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July 18, 2018

ThrillerFest XIII: George R.R. Martin and Megan Abbott Tackle Bestsellers, TV and More


On Friday, July 13th, I attended my first ThrillerFest with's Editorial Director Tom Donadio and President Carol Fitzgerald. Not only was this the 13th celebration of the annual conference of the International Thriller Writers (ITW), but this day of programming was being held on Friday the 13th, which was thrillingly appropriate.

The conference, which is targeted to writers rather than fans (though plenty of those attend, too!), was created in 2004 by a group of bestselling authors who wanted to bring together writers, readers, publishers, producers, editors and agents to promote and support thriller authors everywhere. They saw a disctinction between the thriller and the mystery genres, the latter of which is represented by Mystery Writers of America (MWA), It has the feel of a summer camp for thriller writers. The ThrillerFest programming is preceded by two days of CraftFest, where aspiring authors take classes taught by bestselling authors and have the opportunity to meet with agents.

One of the highlights of ThrillerFest is interviews with the ThrillerMasters and Spotlight Guests. This year’s guests included ThrillerMaster George R.R. Martin, Spotlight Guest Megan Abbott, and one of my personal favorites, 2017 ThrillerMaster Lee Child. Wait, George R.R. Martin, you ask? Yes, that’s right, the man behind the epic mega-hit “Game of Thrones” was the first speaker I saw at my very first ThrillerFest --- and no, he didn’t talk THE WINDS OF WINTER, the hotly anticipated final book in his bestselling series, except to say that he knows fans are longing for it and, yes, he is behind on his deadline.

As GRRM (wearing his trademark Mets cap) took to the stage with his editor, Anne Groell, it was like the air went out of the room for me. I am rarely starstruck, but seeing the real GRRM only a few feet away felt historic and monumental. Of course, in perfect comedic timing, the lights went out just as the two began their presentation (for reasons unknown) --- a man in the back yelled “Winter is coming!” to many laughs.

Speaking about his early writing career, GRRM explained that he began as a diehard comic book fan, and even wrote for fanzines, selling his first story in 1970. He grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, without a local bookstore, and so he purchased 35 cent paperbacks from a spinning rack in a candy store. At that age, genres basically didn’t exist for him; books were good, or they were predictable. This is why he now loves to edit compilations, such as DANGEROUS WOMEN, which compiles several different types of short stories with one common theme.

GRRM continued to break into sci-fi and published his first novel in 1977. His fourth novel was supposed to be his breakout, but when it did not sell as well as anticipated, he transitioned into TV, becoming the producer for the revival of “The Twilight Zone.” He continued to work in television for a few years, until he was ready to return to prose. In 1991 he started writing a little book called A GAME OF THRONES (yes THAT one).

Martin also spoke about the upcoming SyFy adaptation of his book NIGHTFLYERS. Humorously, he wrote it as a response to a critic who wrote a piece claiming that sci-fi and horror were polar opposites that could never be combined successfully. In discussing the adaptation of NIGHTFLYERS, GRRM also expressed an issue that is very dear to him: the race of his main character, Melantha. When Martin originally penned his novella, Melantha was very clearly described as having “shiny coal-black skin.” On the cover of the novella, however, there was an image of a white woman. Although Martin argued this fact at the time, he was convinced that the book would simply not sell with a woman of color on the cover. At ThrillerFest, he stated that not fighting harder was one of his biggest regrets, but one that is being remedied with the new television show, which stars Jodie Turner-Smith.

Although GRRM’s editor stated that he would not be discussing THE WINDS OF WINTER, that is not the only book he has been working on. FIRE AND BLOOD, a history of the Targaryens, is releasing this November, and Martin was happy to explain a bit more about it. First and foremost, he wants his readers to know that FIRE AND BLOOD is NOT a novel; it's firmly in the realm of history books. The facts in the novel were compiled by two of Martin's superfans, and then fleshed out by GRRM himself.

Following GRRM’s panel, I raced to the signing line, which had already wrapped around the signing area. Still, I was not leaving ThrillerFest without meeting the man behund Arya Stark. Tom and I stood in line for nearly 45 minutes, and it was 100% worth it to shake hands with GRRM and talk about the Mets with him --- he still fondly remembers game six of 1986, when the Mets made a legendary comeback.

After meeting GRRM, Tom and I attended the “Travel, Interview or Google” panel, which was moderated by author Robert Gussin and featured authors Ted Bell, David Corbett, Joseph Finder, Joseph Fink, Mark Greaney, Gregg Hurwitz and Sean Parnell. What could have been a very tedious discussion about research quickly turned into one of the funniest and most interesting panels I have ever attended as the men shared stories about jumping out of planes, visiting morgues and discussing the best ways to murder someone. It would be impossible to sum up this discussion, as it seemed as though each story was better and more shocking than the last, but the common theme was that research is of the utmost importance, even when writing fiction. Ted Bell explained that while he does feel comfortable faking some places, Moscow was one setting he simply could not fake. David Corbett agreed, saying it is not just what people say about a place, but how they make you feel. Gregg Hurwitz summed it up best, perhaps, when he said, “Research is not meant to fill in the blanks of your story…it is about being open to possibility.”

Up next was Spotlight Guest Megan Abbott, who was interviewed by 2017 ThrillerMaster Lee Child. Megan Abbott is best known for her books DARE ME and YOU WILL KNOW ME, with her latest, GIVE ME YOUR HAND, out this week. Megan began by explaining that she grew up in a family of readers, where trips to the used bookstore and library were weekly events, but that she was always drawn to mysteries and gangster stories. Her mother would even let her stay home from school some days to watch old classic gangster films, which clearly set her on a noir-inspired path. Her first book was actually her Ph.D. thesis on film noir and hardboiled fiction, setting her apart as not only a fantastic writer, but also an expert on the genre.

Like GRRM, Abbott admitted that her early noir novels were basically “fan fiction” --- until she wrote QUEENPIN. There are not many powerful female characters in noir, or at least not ones who aren’t femme fatales, so QUEENPIN felt particularly fresh and empowering. Abbott continued to write these period noirs until she noticed a similarity between the themes in her work and the drama of surviving adolescence. Like any great work of noir or crime fiction, adolescence often feels like a time you are lucky to survive. At the same time, the emotions --- including rage and jealousy --- are all-consuming, and it felt like the perfect place to explore the themes in which she was interested in a way that felt fresh and modernized.

Abbott was interested not only in adolescence, but in tightknit sub-communities. Enter DARE ME, a book about cheerleaders, and YOU WILL KNOW ME, which is set in the world of competitive women’s gymnastics. Both worlds feature ambitious athletic young women and the kind of desperation we typically only see in dark crime fiction.

If you have not yet read DARE ME, now is the perfect time to do so, as Abbott --- who also has been working as a screenwriter on “The Deuce” --- has just finished revising the screenplay for the television adaptation. On writing the screenplay for your own novel, Abbott explained, “It’s like an ex moving back into your apartment and not leaving until you solve all your issues.”

All in all, my first ThrillerFest was a tremendous success, and I absolutely loved the energy of the event, which is so different from other book-related conventions. There is a real sense of camaraderie and creation, and I can see why it has become so popular over the years. Now to tackle all of the books I added to my TBR list. Wish me luck!