Dede Weil: An Extended Family

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Gary K. Wolfe and Dede Weil -- photo by Bob Collins, courtesy of FAU Special Collections, Robert A. Collins Collection

When I first came to the ICFA in 1988, it was to deliver a paper on the work of Harlan Ellison, who was guest of honor that year. At that time, I was an on-again off-again academic, on a two-year teaching and administrative contract, and with no plans to make a tenure-track career of it. I actually came for two reasons: I had long wanted to investigate the whole idea of the author/storyteller/narrator persona in Ellison’s work, and Gary Wolfe had promised me that the conference would be a real adventure — even for people who, like me, didn’t read a lot of science fiction or fantasy novels. Within hours of arriving, I had met a whole group of new friends.

The next afternoon, I gave my paper — feeling totally stressed because Harlan himself was in the room and I was pointing out some narrative inconsistencies in a few of his stories — but I was greatly relieved when he stood up at the end, complimented the paper, thanked me for paying such close attention to his work, and asked for a copy. This, as Louis in Casablanca said, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. That night, Harlan’s wife Susan introduced me to Joe and Gay Haldeman, and another lifelong friendship was born. And the very next morning, when the hot water went out on a whole side of the eighth floor, Brian Aldiss — who saw me looking forlorn and scrappy — offered me the use of the shower in his room. Yet another great friendship — and all in the space of 24 hours. By the end of the second day, I’d also met Steve Donaldson, and we began swapping war stories; Steve too remains an important part of my life, and is one of the most decent people I’ve ever met. By then I was hooked — I couldn’t notcome back. A few years later, Judith and John Clute showed up. Again, there was an immediate rapport, and — though I had no way of knowing it at the time — John would eventually join Joe, Brian, and Steve in “giving me away” at my IAFA wedding.

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Dede Weil, Charles Brown, Rusty Hevelin, and Gary K. Wolfe in the wedding Dede talks about in her essay -- photo by Bob Collins, courtesy of FAU Special Collections, Robert A. Collins Collection

That wedding — IAFA’s first and only (so far) — was the brainchild of Charlie Brown, who had attended our family wedding in Chicago and suggested that we hold a special wedding ceremony just for our conference friends. It seemed the most logical thing in the world. In addition to my being given away by Joe, Steve, Clute (it’s always just “Clute”), and Brian, Gary was given away by Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Gay Haldeman, and Judith Clute (no sexist possessiveness here!). Rusty Hevelin was our ring-bearer, and our newest family member, Dan Keyes, served as “flower being.” Charlie himself conducted the ceremony, with music from Russ Letson and (later) Joe Haldeman. Greg Bear was the indefatigable official videographer.

Everyone dressed appropriately: the ladies in matching scarves (coordinated by JGNY — Joan Gordon of New York); Steve in a perfectly tailored tuxedo; Charlie in formal Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and tux jacket; Brian in a special t-shirt emblazoned “Hey! I’m Giving Dede Away!”; Rusty in his trademark baseball cap; Dan in a brilliant green vest; Clute in (what else?) black jeans and muscle shirt; Joe in Jimmy Buffet drag (which turned out to be appropriate, since the wedding song he sang for us was “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw”). After a series of wonderful toasts following the ceremony (during which Olena Saciuk presented us with a tiny castle for the “newlyweds”), Beth Gwinn gathered everyone for the annual poolsideLocus photo — which also became our official wedding party picture.

Being surrounded by so many friends, the wedding felt every bit as “real” as the one we had celebrated at my sister’s house, rabbi and all, only a few months earlier.

Today, except for an occasional course I teach at the Newberry Library in Chicago, I’m pretty much out of the academic world entirely. Instead, I am a corporate consultant training employees and retirees in leadership skills and strategic planning for volunteer programs. Sometimes people ask why I return every year to a conference that focuses on a kind of literature that I seldom even read. The answer is that over the years the IAFA has become a huge extended family, complete with crazy uncles, kindly grandfathers, and even the occasional newborn. Unlike the political battlegrounds I’ve seen in both the academic and corporate worlds, this seems to be a group of people who enfold and protect one another, and who generously welcome new members of the family.

Over the years the conference has been such a consistently wonderful experience that it’s hard to single out even a few high moments. Every year Gary and I wonder how the conference can possibly keep up its level of enthusiasm and warmth, and every year we take off from the airport in Chicago with a certain amount of anxiety mixed with the excitement. Will this be the year the magic goes away? But the magic doesn’t go away. Every year I know that Joan Gordon and Veronica Hollinger, fellow members of our exclusive So Far So Good Club, will have little aperitifs hidden in their room to help us unwind and catch up. Every year, if I need to, I know that I can count on Brian for a shower. And I know that every year will yield new surprises, like some of my favorite moments from past years.

A few random memories:

  • Bruce Franklin, in his guest scholar address, citing Joan Gordon and myself in front of hundreds of people, one of the high points of my career;
  • Philip José Farmer delivering a wall-shaking Tarzan yell at the opening of a special evening session, after which he engaged in sparkling dialogue with Brian Aldiss;
  • Bill Senior leading late-night beer-and-jokefests;
  • Kit Hume telling me, at a banquet, that my sequined jersey with a football numeral was “perfectly postmodern”;
  • Roger Zelazny giving one of the funniest readings I have ever heard, in what was tragically his first and last appearance at the conference;
  • Joan, Gay, and I surprising Joe at a session where Joan and I were doing papers on his work with specially made t-shirts reading “I’m Your Number One Fan”;
  • a warm and irresistible storytelling session with Jane Yolen, who showed everyone in the room that this is an art form unto itself;
  • fishing with Joe and actually catching enough to feed small bites to everyone at our dinner table, as long as they signed lengthy legal documents exonerating the restaurant from all responsibility;
  • watching a private and hypnotically graceful martial arts demonstration that was Steve Donaldson’s unique wedding gift for Gary and me;
  • discovering the softer side of Clute, as John revealed not only his passion for good children’s literature, but his genuine love for children;
  • only months after my sister died, finding an unexpected new friend, Susan Straub — who reminds me so much of her — and is also a professional colleague; Susan’s reading program for teenage mothers is as close to her heart as my volunteer programs are to mine;
  • sneaking off to the treadmill in the fitness room with Doris Lessing early every morning, and being invited to her house for bangers and mash;
  • all the riverboat, water-taxi, and overcrowded van rides;
  • seeing just how large a group we can pack into the Rustic Inn, and seeing just how sloppy and ravenous otherwise distinguished writers and scholars can get;
  • helping Tom Maddox search for the perfect profiterole at the Victoria Park restaurant;
  • being shut down by the management after a long and boisterous late-evening sing-along, featuring the entire works of Tom Lehrer, at the lobby bar (I have this on videotape);
  • taking Rob Holdstock for his first steak after a year of mad-cow disease anxiety in England;
  • having long poolside chats with Chip Sullivan, who knows more about children’s TV than he ought to, and with Brian Attebery, who has a collection of genuinely rare jokes;
  • discovering that everything Doug Winter wears is Armani;
  • fearing for my life in the back of Dave Barry’s crowded van as he tried to outrun a train at a crossing on our way back from dinner;
  • listening to Steve read a wonderful new story at an impromptu late-night gathering with only Bob Collins, Julie Palumbo, Don Palumbo, Darlene Tymn, Gary; and maybe one or two others; plotting clothing strategies with Judith Clute;
  • talking about babies, including Peter Hartwell, with Kathryn Cramer by the pool;
  • seeing Brian, in what appeared to be a toga, being wheeled to his reading by Julie Palumbo in what appeared to be a loading-dock dolly;
  • a dangerously large group of us, led by Marshall Tymn, negotiating our way across the busy highway in front of the Hilton to try the alligator chili at the Sheraton;
  • seeing an actual comet from a telescope Joe had set up on the hotel roof;
  • watching the famous IAFA Authors and Critics Band — Tom Maddox (guitar), Don Morse (drums), Joe Haldeman (guitar), Dave Hartwell (guitar), and Gary Wolfe (keyboards — and who was totally deflated when he realized that Tom had turned down the volume on HIS amplifier alone);
  • the thrill of Gary’s brother Charles introducing him at his guest scholar speech, and mortifying him by divulging his darkest secret — that he was, in childhood and adolescence, a closet accordionist!

And best of all, all the good times I’ve had with Gary — like acting out the movie Same Time, Next Year, but getting to go home together afterward, and share all these wonderful memories.

Dede Weil

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