Carol McMullen-Pettit: From Doom to Camaraderie – After Harlan Ellison

Carol ICFA 5

Carol McMullen in front of pool bar at ICFA 5 -- 1984 -- photo by Bob Collins, courtesy of Judy Collins McCormick

In the spring of 1982, I heard through my 10th grade English teacher, about a local conference on Science Fiction and Fantasy being held at the Sheraton Hotel. As a student in the gifted program, I was eligible for a voucher for free admission. Having just finished J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, I was interested. Being almost sixteen years old, I knew next to nobody in the field other than Asimov and Jules Verne!

The first event I could go to was a lecture by Harlan Ellison. I had absolutely no idea who Harlan Ellison was. None. Zero. Zip. He was hilarious. I almost fell out of my chair, I was laughing so hard. I believe he was describing his reaction to an editor who insisted on referring to Science Fiction as “Sci-Fi,” and labeling Ellison’s books as such. Ellison has a marvelous gift for public speaking. Anyway, again, being almost sixteen, I wanted his autograph. I still didn’t know who he was, but everyone else seemed to want to talk to him after the lecture, so I waited. And waited.

Still patiently waiting . . . . The crowd begins to thin, and he asks “Is there anything else that I have to do?” Desperately fearing that I would not have another chance, I summoned up every ounce of courage in my teen-aged body and called out, “Yes! You have to sign this!” Ellison whirled around and shot me a look that would have melted Everest. I was doomed. He marched over to me and proceeded to criticize scathingly my apparent total lack of civility. I couldn’t tell you exactly what he said. I was far too busy trying to disappear through the floor. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even look at him. It was all I could do not to cry. When he finally summed up his tirade, he shoved my pad of paper back into my hands and left.

He had signed it.

So, after an initiation like that, why do I return year after year? Because the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts is something like an addiction you just can’t shake. It has a unique atmosphere that has less to do with where it is held (although my experience is limited to the years it was held at the Sheraton in Boca and the current location of the Ft. Lauderdale Airport Hilton) and more to do with the people who run it and the people who attend.

Carol bookroom 24

Carol McMullen-Pettit in book room at ICFA 24 -- 1993 -- photo by Bob Collins, courtesy of Judy Collins McCormick

It has much more to do with the kind treatment and attention a sixteen-year-old girl received when asking questions about literature and pop culture. It has more to do with the genuine love of the genre by all participants. It has more to do with the spirit of camaraderie, the laughter, the stories shared by all attending. The loyalty to this conference is astonishing. It’s very survival as a (gasp!) academic conference is amazing enough in today’s world of pure, glitzy, self-indulgent entertainment.

A closing note: I’ve met people here that I would never have had the opportunity to meet elsewhere. I have tipped beers with some of the most talented writers in the field, and spoken casually with many “in the profession” that are normally separated from the rest of society by secretaries and answering machines. I bask in a sea of talent, opportunity, and energy for four days every year and it renews my soul. Thank you Bob Collins for creating this magnificent literary vehicle, which even the “great” Harlan Ellison could not stall. Thank you IAFA for perpetuating it.

Carol McMullen-Pettit

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