I’m in the office, getting ready for the last few days of my summer courses, but I’ve had a lot of fun for the past couple of days, so I don’t mind paying the piper. It doesn’t mean I won’t forestall it just a bit more, though…
Yesterday was the second annual Mystery in the Midlands conference, brought to you by the Palmetto chapter of Sisters in Crime and the Southeast chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. But the good times started the night before. Friday night, Paula Benson (the local S in C panjandrum, and key player in Mystery in the Midlands) graciously invited those of us who were teaching master classes and such to a lovely dinner at Columbia’s Palmetto Club. I had the pleasure of sitting between former SEMWA prez Maggie Toussaint and this year’s Guest of Honor, Nancy Pickard, who recently moved to Charleston, after having spent most of her life in Kansas.
When Paula introduced me to Nancy, each of us recognized the other’s name, but we couldn’t figure out why for a minute or two. Then we realized that both of us have stories in At Home in the Dark, LB’s new antho. Nancy’s story, by the way, is a tremendous piece about how breaking up is hard to do. I highly recommend it, and reading it will make it clear that the woman is an ace.
So was the chef, by the way. My meal started with a green tomato gazpacho (refreshing indeed in the steamy environs of Real City), followed by an exquisitely cooked 14-oz. ribeye and potato wedges. Dessert was named in honor of our gathering. “The Smoking Gun” (more commonly known as a smoked cherry brownie a la mode) is served under a dome with a couple of puffs of wood smoke, which waft out once the dome is lifted. The flavors compliment one another, mingling the sweet and savory, the warm and the cold.
The conversation was wonderful as well, as we talked about a visit some of our party had made to the coroner’s office earlier in the day, (Hey, we are crime writers.) some pending activities, and Mr. Block’s pending arrival in Mondoville. (I had to tell some of the other guests that the creative writing workshop is just for our undergrads, for example.) All in all, it was an experience well worth wearing a jacket, tie, and shoes not requiring laces for.
But yesterday was the big event. I made it from Mondoville to St. Paul’s Lutheran (home of MitM) at about 8:20. I found a table with folks like ex-homicide detective Brian Thiem, former professor and attorney turned crime writer Roger Johns, and Tracee De Hahn. I also had a chance to check out the bookseller’s table, where I was reminded that I actually may not be as much of an impostor as I think I am.
After a bit of small talk, it was time for the master classes. Roger and I co-taught one on humor in crime fiction. He went first, and while he did a super job talking about things like caution in the kind of humor you use in this age of sensitivity readers and the use of humor to reveal a character’s viewpoint, the downside was that he left me a hard act to follow.
Still, I did the best I could, perhaps approaching the topic a bit more philosophically than I might have expected. I talked about the stand-up concept of “people who say funny things” vs. “people who say things funny.” I used things like the banter in the Bernie Rhodenbarr novels as an example of the first, and the funny situations in works like the Dortmunder novels, the Shell Scott capers, and the hit man scene in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. as examples of the latter. I also looked at jokes from a narratological standpoint, reminding the audience that while humor, like description, is a valuable tool, it needs to add something to the story — along the lines of the character revelation Roger had discussed. Funny for the sake of funny can work, but sometimes even the lines that amuse us have to be sacrificed for the sake of keeping the story going. I didn’t hear anyone’s head bouncing off a tabletop, so I guess it went over pretty well.
Next up was a panel on setting, including Stacy Allen, Paul A. Barra, Tracee De Hahn, and Nancy Sartor. As it happens, Ms. De Hahn (who lives in Switzerland, where her novels are set) is originally from Kentucky, and is a fellow UK alum; Ms. Sartor is a native Nashvillian, and now lives in Mt. Juliet, TN, just a few miles from where I did a lot of growing up. Consequently, we had a little fun over the course of the day talking about places we had in common.
There was a break between the panel and the interview/discussion with Nancy that headlined the day, and someone got a shot of me in my usual element.
Cathy Pickens served as interlocutor for the interview, but like the best interviews, what we had was more along the lines of a free-ranging conversation. Ms. Pickard talked about a number of things, but the key point (at least to me) dealt with how she has believed in what the Universe seems to tell her. Whether it was her move to South Carolina or her path through the mystery genre, she seems to have trusted her instincts, and it has served her well. She’s charming, thoughful, and a lively discussant. It was terrific.
After lunch. Paula Benson moderated a panel on writers working both in the novel and short story formats. The panelists included Kaye George, Terrie Farley Moran, Ms. Pickard, and Jaden Terrell, and the hour flew by. They were followed by a panel on cozy/traditional mysteries — the latter term has regained support from folks who find the “cozy” classification to be a bit dismissive. Sally Handley modertated, and the panelists included Victoria Gilbert, Dorothy McFalls, Glenn “J.R. ‘Marie Celine’ Ripley” Meganck, and Ms. Toussaint. While I don’t work in that genre — and indeed, there is so little mystery in my stories that I think of myself as a crime writer, rather than as a “real” mystery writer (I don’t write whodunits as much as I write “Will they get away with its”), it’s interesting to see the landscape of a nearby territory.
I was on the panel that closed the day. Mr. Thiem moderated, and my copanelists included Candace J. Carter, Sasscer Hill, Roger Johns, and Elysabeth Eldering. We were talking about our various roads to publication, and I was at the end of the row. I don’t reckon there’s such a thing as a typical story of that sort, and I joke about my 20-year overnight success story. But the story does cover 20 years, and the elements come together in odd ways. So when my turn came, I was talking about it, and I guess I got carried away and lost track of time, because I got…
The red card, warning me that I was in danger of monopolizing the panel. To say I was mortified would be an understatement. I felt like a schmuck. So I reined it in, and I hope I managed to behave for the rest of the session. But that’s an occupational hazard for professors; we’ll lecture at the drop of a hat and we’ll bring our own hats. I apologized to Brian afterward, and if any of my fellow panelists read this, I really try not to be that much of a bore in real life.
That wrapped up the program, and after we learned who won the event’s charity auction, which raised funds for South Carolina’s division of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, we went our separate ways. But I was really happy to meet old friends and make new ones, and I look forward to doing it again next year.
And since I usually close these potpourri entries with some music, this one seems to fit. From 1960, here’s Joe Jones.
See you soon!