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A Conversation with The Center for Fiction’s Allison Escoto: Part 1

Earlier this year, The Center For Fiction moved from its Manhattan site to a new home in downtown Brooklyn. EQMM and AHMM managing editor Jackie Sherbow had a chance to speak with Allison Escoto, the Center’s head librarian, about the Center and its Raven Award winning mystery and detective fiction collection, her work and goals for the library, the organization’s history, and her thoughts on the mystery genre and other literature. Allison, a New Yorker by way of New Orleans, is a graduate of SUNY New Paltz and Queens College and has worked as a librarian for seventeen years. She is also a poet, copywriter, and the associate editor of Newtown Literary. Here is the first half of our conversation; the second half will appear tomorrow at SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN, the Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine blog.

Allison Escoto. Photo courtesy of The Center for Fiction.

Jackie Sherbow: You’ve had your hands full—literally and metaphorically—during the Center’s move to Brooklyn. What can you share about what the move has meant for the library and for your role there?

Allison Escoto: The Center for Fiction was previously known as the Mercantile Library of New York, an organization that had been in existence since 1820 and has had various homes throughout NYC in the ensuing years. Our building at 17 East 47th Street had been its home since the 1930s so you can imagine how much had been accumulated in that building, especially the library! I came onboard as the Head Librarian right before we moved out so I didn’t really get too much time to spend with the collection but now that we are settling in, I am really getting to know the collection. My vision in the coming years is to continue to add to the amazing titles we have collected over the years and to really take my time getting to know the great fiction that has been decades in the making.

JS: What was the relocation’s timeline, and what can you tell us about the new building?

AE: Our relocation from East 47th Street has been in the works for at least ten years, from the sale of our old location, to the design and planning of this new one. The new building is incredible! There are so many beautiful aspects to the design but my favorite part is of course, the library, which occupies all three levels. There can be little wrong with books everywhere!

JS: You joined the Center’s staff at a transitional moment in its history. How has it been for you to have such an intimate start to your time there?

AE: The unique thing about an organization that has been around for centuries is that even though it evolves and changes with the time, you can always sense the past all around you. I’ve been so lucky to see both the traditional and well-loved building with all its history and memories as well as to witness this exciting phase in an impressive new place. It has been great!

JS: What are you looking forward to now that the move is over?

AE: I am very much looking forward to meeting and greeting new members and program attendees. I’ve witnessed firsthand just how much blood, sweat, and tears have gone into making this Center a literary gathering place to celebrate fiction and I think welcoming people here is going to be great. I’m also looking forward to getting my hands on the collection!

One corner of the Center’s extensive mystery/detective/suspense fiction collection. Photo by Jackie Sherbow.

JS: The Center for Fiction is the only organization in the U.S. devoted solely to the art of fiction. What is it like to work with a collection having a singular (yet vast) focus?

AE: As a lifelong and voracious reader, working with an entirely fiction collection has been a dream come true. In my previous jobs in a variety of libraries, fiction was my consistent favorite and to be able to focus on it here has been enlightening. I get to talk about, think about, and work around fiction all day!

JS: What can you tell us about the library’s award-winning mystery and detective- fiction collection?

AE: The mystery and suspense collection is the recipient of a Raven Award and it is a part of the collection we are very proud to have. Our in-depth collection is housed in the cellar of our new space, with over 16,000 titles of mystery and suspense, including rare titles and full runs of many mystery writers including Cyril Hare and Mary Roberts Rinehart as well as extensive collections from the golden age of detective fiction authors such as John Rhode and Ellery Queen. Our contemporary mystery and suspense is growing right along with us as a Center as well with the most dynamic and exciting new mystery fiction.

Photo by Jackie Sherbow.

JS: How often do you acquire new (or new to the collection) works of mystery?

AE: I order new books every month and throughout the year, I always have my eyes and ears open for brand new publications to add to our collection.

Photo by Jackie Sherbow

AH: Why do you think the mystery genre came to play such a big role in the library’s collection and the Center’s focus?

AE: From the inception of the Mercantile Library in the 19th Century, it was clear to the founders that their members wanted to read for entertainment and enjoyment, along with education. This organization has been collecting fiction and what they called “the best imaginative works” for the members and a huge part of that ended up being mysteries and suspense novels. The tradition was carried through the years and over time we amassed a great collection of the genre.

The conversation continues tomorrow, 8/28/19, at SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN.

You can check out the Center for Fiction on their website, on Instagram and Twitter @center4fiction, on Facebook @thecenterforfiction, or by visiting them at 15 Lafayette Avenue, Brookly, New York. For a look at their upcoming classes and workshops, visit https://www.centerforfiction.org/events/ and https://www.centerforfiction.org/groups-workshops/.

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“Up in the Air”—A Cautionary Tale by Amanda Witt

Amanda Witt is the author of The Red Series of dystopian novels. Her stories can be found in the Mystery Writers of American anthologies Odd Partners (April 2019), Life Is Short and Then You Die (September 2019), and A Hot and Sultry Night for Crime (by Ana Rainwater). Here she talks about her AHMM debut, “Up in the Air” from the current March/April 2019 issue.

Funny thing about this story: I got scolded.

“Up in the Air” began as many short stories do. I saw a call for submissions, wrote something that fit the criteria, and sent it off. In return I heard nothing. As all writers know, this happens.

Then I got the following email [identifying information has been removed]:

The deadline was January 31st at 11:59 p.m. The judges have already finished reading and the final decisions are being made in the next 2-3 weeks.

Sorry, but you’re just too late to be considered. You would have been too late on February 1st, let alone March 8th.

Ouch.

But I’m one of those oldest-child, authority-respecting types. Any latent rebellion comes out in alter-ego characters, and never, ever in the real world. I check the details. I follow instructions. I wear my seatbelt, pay bills on time, and clean up after my dog on walks in the park. So hadn’t I sent the story in well before the deadline?

I checked, and indeed I had. And—like a good detective—I found proof.

Loath to argue, but wishing to retain a reputation for professionalism in even such a minor matter as this, I sent a brief reply:

I sent this in on January 27 (as you can see in the email beneath your own).

There was no disputing it, thanks to the “include the original email in your reply” function.

A flurry of explanations, excuses, blame, and apologies (of a sort) followed:

I don’t know what to tell you. It just arrived today. We posted on the website the day after we closed that all submissions had been acknowledged, and if you didn’t receive an acknowledgment, to contact us.

I have NO idea how this mail snafu happened. I received a lot of entries, and this one literally just popped up this morning. Totally bizarre.

After a bit of cordial back-and-forth, we parted ways amicably, and I sent “Up in the Air” somewhere else—namely to AHMM, whose editors have been (and surely always will be!) unfailingly gracious.

So “Up in the Air,” a cautionary tale about marriage (or about cell phones, police officers, small children, or prescription drugs—take your pick!) brings with it a couple of cautions for writers of stories and writers of emails.

Writers of stories: Check back on the submission website after the deadline passes. And, whether a statement about acknowledgment is posted or not, if you submit a story and you don’t get a “story received” message, consider pinging the editor. “Lost in cyberspace” actually does happen.

Writers of emails: Even if someone clearly appears to be in the wrong, be kind. The world will be a better place for it. And besides, life can be confusing. You might turn out to be the one who is mistaken—for real-life stories, like fictional ones, have a habit of taking unexpected twists.

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Happy New Year from AHMM!

As 2018 draws to a close, we reflect on a year of mystery and mayhem and offer our most heartfelt thanks to our readers, authors, and friends. Here’s to 2019!

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Wrap Up a Mystery (January/February 2019)

It’s that time of the year, a season observed by many with an exchange of gifts. We hope you’ll consider this issue a neatly wrapped package of criminous cadeaux. Variety is always welcome in a bestowal of presents, and so this issue offers a range of delights from the humorous to the spooky; from the past to the present; from the poignant to the puzzling.

Among them: the seasonally-appropriate “Blue Christmas,” in which Melissa Yi’s doctor/sleuth Hope Sze is sitting down to a festive holiday dinner with coworkers when two people suddenly become deathly ill. “The Case of the Truculent Avocado” by Mark Thielman, in which a P.I. supplements his sporadic income with a part-time job dressing up as a potato. Shelly Dickson Carr’s clever tale “The Beacon Hill Suicide,” showcasing historic Boston. What to do about a slobbering dog is the question for a “cleaner” in Zandra Renwick’s “Dead Man’s Dog.” And “A Six-Pipe Problem” by proceduralist master John H. Dirckx.

Several tales pack a powerful emotional punch. A grieving widower in our cover story, Pamela Blackwood’s “Justice,” hears voices and barking late at night, only later learning the significance of those noises. A new tenant in a Queens apartment house unlocks troubling memories for a lonely neighbor in Devon Shepherd’s “The Woman in Apartment 615.” Another newcomer, in “The Man Across the Hall” by Janice Law, has a destabilizing effect on a young married couple in Miami. And Chicago P.I. Kubiak steps into a family drama when an old colleague from the police force asks him to follow his wife in Steve Lindley’s “A Matter of Trust and Surveillance.”

The uncanny and inexplicable also add zest to our holiday package. A pre-Sherlock Dr. J. H. Watson recounts an episode from his time in Afghanistan, revealing what really happened at the Battle of Kandahar in James Tipton’s “Shiva’s Eye.” And our mystery classic features that master of the ghost story, E. F. Benson, with “The Confession of Charles Linkworth.”

And so, best wishes for the season. Whether you’ve been naughty or nice, maybe you’ll find a little murder tucked into your stocking for your guilty pleasure.

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“Filling In the Landscape” by Robert Lopresti

Robert Lopresti is a 2018 Derringer Award winner. His collection Shanks On Crime was recently republished in Japan. His nonfiction book When Women Didn’t Count was recently presented with the Margaret T. Lane/Virginia F. Saunders Memorial Research Award. Here he talks about the fictional setting for several of his tales, including “A Bad Day for Algebra Tests” from the current issue of AHMM.

I recently realized I have been working as a sort of regional planner for a piece of nonexistent geography called Brune County.
The first story I wrote about the place was called “A Bad Day for Pink and Yellow Shirts” (AHMMMay 2004). It concerned a car accident and the only landscape described was a crossroads and a hill. Not much of a world yet.
The second story, “A Bad Day for Bargain Hunters,” (AHMM, May 2014) showed us at least one house, one wealthy enough to merit an estate sale when the owner died.
And completing the hat trick is “A Bad Day for Algebra Tests,” appearing now in the November/December 2018 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. This time I take readers on a much more extensive tour, showing them an unnamed town and some hilly farm country that borders the estate of a software billionaire. Each story, of course, is populated with the sort of people I think belong in those locations.
When I wrote the first tale about the place I had no idea that more would follow so I have been cobbling together Brune County a scene at a time. Not the most efficient form of world-making, I admit.
But this is a challenge every writer of fiction faces: Do I write about real places, or make them up?
There are advantages to both approaches, of course. Write about Times Square in New York City and you automatically have an audience of millions of people who know what you are talking about without a single word of description. But if you get a detail wrong those readers will let you hear about it—if they don’t stop reading in disgust. Not long ago I read a novel by a favorite author and was startled when the main character visited British Columbia and drove from Vancouver to Victoria. That’s a good trick, unless he had a floating car.
Of course, you can make up a place entirely, which can be a lot of work. Is it urban, rural, somewhere in between? Is it New England, the deep south, somewhere midwestern? And then there is the problem of consistency. If you are lucky enough to write many books that attract many readers you may need to reread them all before you write the next one, or your readers will complain about gaffes in your fictional geography, just as if you screwed up the location of Times Square.
A lot of writers choose a compromise: take a real place and give it a new name so they can change details to suit. The master of this was Ed McBain who wrote dozens of novels about the 87th Precinct set in a nameless city which resembled, but was not, New York. The key to following his detailed geography is to turn your map 90 degrees to the right. Harlem is at the north end of Manhattan but Diamondback is at the east end of Isola.
My friend Jo Dereske wrote a dozen wonderful mystery novels about a librarian named Miss Zukas. The books take place in Bellhaven, Washington, which doesn’t exist. It bears a striking resemblance to Bellingham, which does. Jo says she did this so she could move a ferry and eliminate a shopping mall she disliked. She has also had many people tell her they used to live in the same apartment house as Miss Zukas, even though in the real world that building doesn’t exist.
My novel Greenfellas is set in a very real New Jersey, the state where I grew up. I wanted to set one scene at Surprise Lake, but it had been so many years since I had been there that I didn’t trust my memory and, just to be on the safe side, gave it a phony name. One reader asked “Why did you rename Surprise Lake? You described it perfectly. “ Sometimes you can’t win for losing.
I am happy to say I have an idea for another story about Brune County. I can’t wait to see more of the place.

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A Weekend at Crime Bake (by AHMM’s Editor Linda Landrigan)

I’ve just returned from a lovely weekend spent among mystery writers in Woburn, MA, at the New England Crime Bake convention. Sponsored by the New England chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, the regional convention takes place every Veterans Day weekend.

Among the convention’s highlights were the friendly presences of Walter Mosley, the keynote speaker, and Kate Flora, recipient of the Lifetime Achievement award. Gayle Lynds, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and Hallie Ephron are a few of the luminaries of the genre on hand to teach master classes and share insights on writing, research, and publicity. But it’s the congenial atmosphere that made the mystery convention special. Here, unpublished writers and established authors are equal peers, supporting one another and always striving to hone their craft.

In fact, I got to be a panelist with Kate to discus short stories. There I met up with prolific Stephen Rogers and met Lorraine Nelson, both of whom have published in multiple genres. The panel was rounded out with Kate Flora, who in addition to her fiction and non-fiction writing, co-founded and edited Level Best Books, acclaimed publisher of short story anthologies. AH author Ruth McCarty moderated.

I was also asked to help facilitate a few of the roundtables where authors could read their pitches and query letters and receive constructive feedback before approaching the agents attending the convention. What impressed me were the new ideas and projects in the works and the quality of the writing I heard at my First Page roundtable and the Flashwords finalists readings.

While there, Susan Oleksiw recorded a reading of her story “Variable Winds” from our October 2016 issue for our podcast series.

Many thanks to co-chairs Edith Maxwell and Michele Dorsey and to agent & editor coordinator Ray Daniel for inviting me to the 2018 conference, and kudos to all the volunteers who made this convention a success.

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Terror at the Crossroads Digital Launch Party Recap

Last month saw the launch of a new digital anthology from AHMM and our three sister magazines. Terror at the Crossroads: Tales of Horror, Delusion, and the Unknown, available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble (soon to come on other platforms), launched last week with a digital party on Halloween, led by editors Emily Hockaday and Jackie Sherbow and with the participation of many of the 21 authors included in the anthology. For those of you who may not be on Twitter, and/or for those of you who’d like to reminisce, we wanted to offer a recap of the event here. You can also read more about the anthology at EQMM’s Something Is Going to Happen blog on Wednesday, 11/7.

The editors dressed for the occasion. (L to R: Jackie Sherbow, Emily Hockaday)

The whole day was full of fantastic and terror-tinged content from our authors, who answered Q&As, talked about their work, and more. We found out that among the ranks are plenty of Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe fans, as is fitting. We also heard that some of our authors don’t enjoy horror at all! Many were surprised to see their stories framed as such in the magazines and in this anthology. You can read everything over at @ErisPress, but here are some highlights.

Starting the day off right!

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A few authors shared costumed photos with us as you can see in this gallery:

 

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Four of our authors visited us for AMA (Ask Me Anything) sessions, and we had a great time. Again, you can visit @ErisPress and peruse “Tweets and responses” to read through everything, but here are some choice moments:

Josh Pachter, during his 11:30-11:50 a.m. (EST) session, was asked about how his career as a translator affects his writing process:

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Alec Nevala-Lee, during his 12:00-12:20 p.m. slot, was asked about his discoveries while researching for his new book Astounding:

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Jason Half, during the 12:40-1:00 p.m. frame, talked about “guilty pleasures”:

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And Tara Laskowski, from 1:30-1:50 p.m., answered a question about the differences between horror and terror:

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Some authors even contributed videos discussing or reading from their tales in the anthology, as well as other topics. You can watch those here:

Stephen Ross on “Monsieur Alice Is Absent”

Paddy Kelly on “Lonely Hearts of the Spinward Ring”

Josh Pachter reading from “Pisan Zapra” 

The editors also contributed a few ghosts of Halloweens past in the form of photographs:

 

Finally, it was time to celebrate with cake and some of the Dell and PennyDellPuzzles crew.

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L to R top row: Ché Ryback, Sheila Williams, Martin Worthington, Angela Ferguson, Irene Bruce. Bottom row: Emily Hockaday, Jackie Sherbow

We are grateful for our authors’ and readers’ enthusiastic participation and for the opportunity to bring you this anthology. We hope you enjoy it! And stay tuned here and at @ErisPress for more updates, giveaways, and fun.

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Meditations on Murder (November/December 2018)

In our third annual Case File essay, Joseph Goodrich considers the music that puts him in the mood to murder—if only on the page. Meanwhile, in our November/December issue, a dozen thoughtful short story writers offer their own engaging meditations on a range of nefarious deeds.

An oft told ghost story that no longer scare the kids still may have its uses, as Max Gersh demonstrates in “The Week Before November.” Sharon Hunt’s “The Keepers of All Sins” considers a history of death by water for the men of a wealthy family. A young couple’s canoe trip reveals the horrifying truth of their relationship in our cover story, “Leah,” by Julie Tollefson. Multiple story lines converge (literally) on a snowy day in Robert Lopresti’s “A Bad Day of Algebra Tests.” A kid escapes one bad scene only to encounter more trouble in a lonely diner in Michael Bracken’s dark tale, “Going-Away Money.” The late Albert Ashforth’s retired spy Alex Klear is once again pressed into service, this time to check on an American operative in “Death of an Oligarch.” And R. T. Lawton’s Holiday Burglars have a new scheme in “Vet’s Day.”

A flashy young mogul has a tale of losing it all—Miami style—which he tells to Elaine Viets’s P.I. pair in “Mistress of the Mickey Finn.” Mitch Alderman’s central Florida P.I. Bubba Simms brings his considerable weight to bear as he tracks down the people responsible for vandalizing a women’s health clinic in “Fear of the Secular.” Across the globe in Beijing, Martin Limón’s Korean American P.I. Il Yong lands in a Beijing jail for a crime he didn’t commit, but his ticket out comes at a heavy price in “Bite of the Dragon.” The evidence wasn’t adding up in S. L. Franklin’s “Manitoba Postmortem,” so the Carr family detectives cross the border into Canada to get the real story. Susan Thibadeau’s amateur detectives, Pittsburgh attorney Harry Whiteside and his under-employed actor/cousin Jake, find their beloved housekeeper under suspicion of murder when she inherits a bookstore, and a feisty cat.

Plus brain-teaser puzzles, book reviews, and a new Mysterious Photograph contest await inside. You can also check out our blog Trace-Evidence.net for some story-behind-the-story insights. And if you’re in the mood for further reflection, you can use our annual index in this issue as a guide to all of our authors’ criminal creations. As we bring 2018 to a close, we can all reflect on what a great year it’s been for crime fiction, and for the magazines that publish the genre’s best short stories.

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RMMWA’s annual Six-Word Mystery Contest is now running!

The Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America is currently hosting its annual Six-Word Mystery Contest. From now through October 31, contestants can try their hand at a very short mystery story, to be judged by a panel of RMMWA members in mid-December. Submissions are available in five categories: hard-boiled, cozy, thriller, police procedural, or romance. The winner of the contest will receive $100, while category winners will receive $25 gift cards to the Tattered Cover Bookstore. Good luck!

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All in the Family (September/October 2018)

Old songs notwithstanding, we are not, strictly speaking, required to always hurt the ones we love—but as this issue’s stories demonstrate, things often work out that way. Ah, family!

Consider siblings. In R. T. Lawton’s “The Chinese Box,” for instance, the city-bred and educated son of a Shan Army warlord finds himself in stiff competition with his own older half-brother, while two actors who once played brothers on a hit TV show have a very different off-screen dynamic in Brendan DuBois’s “The Wildest One.” Ecuadoran P.I. Wilson Salinas, meanwhile, must retrieve his neighbor’s granddaughter—snatched by her own father in Tom Larsen’s “En Agua Caliente.” A woman working a prison kitchen is tested when the man who killed her father demands that she help him escape in Janice Law’s “Good Girl.” And a family inheritance is at stake in our Mystery Classic, “Betrayed by a Buckle” by Louisa May Alcott, introduced by Marianne Wilski Strong.

Conventioneers extraordinaire Spade and Paladin see their extended family of SF fans and writers divided by a bitter schism with criminal consequences in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Unity Con.” A mob family’s brutal management of a co-op inspires two retired seniors to act in “Rats” by Tom Savage. And new to our pages this month, Matthew Wilson brings a tale of an army sergeant confronting racism among his brothers-in-arms at a training base in Germany in “The Cook Off.”

A man who once looked for unexploded WWII ordnance in Europe must confront his own past when he encounters an old lover in Mark Thielman’s atmospheric “Buried Past.” Loren D. Estleman’s Four Horseman return with a case involving a patriotic “Scrap Drive.” Feuding neighbors bring color and headaches to Detective Sergeant Fritz Dollinger’s investigation of the murder of a young musician in John H. Dirckx’s procedural “Counterpoint.”

History repeats itself in Dennis McFadden’s dual coming-of-age story, “Coolbrook Twp.” And a bad actor gets a shot at auditioning for a psychological thriller in this month’s cover story, James Lincoln Warren’s “Casting Call.”

Once again, these stories show that blood will tell.

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