Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Harrogate Crime Family Adventure, Part I

After returning home from ThrillerFest in New York City, I had a mere two days to catch up on work issues, e-mail messages, and my own writing before I was off again, this time to attend what has become Britain’s premier crime- and thriller-fiction event, the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. Only on this occasion, as I would be heading to North Yorkshire, rather than flying across the Atlantic, I decided to take my family (my wife and three children) with me. They often complain that when I’m home, I’ve either got my head stuck in a book or I am tapping away at a keyboard, or else I’m on the couch, catching up on my lost sleep. (Apart from all that, I’m a fine father.) So this was my opportunity to spend more time with everybody, and to give them a taste of my “other life” among books and with book people.

I must explain that my wife and children had never before been to a crime-fiction event. My wife, Muriel, was somewhat nervous about rubbing shoulders with people whose imaginations could be so dark. However, the children were excited, as they are big readers and wanted to meet the authors whose works adorn my many bookshelves. A few years ago, my oldest child, Sophia, reviewed Carl Hiaasen’s juvenile novel Hoot for January Magazine; and my son, Alex (shown above with Harlan Coben), reviewed both Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Ryder novels and Charlie Higson’s James Bond junior novels for Shots.

While Southern England was being deluged by monsoon-like rainfall, causing flooding in some areas, the Karim clan headed north. We arrived in the historic town of Harrogate on Friday afternoon, the first full day of the conference. Unfortunately, we’d missed the event’s start, but upon entering the city’s Crown Hotel, we saw none other than a beaming Allan Guthrie, who just the evening before had received the 2007 Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award for his book Two-Way Split (2005). Guthrie told me (as he did so many others) that he was genuinely shocked to win that commendation.

Soon, Lee Child appeared in the lobby and came over to greet my family. He was charismatic, as usual, and my wife and kids were interested to meet him, as they know that I have been an ardent reader of his work from way back. Child must have made a particularly big impression on my children, for as I chatted with the author about our recent ThrillerFest experiences, all three sneaked into the convention’s Waterstone’s Book Room and bought Jack Reacher novels for signing later. Later, Child said to me, sotto voce: “I think your family are charming, they are delightful. Are you sure you didn’t hire them out for the weekend?”

Our first “official” gathering of that day was the Publishers’ Party in the hotel ballroom, where we mingled with writers, editors, agents, and publishing reps, all of them knocking back wine and canapés. At one point, U.S. author Harlan Coben appeared from nowhere. I’ve known Coben as long as I’ve known Child, and not only have I enjoyed his books, but I’ve found him to be delightful company. Like Child, he kidded that I’d “borrowed” my family from some rental agency, as I could not possibly have time enough in my busy schedule to play dad. We chatted, too, about the French film that was made from his breakthrough novel, Tell No One (2001), and has become a European box-office smash. And we laughed as we remembered him coming across “the pond” to promote Tell No One at London’s late, lamented Crime in Store bookstore--back when he still had hair, and mine hadn’t yet turned gray (see the photographic evidence here.) One little-known fact about Coben is that his long-ago roommate at Amherst College in Massachusetts was Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code fame, and Coben was one of the first to recognize the commercial potential of Brown’s fourth novel.

Leaving my family in the very capable hands of Coben and Child, I mingled. I talked for a while with Ayo Onatade and Lizzie Hayes of Mystery Women, who were there scouting for new recruits for their UK literary group. I had a beer with Paul Johnston, who said he was delighted by the excellent reviews his latest novel, The Death List, has received. It was great seeing Johnston, after he was out of circulation for a few years, due to a health scare. Afterward, I bumped into Nick Sayers of the UK publishing house Hodder & Stoughton, who was there with Dan Fesperman, an American journalist and political thriller writer preparing to launch his latest novel, The Amateur Spy, in the UK. (The same book won’t be released in the States until March 2008.) Fesperman and I agreed to meet up later for an interview.

From there it was on to Mark Timlin, the creator of British private eye Nick Sharman, who had arrived with his partner, Lucy Ramsey, publicity director at the upstart publishing house Quercus. Ramsey was still brimming with excitement over the fact that one of her authors, Australian Peter Temple, had picked up this year’s Duncan Lawrie Gold Dagger award for his novel The Broken Shore. Another power pair in attendance were Martyn Waites (Bone Machine) and his Simon & Schuster editor, Kate Lyall-Grant. I spent a few minutes, as well, with former Crime Writers’ Association chair and Harrogate programming director Natasha Cooper (who also writes the Trish McGuire series [A Greater Evil]), before being dragged off to dinner by my loving family.

One Cantonese banquet later, we returned to the conference just in time to see Lee Child being interviewed in front of an audience by Paul Blezard of Britain’s Oneword Radio. Probably as expected, this was a packed event. Child was as self-deprecating as usual, as Blezard quizzed him about his writing, the widespread appeal of protagonist Jack Reacher, and how it was that Child first got into the writing game. The author explained that he’d moved in that direction after being laid-off from Granada Television in the mid-1990s. We had discussed much the same thing back in 2003, when I talked with him for January Magazine:
[Karim:] What was the lead-up to losing your job like? And when did you conjure the idea of trying your hand at novel writing?

[Child:] As I said, the dismantling of Granada was traumatic--and for me, it lasted ages. I was one of five guys in a certain role, which was so complex that it took them two years to replace us. During those two years, pieces of our jobs would disappear week by week. It wasn't a fun time. In August of 1994, I was told my job would be gone by Christmas. Knowing how inefficient they were, I mentally planned on leaving the next summer, which is how it turned out. So I was faced with finding another way to make a living. An added complication was that I was the union shop steward, so I knew I wasn't high on anyone's wish list elsewhere in the industry. So I decided to make a complete break and be my own boss. Writing novels was the only thing I could think of.
With the interview done, my wife and kids queued up to have their newly purchased Reacher thrillers signed, while I sneaked into the nearest bar for a quick drink. There I encountered Becky Fincham and Vicki Mellor of Headline Publishing, and we all toasted Joseph Finder, whose Killer Instinct was named this year’s Best Novel by the International Thriller Writers organization. Also toast-worthy was Nick Stone, whose book, Mr. Clarinet, had won the ITW award for Best First Novel. He rolled into the bar together with several fellow authors and Penguin Books literary editor Beverly Cousins, who ordered drinks all around to celebrate the August launch of Stone’s sophomore effort, King of Swords (a prequel to Mr. Clarinet).

In order to demonstrate my impartiality, I left the Penguin people and went over to visit with Fiona Macintosh of HarperCollins UK. We joined up with Michael Marshall (Smith), and I was pleased to tell them both that advance reading copies of Smith’s new book, The Intruders, had been handed about liberally at ThrillerFest, as Marshall’s U.S. publisher, William Morrow, is keen on that tremendous novel. Speaking of HarperCollins authors, I commented on how great it is to see Val McDermid providing a new adventure to investigators Tony Hill and Carol Jordan in Beneath the Bleeding. I’ve been a fan of the prolific Ms. McDermid fan for more years than I really care to remember.

The Foul Play players: (L-R) Stuart MacBride, Laura Lippman, Simon Brett, Stella Duffy, and Mark Billingham.

Finally, my family returned, all smiles, from having Lee Child ink their books. So I said good-bye to everyone in my circle, and went to see the stage production Foul Play, subtitled “The Corpse Who Stayed Out in the Cold.” The work of novelist Simon Brett (Death Under the Dryer) and performed at the Harrogate festival by authors Mark Billingham, Stella Duffy, Laura Lippman, and Stuart MacBride (photographed above), it was a hilarious send-up of British crime fiction’s so-called Golden Age, complete with groan-inducing clichés and plot conventions. However, the five crime writers who took the parts displayed genuine acting and comedy skills, and even more of their good natures.

As we left for our hotel that night, ready to put the children to bed and rest ourselves, my wife whispered to me, “They are awfully nice people, considering they write about such terrible things.” I could only smile knowingly.

(The second and final installment of Ali Karim’s recollections from the 2007 Harrogate Crime Writing Festival can be found here.)

Author’s note: I want to pass along my thanks to Sharon and Adina, two Harrogate organizers, who found me a suitable hotel to accommodate the complete Karim clan. And the Harrogate team should be given a huge round of applause, as I heard they sold close to 8,000 tickets for this year’s superb program of events.

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