Midway into my third free drink, standing beside a table arrayed with pastries and snacks, chatting with writers at every stage of their careers, immersed in the southern stateliness of campus house at a beautiful mountaintop college in Tennessee, while outside on the porch celebrated authors sing country and folk songs under the moonlight, strumming their guitars and patting a drum set made from cans and overturned trash baskets, I begin to feel a paranoia setting in, a feeling that this is all too damn wonderful, a feeling akin to how Pinocchio must have felt in those moments on Pleasure Island just before his donkey ears began to grow. Mercifully, the paranoia has passed, I am still here at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference at the University of the South, and I am fairly confident that they’ll let me go home when the time comes.
But I have been spoiled these last two weeks, that’s certain. Days and nights of readings and panels and almost nothing but talk about writing. First it was Thrillerfest in New York, where, by the great kindness of the International Thriller Writers scholarship committee (public thanks!), I was able to meet for the first time in person all but one of my Killer Year friends, where I had that fabled lunch with my editor at a NYC bistro, where I basked in the glow of some of the greatest writers, editors, publishers and fans of the thriller genre. One day after Thrillerfest ended, I shipped off to Sewanee and began my two weeks as a resident Walter E. Dakin “fellow:” a designation given to an up-and-coming writer who has been invited to assist established and award-winning literary authors as they run workshops for aspiring writers. It is very much like the distinction of being a “debut author” at Thrillerfest, only it last for two weeks in the woods of Tennessee instead of three days at the New York Grand Marriot.
In a few days I’ll return to my normal life, where nobody will make any sort of fuss about me, where much more will be demanded of me, and where my unfinished novel, like a lonely pet dog, is eagerly awaiting my return. This is as it should be. I’ll miss this full immersion in the literary life and the friendships I’ve developed with other young writers at the same stages of their careers as mine; I’ll miss the free booze—but I can’t forget that what brought me here is the art, the book, the one I wrote and the one I have yet to complete. Writing is ultimately a lonely art, and this is also as it should be.
At first, I wanted to be a shrewd observer about the differences between the genre-oriented Thrillerfest and the literary-oriented Sewanee Writers’ Conference. I wanted to be able to make strong distinctions, somehow, though my own fiction has somehow failed to make any such distinctions. What I’ve experienced, however, is very much the same kind of camaraderie and support in both places, that same eager anticipation among the debut authors, that same support among the great literary and crime-writing figures I’ve encountered. Sure, they talk about different authors, and maybe I heard a little more about the business side of writing at Thrillerfest, a little more about poetry and language at Sewanee, but I’m happy to find these two worlds are hardly separate worlds at all.
On the first full day at Sewanee, I had a reading in front of well over a hundred conference participants. I chose to read the first chapter of my novel, a chapter that is mainly action based and ends in a murder, real thriller-genre stuff. Since my novel is a mystery of sorts, I’m rather restricted in regards to where I can read from the novel; I can’t turn to a favorite passage three quarters of the way through the book and read it without giving away significant plot points. So I was concerned, to be honest, that my reading would “out” me as an imposter, a genre hack who had somehow weaseled his way into a group of serious writers, an outcast. But I received quite the opposite response when my reading was through; many in the audience were captivated by the first few pages and eager to find out what happens next. Then, of course, I had to tell them that the book doesn’t come out for another three months.
I have to admit it’s strange, almost unnatural, to have spent these last two weeks of my life not feeling, somehow, like an outsider. That feeling is my natural state, by and large, and I might go so far as to say it drives me as a fiction writer. The darkness, the pessimism, the paranoia, the introversion, the melancholy—it’s my fuel, no matter what the writers of “The Secret” would like me to believe. Nonetheless, even I will admit it’s nice to get out from underneath the dark storm cloud every now and then, meet some of the others who’ve been wandering around in the dark. Will I be glad to get back? Sure. It’s been a pleasure, by pleasure can’t last forever, and nobody wants to turn into an ass.
That’s my twisted way of saying thank you thank you thank you to the folks at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the folks at Thrillerfest for the wonderful two weeks you’ve given me.
author of Pyres
St. Martin’s Minotaur
October 16, 2007
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