Thursday, November 12, 2020

We’ll Always Have Albany from James W. Ziskin

 Give us some of your funniest and most memorable stories from traveling to book festivals

This week’s topic takes me back to my very first writers conference. It was September 2013, and I was attending Bouchercon in Albany, NY. My debut novel, Styx & Stone, was set to be released three weeks later, and I knew nobody, except fellow author Lynne Raimondo. Our editor, Dan Mayer, had introduced us via e-mail, and Lynne provided me with my first blurb. She and I met for dinner in a restaurant not too far from the Empire State Plaza,  and we became great friends. We’ve remained close ever since.

Many people in the mystery and crime writing community recall Albany with disdain. But not me. I loved it. Maybe because I grew up about thirty miles from there. The setting was familiar and a bit nostalgic. I remembered class field trips to the brand-new museum at the Empire State Plaza when I was a kid. If I’m honest, I must admit that the place hadn’t changed since the late sixties when I’d first visited. Nothing had been updated.

The Empire State Plaza was the brainchild of Governor Nelson Rockefeller. He was reportedly moved to action after Princess Beatrix, the future queen of the Netherlands, visited Albany in 1959. The governor was embarrassed by the squalor of the state capital. The project to transform downtown Albany took more than ten years to complete, and included razing about a hundred acres of Albany’s South End to make room for the Empire State Plaza and the Egg. (If anyone is interested, I included a brief tour of the South End neighborhood in A Stone’s Throw, my sixth Ellie Stone mystery. The year is 1962.)

At Bouchercon 2013, most complaints from the attendees had to do with the lack of a centralized location. There was no hotel large enough in the area to accommodate the throngs of writers and readers, so people were scattered. The venue itself left something to be desired. The panels were held in windowless rooms below street level, deep inside the Empire State Plaza. It felt as if we were in a bunker. And since the bulk of the conference took place on the weekend, when the usual state workers were off, there were few options for food at the site.

But by far the loudest grumbling from the attendees was that there was no convenient bar where the faithful could gather to socialize. As anyone who’s ever attended Bouchercon—or other writers conferences, for that matter—knows, the bar is the place to meet, even if you don’t drink. So it’s natural that people came away from Albany feeling somewhat deprived of the social side of the event.

I happened to have been staying with relatives about twenty minutes away, so, for once, I was not parking myself in the bar, since I was driving back and forth to the conference. As I mentioned above, I knew no one anyway. So I wasn’t complaining. I was having an amazing time. It reminded me of my first few days as a freshman in college. I was uninitiated and naive, but loving every minute.

I may not have known anyone when I arrived, but I did by the time I left Albany. Wonderful people. The very first writer I met was Barry Lancet. We hit it off immediately, perhaps because we were newbies. I also met Sara J. Henry and Michael Sears the first day. And my dear, dear friend and fellow 7 Criminal Mind, Cathy Ace.

With Cathy Ace at Monterey

My editor at Seventh Street Books, Dan Mayer, made sure that his authors all got to know each other at Albany. That’s when I first met my fellow 7 Criminal Mind Terry Shames. She’s one of my favorite writers, and we’re fast friends to this day. We all had a great lunch together (if you don’t count Mark Pryor’s presence...) Just kidding. He’s a great guy and a fabulous writer.

L-R Lynne Raimondo, Mark Pryor, me, and Terry Shames in Albany

My editor, Dan Mayer, also introduced me to Louise Penny in Albany. She was with her dear husband, Michael, who has since passed away. Louise was so gracious, and when I saw her again at Bouchercon Toronto in 2017, she said she remembered meeting me in Albany. I was thrilled. Here I am with Louise and the oh-so-talented Art Taylor in Toronto. We were celebrating our Macavity Award wins.

L-R, me, Louise Penny, and Art Taylor, Bouchercon Toronto 2017

I may not have funny stories from my first writers conference, but I can say that it was a life-changing experience for me. I found so much inspiration and so many new friends. Since 2013, I’ve become a regular at the major conferences. I look forward to the day when we can all meet again in person.


Greg Herren said...

I actually had a great time in Albany. It was my first return to Bouchercon in years since a bad experience had soured me on the whole thing--writer friends insisted I had to go to Albany.

Yeah, the venues left something to be desired, but I had a great time--and the primary hotel bar had the best Bloody Marys.....

Susan C Shea said...

Such good times we've had. As we've had to forego our conventions, I've come to appreciate them even more. We are with our people for days at a time - authors, "pre-published" writers, readers, editors and other industry people. We get to talk business but also get to know each other and create and refresh friendships. Darn, I miss them! See you on zoom...

Cathy Ace said...

Lovely memories - my first ever convention so I was blissfully unaware of how "odd" it was. I am so pleased we met there, and will never forget the joy of hitting it off with someone when I knew (almost) no one at all. Cheers! Here's to when we all get to do it again!

Ovidia Yu said...

It was my first Bouchercon too, and I remember meeting you there! I still have the copy you signed for me!

James W. Ziskin said...

Ovidia, it must have been a year later. I had no book in Albany! It was still three weeks away.
Maybe Long Beach or Monterey?