In August of 2009, a friend and faithful reader urged me to go to his home city to attend Bouchercon. “It’s the biggest mystery convention in the world. There’ll be 1,500 people there. You’ve got to come.”
Come I did. Hobbling all the way with a knee fresh from an ACL, MCL repair and a sturdy black brace over my jeans. I met hundreds of people that year. I took in a great tour of the Hachette distribution center. Watched dozens of panel discussions. Drank dozens of beers. Slept maybe a dozen hours in five days. The one thing I didn’t do surprised me most: I didn’t sell books.
Fast forward to 2011.
The first thing I did on a rainy Wednesday was to board a trolley and tour the city. Bouchercon moves from place to place each year and one of the joys of the event is discovering a new city. The trolley tour was a jumping off point to find attractions for the coming three days.
On Wednesday night I had dinner at Hannegan’s downtown with members of 4MA. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the group, 4MA is the best mystery discussion group on the planet, focusing on the discussion of books with almost no intrusion by authors to promote their work. Many of the members read more than 50 books per year so the discussion is very informed and it is a great place for a writer to get insights into the minds of advanced readers.
Maddy, Kim, Chris, Lucinda, Rachel and I had one of those great chats you can only have when you truly share a love of something. The only difficulty in these dinners (besides keeping Maddy’s secret about whips and leather) is knowing that the group is too big for you to spend time talking with everyone.
On Thursday morning I moderated a fantastic panel of authors. My sincere thanks go out to Ruth Jordan and Judy Bobalik who created the panel assignments. I spoke about offbeat protagonists with Simon Wood, Steve Ulfelder, Cara Black, M.J. McGrath, and Mike Befeler. Their characters include race car drivers, a former polar bear hunter, and a geezer with short term memory loss. Needless to say, it was a breeze leading a discussion with this diverse cast.
On Thursday afternoon I rode to the top of the Arch and took photos of the Mississippi River and downtown St. Louis. The Arch is 630 feet high and 630 feet wide. When you ride to the observation deck, you can look straight down and see both legs of the Arch beneath you. I felt a bit queasy looking straight down. My companion discussed what a rush it would be to jump! It took about an hour of waiting to get to the top, but the view was worth it.
Later, I explored the city garden, which includes sculptures, gardens and water features designed to be interactive. This is separate from Forest Park which is actually 500 acres larger than Central Park in NYC. One feature in City Garden contained over a hundred lighted fountains arranged in rows. Here, at about 9:00 pm, I challenged my sweetheart to a strange sort of contest, and we named this place Frogger Fountain after the video game.
You are free to borrow this idea, but please make sure to remove your electronics before stepping up to the starting line. The game is simple. Toe up to a row of fountains (they spout randomly). Hop over the fountains one by one when you think it is safe. Reach the other side, turn around, and hop back. The first person to return to the starting line without getting wet, wins.
Frogger was so much fun we did it two nights in a row. On the first night I won the race across Frogger Fountain, but I have to admit that on the second night I was beaten by a girl. To my credit, she happens to be an incredible athlete and you never know when one of those fountains will spout when you are in mid air.
On Friday morning I toured the Bascillica. If you go to St. Louis, don’t leave without spending 45 minutes viewing the tile work. The scale and artistry are breathtaking and you won’t see anything like it without travelling to the Vatican.
Later Friday, I bowled with teammates Nikki Bonnani, Terry Jacobsen, Alan Orloff and Rachel Brady. We made a great showing despite having three members on the team (myself included) that have never bowled competitively. The big winners were the libraries who received money raised from the teams and the spectators. My bowling might have been a bit better had it not been for the tequila shots given each time you bowled a strike. The shots helped my spirits, but not my score.
On Saturday I spoke on a panel with Kent Krueger, Dana Hayes, Patrick Lee, Keir Graff, and Stan Trollip. Afterward I signed two books and almost signed a book by a guy named Christopher West, but had to admit to the nice man at my table that I hadn’t written that one.
Somewhere along the way I spent an hour with Tim Hallinan who writes the most elegant prose I’ve read. I heard dozens of inspiring stories. One of my favorites was of a signing years ago at Murder By The Book. Four NYT Bestselling authors visited the store together before they were famous. Only four customers showed up. If those four authors showed up now, you’d have to wait hours to see them.
Harlan Coben made the point several times that breaking into this business requires a huge effort. He joked about his meager advances but said he wouldn’t change a thing. The struggle makes success that much sweeter.
These stories make me wonder which of the authors I met this year will be hugely popular four or five years from now. Famous or not, I’m glad to count them as friends.
I sold four books in four days at Bouchercon 2011, but this time I understood that Bouchercon is so much more than a gigantic book signing. Old friendships renewed, new friends met, I returned home to my new book more inspired than ever.
See you next year in Cleveland!