Blast from the Past 1988

I was going through some old files the other day, trying to weed a bit (hopeless task!) and came across a copy of a letter I wrote to my mother nearly twenty-five years ago, in May of 1988. It’s ten pages long, single spaced, and was written after I got back home from the Fourth International Crime Writers Congress in NYC, an event that ran from a Monday afternoon opening reception at the New York Public Library through a Friday afternoon farewell reception at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center and included the annual Edgar Awards banquet on Thursday evening at the Sheraton Centre, where most of the congress panels and events were held.

What was most interesting to me in rereading that letter after all these years is how sure of myself I sound. That may have been because, with a few exceptions, I didn’t know who was a big name in the mystery community and who wasn’t. At that point in my writing career I had three books in print, one nonfiction and two children’s books, only one of which was a mystery. I did not have an agent and I had made my most recent sales to a young adult romance line published by Silhouette. Two of those three books were actually mysteries featuring the same girl detective, but they weren’t yet published and, as it turned out, they would not be, but that’s another story.

Many of the people I met were introduced to me by my editor at Silhouette, Carolyn Marino. The same Carolyn Marino who went on to become one of the top mystery editors at Harper Collins. One of the Silhouette book club editors she introduced me to was a young woman named Janet Hutchings. She currently edits Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. At the Edgars banquet I sat at the Silhouette table, which may sound odd, but the folks at Harlequin/Silhouette considered themselves players in the genre with both the Harlequin Intrigue and Silhouette Intimate Moments lines. I later sold a romantic suspense novel, Cloud Castles, to IM.

The other person who knew a lot of folks and provided introductions, including one to Isaac Asimov, was Carol-Lynn Rössel Waugh from Winthrop. She and I had been part of a small group of children’s book writers in Central Maine, all members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, who cheered each other on in those days before there were very many organizations for writers. If not for Carol-Lynn, I’m not sure I’d have gotten into the conference habit so quickly. She’d already encouraged me to venture out to children’s writers gatherings in Connecticut and Massachusetts, but NYC with crime writers was a pretty big next step. At that time, Carol-Lynn was co-editor of several short story anthologies as well as the author of an adorable picture book titled My Friend Bear.

Since I was writing to my mother, I was blunt about my first impressions from favorable to not so much. I described Joan Lowery

Phyllis A. Whitney and Joan Lowery Nixon

Nixon, an award-winning children’s and young adult mystery author I admired a great deal, as “very friendly throughout the conference.” In fact, the day after I first met her, she spotted me looking lost at an open seating luncheon and called me over with an invitation to join her table. On the other hand, I wrote that Joan Hess, who had written a book for Silhouette’s YA line and “also writes adult mysterie,” “is very obnoxious.” And I described Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels, whose books I loved, as “a chain smoking, arrogant, militant feminist.” This last was mostly because the panel she moderated, on romantic suspense (Mary Higgins Clark, Charlotte MacLeod, Reginald Hill, and Harlequin editor Susan Stone) “deteriorated into a complaint against books being categorized as romantic suspense instead of merely as mysteries.” Funny how some things never change! I was wrong about Elizabeth/Barbara, though, aside from the smoking. But then, this was 1988, and everyone smoked. In fact, I came away with the distinct impression that it might be a requirement for success in the mystery field. As for Joan Hess, as anyone who has met her knows, she is very blunt and outspoken. On better acquaintance, I came to appreciate that about her, and to admire her for it.

I made one other error in judgment, a big one. On Thursday, I went to a meeting of Sisters in Crime “an organization formed because they felt women writers were being discriminated against by reviewers and by awards committees. I left early.” Why? To me, having lived in rural Maine for the previous fifteen years, much of that time isolated in my own little writing world, Sara Paretsky sounded awfully radical. Live and learn. Last year I became a lifetime member of SinC.

I met and had conversations with quite a few legends during that week: Dorothy Hughes (then 85, she had been writing suspense since the 1940s), John Ball (who wrote the original In the Heat of the Night in 1965), Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Peter Lovesey, Ed Hoch, and Isaac Asimov.

Among newer “stars” I met and talked with were Margaret Maron, Charlotte MacLeod, Sharyn McCrumb, and Aaron Elkins. The latter two won Edgars that year, Sharyn for best paperback original (Bimbos of the Death Sun, which I bought and started to read while in New York and which may well have been my introduction to the humorous mystery) and Aaron for best novel for Old Bones, the fourth in his Gideon Oliver series (which is still going strong.) He let me touch his award, which is a small plaster bust of Edgar Allan Poe. His comment at the time: “It doesn’t look nearly so ugly with my name on it.”

I also met “a young, unpublished writer from Texas (he runs a bookstore there) named Dean James.” Dean, of course, who has been a friend ever since, has been published many times since and is currently writing a bestselling series under the pseudonym Miranda James.

Lunch on Wednesday featured as speaker one Rudolph W. Guiliani, U. S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who congratulated us on our bravery for being there since his life had been threatened by the mob. To Mom I commented that she’d probably seen him on TV “talking about such white collar crimes as tax evasion and insider trading,” and added that this talk was “more interesting than I expected. He is likely to run for office in the next few years.” Gee, ya think?

Phyllis Whitney, also age 85, was Grand Master that year. Unfortunately, she was ill and had to miss many of the events and I never got to meet her. She obviously recovered, because she was around for another twenty years. In 1988, her 70th book had just been published.

It was at the farewell reception that I ran into Margaret Maron again, together with her “non-writing husband,” Joe. “He’s an art person,” I wrote, and went on to try to describe the silliness of our conversation. Since Charlotte MacLeod’s The Corpse in Oozak’s Pond had been a nominee for the Edgar that year, we thought it would be a great idea to write a pastiche titled The Corpse in Oozing Paint. Needless to say, we were all pretty punchy by then.

So that was it, my first experience with a mystery con. What a way to start! And, clueless me, until the following year I was under the mistaken impression that “Edgars’ Week” was always like that.


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13 Responses to Blast from the Past 1988

  1. Deanna says:

    What wonderful memories you have. Dee

  2. thelma straw says:

    This was fun! I’ve been a member of MWA since 1988 and some of the big stars back then are only memories in the mist now… MWA does give one the sense of time passing… we wonder which of the current BIG NAMES will be the BIG memories in future days!! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

    • Too true, Thelma. In my letter to my mother I dropped many more names than I mentioned here. Some ring no bells with me at all today. Others, sadly, have died, many of them too soon to have known about ebooks. I can only hope that whoever has the rights to their novels will make them available again for this generation of readers, as happened just this last year with all of Charlotte MacLeod’s books. I had them in paperback, but the print was so small that it was a real struggle to reread them.

  3. MCWriTers says:

    I only wish I had written such a letter to my mother, Kaitlyn, especially now that I’m at the stage where I can’t remember anything. I can’t remember who else was in the car–Jeep? Land Rover? Something that felt like it belonged on an African safari, that I rode all over Boulder in after leaving a party that Michael Connolly had thrown. We sang old rock and roll songs. There was a cabaret/talent show at an unused theater in Boulder. I discovered that Joan Hess and I were ’49’ers…both born the same year. I found I was spending a lot of time with the smokers, who always turned out to be the most interesting people.

    Golly, we should do a Sunday group post some time on conference memories. Among mine–that magic moment when I realized what a relief it was to be in a whole group of people who share the writing experience, instead of alone, at home, at my desk.

  4. Lea Wait says:

    Sp glad you saved that letter, Kaitlyn! (Memories of days when we wrote letters and not e-mails!) What a wonderful conference itmust have been, especially for someone just starting on the path that’s taken you to a point when you can see the “fifty books published” marker just ahead. And what wonderful people whose paths have crossed yours along the way …. So glad you shared 1988 with us.

  5. I remember that conference. Mary Higgins Clark was a (the?) driving force behind it. I remember her in an emerald-green linen dress. She looked absolutely gorgeous and fit; someone told me she had been forced to visit three or four of those ranch-style spas as research for her latest thriller. Ah! I said to myself. So this is how it’s done! Ever since then I’ve been all set to go to the spa and take it off on my taxes, but I haven’t been able to manage the best-selling thriller part yet.

    • Hi, Kate. Yes, Mary Higgins Clark was the outgoing MWA president and it had just been announced that she had a new contract with a huge (for those days) advance. If I remember right, the incoming president remarked that he hoped it would be the start of a new tradition for outgoing officers.

  6. John Clark says:

    Thanks for sharing this set of memories. Funny how some people strike us so strongly at first meeting and even when that impression might seem negative, they later become among those we value most.

  7. Barb Ross says:

    Kaitlyn–I feel like you’ve taken us time-travelling. Is it me, or just your wide-eyedness that make this feel so much more glamorous than mystery conference today?

    • Barb, I was definitely starstruck, But most people were very open and friendly. I think part of it was that there weren’t all that many mystery cons in those days. It was a treat for everyone, famous or not, to hang out with other writers.

  8. Loved this post, Kaitlyn! Thank you for sharing your memories. John’s right — it’s funny the way we judge some people right off the bat, and then our opinion changes (for better or worse) with the passage of time.

  9. Carol-Lynn Rössel says:

    How kind of you, Kathy!
    I remember watching Giuliani give that speech – he was clear across the room from us, on some balcony, or maybe I was on some balcony – and I told a buncha people “That guy is going for some office.” It does not seem so long ago. I can put myself in that room, at that long luncheon table with you and Isaac. He always brought a bunch of his books with him to sign for people. Such a good guy. I remember Mary Higgins Clark, too: that dark hair and that dress up on the dais. But mostly, maybe, I remember Phyllis Whitney, with that grey-white bun. I remember I was amazed she was still alive and was thankful I’d seen her. I grew up with her books, one of which – or was it two? – was set on Staten Island.

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