My friend John has been to a lot of conventions, and I mean a lot. I don’t want to make him feel old, but he attended his first convention the same year I was born. When he mentioned that he’d kept the program books from most if not all of the cons he’d attended, I knew I had to snag him for a Convention Attention interview! He even let me snap photos of a bunch of the program books. Just wait till you see the artwork on these, everything from book cover quality to copyright infringing fan art.
In a way, I’ve got John to thank for the existence of this monthly column. He’s the guy who talked me into going to my very first scifi convention a few years ago. I had a fantastic time, and couldn’t wait to go to another one, and then another one, and then another one.
ANDREA JOHNSON: What was your first convention? what made you decide to go?
JOHN WENGER: A branch library in my home town of Elkhart, Indiana hosted a science fiction movie series when I was in high school and I went to that, and they then invited attendees to start an SF book group at the library and I was one of five or six people who joined that. We met every week and usually read a book a week, so it was no place for casual fans. I’m still friends with one of the other members of that group, Paul Becker, and an older member taught us both about book collecting, fandom and convention. Five of us went to Windycon 6 in Chicago in 1979 – my first con experience at age 16! We took the South Shore train into town and all shared a single hotel room. Philip Klass, who wrote wonderful short fiction under the name William Tenn was the guest of honor and a couple of young authors, Gene Wolfe and George R.R. Martin, were also there.
ANDREA JOHNSON: How many conventions have you attended?
JOHN WENGER: That’s a hard one. I don’t know why, but I decided I’d keep the programs from each con I went to right from the beginning (sometimes I had authors sign the program if I didn’t have any of their books to have signed), so that’s helped me look back and remember ones I’ve attended. I’ve gone back to Windycon about a half-dozen times. My second con was Hoosiercon 1 in South Bend, Indiana in early 1980. I went to see Philip Jose Farmer at Inconjunction in Indianapolis the following year and have gone back to that con a few times. I think they held three Conamazoo conventions in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek [Michigan], which of course I went to. And I’ve been to three Worldcons and three World Fantasy Cons. I’m going to guess I’ve gone to more than 30 conventions. I stopped going for a few years (don’t know why), but now make it to one or two a year.
ANDREA JOHNSON: Of all the conventions you’ve attended over the years, which is your favorite and why?
JOHN WENGER: I still remember that first one fondly, mostly because of the people I went with and because it was stepping into a whole new world. Maybe the most fun I ever had was at the World Fantasy Convention in Baltimore in 1995. The year before, I had attended the Clarion SF writing workshop and spent six weeks living and writing with 17 other aspiring writers and seven professional author who mentored us. So several of us attended this WFC together. It celebrated short fiction and the Guests-of-Honor were three of my favorites, Lucius Shepard, Terry Bisson, and one of my workshop teachers, Howard Waldrop. Almost as soon as I got there, I ran into a workshop friend and then we ran into Howard, who invited us to join him and George R.R. Martin (this was before his Game of Thrones celebrity, but still a big name) in the bar. We sat at a corner table with George and Howard for hours, just listening and enjoying all the other authors who came by to talk with them.
Now, my “home” convention is ConFusion in Troy, Michigan. I’ve been going to that almost every year for a dozen years and it’s now our mid-winter break for my wife and I. It’s easily the best regional con, with a ridiculous number of authors who also come each year. It’s the con where we see our friends most often and have made wonderful friends. Their programming is the best, both the literature and science tracks.
ANDREA JOHNSON: How have you see conventions change over the years? Have you noticed any changing trends in programming, the types of people who attend, or what the guests are expected to do (or not do)?
JOHN WENGER: Having attended Detcon 1 (the national convention, since the Worldcon was in London this year) in Detroit this last summer, I saw more diversity in the guests, programming, and attendees than I’ve seen before. I know many cons have addressed this issue in recent years and I think progress is being made slowly. As a straight, white male, I have to admit that there have always been a lot of people just like me attending conventions, but if anyone should be eager to embrace diversity and invite other to join the community, I hope it’s science fiction fans.
ANDREA JOHNSON: What advice do you have for people who are new to conventions?
JOHN WENGER: Well, this is coming from a fairly quiet, mostly introverted fan, but I’d advise anyone not to be afraid to go to a con, sit in the front row at programming that interests you, be courageous and tell the authors how much you enjoy their books or how much you’re looking forward to reading their books now that you’ve met them. And talk to other fans – there are lots of opportunities to talk to others you might have a lot in common with while waiting to get a book autographed, browsing in the dealer’s room, or getting a snack in the con suite. Fans are among the friendliest, most welcoming, and most interesting people I’ve met.
ANDREA JOHNSON: Any funny or odd convention stories you’d like to share with us?
JOHN WENGER: This is from that very first convention I attended – while traveling to Chicago on the train, one of our group, Dennis, who was head librarian at the branch we met at, became ill and once we got to the hotel, we collapsed into one of the beds with a fever. The rest of us all went off and enjoyed the first night of the convention, coming back to the room quite late. My friend Paul and I, being the youngest, brought sleeping bags and had just quietly snuck into the dark room and settled down on the floor. Our pal Tim must’ve been just a little noisier, because when he came in (after watching old films in the movie room) Dennis sat up in bed suddenly, demanding “Who’s there?” Without a pause, Tim answered, “Peeter Lorreee.” to which Dennis said, “Oh,” and fell back asleep.
ANDREA JOHNSON: Thanks John!