Writing Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror in Austin
How local authors who work beyond the world we know meet, connect, and launch themselves into the business
"When I moved to Austin in 1998," says Christopher Brown, who presents his dystopian debut novel, Tropic of Kansas, at BookPeople this Friday, "it was partly because I could tell that there was a rich fantastic-literature community here, a community of both readers and writers."
Indeed there was, and had been for years. Brown's arrival coincided with the 20th anniversary of ArmadilloCon, the homegrown annual sci-fi convention that was not just a celebration of the more fantastic genres of literature and one hell of a fannish good time, but somewhere aspiring writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror could meet and polish their craft via workshops led by their fellow writers from the local scene. In the days of ArmadilloCon's founding, such writers included Bruce Sterling, Howard Waldrop, Steven Utley, Lisa Tuttle, Tom Reamy, and their beloved mentor, University of Texas anthropology professor Chad Oliver – all members of the Turkey City Writer's Workshop, a Lone Star coterie that became one of the epicenters of speculative fiction. Of what eventually led, after East Coaster William Gibson had galvanized the field, after enough tons of dream-stained paper had transmediated filmward, to the gritty/glossy mise en scène of the Wachowskis' Matrix. You know, citizen: cyberpunk. What so much of the future looked like, fictionally, in the Eighties and Nineties.
Brown also landed here while Austin's fantastic-lit readers and writers still had their own bookstore, one run by ArmadilloCon's founder. "I remember Willie Siros' place on West Sixth," says Brown, "in the building currently occupied by Sandra Bullock's flower-arrangement-and-money-laundering operation. It was called Adventures in Crime and Space, a specialty science-fiction and mystery bookstore that the community had sustained for a long time."
Alas, citizen, in the 17th year of the 21st century, Adventures in Crime and Space has gone the way of the space shuttle program, but the rich community it served continues. Invigorated with fresh blood and perspectives, those Turkey City workshops are still going on, as are other classes and social gatherings and industry shindigs around our river city. There's the rich milieu of SlugTribe, a protean group of aficionados that's been around for more than 30 years, of which occasional Chronicle contributor Jon Lebkowsky was a co-founder, and of which a young author named Nicky Drayden is a more recent member.
That same Drayden will be presenting her own debut novel – The Prey of Gods, a character-rich adventure set in a near-future South Africa – along with Brown at BookPeople. And not just by chance: Both are Harper Voyager authors.
"Yeah," says Brown, sipping at something iced and caffeinated below his tidy mustache, "you could characterize Nicky as a hot young breakout, with me analogous to the well-regarded bass player/sideman who starts his own surprisingly decent solo act."
Brown makes this remark while seated with Drayden and several other members of their community: a legion of local writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, all umbrella'd against the blazing sun at a table outside Thunderbird Coffee on Manor Road. Look: There's Jessica Reisman, co-originator of The Intergalactic Nemesis and author of the recent Substrate Phantoms. There's Tiptree Award-winning writer Eugene Fischer. There's Rebecca Schwarz, who runs the occasional NoConBarCon gathering around town and leads the yearly Writers' Workshop at ArmadilloCon. There's David Chang, editor of the local sci-fi zine Space Squid. Nate Southard, indefatigable creator of some really grisly horror fiction. Fantasy author Stina Leicht of Of Blood and Honey fame. Skyler White, whose The Skill of Our Hands, co-written with Steven Brust, was published by Tor Books earlier this year. William Browning Spencer, an old-school author – best known for his Zod Wallop – whose work can tap a deep Lovecraftian vein. Former playwright Marshall Ryan Maresca, now a purveyor of fantasy-world derring-do with his popular Thorn of Dentonhill series. John Gibbons, chairman of this year's ArmadilloCon, which – with Nisi Shawl as writer guest of honor – will unfold a veritable Chorp dimension of camaraderie at the Omni Southpark Aug. 4-6. Jennifer Juday, chair of next year's ArmadilloCon.
Ah yes, ArmadilloCon. As it hits its 39th year, it remains a locus for local authors to connect, network, and launch themselves toward new worlds. "I'd been in writers' groups before, but it wasn't specifically for science fiction and fantasy," says Drayden. "And I heard about ArmadilloCon, and I was like, 'Yes, I need to go to this!' I went to the workshop first, and it was a really good introduction to con life. Because you're automatically paired with people, you know someone coming out of the workshop, so you're not just released into this bigger convention with all these people that you don't know. And I really felt like I'd found my tribe, because I didn't even know what I was in high school. I was, you know, kind of geeky or whatever – but I really felt at home almost immediately at ArmadilloCon. And after you've gone a few years, you start recognizing faces, and it's like a kind of family reunion when you get together each year."
"Nicky's one of our teachers now," says Schwarz. "In fact, a lot of this year's ArmadilloCon workshop faculty are here," she says, pointing out Brown, Leicht, White, Fischer, Reisman, and Maresca. "All the teachers volunteer their time. And this is the first year that we'll have sponsorships available for writers of color – a program we hope to make a permanent part of the workshop. This esprit de corps and pay-it-forward attitude is part of why I believe that Austin's a real incubator for writers, especially science-fiction and fantasy writers."
Which is not to say that horror writers, those who tend to plow literary fields closer to whatever demon-haunted bone orchard's available, are left out in the cold, right?
"Well, the horror-writing community is a little more fractured than I'd like it to be," says Southard. "Historywise, the first name that always popped into my mind with Austin horror was Joe Lansdale – and he's from Nacogdoches. I moved here from Indiana in '99, and Lee Thomas moved here from New York a couple years later, and Wrath James White from Las Vegas – everybody's just sort of conglomerated here. But it's tough getting everybody together, because everybody's got their own lives or whatever. Like Robert Jackson Bennett – amazing horror author, very successful – he lives in Austin, and I've seen him twice in my lifetime, and both times were in Boston. But when we can get everyone together, it's a very supportive group of people who just like to write scary stories."
"I remember when my first book came out," says the darkly bearded Southard, "and my mom bought a copy of it. And I was like, 'Don't, Mom – don't read it. Just don't.' And she was like, 'No, you're my son, I'm gonna love it.' And she called me back two days later, asking who had abused me when I was a kid."
There's laughter around the coffeehouse table, among these gathered writers of genre fiction – a laughter that speaks of recognition and shared experience. A laughter, here in Austin with its escalating real-estate prices and struggling arts scene and heavenly taco trucks and hideous reptiloid grackles, of something like family.
The Road to Publication
Those two debut novelists, Brown and Drayden, who will be presenting their books at BookPeople on Fri., July 14, 7pm – how did they get their books accepted by a major publisher? Both had had numerous short stories published over the years, sure; but how did this sort of Ultimate Goal of authorship occur?
I thought I was gonna sell a novel through the network of friends I'd developed over the course of years, going to conventions, writing criticism and reviews … but there's really no substitute for writing cold queries and trying to find an agent. The only way you can sell a book – at least a debut novel – to one of the big five publishing companies is by having a good literary agent. And there are lists you can go through, everybody has an online bio you can research, so you go and try to find a good fit. And I got really lucky and had a quick success once I started the process of that. And once we got Tropic of Kansas out there, it sold within a couple of weeks.
For me, things happened very very slowly. In fact, I was gonna warn Chris how slowly this business worked. And then, a week later, he had a deal. And I'm like, "WHUT?" So there's a broad range of experiences. But I actually started writing The Prey of Gods for NaNoWriMo in 2009, and finished it in a year, and did the cold-query thing to a list of agents. And the woman who ended up being my agent, Jennifer Jackson, she's awesome. And I thought, "Okay, now things are gonna happen so fast." And she started submitting the book, and we got some nibbles, a little bit of interest here and there, got kinda close once – but then, it was radio silence all of a sudden. And two years went by, three years went by, and I was working on other things – so I wasn't discouraged or anything, I was thinking, "Well, this book didn't sell, but the next one will." Because you have to maintain your positivity or else you go insane. And when it was pretty close to four years, Jennifer calls me, "We have some interest from Harper Voyager, they wanna talk to you." So we set up an interview with Harper's David Pomerico – and since then, it's been going so fast. And I have a book out now!
More Excursions Into the Fantastic
What's out next from the other relentless locals in our roundtable?
Eugene Fischer: I have the only original story in Tachyon's upcoming anthology The New Voices of Fantasy.
Jessica Reisman: My story "A Salt Moon" will be published in the Terra Nullius anthology from Kristell Ink.
David Chang: Space Squid's Best Of issue, a 24-page collection of the best we've published on the web for the past year, will be released for ArmadilloCon.
Rebecca Schwarz: My most recent story is coming out in an anthology called Lost Worlds, from Flame Tree Press, published out of the UK.
Nate Southard: Sometime this fall I've got a novel called Bad Dogs coming out – which will hit everybody's white-trash-magician-battles-drug-dealing-werewolves fix.
Stina Leicht: I have a book, Blackthorne, coming out in August. It's the second in a series of epic fantasy for, I guess, Social Justice Warrior types. I also sold an SF novel to Simon & Schuster's Saga Press – it's a gender-flipped Seven Samurai-in-space, with women of color and an illegal AI.
Skyler White: I just finished a YA near-future sci-fi novel.
William Browning Spencer: My newest short story collection, The Unorthodox Dr. Draper & Other Stories, will be out at the end of July.
Marshall Ryan Maresca: In October, I've got The Imposters of Aventil coming out. That's the third book in my Maradaine series, and it's also crossing over with the Maradaine Constabulary series – because I'm far too complex in everything I do.
What Got You Hooked on the Weird Stuff?
Compare the joy of reading to a sort of addiction, and you know you can find a gateway drug in there somewhere. (In the case of science fiction, maybe a person's gateway was even Frederik Pohl's excellent 1977 novel Gateway?) Since we're always glad to know more of what the good weird stuff is, we asked the authors at our speculative-fiction roundtable: What story first got you hooked on your favorite literary genre?
Eugene Fischer: Both of my parents were SF fans; I had Tolkien and Heinlein as bedtime stories before I started reading books on my own. The first SF novels I read on my own were Robert Heinlein's Have Space Suit – Will Travel and James H. Schmitz's The Witches of Karres. I think the first influential genre books I found on my own were Bruce Coville's My Teacher Is an Alien series. I became a devoted fan, read everything Coville published for years.
For all the answers, see “The Q&A Hole,” austinchronicle.com.