One area we haven’t covered yet in these columns much is conventions and how important they are to the science fiction and fantasy community. My local convention, ConQuesT, is preparing to celebrate 40 Years, so, along with interviewing their guests in the past two columns, I wanted to also interview some of the Con staff this time around. Con Chair John Platt and Co-Chair Victoria L’Ecuyer and the President of Kansas City Science Fiction and Fantasy, Diana Bailey, were kind enough to oblige. KacSFFS is the group that sponsors the Con every year. Cons never happen in a vaccum. Here’s a glimpse behind the scenes and at the history of a con whose 40th anniversary guest roster includes Author Guests of Honor Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, Editor Guest of Honor Gardner Dozois, Artist Guest of Honor Ursula Vernon, Toastmaster Susan Satterfield and Special Guest Shannon K. Butcher, amongst others. Information on the Con can be found at www.conquestkc.com and on KacSFFS at their blog at http://kacsffs.blogspot.com/.
SFFWRTCHT: Where did your interest in SFF come from? Did you grow up with that?
John Platt: For me, I grew up with SFF all around. The earliest I can remember is Star Trek: TNG and movies like Aliens (many bad dreams at such a young age). Beyond that my parents were part of groups. The main one I can remember is Starbase Kansas City, they put on an annual convention called Snowflake, which is where I got my con start. We were out of the local scene for a few years but SFF never left in my every day. Eventually, when i was a teen, I started attending ConQuesT when it was at the Park Place hotel and became part of the group that became the con babies. Now you can find a lot of that group on this concom and working on concoms for Worldcons.
Diana J. Bailey: I have been reading SF&F since 1966. Of course there was the new Star Trek program on TV. The space program had everyone excited about the future. You dreamed.
Victoria L’Ecuyer: I’ve never not been a SFF geek. Some of my earliest memories were of Star Trek TOS reruns and playing with the make-believe aliens that came in through the window. Imaginary friends my mother knew how to deal with. Imaginary space ships… not so much. The only other obviously geeky (as opposed to closet geeky) member of my large family had graduated high school and found work in another town, so I had to wait until she came home for visits to grill her about Star Trek as only an enthusiastic seven-year-old can. Mostly it was a case of me telling stories to myself and ransacking the school library.
SFFWRTCHT: Who were some favorite authors/books?
JP: I have never been a big reader, but in recent years I have done the occasional reading. I love John Scalzi’s work, haven’t found one of his pieces yet that I didn’t like. Oddly enough, my wife who isn’t into SFF got the idea for our daughter’s name out of Connie Willis Doomsday book (The main character Kivrin). You can say in a way I will be tied to SFF for the rest of my life now no matter what.
Diana Bailey: I love Robin Wayne Bailey’s books … all the different versions, Wilson Tucker, Poul Anderson, Jane Yolen, C. J. Cherryh, Thomas Burnett Swann, Andre Norton, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Laura Anne Gilman, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller (love the turtle books). [Full Disclosure: Diana is married to author Robin Wayne Bailey but she swears that doesn’t make her less of a fan.]
VE: How much space to you want me to take up? There are very few SFF books I don’t like. The top ones that come to mind at this time are Lois McMaster Bujold, Tolkien, David Drake, Catharine Asaro, Elizabeth Moon, Patrick Rothfuss, Anne McCaffery, Susan Cooper.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you go to Cons and/or do cosplay?
DB: Been going to Cons all over the country since the 1974 BYOBcon. The last four years I have slowed way down in cons attending due to health reasons. I’ve done lots of masquerades including the 1976 World Con where Hal Climans helped me and Robin get drinks while we were in costume and make-up. Cosplay is a relatively new term from anime fandom.
VE: I didn’t actually start going to cons until my early 30′s. Then I’ve been attending a couple a year. I want to do cosplay, locally known as Masquerade, but I’m working my way up to that.
SFFWRTCHT: What is KaCSFFS and how did it originate?
DB: Ken Keller and another fan named Gary Mattingly started organizing a Kansas City SF club in 1971. That club became KaCSFFS, (Kansas City Science Fiction and Fantasy, INC.) KaCSFFS met in a wide variety of locations at the time: banks, libraries, but mostly homes. We had a wide variety of interests, including science fiction fans and fantasy fans, comics fans, movie fans, artists, collectors, just all sorts of people. It held its first convention, called MidAmerica-Con, in July, 1971.
SFFWRTCHT: How did you become involved with KaCSFFS and ConQuesT?
JP: I started through ConQuesT. Four years ago I decided I wanted to help so I took on guest liaison duties and within two years I was suckered into Con Chair. This will be my second year as co-chair of the convention.
DB: I have known Robin since the 4th grade. We started dating in College. We became engaged in 1972. He has always been into SF&F. So it was fate. He’d been going to cons since 1971. We started a science fiction club called “The Third Foundation” at college, published fanzines and all the usual fanac. He brought me down to KC for BYOB-con IV in 1974. Then, in 1976, we moved to Kansas City just in time for BYOB-con VI and the World Con a few months later. We joined KaCSFFS almost immediately after that. We found our fan family.
VE: Well, I started out as a writer hoping to learn how the fan network worked. I turned into one of those enthusiastic volunteers that are both welcome and dreaded. Because when a geeky SFF outcast finally finds her tribe… Let’s just say my inner seven year old is alive and well.
SFFWRTCHT: How did ConQuesT come to be and where did it get its name?
JP: Seeing as how it is older than I am, I only wish I knew, but I am sure a bar was involved.
DB: First, you have to understand that KaCSFFS’s convention reflects the club. It is a general interest Fan convention with a lot of Fan history. The KaCSFFS Convention tries to give a little something to a wide variety of Fan interests. BYOBcon was the forerunner to ConQuesT. We had to change the name because hotels did not want to deal with a convention that told people to BYOB. The last BYOB was 1979. We needed a new name for the con. John Taylor suggested Cow-con and Robin Bailey suggested ConQuesT. Members voted, and ConQuesT won.
DB: You go to cons to make friends and to see old friends. To exchange ideas and to have fun. I chaired the 1981 ConQuesT with Poul Anderson as the GoH. That was fun. Probably most significant was meeting Wilson Tucker at BYOB-con IV; he became really an important part of our lives. Then, meeting Robert Heinlein and giving him his permanent honorary membership. He’d been a member of the KaCSFFS since its beginning. So many other wonderful moments over so many years that it’s hard to choose the very best.
VE: Connie Willis was one of my favorite guests. I’d never heard of her before attending that year’s convention. She’s quite the comedienne as well as being a wonderful writer. Seeing people face to face that I’d only conversed with via the internet is always a highlight. Shopping in the Art Show and Dealers rooms for Christmas gifts and telling mundanes/muggles they should shop there too. (This is usually in the elevator when people ask me what my badge is for.)
Other personal highlights include Viking helmets used as bribe currency, the Jeff-Is-A-Table incident, getting recommendations about new shows/books people keep praising. (I would never have watched the series Firefly if I hadn’t listened to three years’ worth of authors complain about the show being cancelled in the fiction into film panels.) I guess the biggest thing for me is being able to connect one on one with authors I’ve read.
SFFWRTCHT: What are some of the struggles and challenges to building and maintaining a successful Con like ConQuesT?
JP: The simple answer is “how do you keep it interesting for the attendees.” This morphs into a larger challenge of how do you keep the already attending masses satisfied while pulling in the new people to grow your convention? We have tried things in the last few years such as our special guest of honor in which we have invited non-traditional guests. We have had a voice actor, webcomic and others.
DB: Dealing with hotels; organization; getting and keeping a good volunteer base and keeping it fun for the volunteers, guests, and attendees; keeping programming interesting year to year; trying not to let the latest and greatest SF&F trend(s) swamp the whole convention; and getting the word out about the con budget.
VE: Volunteer fatigue is the biggest thing I’ve run into. Getting enthusiasts to run and work a convention is one thing. Keeping them coming back the next year and subsequent years is another. I keep hearing that the “life span” of the average volunteer is seven years. Which is my experience some burn out quicker, others go for the long haul, but sooner or later every volunteer leaves.
When you rely on volunteer labor for 43 conventions in a row that immediately turns into other challenges. Making sure information gets transferred from one department head to the next, one chair to the next. Making sure all the proper forms get filed with the proper authorities every single year. Then there are the battles between “institutional know-how” and “newbie innovation”. Don’t forget the group politics and clashing personalities. Finding a good balance between people who are good with logistics and people who are good at coming up with ideas but not so good at executing them.
I’ve also learned that some things don’t change as much as they evolve. Information and traditions get lost and/or mangled in translation when a department head leaves without having found and trained a replacement. Ditto with the Con Chair.
SFFWRTCHT: How do Guests Of Honor get chosen? What are the criteria? Who decides?
JP: The Guests have been chosen many different ways. In the past, a committee used to select them for the coming year. In recent years, it has been the coming con chair that has chosen. The criteria is usually to get someone that local fandom doesn’t normally get a chance to see. Try to bring in a guest that maybe hasn’t been to some of the other local cons, but also someone that everyone would enjoy hanging out with for the weekend. For me, the criteria has been what do the masses want. I have generally gone to some of the local members and flat out asked who they wanted to see and generally I got a list that I could whittle down.
DB: Used to be, the whole club would nominate and vote. But it was a long process with a lot of discussions. Then for a while we had a committee pick the guests. List and the club vote approval. If you been around SF& fans with 10 fans you have 25 opinions. Now the con-com pretty much picks the guests with a nod from the KaCSFFS Board.
VE: The who decides and how they get chosen has evolved some over the years. When I first asked, I was told “There used to be a committee for that, but it went away.” The second time I asked it was “the concom decides.” Once I got on the concom, I found out the chair decided with input from the concom. (I’m sure the KaCSFFS charter and by-laws say something else.)
The general criteria for which GOH gets chosen depends on how popular or well known the GOH is. If we get a lot of request for a particular GOH from the club or committee, we try to get them in. When there’s a lack of suggestions, the Chair gets to pick his/her favorite.
SFFWRTCHT: What role does KaCSFFS take with ConQuesT and in what way are they separate?
DB: ConQuesT is an official function of KaCSFFS. Of course, the con committee has a certain amount of freedom to act on its own, but KaCSFFS is the parent organization. The Chairs, and heads of the Con departments are members of KaCSFFS, and as of this last update of the bylaws, the Con Chair is a member of the KaCSFFS Board.
VE: KaCSFFS is a club for the local science fiction and fantasy fans in Kansas City. They have a variety of activities they sponsor. The convention is one of them. ConQuesT is separate only in the fact that it relies on a lot of volunteerism from outside the club.
SFFWRTCHT: What are the highlights you expect at this year’s Con?
JP: This is one of the first years we are attempting to hold cons within ConQuesT. Both the Klingon Assault Group and the Paranormal Romance Society have asked if they could piggy back on our convention. This is a great opportunity for our members to experience these two different groups and at the same time let those groups experience ConQuesT. We also have a con wedding happening this year between Jesi Lipp and John Pershing.
DB: Every con has its own surprises. I like the dealers’ rooms, the art show, room con, and all the friends who are going to be showing up. There will be a few panels I will attend, but Robin has dealers table and I will be there part of the time. This past year we have been celebrating 40 years of KaCSFFS and this Con represents 40 years of Convention that KaCSFFS has put on.
VE: The guests of honor interview, art demonstrations, five different book launches. A “con baby” is getting married soon and she and her husband are doing a fan wedding-and-reception that is open to the convention’s guests. We have three convention within a convention. One is Room Con, the second is a Klingon convention and the third con within a con is for the KC area Paranormal Romance writers and fans. I mustn’t forget the Zombie Olympics, the Masquerade, and ConQuesT Idol. [Full Disclosure: Amongst the book launches will be books from Robin Wayne Bailey and this interviewer.]
SFFWRTCHT: Are you doing anything special to celebrate the 40th anniversary?
DB: We had a very successful 40th anniversary celebration back in September. We had displays of the club Fanzines, newsletters, pictures, tee-shirts, badges, etc. It was a great night. Up on the KaCSFFS Facebook page last summer, members posted scans of pictures and documents from years past. But there will be a panel of past KacSFFS directors which will cover 40 Years of KacSFFS and of the Con itself. Panelists will be Susan Satterfield, Ben Thomas, Robin Wayne Bailey, Ruth Lichtwardt, Beckey, and me.
VE: Yep. We have a special panel on the history of the club. Part of the club is throwing a special event and I think there will be a “birthday” party at some point during the evening festivities.
VE: In the last 12 years we’ve gotten a little smaller due to the economy. When I first volunteered, registration was averaging 600 in memberships. Now we’re down to an average of 550 badges issues. One of the reasons I started coming to ConQuesT is that it was a book convention, not a media based one. In the last few years, we’ve created a Special GOH position that oriented toward Media. Those GOH’s were usually illustrators, voice actors and the like.
SFFWRTCHT: Where do you see ConQuesT going 20 years from now?
JP: I would hope that it is still alive and kicking. We may not be the oldest convention out there but we are a pretty long running one. It is going to take a new generation of con com to keep this ticking and that is what we try to look for by getting new attendees.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s the value of the Con for the city and local fans as well as local authors and artists?
DB: The Con has different value for different people. Some go for the friends you will meet, some for the Guests, some to take part in the different activities, and some to escape their everyday lives and party for the weekend. A Con experience is a lot of what you make it. If you’re a local artist or author, we really encourage you to join KaCSFFS. Let us know who you are and what you do. Besides the con, we also try to hold several readings each year and maybe a club art show, too. Or just get in touch with us.
VE: Speaking as a KC area author (I live about two hours away from KC) the convention is a great way to connect with fellow authors, artists and fans. Promoting your work is encouraged. There are a variety of panels that discuss the craft of writing/producing art. We also like doing book launches.
SFFWRTCHT: How can locals become involved in helping with ConQuesT and KaCSFFS?
JP: If you want to join the club, show up for a meeting. They’re on the third Saturday of every month and start at 6:30 at the Writers Place in Kansas City. If you want to get involved with the convention, at this point in time, go to the registration desk at the convention and volunteer. If you don’t want to wait that long, email volunteers@ConQuesTkc.org. Convention volunteers get swag for helping out.
DB: Just show up and join. KaCSFFS meets every month on the third Saturday at the Writers Place. We’re happy to have new members. And ConQuesT is always looking for volunteers, both before the convention and during. Just contact us – we’ll put you to work.
VE: The best way for authors is to contact the programming director at programming@ConQuesTkc.org We are full up for authors this year, but there is always next year’s convention. Artists should contact the art show director as well if they want to sell their art.artshow@ConQuesTkc.org
SFFWRTCHT: What plans are there for future Cons which we might look forward to?
JP: I have heard word that George R.R. Martin will be back next year. George has been long attending ConQuesT and we love every year that he is here.
VE: Next year’s Guest of Honor is Patrick Rothfuss. And that’s all the teasing you’re getting from me.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, andThe Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories featured in anthologies and magazines. He edited the new anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. His children’s book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.