Friday, May 21, 2004

Lee County Reading Festival 2003

This was the fourth year for this relative newcomer, but it was hard to tell that they hadn't been doing this forever. I met with Lesa Holstine, committee chair for Authors, and she was kind enough to introduce me to her committee members, along with an author or two and some local media in attendance. I got a brief tour and was impressed with the layout. The authors spoke inside of the Harbourside Convention Center (lovely air conditioning) while across the street in Centennial Park, on the water in downtown Ft. Meyers, were tents with additional Florida authors, mostly local; food; Barnes & Noble; and Authors Alley, where authors went after their presentations to sign books. Other than a slight printing problem with the schedule, the day went off without a hitch - or at least that's how it appeared from my perspective. There was a last minute cancellation by Nancy Pickard due to a family medical emergency, but newcomer Mary Anna Evans stepped up on a day's notice and filled in the hole nicely.

The drive across the state went much more quickly than I anticipated, and I arrived with an hour to spare before the first presentation. My first stop was at the Barnes & Noble tent because I couldn't find my copy of Long Lost by David Morrell (an ongoing problem at my house) so I figured I'd just buy one for him to sign. Unfortunately, B&N didn't have a copy either, and seemed rather confused about the whole thing. They did have several of his paperbacks, and his new nonfiction book, Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at his Craft - which, after spending some time with him, I'm thinking is undoubtedly brilliant. But the bookseller helpfully offered that she thought he might be bringing the books with him, so I left. I wandered into the building where all was bustling with preparation for the days events. As I wandered down the hallway, I passed a very small conference room where a man was sitting reading the paper. I did a double take; he looked just like David Morrell, so I popped my head in and asked, and sure enough, it was him. I explained about the B&N snafu and inquired as to whether or not he'd brought the books, which he had not. But he was very nice and offered me a signed promotional postcard for his next book, The Protector, which I was delighted to accept. I got to spend the rest of my hour with David, and with Kelly and Kristy Montee. Who are they, I hear you asking? They are P. J. Parrish, who is not a man, but rather two very lovely sisters who write together, long distance no less. They were all there for the first panel of the day, "Page Turners."

David is actually Dr. David Morrell, with a PhD in American Literature, which he taught for sixteen years in the undergraduate program at the University of Iowa. The man is nothing if not hugely, diversely, talented. He is equally at home speaking of Henry James and William Faulkner as he is of Steve McQueen (he is a fan) and Sylvester Stallone. Did I mention that he also refers to himself as "Rambo's daddy?" David's debut novel was First Blood, which the Rambo movie was based upon. And in case you were wondering, he was happy with Stallone as Rambo, and pleased with the movie, although it does differ from the book.  

David spoke rather passionately about what it takes to be a writer; the drive, the determination, the obsession. He feels that the "how to" can be learned, but that good story telling is just something one is born with. He spoke about the sameness of so many books today and suggested this exercise: take one hundred books of any genre, remove the covers and cover up the title & author, then read the first page. He predicts 95 out of 100 will be similar enough that differentiating between authors would be impossible. A most provocative thought, as was his feeling that the first line of a novel is enough to tell whether or not to continue reading it - and he gave examples. He also brought with him the startling statistic that there are only 2500 fiction writers in this country that are actually earning a living at it. 
David had a very difficult childhood, his father died in WWII, leaving his mother destitute. Her solution was to abandon him to an orphanage at age 4. He is of the school that believes the best fiction writers are a product of a screwed up childhood, which I have heard from other writers as well. His best advice for would-be writers? Read. All in all, a very emotional and enlightening talk by David Morrell.

P. J. Parrish, AKA Kelly (pictured, left) and Kristy (right) shared the microphone and talked about how they actually do their writing. Kristy lives in South Florida, Kelly in Mississippi, so they do a lot of telephoning and emailing back and forth. They work on the concept of the book together, but the actual writing is divided. Kelly's strength is in writing action scenes, while Kristy's is in description. They assign each other chapters, rewrite each other, and if one gets stuck, they simply pass it on to the other and say fix this! They get together for about a month every year and get quite a bit done in that time. They are currently working on a new novel in their Louis Kinkaid series, a follow up to Thicker Than Water (which is near the top of my to-be-read pile!) called Island of Bones. It's set on the west coast of Florida, where there are many small, unpopulated islands, some of which are Indian mounds that are thousands of years old, and some of which, well, who knows what's out there. They were planning on spending the afternoon on Cabbage Key, doing some more research.

Kristy was a journalist for many years with the Sun-Sentinel, and wrote several books on her own before this series with her sister. She wrote what she calls "fat romances" - romance novels but not the little skinny ones in the series. Kelly says she wrote for years, but in secret - she never showed anyone anything. She married and had a few kids and would scribble away, hiding her writing from everyone. When they decided to write together, their publisher determined that for marketing purposes, it would be better if they wrote under one name, as it is most unusual for a mystery to have two names on it. They had recently been to Europe, so Paris sprung to mind, which somehow evolved to Parrish, which seemed race-less, and the initials were decided on to keep the name genderless.

In a rather amusing moment, while David was talking about Rambo, Kelly quickly pulled out one of the Parrish books (sorry, I forget which one it was!) which are set in the 1980s and read a bit about their character pausing outside a video store that had a huge Rambo poster in the window. Her timing was inspired.
The next panel was called Crime Scene: Florida and included Randy Wayne White, Mary Anna Evans and Jonathon King. Jonathon's The Blue Edge of Midnight made my favorites list for 2002, and he actually lives not too far from me, but I have missed every event he's done in my neighborhood for one reason or another, so it was really a thrill for me to finally catch up to him. He spoke about his years as a crime reporter, first in Philadelphia, then his move nineteen years ago to the "quiet" town of Ft. Lauderdale where he landed right in the middle of the cocaine cowboys drug wars. He spoke reverentially of Randy Wayne White, and how inspirational he was. April 14th brings A Visible Darkness, the next book in the Max Freeman series which explores eighty years of Florida history in addition to the suspense. Jonathon pointed out that "in good fiction there's good friction," and he's already eloquently demonstrated it.

Mary Anna Evans was the last minute fill in, and this was her first author event. She was poised and totally professional in speaking about her upcoming mystery, Artifacts. Set on the west coast of Florida, the main character is an archaeologist who digs where she has no business digging, and finds something she has no business finding. She told us how she dragged her family on vacation so she could do research for her book, chartering a fishing boat with no intention of fishing. The charter captain was accommodating and informative and her research/vacation paid off.  

That story led to Randy Wayne White telling an uproarious story about his days as a charter fishing boat captain. He took out an "elderly" couple - in their late 50's, which twenty-five years earlier seemed elderly to White, but once they had gone out a ways, the couple informed him they had no desire to fish. They were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, and wished to be left on a deserted island for a couple of hours. White complied, but when he returned to get them, they were out in the water, up to their necks. Apparently the tide had come in and washed away their clothes. They became much more intimate clients than White had bargained for.  
Mary Anna was seated between White and King, who both have shaved heads. White was delighted to point out to the newbie, Mary Anna, that there are two dangers with writing. The first, he said, is that if you write something, there is a very good chance that someone is going to read it. And the second danger, he continued, is that you lose your hair. My camera faltered here, because the look on her face, under all that beautiful dark curly hair, was priceless.

Randy Wayne White has a new book coming out in May called Everglades, his newest entry into the Doc Ford series. He's been busy with a couple of other things too; he's writing a cookbook and is seeking recipes, so visit and leave a recipe for Randy. He also wrote a documentary called Gift of the Game, which won "Best of the Fest" at the 2002 Woods Hole Film Festival, not that Randy mentioned that; instead he was all excited about seeing Hemingway's home in Cuba. Ernest Hemingway founded a youth baseball team called the GiGi Stars for his son Gregory, and Wayne went to Cuba to find the men who played for Hemingway as boys, and to start a new league with local kids. He brought with him former Red Sox pitcher Bill “Spaceman" Lee, Detroit Tigers pitcher John Warden, and pals Gary “Twig” Terwilliger and Mat Asen. The documentary should air on PBS (?) sometime in May. 

Unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict and printing mishap, I didn't get to The Daily Farce panel of Tim Dorsey and Ad Hudler. I've seen Dorsey a few times, and he is one of my favorite speakers. His newest book, The Stingray Shuffle, is part of the continuing saga of serial killer Serge A. Storms and should come with a warning: don't drink anything while reading this book because it will undoubtedly end up coming out of your nose. I was fortunate to run into him in the hall, he was hanging around in case any fans showed up (like me) because of the scheduling problems.

I really wanted to meet Ad Hudler who wrote the ultimate homage to dads everywhere, Househusband, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to shake his hand or punch him in the nose. Turns out he's a real sweetheart of a guy, and he introduced me to his wife and daughter. The first thing I said to his wife was - is he really perfect? And she gave me a resounding answer - NO. I liked him a whole lot better after that. His next book is called Southern Living, and is about three women of the South and will be released in August as a Ballantine trade paperback - perfect for reading groups. If anyone can write a southern novel about women, it's Ad Hudler, and I'm looking forward to it. We chatted until they dragged him away to sign books, but not before his wife took this picture.

The next panel was called The World of Education and featured Kitty Oliver, Salome Thomas-El, and Rubye Graham-Emerson, but I needed to stretch my legs a bit so I just caught the end of it. I met Kitty Oliver (pictured, left) last year at the Broward County Literary Fest, and she is an inspirational and entertaining speaker. I enjoyed her so much that I took a class with her last semester. She wrote the fascinating memoir, Multicolored Memories of a Black Southern Girl. I did get to hear Salome Thomas-El speak about his life, and his first book, I Choose to Stay: A Black Teacher Refuses to Desert the Inner-City. He is an amazing man, very gifted and very dedicated to his kids. He read a short excerpt from his book about how he turned down a promotion to Vice Principal so he could stay with his kids. A lot of folks thought him a fool, but one of his little girls gave him a hug and said thank you, which made it all worthwhile for him. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a big supporter - he donated a nice chunk of change for an after school program, and comes to school to play chess with the kids. Eventually Thomas-El, or "Mr. El" as his kids call him, did take a promotion and is now Principal of an inner city school.  
The last author of the day (for me - there was more but I had a long drive home) was the incomparable Diana Gabaldon. She was greeted by a standing ovation, and seemed delighted by it. She talks like she writes - long, but fascinating - and she went nonstop for almost an hour. She's led a very interesting 51 years, but doesn't look it, which she attributes to sunscreen and good genes.  

Diana grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona and has her B.S. in Zoology, her Masters in Marine Biology, and her PhD in Ecology. She spent several years as a professor and told a funny story about teaching an Anatomy & Physiology class at 8:00 a.m. to the football team, who were mostly asleep. She got their attention by announcing she would be teaching the history of contraception, and recited this little ditty: In days of old/knights so bold/when condoms weren't invented/they wrapped their cocks/in old socks/and babies were prevented. Who knew she was a poet?
She spent many years teaching and doing freelance writing - Fortran programming, software reviews, technical manuals - before turning her hand to fiction. She loves to read mysteries, but had second thoughts about writing one as they involve "plotting" and she wasn't sure she was up for that. She decided on historical fiction because she says, "it's easier to look things up than make things up" and then had to decide on a time period. She was watching an old episode of Dr. Who, which is a British time travel cult phenomenon, when the good Doctor landed his Tardis (time travel machine) in 18th century Scotland. Doctor Who often meets people on his journeys who end up traveling with him, and this time he left with a young Scotsman wearing a kilt. Diana was quite enamored of the kilt, and decided that was the way to go...and so Outlander was born. Except when she started writing it, the female character kept making these smart-ass, definitely-not-18th-century remarks and she wasn't able to stop her, so she added the time travel element. These books contain elements of several genres, and are very long; consequently she almost lost her publishing contract before the first book was printed. Her publisher had a moment of panic when trying to figure out how they would sell the book. Every book store and library shelves them in different places - sci-fi, fantasy, general fiction, historical fiction, or romance. In fact, I didn't read these books for years because Borders shelved them in Romance, and I don't read romance novels. But after hearing so many customers and booksellers rave about them, I finally succumbed and spent a happy week or two plowing through the several thousand pages that comprise the series.

Diana belonged to the Literary Forum on Compuserve, back in the pre-World Wide Web days and would post chunks of her book now and then. She became friendly with several published authors, who encouraged her to get her book published. She got the name of an agent that a few of them used, and one offered to send a letter of introduction. When she finally met the agent, he had her manuscript in his office, and she figured he was going to say thanks, but no thanks. But instead, he told her that he represents Frederic Forsyth and Ayn Rand, and that "they are really great storytellers." Then he put his hand on her manuscript and said, "you are another." Everyone teared up at that story, including Diana.

Diana's writing style is different from any other writer I've ever met. She gets an idea, a "kernel" she calls it, and writes a few sentences. Then she starts rewriting it, and adding to it, and rewriting, and so forth until she gets a "chunk" of about 50-60 pages. Eventually she ends up with several unrelated chunks of book, which she then pieces together like a puzzle. Sometimes she needs to build bridges between the pieces, sometimes they just fit together perfectly, and sometimes they are so far apart they end up in different books. The next book in the Outlander series is now titled A Breath of Snow and Ashes but it won't be out for at least a year or two - she's still writing it. And she promised there will be at least one more book after that. Someone asked about the ghost in the very first book, and she said that the ghost is Jamie, but she wouldn't say any more other than it will be explained in the last chapter of the last book.

For fans who can't wait for the next book, she had these words of wisdom - "you can look at me, or you can have the next book faster; not both." Touring definitely cuts into her writing time. But there is a book coming out in November or December, a companion to the series, not a continuation of it, called Lord John and the Private Matter, and it's historical crime fiction. Lord John Gray is one of the lesser characters in the Outlander series, and a few years ago Diana was asked to contribute a short story to an English collection of historical crime fiction. She didn't have time to delve into another time period, and she was rather fond of Lord John so she decided to use him. The story was called "Hellfire," but unfortunately is now out of print. Her agents suggested she write a couple more short stories about him and put them together as a collection. She loved the idea and started writing. She met with her agents and they asked how the short story was coming along - she told them she was at 85,000 words and was almost done. They pointed out that 85,000 words is the length of most novels, and the "collection of short stories" was evolved into this new book.

Diana was gracious and bright and funny, and it was truly a pleasure to see her. Hats off to the Lee County Library for a fabulous day, and many thanks to Lesa Holstine for inviting me to share in it.

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