Thrilling to ThrillerFest

I enter the Grand Hyatt in my usual fashion — a crab-like scuttle down a hospital corridor-like passageway that connects this grandiose hotel to the bowels of the New York City subway. It’s my preferred entrance strategy: low-ceilinged, glaringly lit, anonymous. And in the case of ThrillerFest, the annual convention for international thriller writers, it seems particularly appropriate. If those soft footsteps behind me belong to him, I’ll at least have chosen a route that provides the dirty beast with little to no cover.

I ascend the escalator to the marble-drenched mezzanine and keep my head low. Forearms tensed, I’m poised to flee. The first sign of a tall, well-built Jack Reacher look-alike eager to crunch my head against the nearest bartop and I’m outta here. I figure there’s little risk of a Clive Cussler-esque maritime adventure, given how far ashore this rendezvous is situated (the Hyatt’s attention-catching waterfall aside). As for the chance of encountering the sociopathic Hannibal Lecter sort that used to populate the genre, well, that trend’s been waning a bit—anyway, if a gal’s aimin’ for the big city life, she’s gotta take some chances, don’t she?

My wild imagination aside, not to mention an inexplicable confusion of author and character, I’m in for a bit of a shock. As it turns out, thriller writers have next to nothing in common with their creations. The folks congregating at the elevator are calm, mostly middle-aged, predominantly male, outgoing, and darn nice. At registration, I’m warmly greeted by Kathleen Antrim, chair of ThrillerFest. Other equally cheerful volunteer writers load me up with materials and ensure I’m properly oriented. My outsider status may be a slight factor, but the vibe throughout the sessions I attend, even in the largest panels with the biggest stars, is casual and relaxed. Whatever narrative jams these scribes kickbox their way through or inner demons they unleash on their pages, in person this crowd is as friendly and laidback as a Sunday morning Midwestern tailgate.

ThrillerFest is an unusual hybrid. Divided into three parts, Craftfest, Agentfest and Thrillerfest proper, it’s part Breadloaf (the Vermont literary writers’ conference), part Bouchercon (the exuberant mystery fan convention). Born in 2004 along with the International Thriller Writers organization, this celebration of the suspense novel, a category distinct from mysteries for the works’ emphasis on heightened emotions (or thrills) as opposed to more purely cerebral puzzle-solving, is still evolving.

The first two days are devoted entirely to the craft of writing with one afternoon set aside for meetings between aspiring writers and agents. The second two days are a mini-literature festival crammed with author panels and one-on-one interviews with special guests, among them Robin Cook, Sandra Brown, Katherine Neville and David Morrell. Interspersed are author signings, publisher parties, readings at local bookstores, and the usual amount of late-night camaraderie and imbibing. It all culminates with a glitzy dinner (this year at Cipriani on 42nd Street) where the annual awards are handed out by the luminaries of the field. Presenters this year include Sandra Brown, David Morrell, and David Baldacci.

The first session I attend is part of Craftfest. James Rollins, bestselling author of five Sigma Force novels, the movie novelization of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and more, is speaking on “Motivation and Pacing: How to Write 3 Novels a Year and Still Have a Life.” I’ve worked on some excruciatingly fast schedules in publishing, but most of my writers are solid 18 month (at least) per book kind of people. I’m curious to hear more about how the genre super-producers pull off their writing feats.

Rollins, whose recent work The Doomsday Key hit the bestseller list at #2 upon release, is casually dressed in a blue blazer and jeans. He comes across as a genuinely nice guy, his speaking style somewhere between bedside physician and motivational coach. Like many writers in this genre, Rollins is self-taught and began writing only after a 20-year career elsewhere, in his case as a veterinarian. It’s immediately clear why he’s such a hit in the seminar room: he’s approachable, straightforward, and offers his aspiring charges the necessary combination of discipline (write 3 pages a day and in 30 days you’ve got a screenplay) and heartfelt encouragement from one who’s been there.

Rollins advises his audience to avoid the time suck that is social networking (put down those Facebook foto pasteups, folks) and to put limits on the marketing phase of publication, a brave strike in today’s desperate sales environment. He reinforces the message about his own 2-5 page/day writing schedule and then turns to advice on creating characters that trigger an emotional response in the reader. My sense is that while no one walks away feeling much closer to Janet Evanovich-style output, everyone is happy to have Rollins’s solid tips and the aspirants depart eager to renew their efforts. From an hour-long workshop, practicality plus inspiration of the sort that Rollins delivers is the perfect takeaway.

The next day provides further insight into how at least one hugely commercial serialist works. At one of the funniest sessions of the conference, no fewer than four co-authors (Paul Kemprecos, Jack DuBrul, Grant Blackwood, Justin Scott), a publisher (the wonderfully droll Neil Nyren, Senior VP, Putnam) and the president of a society for his fans (Wayne Valero) roast prolific action/adventure master Clive Cussler. Over thirty years ago, Cussler’s third novel, the thrill-packed maritime adventure Raise the Titanic, made huge waves. The former adman and underwater explorer enthusiast has been tossing off bestseller after bestseller ever since. According to his website, Cussler’s current following includes more than 125 million avid fans in over 100 countries. With sales figures like that, the Hollywood style production team computes. (And the impressive array of individuals on-stage doesn’t even include a key collaborator on the Dirk Pitt novels, Cussler’s son Dirk.) The division of labor quickly clarifies: Cussler outlines, plots, and nitpicks; the writers write. It’s a roast, so there’s lots of teasing, some sharper-edged than others, but the overall impression we’re left with is that Camp Cussler is a well-greased engine. Little wonder so much productivity and lively entertainment results.

After lunch, the final panels return us to the individual artists alone with their craft. In a session on what makes their characters tick, the discussion turns to self-analysis as Meg Gardiner admits her greatest fear is something happening to her children, George Dawes confesses his fear of becoming one of the morally compromised men he creates, Scott Pearson owns up to the fear doctors won’t, i.e. when surgery itself becomes controlled violence, and Lisa Black cops to worrying about murdering her mother.

Later, Jeffery Deaver, John Lescroat, Lisa Gardner, Jennifer McMahon, Joe Hartlaub, and Tom Rob Smith guided by session leader Carla Neggers discuss notching up the thrills with reversals and plot twists. In one of my favorite comparisons of the conference, Jeff Deaver likens being a thriller writer to being a comedian. (I’ve heard good comedy is deadly, but comedic thrillers?) We’re both illusionists, Deaver clarifies. Deaver sees his writing task as akin to Jerry Seinfeld’s — it’s all in the setup and the subsequent wait. Deaver sets up what will happen where. He then stalls his audience to death. A reader shouldn’t know the full extent of what’s coming until the final reveal. Only in the gotcha moment does all become clear. If the scheme’s to work, clues must be dropped and the reader has to be fully set up. “You can fool,” Deaver emphasizes, “but you can’t cheat.”

After four days of socializing, intense conversation about writing, insights from employees of the CIA, and even a session with ATF K9 tactical dogs, the only thing that’s actually been molested is my newly spinning head, unused as it is to the strange combination of such continuous stimulation and easygoingness. I’ve made it through ThrillerFest unharmed and yet strangely touched. I skip out before the banquet and after party (yes, I know the glamour-hounds among you are disappointed to miss out on this report; for the incurably curious the banquet was tweeted by @JasonPinter) but not without a bounty of books for my reading list. David Liss, Joe Finder, Tom Rob Smith, and Brad Meltzer are only a very few of those in attendance whose works I vow to finally catch up on.

For my exit, I stride out the Hyatt’s main revolving doors into the glaring sunlight of 42nd street, potential assassins be damned. Secrets have been revealed, the curtain’s been lifted. Time to shed all suspicions — and those damn Method writing tricks.

2009 ITW Awards, below, courtesy of International Thriller Writers. For excellent coverage of that’s new and happening in thriller world, see Sarah Weinman’s excellent blog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.

ThrillerMaster Award: David Morrell
In recognition of his vast body of work and influence in the field of literature

Silver Bullet Award: Brad Meltzer
For contributions to the advancement of literacy

Best Thriller of the Year
The Bodies Left Behind by Jeffery Deaver (Simon & Schuster)

Best First Novel:
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (Grand Central Publishing)

Best Short Story:
The Edge of Seventeen by Alexandra Sokoloff (in Darker Mask)

(Photo of James Rollins by Greg Fitzgerald,

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