Jennifer Hillier

The whirlwind of ThrillerFest and NYC 2018

Jul 20, 2018 | Book Events, Conferences, Jar of Hearts, Personal, Travel

Late Tuesday night, I returned from my seventh trip to NYC for ThrillerFest. I try to write my recaps within a few days of getting home, when everything is still fresh, and the stars in my eyes are still glistening. This write-up was originally intended for my newsletter, but it got too long, and I stuffed too many pictures into it. So here it is, on the blog.

Also, if we spoke at ThrillerFest and I missed mentioning you here, please know it’s not intentional! You have my permission to pinch me when I see you next.

(Note: this recap is personal, so you won’t find summaries of the panels and interviews, if that’s what you were hoping to read. For that type of recap, check out Thomas Pluck’s excellent ThrillerFest 2018 recap in Criminal Element).




I was at the Grand Hyatt by lunchtime on Thursday, and immediately ran into friends in the lobby and elevator. That’s the thing about a conference, you’ll see folks you know everywhere—in the coffee line, the stairwells, the hallways. With no hotel rooms available yet, I snuck up to ballroom level to watch aspiring authors practice their PitchFest pitches. Some looked absolutely terrified (which is how I’d look if it were me), and some were really excited at the thought of getting their idea in front of an agent.

I envy anyone with that kind of confidence. I still get nervous telling people what my new book is about, and the damned thing is in stores! (Yeah, I know I have to work on that).

Whenever I’m at ThrillerFest, my first order of business is to check that I have books for sale in the book room. Which is so silly, because I’ve never not had books for sale in the book room (they even stocked old titles during the years I had nothing new out). Still, I felt compelled to check. Chalk it up to a writerly validation thing.

So of course this would be the year I couldn’t find any copies JAR OF HEARTS anywhere, despite four trips around the room. I finally asked the kind young gentleman from The Strand (the bookstore who hosted the book room this year) if they had any copies.

He looked up JAR OF HEARTS, and confirmed they did. He even helpfully pointed out what the book’s cover looked like, and I nodded like an idiot, unable to bring myself to admit that the book was actually mine. We both looked around the room again. He found them first, grabbing a copy and heading back to the cash register. Finally I blurted, “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t going to buy it. That’s my book. I just wanted to see if you had any for sale.”

The look on his face! But we shared a hearty laugh. When I stopped into the book room a couple of days later, he remembered me. “Hey Jennifer! I know exactly where your book is!”

Anyway, here’s proof that it was there (not that anyone needed it but me).



The opening cocktail party (sponsored by my publisher, St. Martin’s Press) always kicks things off. Criminal Element put me on the spot and asked me, “What’s the best place to hide a dead body?” If you’ve read JAR OF HEARTS, you’ll know where my answer came from.



And then Criminal Element snapped a pic of me with with fellow SMP author Peter Blauner for their social media pages.



If you’re an introvert, the cocktail parties can be overwhelming. Everyone always seems to know everyone, and while people are friendly, it can be intimidating to walk into a huge room filled with people you don’t know. I skipped this event for years because I was terrified of standing alone with nobody to talk to. I’ve gone the last couple of times because it’s a great way to catch up with all the wonderful people who are working on JAR OF HEARTS. The publicists, marketing team, the editors—there’s a good chance most of them are at this party.

Several book-related conversations and two George R.R. Martin ThrillerFest cocktails later (I can’t remember what was in them, but they looked and tasted like melted grape popsicles, which is either delicious or disgusting, depending on your preferred popsicle flavor), I snapped this pic with the amazing Jen Enderlin. She’s not my editor, but she’s Chevy Stevens’ editor as well as the publisher of SMP, and I wanted to text Chevy a cute pic.



After the cocktail party, I had dinner with my editor, Keith Kahla, and Martin Quinn, the marketing guru behind my book. So great to catch up with them both (and I forgot to take a pic).

Then after dinner, it was back to the bar. Here I am with Ed Aymar, managing editor of ITW’s The Thrill Begins (and also my most favorite writer pal), who always resents having his picture taken (which only makes it more fun).



We drank until we passed out. Okay, no, we didn’t. Because drinks in Manhattan are really expensive.




I had nothing scheduled conference-wise on Friday, so it was basically a day of meandering around the Hyatt, popping into panels, and socializing in between lunch and dinner plans.

Here’s me with a poster. Look at those awesome books!



Another fancy poster! Some excellent marketing for THE NIGHT OF THE FLOOD, the anthology I wrote the epilogue for. Here I am with Ed and fellow contributor (and friend), Alan Orloff.



I had lunch with my agent, Victoria Skurnick, and Jim Levine, who’s the founder of Levine Greenberg Rostan. I’ve been fortunate to have had the same agent (and agency) since the beginning of my career, and obviously they’ve done a great job representing me.

I love talking with agents, and not just mine. You learn so much about the business of publishing. They both reminded me that I need to reach out and ask for help when I need it, because we’re all on the same team. I tend to hide when I’m writing, and even more so when I’m stuck, and that really needs to change, because honestly, it’s not working for me anymore. (More thoughts on this later).



After lunch, it was back to the hotel, where I spent time catching up with old pal Thomas Pluck, and new pals Pam Stack and Matthew Farrell (I say new, because even though we’re all Facebook friends, this is the first time I’d met Pam and Matt in person). Poor Matt looks like he’s photobombing our pic, which he wasn’t, which is funny.



I love this cute pic with Tommy and author friend Christina Kovac.



And I really love this pic of Christina laughing (with author pals Shawn Reilly Simmons and Radha Vatsal). There was a lot of laughing this past weekend.



I stopped in to see Lee Child interview Megan Abbott, because hello, LEE CHILD IS INTERVIEWING MEGAN ABBOTT. As a writer, listening to two greats discuss their books, writing process, and film deals is what keeps the dream alive.



Later that night, I got to see my wonderful agent again. We had dinner with her good friend Sally Richardson, who’s also the president and publisher at St. Martin’s Press. Both of these women are smart, strong, funny, and warm, and just a joy to talk to. They’ve both worked in publishing for decades, so between them, what they know is A LOT. I’m a sponge around women like this. I soak up everything they tell me.







I know what you’re thinking. We’re only on Saturday?

Saturday was my busy day. Still doesn’t really feel like work, although being on panel never fails to make me nervous. Some authors are great on panels—they’re articulate, funny, knowledgeable. I don’t fit into any of those categories. The best I can contribute are my experiences and what I’ve learned. I’m always in awe of the authors beside me, and with every panel, I wonder if it was a clerical error that put me up there beside these incredibly talented people. (Again, I need to work on that).

The Debut Authors’ Breakfast is always a highlight. All the happy, nervous faces of newly published authors takes me back to my own debut year (I’m class of 2011). It’s an experience I’ve never forgotten, and I hope these authors feel the same way. Back then, Carla Buckley (keep reading!) made my debut breakfast special by congratulating all of us personally—she was a reassuring face on a morning I was SO nervous. This year, Steve Berry gave a warm welcome to the class of 2018.



Then it was time for my own panel on psychological thrillers. From the front, that’s me, Anthony Franze (who began by saying he doesn’t write psychological thrillers, ha), Val Constantine and Lynne Constantine (who write under the pen name Liv Constantine), Carla Buckley (yay yay yay! Talk about full circle!), and Daniel Palmer (more on him later), with the wonderful Karen Dionne moderating.



After my panel, as I was wilting from the relief of it being over, I ran into Todd Ritter in the hallway. I was not about to let him pass by without a giant hug. Todd (who writes under the pen name, Riley Sager) and I go way back. I can’t remember the exact details of how we first met, but we were both with different publishers back then. My, how things have changed.

But our friendship hasn’t, and I will always root for this guy. He’s a fantastic writer and the perfect example of what talent, hard work, and perseverance can do. He was nominated for ITW’s Best Hardcover Novel for FINAL GIRLS, which ironically, wasn’t what we chatted about. I was too busy congratulating him on his newest book, THE LAST TIME I LIED, hitting the New York Times bestseller list earlier that week!



And then author friend Joe Clifford came along. This is the official moment “When Todd Met Joe.” Any guesses to what these two badass, accomplished thriller authors were discussing so passionately in the hallways of ThrillerFest? That’s right. TAYLOR SWIFT. (And if you know either of them, you will know I am absolutely not joking).



Snapped a selfie with Lynne Constantine (and if you haven’t read THE LAST MRS. PARRISH, you should go buy it right now!) in the signing room, which was no easy feat, considering how many fans were coming by their table to get their books signed. (For perspective, I only signed six copies of JAR OF HEARTS total while I was in New York, and two were for Lynne and Val. Another three, I signed outside the conference. So only one reader actually came by).



I had a great chat with with retired homicide detective-turned-crime fiction author Bruce Coffin. I mean, homicide detective. Crime fiction writer. BRUCE COFFIN. Could his name BE any more perfect?



And I loved meeting soon-to-be-debut author Wendy Heard in person. She’s just as sweet in real life as she is on Twitter (which is how we first met). HUNTING ANNABELLE comes out this December.



I also snapped a better pic with Matthew Farrell, where he does not appear to be photobombing. We discovered we have the same birthday, which automatically makes him cool and trustworthy. His debut novel, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE, will be out this October.



Back inside the book room, Authors on the Air host Pam Stack was doing a live podcast with a whole bunch of crime fiction writers. I sat in for a bit and added my two cents to the conversation. You can listen to the podcast here, and I’m around the 50-minute mark (although I think the audio glitched in certain places).



It had been a long day at this point, and with the banquet coming up later that night, I wanted to chill for a bit. But first, I popped into the big panel with R.L. Stine,(Goosebumps), George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones), Heather Graham (Krewe of Hunters), David Morrell, (Rambo: First Blood), and Lee Child (Jack Reacher), with Jeff Ayers hosting. I mean, you could feel the greatness of this all-star lineup permeating every inch of that room.



After a quick nap (yes, I napped, like an old lady), it was banquet time. Ah, the banquet. Everyone dresses up all fancy, and the food is schmancy, and the awards are inspiring. I dig it.

Finally, a pic with my editor, Keith Kahla! Here we are at the pre-banquet cocktail party. I think we clean up well.




Awards time! I was absolutely thrilled that two of my long-time friends in the writing community won ITW awards for their amazing books. Remember Todd? His book, FINAL GIRLS, won for Best Hardcover! I got emotional watching his beautiful acceptance speech. So, so happy for him. Nobody deserves this more.



And KJ Howe, the executive director of ThrillerFest, won for Best First Novel for her book, THE FREEDOM BROKER! Kim is the reason we all go to ThrillerFest and have the best time. I met her at my very first conference back in 2009, and she’s a fellow Toronto girl. So happy for her.



After the award winners were announced, there was a very entertaining parody of Game of Thrones put on by authors Daniel Palmer (who I was on a panel with earlier) and Brad Parks. It was a tribute to George R.R. Martin, who received the Thriller Master award for 2018. Lee Child was last year’s recipient.




After the banquet, there was yet another cocktail party (three now? I’ve lost count). I was able to snag a picture with one of my favorite authors, Joseph Finder. I’ve been reading him for decades, and he generously blurbed JAR OF HEARTS. I am forever a fan.



Cocktail party done, it was back to—where else?—the bar. My husband Darren flew into New York closer to midnight, and made it to the Grand Hyatt just in time to meet a few of my friends before we all called it a night. He said it’s always hilarious showing up to the bar late when everyone else is totally drunk. (He exaggerates. We weren’t totally drunk). Here he is with Ed, and the sweet and funny Kim Alexander.



By the way, if you’re a new writer and reading this, it isn’t my intention to glamorize drinking at book events like ThrillerFest (and the upcoming convention, Bouchercon). I would never do that, I promise. I rarely drink in my regular life, but I do drink a little at conferences. The hotel bar is where everyone congregates at the end of each long day, and I think drinking is an extension of that.

But the bar isn’t for everyone. It’s loud, and some people drink more than others, and some folks get annoying, fast. So if this isn’t your thing, that’s okay. You don’t have to socialize at the bar to have a good time. That being said, there are a lot of great conversations that happen there. People will tell you stuff about the business that you’ll never hear about on a panel or even at dinner. And if you like the idea of hanging out with everyone, but you don’t want to drink, then absolutely don’t. Nobody will hassle you about it. And if they do, come talk to me. I got you.




Finally! I survived ThrillerFest and was on vacation and could relax!

Except, I was scheduled to read at Noir at the Bar that night for the very first time, and I was SICK TO MY STOMACH with nerves all day. I’m not overstating. Reading my work out loud to an audience is terrifying for me. But I’d been invited to read at Noir a few times before on ThrillerFest weekend, and could never do it because I was always traveling home. Not this time, though. The plan was to stay a couple of extra days in NYC for a concert, and so I thought it was time I stepped out of my comfort zone and said yes. (Honestly, it was so scary that I don’t know if I’d say yes again, but I’m glad I did it).

Darren and I had the whole day free before the event. First thing we did was check out of the Grand Hyatt and into a hotel in the village. Yay, I made it out of midtown! Before we left, we grabbed that enormous blueberry glazed doughnut from Doughnut Plant (which is underneath the Hyatt, at Grand Central) that had been calling to me since I first spied it on Thursday.

And then I made Darren eat it (because deep fried dough, yo).



It’s hard to capture Grand Central Station from a cell phone camera (not that I have skills on a regular camera). Where’s Darren?



After checking into the new hotel, we took a walk around the neighborhood. We sat and listened to some excellent jazz in Washington Square.



We saw a dude covered in birds. (Yes, there’s a person under all those beaks, claws, and feathers. *shudders*)




And then it was time to head to Shade Bar, where Noir at the Bar was happening. Darren did a good job reassuring me it would all go fine, and I had extra support from the friends who came out to watch me read.

These are New Yorker friends Alex, David, and Taylor. I met each one of them online, at different times. I met Alex and David through our blogs way back in the day (long before I was published), and I met Taylor in person for the first time a few minutes before this picture was taken—we originally met through Instagram. She’s an avid reader of thrillers, and like Darren, she’s originally from Wisconsin.

Behold the power of social media! It’s not all shouting and politics.



Jen Conley, the co-organizer of Noir at the Bar, was kind enough to schedule me to read second. Thank god, because the longer I sat, the more nervous I got. This is me reading a prison scene from JAR OF HEARTS.



This photo with the entire Noir at the Bar lineup is extra special because it’s proof I did it. Left to right: Danny Gardner, James McCrone, Kenneth Wishnia, Rick Ollerman, me, long-time friend Hilary Davidson, organizer Jen Conley, Rob Hart, organizer Scott Adlerberg, and Alex Segura. A seriously stellar lineup. And they’re all pros at this reading-out-loud thing.



Post-Noir pizza in the village. It was to die for (and why is the pizza not pictured, dammit).



And a cute pic with Alex and Darren. (I’m the short Canadian in the middle).






I know. It doesn’t end. I’m sorry.

Monday was an easy day. We slept in a bit, then went for lunch at Rosa Mexicano. Mexican food is Darren’s happy place.



We took a stroll through Central Park. All my trips to NYC, and this was my very first time in Central Park. We didn’t walk for long, because it was too hot. I think we saw maybe one-twelfth of the park. It’s huge.



We headed indoors after that. Ended up at the American Museum of Natural History. Dinosaurs! Tigers! Whales! OH MY.



Then it was concert time. We had tickets to see the Foo Fighters play Madison Square Garden. Can I just say what an awesome venue the Garden is? Like outstandingly awesome. Great food choices, comfy seats, amazing acoustics, escalators carrying you up to the level you need to be. If I could see every concert at MSG for the rest of my life, I would.

And the Foo. What can I say about Dave Grohl and company that hasn’t already been said a million times? Killer, high-energy performance. They hit their notes. They play loud. I saw them eight years ago in Vancouver, and they just keep getting better. Somehow, in an arena, they manage to feel themselves feel accessible, and the experience of seeing them live is actually a very intimate one. They play every song like it’s the first (or last) time they’ll ever play it, all heart, nothing held back. Dave Grohl might just be the best frontman of any band ever. (Fight me).








Last day. Thank god, right?

We had a lazy morning packing and checking out of the hotel. Before lunch, we decided to pop by Levine Greenberg Rostan for one last hug from Victoria. Eight years and five books later, this was the very first time I’d seen the LGR offices. The views are amazing, and the people were all so kind and welcoming (as I knew they would be).




One of the perks of knowing people in publishing is the access to free books. Victoria told me to take as many books home as I wanted because their shelves were stuffed with ALL THE BOOKS I COULD EVER WANT TO READ, but I couldn’t, because my suitcase was already bursting. Oh, how it hurt to decline her generous offer, but we were flying home (or so I thought).

After our visit, we headed across the street to the hole-in-the-wall pizza place Victoria recommended for lunch. We were craving pizza again and she said their pizza was “pretty good.” Well, holy shit. If this was “pretty good” pizza, what does “excellent pizza taste like in NYC? Because the “pretty good” pizza was frigging delicious.



As we were finishing our lunch, I got a notification from Air Canada that our flights out of LaGuardia that evening were cancelled due to weather. Noooo! To make matters worse, we were rebooked on flights late the next day, flying out several hours apart. Noooo!

My first thought was, Where the hell are we going to sleep tonight? We’d already checked out of our hotel.

My second thought was, Let’s rent a car. Thankfully, Toronto is a manageable eight-hour drive from NYC.

My third thought—once we were in the rental car and heading home—was legit despair over ALL THE BOOKS I COULD HAVE SNAGGED FROM LGR, BUT DIDN’T TAKE because I thought I was flying. Now, I had a whole trunk I could have stuffed them in. Well played, universe.

It never would have been my preference to drive home, especially in terrible weather, but the universe has a way of teaching us lessons. And what we learned was that Darren could totally make it as a taxi driver in NYC, if he had to. (Hey, it’s always nice to have career options in case he gets tired of the wine industry).

I, on the other hand, would have pulled the car over and wept. Visibility inside the city was near zero.



After a couple of snafus (one at the border, and then our car was dead where Darren had parked it at the Toronto airport—both problems were solved, but they took a little while), we were home and sleeping by 2 a.m. I almost felt sick when I woke up the next morning, I was so tired.

But there’s a consolation prize. LGR saw my tweet about all the books I didn’t take home, and they’re mailing me a box! Because, ultimately, the universe is kind (especially the good folks at my agency).

After each conference, I ask myself two questions. What did I learn? What do I still have to learn?

I learned that no matter how successful people think you are, or how successful you wish you were (and these are two totally, separate things), the only thing that matters is the book you write, and then the one after that, and the one after that. The rest is just marketing and sales, which I can’t control, anyway.

And what I need to learn is how to ask for help. During lunch with Jim Levine, he recounted a story about one of his authors who was struggling to finish his book. Jim told him, “Send me your shittiest first draft.” And what he meant by that was, I’m your agent and I’m here to help you, so let me.

And then Victoria said to me, “You know I’m here, right? If you need to bounce ideas around, if you want me to read what you’ve got so far, just call. Anything you need.”

Thing is, I don’t know how to ask for help with a book. I haven’t ever felt comfortable asking for help with any book I was working on. I don’t have beta readers or crit partners. The first person to read JAR OF HEARTS was my agent, and as with every book, Victoria received the manuscript after edits and revisions, when it was as tight and clean as I could get it. She didn’t even know I was writing it, because I didn’t tell her.

When it comes to writing, I’m neither a team player nor fit to lead—I’m a lone wolf. And it’s worked well for five novels.

But I’m not sure it’s working anymore. It’s a lot of pressure, and I’m beginning to realize that maybe so much pressure is unnecessary. I don’t know that I could ever bring myself to send my agent a shitty first draft, but you know what?

It’s nice to know I could.

See you next year, New York.