Monday, July 10, 2006


A serial killer was lurking somewhere near the beautiful Arizona Biltmore. Seriously. I didn’t know about it until I got home, thank goodness, but you have to admit that it is a very strange, even freaky coincidence that something like this would happen at the first convention of the International Thriller Writers organization. About 450 folks showed up for this big party weekend, mostly writers and writer-wannabes, but also some readers, reviewers, editors, agents and publishers. I have to say that it totally exceeded even my wildest expectations. I never even dared dream of having a dashing Russian doctor/novelist, the esteemed Vladimir Lange (Fatal Memories) buy me lunch, along with his publisher and fellow lunchmates Katherine Neville (The Eight) & her husband; Willetta Heising, author of my favorite reference guides, Detecting Men and Detecting Women, and the soon to be published Willetta’s Guide to Police Detective Series; and one of my favorite authors and a genuinely nice guy, Brad Meltzer.

I arrived in 107 degree heat to find a beautiful hotel that some say was designed by either Frank Lloyd Wright or his colleague Albert Chase McArthur. It’s spread out in many buildings with the scenic Camelback Mountain in the backdrop. It involved a five minute hike from the main building to my beautiful room, and as I was trudging along, laptop in tow, I heard, “It’s the BookBitch!” I looked up to find the beautiful M.J. Rose lounging outside the coffee shop with Lee Child. There were a few other people there too, but let’s face it, meeting Lee Child just sort of stopped time for me and I’m embarrassed to say I don’t even remember who else I met there.

I was surprised by the organization of the event and especially by the quality and quantity of the panels. They started Thursday afternoon and ran all day and into the night, usually with three different panels going on at the same time, forcing attendees to make some tough choices. Fans met their favorite thriller writers like Sandra Brown and Clive Cussler. Thriller-writer-wannabes got writing tips from their favorite thriller writers like David Morrell and Douglas Preston. But best of all was how everyone from the superstars to the unknowns, the agents, editors, librarians and fans got to meet and mingle in the halls, by the pool, in the bar (of course, we’re talking writers here!) and even in the coffee shop (Starbucks was even more ridiculously expensive than at home – I am addicted and paid the price).

There were terrific, in depth interviews with several authors as well. An hour long spotlight interview with Sandra Brown revealed a smart, funny lady who is still insecure about her work, and even more gorgeous in person than on her book jackets. She admitted that even after 54 NY Times bestselling novels, she still wakes up every morning and worries that the “bad plot fairies” will have visited her during the night. She also told a great story about buying some property that had an old house on it. They wanted to get rid of the house but it was too expensive to move it so they considered demolition. They ended up gutting the house, filled seven tractor trailers with whatever was salvageable and auctioned it off for charity. Then they offered the house to the "Walker, Texas Ranger" TV show. Their writers put together a two-part episode that involved blowing up a house – guess who’s?

I heard that on Wednesday night, the night before the official start of the conference, Jeffery Deaver showed up in the bar and hung out with fans and at least one tongue-tied newbie writer. Apparently he was in town for a signing and decided to stop by. Other nights found Tess Gerritsen, Lee Child, Michael Palmer and dozens of other authors chatting away in the bar with whoever happened to be around.

The first day of the conference was geared towards writers with Jason Pinter, an editor at Crown, talking about the publishing process, Jim Fusilli discussing setting, David Morrell on dialogue, Jon Land on writing a thrilling screenplay, and Gayle Lynds on the eight elements necessary in writing the big thriller. You can watch a video of the Lynds event at YouTube, with others to follow, thanks to Robert Gregory Browne and David Hewson.

One of the most informative panels of the day, Buzz Your Thriller, featured author M.J. Rose, reviewer David J. Montgomery and publicist Sarie Morrell, offering the useful, albeit painful revelation to the hopeful and the newly published that books are not just a creative endeavor, they are a product and as such, need to be marketed and publicized. I’m afraid that M.J. Rose might have made some new authors cry with her advice to take that entire advance check for the first book – all of it – and use the money towards publicizing the book. On the other hand, she made me laugh – David’s mic wasn’t working and she took hold of the very phallic looking device and muttered, "somehow this feels very comfortable to me."

Sarie Morrell (David’s daughter) is a former publicist with Random House and is now on her own, representing authors like Gayle Lynds and M.J. Rose. She obviously knows her stuff and was willing to share lots of good advice, including the warning to be careful how writers, especially new writers, spend money. The long and short of it is that good publicists are not cheap and that press releases require know how. David J. Montgomery reviews mysteries and thrillers for several major newspapers including the Chicago Sun-Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe and my very own South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He’s also in the unique position of having completed his first thriller, so I’m sure he was paying close attention to his fellow panelists as well.

Rose also told a great story about how she had lost her dog and subsequently adopted another. She hadn’t had a puppy in years so she joined an online group for solace and support with her new puppy. Eventually they asked about her signature touting her first book, Lip Service (which I loved) and she watched her sales spike after that. Internet marketing is something Rose really excels in and talks about in the book she wrote along with Douglas Clegg, Buzz Your Book.

The party officially started Thursday night with the opening celebration that had Jim Fusilli interviewing Douglas Preston to a packed house – which may have had something to do with the free drinks. Preston is a descendant of Emily Dickinson and Horace Greeley and his brother is not a bad writer either - Richard Preston wrote The Hot Zone, which is required reading in many schools, and more recently, The Demon in the Freezer. Preston told a great story about his aunt stealing Benny Goodman’s suits from his widow - they were neighbors in a ritzy NYC apartment building. True, Mrs. Goodman was throwing them out, but still…and Preston wore them! I loved hearing how Preston snuck Lincoln Child, who was then his editor at St. Martins Press, into the American Museum of Natural History one night after closing (Preston worked there), showed him some behind the scenes dinosaurs, and The Relic and a writing partnership was born.

It was a terrific party and twenty-four of the authors who contributed a story to Thriller: Stories to Keep You Up All Night, the first compilation of the ITW, were there to sign books and mingle with each other and the fans. Recently the NY Times published a not-very-favorable review of the book (obviously they are not thriller fans over at the Times) and the authors decided to have a little fun with it. The review was hung up and each author got to shoot a water rifle at it, until the review finally disintegrated. Needless to say, a good time was had by all.

There were also some awards handed out that first night. As a way to thank several of the committee members who put together the event, beautiful awards were ordered and engraved with each of their names. Except that the printer made a tiny mistake - the only one who got an award with his name on it was Steve Berry. In fact, he could have gotten all the awards. They were all inscribed with his name, turning these lovely thank you gifts into the Berry awards. We’ll have to wait and see if they still call them that at future conventions.

Day Two found more panels for writers, but also for readers. Chris Grabenstein hosted a “Thrillers Live Talk Show” where he did an great job interviewing Michael Palmer, Alex Kava and Lee Child. Child informed the audience that he already has the last title in the series picked out, Die Alone, which will feature Jack Reacher not only getting killed, but also dismembered – there will be no bringing him back after Lee’s retirement. Dirk Cussler was a no show for this panel, leaving Grabenstein to quip that he was “diving under the table”.

Michael Palmer explained that he was able to practice medicine and still find time to write because he doesn’t watch television. He also shared that he & Tess Gerritsen give a standing-room-only workshop once a year for doctors who want to write, and that he interned with Robin Cook. Alex Kava was quite excited about having a sandwich named after her at Vinny’s Deli, a local Nebraska restaurant that is featured in her books. They call it the “Alex Kava Mystery Sandwich” and the mystery is that whoever makes it gets to decide what’s on it! She was also honored when One False Move was chosen for the 2006 One Book One Nebraska book.

Lee Child explained why women love Jack Reacher, despite the fact that he is “unhygienic” – it’s because "he shows up, they have intense sex for three days and then he disappears, never to be seen or heard from again. No mess, no divorce, just a few days of fun." He also explained that the character is based on the 2000 year old myth of the “mysterious stranger”, the one who everyone hopes will show up when they are in trouble and rescue them. The authors also discussed how they came up with character names. Palmer offered that there is a random name generator that uses names compiled from the census. Child says he tends to use stationary products – he just looks around his office and finds names like Mead, for instance. The authors on this panel were very forthcoming, Grabenstein was really quick and funny and it was a lot of fun.

There was a lot of talk about a “mock autopsy” that I really had no intention of attending, that is, until Library Journal asked me to cover it for them. (A seriously condensed version of this piece will be published in the August issue.) I wasn’t really sure what to expect but somehow was thinking there would be a body of some sort in the room. Thank goodness I was way off the mark there. “The Gerritsen Files” was an entertaining and educational mixed media presentation of how forensic science plays a part in thrillers: video, interspersed with an informative, extremely graphic slide show presentation by Dr. D. P. Lyle, followed by a panel discussion that also included C.J. Lyons, Grant Blackwood and Allen Wyler on writing medical thrillers.

Fans and writers alike seemed to enjoy a couple of panels that I missed – a discussion of the Da Vinci Code with John Case (Jim Hougan), Robert Liparulo, Rebecca York, Katherine Neville and the very funny James Rollins, was a big hit. There was also a terrific panel called “How the Masters Influence the Next Generation” with some newer authors: the very tall Jonathon King, J. Carson Black, the very cute Jeff Buick, Grant Blackwood, Thomas O’Callaghan, and the very sweet Mark Gimenez. That panel had people buzzing all day.

The “State of the Union” panel had Douglas Preston moderating Gayle Lynds, David J. Montgomery and David Morrell as they discussed what is going on in the thriller genre. Morrell, a former professor at the University of Iowa, explained that there is a “moral bias against thrillers” by reviewers because our society is based on a "Puritanical, Calvinistic society that says fun is bad, easy reading is bad." Gayle Lynds pulled out this quote that Morrell identified as Horace: “The purpose of fiction is to both entertain and enlighten.” These panelists all feel that thrillers accomplish that, and Montgomery pointed out that mysteries and thrillers are what people want to read today, and the best seller lists reflect that.

Lunch offered a spotlight interview with R.L. Stine, who in creating the Goosebumps series says he is “the literary training bra for Stephen King.” Stine said he finds there to be a very thin line between humor and horror, and judging by how funny so many of these thriller writers were, he seems to have hit the mark. He took questions after the interview and Lee Goldberg’s nine-year-old daughter Maddie made her father ask about a book called Deep Trouble. Maddie wanted to know how a mermaid could have tears running down her face while locked up in an aquarium. Stine was a great sport. He said the mermaid had to come up for air at some point, and they created the most talked about moment of the day.

The afternoon panels were an interesting mix, ranging from “Does a Series Have an Expiration Date” to “What Thrills Us” to “Beyond Good and Evil” to “Politics in Thrillers”. One I’m really sorry I missed was “Sex in Thrillers, with Booze” that featured John Lescroart, Steve Berry, M. J. Rose, and the hot, hot, hot Barry Eisler – along with screaming orgasms. (Yes, you may ask - you have my email.)

The highlight of the afternoon for me was “The People v. Jack Reacher.” Lee Child portrayed his character, Jack Reacher, and was defended by the hilarious Paul Levine (Solomon vs. Lord) in this murder trial based on the story in Persuader. Michele Martinez (The Finishing School) was the ferocious prosecutor and her star witness was a law enforcement officer, James O. Born (Escape Clause), with a murky past - something about drunk driving and a bunch of dead nuns? The court was presided over by the honorable M. Diane Vogt and the bailiff, who spent most of the trial napping center stage, was portrayed by David Dun. Despite the fact that there were two juries, one comprised of reviewers and press (including your very own BookBitch), and the other of members of the audience, neither could reach a consensus, thus causing a mistrial. It might have had something to do with the fact that despite several objections from Martinez, Lee Child/Jack Reacher flirted shamelessly with the mostly female jurors, or that Paul Levine warned the jury in his closing remarks that if Reacher were found guilty, there would be no more books. More than one sigh was heard at that remark. Rumor had it that if he had been found guilty, there was a contingent of cardboard-gun toting women willing to break him out of jail.

Day Three featured a few different tracks, including a full day of “Special Operations” that had hands-on demonstrations of street fighting, knife brawling, and “weapons and tactics you don’t see in textbooks”, including James O. Born warning that the next person to say the words, “dry heat” would be shot by a real gun with a real bullet. It actually started the night before when the person I was speaking with started laughing as a body went flying by. Hands on demonstrations were apparently being given in the bar. Fort Lauderdale author Neil Plakcy was kind enough to take notes on all of these and share them on his website:

Another panel was on heroes and featured the brilliant Gregg Hurwitz, the very funny Chris Mooney, Christopher Rice, the adorable son of Anne Rice, and the who-knew-he-was-so-damn-hot Will Staeger, moderated by the lovely and scarily-smart Tess Gerritsen. Rice made an interesting comment that “writing is the ultimate act of arrogance” which Mooney agreed with, saying, “where else can you talk for 400 pages and not be interrupted.” They also talked about rewriting. Rice said that he wrote 900 pages for one of his books, most of which was cut, and Staeger claims that he has 37 drafts of Painkiller. And they keep it all, at least in computer files, if not the actual paper. One of the funniest moments came when Hurwitz said that one of the benefits of reading a Christopher Rice novel while traveling is that he gets hit on by a lot of really good looking men. I wonder how his wife feels about that….

Another panel called “Readers Grill the Authors” had audience members asking Dale Brown, Lee Goldberg, Brad Meltzer and Erica Spindler anything they wanted – the best questions won prizes like an advance reader copy of The Book of Fate by Brad Meltzer (September publication date), a rubber duckie Copycat tie-in from Spindler, and a couple of Lee Goldberg novelizations of Monk and Diagnosis: Murder. Dale Brown offered to name a character after the audience member who won – look for “Ken Phoenix” in his next book. In the process, some interesting things were revealed. Spindler made the jump from romance to thrillers because she says she has a “dark gift.” Meltzer disclosed that he doesn’t read books anymore because while he may enjoy the first hundred pages or so, after that he starts deconstructing them, so he reads comic books instead. Lee Goldberg claimed that “reading energizes me.” Dale Brown flew his own plane in for the afternoon and brought the news of the scrubbed space shuttle launch. He was really sweet and bought me one of those ridiculously expensive coffees, so I got to spend a little extra time with him.

There was lots of excitement in the hall that afternoon as Clive Cussler signed books and chatted with fans for more than an hour. The day was capped off by an hour long interview with Brad Meltzer, after which he acted as auctioneer for a charity auction that featured gift baskets donated by some of the biggest names in the thriller community – Steve Berry, Sandra Brown, Lee Child, Linda Fairstein, Tess Gerritsen, R.L. Stine and many others. The highest bid, $1700, went to a basket from Clive Cussler that included rare manuscript pages, a handwritten letter, photographs, signed books and more.

The first Annual Thriller Awards Banquet was a truly entertaining evening, produced and emceed by the very funny Robert S. Levinson and showcasing the musical talent of the Killer Thriller Band: Blake Crouch, John Lescroart on vocals and lead guitar, Gayle Lynds (on triangle!), David Morrell on keyboard, Scott Nicholson, Michael Palmer on drums, his son David Palmer on amazing harmonica, Dave Simms, Nathan Walpow, F. Paul Wilson and the “Thrillerettes” (or possibly “Killerettes,” they lobbied for a name change): Heather Graham, Harley Jane Kozak and Alexandra Sokoloff. They may have had people dancing in the aisles but the real event of the night was the awards.

There was some controversy a week earlier when Elaine Viets posted a biting essay on the Lipstick Chronicles blog, stating, “It’s tough to define an award-winning thriller, but the new International Thriller Writers has succeeded: It’s anything written by a man.” Are you surprised to hear that as of this writing (July 9) there are 160 comments posted? Read Viets’ rant in its entirety and all those comments here: Lipstick Chronicles

ITW co-president Gayle Lynds responded, “As an author (not as a woman who has spent her life battling sexism), I could complain that no women were nominated. At the same time, I could also complain that no people of color were. I'm not sure whether any Muslims or religions other than Christian or Jewish were nominated, but I think they weren't either. As long as awards are given in whatever field, there are always going to be those who say, "I wish it were otherwise. And because it isn't, it's prejudice." The only time there's really an institutional problem, at least in my mind, is when there is a history of one group of people being disenfranchised. Since this is ITW's first year, the organization can have no track record of institutional prejudice.” Read Lynds’ response in its entirety here:
Sandra Blabber

I read all the responses on the Lipstick Chronicles blog and a few others including Sarah Weinman's, Jason Pinter's and Sandra Ruttan's and miraculously, kept my mouth shut and my typing fingers elsewhere. I didn’t respond for many reasons, but this is my forum so I’ll just throw in a brief comment or two now.

I understand Elaine Viets’ complaint, but I found it completely unjustified. There were some comments made about men not reading women authors and after many years as a bookseller and readers’ advisor I have to tell you it’s true. And to be fair, the converse is true as well; there are many women who won’t read male authors either. I myself have often been accused of reading “guy books.” Furthermore, it is my contention that most thrillers – not mysteries, but thrillers – are written by men. I have no idea of the percentage or actual numbers, but my best guess is that it is a significant number. ITW says that 29% of the submitted titles were written by women, a significant number to be sure but certainly a healthy minority.

I’ve had it pointed out to me that my ‘best books of the year’ lists tend to be heavily favored by male authors. I don’t care. I pick the books that I love most regardless of who wrote them, and I expect that was how the judges did it for ITW as well. If I had to stop and count gender or anything else I’d stop doing it altogether. I didn’t agree with all the choices that the judges made and perhaps I would have included a woman somewhere on those nominating lists, but I would have included some different men on those lists too. The long and short of it is that I wasn’t a judge and I wasn’t asked, and more importantly, I trust the integrity of those who did make those difficult choices.

The awards went on despite the controversy. In fact, James Rollins, the awards chair and a veterinarian who proudly claims to be able to "spay a cat in under five minutes," offered to neuter the winners and level the playing field. The beautiful Thriller awards went to:

Best Novel - THE PATRIOT'S CLUB by Christopher Reich (Delacorte Press)
Best First Novel - IMPROBABLE by Adam Fawer (William Morrow)
Best Paperback Original - PRIDE RUNS DEEP by R. Cameron Cooke (Jove)
Best Screenplay - CACHE (Hidden), screenplay by Michael Haneke

As previously announced, the first ThrillerMaster Award, a lifetime achievement award, went to Clive Cussler for his body of work.

The closing day of ThrillerFest had panels in the morning on, ironically enough, “Gender Issues in Thrillers”, among several others like “What I Love about Thrillers,” “Financial Crimes” and “Writing Killer Settings”. The grand finale was a brunch featuring an in depth interview of the enormously talented John Lescroart, where all the participants learned the correct pronunciation of his name (Less-KWAH).

Final thoughts on ThrillerFest: The hotel did a terrific job of hosting the conference. Yes, the bar was small, and with all the renovating going on it was very warm in places, but the staff was accommodating and the rooms were lovely. The banquet food was terrific – and how often do you get to say that. All the authors were friendly and inclusive. The panels were interesting, enlightening and fun, and the panelists diverse. All in all, I’d have to say that the first convention of the International Thriller Writers organization was a roaring success.

As for next year: "M. Diane Vogt, ITW Board Member and National Events Committee Chair with overall responsibility for ThrillerFest, confirmed the event will be held at the Grand Hyatt in New York City on July 11 -15, 2007." I can’t wait!

I've posted pictures at Kodak Gallery.

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