Miami Book Fair Panel: Mystery Writers Are All Business And Pleasure

Nov 18, 2012

The Miami Book Fair International plays host to all genres and a multitude of panel discussions, like the Mystery Writers of America.
Credit Sammy Mack

The Mystery Writers of America panel were all business. At least, they were until they became mystery writers. The panel, held in what the moderator called "the recovery room," featured three members from the association: James Grippando, Jeffrey Siger, and Sharon Potts. All three members were "over-educated lawyers and business people who have fallen upon hard times as writers."

That seemed to be the theme of the discussion, which started with Grippando who "fell off the wagon" when he quit being a lawyer, but then wrote 20 novels. His bestseller, Need You Now, is a story of "greed on a Wall Street scale," which he revealed was inspired by his work on one of the first cases filed against Bernie Madoff. 

Jeff Siger, who also decided to "make no money" by becoming a novelist after having been a lawyer, was validated in his decision with his first book, for which a reviewer lauded him because he "would not write fluff." From this experience, he learned two rules about writing: 1. Tell the story how it needs to be told, and 2. Don't take cheap shots. His second book, he told us, got him labeled "prophetic" because it predicted the economic problems in Greece.

"Countess" Sharon Potts was the "token CPA" of the panel who recently became the Florida chapter president of the Mystery Writers of America "much to her surprise." On switching from her profession as a CPA to that of being a writer: "Obviously you're not wondering why I gave it up," she said. "No one was ever looking for a CPA to write a novel," a truth proven by her troubles getting her first book published. Potts stuck with it, though, and after eight years, eight manuscripts, and 64 rejections, got In Their Blood in print. "There's a big difference in telling a story and writing one a publisher wants to pick up," she said. Then she explained the birth of her latest, The Devil's Madonna, which was inspired by her mother-in-law's acting career in Nazi Germany. From the knowledge of that career came several "what if" questions for Potts, which grew into a mystery novel that many loved but many hated (due to its "very disturbing plot twist and ending.")

The panelists were asked whether they get bored with serial characters, which meshed with a discussion of big time novelists who have teams of writers and the idea of writers as a brand. (Grippando is going to give a talk at an IP law convention soon about the topic.) All of this discussion about the business of writing mystery novels highlighted the mystery of what makes a good mystery at all, until Grippando shared the question that his readers were most concerned about: "Is [the main character of his series] ever going to meet the right woman or not?"

They were also asked whether they wished they'd gotten an MFA. Grippando said that becoming a writer was a dream, not a goal. Potts explained that had she had an MFA, she could have done what she did in six years in two: find out what goes in a novel. Siger said that he used to want to be a forest ranger, so being a novelist did not immediately occur to him. When it did, he saw his high school classmate, John Edgar Wideman, read something he had written and thought, "I can never write like that," and gave up. That is, until now.

Sarah Mason is a contributor to the Florida Book Review. Mason attended the Mystery Writers of America talk on Saturday. You can check out FBR's full live blog of the 2012 book fair here.

WLRN is collaborating with the Florida Book Review to cover this year's Miami Book Fair International. Check back all weekend for updates.