CIA, FBI and a Rock Star: My weekend at the Mystery Writers Conference at Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA

Where can you go to meet a former CIA operative, an undercover FBI officer, an author with an honorary doctorate from Harvard, a rock star who has written two books and acted in soap operas, and a medical doctor who discloses secret details of crime forensics?

A bookstore.IMG_7734-sign

Not just any bookstore, of course, but the Book Passage in Corte Madera that hosts their annual Mystery Writers Conference each July. It starts Thursday afternoon and goes through Sunday with sessions (sometimes overlapping so you have to choose) each day. This year in Scene of the Crime I watched two lawyers argue the famous Oscar Pistorius case from information presented by a judge, heard the verdict of a second judge, and got to vote as part of a virtual jury.

But that’s the tip of the mystery iceberg where a hundred attendees mingle with conference faculty in the casual environment of the bookstore Event room and an outside dining area. Breakfast and lunch are provided.

Disclaimer: I am not associated with Book Passage, though they do carry my thrillers RATS and Mash Up. So please stop by, say hello and pick up a copy before they throw me out.

IMG_7742c-alendeHighlights of the conference included an intense lecture by Isabelle Allende about how she wrote her latest book (and first thriller) Ripper. She chronicled interviewing a Navy Seal for three days, taking her first kayak ride, attempting to co-write with her husband Willie, visiting the abandoned location she would use in the book to house the kidnap victim, and dealing with her own reaction to reading thrillers to learn about the genre (“I couldn’t sleep for six months”). Seeing inside her writing process is unique and enlightening: she begins each book on January 8th, and makes writing her first priority until it’s complete. She talked about doing research, writing in Spanish, and using real people as models to help prevent characters from becoming cardboard cutouts.

IMG_7755-valerieI was also thrilled to be sitting ten feet from Valerie Plame (formerly of the CIA and author of Blowback) and George Fong (formerly of the FBI and author of Fragmented) as they talked about how the two institutions work together (or not) both domestically and internationally in an evening session called Covert Ops. My favorite quote from Valerie: “I wasn’t a spy, I recruited spies.”

Ask questions of any author, learn How to do people in directly from a forensics doctor, consult on your own work in a one-on-one session, chat with other attendees about where they are in their journey as writers, pick up the latest thrillers and how-to-write-mystery books from a fabulous bookstore, attend the wine and cheese party, and visit Rick Springfield singing with his acoustic guitar in the Event room while a hundred fans holding his new book Magnificent Vibrations sing along—and simply revel in this wonderful art form humans have created called the mystery novel.

A weekend well spent. I’m already looking forward to next year: July 23 – 26, 2015.

—Joe

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