Helen Fields: A Funny Thing Happened to Me In New York…
…And it goes like this. On my final day at Thrillerfest in New York City, a stunning combination of writing master classes, pitchfest, and author panels, as well as social events and awards, I took the opportunity to go for a morning stroll. I was walking towards Dylan’s candy store (for my children, of course) about twenty blocks north of my hotel, and en route is St Patrick’s Cathedral. Having a love of architecture, stained glass and history, I decided to stop off and wander around. Suffice to say, it’s high church. The doormen looked like CIA operatives, and there was a reverent hush to the place that’s both uplifting and disturbing. I’ve never known so many people be so quiet in one place. All was well. I was respectfully dressed. I moved quietly through the main part of the building, then stopped to admire the huge purple window at one end. At that point, my mobile phone, maximum volume of course, demanded that I “go left on 42nd Street then take the next right…’ By then I’d got to it and had turned the volume all the way down. Everyone stared, but to their credit no one actually tutted out loud. I’d never heard an electronic voice echo off Cathedral walls like that, and I hope never to again. I left pretty quickly after that. (And yes, I took the left on 42nd, in case you were wondering.)
The relevance of this story (wait, it’s coming) is that I’ve been to a few crime festivals where I had that same feeling. Wrong place, wrong time, no business being there, and all I was doing was embarrassing myself. Thrillerfest 2018 did not feel like that. Perhaps it was the American ebullience that made me feel at home, or the fact that it’s taken me a couple of years to quell my chronic imposter syndrome, but in any event, it was incredibly friendly. Not just on an author to author basis. What Thrillerfest gets right is the sense that any aspiring writer can go up and talk to any established writer without having to apologise out of the gate. I saw authors giving their time so freely, I was astounded by it. There was no hiding in corners with best pals, or escaping as quickly as possible to the bar. It seemed to be understood that everyone’s purpose for the four-day festival was to reach out, encourage, engage and facilitate. At all levels. People helped and advised me. I did the same. Everyone – that’s no exaggeration – everyone I spoke to, stopped to assist me for as long as I needed. The panel I was on was well attended, and we encouraged audience participation. It was fun, but we touched on some serious points of writing, and on what readers were looking for from the endings of books. I learned a lot. That’s what I love about the writing stage I’m at right now.
I feel as if I’ve never been at a steeper point in my writing curve. Every time I sit down with someone else in the industry, whatever role they play, I come out feeling inspired and better informed. This is one of the most enlightening factors of festivals. Hearing agents talk about what they want (and don’t want). Too few people listen really carefully. Hearing publishers talk about the state of the industry, trends, marketing, sales. Too few people apply all of this to their work in progress. And hearing a genius like George R R Martin talk about his career was a highlight of Thrillerfest for me. I was fairly over-excited about it on Twitter, and I will not apologise. Authors should still feel a thrill a getting a glimpse of the writers who came before them and helped pave the path. We shouldn’t get complacent about telling our heroes how much we love their work, and how it brightened our lives at the darkest times. I sat for an hour and listened to the Game of Thrones creator speak, and it was like knowing that the person in front of you could do real magic. Not illusions, not trickery. Real magic. I get the same thrill now when I open the latest Stephen King novel that I did as a teenager. I rave about new authors I’ve found in the same way I did in my twenties, boring my mates endlessly at the pub on a Friday night.
Festivals are for talking. Not just to your friends (obviously do that) but to strangers. I met some wonderful people in New York. I know I’ll meet a whole bunch of wonderful people in Stirling this September at Bloody Scotland. I hope anyone there will feel free to walk up and ask me anything they want. But remember to be a child. Books – stories, in fact – should have that effect on us. We should leave a book awed, shocked, amused, scared. Changed. Festivals give us a chance to share our love of books. I came away with a renewed love for the writing and reading community. I made new friends, and wished I could have had more time there. It’s all because there was a thrill in the air – a tangible one. I came home wanting nothing other than to recreate that the next time I sat down to write.
You can find out about Helen’s upcoming events on her Twitter @Helen_Fields.