Laura and I were out slow-walking Ella (who is having a bit of trouble with her right hind leg) last night when we stopped so an older man on a front stoop could pet the dog. When he spoke, he was almost incomprehensible.
As we continued on our way, I said to Laura, "Sometimes I regret the fact that I will never grow up to become a drunken old Irishman."
The building where I work is being sold and repurposed, and the businesses here have been steadily moving out for the past five or six months. We have new office space lined up nearby, and if it weren't for a big deadline coming up in the middle of June we would be there already.
Meantime, the building staff are less and less interested in maintaining things. The infrastructure is slowly going to hell. It takes days and days for, say, plumbing problems to be resolved. Overflowing sinks and toilets are commonplace. I fear before moving day we'll discover we're working in a J.G. Ballard novel, and office tribes will be warring with each other and eating the bodies of the fallen.
Is it possible to be nostalgic for something that only happened a week ago? Laura and I were sitting out back in the dusk last night, me with a beer, she with a cigarette, the dog with a chew toy, and I was telling her about how if I felt this way after only a week at Blue Heaven, I must have been a complete mess at 17 coming home from six weeks at Clarion.
For a few days I've resisted sitting down to write up the social side of the workshop, figuring the ground has already been covered pretty thoroughly by others. But the idea wouldn't let me go, so here (rapidly and possibly incoherently) I go.
paulmelko picked me up at Port Columbus on the afternoon of Friday, May 12th. Cathy "Chance" "Jaded Reader" "secritcrush" Morrison, having arrived earlier that afternoon and checked into an airport hotel, was with him. I almost immediately supplied the first running gag (or "callback") of the week when Paul, pulling out into traffic, said, "So your plane was a little late."
"I thought we landed early," I said, looking from my watch to the dashboard clock. "Is that the right time? 4:20? I set my watch back an hour when I got on the plane."
"We're still Eastern time in Ohio," Paul said.
"Oh." My inability to place Ohio in the correct time zone would end up fueling more than one joke before the end of the week.
I had met Paul on a couple of other occasions and traded quips with him online, not to mention having gotten into a small bidding war with him at the SFWA reception in November over which of our novellas would get the cover for the April/May Asimov's. (asphalteden fooled us both and pocketed the cash.) (No, not really! No money traded hands.) Anyway, I liked Paul already, and Chance would soon reveal herself as possessor of a wicked wit as well.
Then it was off to Chateau Melko for a cookout with his charming wife Stacy and delightful kids. Toby Buckell joined us with his charming wife Emily, and Charlie Finlay eventually made it too, with his two sons, though the rest of us were long done eating by then. Charlie's kids were great, listening attentively and laughing to everything that was said, and laughing hysterically when someone zinged their dad. It was great to see they had the kind of relationship with him where they could razz him about his surfer hair and he would take it good-naturedly.
After dinner I rode to Bluffton with Toby and Emily and crashed at their place, having completely forgotten to book a hotel room in the flurry of preparations. The next morning Toby and I set out for the island. I'd met Toby before at various conventions, but it was great to get a chance to talk with him one on one on the drive. We both reminisced about our exotic childhoods (his in the Caribbean, mine in Mormondom) and had a good chat about writing and religion and atheism.
After a ferry ride to the island, Toby (a returning BHer) found Himmelblau House without much trouble. It was locked, Marvin not yet having arrived to set the house in order for the season. We drove over to the other side of the island, near the huge quarry, to drop in at the Eagle's Nest, the B&B where the women would be staying. Along the way we dutifully stopped at all the stop signs that warned us to look both ways for low-flying aircraft.
At the Eagle's Nest, the proprietor Robin showed us where a freak fire had destroyed half her deck the week before. Paul showed up soon with Tim Pratt and Chance in towand at least one other person, though now I'm starting to lose track of who arrived where whenand Robin told us where to find the keys that would let us into Himmelblau House. So us menfolk convoyed back across the island and undertook a manhunt for the hiding place of the keys. I found them at last and we were home! The four of us set about claming our rooms.
By the end of the evening, everyone but Brenda Cooper had made it to the island. (She would be arriving the next day.) Our first activity as a group was to hit a bar and grill called Captain's Corner, one of the few restaurants yet open for the seaon, for dinner. I had dolmathes and "Nero's gyro," and inaugurated what was to be my unfortunate practice on the island of eating way too much. I finished up with coffee because I hadn't had any that day and a raging caffeine headache had set in. The coffee made it better, though, and I was able to sit up somewhat late at Himmelblau that night bullshitting with the guys.
Charlie and I roomed together, and unfortunately the alarm on my watch (a fairly new watch which I still don't understand entirely) went off at midnight and woke him up. This led, the next morning, to much merriment around the breakfast table re: my inability to properly set or control my watch. It went off again during our late-night bull session that night, but by the next evening I had quite accidentally managed to silence that alarm. much to everyone's disappointment.
Mornings went more or less like this: No matter how late I'd been up the night before, the sunlight and birdsong would rouse me abruptly sometime between 6:45 and 7:15. I would shower and head downstairs to start reviewing the manuscripts we'd be doing that day. If Paul Melko wasn't already up, he would be soon. Marvin, the proprietor, would get up next, and his wonderful dog Sela would bound into the dining room to greet us. While Marvin prepared coffee and breakfast, Charlie would wander into the dining room, and then Tim. Greg van Eekhout would arrive barely in time for breakfast, at least at the beginning of the week. By week's end he had advanced in the rotation to beat Tim downstairs, as his Arizona-time-zone brain adjusted to the
Central Eastern demands of the hostelry. Toby, a real night owl, would arrive for breakfast after the rest of us were finished.
Marvin's breakfasts deserve special mention. A treat for the senses! Greg developed the uncanny ability to predict what Marvin would prepare for us the next morning, though the final Saturday change-up of eggs Benedict with smoked salmon on top at last broke Greg's streak.
The woman would start trickling over to Himmelblau as we finished up breakfast, and by 10:00 am we were ready to start the group critiques. After two manuscripts we would break for lunchMarvin's lunches deserve special mentionthen do one more in the early afternoon. Then we were on our own to do what we liked until dinner time.
Afternoons variously entailed hikes in the woods to see various cool geological features like the famous glacial grooves, trips into town to access the cheap beer and free wi-fi at the Village Pump, or just hanging out by the lake shore near the house. Sela loved to hang out with the pack, and Greg and Tim were the first to discover her strange penchant for fetching thrown rocks. She was particularly diligent about it the first day, but by the time I finally witnessed this behavior Sela was turning her nose up at most of the of rocks we tossed into the lake for her. Oh, she would run through the water toward the splash and maybe stick her head down in the water, but rarely did she raise it again with a rock her mouth. And if she did, it was never the only that had been thrown. Obviously we silly primates were not supplying the correct rocks for her nefarious purposes. (Greg did emerge as Sela's favorite rock-throwing primate, though. And he mastered the art of throwing the rocks in such a way that Sela could not catch up with them fast enough for them to fall on her head.)
The lake shore had snakes a-plenty as well, which drew not just Sela's but everyone's fascination. One snake was spooked down a cistern with no way out, so Charlie and Paul rescued it with a hoe (leading to this remarkable photo of the Gandalflike Paul warning bystanding canines away). Charlie also rescued a grackle from the screened-in porch, leading to the expection that he would attempt to qualify for the Order of the Chordate by saving one member of each of the five major classes of vertebrate. (He didn't make it, though he gamely tried. Maybe next year.)
I missed some of the nature walks for the sake of catching up on the full manuscripts I needed to read for later in the week, but I never missed an opportunity to travel with the gang down to the Pump to get online. This is where we were gathered late in the week when Tim received the Very Good News he has alluded to elsewhere, which a large group of us celebrated with a bottle of the Pump's best sparkling white (the closest thing they had to champagne). Way to go, Tim!
This is also where, on our last day, the SF-readin' bartender Russell bought a round of shots for Toby and me. Stormcloudsamaretto, 151, and a splash of Bailey's. This looks like a swirling brown gas giant in a shotglass, and it goes down very easy. Yum.
Evenings the routine varied. We tried new restaurants on the nights when restaurants were open, which mostly meant the weekends. The Kelleys Island Wine Co. gets the nod for the best food on the island (next to Marvin's!), and I developed quite a fondness for their Glacial White. We went there twice. Less successful was our evening at the island's brewpub, where we attempted to conceal the sour faces elicited by what Tim, I believe, eventually dubbed their "Gherkinbrau." It was only the waiter standing behind me, rubbing my shoulders without permission, that pressured me into ordering a second pint.
Other memorable evenings included the Monday night reception at the Eagle's nest, with delicious sandwiches and finger foods provided by Robin, at which I was finally inveigled into telling the story of my Canadian felony arrest. It was a little scary without Laura there to tap my elbow when I started digressing and losing the audience, but it seemed to go well enough, and I got through the story in less than an hour. Then there was the evening we watched Memento on VHS, and the evening we played Balderdash (zumbooruk, anyone?) and I repeatedly fell for Tim's definitions. But that was okay, because he falling for mine. We were each other's bitches. And Toby probably had the best quip/definition of the evening:
facula n. vampires with tenureOh, what else is there to reminisce about? Chance and I vandalizing people's Wikipedia entries at the Pump. All the terrible titles we came up with to replace Greg's Damn Norse Novel. (He will never come to a workshop again without a title for his novel!) The night we heard a woman screaming and our investigation led us to discover a bonfire party a couple of lots away (and shattered Charlie's hopes of scoring another point toward the Order of the Chordate). The fractured rock floor of one nearby lagoon that looked like a deliberate parquet assemblage. All the off-color puns on Sandra's Wondjina. The Boy Wizard Love Association. Throwing sticks to rescue the soccer ball from the tree. Staying up late and drinking beer. Charlie's graphic imitation of Paul's physical reaction to the greasy buffalo wings at the Pump. Paul reading dictionary definitions of words incorporating our names. (Toby jar!) And lots of beer. Insane quantities of beer. In fact, I don't think I've ever drunk as much beer in a week as I did at Blue Heaven. (I came back eight pounds heavier to prove it.)
And the people. Everyone there was wonderfulBrenda bring a paradoxical ray of sunshine from the Pacific Northwest; Chance who can cut you down to size with a word and make you like her for it; Charlie who despite his worried only woke me up one with his snoring; Greg with his love of Norse mythology, karate and prog rock; Mary whom I've known the longest by far, with whom I attended Clarion those 21 short years ago; Paul with an ever-ready quip; Sandra who puts the lie to any stereotypes of military women; Sarah with the perennial smile, who can consume a startling amount of beer for someone so thin; Tim who despite his scarily formidable writing chops is a great, funny, regular guy; and Toby, who tells a mean story too and who's more winningly analytical about marketing than anyone I've met.
And we can't forget Marvin, who had us all rolling with his stories of being mistaken for Al Roker. And did I mention his food?
In short, the only thing wrong with Blue Heaven was that my wife and dog weren't there. And that, to paraphrase Greg, we're all so scattered around the country now that it's over. Big ditto on how stupid that is.
Some other Blue Heaven 2006 roundups:
Includes uncredited sound clips from Glengarry Glen Ross, Friday, Office Space, EuroTrip, Joe vs. the Volcano, Robocop, The Italian Job (original version), 9 to 5, 24, Lost in Space (TV series), and Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Welcome to the Pleasuredome.
Though I've been involved with local writers' group on and off in the time since, I hadn't attended a formal away-from-home writing workshop for nearly 21 yearswell over half a lifetime, and all of my professional writing career. So it was with excitement and some trepidation early this year that I accepted Charles Coleman Finlay's invitation to attend Blue Heaven 2006 on Kelleys Island, off the Ohio shore of Lake Erie.
Excitement because this would be a peer workshop focusing on SF and fantasy novels, and I was having definite trouble transitioning from short fiction to longer work. And also because I'd be hanging out with some first-rate writers and rising stars.
Trepidation because, for all that I sometimes get worked up online and probably don't come across as bashful, I'm fairly reserved in person and don't usually say much in a new group until I'm comfortable, if then. And also because I'd be hanging out with some first-rate writers and rising stars.
The immediate benefit of Charlie's invitation was that it sparked me to write a hundred more pages on my novel Inclination in something under a month, which for me qualifies as a blistering white heat. The next benefit was the chance to read the first fifty pages of ten other nascent novel manuscripts that ranged from cool and fun to fucking awesome.
But the real benefit came at Himmelblau House on the island itself, which I reached the morning of May 13th together with Toby Buckell, who had very kindly put me up at his place the night before. Himmelblau, a B&B owned by Dagmar Celeste and operated by Marvin Robinson, sits maybe twenty yards from the island's eastern shore and only a stone's throw or two from its airstrip, and that's where, sometimes interrupted by the drone of an arriving or departing mail plane, we tore into one another's manuscripts.
I don't mean to conjure any negative image with that verb. We thoroughly talked over the strengths and weaknesses of each novel in turn, but in a collegial way that underscored the notion that we were all there to make each book the best and most saleable it could possibly be. Even with the one or two works I was initially cool toward, the tenor of the discussions awakened an enthusiasm in me that made my critiques better, or at least helped me put them across in a better way than I might otherwise have.
A lot of the credit for this has to go to Charlie Finlay, who's about as thoughtful and generous a writer as I've met in this biz. He's not just serious about craft and about business; he's serious about putting good heads together so that everyone involved can get the most out of the deal. I had observed this online in some of the SFWA discussion forums, and I was not disappointed in my expectation that this would carry over to the workshop. Charlie has put a lot of thought and hard work into Blue Heaven, and I think a lot of its success comes from the toneserious but funhe set for the group.
No less credit to Paul Melko all his effort helping to organize this year's shindig, and for wearing the mantles of focused, incisive, practical critic and indefatigable quipmaster both with equal aplomb.
Here's how it worked. For the first four full days of the workshop, we gathered in a circle each morning in the Himmelblau sitting room to critique one or two first-fifties. After a lunch break, we did one more. The critiques were Clarion-style, and focused on shaping the best possible opening chapters to submit with a novel proposal.
For the next three days of the workshop, we met in smaller groups to discuss full manuscripts (or what existed of them) in more depth. Each of us had been assigned to read two other novels, though we were free to read more than that and sit in on the respective discussions if we had the time and inclination.
I think everyone both gave and received excellent feedback on the work that was turned in, and speaking for myself it was on target and invaluable. I went into Blue Heaven somewhat clueless about the process of composing a novel, and here on the far side I feel I have a much better grasp. I also have an eagerness and enthusiasm for the work, and better than that: a deadline and a plan for finishing my book. For that, I'm profoundly grateful.
Of course, there was more to Blue Heaven than just work. I doubt the group's yin would have functioned as well as it did without the yang of the camaraderie we found outside the workshop sessions. But I've gone on long enough for now, and for that I'll have to make another post later.
Brenda Cooper posts a group picture here. Left to right: Back row: William Shunn, Paul Melko, Tobias S. Buckell, Greg van Eekhout, Tim Pratt Second row: Sandra McDonald, Mary Turzillo, Brenda Cooper, Catherine M. Morrison, Sarah Prineas Front: Charles Coleman Finlay Far Right Background: Sela the Amazing Rock-Fetching Canine
Speaking of missionary memoirs, Christopher Bigelow has published a very fine personal essay over at Popcorn Popping. Despite my cheeky subject line, it's a revealing read and you should check it out.
Why do they call it Popcorn Popping? It comes from a favorite Mormon children's song, "Popcorn Popping on the Apricot Tree."