Sunday, October 14, 2007

Bouchercon 2007: One Writer’s Reflections

(Editor’s note: When I had dinner recently with January Magazine and Rap Sheet contributor Anthony Rainone, on his way back from Bouchercon in Alaska, I asked that he write something for this blog about his time spent in Anchorage. Anthony’s wrap-up of events came winging into the Rap Sheet offices today.)

Day One, Thursday, September 27, started at 9 a.m. with my panel discussion, “Reviewers,” which featured Sara Berger, Leslie Doran, Maggie Mason, and moderator Sally Fellows. The topics addressed by this group included: how we choose which novels to review (the consensus was that we based our picks on voice and character); whether we are influenced by friendships with the writers we review (no); what books we like to critique (I gravitate toward hard-boiled, noir, and police procedural); and a question from the audience about whether we read, entirely, the books we review (I can say that I read each book I review at least twice). Since I had arrived late on the night before my panel, and was still on New York time (four hours behind), I attempted--not so successfully--to inject a bit of humor into the discussion, mainly to keep myself conscious. For those who attended, rest reassured that my response, “Gifts figure heavily into which books I review,” was meant only as a joke. ... After an awesome lunch of shrimp and crab at the Glacier Brewhouse, a local Anchorage restaurant, I attended the 1 p.m. panel “All Nighters: The Books You Can’t Put Down,” featuring Ruth Jordan, Janet Rudolph, Barbara Franchi, and Chris Aldrich, and moderated by Ted Fitzgerald. I never miss a panel that includes Ruth, because she says such insightful things. Two books mentioned during that session were The Last Nightingale, by Anthony Flacco, and Moonlight Downs, by Adrian Hyland. Both titles are now on my “TBR x 2” list--To Be Read and To Be Reviewed. ... A quick change of rooms brought me to the “New Noir” panel, with Sean Doolittle (photographed above), Vicki Hendricks, Bill Cameron, and Julia Spencer-Fleming, and moderated by Brian Thornton. I came away from that discussion with one line sticking in my head. Doolittle said he heard the following from fellow panelist Hendricks: “Write as though your parents are dead.” ... Chris Grabenstein must have the best sense of humor of any crime-fiction writer out there. He thinks and reacts on his feet like a stand-up comic. Grabenstein moderated “Books to Film,” which had panelists Meredith Anthony, Troy Cook, Robert Fate, and Robert Levinson. Lots of neat things were said during that panel event. Both Cook and Fate have mucho film experience, and their general consensus was that authors get reamed by Hollywood as a matter of course. ... In the evening, everyone gathered for the “Welcome to Anchorage Reception,” which included an introduction of the 2007 Anthony Award nominees, and the giving out of the Barry and Macavity awards. (The aforementioned Doolittle and Canadian writer Louise Penny, shown below, were among the Barry recipients.) Later, the Crimespree Magazine Party took place at Anchorage’s Avenue Bar. When I was carded at the door, the bouncer remarked that a “lot of New Yorkers are here tonight.” Hey man, we’re everywhere. Ruth and Jennifer Jordan gave out the Crimespree Awards during these festivities, and I was pleased to accept my commendation as Contributor of the Year. I said it that night, and I’ll say it again--being part of the Crimespree family is very special to me.

Day Two was all about the “CSI: Alaska” panels, for this attendee. From 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., a variety of Alaskan law-enforcement officials instructed convention-goers in how the justice system works in the Last Frontier. Covered were a variety of solved and “cold” Alaskan cases, the specifics of each detailed by retired Alaska State Troopers Tom Brennan and Mike Kincaid; forensic scientist Dr. Abby Chidambaram; Dr. George Taft, retired director of the Alaska State Crime Lab; and retired Alaska State Medical Examiner Dr. Donald Rogers. Mike Kincaid, who has written a fine novel about his experiences as an Alaskan State Trooper, Alaska Justice, offered riveting accounts of chasing suspects via dog sled and float plane, rescuing a hostage from a glacier, taking down a killer after a shoot-out at an airport, and a honeymooning couple who learned--quite horrifically--that bears can actually climb. (It seems that when a bear tried to break into their remote cabin, the husband put his wife on the roof and went to get help. Oops.) Dr. Rogers regaled his audience with the finer points of how to determine cause of death, suicides both real and staged, the tell-tale differences between exit and entry wounds (and why it’s easy to confuse them at times), and the decomposition rates of bodies. His slides alone were worth the price of admission. (OK, it was free). ... Friday evening was the St. Martin’s Party, held on the top floor of the Hilton Hotel. Many, many people were in attendance: Jason Pinter, Steven Torres, Margery Flax, Steven Flax, Meredith Anthony, Lawrence Light, Rhodi Hawk, Sean Doolittle, Victor Gischler, L. Lukas Ortiz, Rhys Bowen, Michelle Gagnon, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Jason Starr, Simon Wood, Robert Fate, and the list goes on and on. The liquor flowed, conversation ensued, and we all basked in the stunning views of snow-covered mountains outside the suite’s windows.

Day Three started a bit late for this writer, since I’d shared many drinks the night before with Chris Knopf, Mary Farrell, Kimberly Tellus, and others, first at Glacier, and later back at the Hilton bar. So first up for me was the 10 a.m. panel, “What’s So Funny About Murder?” with Tim Myers, Lawrence Light, Michael Jecks, Jennifer Jordan, and moderator Nathan Walpow. Jennifer was sporting a cool pair of Alaskan fur boots, while Light was wearing his signature Brooks Brothers shirt and tie. The panel veered from the humorous to the downright bizarre, with Ms. Jordan leading them on. The whole event was very funny and informative. I wish I could remember something specifically humorous to relate, but I was in no shape that morning for assiduous note-taking. ... I again favored Alaska law enforcement for my next choice, opting to attend “Alaska Track: Judging Alaskans,” at 1 p.m., with authentic Alaska judges John Suddock and Michael Wolverton presiding. Audience members were presented with real-life scenarios and asked to weigh in on how they would rule on the cases. Moderator Sheila Toomey walked around with a microphone and polled audience members. Afterward, the judges told us what would likely happen in an actual courtroom. I came away with the impression that drunk men shooting each other in the remote 49th state is not an uncommon occurrence. ... We did a bit more sightseeing after that, including a visit to the Alaska State Troopers Museum, and then it was time for the Anthony Awards presentation, held in the same conference spaces as the panel discussions, but with all the rooms opened up and joined together. It was utterly fantastic that the talented James Sallis received a Lifetime Achievement Award. His acceptance speech was both gracious and insightful. The awards ceremony moved along quickly, all the winners being clearly moved by their public recognition. Then it was time for the evening’s live auction. Chris Grabenstein and Donna Andrews were the hardworking auctioneers, and Grabenstein was hilarious in the role--as I expected. A signed first-edition novel by Alaska writer Sue Henry garnered the highest bid of the evening, $1,000, and I believe that Grabenstein even managed to sell a roll of duct tape along the way.

I had wavered a good deal before deciding to attend Bouchercon this year. But upon reflection, I’m very glad that I did. I wouldn’t hesitate to return to Anchorage for another event. The locals were very friendly, the surrounding scenery was stunning, and you know, crime fiction can happen anywhere.

To watch a fun take on the conference from Anchorage’s KTUU-TV, featuring Harley Jane Kozak and Dana Stabenow, click here.

(Photos of Sean Doolittle and Louise Penny are used with permission from Mary Reagan. The video link comes courtesy of Karen J. Laubenstein.)

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