I guess that to understand why this was an epochal event - to me - you must first understand that I'm the kind of writer who is a writer because he was the kind of child who stayed up in his room reading books. A bookworm, in other words. A loner. Someone more comfortable with words than with people.
When, in 1972, I got involved with a bunch of similar people who made up science fiction fandom, I did so via the mail. Back then science fiction fans exchanged letters, often typed out on manual typewriters. I am not, as another first-time mystery author is wont to say, making this up. We also exchanged fanzines mostly printed by mimeograph, a device which produced pages by - well, if you aren't old enough to know you are probably better off not knowing!
However, from time to time, these sf fans, isolated and scattered around the world, would congregate at conventions where they could meet each other in the mimeo-ink stained flesh. Except for me. I was a misfit among misfits.
The matter of my non-attendance became a bit of a joke. Surely I would break down and attend a con sooner or later. But five years passed, then ten and twenty and I never did sign up for a con, although I dashed briefly into the hotel where Chambanacon was being held to meet my future wife and co-author Mary in person for the first time (but that is another story). After many years, when people queried me on the matter, I would reply that if I ever attended a con it would probably be as a pro, which, given my decades of rejection slips, was as good as saying never.
The reason I allowed that I might attend as a pro had nothing to do with ego. I simply thought that I might be able to subject myself to crowds of strangers if I had some specific task to perform, beyond socializing which I knew very well was beyond me!
The day before Deadly Ink I began to have my doubts about this theory and on Saturday morning as I neared Mount Arlington, New Jersey where the conference was being held I just about turned into Allamuchy State Park instead. I had been there orienteering a few times. Orienteering is a sport where you go out into the woods alone (of course) with a map and compass and navigate between selected points or get lost, as the case may be. Getting lost sounded like a good idea.
However, I persevered on to the Mount Arlington and, to my horror, discovered that the Four Points Sheraton was about a hundred feet from the Interstate exit, dashing any idea I might have had about becoming disoriented in a maze of city streets and being unable to find my destination.
Entirely out of ruses, I emerged shakily from my Chevette, made my way into the hotel and almost immediately ran into organizer Patti Biringer. Trapped! I'd missed the continental breakfast but Patti invited me to sit down and have a cup of coffee. After talking to her for awhile I began to feel much more comfortable. Besides much of my attention was now being taken up by the task of transporting my enormous goodies bag full of books, pens, programs, a water bottle and so forth.
There were two panels going on in small conference rooms on either side of the booksellers' room. I chose the one on the changing face of publishing since Mary and I are, I hope, going to be part of it. There was some discussion of e-books and small publishers. Praise was heaped on Poisoned Pen Press, our own publisher. I definitely was feeling more confident, especially when I checked the new Independent Mystery Booksellers Association catalog and saw a listing not only for our first novel ONE FOR SORROW but for next October's TWO FOR JOY as well. We had just sent the finished manuscript for the latter to the Press the previous week.
During the day I spent some time talking with Richard Helms who has published JOKER POKER through iuniverse which uses the new print-on-demand technology. He was pulling out all the stops to publicize his book and had driven up from North Carolina for the conference. He was not alone in stressing the need for self-promotion and in expressing doubts about the Big Publishers' openness to no-name authors.
It was fortunate that I was feeling less shaky because my own panel, on researching historical mysteries was fast approaching. Mary and I share all the tasks involved in writing our fiction. That is to say, one of us is not just a copyeditor or researcher as is sometimes the case. Still, when it comes to that obscure, practically impossible to pin-down fact - did the Byzantines eat swordfish for example - Mary is the ace sleuth. Still, since she wasn't there, it was up to me to explain our methods as best I could to a - omigod - a roomful of people!
My luck continued to hold because the moderator was Roberta Rogow, author of. a series teaming up Lewis Carrol and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle She had obviously been to a few of these things before and knew how to deal with nervous neophytes. She was organized. Nevertheless, as I took my place at the table in the front of the conference room, I was about to enter the Twilight Zone.
As I mentioned, I was once a science fiction fan, and also, almost by definition, a science fiction writer manqué. (A nicer word than "wannabe," don't you think?) Many years ago, when I was very young and as yet unscarred by countless, cutting rejections, I admit to having had the occasional fantasy of what it would be like to be a real pro, to sit on a panel, side by side with my colleagues, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. That hadn't happened. I had grown up enough to understand that the reality was never much like the fantasy at any rate. Besides, now that I had written half a book, it was a mystery book and I was on a mystery panel, with other mystery writers.
Except that Roberta, I learned, had also started out in sf fandom, had written sf books, in fact. Very disconcerting. Perhaps this was all a dream. I would wake up, twenty-three, unpublished, my fingers scratched by staples from folding up the latest issue of my fanzine. I maintained my suddenly tenuous grip on reality by reminding myself that the third member of the panel would be impossible to mistake for a science fiction writer. April Kihlstrom has written Regency romances, and her book was a regency mystery. At which point she remarked that when it came to writing her settings her model was Robert Heinlein!
I might very well have been plunged into some Lovecraftian abyss of horror too dreadful to be described by words, even long, obfuscating and archaic words, except that, to be honest, I was kind of peeved because I had remarked to Mary a few days before that I tried to set the scene as Robert Heinlein had, by placing the reader right smack in the middle, along with the characters who are familiar with the world they live in and don't need some disembodied narrator explaining familiar things to them in tedious detail. Can't a guy have an original thought!
After that the panel went very well. I tried to avoid saying "y'know" more than once a sentence, didn't visibly tremble and didn't trip getting out of my chair at the end, though it was a near thing.
The dreaded booksigning was next. I say "dreaded" because Mary and I have been to a few booksignings, even before ONE FOR SORROW was published, when our John the Eunuch stories were appearing in anthologies. A booksigning, as I understand it, is where an author spends two hours displayed at the front of a store, much to the distress of puzzled customers who sidle by carefully, as they would past a largish rotweiller. The author is allowed to refer customers to the nearest clerk, watch customers'bags, or move aside so they can get at the latest Patricia Cornwall whose display the author is blocking. The author does not, however, sign books. (Maybe because, as Mary tells me, sf author Bob Shaw more or less remarked to her on autographing a book, "You can't send it back now, it's been scribbled in.")
At lunch Parnell Hall, who writes the Stanly Hastings and Puzzle Lady series, sang a hilarious song about signings at Waldenbooks, which sums the experience up perfectly. You can listen to the song at his web site. His talk was brilliant and I won't poach on it here. (And let myself be upstaged!) You have to hear him for yourself!
But on this day - Glory! Glory! - I got to sign four books! One, funnily enough, was purchased by a lady named Mary who had an English accent. Another went to a young man who said the book had caught his eye because of the movie Gladiator. Yes, I told him, Mary and I are hoping that somewhere in Hollywood someone is determined to buy up the movie rights to every single currently available book connected with any phase of the Roman Empire, just in case!
Following this triumph it was time for lunch beside the hotel's indoor pool. Not a very elegant setting since the pool was surrounded with yellow police tape on account of the body floating at one end. As Patti remarked to us, every mystery conference has to have a body.
Patti explained that three years earlier she had given herself until she was fifty to get a book published and seeing that that was not likely to happen had decided to put on a mystery conference for her birthday instead.
She called attention to our large, readable nametags. The size was to relieve people from having to squint at people's chests to decide whether they were worth speaking to. Having observed this custom at conventions, she had been tempted to wear a nametag that said, simply, "Yes, I am somebody."
I suppose I qualified as "somebody" because I got to wear the red lettered tag reserved for those of us there in some sort of professional capacity. It was a strange feeling, almost embarrassing, since I've worn life's black-lettered tag for 49 years and know too well that the difference between a published and an unpublished writer is often, simply, that the unpublished writer hasn't yet chanced to send his or her manuscript to the right editor.
Like Patti, I missed my own publication deadline, even though I'd given myself more time to get published than she had. When I was fifteen I vowed to be published by 21! So I missed by 28 years. Or 29, since as co-author I'll only have a whole book to my name when TWO FOR JOY comes out in October. I expect Patti won't miss her mark by that much and, in the meantime, we can thank the glacially slow workings of the publishing world for the delightful Deadly Ink!