Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Escape to New York, Part II

(The first installment of Ali Karim’s recollections from ThrillerFest 2007 can be found here.)

With our heads still banging from the previous night’s drink, and with Mike Stotter’s throat sore after singing that Mary Poppins favorite “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” we decided to skip ThrillerFest’s Friday morning breakfast for debut thriller authors (hosted by Lee Child) and instead wandered off to Midtown Manhattan’s Pershing Square restaurant, where we consumed plates of Eggs Benedict. To be quite frank, this wasn’t exactly to my taste. But, coupled with plenty of strong coffee, breakfast revived me.

Then it was back to the Grand Hyatt Hotel for our first panel discussion of this convention, “The Day of the Thriller,” with Gayle Lynds, David Morrell, James Rollins, and David Hewson, and moderated by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston (shown in the photo above). The conversation was light-hearted, and there was much discussion of sex in thrillers, which caused Lynds to laugh out loud--a lot. Talking about pivotal novels in the thriller genre, the one that all panel members seemed to agree on was Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male (1939), which had made such a deep impression on me as an adolescent. Morrell went on to recount how he had long ago corresponded with Household (who died in 1988) and had sent him a review copy of his 1972 debut novel, First Blood, in hopes of receiving a favorable “cover blurb.” Household, however, declined, stating that he found Morrell’s novel too violent, which brought out laughs from the audience. Morrell also gave us an update on the progress of Thrillers: 100 Best Books, a volume he’s been laboring on with Hank Wagner, and which collects essays about “the top 100 thriller novels” from writers, editors, and genre enthusiasts. That book is currently doing the rounds, and Morrell indicated that he and Wagner hope soon to have a publisher lined up. I was flattered last year to be asked by Morrell to contribute to this collection, and went on to compose a lengthy piece about Eric Ambler’s 1939 novel, The Mask of Dimitrios (aka A Coffin for Dimitrios). As a consequence, I am really looking forward to this book becoming available.

Back at the panel debate, Rollins soaked up a round of applause after Preston and Child noted that his latest Sigma Force thriller, The Judas Stain, hit the New York Times hardcover bestseller chart at No. 4. Rollins was, as ever, self-depreciating and came back with some witty lines about how we was pleased to become an overnight success after a decade of scribbling. That brought on a standing ovation.

After the panel discussion, Stotter and I whipped off to a crowed auditorium to listen to Vince Flynn. Now, despite Flynn being classified as something of a right-wing wordsmith, there’s actually a hidden liberal strata that ripples through his prose. Due to work demands, I missed seeing him last year, when he visited the UK, promoting Consent to Kill (which annoyed me no end, since his publisher, Simon & Schuster UK, had offered London critics a helicopter trip along the Thames and then a visit to a gun range). So I wasn’t about to miss him this time. Flynn’s talk was very funny, given his deadpan sense of humor. He mentioned that he’d once met George W. Bush, who told Flynn how much he loved his books. (The author said he wasn’t sure whether this was much of a compliment, given that Bush isn’t known as much of a reader.) Apparently, Bush inquired, too, as to the identity of Flynn’s sources in the U.S. Secret Service, adding, “the boys in Langley love your work, but are hunting down your mole.” Flynn said he’d also met former President Bill Clinton, who--despite being much more liberal than his unpopular Republican successor--said he appreciated his books, as well.

Flynn was delighted to find that I like his storytelling, given that I’m a man of color and that many of his yarns revolve around the CIA’s top counter-terrorism operative, Mitch Rapp, confronting madmen from the Middle East. Flynn even posed for a photograph with me (that’s Flynn on the right, by the way). And, in the same spirit of generousness, I told Flynn--who is actually much taller than I am--that if he ever needs a bodyguard, he knows who to call in London. Since there were many people queuing up after Flynn’s presentation, all hoping to have their books signed, the author suggested that Stotter and I resume our discussion in the fall, when he’ll be back in the UK to promote his eighth Rapp outing, Protect and Defend.

From there, we decided to take a break and join the gang from Deadly Pleasures magazine--Maggie Mary Mason, Larry Gandle, and editor George Easter. With rare-books dealer “Mystery Mike” Bursaw, we assembled in ThrillerFest’s book room, where Easter and I soon put everyone in stitches with our accounts of Stotter’s Dick Van Dyke routine of the night before. Bursaw was laughing so hard, I feared he’d make himself sick. He later told me that he’s been tapped as one of the organizers of Bouchercon 40, to be held in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 2009, and that he wants me to run a one-panel presentation entitled “Ali Karim Talks About Books,” in which I could roll out my full repertoire of jokes, anecdotes, and insights into books and book publishing. Hmm. Unlikely. But it was great to be with the Deadly Pleasures team again, as I have known and trusted them for so long, and every time we get together we have a great time.

The next commitment on our schedule was a panel called “Honor Among Thieves,” chaired by Barry Eisler (Requiem for an Assassin) and featuring Brits Zoë Sharp and Humphrey Hawksley, along with Jeff Buick, Bill Cameron, and Vicki Hendricks. Again, this was a very amusing panel, its members debating the traits of heroes and villains. I was most interested to hear from Hendricks, as Michael Connelly had only recently asked if I’d read her work, and I was ashamed to admit that I had not. I subsequently grabbed up her latest novel, Cruel Poetry, of which Connelly had written: “I loved this book. It’s a private ticket into a secret world of desire and sex and the raw edge between them. I don’t know why the book has chapters. I read it page to page with the fever of the addicted.” That was a good enough recommendation for me.

During the question-and-answer session that followed this discussion, I couldn’t resist delivering my own query: “Considering that Hannibal Lecter has been portrayed by Anthony Hopkins and Brian Cox, while the Die Hard movies feature Alan Rickman and Jeremy Irons as bad guys--why is it that the British make such compelling villains?” This provoked a humorous back-and-forth, with the conclusion being that (a) the British accent sounds very intelligent and intimidating, hence ideal for a super-villain, and (b) that the UK’s long colonial past may have left the world with the impression that Britons are somehow villainous. All food for thought. We were only lucky that Stotter didn’t choose that moment to break into his Dick Van Dyke-as-cockney-chimney-sweep repertoire, else the pair of us might have been lynched.

Seeking another respite, Stotter and I headed for the bar--he to meet his fellow panelists for the next day’s “Strangers in Paradise” discussion, and I to sip a glass of the strong gin I’d carried with me across the Atlantic. I bumped into my dear friends Sarah Weinman, Elaine Flinn, and Mary Reagan, with whom I shared my bottle (after warning that the gin was so concentrated, it might well burn through organic matter, if spilled). Over the course of our exchange, I mentioned to Flinn that I’d enjoyed her latest Molly Doyle mystery, Deadly Vintage. She beamed, knowing that my taste usually runs to hard-boiled stories, but that every so often some “perfect traditional mystery” (as Stephen Booth characterized Deadly Vintage in his review) catches my eye.

And then it was on to a lecture by David Morrell, who talked mostly about his relationship with award-winning American screenwriter Sterling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night, Marlowe, The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure). I knew some of their association already, having asked him about Silliphant during the course of a 2003 interview for Shots:
Ali: You have said that in your teenage years, you got into serious trouble, but aged seventeen you found direction from the TV Show Route 66, scripted by the great screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. Would you care to explain in what way?

David: In my early teenage years, I ran with street gangs and committed crimes such as shoplifting. Most of the kids I hung around with went to prison. But somehow my life took another turn, perhaps because I knew that I wanted something better and was willing to work to get it. Then on the first Friday in October of 1960, the classic TV show ROUTE 66 premiered. Its premise was that two young man in a Corvette convertible drove across the United States in search of America and themselves. Very Jack Kerouac ON THE ROAD. Each episode was filmed on location. The scripts by Stirling Silliphant were an amazing blend of action and hip philosophy that knocked me out and changed my life. I had never been so captivated by stories. Out of the blue, I had the idea that I would be a writer like Silliphant. I wrote letters to him. He encouraged me. I owe everything to him. Incidentally, it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I realized that both main characters were orphans and that one of them, a street kid from Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, was a parallel to my own life. Silliphant was eventually the executive producer of the miniseries of my novel THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE.
Morrell explained during his ThrillerFest presentation that over the years, he and Silliphant became friends, and it was a terrible blow to him when his mentor passed away in the Far East in 1996. His stories were all very moving. Then the lights dimmed and Morrell put on an episode of Route 66 featuring a very young Robert Duvall. Unfortunately, due to the jet lag and my difficulty in sleeping the night before, when the lights went out ... so did I. I woke up just as the episode’s closing credits were coming up, and to my shock I discovered David Morrell sitting in what had been an empty chair right beside me. I quickly rubbed my eyes and tried to appear alert, and hoped that I hadn’t snored during the presentation. Graciously, Morrell didn’t remark on my nap.

After he returned to the front of the room, to admit that he may have unconsciously employed some themes from Silliphant’s In the Heat of the Night in his own novel First Blood, I slipped out discreetly, embarrassed at having snoozed through Route 66.

Back at the bar, I found Mike Stotter and Larry Gandle waiting for me, and very soon we hitched up with unpublished writer C.J. Carpenter, Australian author Mike Robotham, photographer Mary Reagan, and Elaine Flinn for dinner. Carpenter proved to be an amusing dinner companion, and Robotham was effusive in his appreciation at having been nominated this year for the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award (Stotter was one of the judges for that commendation). But I was exhausted, despite that nap during Route 66, and Stotter and I decided to retire early, as we knew the next night would be a late one. That would be the evening, after all, of the Thriller Awards presentations--with much partying expected afterward.

(Part III is available here.)

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