Because I haven’t attended many conferences at this (early) stage of my writing career, particularly “fan-based” events like the Left-Coast Crime 2013 gathering this past weekend in Colorado Springs, each remains a unique and memorable experience for this crime-fiction newbie. Allow me to share a few of these incipient memories:
Since the event was a mere seven hours by car from my home near Cortez, CO — or roughly the length of a Quentin Tarrantino film — I elected to drive to Colorado Springs, a decision made easier by the fact that my route through Durango and Pagosa and over Wolf Creek Pass is one of the prettiest on the planet. Pretty, that is, in the glorious sunshine of my departure. Less so in the snowy, treacherous conditions of my return, the sights of which included several crashed or abandoned vehicles and an 18-wheel semi lying on its side. But that’s another story.
Since I don’t really know that many of my crime-fiction contemporaries, I was heartened to learn that the irrepressible Deborah Coonts would be in attendance, up from the neon Gomorrah of her native Las Vegas. I first met Deb in Anaheim, at the American Library Association’s 2012 annual conference, where she and I mugged our way through a two-person panel of the use of humor in mystery fiction. This year, at LCC, we were scheduled to share not one but two different panels — on humor, and on writing the legal thriller (Deb is also a recovering lawyer.) And this time, we’d have company.
One thing I didn’t know about Deb is that she’d spent great chunks of her childhood in Colorado Springs where, like Eloise at the Plaza, she’d roamed the halls and hills of the iconic Broadmoor Hotel. So the first order of business on Thursday was a guided driving tour — along with authors David Gates and Chuck Rosenthal — of Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs and environs, including the Garden of the Gods (pictured) and, of course, the stately and historic Broadmoor itself, where we had a lovely reunion dinner on Thursday evening.
Things began in earnest on Friday morning with the New Authors’ Breakfast, where each of us who’d debuted in 2012 was given one minute to pitch his/her novel to the rest of the conference attendees. After that, having no panels on Friday morning, I was able to kick back and listen to some of the best writers currently working in American crime fiction, including David Corbett, Hilary Davidson, Brad Parks, Rhys Bowen, and Margaret Coel, expand on topics ranging from literary inspiration to the balkanization of crime fiction into its various sub-genres. Some enlightenment ensued.
The Friday morning program ended with a bang, and in one of my favorite moments from the conference: Margaret Coel’s one-on-one interview with “Fan Guest of Honor” Tom Schantz, the publisher of Rue Morgue Press and the owner of one of America’s earliest mystery-only bookshops. Tom is a walking encyclopedia of crime fiction, and his insights into the past and future of the genre were both fascinating and, at times, a little unnerving.
I participated in two panels on Friday afternoon. They were “The Lighter Side of Death and Dismemberment” with Deb Coonts, Harley Jane Kozak, Brad Parks, and Rochelle Staab, followed by “You Don’t Have to be a Lawyer to Kill Like One” with Deb, Parnell Hall, Paul Levine, and Chuck Rosenthal. The humor panel in particular was not only great fun but was very well attended –possibly the most popular panel of the weekend — and it came with homework. Asked to bring a funny line from another author’s work, I chose a chestnut from Nelson DeMille’s Wild Fire in which protagonist John Corey says of his ex-wife, “she thought cooking and fucking were two cities in China.” Now that’s a line I wish I’d written.
Each conference panel was followed by a fifteen-minute signing session, in which fans can stop by and chat with the panelists. I met some great folks at these sessions, some of whom had already read Hush Money and some of whom were kind enough to buy it. In fact, all of my books (both Hush Money and Hard Twisted) had sold out of the on-site bookstore by Saturday afternoon.
Mystery writers are fans as well, and in many cases we’re ardent fans of our fellow panelists. I was delighted, for example, to meet Laura Lippman — she and I are finalists for the Audie Award for Best Mystery audiobook of 2012 — and congratulate her (see picture) on What the Dead Know, to which I’d just been listening on the drive up from Cortez. It was also good to see Craig Johnson again, as I owe him a debt of gratitude for his role in helping Hush Money find its publisher, Minotaur Books.
Another highlight of conferences such as these is the opportunity to make new writer friends. So while I did miss the RMMWA reception and “concealed weapons fashion show” held on Friday night, I missed it because I was out to dinner that evening with Naomi (Strawberry Yellow) Hirahara and Diana (Coldwater) Gould, swapping L.A. stories and, in my case, memories of my pre-auctorial past. The next (Saturday) morning, I made a bee-line to the bookstore to purchase a copy of Coldwater, Diana’s debut novel, and I’m so looking forward to digging in.
Saturday’s day-long program included Twist Phelan’s Proustian one-on-one interview with Laura Lippman, entitled The Woman with a Gun, in which we all learned the words to the song “Mommy Time,” and were warned of the hazards of on-line shopping. You had to be there.
In the finest tradition of saving the best for last, the final panel of the day on Saturday was “Writing the West,” on which I sat with my fellow Rocky Award (see photo) finalists Craig Johnson, Margaret Coel, Darrel James, and Beth Groundwater. Craig, as always, stole the show with his patented mix of homespun humor and razor-sharp observations on the craft of writing. It was an honor for this debut author to have been on the same stage with these bright and talented veterans of the business.
The high point of the conference was the Saturday night awards banquet and charity auction, ably hosted by David Corbett. While all of the award nominees deserve recognition, the eventual winners were: Rochelle Staab for Bruja Brouhaha (Watson Award), the hilarious Catriona McPherson for Dandy Gilver and an Unsuitable Day for Murder (Bruce Alexander Award), Craig Johnson for As the Crow Flies (Rocky Award), and Brad Parks for The Girl Next Door (Lefty Award). I can only hope that somebody filmed Brad’s acceptance “speech” — which included an impromptu song-and-dance number with Laura Lippman — and if so, that it soon finds its way onto YouTube.
Okay, maybe that wasn’t the evening’s high point, which may have come after the last bow was taken, when conference Guest of Honor Craig Johnson sat for a one-on-one interview with a flight-delayed Lou Diamond Phillips, whose grit and sportsmanship in battling his way to Denver in a raging snowstorm earned him a well-deserved standing ovation from the banquet guests. Fans were rewarded with an hour of wit, wisdom, and war stories from the set of Longmire. All good things must end, alas, and end they did on Sunday morning.
Although I may not have brought home the Rocky, I did bring home something even better — cherished memories and new friendships. So, big thanks and hugs to all who made me feel so very much at home, and special thanks, for no special reason, to Deb, David, Naomi, Diana, Chuck, Rochelle (congrats!), Brad (ditto), Harley Jane, Paul, Mike, Laura, Margaret, Beth, Darrel, Parnell, Craig (double ditto), and Catriona, plus Linda Joffe Hull, Peg Brantley, Steve Brewer, Bonnie Biafore, Terri Bischoff, Bonnie Ramthun, and Janet Rudolph, but most of all to Christine Goff, Lucinda Surber, Stan Ulrich, Suzanne Proulx and everyone else who played a role in organizing this wonderful, magical weekend.
See you all next year!