Sunday, May 15, 2011

Zesty Women: Sasscer, Diane, and Kendel at Malice

Sasscer Hill, with George Strawbridge, Campbell Soup heir and major owner of champion horses, (left) and Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard (right), at Kenneland Race Track, Lexington, KY., October 2010.

Malice Domestic Mystery Convention, Bethesda, MD, April 29-May 1, 2011–Part I, People.

I’d been to Malice in 2009, when I knew no one except, by email, certain Guppies, the Great Unpublished subgroup of Sisters in Crime, which I’d joined in late 2007 to help me get my mystery series published. Some of the Guppies were getting published, and I’d read some of their books.

I had also recently read Louise Penny’s April is the Cruelest Month, set in the French Canadian village of Three Pines, and I had loved it. She was one of the Agatha nominees for that very book for Best Traditional Mystery of 2008, and I sat next to her husband during one of the panels and told him how much I admired her book. After the panel, I also told her and said I was especially interested in how she had handled having her hero, Inspector Gamache, be a good man. My heroine, Penny Weaver, is a good woman. The challenge is to keep them human.

What I learned from Louise’s books (Bury Your Dead was the current Agatha a nominee and A Trick of the Light will be released in August 2011) is that a truly good character, with a minimum of flaws, to be believable, has to suffer. Meeting Louise, and later, interviewing her by email for the Guppy Newsletter, First Draft, was the highlight of the 2009 conference for me. She won her second Agatha that year, and her third in 2010, then the fourth Agatha for Bury Your Dead at the 2011 Malice.

Malice is a three-day mystery convention, having this year about four hundred people in a big Bethesda hotel, and at least a hundred and fifty published writers, famous, not so famous, and probably fifty writing but not yet published, and it can be overwhelming. I had so many impressions, which it took me awhile to sort out. I’ll do this report in two installments.

What made it especially worth going to Malice 23? People, three in particular. At the Saturday night banquet, the Agathas are announced for Best First Novel, Best Short Story, Best Children’s/YA Book; Best Non-Fiction book, and Best Novel of 2010, as well as the winner of the Malice Domestic First Best Traditional Mystery Contest, which would be published by St. Martin’s Press.

This year, in late February, I learned that I was a finalist in that last contest for the sixth mystery in my series, Killer Frost. I had tried the contest seven times, and I was elated. But by the end of March, I was certain I hadn’t won, as I hadn’t heard anything from St. Martin’s, and I knew that a winner in a recent year had received a phone call in late March. I had already been querying agents, and I had some interest from them, but not as much as I had hoped from being a finalist. But I was going to Malice, in any case.

Diane (left) and Kendel (right), moderators for our Guppy Press Quest listserve.

During the reception before the banquet Saturday night, I chatted with Kendel Flaum and Diane Vallere, who moderate a relatively new Guppy listserve called Press Quest, which I’d joined. I’d had better luck with small presses that publish mysteries. Of the six presses we’d learned about through interviews Diane and Kendel had arranged, four had requested material from me. They all passed, but I’d been more encouraged than I was after three years of agent searching.

Kendel and Diane were startled, apparently, to realize I was in my 70s, not my 40s, given my energy. Kendel confided that she, too, had been a finalist, and her agent had been able to learn that she wasn’t the winner, but Kendel thought maybe the winner didn’t know until it was announced at the banquet. Also, at the reception, when I spoke to Carolyn of the Charles Todd author duo, she also said she thought the winner learned at the banquet, which began immediately.

I was thrown into turmoil inside. Was this possible, that I might still win? Common sense flew to the winds. My emotions rattled around loose like marbles being shaken inside a cup. I had nowhere and no time to get a grip.

Sasscer Hill, author of Full Mortality.
But I’d chosen to sit at Sasscer Hill’s table for the banquet. Sasscer’s novel on horse racing, Full Mortality (see my blog posted May 8, immediately before this one), was up for an Agatha for First Best Novel of 2010, and I’d voted for her. Convention members vote for all the Agatha awards. I hadn’t yet read her novel, but I’d read a short story of hers in 2008. I’d ordered her novel, but it hadn’t arrived by the Thursday I left for Alexandria, to stay the weekend with my friends Sharon and John, and go to the convention by Metro. Nevertheless, based on her short story, I was sure the novel was good.

Sasscer welcomed me to her table. She confessed to wanting to go into the bathroom to scream–she was so nervous about the Agatha--and I confessed I’d gotten unsettled because two people had told me the winner of my contest might not yet know. So we consulted each other and compared notes on the two asparagus spears laid neatly on our plates beside the fancy chicken and beef entrees, and a very small scoop of mashed potatoes, not to mention the gnocchi appetizer–some kind of dumpling, I figured out by tasting--smothered in a tomato sauce. I don’t think Sasscer tasted hers. She was suspicious. The fancy chocolate dessert with raspberries (Chocolate Pots du Creme) was good.

Then the Agathas. Louise won Best Novel for the fourth time–a record. Another Canadian, Mary Jane Maffini, won Best Short Story. I did not win the Malice Domestic First Best Mystery and a publishing contract with St. Martin’s. Linda Rodriguez, for her novel Every Secret Thing, won, and Sasscer did not win First Best published mystery, although another Guppy did, Avery Ames, with her cheese shop mystery, The Long Quiche Goodbye.

But Sasscer and I may have made more of a bond because we didn’t win. When I got home, her novel had arrived, and I have now read it. After you read my review, you’ll see what a winner it is, Agathas or not.

This is a horse Sasscer bred and raised, as a one-year-old, name of  Out Smarten, with flowers in his mane.

So sharing that suspense with Sasscer was worth the convention. I reminded her that the fact that we were writing about what we cared passionately about, was what mattered, not the prizes, and comforted myself in the act of comforting her.

Sunday we got to hear Sue Grafton be interviewed by Julie Smith, a writer she’d known since her youth. Sue was charming, down-to-earth, easy to love. I had talked to her once, too, when she sat near me, and I told her I’d read all her books, from A is For Alibi through U is for Undertow. Sasscer and I had agreed to how much we loved chickens at the banquet, and Sue talked about how she now had chickens, how much she loved them, how she and her husband made gourmet food for them so they wouldn’t get bored, and how the chickens climbed the fence when they carried it out to them every evening. After the interview was over, Sasscer and I both rushed up to tell Sue about our love for chickens, too.

Sasscer, age 6, with her rooster, Whitey.  Caption:  "Get Your Own Chicken."

At that interview, and at the Agatha Tea afterwards, I got to sit with Diane and Kendel, such warm, lively women, and I felt cherished. I’ve learned that I enjoy new places and situations most when I feel valued. I’m pretty sociable, but my introverted side comes out, as does that of many writers, I think, in such a big convention, so I’d spent a fair amount of time alone in the crowd, but here I was with two women with whom I shared our common struggle to get published, and we all three liked and valued each other.

We laughed when, at this big Tea, lavishly provided with cake, sandwiches, and other goodies, coffee or decaf, no tea came, as Kendel and Diane had requested, until toward the end, when they were offered an elegant box of tea bags to choose from, but it was another fifteen minutes, and the tea was over, when their hot water finally arrived.

Agatha Christie herself couldn’t have been more surprised than we were at the hotel’s failure to provide the chief ingredient for Afternoon Tea. Next time, will these lively women ask for decaf? Will we all have books about to be published by then? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Someone once told me that the closest ties are made with people you go through something hard with. So I think I’ll always feel closely connected to Sasscer, Diane, and Kendel.

Left to right, Diane, Kendel, Judy, and unidentified mystery fan waiting for Sue Grafton interview, front row!

No comments:

Post a Comment