Monday, May 26, 2014

The RT Awards in New Orleans: In Praise of Alligator Po'Boys, Joan of Arc, Voodoo Psychics--and Book Editors!

By Nancy Bilyeau

One of the axioms of screenwriting is "Come in late, get out early." Following that advice--meaning that writers should focus on the meat of the action and not waste precious time in either setting up or winding down a scene--produces lean, lively scripts. But it's not the best way to approach the RT Booklovers Convention 2014 in New Orleans. I arrived late, exhausted, and I left early, panic-stricken. Still, a week later, I am turning over the experience in my mind, which means it left a mark. A good one.

The Tudors Rule! Laura Andersen (The Boleyn King) and I celebrate
Although "RT" stands for Romantic Times and the majority of the 2,000-plus attendees of the annual convention are writers, readers and publishers of romance fiction, screenwriting is relevant to this blog post. One of the two reasons I was determined to fly to New Orleans was to moderate a panel on Friday morning called "Stealing Hollywood's Magic: How Screenwriting Techniques Energize Your Writing."

The second reason was to collect my first fiction award. To my astonishment and delight, The Chalice, set in 16th century England, won the Best Historical Mystery of 2013 prize. It was one of the highlights of my writing career to grip this award.

But before we get to the pleasure, we have to talk about the pain.

My original plan was to attend the entire convention, which ran from Tuesday, May 13th, to Sunday, May 18th. But I am the executive editor of DuJour magazine, and when the production schedule for the summer issue shifted, my travel plans had to shift too. I booked a flight and hotel to arrive on New Orleans on Thursday. I knew I was cutting it close. But I didn't have a choice.

On Thursday, when I walked my daughter to school, it was cloudy but seemed a typical spring day. A check of the weather forecast revealed a long line of storms stood between the East Coast and Louisiana. Proving the power of denial in the human mind, I decided that some rain couldn't possibly affect my plans.


I was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans, a city I'd never visited before, at 6:30 pm Thursday. I actually touched ground, alone and confused and deeply tired, at 1:30 a.m. Friday.

I like to travel, while my husband hates it. The series of flight cancellations and delays I endured on Thursday--some, but not all, caused by weather--confirmed all of his dread of flying and more. The man loves me so he did not gloat but merely commented via email that I could have reached Tokyo in the same stretch of time it took various airlines to deposit me in southern Louisiana.

I wasn't reserved in the Marriott, the convention hotel, because it was booked up by the time I made my plans. Instead, I had a room at the W Hotel in the French Quarter. When my cab dropped me in front of the Chartres Street hotel after an endless ride from the airport--we had to reroute from the highway because of construction, which nurtured a growing suspicion that I was hexed--a calm and welcoming hotel employee supplied me with a room card.

Nothing could look as good to me as my room that night:

I'm told that this is a "signature bed" of the W Hotels
The following morning, I woke up after four hours' sleep, terribly excited. I could tell my fortunes were turning around when I enjoyed a sensational breakfast on the terrace: eggs, sausage, potatoes Lyonnaise, orange juice and biscuit. The coffee...ah, the coffee. Someone said the secret to New Orleans coffee is the chicory? Drinking a pot of it made me think if I was hexed, it had officially lifted.

Breakfast at the W: I could get used to this!
Afterward I rushed to the Marriott Hotel, the official convention destination, to moderate my panel. I've served on a half-dozen panels, from the New York Public Library and Thrillerfest to Historical Novel Society and Bouchercon. I am proud to report that this RT panel gave some very strong value to the writers in the audience. At conferences, some authors tend to promote their books, crack jokes, and offer only vague advice to their audiences, unfortunately. Alexandra Sokoloff (Blood Moon), Patricia Burroughs (This Crumbling Pageant) and Toni McGee Causey (the Bobbie Faye series), successful screenwriters and novelists, shared their techniques in plotting with notecards, structuring a suspenseful plot and visual scene building. In fact, you can download Alexandra's incredibly helpful Story Element Checklist from the blog she updated same day as our panel. These women went the extra mile.

It wasn't until the lunch break that I explored New Orleans a bit. Because I have a French last name, people have asked me over the years if I'm from New Orleans, and I always feel as if I'm disappointing them when I say no. (My French Huguenot ancestor, Pierre Billiou, settled in 1665 in what was then called New Amsterdam, later New York City.)

Now, at last, I'd made it to the Big Easy. Because I adore exploring historic buildings (especially churches) and experimenting with food, falling in love with the French Quarter was inevitable.

Alligator time!
At lunch with Pooks (Patricia Burroughs), I couldn't resist ordering the alligator po'boy sandwich. (Wouldn't Andrew Zimmern be proud?) In answer to the question "Does it taste like chicken?" the answer It tastes like alligator--tangier than chicken and a bit tougher.

Chartres Street, French Quarter

The buildings along Chartres Street exuded a 19th century charm--in a few cases, 18th century. The St. Louis Cathedral off Jackson Square is among the oldest cathedrals in North America: The first church on the site was built in 1718. I liked the statue of an armored Joan of Arc, donated in 1920.

"The Maid of Orleans" statues can be found all over N.O.
Outside the cathedral, interestingly, I faced a long row of psychic booths, set up for tourist business. I've always been fascinated by voodoo (anyone who reads my books knows I'm intrigued by not only churches but prophecy and the magical world). So it was simply not possible to pass by the most colorful booth of all, the one belonging to Fatima, a.k.a. The Bone Lady. She told me she was fifth-generation, trained since childhood in tarot and palm reading. I learned I have a long life line and may come into some money in the next 18 months (good!) but a friend secretly wishes me ill (bad!).  I began to doubt Miss Fatima's psychic skills when she said I'm single. Um, no, I've been married 21 years. Things went downhill from there. She ferreted out that I'm worried about a family member and said she could perform a "protective" voodoo cleansing in a private ceremony for an undisclosed amount of money. I guess I wasn't surprised that someone sitting in a booth in the middle of a tourist area would try this sort of manipulation. But it was still a letdown.

Overall, I feel about Miss Fatima as I do about the alligator po'boy: glad I sampled, but I wouldn't repeat the experience.

The RT folks said I could bring a cheering section of one or two to the awards ceremony, and I asked my friend, fellow historical novelist Judith Starkston, who's written Hand of Fire, a fantastic book about Briseis, the lover of Achilles, to sit with me. The only award winner I knew personally was Laura Andersen, who won Best Historical Novel for the enthralling The Boleyn King.

As Judith and I listened to the award recipients' brief speeches (one minute max, we'd been instructed), it struck me how many of them gave fervent thanks to their editors. And not because the said editor was sitting in the audience--I don't think that was often the case. The relationship between writer and editor is such an important one, and these women wanted to honor it.
My moment of truth at the RT Awards ceremony
When my time came to take the stage--I wore stylish flats so I wouldn't pull a Jennifer Lawrence--I told a joke revolving around learning that I'd won the award while waiting for the subway. It came off well. I hope. But then I shifted from silly to sincere, and thanked the editors of The Chalice. Because the book was published simultaneously in North America and the United Kingdom, I had two talented editors on it: Heather Lazare, with Touchstone, and Eleanor Dryden, with Orion. Back in 2012, I told them, "Give me everything you've got--I want this book to be as good as I can make it." And they did. :)

Thanks to Heather and Eleanor--an award!
Because the rates at the W Hotel skyrocket Saturday night, I booked my return flight Saturday afternoon. That meant I had to unfortunately miss the last day and a half of the convention. But also when I selected a 3 pm flight I didn't take into full account the 11 a.m to 2 pm Book Fair, an author signing event that dwarfs any other such signing I'd ever seen.

When it was time for me to dart out early, I was faced with a half-hour-long checkout line. And, of course, I hadn't allowed enough travel time to the airport in the first place. I missed a flight at Phoenix Airport two years ago. It was a horrible experience, and I did not want miss this one. I'd had a memorable time in New Orleans but I wanted to get home, to be with my husband and kids.

Still, I couldn't bypass the convention checkout line because I had a book to buy. A half-hour earlier I'd introduced myself to an author I've long admired, Barry Eisler. I read The Detachment and was blown away by the pacing, plot twists and character depth. Barry couldn't have been nicer, and I snatched up Graveyard of Memories, his new thriller that goes deeper into the history of the series' protagonist, the enigmatic John Rain. Barry signed it for me--I had to buy this book!

I paid for Graveyard of Memories, ran to the hotel, flagged down a cab (New Yorkers can always find a cab), and, stomach churning, checked the time on my watch every 30 seconds along the way. When we made it the airport with less than an hour left until takeoff, I was fighting back tears. I'd missed that flight from Phoenix to NYC when I cut it this close. How could I do it again?

But as I scrambled to the United Airlines counter, my suitcase flying behind me, a uniformed woman stepped forward and said, "You look upset. What flight are you on?" She didn't flinch when I told her it was the plane to JFK in 45 minutes. She calmly checked me in and directed me to the gate, telling me I'd be fine.

"It was nice to see you again," she said in an accent of the Deep South.

"No, this is my first time in New Orleans," I said.

She smiled. "We've met before," she said, without a trace of doubt.

It wasn't until I was safely on my flight, Barry Eisler's novel in my lap, that I realized she could have been the special connection I'd been hoping for on this trip.

New Orleans, I will be back.

A riverboat on the Mississippi, something I've ALWAYS wanted to see


  1. So, how about telling us a bit more about this event? :-)

  2. Ah. You have. Sorry, the original post was only a few lines. Sounds like you had a great time and congrats on the prize!

  3. Sue, my post went live too early. Now it's all here!!

  4. What a fabu report, right down to the "we've met before." So thrilled we got to spend so much of your short time there together!

  5. Pooks, hanging out with you was a highlight

  6. A wonderful post, Nancy! I enjoyed reading about your trip. Congratulations on your award. Well deserved!

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