BEA 2010: The Thrill of Thrillers

The past two weeks, to put it mildly, have been a bit stressful, what with moving to Library Journal‘s spacious new offices on 160 Varick Street, attending BookExpo America at the glass and concrete bunker that is New York’s Javits Convention Center, and ironing out the kinks in our newly migrated website. (We truly have been cut off from the massive mother ship that was RBI). So I apologize for the tardiness in filing my impressions of the show. One highlight for me (and many librarians told me it was one of the best panels they had ever attended) was the delightfully engaging Thrillers: International Thriller Writers Discuss the Future of the Genre that capped LJ‘s May 25 Day of Dialog program.

Arranged by the International Thriller Writers (ITW) organization and moderated with panache and good humor by Seattle P.L.’s Jeff Ayers, a longtime LJ reviewer with thriller-writing aspirations of his own, the panel featured Steve Berry (The Emperor’s Tomb), Lisa Gardner (Live to Tell), Jon Land (Strong Justice), Gayle Lynds (The Book of Spies), and Brad Meltzer (Heroes for My Son, The Inner Circle), who passionately discussed their genre while good-naturedly teasing Meltzer over his new TV series, Brad Meltzer’s Decoded, premiering this fall on the History Channel. (I came away from the panel with a sense that thriller writers, despite their sometimes violent and gruesome subject matter, are very funny and genuinely nice people.)

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ITW authors discuss the thriller's future

The five authors attributed the genre’s current popularity to a variety of factors. Land argued that thrillers were the purest form of storytelling, while Meltzer pointed out that having a hero to root for was vital in a country now starving for heroes. Lynds identified the thriller’s heartbeat, or pacing, that speaks to an unconscious physical, emotional, and psychological need that makes us want to know what happens next. For Gardner, thrillers were a fun way to escape our troubles for a few hours.

All agreed that the genre had found new respect and acceptance as a staple of popular culture and that they as writers no longer had to apologize for what they do. For too long thriller writers have suffered the stigma of writing junk, and everyone else wrote the important stuff, said Berry, who once asked a Spanish interviewer if he had ever seen anyone read Tolstoy on airplane. Each genre is different, and it doesn’t make one better than another. Meltzer noted that shortly after 9/11, Homeland Security asked him to brainstorm the different ways terrorists could attack the United States. They told me, ‚Äòyour books deal with serious issues, and you’ve done your research.’ Likewise, Gayle Lynds was invited to speak to an association of intelligence officers who wanted to understand how fiction writers could read between the lines and come up with the same ideas the officers researched in the field.

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Author Gayle Lynds and moderator Jeff Ayers

Strangely for a writer of dark domestic suspense, Gardner doesn’t like violence. I don’t think shock and awe is the way you go with thrillers. If you go down that road, you run the risk of writing a caricature. She said the goal of the genre today is to go more internal. There are a lot of fears for thriller writers to explore, and they do that by getting to the real truth of the emotional experience of a particular fear. It’s the genuine emotion that works, not the shock.

The panelists concluded that thrillers were trending to more cross-genre novels as a market saturated with certain types of subcategories (forensic thrillers, for example) pressured authors to figure out the next landscape to explore. What’s the new storyline we need to explain? What’s the next veil we need to draw back that will captivate readers? said Gardner. I think that keeps the thriller genre constantly evolving, and I think that will keep the market fresh and interesting and the genre alive and vibrant.

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Wilda Williams About Wilda Williams

Wilda "Willy" Williams (wwilliams@mediasourceinc.com) is LJ's Fiction Editor. She specializes in popular fiction and edits the Mystery, Science Fiction, Christian Fiction, and Word on Street Lit columns.

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