Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Report from Malice Domestic--Writers of Color Series Will Resume After This

The view outside my hotel window in Bethesda

Malice Domestic is a conference for writers and readers of traditional mystery novels. Malice Domestic 2011, the 23rd year of the conference was held in Bethesda, Maryland, from April 28-May 1. This was my first year to attend Malice Domestic, but it won't be my last.

I had been keeping a secret from everyone but my closest family and friends. Over a month earlier, I had received a phone call from Toni Plummer, editor at St Martin's Press, to tell me that my mystery novel, Every Secret Thing, had won the St. Martin's/Malice Domestic Award for Traditional First Mystery Novel. It would be presented at this conference.

Although I've read mysteries for many years, I had never attended a mystery writers conference before, so I was what they called "a Malice virgin." I had two friends who were going to be at the conference--Nancy Pickard, whose latest novel was a finalist for the Agatha Award (a very big deal in the mystery world, for my poet friends who may not know), and Sally Goldenbaum, whose newest book in her latest series was being launched at the conference. But Nancy and Sally were arriving over 24 hours after me, as was my editor, so I knew no one as the conference opened.

I had wanted to come at the very beginning because the conference was opening with a session called Malice 101, designed to introduce newbies like me to the conference and help us find our way around and figure out what to do. (I will be suggesting this to my AWP board member friends for that conference. Let's end the pain and panic on the faces of all those grad students when they first walk in on day one.)

The experience reminded me of the days when I didn't know anyone in the literary community and would sit back in corners. People who know me will laugh at this, but it happens to be true. I am extremely shy in new situations with people I don't know. Once I know someone and have the scene scoped out somewhat, I can get a little flamboyant, it's true, but initially I revert to the shy schoolgirl who was always younger than the others and usually brand-new, as well--not to mention wearing hand-me-downs, etc.

So there I sat, a freshwater poetry fish out of my depths in the mystery ocean. But not for long, because the community of mystery writers is incredibly warm and welcoming. Monica Ferris, a writer whose works I've long loved, spent at least an hour early on sitting with me, talking to me, and giving me wonderful advice. She took me into sessions with her and introduced me to people. Others were also tremendously kind. I began to enjoy the conference and the really useful and sometimes funny sessions it offered.

Late Friday, my editor, Toni Plummer, arrived from New York and took me to dinner. We discussed possible edits for Every Secret Thing and the next book in the series, which I'm in the middle of writing--and all the other things that novelists dream of discussing with their editors, usually unrealistically. But I was to learn that St. Martin's seems to operate the way we all still dream that publishers and editors operate.

Past St. Martin's/Malice Domestic winners gather in the lobby bar with editor Toni Plummer to toast the memory of legendary St. Martin's editor Ruth Cavin, who founded the contest.

On Saturday, after a full day of events and sessions, it was time for the awards banquet. But first, Toni had gathered past winners of this award in the lobby bar for a toast to the memory of the recently deceased Ruth Cavin, the doyenne of mystery editors. I had never met this legendary editor, but I'd read articles she'd written for various handbooks and anthologies on what made good mystery novels.

At this, the other authors, some of whom are pictured above, were again so welcoming and encouraging (not to mention terrifically funny). Robin Hathaway, Elizabeth Duncan, Meredith Cole, Joelle Charbonneau, Tracy Kiely, Maggie Barbieri, and many others were kind and encouraging. And at this tribute gathering, I met for the first time my publisher, Andy Martin.

Now, I am used to publishers. I happen to be married to one, and I've worked for and with a number of others. Literary publishers. Publishers of small presses or university presses. Small potatoes in terms of press runs and profits. Most of them are in it for the love of the work and are pretty loose. This guy was one of the big NY trade publishers, and in the lit/poetry scene, we have our stereotypes of them. Big business sharks. And Andy certainly looked the part of big NY publishing executive. I start digging back into my memory to my Women's Center days when I used to do fundraising among the CEOS of national corps that have their homes in KC (a larger number than people outside KC would imagine--think Hallmark, H&R Block, and you're only beginning). I knew how to talk with a big executive. Sure, I was rusty, but I could manage, surely?

Was I in for a big surprise!

Here I am with Toni right after the awards banquet.

Down to the awards banquet, and here is where I discover how wickedly funny all these writers are. Especially a writer who sat near me all evening, Carolyn Haines. Andy is sitting across the table from me, and I'm relieved. Only wait--this guy is cracking jokes right and left. He's... he's... a lot of fun. How did that happen? Halfway through the rather long event, he moves everyone around to sit with other people, and he sits next to me. Before I know it, we're giving each other a hard time. Could have been Bob Stewart of New Letters, who's been my friend for over 25 years, or a number of other lit publishers I know and love.

I won't even go into the after-event party. Poets think they know how to party. We closed out the hotel restaurant bar. Enough to say that St. Martin's writers, editors, and staff really know how to have fun--and leading the way was the publisher of this major, profitable imprint of a huge publishing empire.

One thing I had heard over and over from writers through the whole conference was that St. Martin's had the best editors, treated their writers well, and really liked and respected writers. Got to say from everything I've seen and experienced, it's all true. So this poet/novelist feels like a cat who's fallen into a big vat of fresh cream. I think I'm really going to like being a St. Martin's Minotaur author.

Back to my series on writers of color next post. All of you in the lands of flooding and tornadoes, please stay safe and dry.


  1. Congratulations Linda! We're so happy to have you in our mystery community, and I look forward to reading your book.

  2. Thanks, Meredith. I really enjoyed meeting you. You and all the other St. Martin's authors--all the other mystery authors, in fact--were so warm and welcoming. It seems like a great community to join.