Wednesday, March 21, 2012

In the House of Magic-an Evening to Honor Gene Wolfe

A couple of months ago, my friend Valya invited me to an evening to honor the Chicago-area author Gene Wolfe with the very first Fuller Award. After reading the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame's website to learn more about the event, I was reluctant to go because I, for one, was not familiar with Gene Wolfe's work, and two, was not certain if I would be able to get the time away from the always present day job of the working artist. The stars must have aligned because two weeks before the event I had bought a ticket and checked out three of Wolfe's books from our local library.

The Fuller Award: photo by 8 Eyes Photography

The book I was most drawn to was the The Sorcerer's House. I was pleasantly surprised when I opened the book and saw the dedication page was addressed to Neil Gaiman, the very author and longtime friend intended to present Gene Wolfe with the Fuller Award--coincidence or magic--after seeing the dedication page, I knew making the trip to Chicago would be a decision I would not soon forget.

I left La Crosse at 4am on Friday, March 16th to drive to Madison where I caught the Megabus. When I arrived at Union Station on Canal Street--I began to feel the cocktail of exhaustion and excitement set in. The 11:35 a.m. Northwestern Metra line took me to Valya's neighborhood and when the train arrived, not only were Valya and her husband Mark waiting for me at the station, but Trillian Stars and Kyle Cassidy as well. Nearly 3 years have passed since I first met Kyle and Trillian. Kyle invited me, a random girl on the internet, to join in celebrating their marriage. So I took a train from Wisconsin to Philadelphia and it was at this very wedding party I first met Valya, and here it seems the second bit of magic happened for me. This group of internet friends were together again.

After excited greetings, farewells were exchanged as Kyle and Trillian boarded a train going back downtown to explore Chicago. Then Valya, Mark and I went to the Sanfilippo Estate to check in with the catering crew of Wild Asparagus. I was so excited for a sneak peak! If walking into the Carousel Pavilion with tables half dressed and ceiling lights on was amazing, I couldn't imagine what the place would look like the next night.

Our initial tour complete, we made our way back to Valya's--where I took a nap and Valya continued to work--and though I couldn't forget, I must take a moment to point out Valya was responsible for organizing the Evening to Honor Gene Wolfe. Sure, others helped, but Valya was the mastermind--to see what I mean, read here account of the events.

After my nap, it was time for more reunions and for more work, but when friends are involved,the adage of "many hands" proves true. Wine, whiskey, and delicious Burundi coffee courtesy of Strange Brew, doesn't hurt either.
Busy Bees working on the Event Programs. photo by Valya.

People I had not seen in almost a year came over to Valya's to help sort and organize final details. It felt a lot like being in a high-school year book class, late at night--the smell of rubber cement, debating which font and size was most appropriate. Exacto knives and adhesive printing paper, may or may not have been involved. With the work finally completed, those of us staying with Valya went off to bed in order to appear somewhat rested for the next day's festivities.

Saturday morning, March 17th, 2012, found us all buzzing with excitement and eagerness. Somewhere in between making last minute phone calls and leaving to have her hair expertly braided, Valya found time to bake us croissants and make coffee. After breakfast we retreated to our rooms to get dressed--I did my best to channel Zoe Deschanel's hair, I'm not sure how well I succeeded. Kyle of course looked dashing without trying, but Trillian was breathtaking in her Heartless Revival ensemble. Valya, like the sorceress she is, looked completely transformed in her Kambriel. It was very exciting to see not one, but two independent designers represented in one hallway. I wore my silver dress I found last October at Goodwill--yet we all came out looking beautiful.
My Gracious Hosts, Mark and Valya. Photo by 8 Eyes Photography

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Kyle and Trillian looking lovely, as always. Photo by Carl Hertz

Dressed in Silver at the Sanfilippo Estaste: Photo by Madeline Matz

My dear friend M.C.Matz arrived to help transport us to an entertaining lunch at the Happy Buddha. Tofu and miso soup consumed, we finally arrived at the Sanfilippo Estate. After initial set up, Valya gave me the *Official Job* of asking all the special guests to sign the commemorative posters--which basically meant I had to politely corral authors and luminaries and give them felt tip pins to sign posters. Exciting, I know!

Me watching Valya and Neil go over a few notes in the story "The Solar Labyrinth". Peter Straub is right behind me! Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

However, because I had done my research on the authors I wasn't familiar with--I was able to recognize a few people I was looking forward to meeting--like Jennifer Stevenson, author of The Brass Bed, speed skating extraordinaire, a.k.a. Flash Hottie, formerly of the Windy City Roller Girls. With Roller Derby experience in common, Jennifer and I had plenty to talk about, so we made friends for the rest of the evening.

Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub and Michael Dirda Signing Posters: Photo by 8 Eyes photography

Posters signed and guests checked in, Jennifer and I took our seats for the award ceremony. Neil Gaiman gave a terrific speech and read one of Gene Wolfe's stories "The Solar Labyrinth" before presenting the award to Mr. Wolfe. During Neil's speech, the third piece of magic started happening for me--as I was listening to him speak, I realized I didn't just want to be a person who sits in an auditorium while her favorite author gives a speech. As I looked behind, even right next to me, at the writers and scholars joined together in support of Mr. Wolfe's contribution to literature, I began to realize I want more than just to be a fan.

Neil Reading "The Solar Labyrinth" Photo by 8 eyes photography.

After Neil's presentation of the Fuller Award- Gene gave a very humorous as well as touching speech.
Photo by 8 Eyes Photography

Then the theatrical group Terra Mysterium performed Gene Wolfe's "The Toy Theater" adapted for the stage by Lawrence Santoro, accompanined by R. Jelani Eddington on the Pipe Organ.
Photo by 8 Eyes Photography

After the play, we were all treated to Eddington's solo performance on the organ. Coin Operated Boy by The Dresden Dolls, Over the Rainbow and the Star Wars Anthem were just a few of the songs played.

When the performance was over, much mingling was happening in the foyer, but M.C.Matz, Jennifer and I were ready to make our way to the Circus Pavilion. As we walked down the drive I looked over to my left at a pond, home to seasonal geese and willow trees budding in the early warmth of March--I saw out over the pavilion clouds that looked like castles and krakens, and knew this evening was only going to get much, much cooler.

The Circus Pavilion was completely transformed. The catering crew were busily buzzing around, filling wine glasses and helping guests find their seats.
The Circus Pavilion Transformed. Photos by 8 Eyes Photography

M.C.Matz, Jennifer, and I were seated together at The Urth of the New Sun, each table having been named after one of Gene's books. Also at our table were Valya's friend Sean, our friends Angie and Drake--Sam Weller, and Leslie DuBay. When I saw Leslie, I knew her right away as the woman I had urged over on Kyle's Blog to travel from Minneapolis to come to this event. Kyle had once done same for me--and it was at his urging I was able to make so many new friends. I introduced Leslie to everyone at the table, and she fit right in, laughing and joking. Sam Weller sat next to me on my right, and Gods--what can I say about Sam? I knew he was a scholar and writer of Ray Bradbury--but I didn't realize he was also a professor at Columbia College in Chicago. Within moments, I was opening up to him about my aspirations and Sam was urging me to "make my writing dreams happen". Later in the evening, Sam introduced me to Audrey Niffenegger, and as I shook her hand I told her my local library had her books.

Leslie Dancing, photo by 8 Eyes Photography

During dinner, special guests gave speeches, punctuated by witty introductions by Peter Sagal, host of NPR's Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me! The dinner was delicious--a salad of poached pear, goat cheese and spring greens, and my vegetarian main course of Portabella mushroom, with brown rice, asparagus and other spring vegetables with a sweet and spicy sauce.

I rode the carousel with Angie and Drake--so much laughter, so many smiles.
Angie, Drake and I. New Friends on a Joy ride. Photo by 8 Eyes Photography
So Happy. Photo by 8 Eyes Photography

Furthest Left, Jennifer Stevenson Letting Her Cow-girl flag Fly. Next to her, dressed in Royal Purple, M.C.Matz looking beautiful and happy. Photo by 8 Eyes Photography
I tried talking with everyone I was excited to meet, and after getting a group photo with Valya, Trillian and Maria Dahvana Headley--I told Maria how I looked forward to reading her book, Queen of Kings, and how much I admired her tattoo of Egyptian God Horus, whose wings spanned almost her entire back. We chatted about tattoos and books trailers. She was so nice
Myself with three of the most lovely ladies in attendance: Maria, Valya and Trillian. Photo by 8 Eyes Photography

As the evening drew to a close, I was able to congratulate Gene Wolfe on his award, and tell him how much I enjoyed The Sorcerer's House. He seemed surprised in a happy way I had read the book--and although I had not known much about his writing until this event, I am so happy I made the trip to honor him.
Artist M.C.Matz, responsible for the design of the Fuller Award as well as the commemorative posters and programs, with Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe. Photo by 8 Eyes Photography

After departing the estate, M.C.Matz and I headed back Valya's where Peter Straub, Gary K. Wolfe, and Jennifer Stevenson were already mingling and relaxing with the other guests. It was amazing to see how friendly and inclusive this literary writing community is. Everyone was so nice and willing to talk about their work, any concerns I had about being nervous to meet them quickly dissipated. As the guests began to leave, it was just Valya, Mark, Kyle and I left downstairs. Valya, the spinner of this great web of magic began to doze on the sofa while Kyle and I talked about Roller Derby and books. After three years I was finally able to tell my favorite photographer how much I did end up liking A.S. Byatt's Possession--and I know that won't mean much of anything to almost anyone--but it was really important for me, so I have to include it.

Trillian and I talking about favorite authors or something else inspirational. Also, you can see the back of her awesome dress. Photo by 8 Eyes Photography
Are you still reading? Really? I'm impressed--because this is turning into some Amanda Palmer Blog writing.

There is so much more to share--but I think it will have to wait for another blog, another day. What I came away with from this experience is this: "I want to be a writer". This isn't really a new thought for me, because I think it is has always been there--but I am nothing but a little late to the party. This is the third bit of magic that happened--all of those people, laughing, red wine drinking, educated, lovely tattooed people. Those beautifully dressed people, those people who can take a photo, write or speak a few sentences and create a whole world--they made something that night--and I got to be part of it. You don't witness that sort of magic without coming away not wanting to make some of it yourself.
I am really glad I did NOT have to pin that boutonniere on Gene's Lapel.
Photo by 8 Eyes Photography

*Sincere Thanks to 8 Eyes Photography, Carl Hertz and Madeline McMatz for taking photos. It was really nice to be in front of the camera enjoying the evening rather than behind it--also, I am so lucky and grateful you four are my friends. Love, love love to you.


  1. Maura, you are an amazing, talented woman, and I am so happy to have you in my life.

    You definitely helped to make the magic happen at the Gene Wolfe gala, and I have no doubt there's more magic to come!
    Thank you for everything.

  2. It was such a pleasure getting to spend a relaxing, beautiful and fun evening with you, Maura! I am also inspired by the work of those who were there, by the setting, the conversation - each bit its own piece of art. Let's do it AGAIN!!

  3. Wow, Maura! I don't feel like I've had the opportunity to have gotten to know you very well yet, but I think this blog has made me see you on a whole new level. Although it's the 1st of your blog posts that I've had the pleasure of reading, I really feel your spirit. I can't lie, I got a little jealous reading about your hobnobbing with some of my fave authors, but then I got all verklempt by the end and just felt really happy for you to have had such and amazing experience, I think I can let the green-meanies go. I can feel your magic twinkles coming off my laptop! Now I say this with the utmost dramatic and cliche' flair I can muster-reach for the stars Maura, reach, reach!

  4. That was the most amazing evening!

    I had been just a tiny bit dreading being a cat at a dog show--I mean, unlike Trillian and Valya and Maura I don't bling up well, and I haven't had my teeth fixed--but the FIRST person to say hi was Maura Tyranny from Mississippi Valley Mayhem roller derby, and all at once I was with my tribe--safe--nothing bad can happen when derby peeps hang together! So from that moment I was at ease. Thanks, Maura. You and MC and Leslie and our other fine tablemates made a safe place where I could get my cowgirl on.

    Most of all I have to hand it to Valya. I've organized some parties in my day, and I have a fair idea how much insanity she must have gone through to make so much magic happen at once. The setting was fabulous, the guest list stellar, the food and drink superlative, the special effects incidental to the space (a.k.a. the San Filippo Collection of Shiny Things) dazzling, the entertainment--hoo, the entertainment must have taken months and months and MONTHS to get together, so perfectly did it mesh with the setting, the evening, and oh yeah--honoring Gene Wolfe, and old friend and a tremendous writer in ways that were unique and beautiful and charming and appropriate.

    Kudos to all who worked so hard to make a party in fairyland for a great, great guy.