Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What I Learned From Stephen King

When my twin sister and I were eight or nine years old, we were visiting our grandfather and step-grandmother (also my great-aunt, but that's another story, and not scandalous) in Charleston, South Carolina. We were driving through the Lowcountry when we passed a caravan of red-haired people who looked unusual, almost like circus folk. I asked who they were.

"Those people are tinkers," said my step-grandmother Rita. "You stay away from them. They steal children."

Now I know those people were Travelers, probably going to the beach the same way we were, or maybe heading to some construction job. But as a child the idea of a child-stealing band of tinkers made my blood run cold, and Stephen King's latest book, DOCTOR SLEEP, brought all that back to me.

DOCTOR SLEEP is the long-awaited and much-anticipated sequel to THE SHINING by Stephen King, and went on sale today. Through the generosity of a friend, I've already read a review copy, but will be buying my own finished copy as soon as my bank account recovers from Bouchercon.

The question to be asked of any sequel is whether it's necessary. THE SHINING leaves little unresolved at its conclusion — an ending, by the way, that differs considerably from the movie's. But Stephen King has said in interviews that people would occasionally ask what happened to Danny Torrance, the mysteriously gifted child at the center of THE SHINING, and one of that book's survivors. He says he wrote DOCTOR SLEEP, in part, because he wondered that himself. The world can be a dangerous place for gifted children, and an extraordinary child's gifts don't necessarily equip them for adulthood. DOCTOR SLEEP is built around these two insights, as well as the central premise of King's classic novel PET SEMATARY: "Sometimes, dead is better."

Danny Torrance, whose gifts were so terrible — but also saved his life and his mother's — grows up to become a wreck of a man, a drunk and a drifter and even a thief, before he arrives in a small New Hampshire town that offers a chance at redemption. With the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, Danny builds a new life for himself as a hospice orderly with another special talent: the ability to ease the dying into their final sleep. But he still shines, and nearby is another child with the same extraordinary gift, perhaps even more powerful. This is Abra, and it's not too long before Danny realizes that Abra's talent has made her the target of some very nasty people indeed.

DOCTOR SLEEP holds its own as a powerful, insightful horror novel, but also reminds me of how much Stephen King has taught me about the way the world works. SALEM'S LOT was my introduction to his works, sometime in seventh grade or maybe the summer after. I had never been so scared by a book, and rushed to read everything else I could find — at the time, only CARRIE, which was terrifying for a whole different set of reasons, and THE SHINING, which I checked out in hardcover from the library on the Naval Amphibious Base. In the years that followed I read every book as it came out, saving up my money for hardcovers (although, like some others, I never committed to The Dark Tower).

I am not exaggerating when I say that Stephen King taught me what to expect from the world: from friends, from family, from employers, from love, from loss. From THE DEAD ZONE, which I reread at least once a year, I learned that true love doesn't always end in marriage, and that sometimes you have to do what's right even if people think you're crazy. From CHRISTINE I learned that lifelong friendships can't always last, and from IT I learned that sometimes they can. From CUJO and PET SEMATARY I learned about the lies parents tell themselves and the lies husbands and wives tell each other. From MISERY I learned — well, I keep those lessons in mind every day as a publicist and author's assistant.

DOCTOR SLEEP continues my education about life. King returns to themes he's explored in earlier novels, but is powerfully insightful about the nitty-gritty of redemption and mercy. This book taught me more about the mechanics of AA than I've ever known, though I have friends who have been in that program for decades. But most of all it taught me about how one comes to terms with the end of a life, and how peaceful and welcome that can be. DOCTOR SLEEP is the work of a man who's thought a lot about the end of his own life — understandable, given his near-death experience in 1999 — and is curious and at peace about whatever comes next.

Let's hope that whatever that is, he doesn't find out first-hand for a long, long time. Thank you, Mr. King, for my education.

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!