While this year I was unable to attend ThrillerFest as I was off to California for San Diego Comic-Con, I am very happy to share this terrific report from my son Greg and my other colleague, Maureen Linehan on this annual conference. By the way, both Maureen and Greg are in their twenties so I looked forward to reading their thoughts and impressions on this event since they represent the future of publishing. Many of the conferences that I attend have hefty price tags that preclude younger fans from attending. It’s a shame since getting readers enthusiastic like this --- and aware of authors they want to explore --- is key to growing the business.
Greg Fitzgerald Reports on His Sixth ThrillerFest
Last week I attended my sixth ThrillerFest, and as is every year, it was a fantastic event. Each year as I walk up to the registration table, it becomes a reunion of sorts with all of the authors I have gotten to know at this event. The thriller writers’ community is tight-knit and incredibly friendly, and this convention is always a laid-back way to meet the big names in the genre.
The conference traditionally starts with a two-day “CraftFest,” where authors give classes on the art of writing a thriller to aspiring writers. I attended a few of these sessions on Wednesday and Thursday.
Heather Graham is always entertaining and generous, and her double session on “Crafting a Story Outline” was no exception. She split the crowd into small groups to refine the outlines of their planned novels, and had them each come forward pitch them to her and the room. For the many who would go from CraftFest to AgentFest, a two-hour pitch session with some of New York’s biggest literary agents, this was a great way to prepare.
I was able to see some of Robert Dugoni’s presentation on “Playing God: Creating Memorable Characters.” Dugoni is one of the nicest and most down-to-earth people in the genre, and he’s always a pleasure to talk to --- and to hear speak. His ongoing series protagonist, attorney David Sloane, is one of the most memorable series characters in the legal thriller genre, so to get advice from him on the subject was great.
The next day, the highlight of the entire day had to be meeting Ann Rule. I’d never read her true crime classic, THE STRANGER BESIDE ME, about her personal relationship with 1970s serial murderer Ted Bundy. I’ve heard my mother tell me about going to college at Fordham University in the late 1970s while Bundy was attacking women at campuses across the Pacific Northwest, Colorado and Florida; to hear Ann talk about her side of this story was chilling. She worked beside Bundy in a Crisis Clinic in Seattle in the early ‘70s, before he began his killing streak, and began writing the book about the killings before she knew that Ted was the suspect. The most amazing story she told was about trusting Bundy to take her daughters to a Rolling Stones concert while she worked a late shift; that was how much trust she placed in him before the revelations about what he had done.
Ann would be part of a small group that went to a dinner where we were the guests of the Los Angeles Times hosted by Cheryl Vawdrey and Laura Lubrano, along with afore-mentioned Robert Dugoni, Lisa Gardner, Linwood Barclay, and Mark Sullivan. This was a powerhouse dinner of some of my favorite authors in the thriller genre, all of whom we’ve followed for years here on Bookreporter.com. For so many of the writers at this dinner, however, meeting Ann Rule was undoubtedly the highlight. Her true crime writing continues to inspire so much fiction in the genre; Lisa Gardner’s first book, THE PERFECT HUSBAND, was in fact based on Bundy and THE STRANGER BESIDE ME. We had a fantastic few hours chatting over great food and wine…only thriller writers can have a completely normal conversation about ways to kill people while enjoying dessert!
Friday began the main ThrillerFest event, which is focused more on panels than on individual sessions. The first Spotlight Guest to be interviewed this year was Lee Child, the creator of the inimitable Jack Reacher. The subject of the discussion was heavy on the production of the upcoming “Jack Reacher” movie, based on the book ONE SHOT. Of course, the big controversy about the movie is casting the relatively-petite Tom Cruise as the 6’4”, 250-pound Reacher. Again, in an “only at Thrillerfest” moment, the controversy surrounding Tom Cruise had to do with something other than the TomKat breakup! Child had a great point to note: there’s a dearth of 6’4, 250-pound actors in Hollywood, and the wardrobe department does wonders to change the size of actors on the screen. He also noticed that perhaps the only person at fault for this discrepancy was Child himself for making Reacher that size to begin with! I guess that casting for a movie isn’t the first thing most people think about when they begin a series character.
Another spotlight guest was Catherine Coulter, author of sixteen FBI thrillers. She was great to listen to --- and very funny. What was most interesting to talk about was how she switches between writing thrillers and historical romance. She’s not the only writer who crosses between these two genres, but she has been wildly successful in both.
Saturday brought the final day of this year’s ThrillerFest, where I attended few panels with my colleague Maureen Linehan. First, we saw John Sandford spotlighted, discussing his Prey series. I’ve never read Sandford, and after hearing him talk I can’t figure out why I haven’t. He’s won a Pulitzer Prize, and his protagonist Lucas Davenport has been an investigator in Minnesota for twenty-two books in the series. What was fascinating for me, who has a history degree, was his contributions to archaeological projects around the world. He also discussed his spin-off series with Virgil Flowers, a supporting character in the Prey books often referred to as “that f-ing Flowers” – a phrase he wishes, but doubts, they could put on the covers!
We saw Jaime Levine moderate a panel called “How Do You Build a Thriller Brand?” featuring authors with strong series characters. Dan Conaway, Catherine Coulter, Joseph Finder, Lisa Gardner and John Sandford all have strong brands behind their books, and the discussion ranged from how Coulter’s books are always “FBI thrillers,” to Michael Crichton’s use of Sandford’s “Prey” phrase in his RULES OF PREY (as Sandford noted, “notice that Michael Crichton is now dead…”), to how Finder has built a brand despite writing an array of different thriller sub-genres.
Linwood Barclay moderated a great panel on “How is Crime Evolving?” with a cross-section of authors from different parts of the genre. Linwood is a great moderator – as a former writer of a humor column for the Toronto Star, he’s bound to be entertaining. The conversation here was fascinating about the way that writing crime has changed with the role of technology; the tension that you could write fifteen years ago about searching for a phone booth has been replaced by the thrill of being traced on your cell phone.
I finished this year’s ThrillerFest with Robert Dugoni’s panel on “Are There Thriller Laws?” The conversation with Pamela Callow, John Dobbyn, John Lescroart, Allison Leotta, Tracy Marsh, and Larry Thompson was interesting on the legal aspect of thrillers, and with Dugoni’s humor moderating it, it was the perfect way to finish off the convention.
ThrillerFest VII proved to be, as they say every year, “a thriller!” I already have next year’s event on my calendar, and I’m looking forward to seeing who’ll be there!
Maureen Linehan Shares Thoughts on Her First ThrillerFest
I'm happy to say that I survived (something to think about when you are surrounded by authors who write books with lots of killing) --- and enjoyed --- my first ThrillerFest! I'm an avid reader, and I enjoy thrillers, but I'm by no means an expert on the genre, so it was really nice to learn more about this community. One of the things that struck me throughout the conference was how supportive and tight-knight this group seems to be. They all genuinely like each other, and even better, they were fans of each other's work. It was great to hear authors talk about their work, referencing their co-panelists writings and how it all ties together.
It wasn't an all out love fest --- these people do write horrific murder scenes for a living --- but there was plenty of excitement that only other thriller writers and readers could enjoy, like the pure joy you feel when you think of a creative new way to kill a character. My favorite examples: a staple gun and a lawn mower.
The Lee Child interview was a lot of fun, as we all eagerly awaited Lee's thoughts on TomKat. Alas, Lee had more important things to discuss than celebrity divorces, so instead he gave us some details on the upcoming Jack Reacher film, starring Tom Cruise. He had a great sense of humor about the protests surrounding the casting, saying he is, "thrilled, and grateful that anybody has an opinion at all." He had a great philosophy on the differences between the book and the movie, as he views them as two completely separate entities. A personal anecdote that he shared was he once had a couple come up to him at a book signing and introduce their son to him, whom they named Jack Reacher.
Linwood Barclay had a great panel on "How Crime Is Evolving," where they discussed the ways that writers have had to adapt their storytelling to incorporate changes in technology. With so much of the "detective" work now being done digitally, it makes it much harder to write a scene where a character is digging through piles of evidence.
Another highlight for me was the interview with John Sandford. His Prey series has always been on my radar, but I've never read his books. Now I will. He has lead such an interesting life as a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who visited state prisons, meeting with convicted murders, to his encounter with Joe Namath at Miami International Airport, where his photographer hopped onto the luggage carrier, going around and around snapping pictures of Joe.
Some writers are reclusive, and then there's Robert Dugoni. If you ever need an emcee for an event, call Bob Dugoni. The panel he moderated "Are There Thriller Laws?" offered a nice end cap to the event, and he seemed to have a lot of fun making jokes at the expense of all of the lawyers on the panel, himself included.
The best part is that now I have an extensive list of must-read books, so the rest of my summer reading is jam packed!