Remembering Tom Deitz 1952-2009

There are so many people who can influence you throughout your life, some in very unexpected ways. Tom Deitz was one of those people who brought about significant change in my life. I only just this past weekend learned that he passed away in April of heart failure.

Tom Deitz was not an “A List” author — major publishing houses did not vie for his books or push him to the top of the New York Times Bestseller lists (you do know that those books are preselected for success, right?). He was a good writer who liked to work with Native American motifs and mythology. He is probably best-known for Windmaster’s Bane and The Gryphon King. Fantastic Fiction has a complete bibliography of Tom’s fantasy, I believe.

I met Tom Deitz in 1992 at a conference sponsored by the Georgia Romance Writers Association. You might be surprised to learn that many Romance writers also publish books and short stories in other genres, including Westerns, Mysteries, and Science Fiction & Fantasy. I was interested in marketing a novel in the early 1990s and was not having much luck getting past the slush piles. It occurred to me I might find an agent at a writers conference. At the time, the nearest and only upcoming conference was the GRWA conference, so I called them up, asked a few questions, and bought a membership.

I think that was the first professional conference I ever attended. The experience was amazing and eye-opening. You’ll never meet a more dedicated, professional group of writers, agents, and editors in my opinion. They were so well organized, so determined to publish, I was just blown away.

Tom had a panel on “Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy for Romance Writers”, or something like that. I attended the panel, where he and a couple of other panelists took questions from the audience, explained some of the basic concepts of SF&F, and went into detailed comparisons between the SF genre and certain sub-genres or categores of Romance that were similar. In Romance, the story is really about relationships and characters. In science fiction and fantasy the story is really about … other stuff. Science fiction might be about social change, biological change, or universe-shaking events. Fantasy is usually about how things might proceed in alternate worlds or realities.

You could say that Science Fiction & Fantasy mirrors Romance and Romance mirrors Science Fiction & Fantasy. Although character development is important to good SF & F, you just don’t normally write an SF story about two people meeting and falling in love. That happens mostly in the background or a subplot. In Romance, you don’t normally write about technology or great natural processes, except as part of the background or in a subplot. A very skilled writer can shift between the genres but has to make some mental adjustments.

But enough about the conference. I spoke with Tom a few times over that weekend and he suggested that I really wanted to make connections through an SF-related convention. The 1992 World Fantasy Convention was coming up and it was going to be held in southern Georgia that year. Tom offered to introduce me to a few people (without offering specific endorsements) if I went, so I recruited some friends to go down there with me and we had a blast.

I did meet agents and editors and authors. Maybe the most memorable moment was when we picked up Patricia McKillip as she was walking down a very dark street the first evening. We gave her a ride and on the spur of the moment I asked her to autograph some piece of paper I had in the car. I wonder if she remembers anything of that?

Tom spent some time talking with me about what I wanted to achieve with my writing. He finally suggested I try talking with Robert Jordan. So I did. And I talked with Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who spent about 30 minutes subtly explaining why my novel might not make the cut though he still encouraged me to try. “You never know,” he said. “Someone might actually be looking for that kind of fantasy right now. But you need an agent to talk with some people.”

Nearly everyone I spoke with suggested my best bet would be Tor Books. Well, I digress again. I was remembering Tom Deitz. To be honest, I only saw him a few other times after that weekend. From World Fantasy Con I went on to attend a very small convention in north Georgia, Magic Carpet Con. Tom was one of the guest authors for the first two or three years of MCC. From Magic Carpet Con I went on to Dragon*Con. I think I may have seen Tom at Dragon*Con one time.

By 1998, when I organized the first Hercules and Xena fan track for Dragon*Con I was no longer living in Georgia. I lost touch with many of the authors I had met through GRWA and the World Fantasy Convention. I never did sell that novel despite some encouragement from 2-3 agents. But had it not been for Tom Deitz I would not have met so many other people, including Steve Sears, who told me over dinner one night that there was only one person standing between me and being published: me.

Okay, that’s pretty simple and cheesy in retrospect. We all hear that kind of talk growing up but it was really the same message Tom Deitz, Jack Chalker, and so many other people had tried to get through to me. If I wanted to publish books, I just needed to apply myself to the task and let my passion lead the way. Something like 70,000 books are published in the United States every year. That’s a lot of passion.

Sears’ encouragement finally pushed me over the edge and I found a way to get published.

And thanks to Tom Deitz I was also able to meet one of my favorite authors of all time: Andre Norton. She was a special guest at World Fantasy Con 1992, and was the guest of honor at the first Magic Carpet Con. In fact, I was able to meet Andre on several occasions, and every time I felt like I just had to thank her for all her fantastic, wonderful books which so thrilled me as both a teenager and an adult.

I’d like to think Tom made a habit of helping people who were interested in writing. He didn’t necessarily go out of his way to provide total strangers with detailed guidance (that would be pretty foolish), but he was willing to provide encouragement and suggestions if you were willing to make an effort. He came across as a sincere, honest fellow to me.

A common motif in science fiction is the alternate timeline that diverges from “our reality” because of the choices we make. Somewhere out there in an alternate timeline is another Michael Martinez who didn’t go to that GRWA conference, who did not meet Tom Deitz, who did not go on to publish books and meet Andre Norton. Maybe he has lived a great life and enjoyed considerable success. I hope so. But I’m glad I’m not him.

Good-bye Tom. I will remember you well, even if your memory of me faded into the crowd of names and faces you undoubtedly encountered at a lot of conventions and conferences.

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