A few days before ThillerFest X began, I was dog-sitting in Brooklyn. As I walked Leo around the neighborhood, I found the charming community bookstore Terrace Books. Leo agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to wait outside while I took a quick look. Almost immediately I found a novel I’d been hearing a lot about in the last year: The Fever by Megan Abbott. I met the author when she was on a panel with my editor at Bouchrcon 2013 in Albany. So I bought it and began reading in Prospect Park. Preparation for ThrillerFest, I told myself. I whipped through the book in two days – not so much devouring it as it devouring me. Wow!
The evening I finished The Fever, it won the Strand Critics Award and three days later it won Best Hardcover Novel at ThrillerFest. Preparation indeed!
At the opening reception for ThrillerFest X, I noticed a young woman standing alone amid the crowd with an expression on her face that I recognized. “Is this your first ThrillerFest?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. “I should’ve come last year when my book came out but I didn’t know about it.” As it happened, Laura McHugh was a debut novelist and her book The Weight of Blood was nominated for Best First Novel this year. My own debut Calvin’s Head had been a Lambda Literary Award Finalist, so we chatted about the surprise and excitement of being recognized for our first major literary efforts. I was so charmed by the native Missourian, the next day I sat in on her panel, purchased her book, and asked her to sign it.
On Saturday evening as I curled up on the couch with Leo and began reading The Weight of Blood, it was announced as Best First Novel at the ThrillerFest X awards ceremony. Synchronicity indeed!
I attended ThrillerFest for the first time in 2012. I had applied for a prestigious writing fellowship and when I wasn’t accepted, ThrillerFest was my backup plan. I can’t remember how I first heard about International Thriller Writers (ITW) annual event but I tucked the first draft of Calvin’s Head under my arm and did the whole shebang. CraftFest sessions, PitchFest (speed-dating with agents) and as many ThrillerFest panels as I could squeeze in. After four days I’d learned just how much I still needed to learn and also realized Plan B should’ve been Plan A in the first place. At the Debut Authors Breakfast, I sat in the audience and said to myself, Next year I’m going to be sitting up on that podium at the debut table. I left NYC invigorated and inspired.
The following year I couldn’t afford to attend ThrillerFest. But that same weekend, as I sat at the desk of my summer office in New Hampshire, I received an email from Bold Strokes Books offering a contract to publish Calvin’s Head. Yup. Synchronicity.
Aside from ThrillerFest, one of the greatest initiatives of ITW is the Debut Authors Program. Currently chaired by YA author Amy Christine Parker, the program offers support through discussion forums and mentoring, networking and media opportunities, and a special spotlight during ThrillerFest at the aforementioned Saturday morning Debut Authors Breakfast.
Twenty-seven first time authors sat at the long table spanning the length of the ballroom. Since we were seated alphabetically, to my right was TJ Turner. His debut thriller Lincoln’s Bodyguard poses the question: what would America be like if Lincoln had survived the shooting at Ford Theater? Interestingly, my current work-in-progress also contains a Civil War era thread. But as we chatted, we discovered more in common. Both originally from upstate New York, his wife and I both graduated from Shenendehowa High School. What were the chances of that?
International best-selling author Steve Berry introduced each Class of 2014/15 debut author in attendance (keeping with the school metaphor.) Back in 2012 Berry presented the first craft session I attended – talking about what aspiring authors should avoid in their writing. But he noted this year’s class was particularly stellar, with numerous awards, nominations, and starred reviews received for our work. He even mentioned a certain Lambda Literary Award Finalist.
Moment in the Sun
And we each had our moment. Literally. One minute to introduce our book, or give our undying gratitude, or reflect on our journey. One minute may not sound like much time, but seems much longer when you’re the one standing there holding a microphone before a large ballroom full of writing heroes, old and new writing friends, and avid fans of thrillers, mysteries, and crime fiction.
“It feels a little strange to be here,” I began. “Twenty years ago today, I was homeless in Amsterdam – living in a jeep with my dog Calvin. True story. Exactly twenty years ago today, we were walking in the park and came across an active crime scene. A crowd behind police tape, divers in a pond. I asked what was going on and was told somebody’s dog had pulled a garbage bag from the pond and inside was a severed human head.” I quickly apologized for such grizzly detail at breakfast. But hey, that’s ThrillerFest! And it was true. Exactly twenty years ago to the day, this incident inspired the story that became Calvin’s Head. I don’t think it’s possible to get more synchronous than that.
Steve Berry rounded off the morning with a few remarks about something most of us debut authors are all too familiar with: Second Book Syndrome. I had thought it was just a myth, an excuse overused by writers who are infamous procrastinators. But as I discovered in the past months, confirmed by many fellow debut authors, SBS is a real disorder and more complicated than I have space to explain. The possibility – no – probability – no – certainty of failure can be absolutely paralyzing. But as Berry gently, but firmly explained with words emblazoned on the ITW notepads included in our gift bags:
“You only fail if you stop writing.”
So one week later, I’ve returned to my summer office in the White Mountains. I’m sitting at my vintage roll-top desk, favorite of my many desks, in many places. And, at least for the moment – because I’m a sword-of-Damocles kind of guy – I’m banging out scenes, chapters, and pages on book number two. I’m not inclined to say more, except that ThrillerFest X could not have come at a better, more crucial time, and now I’m exactly where I need to be to do what I have to do. There’s a certain synchronicity in that, as well.