The Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale had a three day conference called, "I Came Late..." The event kicked off at the bookstore on Thursday night with a program, "Three Dames and a Guy." That title represented the characters, not the authors, since there were four authors, Stefanie Pintoff, Zoë Sharp, Jodi Compton, and Lisa Brackmann.
Before the program, I had the chance to meet Stefanie Pintoff, Edgar Award winner for Best First Novel for In the Shadow of Gotham. When I first read the ARC of that book, I had been impressed and asked her if she would answer questions for an interview. She recognized me from the picture on my blog.
Barbara Peters, owner of the bookstore, said this year's conference is an experiment. About six years ago, it was at the Poisoned Pen's annual conference that International Thriller Writers and Thrillerfest were born. The thriller writers were complaining they received no respect from Mystery Writers of America, and Peters told them to get over it. Start their own organization if they didn't like it. So, by the end of the weekend, they are formed ITW, and David Morrell and Gayle Lynds were the first officers.
This year, with the economy, they thought they'd offer a free conference, and people could come and go to whichever program they wanted. Some programs were held at the Poisoned Pen, and Saturday's would be at the Arizona Biltmore.
Then, she asked the authors if they would discuss origin stories, since they all had unusual roads to publication. She began with Lisa Brackmann, whose debut novel is Rock, Paper, Tiger. Her book, set in China, could be called, "Less foot binding, more rock." Brackmann said she blind queried an agent who liked her query. He then read her partial manuscript, and was able to sell it.
Blackmann first went to China when she was twenty, shortly after the Cultural Revolution. Then, she went back in 1993, and after 1999, went back once a year. China isn't used as a setting for contemporary fiction. But, it's a country of contrast. In Bejing, there are 5,000 year old temples right beside modern turbo-charged development. And, Blackmann said she wanted the book to sell, so she made it a thriller.
Stefanie Pintoff's second book is called A Curtain Falls. But, she came to publishing as a contest winner. She said she took the Cinderella route to publication. She entered a St. Martin's Press contest, and the prize was publication. The deadline pushed her to finish the book. Some of her favorite books had been winners of some St. Martin's contests. The Best First Crime Novel was a brand new contest. It wasn't for traditional mysteries, as one of their contests is. Pintoff used that deadline to motivate herself to finish the manuscript. Then, she received the call that said they picked her manuscript as the winner for publication.
Barbara mentioned that St. Martin's runs several contests. They team up with Private Eye Writers of America for the Best First Private Eye Novel. They have a Tony Hillerman Writing Prize, given to a novel set in the Southwest. It's not given every year, but Christine Barber and Roy Chaney have won. They also have a Best First Traditional Mystery winner.
Pintoff went on to win the Edgar from MWA. In the Shadow of Gotham was also nominated for the Anthony, Agatha, and Sue Feder Historical Mystery Awards. Her second book is out now, and she's working on the third.
Jodi Compton was the author of two Sarah Pribeck novels in 2003 and 2004. Now, with her latest book, Hailey's War, she's reinvented herself. When Peters asked her why the gap between books, Compton responded that she didn't handle success well.
When, Compton wrote her first book, she was working on a newspaper copy desk forty hours a week. However, those were four ten-hour days, so she could write for three days. You can read about that time in a Q & A called "The Road to War" on her website. At that point, had quit her job. She had money and no job. There was a three year gap in which she wrote nothing publishable. Then, in 2006-2007, she worked on Hailey's War. It took seven weeks to write it, but the book was a hard sell.
Zoë Sharp, author of the Charlie Fox thrillers, told us she wrote her first novel at the age of 15. It received rave rejections, which is disheartening, particularly to
a fifteen-year-old. But, she started writing by writing nonfiction for magazines. Eventually, she wrote for motoring magazines, about interesting cars. Then, she had a regular column, and every time her photo appeared, she received death threats. They were very artistically done, and could have been used as a model for death threat letters. They said they knew where she lived, and her days were numbered. That started her thinking, "What if..." How would I react if I had to handle a threatening situation? So, the first and eighth book in the Charlie Fox series are out right now. The fourth book was called First Drop because Sharp was thinking of the first drop of a roller coaster. You hit the first drop; there are no brakes, and you're stuck until the end. The U.S. publisher, St. Martin's, said they loved it. They wanted to publish it, and ignore the previous books not set in the U.S. Then they wanted her second book to have second in the title. The next book was going to be called Fall Line, the fastest way downhill when skiing, but St. Martin's wanted Second Shot. They said, it's our suggestion, but remember who suggested it. So, Sharp's eighth book is out in England, and a small Texas press, Busted Flush, just brought out the first one, Killer Instinct, in the U.S.
Peters asked the authors what skill or profession they gave their characters. Lisa Brackmann said she needed her book was set in contemporary China, and dealt with the Iraq War, and the war on terror. So, she made her character a young nineteen-year-old medic who had been there. The other legacy of the war was her PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. That provides for tension in the book.
Compton's Hailey is a West Pointer who didn't finish. She's working as a bike messenger in San Francisco. Hailey's first bike was actually Jodi's that she had when she was living in San Luis Obispo. When she moved up to the Bay Area, she rode bikes a lot on trails. Hailey is twenty-three when the book starts, and no one in the book is over twenty-four.
Jodi was thirty and thirty-one when she wrote about Sarah Pribec, a character who was twenty-eight and twenty-nine. She was thirty-six when she wrote about the younger Hailey. Compton was living downtown among young people. One night, she was at a party, sitting on the steps having a beer, when someone behind her starting urinating. She didn't turn around to look, but she thought at the time, young people aren't like you and me. It's a whole different tribe. So, she wrote about them and their world. She made Hailey a bike messenger because she needed to have her do something scary and risk-taking.
Charlie Fox, Zoë Sharp's character, is ex-military. But, she's not a veteran. Charlie's backstory is that she was selected for Special Forces, but never makes it through training. That's the career that would have suited her best, though. So, she's looking for something to do.
Sharp said she'd read about the hazing and bullying of trainees in England, so she made Charlie a victim of people she should ahve been able to trust. And, she gave her a motorcycle because that makes her very vulnerable. If you ride a motorcycle in England, you're viewed as an outsider. It's assumed if you ride a motorcycle you must also run a meth lab. You have to assume you're invisible if you're on a motorcycle.
Charlie was that outsider, and she'd lost direction. Many ex-military go into close protection. The ex-military are badly prepared to transition into regular life in Britain.
Compton mentioned the invisibility of bikers, called it SMIDSY - "Sorry, Mate. I didn't see you." She said she'd washed out of motorcycles when she tried to learn to ride them. And, Hailey washes out of West Point.
With Stefanie Pintoff's books, the reader is dropping back a century. They're historical mysteries, set in 1905-1906 in New York City. Her detective is a street-smart gudy. But, the General Slocum tragedy changed his life. He lost his fiancée, and every household in his neighborhood was affected. Over 1,000 people died. It was the worst tragedy in NYC before 9/11.
So, Pintoff's character's trait is his empathy to people who have lost more than they should. He's adaptable to new methods and technology, and he wants to learn more. He'll use photography at crime scenes. He'll use fingerprints as much as he can. At that time, the New York Prison Bureau fingerprinted everyone. Pintoff's Simon Ziele is interested in new techniques to help him solve crimes. He's interested in all things new and forensic. So, he partners with a criminologist in both books. He's a new breed of policeman who uses new techniques, and is flexible. Pintoff likes that, because at that period of time, science helps you along, but it's too early to completely solve crime, so he still had to think. When Stefanie was asked if her character explores phrenology, which was popular at the time, she answered that at the time, criminologists knew it was bunk to think that a person's character could be derived from the shape of the head. But, she does explore handwriting analysis. That's another double-edged field. It was kind of accepted, and kind of not. It was very useful for forgery, for instance. But, an off-shoot of that was using it for personality judgment. In Pintoff's second book, A Curtain Falls, the killer leaves notes by his victims. Would handwriting help solve it?
Setting was the next topic. Pintoff lives in New York, but the New York she writes about. How does she make it authentic? Pintoff said, for her, it's more important to be authentic. Even if it doesn't exist, it should feel as if it should. She researches in libraries for the history. She loves old menus and old subway maps. Her favorite book is the 1906 Pocket Guide to New York City. It has subway maps, and timeschedules. Hotels and restaurants ground the world. When asked if she's held back by history, does it limit her, she answered she uses it as a springboard.
Blackmann spent thirty years going to China. She work in film, so she needs to set scenes in cities she can visualize. She uses real places. That was a challenge for the Iraq scenes since she couldn't go there. She researched. She ran a film research department, so some of her story came out of her research. Knowing China, those sections were the biggest challenge because she couldn't set her book in 2006-2007. It couldn't be in the period just before or during the Olympics, because they transformed the city of Bejing. She had to write it after the Olympics. Lisa said setting is very important to give a taste of what the place is like.
In discussing research, the story of the Uyghurs came up. Blackmann said that real story deals with ethnic tension. In northwest China, the Uyghurs are a Turkish people. There has been ethnic tension between them and the Han Chinese forever. China is concerned with their frontiers and securing areas. That's why they're obsessed with Tibet. They deal with that concern by moving Chinese people into areas. Lisa's book was sold in May 2009. On July 5, 2009, horrible riots broke out there. The violence was Uyghurs on Han first. Then the Army came in. It was a horrible tragedy.
Jodi Compton said she went to a panel on research when she was at Bouchercon, and Julia Spencer-Fleming said, "My books are riddled with errors." Jodi said hers aren't quite that bad.
Hailey goes on a quest to Mexico in Hailey's War. Hailey's oldest friend is Serena, a Mexican-American gang-banger in East L.A. She runs her own gang of girls. She calls Hailey and asks her to take a teenage girl home to Mexico. The girl is too innocent, too naive, too beautiful to be in a gang. Hailey's job is to drive her back to rural Mexico. On the way, they are ambushed. Hailey's shot, and the girl disappears.
Peters went on to discuss gangs, saying of course she knows about gangs, and we have gangs in Phoenix, but she hadn't realized there were girl gangs, and how they got into them, being jumped in. Compton said guys usually take a beating to be initiated, jumped in to a gang, or sometimes they allow themselves to be shot. The jumping in for a girl usually has something to do with sex. For instance, they roll dice, and have to have sex with that many of the gang members. Serena doesn't do that. Girls in her gang take a beating from another girl. And, she won't take them younger than fifteen, their Quinceñera year when they become young ladies. She has morals. Barbara said she just hadn't thought of young women doing that.
Hailey's War is a clean, classic title. Compton had a long list of potential titles, and many of them were gang-type titles. She didn't want that because it isn't gang material first and foremost. It's a book about relationships.
Sharp stresses the importance of setting. Setting tells you about plot, and can be another character. The strongest books are ones with strong settings. And, she does do lots of research when she picks a theme. Fourth Day is set inside a cult in California. She did lots of research on cults and met someone who grew up in one. She looked at Waco. When the DEA went in, they knew they'd been compromised. They knew the Branch Davidians were expecting them. It wasn't troops they were sending in. They made the agents write their blood groups on their throats.
Sharp's Second Shot is set in Boston and other diverse small town settings. And, the Internet is great. For instance, Sharp could see a 360 degree view of the Boston Aquarium. But, you can't pick up the little pieces of information unless you actually go to the site. At the Aquarium, there is a cafe on the upper floor. And, the first thing that hits you when you enter is the smell of fried fish, which seems a little cruel for an aquarium.
Peters asked Lisa Blackmann about the importance of gaming to the young people of China. She said the Internet is censored, but at the same time, it allows them to be connected to the world. Games provide an outlet for young men who have the pressure of a highly competitive society. In a virtual world, they can act out, and express themselves. It's an outlet. World of Warcraft is hugely popular. There are even protests in the virtual world that reflect the ones in China. There are enormous demonstrations in contemporary China, and a great deal of unrest. There were 90,000 protests in one year. They even protested and threw someone over in World of Warcraft. So, Blackmann used gaming as part of the world in Rock-Paper-Tiger.
Jodi said it was a hard sell with Hailey's War for the publishing community. It's a crime novel, approaching a thriller. But, category is important to getting sold. Publishers have ideas that don't always reflect what readers want. Sometimes it does, though.
Peters said branding has a lot to do with it, and she blames James Patterson. Branding has been so destructive to publishing. It's why there's a successful small press movement right now.
Sharp said in the U.K., books aren't broken down into all of the subgenres. It's mystery and thriller, or true crime. She heard a new term called "cutting edge cozy," and could only think they were using titanium knitting needles. And, her books aren't easily classified.
She was asked about translations, and Sharp said Brits have absorbed a lot of American slang from movies. But, people do understand the language. Charlie is a Brit. Everything is seen from Charlie's viewpoint in the books, and everything is in her head, so it shouldn't be American English. Sharp's had a lot of errors from copywriters who tried to Americanize the language. They try to translate parts of a car for instance, and they get it wrong.
The final question addressed the next books.
Stefanie Pintoff was asked where her books are going after the third one. She answered that whatever she does will have an historical focus. She loves that periord. She hopes she'll be able to flip between series and standalones.
Zoë Sharp is on her eighth Charlie Fox book, and has just delivered her ninth to the publisher.
Jodi Compton said she likes standalones. She likes interesting characters, and interesting situations. She would like to continue to do standalones.
Lisa Blackmann is working on something completely different, set in Mexico. Her publisher didn't want a series. They wanted to see how the books go. So, she's doing standalones.
The Poisoned Pen Bookstore had a successful launch to this year's conference, giving everyone a chance to talk and mingle before and after the program.
The Poisoned Pen Bookstore's website is www.poisonedpen.com