I recently returned from Muskego, Wisconsin, where for the last three years the public library has held Murder and Mayhem in Muskego, an annual crime fiction conference in collaboration with Milwaukee’s Mystery One mystery bookstore and Crimespree, a magazine devoted to the genre. It’s amazing to me that a library in a small town on the outskirts of Milwaukee could pull off an event with some big-name authors, but they do, and each year it has doubled in size. This year, over 200 people attended. It was well worth it. The whole thing cost ten bucks – TEN BUCKS!! – and that included lunch. It’s supported by the Muskego Friends of the Library, good friends indeed!
The morning had two panels devoted to the geographic imagination, with authors who contributed to an anthology of Chicago stories followed by Minnesota authors, all of them reflecting on how their writing is shaped by a sense of place. Mary Logue seemed particularly articulate, talking about how she decided to set a series in a small town in Wisconsin (she lives both in St. Paul and on Lake Pepin – one of those writers who “divide their time”!) when she was living in New York, where her stories about ordinary life in the Midwest seemed exotic. She tries to balance dark and light by writing about things that go wrong in small towns without losing sight of what goes right. This is not Karin Slaughter’s version of small town America, but it’s not Lake Wobegon, either. I reviewed her most recent book, Maiden Rock, for Mystery Scene and found it the kind of book you could give your mom, or your teenaged daughter without flinching, even though it’s pretty unflinching about what meth addiction does to people.
The next panel was of “up and coming” authors and how they think about voice. I was glad to see Sean Doolittle on it – I like his stuff. A lot. But I nearly cheered when someone in the audience asked whether their being all men was intentional, meaningful, or what. The question was brushed off, but I had the same thing on my mind. (If you check the comments, you can see me backpeddle on this . . .)
(Of course, there wasn’t anyone speaking who wasn’t white, either, which is not all that unusual for crime fiction conferences, unfortunately. When I interviewed editors and other publishing types for an article a few years ago, only one brought up diversity as an issue for the industry, pointing out that most editors in New York went to a handful of ivy league schools and came from a wealthy background – since only people with money could afford to take a job in the city that paid, at the time, around $30K. When I raised it with the others they looked very puzzled or told me about the imprint they just started for black audiences. They really don’t get it.)
The rest of the day was brilliant. Three lengthy interviews with three very interesting writers. Also, lots of time to stretch, eat cookies, chat, and buy books.
Penny Halle is the genius behind the event. She also runs reading groups and story time and obviously has a lot of energy. Marcus Sakey was on the Chicago panel. Here he’s plotting his next book while another panelist speaks.