Panelists: Margaret Coel, Craig Johnson, Curt Wendelboe, Shannon Baker


Editor’s note: Telluride Inside… and Out’s monthly (more or less) column, Tall Tales, is so named because contributor Mark Stevens is one long drink of water. He is also long on talent. Mark is the author of “Antler Dust” and “Buried by the Roan,” both on the shelves of Telluride’s own Between the Covers Bookstore, 224 West Colorado Ave, Box 2129. He is also a former reporter (Denver Post, Christian Science Monitor, Rocky Mountain News) and television producer (MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour), now working in public relations. The following is Mark’s (breathless) spin on the Left Coast Crime conference. No mystery: Mark loved the event.

Panelists: Margaret Coel, Craig Johnson, Curt Wendelboe, Shannon Baker

Panelists: Margaret Coel, Craig Johnson, Curt Wendelboe, Shannon Baker

It’s raining books out there and I just came from a thundershower: Left Coast Crime. Five hundred of us—readers and writers—hunkered down at the Cheyenne Mountain Resort in Colorado Springs starting March 21. For four days.

Writers and readers—and most are both. We are all fans.

Look—there’s Margaret Coel.  And, wow, the legendary Rex Burns, who has emerged from a hiatus. And Rhys Bowen, Laura Lippmann, David Corbett, Simon Wood and, good lord, Craig Johnson just sat down at my breakfast table and he appears to be a human being who probably puts his cowboy boots on by himself and most likely he does it one boot at a time.

Wyoming’s Craig Johnson wrote “Hell Is Empty,” surely one of the most thoughtful and smartly-written mysteries in the last decade. He seems to have tapped a certain level of insight in his novels and they contain memorable, sharply-drawn characters. He has stuck to formula and expanded it. So you’re back in fan mode and not fellow-writer mode trying to think of something meaningful to say. Anything meaningful to say.

Over four days, the panels blur. “Gritty Details: The Forensics of Crime Writing.” “Why Crime? The Reason We Write What We Write.” “You Got A Bone to Pick? Make It A Point to Entertain.” From the dais, writers shower tips and insights. They gently push their titles. They promote their hooks and their themes and their characters and they mention the awards they have won (or almost won).

Darrell James’ sheepishly holds up his Arizona border mystery “Sonora Crossing” and points out that it’s up for best novel at the evening banquet, though he’s sure he’ll lose to Craig Johnson. (His prediction proves accurate.)

Some lesser-known writers—ahem—prop their books in front of them when they take their turn on a panel. The big names don’t pass around bookmarks or other promo items. No shameless self-promotion needed.

Panelists become audience members, moderators rotate in as panelists. All the writers are readers. All the writers are learners. Even Margaret Coel, with her sizable fan base and string of national best-sellers and 23 titles in all, sits through a three-hour writing class by David Corbett on “The Art of Character.”

A three-hour class on the art of character? Yes, it’s the short version. And teacher-writer David Corbett’s walk-through of how to get it done right makes so much sense. He breaks things down into practical steps. Corbett is more than just a writer, however—his fiction and non-fiction references show breadth and depth. Three hours zip by in a blink.

In the new democracy that is publishing, where anyone with a checkbook can become a publisher, Left Coast Crime makes few distinctions. Readers are open-minded. They want to hear about your new book and your sleuth, your setting, the tone of your prose. Few readers care about the size of your publishing house or the size of your advance, if there was one. With the enormous variety of flavors and spices in this smorgasbord, they know exactly what is likely to please their specific palate. The lines for autographs are definitely longer, however, for those with a national presence and the accompanying national buzz.

The Saturday evening awards banquet has a folksy, loose flair. The big question is whether the actor Lou Diamond Phillips will make it the conference given the storm-prompted flight cancellations. Phillips plays Henry Standing Bear, the sidekick to Sheriff Walt Longmire in the television network version series based on the books of Craig Johnson. The series is cleverly titled, “Longmire.” Phillips is due to interview Johnson for our entertainment as the final act of the banquet.

Lou Diamond Phillips signs a quilt

Lou Diamond Phillips signs a quilt

Phillips, looking like he hasn’t aged a bit since playing Ritchie Valens in “La Bamba” (in 1987) arrives to a round of enthusiastic applause and gives Johnson a big hug at the dinner table. After the auction—an advance copy of Johnson’s short stories goes for $800— and after Johnson picks up his award for best novel for “As The Crow Flies,” the two exchange stories for 45 minutes while sitting on oversized comfy chairs up on the dais. Since the beer and whiskey have now started the flow, the stories get more colorful and the guards come down. There is mutual admiration between Phillips and Johnson.

But, then again, Johnson seems to like everybody.

He’s affable. Even pushing 11 p.m. and many hours of eating and drinking, the room is packed and extremely quiet. Many who opted not to pay for the banquet are sitting in chairs in the back. Craig Johnson is one of our newest heroes and we want to know his secrets.

When Johnson talks about the 10 years he waited between starting “A Cold Dish” (his first novel) and finishing it, the audience gasps. Every story he tells seems to come with a well-planned punch line.

Despite the aw-shucks manner, Johnson is nobody’s fool.

Throughout the weekend on various panels, Johnson quoted Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoevsky and during his chat with Phillips he references T.S. Eliot, John Steinbeck, John Sayles and Tony Hillerman. He mentions Richard III and invokes a scene from “A Tale of Two Cities,” though he doesn’t name Charles Dickens, to make a point about how good stories bring big themes down to a small canvas.

Craig Johnson may write “mysteries” but his readers know there is a heck of a lot more going on in the page as Sheriff Walt Longmire solves crimes in the fictional Absaroka County of Wyoming. Craig Johnson has the cowboy one-liners, but his books are deep and wise. Walt Longmire knows what ails us and Johnson’s got the cure.

It’s raining books out there and Left Coast Crime attendees—readers and writers alike—well, we love getting wet.

“A Serpent’s Tooth,” Johnson’s ninth Walt Longmire mystery, releases in June.

  • Mary Lee Barton
    Posted at 15:50h, 27 March

    Loved your memories of Left Coast Crime and insights into the authors. LCC 2013 was only my second conference, and I was inspired! Hope to see you in Monterey next year.

    • Mark Stevens
      Posted at 16:11h, 27 March

      Thank you, Mary Lee !

  • Patricia Stoltey
    Posted at 14:03h, 28 March

    An excellent report on Left Coast Crime, Mark. It was great!

    • Mark Stevens
      Posted at 14:09h, 28 March

      Thanks, Pat. You might like to know Craig Johnson sent me a Facebook message after he saw the story: “Dude, you’re blowing my cover….”

      Ha !

  • Susan C Shea
    Posted at 14:34h, 28 March

    Well done. Condensing four days and nights into a coherent essay is no easy feat. And you got it right – a swirl of writers/readers/published/pre-published/fans with people changing hats from hour to hour.

    And wasn’t Lou Diamond Phillips something else?

    • Mark Stevens
      Posted at 17:22h, 28 March

      Yes, Lou Diamond Phillips was something else! Made me want to go back and watch La Bamba !