Monday, July 16, 2012

The 2012 Poisoned Pen Conference

Inside the Aztec Room at the Arizona Biltmore
Friday, July 13 was my very first Poisoned Pen Conference-- and my very first time visiting the Arizona Biltmore, so I was excited. Denis dropped me off right in front of the main entrance, and I had just enough time to get inside before the rain started bucketing down.

This year's sell-out conference was held in the Aztec Room, and I have to admit that I caught myself staring up at the walls and ceiling quite a bit before things started. The metallic paint glowed, the pre-cast concrete blocks and the supports cast intriguing shadows in what was originally the Wrigley family's movie room. Unfortunately, what set the architectural details off to good advantage was not optimal for photography, so I apologize in advance for the poor quality of the photos. (As I begin to tell my tale, you'll also become acquainted with the misbegotten water pitcher that kept trying to obscure the authors' faces....)

I barely had a chance to look around to see if two of my favorite Arizona book bloggers-- Gaye of Inside a Book and Lesa of Lesa's Book Critiques-- were present and accounted for when a lively bunch of ladies sat themselves down at my table and we all began to get acquainted. Before I knew it, the conference began. We were scheduled to meet three authors before noon, have lunch while Dana Stabenow talked to us about some of her research, and then meet four more authors in the afternoon. As hostess with the mostest, Poisoned Pen owner Barbara Peters began speaking, I kept my ears open while checking to make sure the camera worked and that my pen and notebook were at the ready.

~~~ Alex Kava ~~~

Alex Kava

The conference began by introducing me to Alex Kava, author of the Maggie O'Dell series about an FBI criminal profiler. (I haven't read any of her books...yet!) Peters told us that Alex has been coming to the Poisoned Pen for ten or eleven years-- once on her own dime. Alex smiled and said that her publisher originally thought that "book signings meant Super Savers and Wal-Marts" and that she'd once had her photograph taken with bags of charcoal in a huge stack behind her.

Kava told us that she's been learning as she goes along. In the beginning she'd never read series books, and she didn't want to write a series. She even found her main character, Maggie O'Dell, very annoying and didn't like her, although her friends told her that Maggie's irritating qualities bore an uncanny resemblance to Kava's own. Because she didn't like Maggie, Kava found it easy to put her in dangerous situations. It wasn't until an FBI agent told her that they (FBI agents) were real people with real lives that Kava began to see Maggie in a different light and begin to like her.

Kava's latest book, Fireproof, involves arson in Washington, DC, which means that Maggie O'Dell gets to stay home for a change. In doing research for the book, Kava discovered something very interesting. Washington, DC has a Mini Metro System that takes the homeless to sleep shelters out in the warehouse districts at night, then returns them to the city during the day where they can get food and other necessities.

The author then went on to tell us a bit about her writing process. She is self-taught, and when she began, she gave herself a deadline to write a book and a deadline to get it sold. She was teaching and had a newspaper route at the time, and she put her all in realizing those deadlines before it was time to give something else a try. She also talked about how difficult it is to write a standalone book within a series. To her, each book must stand on its own merits yet entice readers to read other books in the series. 

At one point Barbara Peters said, "You like things that go bang. I figure it's because you're from Nebraska and you're trying to liven things up." With quips like that-- and Kava's reactions to them-- we were laughing throughout Kava's talk.

~~~ Francine Mathews ~~~

Francine Mathews
Having recently read and loved Jack 1939, I was eager to meet the second author of the morning, Francine Mathews, who also writes under the name Stephanie Barron. She talked a bit about writing under two different names, since that is something about which most readers are curious.

Many authors do not stay with one publishing company throughout their careers, and-- listen to the convoluted thinking of publishers here-- when authors move on, Publisher B can often think that Publisher A "owns" the name the author wrote previous books under, and that if that name is kept and readers head for that author's backlist, Publisher B is helping Publisher A earn money. If they do think like that, it can very easily be a reason why an author begins to write under a different name. (Is that line of thought complicated enough for you?)

Mathews, a former CIA analyst, worked on the personality profiling of Eastern European leaders after the Berlin Wall fell. Three of the books she has written were CIA-specific and they had to be submitted to them for approval before they could be published. One of the joys of writing Jack 1939 for her was the fact that all the action occurs pre-CIA, so nothing had to be approved by the agency first.

The most fascinating part of Mathews' talk was listening to her describe her love of research ("This is why I write: to learn things"); how a little-known photograph or a gap in the historical record can fire her imagination to find alternative endings. When asked how much of Jack 1939 is fact and how much fiction, Mathews advised us, "If there's any doubt in your mind, regard it as fiction."

All too soon, time was up, and I had a list of book titles scribbled in my notebook!

~~~ Jesse Kellerman ~~~

Jesse Kellerman

The last author before lunch was Jesse Kellerman, son of writers Jonathan and Faye Kellerman. Unlike his parents, none of Jesse's five books are part of a series. There was a gap between his fourth and fifth books due to his three-year-old child, and when he began writing Potboiler, Jesse wanted to have fun with the book and with the thriller genre. 

When reading an advanced readers copy of a book, he noticed that it contained blurbs. How can it have blurbs if no one's supposedly read it yet, he wondered. This led to his idea of "fake blurbs."  He emailed many thriller authors and asked them, "Would you blurb this fake author and his fake series?"  He had a response from Stephen King in fifteen minutes. Lee Child replied, "This is one I've always wanted to use: 'Of all the books I've read this year, this is one of them.'" Consequently, if you're a reader who doesn't pay attention to blurbs in the books you read, I suggest you break the habit for Potboiler!

First published at the age of twenty-four, Kellerman was wise enough to know that he would never be able to match his best-selling parents. He wanted to go in his own direction without distancing himself from his family-- which was undoubtedly a surprise to his publisher, who signed him believing the company was getting a serial-writing clone of his parents. 

Jesse told us that he is currently writing three books at once ("a very ill-considered decision!"), and that he is working on a book with his father.  We'd already mentioned the Serial Killer Triad-- three things most serial killers have in common (bed wetting, arson, the torture/killing of animals)-- and Kellerman was asked if there's a Serial Writer Triad. He did have one suggestion-- "a person who's a bit OCD and loves routine"-- but was distracted and didn't finish, which I thought was a shame. I think that's a brilliant question, and I would've loved hearing his other two ideas!

~~~ Lunch with Dana Stabenow ~~~

Dana Stabenow

It's my opinion that the organizers of this year's Poisoned Pen Conference thought we were all Olympic Gold Medalists in Multi-Tasking. In our break for lunch, we were supposed to buy books, get in a very long line for lunch, eat, find the restroom, talk with authors and other attendees, and listen to Dana Stabenow talk about her love of research. ("Research is a siren song.") I narrowed my choices down to buy books, talk to other attendees, and listen to Dana.

Dana had us all smiling and laughing with tales of her journeys. Her enthusiasm is absolutely wonderful, refreshing, and contagious. Her Kate Shugak books are wildly popular in Italy, where they are called "CSI: Alaska." She shared the titles of some of the books in her personal reference library, and she ended with this piece of truth: "I've read; I've studied; I've traveled. I've done my due diligence. Now it's time to write."

~~~ Mark de Castrique ~~~

Mark de Castrique

Right after lunch one of my favorite authors, Mark de Castrique sat down at the table with Barbara Peters. He writes two series (which I love) as well as two books for Young Adults, and his latest, The 13th Target, a thriller centered on the Federal Reserve in Washington, DC.

When he first began to write, he was told "Write what you know," and that started him off with his series featuring Barry Clayton, an ex-cop who returns to North Carolina to help run the family's funeral home business. 

At one time Mark's dad was an undertaker, and the family lived above the funeral parlor. As a small child, Mark had to be forcibly removed from a visitation because he'd crawled up behind the casket and was singing, "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You." (I'm so glad I wasn't attending that funeral. I probably would've been thrown out for laughing.)

Author Margaret Maron is a huge fan of Mark's, and even his editor (Barbara Peters herself) has come to trust him whenever he wants to write something new because "he's such a great writer." I concur. De Castrique never forgets that people are at the heart of any story, and I love his characters. 

Mark told us the background behind his latest book, The 13th Target, and that he was afraid that something was going to happen that would make it dated before it was ever published. He noted that that was a concern when writing thrillers that doesn't matter in the other types of books that he writes. His next book? Sam Blackman will be returning. Yes!

~~~ Howard L. Anderson ~~~

Howard L. Anderson
When Barbara Peters read Albert of Adelaide, the story of a rogue platypus in Australia, she loved it, and when talking with a fellow publisher, she mentioned that it was a pity that the author lived in Australia because she'd love him to attend the Poisoned Pen Conference. In short order, Barbara found out that author Howard L. Anderson is a district attorney who lives in New Mexico!

About twenty-five years ago, self-proclaimed "chronic malcontent" Anderson found himself telling a fellow attorney's five-year-old daughter bedtime stories with a twist. (For example, Peter Rabbit was really a member of the Irish Repubican Army....) He also found himself writing a few of them down, including the story of Albert, a very unhappy platypus living in the zoo in Adelaide, Australia, who decided to escape and find a place where he could be happy and loved for whom he really is. All those stories were put away. 

Three years ago, Anderson was teaching English at the Chilean Naval Academy in Valparaiso when he decided to finish Albert's story. He spoke a bit about changing some of the terminology into Australian English, and we all laughed when he said, "Australians love the book; Adelaide is incensed that Albert hates Adelaide!" In fact, we laughed a lot while this so-called malcontent spoke. He admitted that "I hate leaving characters alive. They're just loose ends!" and also let us know that it won't all end with Albert. There's another book that needs to be written, featuring two female characters and a tale of misspent youth and the dangers of love and religion. I, for one, will be looking forward to that next book!

~~~ Martin Limón & Timothy Hallinan ~~~

(L to R) Limón, Hallinan, Peters

The final panel of the day contained two more of my favorite writers. The theme for this year's Poisoned Pen Conference was "Experience the Exotic" and (with the possible exception of that rogue platypus) Martin Limón and Timothy Hallinan were the most exotic writers in the group. Limón (South Korea) and Timothy Hallinan (Thailand) bring their respective countries to life, never forgetting that it's the people who should always be at the heart of any story. The humanity that each writer brings to his books is extraordinary. Both are published by Soho Press which, as Barbara Peters noted, is a wonderful publishing house known for mysteries in exotic locales.

Martin Limón

Martin Limón's characters, military police officers George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, allow us to experience South Korea in the 1970s, told us a bit of the background behind his latest book, The Joy Brigade, which became available July 10. This book takes readers into North Korea, something that hasn't happened in previous books in the series.

Limón was in the Army in South Korea during the 1970s, and he admitted that he had a less than stellar military career due to incidents like the time an officer found him speaking Korean.

"Don't speak Korean to them; they'll lose respect for you!"

"Does that mean that when we're in the U.S. we shouldn't speak English?"

One of the reasons why I enjoy Limón's books so much is that there are maverick characters who behave in unexpected ways. The villains are unpredictable, too. Sometimes they're Korean, sometimes they're Americans, sometimes they're both. I can't wait to read The Joy Brigade and review it here!

Timothy Hallinan
Timothy Hallinan is the author of another of my favorite series featuring Poke Rafferty, a writer living in Bangkok, Thailand, with his Thai wife and adopted daughter. In fact, if I'd had a flashlight, I would've stayed in the pool reading his latest (available July 17) The Fear Artist after the sun went down this evening.

Right off the bat, Hallinan told us, "One of my models for writing a book about an outsider-- a Western protagonist-- living in an Asian culture is Martin's books." His main character's job is to look at the Thai culture from the outside, and what Rafferty often finds is "a mismatch of expectations."

Hallinan called the bad guy in The Fear Artist "the worst villain I've ever written. I'm rather proud of him." He mentioned that Limon's series is still in the early years of the  1970s after eight books, but that he made the "mistake" of having a child as one of the main characters, so time is progressing much more quickly for him as a writer. Having a young girl as a character has its drawbacks: "I've never had a daughter, and I'm dismayed at how my fictional daughter is growing up"-- proof that characters come to life for writers every bit as much as they do for readers.

Hallinan ended by mentioning the fourth book in his Poke Rafferty series, The Queen of Patpong, which was nominated for the Edgar and Macavity Awards. When he finished writing it, the book's plot was quite a departure for him, since a large part of it is in flashback telling readers of Rose's life before she met Poke. Hallinan was convinced that readers wouldn't like it. He asked Barbara Peters to read it. Peters' verdict? She loved it. Hallinan looked out at us and said, "Barbara Peters saved The Queen of Patpong."


As hard as it was to believe, the Poisoned Pen Conference was over for another year. There was little left for me to do but take my notebook, books, and writer's cramp out to the lobby of the Arizona Biltmore and turn on my cell phone so my British chauffeur knew it was time to collect me.

What a wonderful experience! The second they let us know that we can sign up for 2013, I'm there!


  1. Cathy - It looks as though you had an absolutely wonderful time! I'm so happy you got the chance to be at that conference :-)

    1. So am I. It's a thrill to be able to meet and talk with some of my very favorite authors!

  2. Cathy, it sounds like you had a fabulous time! Thanks so much for sharing it with us and we bow to your cramped fingers. Rest up, so you can let us virtually attend more events with you! LOL

    1. It's a short turnaround this week, Kay. Tonight I'm going to the PP to see Tarquin Hall, and Wednesday night, it's hippity hop back again to see Martin Walker!

  3. I didn't even know that there was a Poisoned Pen conference! Maybe next year I'll try and get up there. :)

    Also - I just read The Joy Brigade this week, and it was a lot of fun. I haven't read any of the others in the series though, so I don't know how it stacks up.

    1. Thanks for letting me know about The Joy Brigade, Jessica. As far as the Poisoned Pen Conference goes, they're already making plans for next year. Usually the end of June or first part of July, and the Biltmore even has low summer rates then. If I didn't live so close, I'd stay there just for the experience! LOL

  4. Cathy, I'm envious! (In a nice way, of course.) What fun to go to the Poisoned Pen Conference! Thank you for sharing your experience; I enjoyed reading about the authors.

    I'm dreaming about attending the Malice Domestic conference next spring. Alas, I direct two choruses on Sunday afternoons, but perhaps I can manage the Friday and Saturday sessions...

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed reading about my experience, Lark, and I hope you're able to attend Malice Domestic next year!

  5. WOW! You did a great write up of this day...and every word is true. Reading this was definitely like a time-warp of reliving the event.

    I've been thinking of how I could sum the day up...instead I think I'll just let what you said stand and just direct anyone I know to you for a great rundown!!

    Thanks a million!

    1. You are most welcome, Gaye! It was wonderful to see you at The Poisoned Pen tonight, and we even got a chance to talk (WOW)! LOL


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