Sound Advice (Not Followed)

by David Anthony Durham

As a university professor, I frequently I find myself standing before a new class of creative writing students, needing to explain who I am, what I write, and why I’m qualified to help them with their writing. Or it might be a social event, when a new acquaintance has learned that I’m a writer and asks me what I’ve written. I try to get through the list pretty quickly: four historical novels, a fantasy trilogy, various stories in anthologies, a forthcoming middle grade fantasy novel set in ancient Egypt, and… well, then I try to explain what Wild Cards is. 

Every time it feels like my audience is thrown when I mention that George RR Martin is one of the creators and editors of the series. They squint. They look puzzled. They’re suddenly a bit more interested, but befuddled. “Wait,” their faces say, “are you trying to say that you know George RR Martin?” Clearly, this doesn’t initially compute for most of them. Once they decide to believe me, I see the next, unasked question: “How, exactly, do you know GRRM?”

I don’t usually tell them, but there is a little story behind it. 

It’s the fall of 2007. I have three historical novels under my belt, but I’ve just published my first fantasy novel, Acacia: The War With the Mein. I decide to go to my first World Fantasy Conference, which was in Saratoga Springs, NY that year. I’m a total newbie to this community. I know a grand total of like three SFF authors, and one prominent SFF artist who insists on introducing me to people as “Big D.” Not an auspicious start.

One of those writer friends brings me along to dinner with a bunch of his writer friends. (I’m going to leave them unnamed for this post.) So there I am, in the company of accomplished authors, feeling the presence of the invisible Hugos and Nebulas stacked on the table in front of me. They offer me advice about how to navigate the con. I’m a sponge. Absorbing. Trusting. Deferring to the wisdom of their experience. Washing it down with a beer or two.

One of those pieces of wisdom is about the mass author signing that is to happen later that evening. All the published authors at the con gather in one big old room. You grab your name tag from a central table and then look around for a table to set up shop at. You prop up a copy of your book to display, have a few business cards handy, check your pen supply, and wait. A little while later, the doors are thrown open and in comes a flood of fans with books to sign.

Sounds grand, right? My mentors, however, like reality checks. Chances are that – new to this community as I am – I probably won’t be doing much signing. I’ll be sitting. Feeling uncomfortable. Making eye contact – or avoiding it – with fans who pass me by on the way to an author they’ve actually heard of. Kindly, they offer that I won’t be alone in this situation. Such is the fate of most authors. They advise that I sit next to someone who will similarly not sign any books. At least that way we can make small talk to pass the time. Commiserate. Look busy, mutually check our phones and work on appearing not at all embarrassed.

Then one of these veterans offers this piece of advice: whatever you do, don’t sit next to George RR Martin. “Why?” I ask, innocent and sincere. 

“Because,” they collectively agree, “it’ll crush your soul. Destroy your ego. He’ll have an unending line of fans throughout the signing. You’ll be rearranging your pens and feeling very, very awkward.”

This all makes sense to me. I mean, even though this is pre-HBO days, Game of Thrones is still huge. A Feast for Crows crushed the bestseller lists a couple years before, and people are clamoring for more. Right. Don’t want to sit next to that guy. 

I thank my mentors for the advice.

Did I mention that throughout all this I’m downing a beer or two? This, I’ll admit, has a role to play on how things unfold from here.

By the time I arrive at the previously mentioned big old room, I’m feeling rather buoyant. Everything is as described. The milling authors, the nametags to grab, the vast array of tables for the authors to choose to sit at. To my relief, they actually have a name tag for me. I clutch it and look about the room, feeling a bit like a middle schooler trying to figure out where to sit at lunch on the first day of school. What happened to my mentors? They’ve vanished. I’m on my own.

Then I see George. He’s distinctive, even from a distance. The hat. The beard. Yep, that’s him. He sits at a table by himself. I remember the advice so generously offered and consider heading in the opposite direction. But I pause. Wrinkle my brow. Think a moment. I fully understand that it could be a bad idea to sit next to the most famous person in the room. The potential for embarrassment is huge. The possibility for gaffes tangible.

“But on the other hand,” a voice inside me (the beer, I think) says, “you’ve got no ego, David. You know that nobody here knows you. Awkward embarrassment will be a feature of the evening no matter what. I mean, really, what have you got to lose?” 

The beer continues, “Think about it, dude. Here’s a whole room full of writers, and all of them know better than to sit next to George RR Martin. But you, you know nothing, David Anthony Durham. Think of it as an opportunity. What’s the worst that could happen?”

Moments later, I’m standing in front of GRRM. I introduce myself. I ask if he minds if I share the table? He’s slightly bemused, I think, but has no objection. I sit. I prop up my book. I arrange my pens. I see several of my mentors from earlier, watching me from a distance, shaking their heads. I think, This is probably a bad idea.

And then a thing happens. George and I start talking. About what? I’m not sure. His books? Surely. My books? I think so. Historical fiction. Yes. We appear to get along. I’m not sure what else, but we chat away for a while before the doors opened to the public. Once they do, George has a constant line of people in front of him. Fans, mostly. But also booksellers who arrive with boxes of books, tote bags of books, backpacks of books for him to sign. Books in special wrappings. First editions. Advanced reading copies. Books in foreign languages. 

What do I do? The only reasonable thing. I offer my table space for them to organize George’s signing production line. We keep talking throughout, which is nice because, among other things, I forget that I’m supposed to be humiliated because nobody is asking for my signature. Thus, I am kept busy for a few hours, and by the end of the event George agrees to read my work – starting with my novel about Hannibal’s war with Rome, Pride of Carthage.

Does any of this crush my soul or destroy my ego? No, it doesn’t. Do I say or do anything terribly embarrassing? Not that I recall. None of the worst things happen. Instead, I have a good conversation with an author I admire. I don’t know then, but it’s the start of many good things, including a step toward being a Wild Cards author, being here and writing this. It begins a journey of creating characters with the help and inspiration of my children, characters I love that wouldn’t exist without Wild Cards calling for their existence: Infamous Black Tongue and Olena, The Handsmith and Nurassyl, Bacho and DJ Tod, to name a few. It’s the start of being able to pick up other author’s amazing characters, put words and actions in their mouths and let them further their stories within my own: The Oddity, Father Squid, Bugsy, Hoodoo Mama, Earthwitch, and Midnight Angel. 

The whole collaborative process isn’t always easy to explain to the perplexed undergrads I started this post with, even with the help of PowerPoints and lots of cover images. But it’s fun trying. I always feel like I’m letting them in on a secret. “Wild Cards,” I say. “If you haven’t already, you should really check the series out. I mean, heads up. Wild Cards might soon explode across all sorts of screens very soon. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

One day, they’ll see. I’m sure of it.