountered a clown at the circus. Needless to say that the diminutive good doctor turned on her slingbacks and made haste in the opposite direction!
The end of BEA week for me was capped by the Lambda Literary Awards. The brilliant Lee Thomas, whose IN THE CLOSET, UNDER THE BED collection Dark Scribe Press had the honor of publishing late last year, was up for an award in the Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror category. Since Lee couldn’t make the trek north-eastward from Texas, I decided to represent. My good friend Jameson Currier agreed to be my date for the festivities, and, one short cab ride uptown to the School of Visual Arts Theater later, we found ourselves immersed amongst the LGBT literati. Ok, well, crammed into the excruciatingly hot lobby of an un-air conditioned theater with a standoffish group of oddly-attired writers, publishers, et al, is a more apt description – but, hey, a boy can glamorize, can’t he? Yeah, this one surprised me a bit. I was really taken aback by how unapproachable most of the folks were – including those representing the Lambda Literary Board of Directors, who I just assumed would have been making the rounds, introducing themselves to people, thanking them (ahem) for their generous contributions, etcetera. But they weren’t, and the night began badly in that sense. Having been to the Bram Stoker Awards, I can unequivocally say that the horror crowd is a much warmer bunch.

Alright, so things didn’t start off with a bang, but surely an awards show put on by a bunch of creative gay people would be nothing short of a Broadway production, right? Wrong. Lethargic doesn’t even begin to describe how anemic the awards ceremony was – so much so that even comic Eddie Sarfaty seemed bored by this bunch of literary stuffed shirts. At one point (and I sincerely kid you not) the young man who helped hand out the awards could actually be seen nodding off from his seat on the stage(!). Newly-out lesbian country singer Chely Wright, advertised as either a performer or a presenter, was a no-show, with no explanation given. There were a few high points, including Pioneer Award recipient Larry Kramer’s genuinely touching acceptance speech, Lynne Breedlove’s hysterical acceptance for her book Lynne Breedlove’s One Freak Show in the Transgender category, and Rakesh Satyal’s musical acceptance set to the tune of Lady Gaga’s BAD ROMANCE (even if it did overstay its welcome after the first dozen verses!).

Strangely, for a bunch of etiquette-driven queens and kings who should know better, poor form was on high display that night, with awardless nominees walking out after their category was announced and presenters bowing out after their gig was up if just to show that they were too important to stay for the whole show. Didn’t their mommas ever teach them that it’s polite to root for other people, even in the face of losing? We won’t even touch fashion, with folks actually showing up dressed down in jeans and sneakers. Would it kill people to play grown-up for one night and show a modicum of class – or does it have to be gay club night in New York? The whole thing was downright bizarre and a bit too tacky for my taste – which included a lovely black pinstripe suit with turquoise shirt and patterned tie. Thankfully, neither Jim nor I had purchased a ticket to the after party, which I can only imagine was more of the same cliquishness.

Low point of the night was walking up to a certain anthology editor (to whom I contributed an essay, gratis, to his well-received anthology and never so much as got an invite to participate in a single book signing or reading in the New York area) after the ceremony to introduce myself outside the theater and seeing that the guy clearly had no fucking clue who I was and, essentially, politely blowing me off right on 23rd Street. Ouch. (Luckily, karma is a bitch and the guy lost his own bid for one of the non-descript hunks of glass everyone seems obsessed with winning.)

Alas, Lee’s collection did not win that night, but as he so eloquently said on Facebook shortly after the event, he’d rather lose in a strong category than win in a weak category. Now that, folks, is real class.

Not to end on a negative note, I must point out that, awards debacle aside, I really like and support – both financially and in principle – the Lambda Literary Foundation. They’ve got what appears to be a marvelous new Executive Director, a gentleman named Tony Valenzuela, and an excellent new webmaster, Antonio Gonzalez, who has done wonders updating the Lambda Literary website. Overall, the Lambda Literary Foundation does some marvelous work in supporting and promoting LGBT literature. Like every organization, they do some things better than others. I’ll still support them – even if I bypass their next awards “gala.”

We’ll just chalk our first up-close-and-personal moment up to a bad first date.


Pax Romano said...

Great run down on the event, Vince. Your time with Babs had me laughing so hard I nearly fell out of my chair.

BTW, Rob verified what I have suspected about you all along, he said you were a real "sweet heart".

Paul Bens, Author of "Kelland" said...

Great rundown. It's a shame to hear the lammies were so stuffed shirt. It's such a small community, we should all be open to supporting each other and, yes, that mean staying for the whole awards whether we win or not.

Psych said...

Hey Vince great story. How do you do it, your juggling so much. But I guess if your passionate about what you do then, hey, it's all in good fun!! I enjoyed your article my friend!! Glad to have found Slasher Speak, cool blog!!