Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Me Elsewhere: Memories of Malice

First, an apology: there will be no photographs. I didn’t take many. I was too busy being flabbergasted. Also, eating.

Rosemarie and I are back from our first-ever Malice Domestic conference. It won’t be our last. We’ll enjoy them all, but I daresay that future installments of this convention devoted to the traditional mystery novel won’t quite match this one, and not only because it was Malice’s silver anniversary edition.

As explained earlier, we ventured to deepest Bethesda, Maryland in order to receive this year’s William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers. We’d won the honor for our novel Design For Dying: An Edith Head Mystery. We were eager to meet our fellow recipient Ellen Byron, whose book Reality Checked is set in that most murderous of environments, the private school world of L.A.

The grants committee members gathered us up early and took fantastic care of us. Among the first things that we learned was the incredible number of previous winners who had returned to Malice as published novelists and nominees for the Agatha Awards. More impressive was the willingness of these writers to share their wisdom with us.

This year’s convention featured quite the array of special guests, with Laurie R. King, Aaron Elkins, Carolyn Hart and Peter Robinson receiving honors. There was also a stellar array of panels covering a host of crime fiction topics.

Saturday night was the Agatha Awards banquet, where the missus and I got our moment in the sun. It’s not a moment either of us is likely to forget. When grants committee chair and unofficial guardian angel Harriette Sackler announced the premise of our book – that Hollywood’s most famous costume designer must turn detective to solve a young actress’s murder – an encouraging buzz rolled through the ballroom. In the bar after dinner, newly-minted Mary Higgins Clark Award winner Hank Phillippi Ryan told us, “That was the sound of a roomful of writers saying, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’” We received congratulations and advice from plenty of attendees including Agatha winners Louise Penny and Catriona McPherson and toastmaster Laura Lippman, who closed the event on Sunday with an inspirational Q&A. (The full round-up of Agatha nominees and winners is here.) And we had several conversations with agents and editors that were, in a word, extremely promising. (OK, that’s two words. Clearly, I need an editor.) I cannot stress this enough: if you have ever harbored any interest in writing a mystery novel, you owe it to yourself to look into this grants program. It is a transformative experience.

But what had the greatest impact was easily the sheer number of mystery readers – Rosemarie and I lost count at two dozen – who walked up to one or both of us to say how much Edith Head meant to them. Not only as a style icon, but as a professional woman who blazed a trail that is still being followed. Writer Carole Nelson Douglas told us about reading an interview in Parade magazine in which Edith described essentially conning her way into a job at Paramount Pictures despite having no training as a sketch artist. “Edith taught me to say yes to things,” Carole said. It’s an invaluable life lesson, and one our Malice whirlwind has made us take to heart anew. We are saying yes to all of this.

Random notes: if you want cocktails in the District of Columbia, I heartily second all the recommendations I heard for The Passenger. The bartender there made me a whiskey smash with pear liqueur that I can taste even now. And I have to commend the staff at the Hyatt Regency in Bethesda, who truly got into the spirit of the occasion including a doorman dressed as Sherlock Holmes and nightly themed drinks at the hotel bar. One was called the Who Done It?, which meant I had Tavares in my head all weekend. Here’s the song. Maybe it will make up for the lack of photographs.