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April 14, 2015

Fun, Sun and Literary Soirées: Mystery Author Sandra Balzo Reports from the Palm Beach Book Festival

Posted by emily

“Fun, sun and literary soirées…” The First Annual Palm Beach Book Festival kicked off last weekend in West Palm Beach, Florida. Award-winning author Sandra Balzo --- best known for her Maggy Thorsen mystery series --- was in attendance and was kind enough to do some sleuthing for us. Here, Sandy shares what made the festival such a huge success, her favorite panels and panelists, and what an honor it was to represent her late fiancé, crime writer Jeremiah Healy, who had served on the festival’s advisory board and to whom the mystery panel was dedicated. She also took tons of amazing photos, which you can view in the gallery below. How many times have you attended the Palm Beach Book Festival?

Sandra Balzo: This was the inaugural Palm Beach Book Festival, but it was billed as “First Annual,” which is great news. The brainchild of New York journalist and author Lois Cahall --- now a Palm Beach transplant --- the event was both well-organized and well-attended, with upwards of 100 people in the audience.

There was just one track of programming, which was a nice change from many book and writers conferences. I didn’t feel I had to miss anything and, even the sessions I thought I might not be interested in --- like the panel on memoirs --- were fascinating. As a mystery writer, I often attend mystery events, but this was a good reminder that crossover festivals like this one can be even more rewarding.

BRC: You were there for a special reason. Tell us about that.

SB: Lois Cahall was a long-time Boston friend of my fiancé, crime-writer Jeremiah Healy, who died in August. Jerry was to be on the advisory board, and Lois dedicated the mystery panel to Jerry’s memory. The panel was moderated by New York Times bestselling author Scott Eyman, with panelists Linda Fairstein, Andrew Gross and James Grippando. Jerry would have been so honored, and I was grateful to have been invited to represent him.

BRC: Was there one author you were particularly excited about meeting? If so, share with us something about that.

SB: I have to say that there were so many interesting people, it’s tough to choose. Lois, who writes for the likes of Redbook, SELF and Reader’s Digest, drew on her contacts and came up with a kick-ass lineup. James Wolcott moderated the first panel on women’s literature. It featured Lee Woodruff, who chronicled her reporter-husband Bob Woodruff’s recovery from a roadside bomb injury in IN AN INSTANT, and Carrie Feron, Senior VP and Executive Editor for William Morrow and Avon.

BRC: What were some of the event highlights for you?

SB: I mentioned the memoir panel. It was moderated by Christopher Bonanos, senior editor of New York Magazine. The guest was actor Alan Cumming. I recognized him from “The Good Wife,” but he is also a former journalist (not to mention singer, writer, producer, director, and Tony and Emmy award winner) and author of NOT MY FATHER’S SON, selected as the festival’s memoir of the year. Cumming is Scottish and appeared on the British genealogy show “Who Do You Think You Are?” in an effort to find out more about his maternal grandfather. In the process, though, he revisited his relationship with his emotionally and physically abusive father, which resulted in his book.

When Bonanos pointed out that Cumming had not given his father’s name until halfway through the book, Cumming was astounded, leading to a discussion of the subconscious in writing and how the very fact the man had not been named --- only referred to in the way Alan, the abused boy, would have thought of him --- added to the feeling of menace of the book.

Despite the serious subject of the book, Cumming was delightful and funny, talking about his years in journalism, when he filled the weekly horoscope column with gems like, “Uranus is in full bloom and going to give you a great surprise on Tuesday!!”

BRC: Was there one panel that stood out to you? If so, what was it, and why? If there was more than one, feel free to share as many as you like.  

SB: The mystery thriller panel, as you might expect. The discussion of plot versus character in thrillers was interesting, with the authors agreeing that, while plot is considered primary, it’s the characters that are memorable to both the readers and even the writers (who sometimes can’t even remember all their own plots!). Also, the ways in which the three authors plot: All outline in some form, but Andy [Gross] does a detailed, sometimes 50-page outline, Jim [Grippando] outlines “to conflict” and then takes the story from there on the typed page, and Linda [Fairstein] outlines about five chapters ahead as she writes, all the while knowing the solution of the crime, of course.

BRC: Was there anything you learned during an author talk or a panel that surprised you?

SB: The last panel --- on publishing --- was moderated by Time columnist and author of PRIMARY COLORS Joe Klein and featured Lisa Sharkey, Senior VP of HarperCollins, and Doris Downes, widow of art critic Robert Hughes.   

In regard to social media, Lisa said that tweeting doesn’t sell books. I’ve felt that myself, but figured I just must be doing it wrong. Apparently not. She cited the short life of a tweet and how hard it is to describe a book in 140 characters. Another interesting factoid:  Lisa rejects 99 out of 100 manuscripts.

Hot in publishing:
—The crossover of adults reading young adult books
—Audiobooks, a resurgence spurred by the popularity of the podcast “Serial”
—Subscription services like, Scribd, Oyster and Kindle Unlimited for audio and eBooks
—Price fluctuations, with publishers lowering eBook prices at times to spur interest

BRC: What did you walk away wanting to read most?

SB: Alan Cumming’s NOT MY FATHER’S SON.

(First row, from L to R: Andrew Gross; Gross and James Grippando. Second row: the mystery panel, including Gross, Grippando, Linda Fairstein and Scott Eyman. Third row: Grippando and Fairstein, Grippando. Fourth row: Lois Cahall; Alan Cumming. Fifth row: Alan Cumming and Christopher Bonanos. Sixth row: James Woolcott, Lee Woodruff and Carrie Feron discuss women's fiction. Seventh row: Joe Klein; Lisa Sharkey. Eighth row: Publishing panel, including Doris Downes, Joe Klein and Lisa Sharkey.)