Hmmm…I haven’t blogged in a while. I’m sorry therefore that the first blog for a long time is not a happy one. But, I couldn’t let this go by without marking it. I plan to do much more blogging in the New Year, so keep an eye out for happier things.
I first met Bill O’Connor in 2005 at World Fantasy Madison. He and three other artists welcomed a young, unpublished writer into their circle. We talked for a long time about about art and writing. I confessed that I had high hopes of my first sale at that convention. A senior editor had taken on my manuscript and had had it for the last year and a half. He had said he would give me his decision at the convention.
Bill particularly impressed me because he had begun his art business straight out of college and had been making his living from it since. I told him about my meeting and he wished me luck.
However, my meeting did not go well. The editor rejected the manuscript (in the Consuite, of all places!) and I was absolutely devastated. That book was my life, my heart. He had asked me how long I’d worked on it. “My whole life,” I’d said. I was in my early 30s. I thought I was ready. I thought I should have been. He flipped the pages between his thumbs. “Well, you’re just tying bows on it, then,” he said, handing the pages back to me. I didn’t know what he meant then, but in hindsight I think he knew I didn’t have the skills to make the kind of revisions necessary. He then said something to me about how he knew a guy who had SFWRITER on his license plate but had never written a single book. “Don’t be that guy,” he said.
I nodded, biting back my tears, and then I ran. I ran from the room with my manuscript clutched to my chest as if it could somehow keep my heart from falling out onto the floor. Bill saw me run to the elevator. His face lit and he tried to stop me to ask how it went, but I shook my head and kept going. I ended up in the women’s bathroom on the first floor and I sobbed until I was almost sick.
When I could breathe again, I stood up, washed my face, and left, feeling like my shattered heart was still on that marble floor.
Bill was waiting outside the bathroom.
I don’t know how long I was in there—10 minutes maybe?—but he waited. He stood there and waited on a stranger when he didn’t have to, when he probably should have been doing business. He stood there and waited because he cared.
He took me out for a cheeseburger and talked me off the ledge. And not a month later, I got my first contract, not with the rejected book but another–a proposal I’d written for a series with Wizards of the Coast’s new young adult imprint. It wasn’t the book I’d planned, but the Hallowmere series taught me how to write, taught me about authorship, and introduced me to a fabulous community of readers and writers. Through it all, I never forgot the artist who gave me the courage to get up off the floor.
And when I saw Bill a year later at World Fantasy Saratoga, I waved my ARC at him. He smiled and said, “I knew you could do it!” He bought me a drink at the art show bar and we clinked glasses in a toast to cheeseburgers and perseverance and compassion for strangers.
In 2011, at World Fantasy San Diego, having heard news of the sale of my 8th book on the way to the airport, I felt that celebration was in order. And once I arrived and toured the art show, I knew exactly how I would celebrate when I saw Bill’s art exhibit. I would literally repay his kindness to me. I bid on a beautiful piece of art that made my spirit soar, that made me want to write my beloved story anew. The bidding war I entered was fierce, but I ultimately triumphed. The painting Tong Long Huo (Legend of the Golden Dragon) hangs next to my bed. It’s the last thing I see when I go to sleep and the first thing when I wake up.
Bill has a great blog post about the process of creating it.
I wrote Bill after I returned home that year, since I hadn’t seen him at the convention. I told him that I’d purchased the painting both because it was gorgeous and to repay him for all he’d done. He replied, “Great to hear that you are doing well. Congratulations on the books. I remember our evening, hopefully you’ve had the opportunity to pay it forward and ‘talk down’ an artist of your own. Thank you for the praise of the painting, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Please keep in touch and I hope to see you at a show soon.”
It was always my secret hope that this painting that continues to move me so deeply every day and has brought me such inspiration would be a cover for one of my books someday, that perhaps if there was more than one book, he would paint the others. It’s a silent dream I’ve nurtured for many years, and I was actually hoping to make it a reality next year.
And today I find that Bill O’Connor, the artist who in a very real way saved my creative life, died suddenly earlier this year. He was only three years older than me. Like me, he had a spouse and young children. I don’t know how business had been for him since last we communicated in 2011. We lost touch, and I’d hoped to renew the acquaintance at World Fantasy this year. I was sad when I saw that none of his paintings were on exhibit at the art show, but I chalked his absence up to rising shipping costs.
Now I know his absence was because he died.
I’m sad that this man who meant so much to my creative life passed without me noticing, and without anyone at the cons he regularly attended making note. Why was there no in memoriam for him at World Fantasy this year? (Or did I miss it?) He was an award-winning fantasy illustrator who’d worked for Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, Legend of the Five Rings and many other properties in addition to his original works. His illustration of Captain Nemo for Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was a 2015 World Fantasy Convention Award Winner. Since the art show this year included a retrospective of the portrayal of women in fantasy, surely one of his works could have been included. He had a very tender eye for women and children in his fantasy art, which I seldom see in other works. If indeed this was an oversight, I find it a truly sad one, that not one of his colleagues remembered him at a convention he frequented over the last decade.
Bill and I didn’t really know each other well, it’s true. World Fantasy was the only place we saw one another and then only in passing. But I will never forget the man who saved my creative life, who urged me to keep writing, who showed me how to fail better. I will never forget him because his painting hangs by my bedside reminding me to rise up, to work harder, to make art of the time we’re given.
If I am nothing else, may I be that angel for someone struggling. May I lift them up and keep them going when nothing else can. May Bill’s legacy of kindness live on.