Thanks to a hot tip from fellow writer Kurt Dinan (more on him later), I went to Context this past weekend in Columbus, Ohio.
From the little I saw, Columbus is a lovely town that's difficult to get to from Chicago, but whose liquor stores are easily located. This proved helpful to my roommate John Hornor Jacobs. His southern hospitality was in full force, and I often found myself marveling at all the people he knew, had just met, or was going to introduce himself to. The guy is socially fearless in a way I'll never understand but will always admire.
Which brings me to a discussion of my own behavior during the conference. The few people who meet me at these things usually end up expressing surprise when I describe myself as a shy introvert. Even though that admission may come on the heels of a quip that's left the room in stitches, it's nonetheless true. When it comes to most social interactions, I'm the proverbial dancing bear. Whatever social skills I possess are little more than well-practiced tricks, and even though they might appear effortless, they're no more natural than Mr. Bear's lumbering cha-cha or that pink tutu barely covering his ass.
Where this illusion really breaks down is when I find myself in the presence of people I admire but don't know. This was the case with several of the visiting authors, such as Gary Braunbeck, Maurice Broaddus, Brian Keene, Nick Mamatas and Tim Waggoner, none of whom I met. At a certain point during the convention, after seeing them several times in the halls without saying a word, the whole thing began approaching a level of ridiculousness that was probably worse than whatever awkward small talk I might have been able to generate with them. What's honestly just shyness and uncertainty on my part probably comes across as the kind of aloof arrogance that makes these folks remark to themselves, "Christ, what an asshole."
This was certainly the case with Michael Arnzen. Even though I had a workshop with the guy, I found it nearly impossible to speak with him outside the confines of our class. Because of this, I spent the majority of the conference giving him uncomfortable nods in the hall. Then, on Saturday night, we both found ourselves in the smoker's ghetto outside the hotel. Realizing I couldn't ignore my social responsibilities any longer, I did my best to engage him in talk about his book Proverbs with Monsters, and complimented him on his imagination, and made a few more comments that left both of us squirming like two junior high students on our first visit to the locker room. Michael, if you're reading this, um, uh, er, sorry.
Of course, bitter experiences like this only make meeting the few people I do that much sweeter. Especially when they become friends. I've already mentioned John Hornor Jacobs, and will continue to do so. Kurt Dinan turned out to be as much of a smart ass as me, and almost as socially at ease as John Hornor Jacobs. He's a really good writer, too, and delivers a kick-ass critique like no one else I know. And Fran Friel is, quite simply, one of the classiest acts in the industry. She chaired a panel Sunday morning with what seemed to be preparation and confidence, but later confessed that she winged the whole thing. That's the scope of her powers.
Among the new names in my Rolodex, Michael Knost was a delight to have breakfast and dinner with, and the microbrew in his iPhone really, really made me want to rethink my long-held anti-Apple stance. Brian Hatcher knows magic and how to be really funny, and I was sorry to see him leave on Saturday night when our Mexican dinner started putting him through changes. Gary Frank is unassuming, knowledgeable, funny and didn't seem to mind being stuck next to me at a table. I'd have a cigarette with Calie Voorhis any time, and could probably learn a lot from her about how to get things done. And Bill Carl is so nice and entertaining that he was able to put me at ease even after I realized he'd written a book that I hadn't read. (Bill, that oversight will soon be corrected.)
So. There you have it and there it is. If anyone has any tips or tricks for making smooth small talk with the semi-famous and above, I could really use them.