It was the best of times. It was the best of times.
Last time we visited together, I promised to do something on Thrillerfest which had been on the near horizon at the time of my last entry here. Well, life (as it often does) got in the way, and during the scant few days I had to do a blog before the day I had to take off for another convention, I was doing things like writing my daily fiction pages, sending out a mailing for Borderlands Press, learning its new website dashboard, cutting the lawn, walking the dog, and hanging out on the deck with Elizabeth whenever we could take a break.
The result was no blog on Thrillerfest . . . because last Thursday I had to pack up and take off for another little convention called NECON.
So you get a two-fer this time.
Thrillerfest is what I call a grown-up peoples’ convention. Held at the Grand Hyatt in New York City, it attracts the biggest, most well-known, and of course best-selling writers in the genres of mystery, suspense, and thrillers. There’s nobody running around in funny costumes at Thrillerfest unless you consider suits-and-ties and cocktail dresses as such. And the crowd is thick with agents, editors, and Film/TV producers, which means there’s plenty of opportunity to shmooze at the hotel bar or the cocktail hours that precede most of the big events.
Its organizers take pride in presenting a highly professional venue that includes multiple tracks of panels; presentations by publishers, vendors, and alternate media; an entire day devoted to learning the craft of writing; a special event to introduce first-time novelists to the membership; and a very impressive banquet and awards ceremony.
I hit the hotel around noon on Friday and found my room-mate and best pal, Paul Wilson, who was lounging in our capacious room on the 26th floor. First thing we did was hit the street in search of some vermouth for our manhattans created from George Dieckel 12-year-old sour mash bourbon. Once we located the ice machine, we were in business.
We spent the day in panels and later discussions with friends and colleagues, and later that evening went to dinner with Heather Graham and her husband, Dennis, at an old Mafia hangout called Sparks, which is also a fabulous steakhouse only a few blocks from the hotel. It was absurdly good food and the company was even better. Heather is one of classiest and most generous writers in the business. Afterwards, Paul and couldn’t pass on the chance to drop into a crowded bar called Peter Dillon’s for a couple of our favorite nightcaps–that fiendish concoction called the Irish Car-Bomb. It’s a pint of Guiness with a mixed shot of Jameson’s whiskey and Bailey’s Irish Cream.
The idea is to drink it down it one grand quaff. Don’t be knockin’ it till ye try it!
We got up early for a convention hosted event called the Debut Author Breakfast, which is a very classy way to introduce new writers to the field and to the rest of the vets who mostly know each other. It’s something I’d like to see some of the other genre gatherings do to make the new writers feel more comfortable. I can remember going to my first handful of SF cons and walking around like a leper at a dinner party. Nobody knew me, nobody talked to me, nobody even got near me other than to squint at my name tag before veering off like a drunk driver avoiding a wrong turn. (of course sci-fi fans have never been known for an excess of social graces . . .)
But Thrillerfest does it right. All the new writers sit at the raised front table facing the rest of us, and each one gets introduced and gets a chance to say something about themselves and their new book. It’s a nice way to get the day started.
I spent the rest of the day attending some really well planned panels on various aspects of writing a good modern thriller, and also a couple presentations by companies who have some cool innovations for publishing in the 21st century. For example, check out something called wattpad.com which looks like it could be a great publicity tool for writers.
The Big Event at Thrillerfest is the awards banquet, so Paul and I climbed into our big-boy suits around 5:00 p.m. and headed down to the ballroom concourse for a really well-appointed cocktail hour. I got a chance to talk to a bunch of writer-pals including David Morrell, Doug Preston, Lee Child, and Brad Thor among others. Finally the dinner bell sounded and convention coordinator Kimberly Howe (who does an amazingly enthusiastic job) hustled me off to my table for the banquet. The repast featured sirloin cooked to perfection and fine red wine. Afterwards, the presentation of the awards went smoothly and quickly. The acceptance speeches, save one, were brief and witty and properly humble.
Then it was off to the after-party, where I had the chance to meet a few new readers and fans, as well as more than a few Borderlands Boot Camp graduates like John Dixon who are now publishing their novels on a regular basis. John was touting the Boot Camp to anyone who’d listen and that was just fine withe me.
The Secret Masters of Thrillerfest are smart–there’s no programming on Sunday. Paul and I packed up early and made plans for a decent getaway. But before I headed for the train station, I had a great breakfast with Tori and Tony Eldridge at the hotel. Tori had given me her novel to read and we spent an hour or so deconstructing it. It’s a big, layered, complex story that encapsulates many genres and metaphysical ideas.Her husband, Tony, is a TV and Film producer and he’s a smart, well-read guy who loves to be pitched ideas . . . so I didn’t disappoint him . . . cuz if I got anything, I got plenty of ideas. We finally left the table with promises to stay in touch and the good intentions to work on a project together, and that’s always a good thing.
Fast forward a few days and it’s Thursday morning and I was packing for another convention–only this time there’s no suits or ties on board. Hey, there’s not even any long pants . . .
The official name of my destination is the Northeast Writers Convention, but it has always been called “NECON” as long as I’ve been going to it–which is since 1986 or so. It’s a place where, writers, editors, agents, artists, and readers get together to simply have fun. I’ve always liked it because it’s not like any other weekend that calls itself a convention. Oh sure, they have panels and a meet-the-authors party and an interview with the Guest of Honor and an art show . . . but they also provide stuff you just don’t get a other gatherings of the clan.
To wit: There’s a series of competitions called the NECON Olympics which includes things like foosball, darts, and miniature golf; there’s an artists’ reception with wine,cheese, and pastries; a talent show where lots of people rosked getting gong before winning a valuable prize; a game show that requires encyclopaedic knowledge of all things horror and dark fantasy (but mostly movie stuff); a “celebrity” roast; a NECON Hall of Fame induction ceremony; a Hawaian shirt contest, a midnight saugie-fest; and there even used to be a softball game between the writers and the fans (until I got tired of organizing it . . . and it just faded away).
For many years, the venue took place on the Roger Williams College campus in Bristol, Rhode Island. We would also sleep in dorm rooms and eat in the college dining hall. It was comfortable, reasonably priced, and a perfect setting for all the hijinks (always wanted to use that word). We now meet and party at the college’s off-campus Conference Center where the rooms smell like seaweed and we all try to ignore that truth.
And of course there are parties all the time, especially the ones in the atrium after the sun goes down. For some reason, there always seems to be mass quantities of alcohol at these events. I have no idea why.
Anyway, I have this tradition of traveling to NECON with Doug and Lynne Winter and F. Paul Wilson. It starts when Doug picks me up as he heads north from Virginia, then we drive up to Paul’s where we stay the night before getting up early for the drive up to Rhode Island. There’s always lots of good conversation and plenty of laughs along the way.
I’d like to be able to convey the unique feel and flavor of NECON, but its one of those things you need to experience. By the time we are packing up for the nine-hour drive south on Sunday morning, we are exhausted from all laughter, libations, and liabilities.
If you don’t believe me, try it yourself.