Back in Flannel Again

For a night, I was a princess.

That’s what I felt like at the Edgar Awards Banquet, dressed in a long beaded gown, photographers’ flashbulbs going off all around me. One of the photogs leaned in and whispered into my ear: “Wow! Great dress!”

So I think I’ll digress for just a moment and tell you about that dress. Forgive this unapologetically girly story, but it really is relevant to the whole Edgars thing.

Some years ago, I spotted the dress — gray satin with aqua and silver beads — in a very nice store. It was not cheap. It cost way more than I have ever paid, or expect ever again to pay, for a dress. My husband asked, dubiously: “Where will you ever wear it?” It was a good question, because where we live, in Maine, getting “dressed up” simply means putting on a clean flannel shirt. Where WOULD I wear this dress I coveted so much?

“If I ever get nominated for an Edgar Award,” I told him, “I’ll wear this dress.”

Which tells you what an Edgar Award represented for me: the ultimate honor. A reason for buying a fairy-princess dress.

For years, that dress hung in my closet, never worn, just waiting as though in hibernation. Oh, I could have brought it out for a special occasion here and there — a doctors’ formal evening, for instance. But I never did. Somehow I felt that dress had to be reserved for something truly magical, and if I wore it for anything less, I’d be giving up on a dream. (If there are any men reading this, I’m sure you’re wondering “Are all women this insane?”)

But then the amazing thing happened: I got nominated for an Edgar.

And so the dress came with me to New York.

Even though I didn’t win the Edgar Award, the whole experience was a blast. It started off on Tuesday evening with a boisterous street party outside the Black Orchid Bookstore on E. 81st Street. There I caught up with old friends. I saw charming Ken Bruen, with whom I’d shared an evening in a Dublin pub back in January, and Jim Born, who’s a guy you’d want on your side if a fistfight ever breaks out. I saw the ever-gorgeous Laura Lippman, met the writing team of PJ Parrish (I’m addicted to their blog) and caught up with Chris Grabenstein, whose zingy new book is due out in June.

The next day was the Edgars symposium and a mass book signing at Borders on 57th Street. There I was reminded of my lowly place in the universe as I sat idle and watched the endless line of fans waiting for Janet Evanovich to sign their books. Which gave me time to chat with Reed Coleman and get acquainted with the amazing Catherine Crier. Now there’s a gal I could happily talk to for hours, about anything.

Then it was Thursday. Edgars night.

It started out with a nominees’ private cocktail party, where I was so overwhelmed by all the new names and faces that I’m sure I said a lot of really stupid things. I got up the courage to introduce myself to Michael Connelly, saw old friends Jeff Deaver and Jerry Healy, and marveled over Twist Phelan’s sleek dress — blue satin, if I remember correctly. Then it was on to the general cocktail party, where I saw Sarah Weinman and Ron Horgan, two of my favorite bloggers, and I barely missed meeting George Pelecanos because he got lost in the crowd before I could make my way to him. Much of the chitchat wasn’t about mystery writing but about the recent plagiarism scandal. In Hollywood, they whisper about who’s sleeping with whom. In the publishing biz, this is the best gossip we can come up with? Who’s stealing words from whom? We have got to get us some sexier scandals.

The ceremony itself is a bit of a wine-soaked blur for me. My category, Best Novel, was the last one awarded, so I had to wait until ten PM to hear the winner. Although it wasn’t my name that got called, I was delighted to see the Edgar go to Jess Walters (CITIZEN VINCE).

Afterwards, there were the expected rounds of congratulations or sympathy pats. I chatted with my fellow Camden resident Richard Russo, who, like me, was heading to the Newburyport Literary Festival the next day. I had a last cocktail in the lounge with the ever-dapper Andrew Gulli of THE STRAND MAGAGZINE. Then it was time to shed the princess costume and pack.

So now I’m home, and back in my old flannel shirt.

Most of the time, writing books is a flannel- shirt sort of life. I sit at my desk, my hair uncombed, unseen by anyone except maybe the UPS driver. I go months without wearing makeup, and forget how to wear high heels. Then my book gets turned in, the publication gears grind into action, and it’s time for the book tour.

And I have to leave the house.

That’s the business. One day you’re a slobby hermit. The next day you’re on TV.

Funny, You Don’t Look Dutch

I got home from Amsterdam late last night, and I have to leave tomorrow for NYC and Edgars week, but I thought I’d pop onto the blog just to say something about the state of bookselling in the Netherlands. Although I’ve been to Holland several times, visiting family, this was the first time I’d been invited for a book tour. I discovered a few interesting quirks in the Dutch book market.

First, that it’s NOT a good thing to have a name like Gerritsen.

This is a typical Dutch name — something I was reminded of from the moment I checked in for my flight at Logan Airport in Boston. The Northwest ticket agent looked at me in puzzlement and said, “You have such a Dutch name.” The journalists I met in Amsterdam also commented on my “typically Dutch name.” It’s the equivalent of, say, Smith in the U.S. You’d think that’d be an advantage in Holland, right? That Dutch readers would flock to an author who was “one of them”?

Not a chance.

In fact, a few years ago, someone in my Dutch publishing house suggested, gently, that I use my maiden name for my Dutch translation. “Dutch thriller authors,” he said, “get no respect in their home country.” Which strikes me as really sad for those poor Dutch authors, being so discriminated against by their own countrymen. I heard that claim repeated several times, by different people, so that I have to think it must be true: that foreigners have an easier time making the Dutch bestseller lists than local authors. If I wasn’t so jet-lagged at the moment, I’d be able to dredge up the appropriate saying about a prophet getting no respect in his home town. Or something about familiarity breeding contempt.

(And if you think Dutch authors have it bad in Holland, said one journalist, just try publishing there under a German name. WWII memories are still strong there.)

I’ve heard that David Baldacci faced the same dilemma when he was published in Italy. He was told that he should change his name to something “less Italian”, since Italian authors didn’t sell as well in Italy. Baldacci complied, and initially published his book under a veddy British name, so I was told. I don’t know if it helped his sales any, but his situation certainly mirrored what I’ve faced in Holland.

I, however, refused to change my name. And up till now, I think it may have hurt my sales.

So part of the reason for going to Holland, oddly enough, was to show my face and prove to Dutch book buyers that I’m not Dutch. It may be one of the first times in my life when being obviously Asian is a distinct advantage.

The Netherlands, with a population of 17 million, is a relatively small book market But if you add in the population of Belgium (10 million) which is also part of the Dutch language market, then it does start to look significant, with one quirk: many of them prefer to read books in their original English version. Yes, the Dutch and Belgians are THAT fluent and comfortable in English. I was impressed by that again and again whenever I’d speak to someone — anyone — on the street. Most Dutch people can flip right over to perfect English, at the drop of a hat.

Another unique aspect of bookselling there is the lack of discounting. Books are sold at cover price — NO discounting allowed — for at least a few months. Then, after the book has had its run, the books can be discounted as book club editions. Which means that bookstores there aren’t suffering through the crisis that so many book chains in the UK are facing, with deep discounts leading to slimmmer and slimmer profits.

My book ZUSTER MOORD (Body Double) goes on sale this week in Holland. I had interviews with several Dutch and Belgian newspapers, plus four photo sessions. It will be interesting to see if sales bump up as a result.

A Writer Never Stops Writing

I sent off my final, revised manuscript of THE MEPHISTO CLUB yesterday. A few clicks on the keyboard, and off it went through the ether to my editor at Ballantine. (I do love the computer age!)

But now I have a problem. I’m in between books, and I don’t know what to do with myself.

For the past year, I’ve labored over MEPHISTO CLUB. I’ve whined about it, agonized over it, had nightmares about it. Now that I’m finally free of it, am I ecstatic? No. I’m drifting around the house like a lost child. I did the laundry. I went grocery shopping. I answered my neglected email. But somewhere, in the back of my mind, is this uneasy feeling that I’m playing hooky. That I’m not doing my job.

This is the writer’s curse. We never feel we’re really “off” the job.

Now I head off to attend to yet another part of the job – publicity. I leave for Amsterdam tomorrow, on my Dutch book tour. And then it’s on to New York City and the Edgar awards. So no blogging for a week.

“It’s like having sex for the very first time!”

That’s the metaphor I kept hearing from my fellow travelers when they tried to describe what it’s like to see your very first solar eclipse. I was on my way to Libya, where I hoped to lose my “eclipse virginity” as these guys and gals like to call it. If I was the equivalent of a virgin in this crowd, then these folks, judging by the size of their telescopes and telephoto lenses, could only be called eclipse sluts. Not that being an eclipse slut is a bad thing, because these were some of the most interesting people I’ve ever come across.

There was Bob, the petroleum geologist from Arp, Texas, who took me on a walk through the desert, pointing out all the fossils and minerals that I’d never realized were all around us. Suddenly, I saw the desert with new eyes. Burning with the zeal of the newly converted, I started picking up handfuls of interesting rocks to take home — a decision I’d later pay for when I tried to get my two-ton suitcase to the airport. Bob thinks filling your suitcase with rocks is perfectly normal behavior. This is a guy who once paid for an extra airline seat to transport home a prize 200-pound rock. And then at the airport, asked for a wheelchair so he could get it aboard the plane.

There was Sheila, an environmentalist from Washington, and her husband David, a biologist with the National Academy of Sciences. David can explain the life cycle of just about every fish or crustacean that crosses your dinner plate. Life may be futile and death may be inevitable, but as David says: “There’s always seafood!”

There were rocket scientists and computer geeks and nuclear engineers. And there were really serious backyard astronomers, lugging a fortune in optical equipment, guys whose idea of a great Saturday night is shivering outside in zero degrees, perfectly sober, searching the skies for a glimpse of the North American Nebula.

These were the folks with whom I shared the Libyan desert that day. We were joined by thousands of eclipse chasers from around the world, all of us milling about in the heat and dust, waiting for the main event.

An NPR reporter who was at the scene described it this way in his radio broadcast: “It’s like a refugee camp for nerds!”

He got it right. I love nerds. I married one.

So what was it like, losing my eclipse virginity?

I remember how the light changed during the hour it took the moon to gradually cover the sun, as though thick clouds were moving in. But the sky was perfectly clear.

I remember how the wind suddenly and eerily picked up, as though something evil was whirling toward us.

I remember how cold it suddenly got, the temperature plunging fifteen degrees within just a few minutes.

And I remember that as the last flicker of daylight vanished, the normally deadpan engineer who was standing right next to me suddenly yelled out: “I … SEE …CORONA!”

For these guys, it really is like having sex.

During totality, Venus and Mercury appeared in the sky. Exuberant Libyans honked their car horns. Birds suddenly took off, confused by the darkness. All around us was a 360-degree sunset.

Four and a half minutes later, totality ended. The sun reappeared, the wind died, and folks began to pack up their telescopes and camera gear.

And I came home.

I don’t know if I’ll ever use any of this in a book. A writer can’t always predict if a seemingly trivial experience will work its way into a story. You don’t know if the confabulating tour guide or the grinning boy on the camel will blossom into fictional characters.

What’s important is that writers seek out these experiences, that we continue to put away memories. That we never stop asking questions and exploring new places. It’s not self-indulgence; it’s part of the job.


And a special message to the Indonesia Hackers Society: boys and girls, you’ve been very, very naughty!