Thursday, November 16, 2017

It’s Bouchercon Memories That Remain

(Above) The Jacques Cartier Bridge, spanning the Saint Lawrence River—offering unexpected nighttime delights in Montreal. (All photographs in this post, © 2017 Jacques Filippi.)

(Editor’s note: In early September, after I decided against attending this year’s Bouchercon—set to take place in Toronto, Ontario, from October 12 to 15—I turned for back-up to Quebec writer, photographer, and translator Jacques Filippi. Rap Sheet readers will recognize Jacques, a Montreal-area resident, as a periodic contributor to this page and as the creator of a fine blog called The House of Crime and Mystery. In addition, he and John McFetridge co-edited a new short-story collection, Montreal Noir (Akashic). I knew Jacques was planning to be in Toronto for Bouchercon, so I asked him whether he would be willing to take notes on the proceedings and shoot pictures of convention participants, and submit a wrap-up of the event to The Rap Sheet. He accepted the assignment, and I looked forward to receiving his report. Unfortunately, not long after Bouchercon ended, Jacques was faced with a family crisis that delayed his finishing the project. It wasn’t until a few days ago that he sent me his text and images. I’m glad to be able to finally present them below.)

Road Trip: Of Wrong Turns and Right Words

With Canada having celebrated its 150th birthday not long before Bouchercon kicked off last month in the Ontario capital, Toronto, some attendees decided to visit the country early, or to remain here a few extra days to see more of the place. During the pre-Bouchercon weekend, I welcomed to Montreal author Karin Salvalaggio (Silent Rain), who came all the way from England, as well as editor-blogger Peter Rozovsky (the brains behind Noir at the Bar), from Philadelphia. Over the course of Bouchercon week, more than a few American visitors asked about living in Canada, and some even tried to find rooms where they might stay after the gathering closed. As you can see in the image on the right, Karin was one of the first to experiment with trying to actually pass as a Canadian (she’s been living in London for many years, but was born in West Virginia and still retains her U.S. citizenship).

(Right) Karin Salvalaggio wearing a Canadian toque (in French: tuque) and holding a false Canadian passport, issued by the Unemployed Philosophers Guild.

The three of us spent a lot of time the weekend before the convention walking through my city’s Old Town (2017 also marks the 375th anniversary of Montreal’s founding), just taking pictures, chatting with locals, and of course, eating and drinking. The neighborhoods of Little Burgundy and Little Italy were also favorite destinations, with their plenitude of cafés, restaurants, and boutiques. In the latter quarter’s Jean-Talon Market, Karin was amazed that pumpkins were so easy to come by—and at such ridiculously low prices, too. One evening, I took Karin and Peter to a “secret” spot I very much enjoy, a parking lot at the foot of the Jacques Cartier Bridge, where we almost ruined our shoes treading through mud and gaping puddles of dirty water.

There’s nothing like taking a road trip to help people get better acquainted, especially when—as in the case of Highway 401, between Montreal and Toronto—the scenery along the way is far from entertaining (to say the least). That drive usually takes five or six hours, depending on how many stops you make; but Karin, Peter, and I completed it in an astounding eight-and-a-half hours, due to three sites of major road construction. (One of them left us at a standstill for 50 minutes!) Peter used the time to take an abundance of photographs—mostly of empty fields, stationary automobiles, and clouds that he likely tweaked later on, with the help of technology, to become busy plains, fast-running cars, and rainstorms. I invite you to look over his brief account of our trip, and the rest of his Bouchercon coverage, in the blog Detectives Beyond Borders.

Peter Rozovsky playing it cool in front of a sign advertising the Canadian dish poutine, at Jean-Talon Market, in Montreal.

That Monday (October 9), we piled into the car and sped off west. It happened to be Canadian Thanksgiving, so we fell into talking about all things Canadian—from maple syrup, maple-glazed doughnuts, and maple-stuffed doughnuts to Tim Hortons (a fast-food chain co-founded by a former hockey player with the Toronto Maple Leafs), our colorful Canadian currency (worth somewhat less than the maple syrup), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and much more. We also listened to a lot of music—some of it Canadian, and even some in French. We experienced moments of exhaustion and of being fed up with the journey (especially toward the end), but we managed to find fun en route, too, as when we decided to share our favorite lists of swear words in diverse languages. It turned out that Peter was well-versed in Yiddish and Portuguese expletives; Karin showed how a life spent in different countries had enriched her vocabulary (the Brits and Italians were especially to thank for that); and I, naturally, instructed my guests in how to curse like true Québécois. Many laughs and great memories. The next time you see any one of us, don’t hesitate to share your own choice foreign obscenities: we’re always looking to improve our international conversational skills.

After finally reaching Toronto, we bumped into writer, editor, lawyer, and British Crime Writers Association chair Martin Edwards and convinced him to have dinner with us. I think at the mention of wine he was in, given his long flight from the UK.

We spent Bouchercon week in Canada’s most populous city much in the same way as we had our time in Montreal—walking. We paid a call on the Hockey Hall of Fame, and we explored the beautiful Art Gallery of Ontario, noteworthy in particular for its “At Home with Monsters” exhibit (a personal project from filmmaker Guillermo del Toro). Oh, and we enjoyed multiple coffees and scones at Dineen’s.

Sightseeing below Niagara Falls.

On Wednesday (October 11), I took part in a doomed trip to Niagara Falls, on the Ontario-New York border, accompanied by Karin and her good friend, UK crime writer Steph Broadribb (Deep Down Dead). The two buses carrying tour participants departed our convention hotel (the Sheraton Toronto on Queen Street West) around 9 a.m., and we stopped in transit at Pillitteri Estates Winery for a quick wine and icewine tasting. Niagara Falls was, well, wet and windy and cold. However, it was the trip back that proved to be most memorable. Our bus started making weird noises, and the driver let it be known that mechanical problems made it impossible for him to reverse the vehicle. Plus, he didn’t want to stop anywhere until we got back to our hotel, because he was afraid the engine wouldn’t start again.

But those difficulties were nothing compared with what happened to our companion bus. At one point it slipped sideways, somehow, and careered off the pavement after first knocking over a big pot of flowers decorating the roadway median. Police were called in to straighten out the situation. Once it was determined that the bus had suffered no appreciable damages, it was towed to the road once more and wound its way back to Toronto—at close to midnight. Our own bus had returned earlier, at 8 p.m. or so, after enjoying the closeness of Torontonians during rush hour, and traveling at 10 km/hour.

Bouchercon: Of Protagonists, Flawed and Forceful

On Thursday, it was time to start the convention. As usual, the schedule offered too many panel discussions at the same time—or sometimes not enough, depending on what you were looking for. The sessions were always interesting, and often inspiring. Though occasionally they were a bit weird. Or funny.

My favorite such presentation was actually the first one I attended. Titled “Heroes and Antiheroes,” it was moderated by J. Kent Messum, a Canadian writer (who is also a creative-writing instructor at the University of Toronto), and featured Down & Out Books publisher Eric Campbell together with authors Alison Gaylin, Stuart Neville, Dana King, and David Swinson. The group quickly tossed the label “heroes” out of the equation, insisting true heroes don’t exist any longer in fiction (at least not in the sense that they used to be represented). Besides, they agreed, perfect protagonists aren’t very interesting in the long run. The panelists contended that nowadays, authors as well as readers and moviegoers prefer antiheroes, or flawed protagonists. To back up this assertion, they placed in evidence today’s superhero films, noting that Batman, Iron Man, Captain America, and their ilk are portrayed as characters undergoing emotional turmoil; in other words, players closer to “normal” mortals. Panelists worked to define the attributes of an appealing antihero, one who seeks to make the world a better place while also getting in closer touch with his/her human side. They agreed that their goal was to create antiheroes with tough choices before them—choices that often ride the fine line between being right and wrong; choices that might not lead to ideal outcomes, but can often lead to deserved ones.

The “Heroes and Antiheroes” panelists. Left to right: Alison Gaylin, Eric Campbell, Stuart Neville, Dana King, David Swinson, and moderator J. Kent Messum. They’re laughing because I said the magic word “poutine.”

Another panel exchange, intriguing for the wide range of crime-fiction styles it considered, was called “Duos—Two Lead Characters Are Better Than One.” Moderated by Georgia novelist Roger Johns (Dark River Rising), it offered an eclectic group of authors: Thomas Enger, James Hayman, Heather Gudenkauf, Craig Robertson, and D.D. Ayres (aka Laura Castoro). Their back-and-forth extended from conventional investigations steered by partnered detectives to stories involving paired protagonists from separate series and yarns in which K-9 Rescue dogs work with police officers. It wasn’t always easy for Johns to keep the conversation flowing in one direction, but the results were nonetheless thought-provoking.

I also quite enjoyed a presentation refereed by Rob Hart (The Woman from Prague) and featuring fellow wordsmiths Bill Beverly, David Housewright, Rick Mofina, D.M. Pulley, and Bob Truluck. It was titled “Did I Write That?—Characters Take on a Life of Their Own.” I’ve never really believed that a player plucked from the author’s imagination should be allowed to abscond with the storytelling reins, preferring the idea of the writer maintaining control. But apparently, there are authors out there (including one from this panel) who allow their characters to run away with their tales, if they demonstrate both inclination and ability. Or that’s the way they say it works, anyhow. If a yarn takes an unexpected turn, though, is it really a character forcing that change, or does the writer simply (perhaps unconsciously) desire a new direction? Should a protagonist who appears to demand story-steering privileges be described as a “ghost writer”? And is an exorcism then needed in order for the author to wrest back the management of his or her narrative? This panel may not have answered all of those questions during its hour-long extent, but it still provided a rare and stimulating look into assorted creative minds.

“Did I Write That?” panelists Bill Beverly (who was given the Mark Twain American Voice in Literature prize not long after Bouchercon ended), David Housewright, and Rick Mofina.

The Sheraton Hotel was well located, right in the middle of downtown. However, Bouchercon attendees regularly commented negatively about its configuration. “It’s too big,” several groused. “There are too many floors for the panels,” said others, while a few disparaged the lodgings’ imbibing facilities: “There are two bars in the hotel, but they’re both too small” (which evidently convinced many people to search out watering holes beyond the hotel’s walls—it was a good thing there were plenty nearby). Another complaint I heard repeated: “We have one perfect location in the entrance hall for meet-and-greets, but we’re not allowed to drink there.”

Beyond these criticisms, comments on Bouchercon 2017 were generally favorable. I think everyone agreed that this year’s organizers did a bang-up job. Yes, this event was pretty intense, but the week provided a multitude of opportunities for people to bump into old friends and make new ones, to meet with publishers and schedule lunches with editors, and to seek cafés as escapes from the craziness of the convention crowd. Each evening was busy with attendees socializing over drinks, and then dropping with exhaustion in their rooms, barely reaching their beds in time.

My last dinner in the city, on Saturday night, was a welcome, quiet affair involving British publisher Ruth Tross, from Hodder & Stoughton; Bliss House author Laura Benedict (who has yet another new novel due out next year, from Mulholland Books); and Karin Salvalaggio (her again!). Then, on Sunday, it was time to hit the road once more. The drive back to Montreal—which I took alone—lasted only 5 hours and 15 minutes. Hey, Peter Rozovsky. Did you hear that? It wasn’t my fault that we spent so long wheeling west from Toronto. I made considerably better time when there was no road construction!

Scottish author Craig Robertson (Murderabilia) wearing a kilt. After Bouchercon, he wed novelist Alexandra Sokoloff.

Writers Joe Clifford and Hilary Davidson.

Screenwriter-turned-author Guy Bolton (far left) poses with fellow Brit Mark Billingham and American Bill Beverly.

Award-winning Missouri novelist Laura McHugh.

William Shaw (The Birdwatcher) and Joe Ide (IQ) with Hachette publicists extraordinaire Sabrina Callahan and Pamela Porter.

My friend and Montreal Noir collaborator/co-editor, John McFetridge, alongside author Eric Beetner.

Orenda publisher Karen Sullivan squeezed between two of her popular authors, Antti Tuomainen and Steph Broadribb.

New Jersey journalist-turned-novelist Cate Holahan, whose latest book, Lies She Told, was named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Mysteries and Thrillers of 2017.

Fictionists Jeffrey Siger and Jay Stringer stand with Erin Mitchell, who will be helping to organize next year’s Bouchercon in St. Petersburg—Florida, that is, not Russia.

Last but not least, we have Larry Gandle of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine; K.J. Howe, ThrillerFest executive director and new author; and of course, yours truly, Jacques Filippi.

1 comment:

Martin Edwards said...

Terrific post about a memorable Bouchercon