Friday, May 20, 2011

Malice Domestic. Part II. Clues and Tidbits

When I drove up to DC for Malice in late April, I left my beets, peas, leeks coming into their own.

 It’s easy to be overwhelmed as a mystery fan, much less as an author, when you go to a conference where over 150 published mystery writers are trying to interest you in their books. Most I’d never heard of. I’d learned some names from my fellow Guppies, who were moving from unpublished to published status during 2008-10. I’d read and enjoyed books by Liz Zelvin, Jeri Westerson, Sandra Parshall, and Krista Davis.

My very favorite mystery writer right now, Louise Penny, was there and carried off her fourth Agatha Award teapot for Best Traditional Mystery of 2010. Nancy Pickard was there, and I’d read all of her books and recently enjoyed another Kansas novel, The Scent of Rain and Lightning. Carolyn Todd, whose books with her son, under the name Charles Todd, I love, did the Agatha Tea interview.

Sue Grafton was quietly the star of the show. I think most of us had read her alphabet series. She was so open and down to earth. She wrote Kinsey Milhone books to create a life different from her own, as she married young, had children, baked her own bread, now has grandchildren, and chickens, and every year she attends the Kentucky Derby. She asked for a tip as to the winner, and my new friend Sasscer gave it to her.

I chose panels which had writers I already liked or topics that interested me. I was too engrossed to write much down, but I’ll share odds and ends, snippets of encouragement and insight.

The Guest of Honor was Carole Nelson Douglas, whose costumes suggested a gypsy and whose book covers, displayed on the Malice Program, featured black cats and sexy women. I wasn’t drawn to her, but she said one thing that stuck. "You have to reinvent yourself," which she has often done, and she has written and published 60 books. She has hit roadblocks many times but found her way around them.

My first event was the Malice Go-Round. We sat at round tables, eight of us with two authors at a time, who had books out in 2010, and then about forty or fifty of these authors played musical table, and moved in pairs, table to table, to give us 90-second spiels about their books and hand out bookmarks. Of the ones I’d never heard of, one stuck out for me, and she didn’t have a book mark: Sara Sue Hoklotubbe, who is writing a series about Cherokees living in Oklahoma. She is in the tradition of Tony Hillerman and Margaret Coel, and she herself is a Cherokee who grew up in Oklahoma. Her first one is Deception on All Accounts. Website: I tried to imagine what it would be like to rush table to table for an hour and a half and give a 90-second spiel. They were very good-humored about it. There’s a waiting list to get to do this!

Louise Penny interviewed Janet Rudolph, who received the Poirot Award for her support to the mystery community. Louise rather put her on the spot by asking why she’d never been invited to one of Janet’s soirees at her home in the Berkeley Hills. Janet has spent twenty-five years teaching, writing, editing, producing mystery events, and organizing the first international group for mystery readers. She also has a website for this org, Mystery Readers International, which also gives out the McCavity Award. Under that organization’s aegis, the quarterly Mystery Readers Journal, is published. Louise asked her why she didn’t write mysteries, and she said, because she didn’t think she could take the criticism.

At the Friday evening panel of those women who were up for the Agatha Best Novel, I was struck by how at ease they were with each other. They all hoped to win, but yet they joked and showed real affection for each other. Donna Andrews, also the Toastmaster, Louise Penny, Nancy Pickard, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and Heather Webber. Nancy joked that she wished she had Louise’s husband, who was sitting beside me on the front row. He didn’t react, but Louise glowered when two others said the same thing. Afterwards, I said to him, "Do you think Louise will win?" "Yes." She did.

On Saturday I went to the First Novel Nominees panel, moderated by Margaret Maron, who also lives in central North Carolina and all of whose novels I’ve enjoyed. She read a short excerpt from each book, a very nice way to open these new authors to the readers in the room. I had sampled two of them before the conference, and I’d already picked Sasscer to vote for. I knew the story behind Avery Aames (real name Daryl Gerber), who did win the Best First Novel Agatha. Her cheese shop mysteries were a three-book deal offered to her through Agent Jessica Faust by Berkeley Prime Crime. The publisher gave her the "hook" or setting, and she wrote their series rather than her own. Curious to me, but several other Guppies got similar deals.

Being bombarded, on the panels, too, with writers I had known nothing about, who used the panel to court fans, I think of how I felt when I first went to Pacific Grove, CA, as a young pregnant woman, in my 20s, already determined to be a writer, and all the new people I met, dozens of them, were writers or artists.
It made me feel without a place. Where and who was I to think I had anything to offer? At the convention I wondered how my book, should it be published, would find its place in this non-stop hoopla. It was reassuring to talk to mystery fans, when I encountered them, often up near the front of a room, going in early to get a good seat, as I had, and we compared notes on which authors we liked.

I want to believe I write more like the mystery authors I admire, but time will tell. Ultimately, it comes down to readers. I want my books to be loved. Funny, all the hoopla, but ultimately it means me sitting by myself, creating, inventing, playing, as Sue Grafton calls it. In the article on her in the program as well as in her interview, she stressed "trusting the Shadow."

"Ego is a writer’s enemy. I can’t write when I’m sitting there worried about my editor, wondering if the critics will hate the book, wondering if my readers will complain, wondering if my fans will be bored. All good writing comes from Shadow, which is Ego’s opposite. Shadow holds our intuition, energy, imagination, insight and humor. Shadow also holds our rage, our pettiness and our secret, mean-spirited response to the world. Shadow is the child in us and all she wants to do is play. I have to remind myself over and over that writing is not about money or sales or fame or glory or recognition. Writing is about play. Writing is an expression of our souls and our innermost selves. That’s a lesson I have to learn anew every day when I sit down at my computer. So far Shadow is winning out over Ego, but I’m the one fighting to keep her on top." [Interview by Hank Phillippi Ryan]

All these hints and experiences help me somehow, but still the best part was the people. Besides Sasscer, Diane, and Kendel, I was able to have quiet lunch in a nearby Quizno’s with Gloria Alden, also a small farmer and a Guppy, and we’re of an age. We’ve corresponded a lot by email, sharing children, farm, and writer dilemmas and joys. Important, too, were the quiet chats with fans, many of whom come a long way for this, and seeing my favorite mystery writer, Louise Penny, carry off another Agatha Teapot. Look for more on Louise next week.

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