Bouchercon 2013 Author Encounter: “Anne Perry’s Necklace,” Part 2

Anne Perry's Necklace
Pamela wearing “her and Anne Perry’s” beautiful blue sparkly necklace.

An aspiring author meets an expert, beloved one at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany. They are permanently linked through a beautiful blue necklace. . . .

Part 1 Is Here

Originally Posted on the Mystery/Crime Blog Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room.


In Part 1, we left off where my friend Pat said, “You have to go up to her [Anne Perry] and tell her she got your necklace!” And I heard myself say, “I would never do that!”

Walking toward the next session, I spotted Anne Perry casually standing over a trashcan, eating one of those bagels. Unprepossessing as the image was, being in the same circumstances as the rest of us made her seem approachable—unfortunately for her. Again, I watched myself walk toward her and heard things come out of my mouth that some unseen ventriloquist with a bad sense of humor made me say: “Hello! Did you happen to just buy a beautiful sparkly blue necklace at the jewelry stall?” “Yes, I did. Did you want it?” “Well, I was thinking of buying it yesterday, but I told myself I’d wait ‘til today, and if it was still there I’d purchase it.” “Oh, I’m so sorry—but not enough to exchange it.”

Her friendly yet frank response had actually charmed me, but I now knew what “being mortified” felt like. “Oh, no, I didn’t mean that! The vendor offered to make me another one. Now we’ll have a psychic connection.” Twit! But did I stop?

“Let’s walk,” she said. “Are you going to the next session?” “Yes, I’m looking for Meeting Room 6.” “So am I. I’m on a panel.” As if I didn’t know. And so we walked—in the wrong direction—as I chattered on about her books and characters, making mistake after goofy mistake as I mixed them all up and she gently corrected me. I could no more stop myself from spouting gibberish than I could avoid sounding like my mother in the presence of my son.

We parted so she could speak and I could listen (which is what I wish I had been doing all along). She repeated some of her comments from the previous evening, but I would have listened to the same remarks multiple times if I could self-correct the earlier conversation—at least in my mind. In take two, I would make myself sound authoritative and confident, someone Anne Perry would remember for her prescience and insight—not someone who coveted her blue sparkly necklace and made inane comments about her books.

I consoled myself with the knowledge that she’d probably had many hundreds of similar encounters and that her gaze was ever fixed on that far horizon, not on me. She would never have registered me as an individual, but that was OK. Just listening to her eloquent commentary made me want to be a better person—and a writer.

Anne Perry, even though she had endured a dark episode in her own early past (or possibly because of it), is a penetrating yet compassionate observer of human existence. She articulates with ease matters of the heart, mind, and soul, and she does it with kindness, even gentleness, despite her imposing presence—tall, forthright, unabashed. She has no children, she says with what may be a tinge of regret. Yet I sense her to be a tender, if firm, mother to her brainchildren, and I can imagine her caring deeply for the people in her life. She stated that the whole purpose of her five-part WWI series can be summed up in a single sentence: “I will not leave you.”

The day after I returned home, my husband and I went for a leisurely walk in nearby Ken Lockwood Gorge. A narrow arm of the Raritan River flows through the wooded, rocky area, and the bank running alongside is flat and easy to stroll on, as well as tree lined. It is difficult to imagine a more serene setting. I watched the water gently moving over, under, and around the rocks on this beautiful day—no tension, no struggle, no indecision. The crystalline water reminded me of the necklace—not in color, but in clarity. Clarity, I realized, is the gift your mind gives to your spirit when the stream of consciousness flows unerringly around perceived obstacles.

Decisions I had deferred for lack of clarity now demanded to be made. It was hard, because selecting one thing means letting go of another. Recognizing this natural rhythm of life, however, makes the transition between the world you live in pre-decision and the one you inhabit post-decision short lived and relatively peaceful. By the day of my birthday, I had begun the post-decision transition from anxiety to acceptance after making some hard choices, even as I knew I was on the road to another pre-decision period about more challenging matters. This steady movement based on decisive action, though, is a precious gift and was my best birthday present, one nobody else could have given me. Letting old things burn away leaves clean spaces for new ones to germinate.

One of my to-dos in honor of having made it through another year was to head back to the Frenchtown shop to see whether the kitchen accessories I had passed up a week earlier were waiting for me. There they were. Now here they are. But they are not material possessions to me, any more than the necklace would be when I got it. They are physical manifestations of aspects of myself that I wasn’t completely aware of. What lives deep inside is reflected outside yourself once you achieve clarity. So it follows that making decisions would be much easier . . . I hoped.

A few days later, Chris emailed: “Forgot to ask. I had made two versions of the necklace, 20″ and 18″—the one you and Anne Perry looked at was 18″.  Is this what you wanted?” She’d forgotten about the measuring tape, but that was OK: “Yes, 18″, beautiful blue mixed with pewter. Just like Anne Perry’s.”

I went with the 18-incher because I wanted a twin of Anne Perry’s necklace, which had almost been mine. After the email exchange, I searched for some Anne Perry factoids to supplement my musings and came upon an interview she had done for the New Zealand version of 60 Minutes. I stopped open-mouthed when the interviewer, as a follow-up to Anne’s statement about hope, asked her about why she thinks American audiences are more “optimistic”: “I think if they see something somebody has possession of that they want, they . . . think, ‘How can I acquire one of those? How did you get it, so what can I do?’ There’s a generosity of spirit and an optimism that I hope they never lose.”

So necklace envy proves I’m a typical go-getter American (!)—one with a generous spirit, if not an optimistic nature—even though I had seen the object of our desire first. But perhaps my wanting the same necklace Anne Perry chose was a sign of optimism, of the hope that we had something even more important in common than a blue bauble: a love of writing. Well, maybe. But this would require decisions—and decisions are so hard. In the same interview, Anne Perry explained that this is because we need to be put to the test, pushed to the limit, before we know what we really want:

I have a little exercise that I make my main characters go through. Imagine that you are standing at the edge of the world, at the end of the world; volcanic darkness is coming; there is the abyss. It’s just you and Satan, nobody else left. And he says to you, “What do you really believe? If you tell me the truth, I have no power over you. If you lie, you’re going over the edge. And you are never coming back.”  . . . Then you discover what your deepest core values are.

The lesson of the necklace for me is recognizing that clarity is the basis of all good decisions. Those watery-hard, brilliant beads were meant for me after all, and somehow I knew it. When the necklace arrived, I put it on and had a photo taken as I was thinking: To capture the essence of what it means to be human; to articulate it so that others can benefit from it; to entertain, elucidate, and educate with kindness and generosity . . . these are marvelous qualities for a writer. I’m not Anne Perry; but I can let her inspire me. And I, too, want to be a writer.

There, I’ve said it, even though some Anne Perry hope would be an asset at my age. I will imagine the picture of me wearing the “blue sparkly,” as Chris calls it, on a book jacket. And I can at least imagine Anne Perry wearing her own blue sparkly on a future book jacket of hers. I can further dream that each of us is as content as the other that our work has manifested itself in its highest form, each of us having achieved the best version of herself through making sound decisions based on clarity—mixed with a little courage.

One of Anne Perry’s favorite quotes, from Henry Ford, sums up the essence of decision-making, no matter the choice—from purchasing a necklace to changing a career:

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t . . . you’re right.

Might as well think I can—in the spirit of American optimism as seen through the eyes of Anne Perry, who I’d like to believe is now wearing our necklace.

Bouchercon 2013 Author Encounter: “Anne Perry’s Necklace,” Part 1

An aspiring author meets an expert, beloved one at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany. They are permanently linked through a beautiful blue necklace. . . .

Part 2 Is Here

Originally Posted October 5, 2013, on the Mystery/Crime Blog Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room.


On Friday, September 20, with time to kill at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany—my first convention for mystery/crime/thriller writers and fans, I browsed the vendors’ stalls. Typical for writers and readers, on this gorgeous day we were indoors, inside “The Egg”—the oddly shaped and named convention center. My eye caught a hypnotic blue sparkle and wouldn’t let me move past it. Bluebonnet, dark cerulean, fiery cobalt, medium sapphire, fresh blueberry, intense indigo . . . I had no idea what to call it, other than “spectacular.”

I lingered, gazing at the brilliant light coming from the faceted glass beads, blue with a hint of purple, calling to mind the colors of both water and rock, of liquid and solid. This infinite pairing created something beyond the elemental, something cosmic and unified. Although it was September, my birthday was just days away, and sapphire is, after all, my birthstone (this color was close enough), it was hard to justify the cost of beauty—even when it came with matching earrings. So simple, so easy to reach for. But so complicated, so hard to decide on.

“With a name like that, I hope you’re not in construction.” The jewelry vendor, Chris, grinned amiably at me, nodding at my nametag. I smiled dutifully, explaining the origin of my husband’s last name and the British pronunciation, “Con-TRAC-tor.” “Ah. Then I hope one of your children doesn’t marry someone named ‘Expander.’” After puzzling over this for a moment, my mind contracting and then expanding, I laughed—this was a first after years of repetitive namejokes. My former married name was also British, so Bond, Pam Bond, was used to it.

The next panel session was about to start. So I left the vendor stall, glancing backward as I moved on. I guess saying no to yourself is a decision. . . . Anyway, I wanted to hear what the “new” (to me) authors had to say. I was nibbling on tidbits from so many writers, but it was like grazing at a buffet of appetizers. I longed for an intimate supper with a writer whose work—and mind—I could feast on.

My reading group unexpectedly decided to leave for home the next day rather than on Sunday, so Saturday was a bit rushed. Albany more or less shuts down on the weekend, so the only food available inside was free bagels and coffee, as well as rapidly depleting trays of finger food—no restaurants were open on the concourse, and only one food truck stood in the plaza. The volunteer organizers hadn’t planned the feedings very well, but I was somewhat pleased that writers who were respected worldwide were mingling with their fans and muddling through the same predicaments we faced. Tepid coffee and dry bagel downed, I followed my group’s lead and made a decision: if that blue sparkly necklace was still there, I’d make it mine.

And then I saw her. Anne Perry, the international guest of honor and one of the contemporary authors I admire most, stooping over the jewelry vendor’s wares. Her historical crime series—finely wrought literature cloaked in mystery (“Like reading Thackeray edited by Elmore Leonard,” according to Booklist)—had unveiled a Victorian London that I could feel myself living in. Her plots involve all strata of society, its inhabitants meandering through sections of London and aspects of life that grab hold of your imagination and fix you so firmly in another time and place that you find yourself at dusk looking for matches to turn on the gaslight. Her massive amounts of research shine between the lines in condensed form, like laser beams illuminating the places and people she has crafted—and whom she makes you care so terribly much about.

Through her Monk and Pitt novels—two of her series—we get to explore deeply an era of shadows and mist, of a prosperous yet repressive conventionality lying atop nineteenth-century social ills and aristocratic complacency, a mask that was gradually torn away by Dickens, Darwin, Freud, Maxwell, and the Industrial Revolution. The Pitt novels take place roughly during the time of Jack the Ripper, who had lured Anne Perry to this period—a figure that her stepfather, she has said, believed was never caught because he was a politician!

And then I watched myself go up to her, momentarily forgetting the necklace. I heard myself say: “Excuse me, Miss Perry, I don’t want to interrupt you. I just wanted to tell you that you’ve given me many hours of pleasure through your work. And I really enjoyed your talk last night.” Fan babble. I hadn’t known I was capable of it, having always vowed to remain silent in the presence of celebrity so I wouldn’t succumb to mush-brained utterances. “Thank you, you’re very kind.” Although she looked at me, her focal point was somewhere on the horizon of her interior landscape. I wasn’t surprised. Reality couldn’t compare with her inner vision. I left her to her jewelry gazing.

The night before, I’d gotten close to an “intimate supper” by taking in an hour of Anne Perry talking about her work, passionately and compellingly. She related a story about her five-book World War I series, a treasure I’ve reserved for future reading, in which she named a main character after her grandfather. She has him carry a picture of Dante’s bust to the battlefield because, she says, “We are not punished for our sins, but by them,” and The Inferno exemplifies the torments from within for her—and for her character. When her mother learned of this metaphorical use of Dante’s image, she asked, “How did you know?” “How did I know what?” “That your grandfather took a picture of Dante to war with him?” Anne had never met her grandfather, who died before she was born, and had never heard this story. She and her grandfather had a psychic connection, she said; and this series was “close to her heart” because of it.

Turning back toward the jewelry stall, I saw she had left. I decided: I would purchase the necklace. I walked over to the spot where it had lain. Gone! My heart thumped and slowed, and I rued the previous day’s indecisive decision that caused me to walk away from something I now felt sure was meant for me.

This was a pattern. The day before we left for the conference, I had found in a Frenchtown shop a set of pottery kitchen accessories in colors that reminded me of the sandals with ice-cream-colored straps I’d worn and loved as a child. These fifties-style kitchen accoutrements took me back to an era of innocence and possibility, a time when I felt like me because I knew what I liked, what I wanted—a time before others started calling me a “person.” Persons lose their identities; children do not.

Then it occurred to me: Maybe indecision and decision intertwine, like yin and yang symbols, one blending inevitably into the other. This means that indecision is an inextricable part of decision-making. And maybe the point is to accept this and make choices without fear, knowing that another option will appear and that another decision is waiting just around the corner. I suddenly felt that my indecision about the necklace had a purpose: it was meant for her.

I looked up at the vendor. “Chris, did Anne Perry happen to buy that beautiful blue sparkly necklace I was looking at yesterday?” She looked down at my nametag and smiled in recognition, saying animatedly, “Yes, she did! And she also bought my friend’s book!” As I absorbed this news, I realized that Anne Perry had, unknowingly, created a psychic connection with me by choosing my necklace. I was quietly thrilled. Maybe my indecision was my anonymous gift to her—and indirectly to myself because now I felt connected to someone who had manifested her passion through her work.

Then Chris said: “You know, I have a small bag of those beads left. I can make you another necklace just like Anne Perry’s.” Aha! “That would be wonderful! Thank you so much!” My indecisive decision had turned out to be a gift to both of us after all. Chris got out the measuring tape, and we decided on a 15-inch choker on the advice of my friend, Pat, who had wandered over. Pat is very outgoing and had gotten her picture taken with Anne Perry the day before! She said, “You have to go up to her and tell her she got your necklace!” Was she kidding? “I would never do that!” I heard myself say to Pat.

In Part 2, we’ll see whether I would—or would not—ever do that to Anne Perry!

The (L)On(e)ly Editor: A “Rewriter” Among Writers

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It started in May 2012 with a tap on my shoulder after an author talk at the local library. At the end of the session, I raised my hand and boldly mentioned to the new author, a local fiction writer, that I was an “out of work editor.” She wasn’t particularly interested, but the man sitting behind me apparently was.

Something about the word “editor” must have resonated with the shoulder tapper, who explained that his creative writing group met every Friday afternoon at the library. Would I be interested in joining them? He didn’t exactly say why he’d invited me, but now that the world of academic editing didn’t seem to want me to rewrite (I use the term very loosely) anymore, an invitation to actually write caught my attention. At first, I was only mildly interested in being the token editor in a group of adult nonprofessional (unpublished) creative writers and wasn’t sure  I was ready to join their ranks as a writer. But I decided to try it and find out.

What had begun a year or so earlier as a fiction and memoir-writing group, the project of a creative writing student who had since moved on after graduation, had become a spinoff in which a few people were writing, but many were not. We continued to meet and tried various ways to inspire ourselves to write through DVD courses, in-person exercises, rotating facilitator-led sessions, and the like. I occasionally presented some editor-type input. But except for a few people who submitted writings now and then (at least since the time I joined), this was more a gathering than a group.

Some months later, at a time when most members apparently felt the need for change, we elected a steering committee (of which I found myself chair for a while) and split into subgroups according to writing form: long fiction, short fiction, and memoir/anything goes. Suddenly, these smaller groups—four or five members in each—were actually and enthusiastically writing. And now I faced a double challenge. Wanting to seamlessly transform myself from academic editor to creative writer, I was eager to start writing fiction. But finally finding myself one among other writers, here I was with my purple editing pen ready, but my own writer’s fingers suspended over the keyboard—I was fearful of making the transition. Being the only editor in a group of writers was confusing, creating a dilemma born of the ability to see the value and potential in the work of others combined with the humility—and fear—of finding out what others might see in the work I would do when I finally found the courage to start.

Despite my identity crisis, I began to write and turned in a couple of chapters from my new historical mystery novel and a few sections of a historical mystery novella, seeds planted in unfertilized soil. But unable to remove my tight-fitting editor’s hat, I stumbled over my  efforts, getting in my own way as I wavered between fact-finding and free-flowing thought. Roughly mashing together hasty research and stories with no clear direction because I couldn’t decide on the genre or what I wanted to happen in the worlds I was creating, I realized my yarns were actually twisted balls of threads—but, judging from reactions, evidently yarns with merit, and maybe even a little magic. So much to write, but so much to learn. . . .

As if teetering on the razor’s edge between editor and writer hasn’t been difficult enough, I am still learning the subtle differences between editing in a professional environment and critiquing in a nonprofessional peer setting. Beyond that, I need to understand how critiquing induces good writing. But as an editor-cum-critiquer, how could I possibly stop being authoritarian? Even though I know creative writing has somewhat fluid rules, I can’t not see things that editors are taught to home in on. Yet I know this isn’t exactly what beginning authors are looking for from peer reviewers—they want to create good stories and interesting characters. They seek critiques more than tweaks, impressions more than prescriptions.

At one meeting, I asked my writing colleagues how they thought critiquing creative writing differed from editing it. Someone said these were right- (critiquing) vs. left- (editing) brain activities. This begins to get at the differences, but distinctions remain somewhat difficult to articulate. The repertoire of editorial skills I’d acquired as an academic editor had left me ill equipped to answer my own question—or even to ask it in the first place.

After further reflection, however, here’s what I think I know: Critiquing is not synonymous with editing, by which I mean the hands-on reworking of text, one eye on the details, the other on the whole picture. Critiquing is reacting—not redacting—by asking questions and suggesting other approaches. Yet the two functions have significant overlap, not the least being their primary purpose—to help authors improve their writing. And the fastest way to learn what critiquing is? Submit your own work for peer review.

As a newcomer in a creative writing group, you need to leave your biases at the door and recognize that—unless you are a published author—the others in the room actually are your peers. You can’t stand apart as an editor, as a teacher, or as a competitor. You’re laying bare part of your soul and inviting virtual strangers and incipient friends to comment on it. Remembering what peer reviews were like in my technical writing classes in graduate school, I feel lucky to be among gifted amateurs who haven’t learned or been exposed to the vitriol of aggressive, cold judgments. Sitting in an intimate group of fellow writers talking story, character, and craft, while sometimes tedious and stressful, has been overwhelmingly some of the most fun I’ve ever had.

An editor in a professional situation stands apart from authors and their brainchildren, coolly observing how well the work has been rendered. Being removed makes this kind of work possible, even if one is passionate about the editorial process. (I am not exploring here the various editorial roles one finds in publishing houses, but generalizing based on common notions of what hands-on editing is.) Critiquing in a nonprofessional peer-to-peer setting is more personal, more interdependent. It is also, to some extent, more subjective than editing—critiquers are often blatantly contradictory. Critiquing is also more emotional, dare I say it, and somewhat less cerebral—but no less thoughtful—than editing. Those who critique, unlike those who edit, have more responsibilities to authors’ dreams and fewer rules about how authors express them.

What do writers want from peer reviews? Accolades, of course, oohs and aahs, hearing that the reviewers couldn’t put the writing down—that it made them cry, or laugh, or relate, or change their lives—or, best of all—write better themselves. Short story, novel chapter, memoir . . . it doesn’t matter. Authors want to wow those who read them. Then real life happens. An author might submit something for group review only to be greeted with silent stares—how deflating!—or serenaded with earnest comments about what could have been better—damn, they’re right!

In a supportive environment, authors may feel a bit chagrined when their reviewers seem bemused rather than bedazzled, but they will go home and write better as a result of insightful reactions to their work. Good editing may achieve a similar result, but it feels very different to be instructed rather than inspired, revised rather than reinvigorated, edited rather than enlightened. Hands-on editing puts the final burnish on good writing. Heart-to-heart critiquing fuels the fire that creates it.

My group members and I are not all that different as writers, so we can nurture one another’s talent, expressed or latent, without class distinction. As students of writing, we are self-taught. Amateurs we may be, but in some cases gifted ones. Who knows? We may even incubate something publishable, although what that means in today’s changing world of publishing-house mergers and self-publishing technologies requires a lot of educated guessing and adventurous exploration to figure out.

Having reviewed my group members’ work and experienced their critiques of mine, I am convinced not only of their evolving talent, but of their good intentions. Undoubtedly, whatever I continue to produce as I learn to translate the inner world of my imagination into shared experience through writing will be flawed in some way or another. But in my group, the review process is handled with kindness, humor, and a sense of mutuality. Gradually, this editor is becoming a writer who critiques and a reviewer who is critiqued.

At this stage of life, moving toward the creative side of the writing world is beginning to feel liberating. And doing it in an environment where people care as much about others’ work as they do their own (well, almost) is truly enjoyable. If any of my stories ever make their way from my head into others’ hands, that will be the ultimate critique—and proof that writing isn’t necessarily a lonely enterprise.