Sunday, March 16, 2014

Hobnobbing with the Authors at the Southwest Florida Reading Fest

Inexplicably, the Southwest Florida Reading Festival hasn't made its way onto my radar screen until this year.  The Festival, which is hosted by the Lee County Library System (and paid for entirely by sponsors), made its debut back in 2000.  With an expected attendance of 18,000 people this year, I clearly have been living under a rock.  The Festival schedule included free talks by many of the participating authors as well as the chance to buy books and get them signed for posterity.

The sheer number of projected attendees diminished my enthusiasm about braving the event proper last Saturday.  (I will, of course, be getting my own avid reader experience when I head to New York for the Book Expo in May.)  But a closer reading of the Festival website yielded another opportunity -- an Evening with the Authors.  My friend Janice and I decided to check it out after a call to Festival organizers indicated that fewer than 200 people attend this event (which had an admission price of $45).  With 30 scheduled authors to be in attendance, that sounded like a pretty favorable ratio to actually get to visit with some real writers.

Alafair Burke with Janice Reuther
We arrived at the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center at 6:00, and the doors weren't open yet, not even for the authors.  The night got off to a good start when we saw Alafair Burke, Andrew Gross, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Wiley Cash, and Phillip Margolin gather on the steps for a group photo.  (With the exception of Wiley Cash, I was familiar with all of these folks, both from their thrillers and from Book Expo.)  Janice and I hovered, and Alafair Burke headed right over to us and stuck out her hand to introduce herself.  What???!!!   We had a great time talking with Burke, who fits in her writing around her schedule teaching criminal law at Hofstra.

Me with Burke, Gross, Margolin and Phillippi Ryan
As we made our way inside, the reception area was jammed with readers and writers.  Janice and I had an interesting extneded conversation with Andy Gross.  We chatted about Book Expo, and he said he'd almost rather be one of the people directing traffic to the authors than the guy signing books.  (His family owned the Leslie Fay clothing label, so he has a background in retail.)  We talked about how the industry is changing with the prevalence of e-readers and how the role of the publisher is diminishing as a result.  While Gross is known for his thrillers (which include a series co-written with James Patterson), he shared his desire to write historical fiction as well, with a book set in the garment trade in the 1930s at the top of his list.

We totally hit the jackpot with Hank Phillippi Ryan, whom we spoke with both during the cocktail hour and over dinner.  Phillippi Ryan is an investigative reporter with Boston's NBC affiliate.  She has won 30 EMMYs and 12 Edward R. Murrow Awards for her journalism.  So it comes as no surprise that she has attacked the world of fiction with both vigor and focus.

In addition to working as a journalist and penning six works of crime fiction, Hank (we are now on a first name basis) was the President of Sisters in Crime in 2013 and is on the board of the Mystery Writers of America.  Janice and I talked with her about the two organizations.  Hank told us that when Sisters in Crime was organized in 1987, its objective was to bring attention and provide support to women who write, review, buy or sell crime fiction.  Its founders had noticed a distinct lack of female nominations for mystery writer awards, likely due to the lack of reviews of crime novels written by women.  Over time, the landscape has changed, and the organization's mission statement was revised accordingly.  It now reads: "To promote the ongoing advancement, recognition and professional development of women crime writers."  (As an FYI for all you thriller readers out there, membership is not limited to women, and readers are welcome to join.)

By way of contrast, Mystery Writers of America's motto is "Crime doesn't pay... enough."  Hank said that MWA is "union-esque" in some ways as it strives to level the (financial) playing field between literary fiction and mysteries.  The MWA sponsors the Edgar Awards each year (named, of course, after Edgar Allen Poe).  Having an Edgar Award on your resume is a true badge of honor for writers of mystery, crime, suspense and intrigue.  Hank has been involved in reviewing the books nominated for the Awards, and it sounds like a fun--but herculean--task.

It was a great evening, and I was amazed that we couldn't purchase books written by the authors we were chatting up even if we had wanted to.  In fact, as you can probably tell, there was a lot of talk about writing and the literary industry without specifics about the books written by the talented authors with whom we had the chance to spend time.  It was quite a unique experience, and I will definitely attend the event in the future.  In the meantime, I am looking forward to this year's Book Expo, where I hope to see my new author friends again.  

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