Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Escape to New York, Part I

Last summer I made the long trek from my home in England all the way to Phoenix, Arizona, to attend the inaugural ThrillerFest conference, organized by the International Thriller Writers (ITW). It was a wonderful convention, held at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, where I encountered some old friends and made a few new ones.

So good a time did I have, in fact, that I decided to return (this time with Shots editor and blogger Mike Stotter) to the States for this year’s second annual ThrillerFest, held recently at New York City’s Grand Hyatt Hotel. What a surreal time we had, replete with fun, adventure, and a chance meeting with the “King of New York,” Christopher Walken. I’ll look back at those experiences in a trio of Rap Sheet posts, beginning today.

* * *

We flew from London in company with novelist Zoë Sharp (Second Shot) and her husband, Andy Butler, arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Tuesday afternoon, a few days before the event was to begin. This allowed us a bit of acclimatization time, a chance to see some of Manhattan’s wonders before the conference kicked into gear.

On Wednesday, with my tourist hat firmly in place, I was pleased to photograph the name of the first Karim who had reached America via Ellis Island--a very moving experience for this visitor. I also took in the Statue of Liberty, climbed atop the Empire State Building, and bought an assortment of K-Swiss track shoes for my children. Then, that evening, while Stotter went off to the launch of Peter Spiegelman’s Wall Street Noir at Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop, I dined with Lee Child and some of his longtime fans from his forum, a meal organized by Child’s always delightful Web maven, Maggie Griffin. This dinner was held at an Italian restaurant called Carmine’s, just off Broadway. Dining out with Child has become a sort of tradition for me, a regular chance to talk with him about books and what’s been happening in our respective lives. This Wednesday affair was no exception. The group of us began by toasting the success of Child’s 11th Jack Reacher thriller, Bad Luck and Trouble, which hit both the U.S. and UK book sales charts hard earlier this summer.

Due to a combination of reading too much of Philip K. Dick’s work recently, sleep deprivation, and alcohol consumption, I confused everyone with what I thought was my brilliant disquisition on existentialism and writing, going on and on about how to get past the conventional view of existence. I think my friend hild was near to calling someone from Bellevue, until I moved on to the subject of tachyon signals sent from the future--at which point he requested that a straitjacket be brought to the table straight away. Needless to say, I suffered a pretty severe headache the next morning.

Thursday was reserved for the pre-conference “CraftFest,” which turned out to be a series of lectures and tutorials delivered by some of the biggest names in the genre--Tess Gerritsen, David Morrell, Gayle Lynds, James Rollins, and many more--to help fledgling thriller writers succeed in what has become a crowded and tough genre. (ITW has since produced audio CDs of those lectures for folks who couldn’t attend ThrillerFest. They can be ordered here.)

Rather than exhaust all of our time at CraftFest, Stotter and I met up with blogger, short-story writer, and sometime January Magazine contributor Sarah Weinman (the three of us pictured above) and went out to lunch in company with New Jersey author Dave White. At one point, I got talking about how hard I was finding it to read the plethora of books sent my way, and I made the faux pas of saying, “Man, there are so many P.I. novels out there. How many variations can there be to finding a missing person? Besides, so few people seem even to have read Raymond Chandler these days.” And then I asked White to tell me what his debut novel, When One Man Dies, is about. He replied with a good-natured “It’s a P.I. novel,” at which time I ordered another pitcher of beer and listened to Weinman and Stotter laugh. After lunch, I went with local girl Weinman to shop for cosmetics for my wife. A few hours at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, though, and I started to receive tachyon transmissions, telling me it was time for more alcohol and book talk.

Safely back at the Grand Hyatt, all properly badged up for the conference and well hydrated with my special London Gin and Indian tonic water, Stotter and I entered the mêlée that was the Random House Publishers Party. In attendance were many of the writers who had contributed to last year’s ITW anthology, Thriller: Stories to Keep You Up All Night. I was quickly spotted by James Siegel (Deceit), and soon, with Stotter and author M.J. Rose in tow, we headed out again for dinner. I have to say, Siegel (shown at left in the beard, with yours truly) is one the fastest walkers I have ever met. To keep up with his lengthy strides, I found myself almost running. Looking behind me, I saw that Stotter and Rose--the latter in high heels--were struggling to keep up with us. I found it hard to carry on a conversation with Siegel, as I was out of breath for most of this walk-cum-jog. Had I not quit the smokes a few months back, it could’ve been worse. Along the way, Siegel dropped a few hints about his upcoming fifth novel, but as I was struggling just to keep up with him, I missed most of what he said.

Dinner, in yet another Italian bistro, was altogether pleasant, though Siegel (whose day job is as a director of BBDO, one of the world’s largest advertising agencies) finally apologized for letting his BlackBerry beep throughout the meal. Seems he was expecting an urgent call, and just before the main course arrived, he had to leave the table to talk to somebody. When he returned, he explained that it was U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on the phone, and that he had to go back to his office to watch a video she’d asked him to oversee. He apologized profusely and left us suddenly, and from the bistro window I smiled, watching him walk off in his fast-jogging style.

The rest of that dinner was spent chatting with Rose (shown at left in the photo below, with author Lisa Gardner) about her upcoming novel, The Reincarnationist. Rose seems very proud of this work, which is a marked departure from her previous novels. She told us that writing a suspense story is very much like uncovering gardens that have long been hidden away. She explained, too, that her fascination with reincarnation dates back to when she was still a child; that she’s been laboring over this new book for more than nine years; and that she shares her interest in reincarnation with a score of notable historical figures, among them Carl Jung, Rudyard Kipling, Albert Einstein, Louisa May Alcott, General George Patton, Mark Twain, Henry Ford, and Mahatma Gandhi. Given my own fascination with existentialism, and after my twisted conversation with Lee Child of the previous night, I was delighted when Rose handed me an advance reader’s copy of The Reincarnationist. She’s also set up a Web site devoted to this field of interest.

Following our meal, both Stotter and Rose were delighted by my suggestion that, rather than resume our James Siegel-like pace back to the Hyatt, we take a cab.

By the time we returned, though, the night still seemed young. So what were a pair of spirited Englishmen to do? Naturally, we hit the bar, where we bumped into Larry Gandle, the assistant editor of Deadly Pleasures magazine (and, in Michael Connelly’s world, Harry Bosch’s new boss). For the next several hours, we carried on about recent books read, relished, and regretted. And amid that discussion, Gandle mounted his soapbox to complain about the British Crime Writers’ Association’s nominees for the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Awards. It seems he didn’t think the books shortlisted this time around were actually thrillers. Since Stotter was a CWA Fleming judge, while Gandle served as a judge on the thrillers committee of this year’s Barry Awards and also judged the ITW’s Best Thriller category, fireworks at our table were to be expected. I could just sit back and listen to those two debate the definition of a modern “thriller.” Six beers, eight glasses of Knob Creek, and four and a half hours later, I realized that (a) thrillers are damnably hard to define, and (b) Mike Stotter needs an interpreter after imbibing too much of Knob Creek’s best. Only when he started to belch loudly, could I make out the words Shutter Island and Tom Ripley from amongst his cockney rhyming slang.

When Stotter finally broke into his Dick Van Dyke impersonation of a chimney sweep from Mary Poppins, complete with dance routine, all eyes in the place turned our way--and all eyebrows were raised. We were presently, if gently escorted out of the bar by an embarrassed Gandle, who calmed the bartender--obviously, no fan of Stotter’s singing:
Chim chiminey
Chim chiminey
Chim chim cher-ee!
A sweep is as lucky
As lucky can be

Chim chiminey
Chim chiminey
Chim chim cher-oo!
With that, we trod off to bed. But it seems that Stotter’s singing isn’t restricted to conscious activity. He continued to mumble out Van Dyke’s part even as he drifted off into slumber.

(Part II of Ali Karim’s recollections from ThrillerFest 2007 can be found here. Part III is available here.)

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