Monday, July 21, 2014

An American in Harrogate



This time of the summer I’m almost always at Thrillerfest. It felt weird to miss it, but my brother was getting married that weekend so obviously, priorities!

But I wasn’t conference deprived, far from it. As befits my new transatlantic lifestyle, the weekend after TFest I ended up at what is in many ways the UK equivalent: the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Festival.

I’ve always intended to go to Theakston's Old Peculier (which most people understandably shorten to “Harrogate”), since a good number of my favorite authors are British, and I can always use the UK market exposure, and of course there are the accents. This weekend was the first of many to come, now that the conference is only a four-and-a half-hour train ride away from me.  Craig and I flew back from the wedding in California and had just twenty-four hours layover at home before we took off again (just enough time to reunite with our abandoned cat and promptly leave him again. Anyone know a good feline therapist?).

I don’t know what exactly I expected of  Harrogate, visually speaking, but I was surprised to find a lovely little Georgian-era spa town with elegant stone mansions and Victorian gingerbread flourishes, gorgeous flowering gardens and ubiquitous hanging flower baskets, hilly cobbled streets lined with restaurants, pubs, tea rooms, mouth-watering boutiques... and a startling number of bath houses. The respectable kind, at least so it seems from the outside of them. Which meant that all weekend long I was dying for a Turkish bath, but because of the crazy traveling we were only there for two days of the festival as it was. So the Turkish bath will have to wait for the next trip. As will, alas, the obviously excellent shopping. 

Or maybe missing out on the shopping is a GOOD thing….

To catch you all up on the conference I’ll steal - I mean give an American version of Craig Robertson’s Sixteen Wonderful Things about Harrogate U.K report (which you can read here on Crime Fiction Lover)  and start by focusing on some key differences between Harrogate and some of its U.S. equivalents:

1. -- US: the host cities and hotel venues tend to change for every conference (except for Thrillerfest, which is now permanently housed in the Grand Hyatt in NYC, and Malice Domestic, always just outside Washington, D.C.). The moveable feast aspect allows for people in different regions of this rather large country to get to conferences that might be too expensive to travel longer distances to. You have to learn a new hotel every time, but one huge perk is the local law enforcement line up. Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime are particularly good about putting on law enforcement tracks, where you can learn tons about that state/county/city's particular law enforcement agencies and methods and famous crimes. My favorite aspect of any conference. Except the people, of course!
        

   --  UK: Harrogate is permanently in the Old Swan Hotel.  (photo right)

(I know, how much more British does it get?).

Of course, everywhere in the U.K. is pretty close to everywhere else, so no reason to move it around. It was very clear attendees love the Old Swan, although there were (of course) lots of complaints. I wonder if I'll ever get used to all the complaining?


2. -- US: Except for a few headliners, authors generally pay to go to U.S. cons, and most authors who pay their conference fees on time are given a panel spot, which means there are a lot more panels on and the quality of those panels varies wildly.

    -- UK: Authors are invited to panels by a programming committee, and they are paid both for the panel and for travel and accommodations. Obviously I’m in favor of this “authors are paid to appear” thing! The paid moderators ("chairs") might go a long way toward eliminating a common and stupefyingly annoying conference problem: the authors who ignore the panel topic and use the forum to relentlessly plug themselves and their books. But I haven't seen enough UK panels to know if that actually works in practice. It seems to me some authors will try to hijack panels no matter what, and it's up to all the authors on the panel to save those offenders from themselves.

3.  -- US: Conference attendees pay for either day passes or a full conference pass and then can attend as many panels/events on that day or days as they can handle.

     -- UK: attendees can buy day passes, or pay for individual tickets to events of their choosing. So you can choose what you attend and how much you want to spend.

4.   -- US: There are lots of panels on at any given hour and people tend to panel-hop, and it’s perfectly acceptable to move in and out of panels, which is kind of great.

      -- UK: There’s usually only one event going on in the one huge double event room (capacity about 500 people). So you can conceivably see the entire program, and the conversation in between events tends to be focused on one event, which is also kind of great.

More specifically about Harrogate:

5. The Old Swan is really quite small compared to big US downtown hotel venues, and the event hall and the bar and the lawn area (which hosts a bar tent and a signing/bookstore tent) are all right up against each other, so despite the impressive 15,000 tickets sold for various events over the weekend, it feels like you’re at one four-day long party of about 400 people.

6. As usual, I didn’t make it to many events, but I absolutely loved the Domestic Noir panel, featuring my new author friends Helen Fitzgerald and Julia Crouch, plus Chris Ewan and Cath Staincliff, chaired by NJ Cooper, who asked great questions like: “If some people are in fact biologically born bad, does that make them less guilty of their crimes?” (Discuss!)  If you ask me, we need more panels like this at every crime conference.

I was also really thrilled (at the spy panel) to learn the backstory of screenwriter Terry Hayes’ huge success with I Am Pilgrim. Hayes is living proof of what I am always telling my ScreenwritingTricks workshops: If you want a better chance at getting a film made, write a book, not a script. And what a lovely thing it always is to see a writer of a certain age making such a brilliant second career. And being so perfectly jolly about it all!

7. There was a quiz, traditionally hosted by the always hilarious Val McDermid and Mark Billingham. To put it in British speak, I am rubbish at quizzes, so I only peeked in. The questions were really, really hard. For all the reading I do, I don’t seem to know much about crime fiction. I did know which director directed the first Columbo episode, though. (Go ahead, guess…)

8. It was really, really wet. I’m told that’s not usual - in fact I was promised sunny days lounging out on the expansive hotel lawn. Hah! Instead it rained like hell half of the time and the other half it was so humid it might as well have been raining. Luckily there was a bar tent up on the lawn (although… those metal poles during a lighting storm? Hmm….) But I’d just had a lot of sun in California, and rain promotes its own kind of intimacy. It was all good.

9. There is much, much, MUCH more smoking in the UK. Some electronic cigarettes but a lot of old fashioned cancer sticks. My lungs were cringing in horror. On the other hand, there was much less pot. At least that I could see (smell).
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10. There is more drinking.  I wouldn’t say much, much, MUCH more, but still, it felt like more. But I always feel like a lightweight in a UK drinking crowd. As for the all night partying (which it was), I’m usually up for anything from two a.m. karaoke (Anchorage Bouchercon) to after-midnight absinthe (Romantic Times New Orleans) to drag queen bingo night (Thrillerfest) to a hike through Mayan pyramids on a blazing Caribbean day (Florida Romance Writers’ Cruise With Your Muse), or dressing up as God knows what at Writers for New Orleans or Romantic Times, or a midnight Jacuzzi party (any number of cons in every genre) but after five straight weeks of traveling and accompanying jet lag I was in bed by a reasonable 1:30 a.m. both nights, therefore blissfully unhungover in the mornings. Next year, however, I intend to organize a Turkish bath party (and I have a fair idea of which of my new U.K. friends will be up for it).

11. There were no bloody battles between indie published authors and traditionally published authors (that I saw); in fact I had a very civilized conversation with a Big Five publisher who shall remain nameless, but who was quite open to hearing about why so many authors I know are happier with the way Amazon treats them. I hope all this enmity is on its way to dissipating, because the important thing is that authors now have all kinds of ways to make enough money to keep writing great books.

12. In the UK, they call the readers “punters,” which I know is affectionate… (she says hopefully) but which I still find a little shocking.We’re all readers, aren’t we? Isn’t that the point?

13. Everyone is on Twitter. Everyone. In the US, Facebook is much more popular. But okay, I get it. I'll figure out how to use my Twitter account. Because I really don't have enough to do already. Sigh.

14. Some things are exactly the same. Friday night was the publisher dinners, and I had a fabulous time at a restaurant called the White Hart meeting my new Thomas&Mercer colleagues: authors Helen Smith, Jay Stringer, Louise Voss, Mark Edwards, EM Powell, Mel Sherratt, Rachel Abbott and Daniel Pembry, and our charming T&M hosts Emilie Marmeur, Sana Chebaro and Neil Hart.

15. The main reason I didn’t make it to many events was that just like in the US I kept getting caught up in chats, I knew a lot more people than I expected to, not just Americans like author Laura Lippman and editor Kelley Ragland but quite a few Brits (and Irish) authors and readers I know as regulars to Bouchercons and Thrillerfests and World Fantasies and World Horror Cons, like Sarah Pinborough, David Hewson, Martyn Waites, Mark Billingham, Stuart Neville, Kevin Wignall, Simon Kernick, Russel McLean and Martyn James Lewis. We Americans really should be ashamed that the Brits are so much more willing to travel to the U.S. festivals.

I also realize I’ve met a fair number of terrific UK writers and readers and bloggers during my not very long residence in Scotland, like Helen Fitzgerald and Sergio Casci, Julia Crouch, James Oswald, Chris Carter, Mari Hannah, Rhian Davies, Danny Stewart, Lisa Gray, Graham Smith. And I met a whole slew of wonderful new people who are now part of the ever-growing and forever circle of conference friends.

16, Just as with US conference attendance, it's hard to quantify what good it does for your visibility as an author. I wasn't on a panel (this time!) but even so the networking is gold. You meet bloggers, reviewers, agents, publishers, conference organizers, other authors, and READERS. It certainly will not get you the book sales of an online promotion (far from it!) but personal connections  make for the most loyal readers - readers who are happy to talk you up to other readers. I think there's a ripple effect to attending conferences that pays off in millions of ways that you'll never fully be aware of.  And face time with your publishing people is invaluable.  I always think it's worth it to attend a conference that's nearby (to reduce travel expenses!). 

17. And there's one more thing that's also always golden: the massive creative inspiration. I’ve come away every bit as fired up to write as I am after any U.S. conference. I woke up this morning and wrote five pages on the first book of my new series without even getting out of bed. 

Magic is magic, in any accent.

Next up: I'll be launching the first three books in my Huntress Moon series at Bloody Scotland, September 19-21, and then Bouchercon, Long Beach, November 13-16,

And I can’t wait to see people again on both sides of the pond.

- Alex

6 comments:

patricia burroughs said...

I'm so jealous! I want to go to that con. Besides, I love Old Peculier!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey there, Pooks! You'd love it. And yes, I forgot to mention that Old Peculier is a fine dark beer.

Reine said...

I can't say enough for a good dark beer, unless I'm lucky enough to be drinking it in good company. One day we'll meet up at one of those, Alex, and I'll buy.

Thanks for the report!

Winona Cross said...

Are some born biologically bad or evil? It is a good question. I've always thought we all have the potential but it may be deeply buried due to evolution. However, society, parental influence, childhood peers especially during the high school years, or maybe even as part of a psychological disorder may bring it out of its hiding place.

We've seen a lot of bad come from psychological breaks lately. My question is--do the medications so many kids are placed on "to control them" are to blame. I think they're given too easily.

A question for you Alex. You've introduced me to Craig's books. Can you tell me some authors from Scotland or the UK who write similar to you, especially like the Huntress series?

I do enjoy the little journeys to Scotland that you provide. And, I thank you for it.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Reine, can't wait to sit down with you in real time, with a good dark beer!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Winona, I've read studies that indicate kids who are predisposed to sociopathic behavior do respond to early intervention and loving nurturing. But of course that's also what I desperately want to believe!

As for book recs, I am crazy about Tana French (she's Irish), Denise Mina, Mo Hayder (very, very VERY dark, though, borderline horror), and Nicci French. All write suspenseful psychological crime thrillers with strong female characters and real sensuality of description.