Wednesday, November 22, 2006


I look forward to the fair every year, and this year was no exception. In fact, I was even more excited than usual because Jonathon King had told me that the Mystery Writers of America had kicked in some money and that Sunday was to be MYSTERY SUNDAY at the fair. There were mystery panels all day long, interspersed with shopping the street fair - bliss! Well, almost bliss (scroll down to read "MWA TAKES A HIT AT THE MIAMI BOOK FAIR").

Bob Williamson, president of the Florida chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, moderated almost all the panels. He started the day by introducing Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books and the founder of the Miami Book Fair. Williamson explained that each year the MWA gives out an award called the Raven, "a special award given for outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing." The 2007 award will be going to Kaplan in New York in April. Some of the previous recipients have been Joan Hansen, creator of the Men of Mystery Conference; Bonnie Claeson & Joe Guglielmelli, owners of the Black Orchid Bookshop; Martha Farrington, Owner of Murder by the Book, Houston, TX; and Diane Kovacs and Kara Robinson, founders of the DorothyL listserv.

First panel of the day featured James W. Hall, Jess Walter, Melanie Rehak and Jeff Ford. Walter wrote the 2005 Edgar winner, Citizen Vince, a terrific crime novel set in Spokane, Washington, a month before the 1980 Presidential election. It concerns a Mafioso in the witness protection program who is, with his new identity, now eligible to vote. Walter, a journalist, said he got the idea when he learned through some research that Spokane is apparently quite popular with the witness protection program. One year on Election Day as he was voting, he started thinking about how convicted felons can't vote, but in this program they can, and a story was born. His latest book, The Zero, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

(from left to right: Jess Walter, James W. Hall, Melanie Rehak, Jeff Ford)

Melanie Rehak wrote Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. She was influenced to write the book after she heard an obituary on the radio for Mildred Wert Benson, the first ghost writer as Carolyn Keene, author of the enormously popular Nancy Drew series. She got a fellowship that allowed her a small office in the New York Public Library, which has archived all the papers & correspondence of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, Nancy Drew’s creator. She is currently working on another nonfiction book about restaurants, food & family in America, but says she may eventually write a mystery.

Jim Hall is always entertaining and seeing as we were sitting on the patio, he couldn't resist starting off his remarks by doing a bird call, one of his more unusual gifts. With his PhD in literature, Hall heads the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami, which has turned out some very fine writers like Dennis Lehane. Hall spoke about how he started out writing "literary novels" except that they were crap. He said he was too stupid to write those, all he was interested in were the "pretty words" and he severely neglected things like plot and character. So he moved on to writing "escapist crap" instead, mysteries. His Thorne series is being blessed with a new addition next March called Magic City. Set in 1963 Miami, Hall gets to share some of Miami's rich history.

Hall is also working on a nonfiction book about the twelve biggest bestsellers of all time, books like Peyton Place, The Godfather, Gone With the Wind, The Da Vinci Code, Jaws, and Valley of the Dolls. He was asked the difference between "literary thrillers" and "thrillers," and responded, "There are good books and books that are not as good."

Jeff Ford has written several science fiction and fantasy books, although he didn’t realize that’s what he was doing. He says the difference between sci-fi and literary fiction is that with a literary novel, there is “$5000 less on the next advance.” He is a big fan of hard boiled fiction, citing Hammett, Chandler and Cain as his biggest influences, especially Hammett’s The Thin Man. He tried to emulate that style in his mystery, The Girl in the Glass and judging by the excellent reviews, he succeeded.

The next panel of the day featured Lee Irby, Marshall Karp and Lisa Jones Johnson. I was so delighted to meet Marshall – I had done a promotion for his first novel, The Rabbit Factory, which has been favorably compared to Evanovich and Hiaasen. I am happy to report that Marshall is as charming and funny as his book would lead you to believe. He says that writing novels is his third and last career, following on the heels of being a “TV whore” and an “advertising whore”, where he worked with another thriller writer – James Patterson. Bloodthirsty, the sequel to The Rabbit Factory,comes out next year.

(from left to right: Lisa Jones Johnson, Lee Irby, Marshall Karp)

Lee Irby is a historian and teacher at Eckerd College with a wickedly self-deprecating sense of humor, and he’s managed to write two novels so far – 7,000 Clams and more recently, The Up and Up. Irby is also a fan of hard boiled fiction, and the historian in him led to research the slang of the era, which is found sprinkled throughout his books. The Up and Up is set in Miami during the 1930’s, when the chief of police was arrested for murder. Although he was eventually acquitted, Irby found enough intrigue there to inspire a novel. He told us he was dyslexic as a child and didn’t decide to try writing until he read Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

Lisa Jones Johnson is a new-to-me author. She’s written her first novel, A Dead Man Speaks, which is a ghost story of sorts. She wanted to turn a mystery novel on its head and get the story from the perspective of the victim. Luckily, the ghost hooks up with a psychic detective, so his story could be told.

I couldn’t sit anymore after that so I wandered the fair a bit. The beautiful weather brought out thousands of people, and everyone seemed to be in a good mood. The chain bookstores were nowhere to be found, but lots of independents and used book stores were represented. Some of the publishers had booths as well, including Penguin and for the first time, McSweeney’s. In fact, my only purchase of the day was at the McSweeney booth. They have a new series of board books for toddlers that were just adorable. I couldn’t resist Baby Fix My Car, one of the titles in the 'Baby Be of Use' series by Lisa Brown. The other titles in the series are Baby Make Me Breakfast, Baby Mix Me a Drink, and Baby Do My Banking. They are just too cute.

I was late getting back to the Mystery Stage so I was disappointed to miss the first half of the next panel. Featured were Lisa Unger, Elizabeth Becka, Kristy Montee (half of PJ Parrish) and Mel Taylor. Sliver of Truth, the sequel to Unger’s Beautiful Lies comes out in early January and I can’t wait! She was there with her husband and perfectly behaved baby - she slept through the event. Kristy/PJ talked about writing with her sister via email and phone calls and how well it works for them. They will be spinning off a character from their popular Louis Kinkaid series into a new series next spring.

(from left to right: Elizabeth Becka, Lisa Unger, Mel Taylor, P.J. Parrish/Kristy Montee)

I really enjoyed Becka’s Trace Evidence and did not know that she is a practicing forensic scientist who testifies regularly in court. She was asked about the sort of research she does and replied that she has a shelf of text books in her office if she needs them. Mel Taylor is a local news anchor who loves to write. He talked about the difficulties of meeting his deadline last year after Hurricane Wilma hit. He was working twelve hour shifts with no days off and no electricity, but somehow got it done. Murder by Deadline seems like a most appropriate title.

The mystery panels continued with James Grippando, Barbara Parker and Paul Levine. Levine is working on the next book in the hugely popular Solomon vs. Lord series. He called the new book ‘Habeas Porpoise’ but apparently the powers that be (the publisher) didn’t like that name so it’s in limbo at present. Levine talked about writers that influenced him, including John D. MacDonald whose voice in the Travis McGee series, he said, sounded surprisingly like his own. He’s also a fan of Elmore Leonard and Tom Wolfe.

(from left to right: Bob Williamson, Paul Levine, James Grippando, Barbara Parker)

Jim Grippando is a very busy guy. He’s got a stand alone thriller, Lying with Strangers, that is available only through book clubs at present. I asked him about it, wondering if this was going to be a new trend. He said that book clubs have been hurting because their prime customers were always people who either didn’t have access to local bookstores or didn’t care to shop in one. But now those people can buy anything they want online. By making exclusive book deals with authors they are reinventing themselves. Grippando said that James Patterson is doing an exclusive with the book clubs soon, and more are to follow, probably about one or two per year.

Grippando also has a new Jack Swytek book coming in January, and a fantasy thriller for young adults called Leapholes was just released. His childhood was spent reading fantasy, and he especially liked the C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. With Leapholes, he utilizes time travel to go back in time and meet famous historical figures like Rosa Parks, for example.

Another interesting discussion about the genre brought this tidbit from Grippando that he gleaned while on a panel (elsewhere) with Steve Berry. Grippando says that Berry had written all five of his published novels prior to the publication of the Da Vinci Code, but they had all been rejected. After the Da Vinci Code hit he was then able to get published, and all five of his books have ended up on the NY Times bestseller list.

Parker talked about her next book, The Perfect Fake, and how much she enjoyed doing research for it. An audience member asked about writers block and I loved her response – she said, “The answer to writer’s block is to lower your standards.” Levine wondered if plumbers get "plumber's block".

The last event at the Mystery Stage played to a packed house. Tim Dorsey moderated a panel he affectionately called, “Three Journalists and a Cop”. Dorsey, Jonathon King and Edna Buchanan were the journalists; James O. Born was the cop. These guys are all hilarious and to have them together was a treat. Dorsey started off by reading a sex scene from his latest book, The Big Bamboo, which caused a couple of mothers to hustle their children out of there.

(from left to right: Tim Dorsey, the BookBitch, James O. Born)

King also talked a bit about his research, informing us that the Everglades has the largest population of rattle snakes in the country. Not sure I really needed or wanted to know that! His most recent book is a stand alone thriller called Eye of Vengeance that has had incredible reviews and is in my towering to-be-read pile.

Jim Born was all excited about his next book, a stand alone thriller that has already gotten raves from the likes of Michael Connelly. It’s called Field of Fire and comes out in February. He says it’s got a more serious tone than the Tasker series, but as he does in the Tasker books, he tries to portray cops in a very realistic way. I’m really looking forward to it.

Bob Williamson moderated all the panels, save the last one, and basically asked the same questions each time out. I overheard some people saying that it would have been more interesting had the questions been more specific to the authors on each panel rather than the broad questions asked that could have been asked of any author - mystery, literary or nonfiction. Even more maddening for those of us who were there for more than one or two panels was his cell phone virus joke – a cutesy way of asking people to make sure their cell phones were off. The first time was cute, the second time not so cute, and after that I just cringed each time he repeated it. Even better would be to have different moderators. Surely there are other MWA members available at the book fair who would want to participate.

There were lots of other events going on at the fair. I missed Carl Hiaasen, he was on first thing in the morning and I didn’t make it in time. The problem with the fair is that there are so many fabulous authors it becomes very difficult to choose. So I stuck with what I love best and missed other authors I also wanted to see, like Sara Gruen, Janet Fitch, Melissa Bank, Neal Gabler, Mark Kurlansky, Jay McInerney, Christopher Hitchens, Francine Prose, Katherine Weber and Da Chen. And that was just Sunday! But there’s always next year…

1 comment:

Pari said...

It's good to finally see a picture of you, BookBitch!

I've wondered about the Miami Book Fair as a possible venue to pursue. From what you've written, it sounds like great fun, but that my money would be better spend where I've made some inroad on the West Coast in L.A.

Thanks for both reports. MWA should probably analyze those festival results before throwing in that much dough again. It sounds like our organization didn't get $20,000 worth of PR out of it.

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