Alexis Gilliland has been active in Fandom for nearly forty years. Nth Degree sat down with Alexis following a recent Washington Science Fiction Association (WSFA) meeting hosted at his home in Arlington, VA.
ND: As this is “Faces of Fandom,” show me your face. How did you become involved in Fandom?
AG: Well, I came to Washington when I was in the military service—to Fort McNair—and I got involved with the DC Chess League. I played chess and, early on, I found out about the WSFA and I went to one meeting but they met on Fridays. That was the same day that the chess league had their meeting so there was a conflict. So… I played chess and didn’t think too much more about WSFA. Then, I got married and started a family.
In 1963—two weeks after the birth of our first son—WSFA was involved with Discon 1—the first Washington Worldcon. I was working at the Bureau of Standards and my colleague Bill Evans (who was the treasurer of the con) said, “You’re a science fiction fan. There’s a World Science Fiction meeting this weekend here in Washington within walking distance. You should go.” So, I bought a membership and my wife and I and traded off pass for the weekend. It was a huge convention—800 people—and I didn’t know anyone. I wandered around and thought, “Oh, that’s very interesting.” A couple of years later, by which time we had another son, we got The WSFA Journal #1. They started doing those in Spring, 1965. By this time, with two kids, taking them to chess matches wasn’t really feasible and I was looking for something else. So I thought, “Alright, here was WSFA and it was a lot more infant-friendly than a chess match.”
ND: Capclave is coming up and your wife, Lee, is the Con Chair. Are you involved?
AG: I’m helping with registration and to the extent that I can. It’s always nice to have a reliable ‘second’ around. I ran conventions—six Disclaves (not the infamous year, however) from 1974 to 1978 and then I came back for one more in 1981. I had Asimov as Guest of Honor. We had 1500 people and one of the biggest Disclave’s ever.
ND: How else would you define your involvement in Fandom?
AG: Being involved with fandom takes many forms. WSFA has been meeting in my house since 1967 and the deal was that when I started coming to WSFA, they met in Miss Elizabeth Cullen’s house on Rock Creek Park. It was not as big or as exuberant as the current lot. We’d been meeting there twice a month and the group usually consisted of 10-15 people. Then, we went off to the New York World Convention and, while we were there, her little dog died. Her nephew put her in the Roosevelt Hotel, which was an old-age home. When we came back from the World Convention, we didn’t have a place to meet. So, they started passing around the meetings to different members. Sometime that Fall, we got our first meeting and we’ve been meeting on a regular basis in my house ever since—usually once a month. Once in a while, emergencies come up and we’ll either skip a month here or host two meetings in a month.
Overall, Fandom means you deal with people—you’ll meet people you like and people you don’t like. Some can be real pains in the butt. Some can be exasperating. Basically, however, it’s a social group. It’s people to hang out with, socialize with, schmooze with. There are usually two parties a month and sometimes if there’s a Fifth Friday, someone will volunteer to host a party without a WSFA meeting. I enjoy this group very much.
ND: So, let’s talk about you. From where do you hail?
AG: Oh, around. I was born in Bangor, Maine. In 1940, my dad was a professor of Chemistry at the University of Maine. He got his commission activated so that he went into the Army. Christmas of 1940 was spent in a Baltimore hotel room while he was looking to get settled. It was a really miserable Christmas. We’d moved, didn’t know anybody and the cat died. We lived in Baltimore for a while then moved to Texas, Los Angeles and Lafayette, Indiana. My dad got out of the Army and became a chemistry professor at Perdue University. I went to Perdue and got a Bachelor of Chemistry degree and was going on to Grad School when I got drafted. So, in 1954, I had to call it quits with my education.
ND: Did you serve overseas?
AG: No, that’s how I got to Washington, DC. I had applied for OCS, which took me out of the pipeline. Half of my company went to Korea and half went to Germany. Those of us who remained—those in Sick Bay and those like me who had gotten out of the pipeline—were just sitting around waiting for special assignments. I wound up going to Fort Benning. From there, I was sent to Fort McNair. Fort McNair sent an order around—they wanted one man from each company. My First Sergeant said, “Who do we have who’s more decorated than useful?” So, I went.
ND: From there, you moved on to being a family man.
AG: I was married to my first wife, Dolly (E. Dorthea Gilliland) for 32 years. We had two sons, Michael and Charles. Dolly passed away in 1991. Lee (Uba) and I got together and I married her on Halloween of 1993.
ND: Tell me about your art.
AG: The stuff I’m doing is pretty much calligraphic. The art is basically “in the hand”. The drawing is in the service of the joke. The drawing is very minimal but basically the drawing is the hook to hang the joke on. I started by trying to make witty drawings and wasn’t getting anywhere until I started making them talk and doing lettering. So, I was writing but it had to be very concise, very lapidary. You’re on a 3×5 piece of paper and you can’t fill it up with text. You’ve got to have the minimum text to get the joke across. Sometimes you have a drawing and you look at it for a while and there’s no caption. A week or two later, you look at it and say, “Oh! That’s what I was thinking. Who knew?”
ND: Who are your influences?
AG: Oh, a number of people. Bill Rotsler, Heinrich Klay—he’s a German artist. (Saul) Steinberg—I have a number of his books. He does wonderful things with line. It looks very simple until you try to do it. I was drawing before I could write. As soon as I could hold a pencil I was trying to draw with it. I found some of my cartoons that I did when I was in college recently. And I don’t think that I am any funnier now. But with all the practice it comes much more easily. I remember that I really worked on those. It took a long time to get where I was going using India ink and a crow quill pen. I now carry three pens (pulling them from his pocket)—the flair tip is for the heavy outline, the ballpoint is for shading, the Pilot pen is for the lettering. What you get is… (begins drawing while Lee’s noisy turtle creates a diversion) …here’s your basic sketch…
…here’s a little hair… a gray suit.
ND: Is there a joke?
AG: Oh, of course (draws a bubble and, um… joke).
ND: Can I have this?
AG: Oh sure, it’s a demonstration just for you.
ND: (Still contemplating joke) Let’s talk about your real writing…
AG: All told, I’ve published seven novels. I began by publishing two books in 1981. Those two novels were the beginning of a science fiction trilogy that we called the Rosinante series (Long Shot for Rosinante, Revolution from Rosinante and The Pirates of Rosinante). Following the first two books’ release, I won the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer. My next three books were the fantasy trilogy, Wizenbeak. If I had known I was writing a trilogy when I started out, they would have been Wizenbeak, General Wizenbeak and Wizenbeak Rex. Instead, Wizenbeak was followed by a more flowery title: The Shadow of Shaia. Lord of the Troll-Bats was the third in the series. My seventh book was a stand-alone book entitled The End of the Empire. And I’ve had some short stuff published. But the market for short stuff isn’t what it used to be.
ND: Are you still writing?
AG: I have a novel in submission and I have a short novella in submission. The novella’s kind of strange and it’s been turned down by a couple of people but it’s still out there.
ND: What other honors have been bestowed upon you?
AG: I have four Hugo Awards for Best Fan Artist (1980, 1983-85) and three FAAn (Fanzine Activity Achievement) Awards. I still have at least one of those statues around here somewhere. Randy Bathurst made a little sculpture of a stylized mimeograph with a can of beer on top of it looking shocked.
ND: Over the years, I’m sure you’ve seen many changes in Fandom. What changes stand out for you the most?
AG: It used to be that there was a little group of people and they did Fanzines. In order to do a Fanzine, you need a mixture of creativity and a certain engineering savvy and a doggedness to do grunt work like typing up your stencils. In those days, to do a Fanzine, you’d typed a stencil on a mimeograph and then you used correction fluid to correct your mistakes. Then you typed them over and then you took the stencil and put it on the drum and then hand-crank the drum to produce copies of one-side of one page. Times change. Today, you go down to Kinko’s and you hand them your pages and you ask for 50 or however many copies printed on both sides. There will be 12 pages and you want them stapled and the machine goes chunkachunkachunk and it comes out stapled. The machine does it all—when it works—and all you have to do is pay some money. The writing and composition is all done on computers. I did my first four novels in long-hand for the first draft. Then I got around to typing up the second draft. Going to computer from that was very liberating as it lets you re-order your paragraphs and pages so that you can put your ideas down—not the way you thought them out but the way they should be. So my first four novels—science fiction—were written in long-hand while my fantasy trilogy was typed on a computer. Go figure. Also, the Internet has been a big change. I hear there are five pages on the Web about me but I haven’t looked at them.
ND: So, you’re a scientist, artist, writer—quite the Renaissance man. What else do you do?
AG: I make very good deviled eggs.