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Another Book Passage Mystery Conference Come and Gone
June 30, 2008

This past weekend, the incomparable Book Passage held its annual Mystery Writers Conference, for my money the best and most collegial writing conference on the planet.

I've been lucky enough to be a member of the teaching staff for the past several years, and each year I come away with even greater respect not just for Elaine and Bill Petrocelli, who own this marvelous bookstore, and their amazing staff (in particular Karen West, the whirlwind), but for the conference's two co-chairs, Jacqueline Winspear and Sheldon Siegel, and my fellow writers who give so generously of their time and have so much insightful wisdom and know-how to impart.

This year in particular, I enjoyed David Hewson's opening lecture on tools of the trade—a much overlooked topic in writing conferences—in which he showed how to use various software programs to assist writers particularly involved in novel writing. (I also shared a panel on Time and Place with David, and I was as always struck by how intelligent, how generous, and how insidiously witty he is. I wish I got to visit with him more often.)

My only complaint about attending David's opening workshop was it was scheduled at the same time as Hallie Ephron's premised on her Edgar-winning how-to book: Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead with Style. Fortunately, I get to see Hallie again later this year at the West of Eden Writing Conference.

I again gained deeper respect for Doug Lyle who is not just a genius about forensics but whose remarks on the writing craft are invariably specific, informed, wise and concise.

I got the chance to heckle Don Winslow, who gives as good as he gets. (He did the near impossible: He made me blush.) Don was promoting his new novel, The Dawn Patrol—a book his own website curiously has never heard of. (Don: update the site, come on.)

Don's partners in crime for his two presentations were both Macavity Award nominees—Tim Maleeny (up for Best First Novel for Stealing the Dragon), and Deborah Crombie (one of my rivals for Best Novel for Water Like a Stone, which I have picked for my High Crimes reading group. Deborah is one of the sweetest, funniest, smartest and most charming people I've ever met—not to mention one of the dizziest: She suffered from an inner ear affliction on the final day of the conference, and struggled to make it to the next leg of her western junket in Scottsdale. I'm thrilled to have become Deborah's friend—to the point we've both vowed to root for each other as well as ourselves when the Macavity is actually handed out at Bouchercon in Baltimore.



Photo by David Corbett
Deborah with Shizuka Otake



Photo by Shizuka Otake
David with Deborah Crombie

I got to trade a few barbs with Michelle Gagnon as well, whose latest, The Boneyard, has just hit stores to wonderful pre-publication praise. (Michelle also graciously lauded my sex scene in Blood of Paradise during a guest blog appearance on The Lipstick Chronicles—though she described me as "a tease" since the scene in question was the only sexually explicit one in the book.)

Cornelia Read expertly moderated one of the best panels on research I've ever had the good luck to sit in on. This one included the afore-mentioned Ms. Crombie and Dr. Lyle, as well as Craig Johnson (from whom we learned that a police radio call for a 1045 means there's livestock on the highway, among other hot rural tidbits).

Dylan Schaffer joined Tony Broadbent, Jackie Winspear and I as we discussed the need not just to focus on suspense and verisimilitude in crime fiction, but on the emotional cost of violence and the varying ways grief expresses itself, so that the genre doesn't reduce itself to a mere pornography of violence.

Gillian Roberts gave one of the most inspiring, self-effacingly witty and inimitably charming talks about writing and loving it—despite overwhelming odds—I've ever heard.

Oh, and did I mention that John Lescroart kicked off the conference with his as always unerringly droll and savvy take on the writing life, or that Tobias Wolff joined in as well, being interviewed and reading from his new short story compilation, Our Story Begins?

The above merely scratches the surface. I didn't even get to the contributions of Cara Black or Louise Ure, whose presentations I was sadly unable to catch this year, or the many agents, editors, law enforcement professionals and others who make this conference the unique opportunity for aspiring writers it is.

But perhaps the real highlight of the weekend—or lowlight, if you will—was when, at the staff party, I went up to a bespectacled beauty who bore a striking resemblance to the actress Meg Tilly and said, "I bet people tell you fifty times a day you look just like Meg Ryan." Middle-age memory glitch—that was bad enough. But the lady very graciously corrected me, saying, "I think you mean Meg Tilly—yes, I hear that every day."

It was about five minutes later someone let me know the woman in question really was Meg Tilly.

Only David Corbett can pull off a blunder like that.

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