Friday, July 27, 2007

Escape to New York, Part III

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

Saturday morning, the third day of this year’s ThrillerFest--and the one bound to generate the most headlines--found Shots editor Mike Stotter and I breakfasting like potentates. After which we went to support Bookreporter’s Joe Hartlehaub, a friend and the moderator of a panel titled “Protect and Defend: Lawmen Who Track Crime Coast to Coast.” His panelists were real-life lawmen James O. Born and George D. Shuman, along with John Ramsey Miller, Michelle Gagnon, and Jeffery Deaver. I was particularly interested to see Shuman, a 20-year veteran of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police force whose very first book, 18 Seconds, was vying for the International Thriller Writers Best Novel award. But after the discussion was over, I couldn’t help also approaching Deaver and asking him when he intends to write another Golden Age-style thriller on the order of his 2004 standalone, Garden of Beasts, my personal favorite among his books and a past winner of the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award. My friend Stotter, who has heard me pester Deaver with this query before, groaned openly as I made my way toward the author once more, my question/hint loaded and ready. But I found time afterwards, too, to say hello to John Ramsey Miller (Too Far Gone), a very interesting writer from America’s Deep South, who sat on a panel I moderated during last year’s ThrillerFest.

Following the “Protect and Defend” session, I sought a bit of relaxation at the Grand Hyatt Hotel’s nearest bar, only to run into Anthony Rainone. He of course is a contributing editor of January Magazine and one of my fellow Rap Sheet bloggers. (In the photo above, he’s the one with the glasses.) We have similar reading tastes, but I had never had the opportunity before to meet him face-to-face. So we pulled up a sofa in the bar, grabbed a couple of cold beers, and commenced to talking. And talking. Apart from being well read, Rainone also has a wicked sense of humor, and therefore enjoyed being introduced to Stotter, though he had a bit of difficulty understanding my editor friend’s cockney rhyming slang.

When it was time, I escorted Stotter to the panel on which he was to appear. Actually, he’d signed on originally as moderator, but a recent eye operation (which left him looking rather too much like Mr. Magoo) compelled Stotter to hand those duties over to Connecticut author Justin Scott (McMansion). Just as well, since the panel’s topic seemed a bit on the weird side: “Strangers in Paradise: Toting Guns and Sunblock.” Joining those two were multiple award-winner Jeremiah Healy, Don Bruns, Tina Wainscott, and journalist-author Rick Mofina, my friend and fellow ITW judge. Together with Deadly Pleasures editor George Easter, über-books blogger Sarah Weinman, and others, I positioned myself squarely in the front row--just so that if Stotter’s vision got any worse than it already was, he’d at least be able to see us. As it turned out, Scott did an admirable job on short notice, encouraging his panelists to recount their best scary stories about traveling to tropical and politically unstable lands. (He also asked that I pass along his best regards to Mike Ripley, a UK crime writer and Shots columnist.)

Once more, there was a post-panel retreat of reviewers and literary judges to the bar. Along with Rainone, Easter, Weinman, Stotter, and myself, the crowd this time featured Deadly Pleasures’ Larry Gandle and Maggie Mary Mason, along with Elaine Flinn (Deadly Vintage) and critic David J. Montgomery. Ours was a big enough group that we attracted attention, with writers stopping by to say hello and share drinks. So comfortable was this arrangement, that we carried on right through the formal presentations of ThrillerFest’s two guests of honor: James Patterson, recipient of this year’s ThrillerMaster Award for outstanding contribution to the genre; and Clive Cussler, who was given that same honor in 2006. Oh, well ...

However, I wasn’t about to miss that afternoon’s St. Martin’s Press cocktail party, to which I had been invited. It turned out to be a terrific affair, during which I bumped into British spy novelist Charles Cumming--a real delight, since I had just finished reading his latest novel, The Spanish Game. This was apparently the first time Cumming had attended a conference of this size, and he seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. It wasn’t easy talking with him, though, as he towered over me, as he did over most other ThrillerFest-goers. (In the photo at left, he’s shown with author Barry Eisler.) So I eventually had to mingle, chatting with Gayle Lynds, Lee Child, and several of the “Killer Year” authors, such as Brett Battles (The Cleaner), Sean Chercover (Big City, Bad Blood), Marcus Sakey (The Blade Itself), and J.T. Ellison (All the Pretty Girls). After an exhausting round of good-natured debate, though, I had to thank our St. Martin’s Press hosts and hustle off to get changed for the main event, the Thriller Awards banquet.

Done up finally in suits and ties, Stotter and I descended to the ballroom, where we encountered award nominee Nick Stone (Mr. Clarinet) and his wife, who had just arrived from Florida. While Stotter was seated with the Stones and Larry Gandle, I was placed at a table with Elaine Flinn and “P.J. Parrish” (aka Kris Montee), among others. Montee was noticeably edgy, and explained that she’d been nominated for awards so many times, but had never walked away with one in hand; she was expecting to lose this evening, as well. I reassured her, telling her to remain confident of her chances--which turned out to make me look far more prophetic than I’d expected. (An Unquiet Grave, which she’d penned with her sister and collaborator, Kelly Nichols, would be named that night as the ITW’s Best Paperback Original of 2007.)

While the dinner was fine, the drinks were horrifically priced and, in fact, the banquet all told was rather expensive--and far less well managed than last year’s, if you ask me. The show seemed to drag on and on. And on. And apart from a blistering rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” the performances were disappointing. What made the banquet worth remembering were the awards presentations. After ringing through to Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce, who was standing by in Seattle for news of the winners, ready to spread the word online, I managed to corner the victors for photographs. I was happy to see Joseph Finder pick up Best Novel kudos for Killer Instinct, and Parrish/Montee’s acceptance speech was very moving, as she burst into tears of sheer joy. Nick Stone pulled some of the same heart strings, as he accepted the commendation for Best First Novel. I also met the wonderful, glamorous, and prolific Heather Graham (The Dead Room), whose family was huddled around Stone, since they were all apparently major fans of Mr. Clarinet.

After the awards presentation, I dragged Gandle, Stotter, and Stone off for a drink with Vince Flynn (Act of Treason), who like Stotter enjoys his Knob Creek. We had a vigorous discussion about the realities of today’s “war on terror,” as seen from a liberal viewpoint. Then I chatted briefly with Andrew Gross (The Blue Zone) and James Patterson, before finding my way back to the bar, where toasts were offered to the night’s winners and runners-up. Finder (pictured here on the left, with Nick Stone) was most entertaining, as he seemed genuinely shocked to be among the honorees. Not until I had spread my congratulations around did I retire for the evening, exhausted, only to find Stotter already in the room we shared, sound asleep in his suit and snoring like a sawmill.

The next morning, Saturday--the final day of this year’s ThrillerFest--came sooner than I would have preferred. While Stotter slumbered on, I showered and changed and hit a 9 o’clock panel discussion on horror fiction chaired by David Morrell (Creepers). For somebody like me, who’s long been interested in that genre and, sadly, watched it implode in the 1980s, it was relieving to see this attention being again paid to horror. Even if what I discovered from that panel discussion is that horror romance novels featuring werewolves and vampires are hot right now--not exactly my taste. I think I’ll stick to more thriller-oriented fare by Peter Staub, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and F. Paul Wilson.

Two more panel events awaited me. First, one of ThrillerFest’s most popular gatherings, a discussion of ways in which writers and publishers get you to buy their books. Contributing to that exchange were Tess Gerritsen, M.J. Rose, Jason Pinter, and David Montgomery (the last of whom wrote about it in his own blog). Second, I participated in a panel talk about how writers and readers interact with the Internet, and how very draining that involvement can be. I had a chance to share not only my experiences with The Rap Sheet and Shots, but memories of how I got into this whole Internet thing back in the late 1990s through the newsgroup rec.arts.mystery (RAM). And I pointed out author J.D. Rhoades (Safe and Sound), who happened to be seated in the audience, and was a fellow RAM poster way back when.

Then it was off to this convention’s finale: a brunch in the Grand Hyatt ballroom. ThrillerFest coordinators M. Diane Vogt and Shirley Kennett received thanks for their tireless efforts, and they in turn thanked the many volunteers. M.J. Rose followed them, explaining to the audience that next year’s ThrillerFest will likewise be held in Manhattan (news that raised a mixed response), but that after that, it will go “on the road,” as it were. As a capper, Jeff Deaver took the stage to recount how he got involved in the novel-writing game, and to take questions. Stotter kicked me under the table when I once more asked about his doing a follow-up to Garden of Beasts.

And suddenly, the conference was over, and we had to say good-bye to our friends, colleagues, and faithful drinking buddies. One always has a hollow feeling at the conclusion of intense events such as ThrillerFest, when you must walk away from people who share your passion for the smell of books, the excitement to be found in turning new pages, and the images that fine prose can paint in one’s mind.

Tuesday, two days after ThrillerFest ended, was our last day in the Big Apple, so Stotter and I went off to explore famous Central Park. The sun was beating down as we negotiated the pathways and were awed by this urban greensward’s dimensions. On our way out of the park, I noticed Stotter squinting at a hooded figure who was walking at a rather brisk pace in our direction. “Hey,” my friend proclaimed, “it’s Christopher Walken!” I quickly said hello once Walken came face to face with us, and greeted him in the way I thought most appropriate: as the “King of New York.” He smiled, said “Good to meet you,” shook my hand, and then ran off, waving as he went. It was a very surreal ending to our New York City adventure. But it proved that Stotter’s vision was finally on the mend.

London, here we come!

READ MORE: “BookBitch” Stacy Alesi’s own three-part ThrillerFest report here, here, and here; “Non-fiction Terror,” by M.J. Rose (Buzz, Balls & Hype).

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