Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Stars Come Out at Harrogate, Part IV

(Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of British correspondent Ali Karim’s report from the recent Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. Previous parts can be read here.)

After a fitful night’s sleep, plagued by dreams about conspiracy theories, Alexander and I roused ourselves in the morning, breakfasted like kings, and then headed back to the Crown Hotel to see American novelist Jeffery Deaver speak. It turned out to be one of the highlights of this year’s Harrogate festival.

Even at 9 a.m., the room in which Deaver (left) spoke offered standing room only. He began with a hilarious “diary of my life as a writer” monologue. Apart from being a sharp thriller novelist, Deaver can be very droll, with a dry and ironic sense of humor. I recall Left Coast Crime in Bristol, during which Deaver read out a long poem he’d composed, titled “The Death of Reading,” about the naysayers in publishing who always think that the sky is falling in. And then at last summer’s ThrillerFest, he sang a song while accompanying himself on a guitar. Deaver is a showman, and a very talented performer--not the sort of person you’d expect to find taking on a role in one of his tense thrillers. He was no less engaging at Harrogate.

At the end of his presentation, I managed to ask him a question about the opening chapter of his dazzling 2004 historical thriller, Garden of Beasts, which is sort of my in-joke with Deaver. “And what made me think I’d be asked about that novel?” he responded, laughing as he recognized my voice, even though I was seated back in the shadows. Then he went on to talk at some length to the audience in general about why he’d loved writing Garden of Beasts and why, despite critical acclaim and a Dagger Award win, it didn’t sell all that well in the United States. As is our tradition, Alex and I left the room shortly before Deaver had finished speaking, so we could be at the front of the queue waiting for him to sign our books. By the time he arrived in the signing room, the queue stretched out like a twisting motorway, and even Deaver appeared shocked by its length. He thanked me for my tireless promotion of Garden of Beasts and signed a copy of the book for my son. Interestingly, I noticed later that all the copies of Garden of Beasts had sold out of the festival’s book room, so maybe it’s worth mentioning that work at events such as this one. I envy people, like Alex, who have the chance to read it for the first time.

After the Deaver session, we stopped for a quick coffee and were amused to see authors Mark Billingham and Peter Guttridge obsessing over their iPhones in the bar. It appears that both of them have fallen in love with those gleaming gadgets. I managed to pull Billingham away from his mini-screen long enough to chat about his latest work and first standalone book, In the Dark, which I am looking forward to reading. (For a taste of what it offers, here’s the opening chapter.) Billingham, incidentally, is going to serve as toastmaster at Bouchercon in Baltimore this fall. Being a stand-up comic in addition to an excellent novelist, his presence alone ought to be worth the price of admission. As I was talking with Billingham, Alex rooted about in my bag for a signable proof copy of In the Dark. Watching, the author smiled and said to me, “Poor old Alex, you’ve just brought him as your donkey-boy to help cart your books around.” Alex laughed, but he knew that there was a grain of truth in Billingham’s jibe. Mind you, Alex was well paid for his efforts, and he was spending the money wisely on books. “Like father like son,” Billingham remarked, as he saw the size of Alex’s to-be-signed stack.

From there, it was panel time again. We went to watch Caroline Carver (aka C.J. Carver) moderate a discussion about location use in fiction writing, her fellow panelists being Jeff Abbott, Frank Schätzing, Tom Rob Smith, and Meg Gardiner. This turned out to be an engaging presentation, as location so often plays a crucial role in thriller fiction. Carver, being a globetrotter and setting her novels (including Gone Without Trace) in exotic spots, was the perfect choice as moderator. German novelist Schätzing (who I first met at London’s Goethe Institute in 2004, when he launched his popular eco-thriller, The Swarm) related the story of one of his readers who, during a tsunami in Southeast Asia, had warned beach bathers to flee a second, larger, and more destructive wave--a phenomenon he’d only just heard about in The Swarm. And when it came his turn to speak, Smith emphasized the importance of writers actually visiting the places in which they intend to set their fiction. It seems he had traveled to Russia well before starting work on his Ian Fleming Dagger-awarded novel, Child 44.

After this session, I managed to nab a choice few minutes with the Simon & Schuster team of Joe Pickering and Kate Lyall-Grant, together with their now Man Booker Prize-nominated author, Tom Rob Smith. They were all delighted that I loved Child 44 so much, but Smith was also still amused by one question I’d asked him when I interviewed him for The Rap Sheet some months ago:
Ali Karim: Sometimes the most despicable traits of villains are not always the most visceral. I found the scene in which Vasili and his men ransack Leo Demidov’s apartment, while Leo watches Vasili rummage through Raisa’s underwear, sniffing the contents, probably the most disturbing and repellent part of the novel. Do you agree?

Tom Rob Smith: Yes, that is horrible! You’re right, though: paradoxically, depictions of violence can often become less disturbing the more graphic it becomes.
Jokingly, Smith asked if I had a fetish about “underwear,” which incited laughs all around. But he agreed that the act of sniffing undergarments was rather disturbing, as it depicted the “badness” in his villain so effectively.

From there, Alex and I attended a cocktail party (again in the Thackery Suite) hosted by UK television channel ITV3. Seems it’s launching yet another award for crime and thriller fiction. Emma Tennant, controller of ITV3, took up the microphone and informed her audience that presentation of these Crime Thriller Awards will be preceded by a jam-packed ITV3 broadcast schedule--six weeks of the greatest TV crime dramas, with specially commissioned documentaries profiling the six finest British crime writers working today: Colin Dexter, Ian Rankin, P.D. James, Lynda La Plante, Val McDermid, and Ruth Rendell. Viewers of ITV3 will then be invited to vote for the author who’s work they think is the best. (Note that the work of all six has been adapted for television.) Each of those documentaries will look back at how their subjects created their fictional detectives, and see how their success is reflected in their present lifestyles. Other crime fictionists, including Mark Billingham, Peter James, Peter Robinson, Martina Cole, Jeffery Archer and Giles Brandreth, will also be featured, as will real-life detectives, pathologists, and criminals. The preliminaries over, we were treated to a 10-minute collection of video highlights from the documentaries to come. Unfortunately, the volume was turned up to maximum. We were lucky to survive with our eardrums intact.

We didn’t really have too much time to stay around and mingle with the TV folk, before we darted off to panel discussion called “A Dirty Job But Someone’s Got to Do It.” Moderated with erudition by our dining companion of the evening before, Quintin Jardine, the session was an opportunity to learn more about a rather eclectic and international bunch of writers: Jo Nesbø from Norway, Thomas H. Cook from the States, Barbara Nadel from the UK (though she sets a great deal of her work in Turkey), and my friend Roger Jon Ellory (who, though he’s British, sets his work in America).

The discussion was all over the map. Cook, a tremendous writer of mystery novels, explained how he got into print by sheer luck, as one of his early manuscripts was picked up by a friend ... who showed it to a publisher buddy ... who got him on the first rung of the ladder. He said, dryly, that he’s remained there ever since. To me, Cook’s work (especially Red Leaves) is outstanding; I can never understand why Cook (shown at right with Simon Kernick) is not a mega-seller. Meanwhile, Ellory explained that he wrote 20-odd novels before his first was accepted for publication--Candlemoth, which was a January Magazine favorite in 2003. Ellory laughed when he recalled how naïve he was before being signed by Jon Wood of Orion Publishing--a story he detailed to me several years ago. And listening to Jo Nesbø was a particular treat, as I have followed the work of this musician-journalist turned full-time writer ever since it was first translated into English. (His latest is the fourth in the Harry Hole series, Nemesis.)

Afterward, Alex and I sped to the signing room with a huge hold-all of books. I was especially pleased to have Thomas H. Cook signing my collection of his work. As he did so, I chatted on about how I’d first discovered Red Leaves (through Larry Gandle of Deadly Pleasures magazine), how my enthusiasm for that novel had brought my reviewing work to the attention of publishing house Quercus (and led Quercus to send me an early copy of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and how disappointed I was that Red Leaves had not won the Crime Writers’ Association’s Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award in 2006. It was just then that I realized British author Ann Cleeves was sitting within easy earshot. “Bollucks,” I whispered to Cook, because it was Cleeves’ novel Raven Black that had defeated Red Leaves for the Dagger that year.

It’s lucky that I know Ann Cleeves well. She just smiled graciously and didn’t make a big deal of my faux pas. I proceeded to backtrack a little, saying that the Duncan Lawrie Dagger shortlist in 2006 had been a particularly strong one, and Cook concurred. I should note here that I’ve enjoyed Cleeves’ work greatly over the years, and thought she did an excellent interview with Karin Fossum at CrimeFest a couple of months ago. But I find Cook’s work very special. His writing is poetic, chilling, and alters my way of thinking. To me, Thomas H. Cook is something of a god amongst authors, and Red Leaves was, without question, my favorite novel of 2006.

Quickly gathering up my books and rejoining Alex, I realized that it was time for me to meet with Robert Crais. Orion Publishing’s wonderful Angela McMahon had kindly arranged that get-together for me, and I didn’t want to be late, as upsetting the creator of Joe Pike would not be a healthy thing to do.

(Part V can be found here.)

Is Jo Nesbø Europe’s Top Crime Writer?” by Uriah Robinson (Crime Scraps).


Uriah Robinson said...

A little error in this interesting report Jo Nesbo,my current favourite crime writer, is from Norway not Sweden.

If it came to a mixed doubles crime writing contest Jo Nesbo and Karin Fossum would be an almost unbeatable combination.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Good catch, "Uriah." The information about Nesbo's nation of origin has now been corrected.


Anonymous said...

Great stuff, Ali. I'm also a big fan of Cook's work — poetic is exactly right.