Authors among us at 'Big Book Club Getaway'

Tim Cook/The Day Dr. Jeff Brown of the Harvard Medical School and author of "The Winner's Brain" and "Say Goodbye to Stress" from the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, right, laughs with Bonnie Merchant of Griswold, left, as Brown autographs her book at the Big Book Club Getaway at the Mohegan Sun Convention Center Saturday. New York Times bestselling author Mary McGarry Morris, center back, is also seen autographing books for her fans.

If you wanted advice on how to write and publish books, or just to hear anecdotes on the literary life by bestselling authors, the Mohegan Sun casino's Convention Center was a fine place to be Friday and Saturday.

In attendance were multi-million bestselling thriller writers. There were Oprah's Book Club designatees. There were National Book Award winners and nominees as well as folks short-listed for the PEN-Faulkner Award. There were instructors from elite university creative writing programs. Even the folks behind the Chicken Soup for the (fill in the blank) franchise were on hand.

It all took place at the Big Book Club Getaway, a multi-faceted presentation featuring more than 40 authors and publishing industry professionals including Brad Meltzer, Mary McGarry Morris, Tess Gerritsen, J.A. Jance and Carlos Eire.

Along with author presentations/signings/Q&A sessions, panel discussions and various book-centric sales kiosks, there were also thematic events such as Friday evening's after-hours "Books and Bars" party held for attendees at Bobby Flay's Bar Americain.

Meltzer, the hugely successful author of political thrillers as well as children's books, delivered a humorous and inspirational keynote address Saturday morning in the convention center's packed main salon.

After starting his remarks with a hilarious story about a book signing tour to Bulgaria, Meltzer turned a bit more serious — though his self-deprecating wit and light tone were always in evidence. His latest thriller, "The Fifth Assassin," is his first since the death of his parents — events that cause self-reflection at any level of success and happiness.

Meltzer speculated on what his own obituary might say, and then suggested there are four things to consider in establishing one's own legacy: Family, Friends, Community and People You Don't Even Know. Each of these legacy-types were fondly and poignantly illustrated by experiences from the author's own life, and he suggested it's never too late to give a "thank you" to the people who helped you along the way.

Of his own work, Meltzer said he loves writing novels because he gets to make stuff up. At the same time, his love of history and research is valuable, and he described how conversations with former President George H.W. Bush provided extremely valuable "behind the scenes" details without which he could not have written "The Fifth Assassin."

The process and business of writing were popular topics throughout Saturday's slate of events. In an address called "What is Story?" Adam Sexton, director of the creative writing program at New York University, said, "Conflict serves as the engine for any story. We read books that are four- or five- or even six-hundred pages long because, yes, we enjoy a writer's style or the subject matter — but most importantly because we want to see conflict resolved."

Susan Conley, whose memoir "The Foremost Good Fortune" was an Oprah pick, said, "There's no magic to the process of writing. It's mostly about being stubborn and just showing up and writing."

It was a theme echoed by Mary McGarry Morris, another Oprah designatee whose novels include "Songs in Ordinary Time" and "Light from a Distant Star." She detailed the countless rejections she received early in her career — including one from an agent who said of her manuscript, "I can't understand why anyone would ever want to read this."

The comment was so scathing that Morris vowed never to write again — except that, she said, "I knew I had to write."

A later version of that same manuscript became "Vanished," her first published novel and one nominated for a National Book Award and a PEN-Faulkner Award.

The "All-Star Mystery and Suspense Panel" featured bestsellers Tess Gerritsen, Hallie Ephron, J.A. Jance and moderator/novelist Hank Phillippi Ryan. Ryan conducted a sort of quiz in which she'd describe a real-life fact about one of the panelists and the audience would guess the identity.

In that fashion, the writers happily compared and contrasted their respective careers, ranging from the importance of a book's first sentence to experiences that made them want to write in the first place. There was, for example, acknowledgment that Nancy Drew was a fine inspiration.

"Nancy drove a car, had a boyfriend, and Dad didn't seem to have a curfew for her," Gerritsen laughed. "She was the original liberated female literary hero."

Jance referenced Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz." "I remember being in the school library and seeing all of these Oz books. For the first time, I didn't think about the film and the man behind the curtain. I thought about the man behind the words in all these books. That's when I knew I wanted to be a writer."

As with all of her colleagues at the getaway, Jance spoke of overcoming rejection. She wasn't accepted for her college creative writing class because the professor called her submission "girly-stupid."

Jance paused and grinned at the audience. "Since I'm here on tour for my 45th book, I guess you could say I opened the door, anyway."

r.koster@theday.com

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