The Thrills of ThrillerFest with the ITW

ThrillerFest was a lot of fun. All day on both Friday and Saturday, it was panel after panel, interspersed with interviews and massive book signings. It is an event like no other and it is exactly what it says it is—a festival of thrills. Two full days with a grand total of forty-eight panels, eight book signing sessions, three cocktail parties, two major interviews, the Debut Authors Breakfast, and the Awards Banquet. It was a whirlwind of creativity and excitement. I was sad to see it end.

As I said in my blog about CraftFest, I didn’t get many notes taken during ThrillerFest. Panels just aren’t really conducive to that, you know? If someone threw out a website or an article to look up, I’d jot it down, but otherwise, my notebook and pen would remain clutched in my hands but unused for the 50 minutes of the panel. So, due to my severe lack of notes, I can’t really even tell you about each of the panels which I attended.

I can give you some generalizations, I suppose. It was a blast. Every panel or interview was not only informative or thought-provoking but also a lot of fun. Everyone is in high spirits, which fuels the jokes, the laughs, the kindness, and the comradery. Each person that I’ve met through or with the ITW is fantastically pleasant, helpful, and down-to-earth. No one seems fake—everyone appears to be thoroughly joyful to be there. This conference has a reputation for being the best, which seems to draw in the best people.

Oh, everyone is known for being friendly and helpful? I’d better not join if I’m a mean asshole.”

It is jokingly called by attendees—summer camp for authors. And it kind of is. There is a schedule, most of us sleep at the host hotel—the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan—we all have a good time, and if you attend everything over the four days, you get three delicious meals.

Of course, I already covered the CraftFest lunch in my previous Wednesday blog, but we should also talk about the debut breakfast. I was part of it last year, and it was terrifying. This year, they had one block of panels Saturday morning, then had the breakfast at nine. Most of the tables were full this year, instead of last year where many sat empty. Steve Berry asked if we liked having it at nine better and everyone cheered. My guess would be that we’ll continue to have it at nine in the future since that seems to boost attendance to it.

The food was good; it usually is for the meals they serve at the hotel. The debuts were introduced by Steve, they each said their one-minute speeches, and I learned about a number of books that I want to read. But, disorganized asshole that I am, I can’t find the program from the breakfast right now. I’ve lost it several times since returning home. But I also keep finding it. I really don’t want to lose it, because I got it signed by all of the attending debut authors. I’m going to do that every year from now on. 

One book, I did buy then and there. “Color Blind” by Sheila Sobel. It’s set in New Orleans and the synopsis really grabbed me. I asked her if she sold signed copies on her website. She said no, but that if I bought a copy there, she’d sign it and ship it to me. How freaking nice of her! I snagged one in the bookstore, had her sign it, and decided it would fit in my purse so I could take it on the plane. I also didn’t want her to have to cover the expense of the shipping. But now it sits on my bookshelf, among the other dozens of books on my to-read list.

The other books I can't wait to read from the debuts—but still need to buy—are:

Alexia Gordon's books. Ghosts, classical music, and murder? Oh, yes. Please, yes. And it is a series? Then it is certainly going on my to-read list. 

"Baby Doll" by Hollie Overton. Just... yes. A deep psychological thriller about what happens after years of torture and confinement. I heard her talk about it and I just had to read it.

"These Honored Dead" by Jonathan F. Putnam is a historical fiction about Lincoln being like Sherlock Holmes, but on the American range. Again, hearing him talk about it made me want to read it way more than just reading the synopsis. 

"The Lost Ones" by Sheena Kamal grabbed me when I heard her talking about it. She really made me want to know more—to know what happens.

"Recall" by David McCaleb sounds really cool. Dude has some kind of subconscious ability to kick some serious ass, only he can't remember doing it or know how to do what he did. And I think it's the first of a series, but I can't find his card or bookmark right now, so don't hold me to that. 

You know what, how about I just say all the books. All twenty-two of them. Why bother trying to remember each and every one of them right now? They all sounded pretty freaking great. Also, I can't seem to find a list of them on the ThrillerFest website. I had thought there was a page for that. Maybe I'm just dumb and can't find it.

There were a handful of debuts I was extra excited to see sitting on that stage. Kimberly Howe—writing as KJ Howe—has been a dedicated member of the ITW for years. Actually, I don’t even know how many because she’s been with them longer than I have. But last year, when I was a debut, Kim was fantastic. She’s such a sweetheart. Her hard work has gone a long way to help the ITW. She’s also obviously learned a lot from them because now she finally has her own work published. When I saw her name on the list of debuts, I was overjoyed for her. Terry, another super-volunteer that all the attendees know, grabbed a signed poster of hers for me when it looked like I wasn't going to have time to stand in line to buy books AND to get them signed. It got a bit damaged during the trip home, but here’s a picture of it. Man, just such awesome people are there with the ITW. 

 I really should buy a frame for it.

I really should buy a frame for it.

Yet another super-volunteer that debuted this year was Walt Gragg. His post seems to perpetually be at the volunteer table, where he coordinates each panel, interview, and event. He is fantastic and he does so much to keep the conference running smoothly. I actually messed up and didn’t check in before a panel I volunteered for on Thursday. But Walt had that shit handled. He sent a backup volunteer to be the clock watcher. I still showed up at the panel, and once she and I figured out what had happened, I was left to do the job. It was fully my fault for forgetting to actually read my packet. Even though I messed up, Walt had it in control. He’s so great. And he got to sit on stage and debut this year. I’m so happy for him.

The interviews at ThrillerFest were awesome. Lisa Gardner is freaking amazing. She’s kind, caring, generous, and charitable. I am awed by what a freaking stellar human being she is. In fact, her speech during the Awards Banquet brought me to tears. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Lee Child’s interview was also fantastic. He’s a coffee fanatic, loves baseball, used to work in TV before he started writing, and he smokes the ganja. He said in his interview that he thinks weed should not only be legal, but it should be mandatory. The world would be such a more peaceful place, he said. But it is a balancing act—to drink so much coffee and to also smoke weed. Can’t be too up, can’t be too down. That dude is so damn charming. He seemed like he could’ve been commenting on a lovely breeze rather than the legality of a controversial plant.

 Did you see what time my panel was? Nice, right?

Did you see what time my panel was? Nice, right?

I also got to be on my first panel ever during ThrillerFest. I was so lucky that Heather Graham was my panel master. She’s such a sweet, supportive person and she really helped guide me through it. If it hadn’t been for the two of us chatting all week, I would have been a nervous wreck when I sat behind that table and microphone. As it was, I did forget the current question a few times, but I was never the first or the last to answer, so listening to the others answer helped to jog my memory. I got to talk about my books, my characters, my process, and even my personal beliefs and experiences. I got to tell a brief story about growing up in a haunted house. I also got to tell my favorite real life ghost story.

Almost two decades ago...

When I was seventeen, I found myself moving to New Orleans. I had a few friends with me and we wanted to see Bourbon Street. We took the ferry across the river, parked near the water, and began to walk. If you’ve ever been to the French Quarter, you may have noticed that the street signs are only on one corner of each intersection. They are also only printed on one side, so we couldn’t read them from the back. We thought we’d walked the correct number of blocks, but couldn’t be sure.

Not many cars drive around in The Quarter at night. I assume this is because some of the streets have sections blocked off for foot traffic after dark. We look all four ways at the intersection and see no movement anywhere. There are no cars driving, no people walking. The streets are deserted for at least a block in every direction. We’re all trying to read the street sign, but can’t because the glare of the street lamp is obscuring the painted letters. Since there are no cars, we’re all standing out in the middle of the street, moving apart and moving around as we try to catch an angle that allows us to read it. It was so quiet that night that every scuff of our shoes against grit in the streets echoed off the flat-fronted, closely spaced buildings that crowded the streets around us.

“Is this Bourbon?” we all kept saying to each other. I was the furthest back; I could almost see it. I could read “Rue” so I shifted some more. The three of them were scattered across the road in front of me.

“Yeah, this is Bourbon.” The voice comes from behind me. The road was empty just seconds before. There's no sound of approach. No one else can possibly be there.

I spin around to face this voice that shouldn’t be. He’s just a normal looking dude—red and black flannel shirt, jeans, tan work boots, short dark hair—standing a few paces away from me. He smiles, raises his arm, and points in the direction of my friends. “Party’s down that way.”

I smile back, disarmed by his kindness, seeming to forget for a second that he shouldn’t be there. “Cool, thanks, man.”

“Who are you talking to?” one of my friends asks.

I turn back to them, confused. How can they not see him? He’s dead-center at the crossroads. I look back to the man and begin to point at him, but he’s gone. I’m pointing at an empty space. “He was right there,” I assert. “He said that this is Bourbon and that the party is down that way.” I point the opposite way down the street—a right turn from our original trajectory.

They decide to go along with me and try that way. I’d always been weird, so maybe I’ll be right. And I was. But it wasn’t me. It was that dude that only I could see. He wasn’t spectral or see-through. Someone told me once that it was probably a vampire. I’m like—um, no. They’d have seen him then, right? So, definitely a ghost. The coolest, most solid ghost I’ve ever seen.

 At the book signing after my panel.

At the book signing after my panel.

My panel was the last one before the Awards Banquet. As soon as the panel was over, I had to sit for a book signing. Once that was over, I rushed to get changed and down to the pre-banquet cocktail party. I got to meet some awesome people in the crush of the crowd. And it was super crowded. The lobby of the ballrooms was extremely insufficient to host that many people, milling around with alcohol and fancy clothes. They should have let us have one of the other adjacent ballrooms for our cocktail party.

But, luckily—for the people who sought me out—I was easy to find with my blue hair and blue lipstick. At both cocktail parties—pre- and post-banquet—people found me to discuss my answers during the panel. I felt so strange that people would want to talk to me. But I was excited to hear of their own paranormal experiences or those of their relatives; to talk about what it’s like to be a white girl writing about Native Americans; to hear what they write about; to exchange cards, ideas, and best wishes.

A number of people caught up with me just to meet me. Again, that felt so odd to me. Should I ever gather some level of fame someday, I doubt I’ll ever get used to it. I’ll most likely end up dedicating a lot of time to the ITW so that I can give back to the next generation of authors just like so many literary greats that I’ve met this week have done.

 Charlaine Harris isn't actually this blurry in real life. It's just my crappy camera.

Charlaine Harris isn't actually this blurry in real life. It's just my crappy camera.

During the Awards Banquet, I got to share a table with some more fantastic people. We had a lovely meal, chatted about how great the week had been, and enjoyed the festivities of the ceremony. There were several bouts of singing, which I’ll link below. The camera on my new LG phone sucks in low light, so I actually spent a bit of the ceremony frantically deleting photos that had already been saved in the cloud from my old iPhone, which has a better camera. I only managed to make enough space to take three seconds of video of Heather Graham singing. So I pulled out my new phone and got the last two and a half minutes recorded of that one.

Yeah, so first let me say that this is only the last half of the song. I'd started to record it with a different device, then ran out of memory after three seconds. Oh, well.

Jon Land gave an award to Tom Doherty for being such a legend in publishing. Jon told a wonderful story about how Tom took a hit and lost millions of dollars so that his authors wouldn’t have to take the financial hit. What an awesome guy.

John Lescroart gave Lisa Gardner the Silver Bullet Literary Award. She gave a wonderful speech that was very touching. I really admire her for using her fame and influence to help those who are less fortunate. Her generosity is heartwarming. I can see why such an amazing person would also dedicate their time and expertise to the ITW. 

Then we moved on into the rest of the awards—ones which no one knew yet who was going to win. I’ll not bore you with listing each and every category, nominee, and winner. But if you’d like to see, it is right here on the ThrillerFest website. Okay, well, it will be once they update the site. At the time of this posting, it is still listing last year's winners. 

The final award of the night was given to Lee Child by Heather Graham. She’d been ThrillerMaster the year before, so it was her turn to pass the crown to him. There’d been whispered talk of passing an actual crown to him, as well as his award, but it didn’t happen so someone must have deemed it a bad idea. I managed to capture part of her speech about him, which was immediately followed by a song dedicated to him. “Medley for a Paperback Writer” by Daniel Palmer and Brad Parks was a huge hit. The song starts at the 3-minute mark of the video below.

This is the part of the Thriller Awards ceremony where Lee Child was given his Thriller Master Award in recognition of his legendary career and outstanding contributions to the thriller genre. I started recording during Heather Graham's speech and ended during Lee's much-deserved standing ovation.

As the song was ending, with the whole audience joining in, Lee took his place on the stage and Heather handed him his award while hundreds of people serenaded him. It was fantastic. After the audience concluded a standing ovation for him, we all sat down and he gave a speech. I caught about 47 seconds of his speech before my memory also filled up in my new phone. Damn it. Still, though—here’s that one, too.

Lee Child, author of the popular Jack Reacher series, was given the Thriller Master Award by the International Thriller Writer organization at a ceremony on July 15, 2017. The award is given annually to outstanding authors in the thriller genre.

With the banquet concluded, we were all encouraged to go downstairs to the after party. Most people did, but the smokers went outside. I really needed some air, so as I did frequently throughout the week, I stepped out to the mezzanine where the smokers gather. I walked over to the far side so that I was catching a glimpse down 42nd. Most people stayed in a few clustered groups over near the doors. I was actually alone for a few moments. I could breathe. I could relax for a minute, my extreme and unmedicated social anxiety mitigated for a short time.

Then who comes outside with his award tucked under his arm and walks straight toward me? Cool, casual, and so-totally-disarming-how-could-he-ever-exacerbate-my-social-anxiety Lee Child. The man of the week himself. He, too, was used to congregating around the giant planters filled with sand that acted as giant ashtrays for the smokers. And for a few moments, we were alone, watching the others as the clusters by the door grew larger. No one else came over to join us.

I congratulated him on his award, said that he deserved it. He expressed his doubt, ever the humble man. I brought up his use of weed, expressed my agreement that it should be legal, and brought up my own books. “The protagonist in my novel is a pot-smoking angel. Would you like to read it?” I pulled a signed copy out of my bag. He said that he would and accepted the book from me. For the next half hour, until we returned inside, he carried around my book tucked underneath his lifetime achievement award. I'm trying to remain stoic and believe that he'll hate it. I can't even let myself hope for him to like it, or I'll be sad when he says it's not his cup of tea. Or coffee?

After joining the growing groups and chatting with a number of people outside, I decided to head back in, grab my niece, and go down to the after party. It, like all of the other cocktail parties, was a blast. But at this one, we all got gift bags from Random House that had a copy of “No Middle Name” and a Jack Reacher coffee mug. Yay! I always need more travel mugs! And since I’d already bought a signed copy of “No Middle Name” I now had one to give as a gift to someone. Actually, I wound up deciding to do a giveaway for my newsletter subscribers. Are you signed up for it yet?

My only real disappointment of the week was that I never caught up with RL Stine. I mean, that dude is an absolute legend. He has officially sold over half a billion books. Five hundred million books and change. Sweet Cheesus. Also, he was such an inspiration. All week, I carried around a twenty-seven-year-old copy of one of his books. It was my most read book as a child. But I never got a chance to talk to him, or to get him to sign it for me. Oh, I saw him. But he’s such a nice guy, he’s always engaged in conversation with someone. I just couldn’t interrupt. That’s fine, though. He’s there every year and I’ll be there every year, too.

I can’t wait to go back next year. It’s so much fun, such an onslaught of knowledge, and I meet so many fantastic people. I looked around at them throughout the week and thought—this is where I belong. These are my people—kind, generous, helpful authors. People brimming with ideas and creativity. Oddballs and devious minds. I absolutely love the ITW.

***UPDATE***

I forgot to mention it before. In the email sent out by the ITW announcing the winners of Thriller Awards this year, there was a misprint. It took them just over seven hours to notice it, fix it, and send out a correction email. But, I have a bit of a funny story about their mistake. 

At one point during the conference, I was running around, getting books signed, and trying to ensure that everyone who was in "Matchup" signed my book. I'd just had Lisa Scottoline sign next to her name in "Matchup" as well as my new copy of "Accused." (Full disclosure: I might be screwing this up, too. It is entirely possible that this interaction included Lisa Jackson, and that it was a different signing at which I got "Accused" signed. I'm absolutely terrible with names.)

I glanced down the line, saw another Lisa, checked the front of "Matchup," saw another Lisa, stepped over to her, and laid down the anthology. I dug into my bag, pulled out a Lisa Gardner novel, and laid that beside "Matchup."

"I'm not in this one," she said as she ran her fingers down the yellow list of names on the glossy book jacket. She eased it back toward me across the tan table cloth.

My eyes darted around, rechecking the two books I'd set before her, her name card, and her disappointed expression. "Oh, shit. Why not?" She was being awarded the Silver Bullet Award on Saturday. The ITW obviously values her. I'd just assumed and...you know. Made an ass out of you and me. 

She frowned, perhaps wondering the same thing. 

"I'm so sorry. I'm such an asshole. I just saw Lisa on the cover and didn't read far enough. I guess there are more than a few Lisas here this year. And two of them are in this one." I awkwardly tried to tuck the large hardcover book into my bag. 

She signed the book she'd actually written. "You know, I get fan mail for Meg Gardiner all the time. They'll be going on for a few pages about something I wrote, but I don't remember any of it. I wonder--did I write that? Then I realize it's Meg's." She turned to the other Lisa. "I don't think I've ever been mistaken for you, though."

"Oh, yes. I'm in that one," Lisa Scottoline said with a smile.

I smiled back, still trying to get the book back into my bag full of books. "Yes, I got your signature. Of course, I want to get everyone's, though. I just wander through the book signings, checking the cover against name cards. I guess with all of these Lisas, you all should do an all-Lisa book tour." 

Lisa Gardner handed "Find Her" back to me. I felt like my face must've been blazing red while I thanked her and apologized profusely again. I felt like such an asshole for handing her a book that wasn't hers. But she was super nice about it. What a kind, amazing person she is. 

So, as far as the mistake in the announcement email? Uh... Yeah... Just--just read the screenshot below.

 Seriously. That happened. At least they didn't screw up her name during the banquet.

Seriously. That happened. At least they didn't screw up her name during the banquet.