Monday, September 23, 2013

Bouchercon 2013: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The 44th World Mystery Convention, also known as Bouchercon (say it BOUGHchurcon) happened this weekend in Albany, New York. It's a unique gathering, organized and produced by fans of crime fiction to create an opportunity for readers to mix with their favorite mystery authors, honor the genre's heroes, and share their recommendations for what to read next. Even now in this age of social media, when everyone seems so accessible online, Bouchercon is a mystery fan's dream come true, and anyone who's seriously interested in the genre should try to get to one. A list of the next five meetings is here; one's probably not far from you.

Bouchercon moves around every year, as local organizing committees (LOCs) bid on a chance to welcome 1,500 fans and authors for a four-day party. Although Bouchercon has a standing Board of Directors, everyone involved with it is a volunteer. The meeting pays expenses for its Guests of Honor, but otherwise, everyone attends on their own dime, and all the organizers work for free. It's a community that forms because of a shared passion, which is the best kind of community, and once you go to one Bouchercon, you're part of that community forever.

I've been going since 2005, when the meeting was in Chicago; I missed Anchorage in 2007 (too far) and St. Louis in 2011 (my daughter's wedding), but have been back every other year since. It's a chance to see clients and colleagues, and actually marks the beginning of a new business year for me; it's where I hear about what's coming my way, pick up industry gossip, and get a sense of whether or not my clients are happy with me. But most of all it's a party with my friends. I can't even list the lifelong friends I've made at Bouchercon, for fear that I'll leave someone out — but my hotel roommate at this meeting, Judy Bobalik, and one of my primary clients, Joseph Finder, were both people I met at the Chicago Bouchercon.

This year's Bouchercon was good, bad and ugly.

The Good: I got to moderate a panel called "A Matter of Trust," asking what's fair and not fair when it comes to literary tricks: unreliable narrators, shifting time lines, twist endings, etc. Just as casting is 80% of directing, the panelists are 80% of moderating, and mine were a moderator's dream:  Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, and Jennifer McMahon, all of whose books you should be reading. (Sadly, Lori Roy, who was also scheduled for this panel, had to cancel at the last minute because of a family emergency.) Bouchercon's panels were great, thanks to the efforts of the aforementioned Judy Bobalik and her programming partner, Jon Jordan.

This year's Guests of Honor were Sue Grafton (Lifetime Achievement), Anne Perry (International), Tess Gerritsen (American) and Steve Hamilton (Toastmaster), with Chris Aldrich and Lynn Kaczmarek as Fan Guests of Honor. It's rare to get a chance to listen to a master discuss her craft, and the guest-of-honor interviews I saw (Anne Perry and Tess Gerritsen) were fascinating. As a bonus, Lawrence Block made a surprise appearance, and gave an impromptu Q&A session on Saturday at lunch time.

Oh, and Books to Die For, which launched at last year's Bouchercon, picked up Macavity and
Anthony Awards for best Nonfiction/Critical crime book of 2012. Since the book's editors, John Connolly and Declan Burke, were not at this year's Bouchercon, I volunteered to pick up the prizes on behalf of them and the book's 116 other contributors, many of whom were in Albany as well. Thank you, thank you, thank you to Mystery Readers International (who vote on the Macavity) and the members of Bouchercon (who vote on the Anthony) for honoring the book, which was a labor of love for everyone involved.

The Bad: The reason I didn't see all of the Guest of Honor interviews was that they were scheduled at night, two hours after the day's panel programming ended. This might not have been a bad choice if the programming had not been in the Empire State Plaza, blocks away from anyone's hotel and from any place to get dinner. It was too easy to decide not to return to the Empire State Plaza after dark, and attendance was sparse at the evening events I did attend. That's a rotten thing to do to one's Guests of Honor. If those interviews had been scheduled in the lunch hour, they'd have been standing room only, and they should have been.

Downtown Albany, like downtown Augusta, is a ghost town outside normal business hours. The Empire State Plaza's food court closes on weekends, and the food trucks that line the plaza on weekdays disappear. Worse, the restaurants and even the Albany Hilton go to skeleton staffs, even though they knew (or should have known) that a convention of 1,500 people would be staying until Sunday and needing food and drink. The staffing decisions of the Albany Hilton, in particular, were baffling, not to say enraging. I felt terrible for the overwhelmed bar, restaurant and kitchen staff who just didn't have the numbers they needed to serve an impatient crowd.

The bar is the beating heart of Bouchercon, and Bouchercon's bar requirements are pretty specific. First, the bar needs to be adequately staffed. Second, the bar needs to allow for mingling, but also needs space for people to sit down, and the option of a quiet corner for people who don't want to shout at each other. Atrium bars are terrible: they never have enough seating and they require people to shout at each other, with no possibility of a quiet conversation. The Hilton Albany's is an atrium bar. 74 State, a hotel around the corner, had a much nicer bar, but remained a well-kept secret to most.

The Ugly: The accessibility arrangements for this year's Bouchercon were disgraceful. Trekking to and from the Empire State Plaza, especially at night, was inconvenient for me and the other able-bodied Bouchercon participants, but it was almost prohibitively difficult for anyone in a wheelchair. The Empire State Plaza, built in the late 1960s, is accessible only according to the letter of the law. Ramps are hard to find, doors and entrances are narrow, elevators are scarce and wheelchair lifts are awkward and tucked away. "Shuttles" ran back and forth between the hotels and the Plaza, but these were ancient school buses with steep, narrow boarding stairs; I never saw one that looked accessible to the mobility-impaired, although I assume at least one of those was running. Shuttles let people off on the far side of the Plaza, where people had to navigate at least half a mile to the Convention Hall entrance, over uneven paving stones. I know of at least two people who didn't attend everything they wanted to see simply because it was too hard to get there, and that's not okay. That's shameful, and future Bouchercon organizers need to make physical logistics a priority.

Next year's Bouchercon is in Long Beach, California, November 13-16, and I seem to have signed up for the organizing committee of the 2018 meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida. Hope to see you there!


Anonymous said...

Great post!
Jason Starr

Fiona said...

Excellent post and great feedback for future organising committees, particularly on the accessibility situation.

I'd have loved to be there for your panel and some of the other events.

Bryon Quertermous said...

So very much agree. I adored your panel though, well done.

Anonymous said...

I made several of the same comments. I work out often and am in pretty good shape, but I was sore after a few days of schlepping heavy bags up those hills. I have no idea how older or less physically fit guests were managing.

Even without the hills, the pavement was often broken or uneven. Sidewalks disappeared at random... And there was a drug store I could see from about five stories up, but couldn't find from the ground. I swear it was part of Diagon Alley.

Ellen Clair Lamb said...

Neliza, I finally figured out how to get to the Rite Aid on Sunday morning! You had to go down to A level and then leave the hotel by the exit past the Sales & Catering Office.

Bryon, thanks for your question and I'm sorry I mispronounced your name! Dangers of only seeing it and never hearing it said aloud. And Jason, it was great to see you.

Fiona, one of these days maybe we can do one in Dublin - they do call it a WORLD Mystery Convention...

Janet Reid said...

I agree with 100%

Andi Shechter said...

Ellen, thank you for this. I had hoped to attend Bcon this year and see Exciting Albany (heh. I went to SUNY Albany in the 70's for grad school. Yuck.)
I use a power wheelchair and have for five plus years -used a scooter for years before that - and have written a guide to running a mystery convention which includes pages and pages on disability and access. Wrote it years ago. how can people who run this event not be aware of our aging population, our demographic? But it is the reason I skipped two other cons in recent years. Local access and travel to/from where disability-hostile.
Andi Shechter chair LCC, 1997 and 2007, Program and Vice Chair, Bouchercon 1994 (Seattle)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for putting into words what I was feeling about how, with not much more effort and forethought, a lot of the conference could have been improved 100%. Something as simple as explaining where in that huge complex the registration desk was would have helped! I wandered a lot before I found someone who told me where to find it. And the lack of food, at any price, was sad. The Hilton should refund us all a portion of our bills!

And, Andi, the only reason I was glad that you didn't come this year because I thought about you trying to manage in that space. It would not have been easy. It might not even have been possible.

--Marjorie Tucker

Kristopher said...

Thank you for the honest post Clair. It was so great to finally meet you in person.

Like the others, I am sore from walking that trip from the Hilton to the Empire Plaza (with a bag of heavy books).

Also, I heard of several authors who never showed up for their signings after panels (I personally waited for Lyndsay Faye, who didn't arrive). What was up with that?

You panel was a highlight of the event for me, which I mentioned in my blog post as well.

The conference itself was great, but the logistics and hotel staffing left much to be desired.

And I am in for a Dublin event one of these days!

Lee Goldberg said...

Great people...but the worst bouchercon I've ever attended. How anybody could have looked at that dark pit and thought it was a fine venue for a conference is beyond me. It was like a men's room without urinals. As if that wasn't bad enough, to get to that almost inaccessible location, you had to walk uphill through a crack alley of abandoned buildings and boarded up storefronts. The hotels were terrible and the restaurants were all closed during the weekend. In insanely stupid choice for Bouchercon. What was the organizing committee thinking?? That said, I had a great time, thanks to the wonderful readers and authors who braved the conference anyway.

Janet Rudolph said...

A very good summation of this year's Bouchercon. I loved seeing everyone, but the facility and scheduling was totally off. As you said, Judy did a terrific job of programming. Oh that it would have been in a better environment! That being said, it was great meeting you and seeing all my friends. I know next year's Bcon will be much better organized.