If a successful thriller author were a character in a book, what words would you use to describe him or her? Is there a common thread in thriller authors’ journey to success? Is good writing enough?
At the opening reception ThrillerFest revealed its character: young, dynamic, open to new faces and ideas, and rising. But I hadn’t come to analyze the conference, so I pressed on with my quest, stopping to chat to new and old friends, famous and not, readers, writers, and publishers.
On the way out I stumbled on Ken Follett, an entourage at his side, and a microphone in his face. He was hanging out with us, laughing, chatting and apparently delighted to make the acquaintance, and the day, of gushing fans like me. Charming. Generous.
But back in 2005, Lynds had a run of luck that was all bad. Her step daughter fell into a coma following a serious accident and her husband died suddenly. Just one of these events might stop an ordinary mortal in their tracks, but Lynds keep up her stride, finishing The Book of Spies a month after Dennis’s death. Was that tenacity? Necessity? It was both, and it was more: larger-than-life heroism. The kind of quiet heroism that’s humbling.
Like looking up Allen Wyler, who I’d be working for on the ITW awards, and finding out about his staggering achievements. Orphaned as he approached college age, Wyler supported himself and went on to become an internationally renowned neurosurgeon, a best-selling thriller author and now he’s giving up his spare time to help foster other writers’ careers though the ITW awards. Tenacity, overcoming adversity, generosity, and larger-than-life heroism.
On the subway after day one my mind transformed the Hyatt into Mount Olympus and the authors, publishers, and agents stalking its halls, and meeting rooms became its Gods and Goddesses. ThrillerFest was a gathering of players, authors who were the best in the world at what has to be one of the toughest professions on the planet.
David Morrell won’t have heard of my hometown, Bendigo, situated a hundred miles inland from Melbourne, Australia, itself one of the most isolated western cities in the world. Although I read in the local paper that a boy who grew up 150 miles still further inland become a make-up artist for the movies and got to live in New York for a year, no one from Bendigo is famous.
But the people of Bendigo know David Morrell. Growing up, I can remember discussing what Rambo meant to America and to masculinity with my brother, a T.V./radio journalist and news anchor. The very idea that I would one day meet Morrell in person was about as likely to my teenage mind as abduction by aliens. And yet here I was, in the audience, having already met him, listening to his life story.
Describing himself as a mild mannered professor on the surface, a seething gangster underneath, Morrell’s journey to Mount Olympus was mind-boggling. As a child he had to sleep under his bed, his pillow over him to protect him from his step-father’s violence. Heart wrenching. To still be standing after such a childhood takes larger-than-life heroism.
And then there was Ken Follet. He wrote his first novel because his car broke down and he couldn’t afford to fix it. He needed 200 pounds, and his friend had just earned 200 pounds from writing a thriller. Full of generous, practical advice (If you have to tell your reader something that takes away from the drama and action keep it to a paragraph. If the story requires a conference between several characters, to keep your reader on board, you must make sure each character present has already been introduced in their own chapter.) And self depreciating, I had to constantly refer to the line of books arranged on the stage to remind myself that this quiet man was one of a handful. He attributed most of his success to luck, timing and necessity, although another glance at his works and I added hard work, persistence and genius.
When encapsulating these authors one phase came back time and again: larger-than-life heroism. Hearing these authors’ stories convinced me they’re able to create such larger-than-life heroes because they are themselves larger-than-life heroes. They pick themselves up from adversity, and through some mysterious combination of tenacity, hard work, generosity, persistence, sugar-lipped charm, necessity, luck, timing and genius they go on succeeding on a scale ordinary people can only dream of. It’s because of what they are that their leading men and women never give failure a second thought.
And so, dizzy from breathing the rarefied air on Mount Olympus, I headed home with a deeper understanding of what separated them up there from us down here, and hoped beyond hope that proximity to these Gods meant some, even if just a little bit of magic would rub off on me.
Jillian Abbott is a former Vice President of MWA/ New York chapter. She is the 2010 Hammett Award Reading Committee Chair and a Thriller Awards judge. She is working on an historical novel set in the 1850s gold rush in Bendigo, Australia.