Talking Cons with Jon Jordan

by Rob Brunet

Crime fiction authors know there’s no shortage of conferences to attend. Over the past couple years, I’ve been a bit of a conference junkie and, in the process, learned how welcoming the crime fiction community is to new participants. No one is more welcoming, more wired-in, or more passionate about the genre than Ruth and Jon Jordan, editors in chief and publishers of Crimespree Magazine, and joint recipients of the 2015 MWA Raven Award. Together with Penny Halle and Erica Ruth Neubauer, they are the force behind Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee.

When I asked Jon Jordan if we could speak about MMM for this post, he started with the big picture of the landscape I’d been traveling. “People talk as if the conferences are in competition with one another,” he said, “but really, they’re not.”

One example is Thrillerfest,  a ten-year-old con that came about because thrillers—distinct from mysteries—seemed to be getting overlooked. It’s grown to one of the largest crime fiction conferences anywhere. A huge part of its strength comes from ITW’s commitment to nurturing new thriller writers, something they do particularly well. The genre’s heavy hitters not only hang with new authors in the bar; they also volunteer their time at in-depth workshops where pros teach skills and technique to writers vying to break in. The Thrill Begins, of course, is part of the Thrillerfest universe, and if you haven’t yet been to New York in July, what are you waiting for?

Bouchercon, which Jon describes as a straight-up fan conference, travels from city to city, giving regional fan bases the chance to go to a large con attended by several hundred authors at all stages of their career. Left Coast Crime is similar to Bouchercon, but with a more intimate feel. There are too many regional cons to name them all here, but I’ll put a short list on my own blog (and will gladly add your favorite if you let me know).

I’d heard Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee is kinda like a large family gathering. Heading there a couple weeks ago, I knew I was in for a treat. Frankly, I felt it was a privilege to be included in this year’s list of authors and moderators for the single-track day of panels. Hearing Jon say, “We invite authors we’d like to have to our home for dinner…because that’s what we do,” only made it that much more meaningful.

By keeping it to a single track, the organizers make sure every author appears before most of the attendees. “We try to find some names who will draw, and then invite other authors who people should be reading,” Jon explained. “It’s like a Black Friday sale, with a 50-inch TV to get people in the store, then we introduce them to other stuff they might want.”

This ties back to the work the Jordans do with Crimespree. They know it takes a lot for new authors to break through, so they try to rally behind them. “As Mystery Scene is to The Beatles,” says Jon, “we are to the Ramones.” Just like the conferences, readers are looking for both the big names they already know and new voices they might enjoy. Besides, he says, any mystery, thriller, or crime fiction author selling more books brings more attention to the genre, and that’s good for everyone.

Eleven years in—the first nine were held in Muskego as part of a library offering, but with the same core organizers—MMM sustains a “getting-in-on-the-ground-floor” feel. The first event was pulled together in six weeks just a few months after the first issue of Crimespree was published. Now, the one-day conference starts booking headline authors over a year in advance. Add non-appearing authors who show up alongside dedicated readers, and this year MMM was host to nearly 200 attendees.

They were treated to an event held in Milwaukee’s Irish Cultural and Heritage Center, housed in a massive decommissioned Methodist church, which surely did not have a pub in its basement when it was operational. The author panels took place on a raised stage in front of a 4,000-pipe organ. Jon plans to warm up the pipes for the 2016 edition.

A passionate extended team of family, co-workers, and friends work alongside the organizers to “keep it fresh year after year, and have everyone leave feeling energized and fired up.” Several times over the course of thirty-six hours hanging with the tight-knit group, I was asked, “How many people do you know here?” Because of all the cons I’ve been attending, I knew quite a few. The thing is, the atmosphere at Crimespree Castle was so close, so full of hugs, so obviously family, it was hard to imagine anyone present hadn’t known most everyone else forever. First-timers were as welcome—and as warmly connected—as people who’ve made the trek year after year.

Whatever they’re doing, it’s working. After two late nights on either side of a jam-packed con, fired up is exactly how I felt. I’m looking forward to more time at my desk and less on the road, but I’m a big believer crime fiction conferences are soul food. And the hugs in Milwaukee? They’re well worth the drive.

A special note about this year’s Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee:

This year, the organizers are directing at least half of the proceeds from the conference silent auction (more than $5,000) to a fundraiser for Erin Mitchell, one of the industry’s brightest PR lights who needs support for a health care crisis. Stretching that effort beyond the conference itself, the auction will continue over the next few weeks. Check the Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee Facebook page for more information.

Milwaukee’s Irish Cultural and Heritage Center



Photo credits: John Thomas Bychowski

ROB BRUNET writes character-driven crime fiction laced with dark humor. His debut novel STINKING RICH was listed on Crimespree Magazine’s Book Picks for 2014 and named one of the year’s top debuts by Mystery People. Brunet’s short crime fiction appears in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thuglit, Crimespree, Noir Nation, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, and numerous anthologies. He loves the bush, beaches, and bonfires, and teaches creative writing at George Brown College in Toronto, where he lives with his wife, daughter, and son.

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