I’m in Phoenix and it’s a hundred and ten degrees today. It’s the day after the Poison Pen Mystery Readers and Writers Conference, I’m staying in a swanky resort with eight swimming pools. I walked around and looked at three of them and I almost melted. I leaned over and put my hand in the water and that too felt hot and sour with chlorine. I didn’t go swimming but came back to my air conditioned room, and listened to a Tom Cruise movie.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been to this kind of conference. It’s a gathering of about two dozen writers, with one big name writer to head the bill, and about ninety readers and people interested in writing their own books who pay to attend. Some come to meet their favorite writers and some come to pitch their books to the editors who also attend.
The programing at this conference was set up mostly by Barbara Peters who runs Poison Pen Press who is a powerful force in the Mystery Literature world, she is a publisher, editor, and legendary bookstore owner and reader of everything. She knows everyone and is friends with almost all of them. She is smart and apparently ageless. It’s kind of unnerving. This was a very pleasant and low key conference. The people were friendly and relaxed. At some of the bigger and busier conferences, like Bouchercon next week, fans have less time and they sometimes need to rush around to get books signed and find their authors on a kind of tense scavenger hunt, but this gathering was more relaxed and we had good conversation about books and authors.
There were great authors there. Some of them I had read and knew well. Ian Rankin from Scotland gave a fine talk about Scottish Crime fiction, Dana Stabennow, and I spoke about Alaska and Alaskan readers. James Sallis, interviewed Rankin and his band entertained us. I love his poetry and his early crime books. He teaches here in Phoenix. There was Francine Mathews who writes lovely books about Jane Austin, and now books about Nantucket.
Then I also met authors new to me: Stephen Mack Jones whose first book August Snow is causing a stir. He writes about Detroit and it was the one book I bought. Reavis Z. Wortham, is a rancher from Texas wears the boots and has the hat and the mustache to go with them, but he has a great sense of humor and tells a good story and made me eager to read his books. Mette Ivie Harrison, is another Soho writer who writes about a Mormon woman who both keeps to her faith but keeps running into the strict practices of the LDS church. Her Mormon mother is an amateur sleuth and just the contradictions she brought up on her panels drew a ton of interest to her books. When we went out to dinner, of course I told my usual crass jokes, and of course I apologized when I wasn't’ really sorry and of course she said that she would “pray for my soul” with a good dose of irony… or was that irony?
While I do have a good time at these gatherings and I always learn things, I always have to learn the same thing over and over again each time I go out. The thing I always have to learn is, “I can't make you like me.” That is… I just have to relax and be myself. When I’m around popular writers, I always feel they are better read than I am more talented more successful, I become extremely insecure and self-conscience and self-conciseness is the enemy of clarity. Worse it sounds whiney and ungrateful to an audience member who sees me as incredibly lucky to be up on a panel or having books published in the first place. What do I have to feel insecure about? I’ve made it. The thing is I haven’t. But that’s okay. I’m in a good spot in my life. It doesn’t matter anyway…fame isn’t mine. Fame belongs to someone else. The only thing that I own are my words. This is the mantra I have to tell myself before each public appearance. Like Popeye, “I am what I am, and that’s all that I am.” Which sounds simple… but sometimes… who I am is an insecure mess, and that’s the truth and to be otherwise feels like being an arrogant phony.
But I must resist. Because I can’t make anyone like me, so I just have to remember to eat my spinach before I go to these things.
My friends help me always. Dana helps me always. She is strong and always supportive. My book seller friends, Ashia in Sitka, and Carole Price at Book People, always help me. My brother Richard Nelson, always has my back, and now here in Phoenix I’ve learned that I have a family at Soho Press. Juliet Grames and Paul Oliver and all the incredible writers are truly in it for the love of the words, which really are the only things we own.
Tomorrow I will meet Jan in Florida. She is the strongest nourishment I need, she transforms me.
I am so lucky. I can’t wait for the next stop in Florida.
sun searing the bright green lawn
.and light blue pool.