Will Warren Hammond and Carrie Vaughn Go Where No Local Sci Fi Writers Have Gone Before?

Will Warren Hammond and Carrie Vaughn Go Where No Local Sci Fi Writers Have Gone Before?
Photo: Anthony Camera. Background image: Thinkstock

Carrie Vaughn is missing.

It's a little after ten on a Sunday morning, and this year's MileHiCon -- Colorado's oldest science-fiction and fantasy convention -- is beginning its third and final day. In a Hyatt Regency Tech Center meeting room, a panel titled "Literary Genre or Marketing Label?" is five minutes late getting started. Sitting at a long table at the front facing a few dozen attendees are four local SF/F writers: Lou Berger, Van Aaron Hughes, and Angie Hodapp and her husband, Warren Hammond. Next to Hammond is an empty chair where Vaughn is supposed to be.

Hammond is the last panelist to introduce himself as everyone waits for Vaughn to materialize. Rugged yet unassuming, he's hard to hear over the audience's polite coughs and the rustling pages of their convention schedules. "I'm the author of the novels KOP, Ex-KOP and KOP Killer, which are kind of cross-genre books: mystery, science fiction and noir," Hammond says. "My newest book is a science-fiction spy novel, and it's due in December. It's called Tides of Maritinia."

Just as Hammond's introduction ends, a woman with wire-rimmed glasses and pale blond hair sneaks behind him and takes the seat to his right. "Hey, you guys started early," she says with a laugh, putting out her name plate and a stack of business cards. "My name is Carrie Vaughn. I write a bunch of stuff. I'm probably best known for the Kitty Norville urban-fantasy series. The next book in that series, Low Midnight, is due in December. Good morning."

It's a good morning indeed at MileHiCon 46. The annual convention, founded in 1969 and held in late October, has become the gathering place for Colorado's SF/F tribe. This year, more than 1,200 attendees, guests, vendors and volunteers have converged on the hotel, according to programming chair Rose Beetem, and the place is hectic.

Vaughn's and Hammond's lives have been hectic lately as well. Not only do they both have new novels coming out in December, but each of those books is a leap of faith. Vaughn's Low Midnight is the fourteenth installment of her best-selling Kitty series -- but instead of focusing on its eponymous main character, a werewolf who lives in Boulder and hosts a talk-radio show, Low Midnight spotlights Cormac, the series' tormented, werewolf-hunting antihero. It's the kind of sharp left turn that runs the risk of enraging readers of an ongoing series, especially those as passionate as Vaughn's fans are about Kitty.

Hammond's new book is also a departure. Tides of Maritinia has nothing to do with his KOP series, the third book of which, KOP Killer, won the Colorado Book Award for Crime/Mystery in 2013. Set on an alien planet whose technology is being suppressed by an advanced empire, Tides of Maritinia is part of a fledgling HarperCollins imprint called Voyager Impulse, an experiment in releasing novels as e-books first, then following later with physical editions.

Both authors are strongly rooted in the local SF/F scene, at a time when those genres are exploding across the country, thanks to the mainstream success of everything from Guardians of the Galaxy to Game of Thrones. Vaughn is even a regular contributor to the Wild Cards books, a long-running superhero anthology series co-edited by Game of Thrones creator George R. R. Martin, and she's writing a Wild Cards graphic novel, set to be published by Random House. And Hammond has been in talks with Hollywood about the film rights to KOP, though he's hesitant to discuss any details. Despite the current popularity of SF/F right now, however, Vaughn and Hammond still wrestle with a longtime challenge: how to convince the vast majority of people who don't consider themselves SF/F fans to venture into their world.

"The human mind wants to categorize," Hammond says as the panel winds down. "When people go shopping, they want to be able to find things that they know they like. Categorization can be a double-edged sword. If you say, 'I am this,' and there's a whole audience out there that likes this, then it's good. But I think we as genre writers sometimes run the risk of categorizing ourselves too much.

"For instance, as I was writing my KOP books, I was thinking, 'This is great. Mystery readers will read them and science-fiction readers will read them. I'll appeal to two audiences.' What tends to happen instead, as I learned, was that mystery readers say, 'I don't read science fiction,' and science-fiction readers say, 'I don't read mystery.' So sometimes you actually end up marginalizing yourself. We geek ourselves out too much, and we become a little insular."

Vaughn agrees: "When aspiring writers ask me about how they should target their writing, I tell them to pay no attention to that kind of thing. It will restrict you. You will end up falling into stereotypes in an effort to tailor your work toward a perceived genre category. You run the risk of making your work look like everyone else's."

 

Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville series has become an urban-fantasy phenomenon.
Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville series has become an urban-fantasy phenomenon.
Anthony Camera

Carrie Vaughn didn't grow up like everyone else. "I was born on Mather Air Force Base near Sacramento, but we moved around a lot," she says. "California, Florida, Colorado, North Dakota, Maryland, back to Colorado. It's part of my identity. When people ask, 'Where did you grow up?,' I'm like, 'I didn't grow up anywhere.' 'Military brat' wound up being my identity."

When she says "military brat," she does so with pride. Her father flew B-52s in the Vietnam War, and he graduated from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He met Vaughn's mother, a Colorado College student, at a mixer on the Academy campus. Whenever her father's duties called for it, she and her younger brother would relocate along with their parents. Her family was close-knit, but her childhood wasn't always easy. "You're always the new kid," Vaughn says. "I had a few really bad years in school, just from not fitting in and being bullied. It was kind of brilliant being a military brat, though, because when you're in that kind of situation, you just think, 'I only have to hang on for another year, because then we'll move. It'll be fine if I can just get out of here.'"

Fortunately for Vaughn, her parents provided another form of escape: science fiction. "My parents are both huge science-fiction and fantasy fans -- I was fed it," she says. "It was a revelation to me to go out in the world later and realize not everybody loves science fiction." Her father brought home movies to watch on the VCR, classics like Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and Logan's Run. Her mother preferred books and introduced her to the novels of such science-fiction masters as Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke; she took her to see science-fiction legends Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison when they came to Colorado Springs to speak and sign books. But it was Star Trek that made the first strong impression on Vaughn, when she was four: "I don't remember the name of the episode, but it was the one with the rubbery, flying manta-ray thing that stuck onto Spock's back. It was horrifying. I was scared off of Star Trek for a very long time.

"The other things that we watched a lot of were Wonder Woman and The Bionic Woman," she adds, citing shows about two powerful female characters that would help shape Vaughn's signature creation, Kitty Norville. "Linda Carter's Wonder Woman was one of my first heroes."

Her imagination charged,Vaughn began writing stories of her own. "In second grade we got a creative-writing assignment to just 'write a story,'" she remembers. "So I wrote a story, and apparently it was above and beyond the expectation of the assignment. It was called 'Sally the Horse,' and basically it was my feminist retelling of The Black Stallion, although I didn't realize that at the time, of course. It took up three whole pages, and my teacher lost her mind over it. If you got an A on your spelling test, you'd get an M&M. Well, for that story, I got a whole handful of M&Ms. That planted the idea in my psyche: 'Hey, I can get paid for writing.'"

With no other options open to her -- "I sucked at sports. I couldn't sing. I had no other talents," she says -- Vaughn plunged into writing. By the time she'd graduated from Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument, in 1991, she was determined to become an author of science fiction and fantasy -- despite a lack of encouragement. "People would always tell me, 'You can't make a living as a writer. You just can't do it. You need something to fall back on,'" she says. "So I kept expecting that I would find something else that I wanted to do, but it never happened.

"My parents were great, though," she continues. "They were super-supportive. When I told my mom that I wanted to become a writer in eighth grade, she came home the next day with a stack of books from the library about how to write and how to get published. My brother works in theater and I'm a writer, and that says something. They never said no. The joke in my family was, 'You can do anything you want to with your life, as long as you can pay the rent.' That opened up so many possibilities."

Along with possibilities came rejections -- a whole decade of them. As Vaughn studied English literature as an undergrad at Occidental College and then worked at the now-defunct McKinzey-White Booksellers in Colorado Springs, she wrote and submitted short stories. Relentlessly. Her targets were Analog Science Fiction and Fact and Asimov's Science Fiction, magazines that her mother had kept around the house while Vaughn was growing up.

"I was sending out a story a week to a different publication, so that came to about 52 rejection slips a year," she says. "And I did that story-a-week thing for years." Her resolve was hardened by a tough realization: As much as she loved studying literature in college, academia was not friendly to her love of genre fiction. "I took a writing class as an undergrad," she remembers, "and on the first day, the professor said, 'I don't want anybody writing science fiction or fantasy in this class.' I was like, 'Why?' I loved science fiction, and that's what I wanted to write. But here's this person saying, 'No, don't do it.' So I spent a semester writing this angst-ridden literary stuff that's still so fashionable in the academic world. And I was miserable. I was, like, sneaking ghosts into my stories."

In 1999, Vaughn found a more amenable environment for the writing she loved: She attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in Manchester, New Hampshire, one of the country's handful of prestigious workshops that focus exclusively on SF/F. For Vaughn, it was a chance to immerse herself in SF/F before diving into her master's program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "I'd been working in the bookstore, but it got to the point where I knew I needed to do something radical or I'd still be working there when I was forty," she recalls. But she had another motive for going to New Hampshire for six weeks of grueling, round-the-clock writing and critiquing: One of her childhood heroes, Harlan Ellison, would be an instructor there.

"He was kind and generous," Vaughn says of the legendarily cantankerous Ellison, "but in a workshop situation, he's of the mind that if he can scare you away from writing, he's doing you a favor. He came into class one day after we'd given him stories to critique. He picked up one story and ripped it to shreds. Then he picked the next story and said, 'Compared to that last story, this one is the Mount Everest of bad.' And it was my story.

"It was rough," she continues. "I just completely shut down. I locked myself in the bathroom and cried for five minutes. But I remember thinking, 'He's wrong, and I'm going to prove it to him.' So I came back the next day with our next assignment. I told myself I was going to write the best story I could. When it was my turn for Harlan to critique it, he picked it up and said, 'This is good. This shows talent. Good job, kid.' On the one hand, I was like, 'Yay!' On the other hand, I was like, 'You bastard.' But it worked. He got me to come back and write an awesome story."

Sure enough, Vaughn sold her first short story soon after returning home from Odyssey. Emboldened, she began focusing on novels, even while in grad school. One of them was about a werewolf named Kitty. That novel, Kitty and the Midnight Hour, was bought by Warner Books. And in 2005 -- after a series of unsatisfying jobs that included working at the Colorado Renaissance Festival ("I was a counter wench at one of the steak-on-a-stick booths, slinging sodas," she says), at a "soul-crushing" temp job grading the essay portions of standardized tests taken by public-school students, and at an accounting office -- she decided to take the ultimate leap: She quit her day job and became a full-time writer.

She couldn't have picked a better time. Just as Kitty and the Midnight Hour was about to come out, a handful of similar, supernatural-themed books were blowing up, most notably Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series (the inspiration for HBO's hit show True Blood). The term "urban fantasy" had been around for years, but soon it was repurposed as a neat marketing tool for books, like Kitty, that dealt with paranormal activities in the real world -- usually with female heroes. "The industry had identified this genre of urban fantasy, and my publisher decided to push my book as part of it," Vaughn says. "I got a crash-course education in urban fantasy. I suddenly had to look up all these other writers I was supposed to be in a genre with. I instantly had to become an expert in this genre I knew almost nothing about. I was doing all these interviews and being asked, 'So, have you always been into vampires and werewolves?' And my answer was, 'No, but I am now.'

"I never saw myself as someone who would be writing a long series, let alone a long series about werewolves and vampires," she continues. "That just wasn't where my brain was. At the same time, I loved the character of Kitty, and as I read more urban fantasy, I felt like I had a mission with her. Kitty is quite a bit different from a lot of the other protagonists in urban fantasy. She's not in any kind of kick-ass profession. She's not a bounty hunter or a detective. She doesn't like using weapons. She's a radio DJ who hosts a talk-radio show. I wanted to her to be nonviolent, even though she's a werewolf, somebody who wants to build community, which I think is exactly in keeping with her being a wolf. I saw a lot of violence in urban fantasy, a lot of unthinking violence, violence mistaken for strength. So many people were talking about the need for strong women characters, but it seemed that all the strong women characters were the ones who pulled out an Uzi."

Although Kitty and the Midnight Hour was part of the urban-fantasy pack, it stood out just enough to distinguish itself and charted on USA Today's Best-Selling Books list. Vaughn's publisher asked for more Kitty books. She obliged, delivering a new installment once a year like clockwork. The fourth novel in the series, 2008's Kitty and the Silver Bullet, hit the New York Times bestseller list, as have all of the Kitty books since. "It took me ten years to sell a short story, and I wrote three failed novels before I sold one. I had gotten used to struggling," she says. "I was braced for just getting little-bitty advances for the rest of my life. I had been trained to expect that, but that's not what happened. I just had silly, ridiculous luck."

Vaughn's dream had come true, but at a price. As much as she loved sharing Kitty's adventures, werewolves weren't the only thing she could write about. The problem was, aside from the wide variety of short stories she still wrote and published, her body of work didn't reflect her range. When her publisher showed no interest in buying her other, non-Kitty novels -- including Discord's Apple, a contemporary fantasy with a mythic edge, and After the Golden Age, a story about the daughter of two world-famous superheroes trying to find her own place in the world -- she made a move that might have been brave or crazy or both: She left her publisher.

Vaughn explains, "I got into an argument with my original publisher. They wanted me to do Kitty and nothing else. I wanted to do lots of things, not just Kitty books." Still, her decision to leave didn't come easy: "It was traumatic. Trying to explain it to people was tough, because it didn't make any sense. This publisher got me onto the New York Times bestseller list. Why would I let that go? The answer was, I had to leave so that I could have the kind of career I wanted. I wanted to be Carrie Vaughn the awesome writer, not the chick who writes the Kitty books."

She transitioned to her current publisher, Tor Books -- also the company that put out Hammond's KOP books -- in 2009. Tor not only picked up the Kitty series right where it left off, but the company published Discord's Apple and After the Golden Age (and its sequel, Dreams of the Golden Age, which came out earlier this year). Meanwhile, Vaughn had started writing young-adult fiction with the teen-centric fantasy novels Voices of Dragons and Steel. One of her greatest accomplishments, though, was scoring a story in the Wild Cards series helmed by George R. R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass. Her short story "Chosen Ones" appeared in 2008's Inside Straight, the first volume of the revival of the anthology series, and it began an association with the series -- and Martin -- that has endured. "I was a fan of the Wild Cards series almost from the start," Vaughn says. "It was my soap opera in high school. I had the books and the role-playing game and even the comics. I wrote Wild Cards fan mail to George in 1993. He wrote back. I still have his letter, and he still has mine."

Kitty, though, remains Vaughn's bread and butter. Part of the series' lasting appeal to her is that she gets to write a series set in her back yard, more or less. "When it comes to writing about werewolves, Denver is perfect," says Vaughn, who now lives in Longmont. "All the urban stuff is right there, but the wilderness is an hour away. I have the best of both worlds." As for Longmont itself, she couldn't imagine a better home base for a writer -- especially one who grew up relentlessly uprooted. "It really is idyllic. Longmont is a great place to live. My life is surprisingly ordinary. I get up, walk my dog, check the e-mail. There's an amazing amount of bureaucratic nonsense that has to be done as a writer -- updating the website and social media and proofreading things. I usually do my writing in the afternoon. And I write at home. I know some writers who can't get writing done at home, but I love it. I love having my tea and my dog. I can wear pajamas to work. Home is a really happy place for me.

"I won't say being a writer is easy, but it's doable," she adds. "It's funny -- once you get your book in stores, people stop pushing back at you. The people who were like, 'You'll never make it as a writer,' are suddenly like, 'Isn't it great you did it?'"

 

Warren Hammond's latest sci-fi novel, Tides of Maritinia, is an experiment in traditional and electronic publishing.
Warren Hammond's latest sci-fi novel, Tides of Maritinia, is an experiment in traditional and electronic publishing.
Anthony Camera

Like Vaughn, Warren Hammond moved around a lot as a kid -- but for different reasons. He was born in Bronxville, New York, but his parents moved him and his sister, who is six years his elder, to various towns in the Hudson River Valley and New Jersey, with sojourns in Florida and Arizona. His parents divorced when he was nine. His mother, a secretary and stay-at-home mom, soon got remarried, to a man who worked as a surveyor, then a house flipper, then a farmer. That restlessness led to a disjointed upbringing for Hammond and his sister; by his estimate, he attended seven schools scattered around the country before settling in Rhinebeck, New York, for the entirety of high school.

"It was hard," he says of his itinerant childhood. "To this day, I'm a very reserved person, and I'm slow to form personal connections. I think part of that is just my native personality, and some of that was probably reinforced by moving around so much. I made friends kind of by accident. Someone would reach out to me first. I was a very quiet kid."

Unlike Vaughn, Hammond did not read much science fiction as a kid, nor did he have an aptitude for writing -- to put it lightly. "I hated English class," he says. "I didn't like being told what to read, and I didn't like being told what to write. I think that was my idea of writing, that it was unpleasant. That was my worst subject in school." He did, however, love reading. "I read more than average growing up, but I wasn't the type of kid who sat in a corner and read all day," he recalls. "I worked on the family farm. I did a lot of hard labor, then we'd load up the van at three in the morning and sell produce at the farmers' market."

As much as Hammond loathed writing, it was in his blood. His grandfather Clyde A. Farnsworth was a journalist for the Associated Press, and his uncle Clyde H. Farnsworth wrote for the New York Times. Farnsworth the younger also wrote a novel. "It was called Shadow Wars," Hammond says, "and it was published in the early '90s. It's a spy novel, like an international-intrigue thriller. It involves nuclear fusion, and all the Russian spies and CIA agents are trying to get it.

"I didn't really get much from them when it comes to the writing process," he adds, "but they loved to read, and that, at least, was infectious to me. I never looked at them as a kid, though, and said, 'Boy, that's what I want to do.'"

After graduating from high school, Hammond attended the University at Albany, SUNY. Again he avoided English, instead studying to be a Spanish teacher. But his family's wanderlust kicked in; upon getting his undergrad degree in 1990, he moved to Colorado, mostly because of fond memories he had of driving through the state years earlier when his family had moved from Arizona back to New York. A brief stay in Boulder didn't do it for him, so he relocated to Denver, working first at an after-school program and then as a fourth-grade teacher. The job didn't last long. "There was a lot of bureaucracy," he says. "It really frustrated me. I realized that teaching kids wasn't my calling." Instead, he found work as a computer instructor for a private company, a job he still holds.

Teaching corporate types how to use software could have been the sum of Hammond's professional career. But something else happened: He got sucked into science fiction. Although he'd been raised on Planet of the Apes, Star Wars and Lost in Space -- "There's one episode of Lost in Space where the robot goes evil, and that terrified me when I was little. Every time Lost in Space came on, I'd run screaming and crying," he remembers -- his real immersion in the genre started with Michael Crichton. Hooked on Crichton's blend of real-world suspense and speculative technology, he began spending time at the Tattered Cover Book Store in Cherry Creek, reading the lists the store supplied of winners of SF/F's big awards, the Hugo and the Nebula. "This was before you could Google 'good science-fiction book,'" he notes. "I started with those lists, and I just read nothing but science fiction for almost ten years: Lois McMaster Bujold, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov."

Hammond was so inspired by science fiction that before long, he'd begun writing a novel of his own. "I had an idea for a story, and it was going to be contemporary science fiction, more in the Crichton mold," he says. "I started writing this story, and I had no idea what I was doing. I think I wrote six chapters before I realized the book was doomed. It was really just a premise, not a story. I'd already screwed it up and painted myself into a corner."

He stayed in that corner for a long time. "I did not write a word for ten years after that," he admits. Unlike most would-be authors who give up, Hammond eventually came back to writing. Inspired by another literary kick -- this time the crime novels of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James Ellroy -- he started penning KOP in 2001. "Crushing rejection," as he calls it, followed. Eventually, though, he placed the manuscript with an agent, and his science-fiction/noir hybrid sold to Tor Books in 2003.

While Vaughn's career blew up almost the instant her first book came out, Hammond's debut had a tough time getting out of the gate. Three and a half excruciating years passed between the signing of his contract and the publication of KOP in 2007. "Why that happened, I still do not know," he says. "Publishers work in mysterious ways, I know. So I waited. I'm generally a pretty low-key person, so I didn't freak out. But it was frustrating. You tell people you have this book deal, and three years later they're wondering, 'Was he making that up?'"

KOP and its 2010 sequel, Ex-KOP, sold well enough for Hammond to earn back his advance, "which is a big thing in the publishing world," he points out. They're both gritty, visceral detective yarns set in the future on a distant planet, one that's an impoverished backwater compared to the rest of the civilized galaxy. Hammond, who'd become an extensive world traveler, drew on his trips to Africa and Southeast Asia while building the world of KOP, and the books' grizzled, disgraced hero, Juno Mozambe, navigates it with an amorphous morality.

Just as slippery was the process of categorizing Hammond's books. Ex-KOP was nominated for a 2010 Colorado Book Award in the admittedly broad category of Genre Fiction; two years later, KOP Killer took home the top prize in Mystery. "I was excited that I won, and I do think that KOP Killer is noir mystery first and science fiction second," Hammond says. "I was pleased that the science-fiction elements weren't held against me. For the awards ceremony in Aspen, I had to do a short, one-minute reading from the book. I told them that the scene I was going to read was the only continuous, one-minute section of the book that had no profanity. It was an exaggeration, but not a big one."

Hammond had another reason to swear: His editor at Tor had left the company, and he found himself orphaned just as KOP Killer needed an extra push. He returned to a book he'd worked on years earlier, then stashed away: Tides of Maritinia. Like his uncle before him, he'd been drawn to writing a novel that mixes spies and science. But Tides, like KOP, is set in a faraway world with a jarring clash of cultures and technologies.

Tides itself wound up being at the business end of a clash of technologies: that of traditional print books versus e-books. Hammond's new publisher, Voyager Impulse, is an experiment in tweaking the synergy between the two, backed by the major house HarperCollins. By releasing the e-book in advance of the print edition, "it gives them the opportunity to see how the e-book does, and to use that to determine the print run, format and marketing of the print edition," Hammond explains. "E-books are relatively cheap to produce, but print books are expensive. The royalty structure is more author-friendly. I feel like it's more of a true partnership. It'll be interesting to see what happens. If it does well, this could be a new model that becomes emulated by other publishing houses."

Hammond doesn't mind being a guinea pig: "I have high hopes that Tides will do well, and of course that's my primary concern. But I also have high hopes that this is a good publishing model. It's a big change; it's exciting. It's fun to be on the cutting edge of things for once. This is science fiction, after all."

And Hammond has a built-in support system. His wife, Angie Hodapp, not only lends her insight into the publishing industry as an employee of Denver's Nelson Literary Agency, but she's one of his critique-mates in a writing group that includes local SF/F authors Jeanne C. Stein, Mario Acevedo, Aaron Michael Ritchey and Travis Heermann. They meet regularly to read each other's works-in-progress, offer suggestions and lend a sympathetic ear.

"I think all writers are trying to make connections," Hammond says. "You're trying to make a connection with your readers, an emotional connection to another human being. Yet the very nature of writing is locking yourself in your room for years at a time. It's a real oxymoron, or catch-22, or whatever you call it." He laughs: "If I were a better writer, I would know the right word."  

Sunday afternoon hits MileHiCon 46 like some kind of science-fiction paralysis ray. After two full days of bustle and buzz, the convention's energy has begun to wane. Kids in Doctor Who shirts lazily join in role-playing games in the Hyatt's high-ceilinged atrium. A woman walks by dressed in full steampunk regalia, including a leather corset and elaborate monocle, carrying a biomechanical dragon she's crafted that's as big as a puppy.

Vaughn and Hammond sit at a table near a wall of glass that overlooks the Tech Center, catching their breath. Their final panels are finished, and it's time to process. And look back.

"I started going to science-fiction and fantasy conventions in high school. I was one of those costume-wearing teenage freaks running around," Vaughn says, pronouncing "freaks" like a term of endearment. "It was great fun." Hammond didn't begin attending conventions until 2007, when KOP came out. That's when he met Vaughn; they had friends and a publisher in common.

Since then they've become two of the most visible, if humble, authors in Colorado's SF/F literary scene. And that scene is thriving. Decorated writers such as Connie Willis, Dan Simmons, Kevin J. Anderson, Carol Berg and Edward Bryant call the state home. Betsy Dornbusch not only writes novels, but edits the online SF/F magazine Electric Spec, as well. Rising stars Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer are paving their own, edgier path in Boulder. Rob Zeigler, James Van Pelt and Paolo Bacigalupi all write from their homes on the Western Slope. That's just a small sampling of the state's SF/F authors, and the group keeps growing. The MileHiCon panels are as geared toward nurturing the next generation of writers as they are servicing fans. Not that anyone would complain if there were more fans.

"I was having this conversation recently with a woman I know," Vaughn recalls, "and she was telling me that she didn't read fantasy. But I was looking over her shoulder, and on her bookshelf are all the Harry Potter books. This is where the challenge is. It's all the same tent to me, but there are so many people who will watch science-fiction movies but won't read science-fiction books. There's not as much cross-pollination as you might think. People love the tropes, but there's still a stigma to the labels of science fiction and fantasy. We're still laboring under the weight of fifty years of bad connotations. There's this strange dynamic that happens when something that's science fiction or fantasy gets popular: It stops being described as science fiction or fantasy. It causes no end of angst to the people who come to conventions like this."

Connection and commiseration: For many SF/F writers at this convention, they go hand in hand. "Writing is such a solitary endeavor," Hammond says. "It's a lot of time spent at your keyboard or alone with your thoughts. Anytime I can hook up with other writers, it's good. I'm not the most social person; I don't get a charge out of it. I'm an introvert, and social interaction drains me. But I do need interaction. This industry is really tough. We're all really worried and stressed out. Being able to bounce that off other people, other writers in the same community and the same situation, is very calming and supportive."

Vaughn nods. "It's a hard thing to explain to people who aren't in writing or publishing," she says. "The only people who really understand are the people who are also going through it. If you're a writer and you don't you have other writers in your life, you try to talk about those problems with people, and what you get back is, 'Oh, I'm really sorry.' Publishing is such a mystery to people who aren't in it. Other writers already understand."

Still, Denver's SF/F writing scene isn't as tight as it could be, which makes the annual MileHiCon gathering even more important. "There are a lot of places that are really well known for their science-fiction and fantasy scene: Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland -- even Albuquerque, of all places," says Vaughn. "We have a great caliber of writers here in Colorado, but we don't always have quite the same community that some of these other places do. MileHiCon is a great convention, but it's the only time that a lot of us get together, so we end up not feeding into each other the way that writers in some other cities do. In some ways I see that changing, but I don't know if it ever really will.

"Maybe we've all got the Colorado frontier isolationist mentality," she adds with a laugh, taking a last look at the dwindling crowds. "We're all rugged individualists, so even though there are writing groups here and there, as a scene we don't get together that much. We go out for drinks now and then, but we're all happy in our little worlds."

However strange those fictional worlds may be.



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