Wednesday, June 18, 2008

CrimeFest Hits Bristol, Part II

(Editor’s note: This is the second installment of British correspondent Ali Karim’s report from the recent CrimeFest convention, held in Southwest England. Part I can be found here.)

Peter Guttridge interviews CrimeFest special guest Jeff Lindsay.

Day Two, June 6. My alarm went off at 6 a.m. and I felt distinctly queasy, as I reckoned I’d had less than two hours sleep. Shots editor Mike Stotter and I had been rather unsuccessful at pacing ourselves at the start of CrimeFest, and in fact had wound up drinking most of the night away with novelist Simon Kernick (Severed). Now, it seemed, I was paying the price.

It was my demanding day job that forced me to switch on my laptop computer at this ridiculous hour of the morning. While the machine was busy booting up, I ran my head under the shower nozzle, the temperature as cold as the dial would permit. After drying my face and hair, I went through my e-mail messages, sorted out a few issues (most of them caused by the soaring cost of fuel), then made several cell phone calls and slammed back some Aspirin. Working with two hours’ sleep was made more challenging by the sound of Stotter’s stentorian snoring from the next bed. When I could take no more, I finally shut the lid on my laptop and climbed into the shower once again, hoping that a bit more cold water torture would stir me back to life. I was set to moderate the first of two “Fresh Blood” panels (showcasing debut crime writers) at the ungodly hour of 9 a.m., and couldn’t afford to be less than sharp.

Dry again and dressed, I headed off to breakfast with Tony Black (Paying for It) and Caro Ramsey (Absolution), which for me comprised a lot of coffee. And I do mean a lot of coffee.

I’d e-mailed the members of both my Friday and Saturday morning “Fresh Blood” panels prior to this conference beginning, sending them notes, pointers, advice, and some questions that I hoped would stimulate their thoughts and insights. I was conscious of the fact that for some of these writers, this would be the first convention panel they’d ever sat on, and perhaps the first public speaking they’d ever done. Rather than start off cold before an audience, I suggested that we all meet 20 minutes before the discussion was to commence, so we could chat a bit and get some rapport going.

Tony Black was on Friday’s panel, as were Elena Forbes (Die with Me, Our Lady of Pain), Kaye C. Hill (Dead Woman’s Shoes), Roger Hudson (Death Comes by Amphora), Ken Isaacson (Silent Counsel), and Roz Southey (Chords and Discords). Forbes had participated on panels before, I knew, including during last year’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival; and Isaacson has been heavily involved with the Mystery Writers of America, New York Chapter. So I was less concerned about them, than I was for the rest--and my hungover self. Yet we all had notes in front of us, like barriers against embarrassment, so I was feeling adequately relaxed as our audience began filing into the auditorium. It was a decent turnout, despite the early hour.

After introductions all around, the rest of my panelists started explaining what had drawn them to the writing life. Feeling my mouth becoming unusually dry, I grabbed for one of the big bottled waters that had been placed on the table for us to share--only to discover that I had no glass to fill. I scanned the table and saw that everyone had a glass, save for me. This was a horrific predicament, as my mouth was feeling drier than the Gobi desert, thanks to a night of heavy drinking. What made matters more difficult, was that my panelists were doing an excellent job of responding to questions, and I didn’t want to interrupt the flow by leaping off the stage in a desperate search for some sort of drinking vessel.

My sleep-deprived brain tried to work through my options, the best one of which seemed to be that I should somehow procure the still-unused glass in front of Elena Forbes, who was sitting right beside me. But I hadn’t worked out how to do that without embarrassment, before the panel completed its latest round of responses and looked to me for the next question. By this point, my tongue was solidly glued to the roof of my mouth. I was literally tongue-tied--a first for me. Meanwhile, the room had fallen silent. What was I to do? Finally, I just grabbed the liter bottle of water in front of me, flipped the corked stopper, and rammed the nozzle into my mouth. I hadn’t realized, though, that the bloody thing held sparkling water, so although the liquid freed my tongue from my palate, the bubbles flew up my nose, making me gag. Forbes smiled my way, indulgently, and I noticed some of our listeners twittering at such vulgar behavior from the panel’s moderator. “Fuck it!” I said out loud, taking another big swig, wiping a hand across my mouth, and diving back into the discussion as if nothing had happened.

Fortunately, the rest of that presentation went off without incident, and everybody seemed to have a good time. I even noticed some people who’d overslept their early alarms (including Mr. Stotter) sneaking in at the back of the room halfway through. All of the panelists proved to be knowledgeable and insightful about their own work, whether their subject matter was serial killings, courtroom menaces, or historical violence. And, thankfully, nobody said anything more about how I’d sucked down an entire liter bottle of sparking water during our discussion, damn the bubbles.

After shepherding my panelists into the book-signing room, however, I had to find a toilet, as my bladder was near to bursting.

From there, Stotter and I went off to have coffee and a chat with American author Chris Mooney, who had flown in from Boston for CrimeFest. I first met Mooney in 2003, and have followed his career ever since. He writes tough and gripping thrillers such as Deviant Ways, World Without End, and 2004’s Remembering Sarah, which was nominated for both the Edgar and Barry awards. I really loved that last novel, and as a consequence interviewed Mooney. Since then, he’s embarked on a new series featuring female investigator Darby McCormick. The first installment was last year’s The Missing (a video trailer for which can be seen here).

I should warn you, though, Mooney’s work packs a punch. Which is why I had to laugh when he shared with me his favorite fan letter:
Dear Mr. Mooney,

I’m writing to you in regards to your book Deviant Ways. I finished it in two days and I couldn’t sleep. You are seriously one disturbed individual to write things like that. It’s clear you have deep psychological problems, and you should have them treated, provided a therapist would treat you.

The book was sick, sick, sick.

Seriously, what’s wrong with you?


P.S. -- When is your next book coming out?
As it turned out, an advance reader’s copy of Mooney’s second Darby McCormick novel, The Secret Friend (due out in Britain in July), was in the CrimeFest goodie bag all participants received. Naturally, I asked the author to sign my copy.

We then accompanied him to his next panel, entitled “The Bleeding Edge: Writing Violence.” This was a most interesting discussion, moderated by Natasha Cooper, and I was amused to see that Mooney was the sole male participant; other speakers were Sheila Quigley, Caro Ramsey, and Lee Weeks. The main thrust of the debate on violence echoed around the question of why women writers tend to explore the more visceral elements of crime fiction. Cooper turned out to be an excellent moderator, keeping her panel discussion moving at a good pace. Quigley was in top form and as funny as ever. And I enjoyed listening to Weeks, especially as she was going to be on my second “Fresh Blood” panel. It seems she once worked the bar scene in the Far East as a hostess. This led her to real-life troubles with the Chinese triads, which resulted in her becoming a heroin addict. All of this informs her new novel, The Trophy Taker.

By now it was approaching lunchtime. I’d thought about attending either of two panels at this hour, but given our difficult, early start on the day, Stotter and I decided to regroup. We went back to our room, gathered our shorts and towels, and headed for the hotel pool. A 40-minute swim, capped off with a steam and a sauna, and a nap beside the water was just the sort of detoxing the doctor ordered.

We were up and dressed again in time to see critic-author Peter Guttridge interview CrimeFest featured guest Jeff Lindsay (Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Dexter by Design). This turned out to be one of the high points of the convention. Lindsey (aka Jeffry P. Freundlich) is something of a renaissance man--writer, playwright, film writer, poet, and stand-up comic. Plus, he’s married to author Hilary Hemingway, the daughter of famous Ernest’s brother Leicester. The exchange between these two novelists was very funny, as well as being informative. And, thanks to my asking what was determined to be a good question, I received a signed copy of the first-season DVD of Dexter, the Showtime series based on Lindsay’s novels.

Another quick change of clothes, and it was off to meet with Selina Walker, the publishing director of Transworld, who’d kindly invited Stotter and me to dinner. She had booked us a table at a restaurant called The Glass Boat, which was exactly that--a restaurant on a craft moored in Bristol’s gentrified dockland. Joining us as Transworld’s guests were fellow critics Laura Wilson and Barry Forshaw, who arrived with his delightful wife, Judith. I was also very happy to meet Walker’s colleague and commissioning editor, Simon Thorogood, again. Thorogood is consummate professional, who has introduced some great new talents to the Transworld list, including Tom Cain, who penned last year’s blistering The Accident Man.

Also seated around our table were a few Transworld authors: Ariana Franklin, who won last year’s Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award for her second novel, Mistress of the Art of Death, and with whom I managed to talk a bit about her new book, The Death Maze; techno-thriller writer John Macken; the wonderful Christopher Fowler, horror novelist, filmmaker, and author of the surreal Bryant and May mysteries; S.J. (Sharon) Bolton; and the aforementioned Tom Cain.

Bolton laughed rather nervously when I recounted the tale of my late-night drinking and early morning panel. She (along with Macken) was to sit on my second “Fresh Blood” panel the next day, and seemed relieved when I assured her that I’d be heading off to bed at a decent hour this evening. I told her that I’d enjoyed her first novel, Sacrifice, which is a crime-cum-horror story--“almost a 21st-century Stepford Wives having Rosemary’s Baby for The Wicker Man,” as London Times critic Peter Millar wrote earlier this spring.

Beyond the fine company, dinner was terrific. The big surprise was Simon Thorogood’s gift to all of the reviewers: an ARC of Tom Cain’s follow-up to The Accident Man, titled The Survivor (due out next month in the UK). According to the back jacket copy:
The Accident Man is back . . .

Samuel Carver makes bad accidents happen to worse people. He’s very good at his job. But nobody’s perfect. And one of Carver’s targets has got away.

Now the world faces a new age of conflict driven by religious fanaticism. In Russia, the government have admitted they no longer know the whereabouts of one hundred small-scale ‘suitcase nukes’. In Afghanistan and Kosovo, ruthless terrorists plot the downfall of their hated enemies. In Texas, a dying billionaire plots his own personal Armageddon.

And Carver can do nothing to stop them. He was beaten and tortured and left to die, but Samuel Carver is a hard man to kill. When he awakes in a Swiss sanatorium from weeks of torment, he discovers that the woman he loves has vanished. Somehow he must find the strength to track her down.

Carver’s hunt will take him deep into the heart of a conspiracy in which the lives of millions are at stake. He must confront an agonizing choice between his duty and his heart, and face the ultimate sacrifice. As the clock ticks down to doomsday, who will survive the final, explosive conflagration?

In The Survivor the worlds of fact and fiction collide in a thriller that grips from the first page to the last.
So, armed with our new books, we walked back to the Bristol Marriott Royal Hotel, during which time I chatted with Macken and Bolton about the next morning’s presentation. After thanking Walker and Thorogood for their hospitality, Stotter and I went to the bar for a night cap. One beer apiece. And then it was off to bed, despite the persistent importuning of Simon Kernick, our drinking buddy from the evening before, who’d already dragged Michael Marshall (Smith) to his beer-bottle-laden table. With full stomachs, heads awash in thoughts of the crime novels we’d just been discussing, and residual sleep deprivation, we slept like logs.

CrimeFest had, in reality, only just begun.

(Part III can be found here.)


Anonymous said...

Was it you who rang up a drinks bill for my room, then? I found it hard work over the weekend, even being sober. But try it next time...

Anonymous said...

It's like I was there, except I wasn't :-(
-- maybe next year ;-)

Josephine Damian said...

Entertaining reportage from the conference, Ali. Good stuff, this.

My favorite part is where you said: Fuck it!

Are you sure you're not me?

Nice to see my Southwest Florida homeboy, Jeff Lindsay, out and about. I met him here 10+ years ago when he was a midlister about to be dropped by his publisher. A sad reality that far too many writers face, but Jeff had a plan to change it up and reinvent himself as a writer, thus the DEXTER success.

So many writers give up in the face of adversity. Jeff is an example of how to overcome the hard times.

Ali Karim said...

Thanks for the kind comments

Keith and Anon - Glad you are environmental guys! but seriously, British conferences are great fun you should take a trip to sample British Beer.

Grant - I have spoken to Transworld and I am looking forward to your debut novel, hope to see you next year.

Bookwitch - Mike and I pay for our own drinks, so not guilty [we have the bar-tab and hangovers to prove it]. Besides what's a convention / conference without liquid refreshment.

Jo, I agree vis-a-vis Jeff Lindsay, he's a helluva decent guy, very funny, and generous. I was lucky to drink with him after the banquet and have some funny anecdotes which will be in parts III and IV.

I have to pass my thanks to Editor Jeff for his tireless work at Rap Sheet. He has to be one of the hardest working editors in the genre.