The Killer Nashville Annual Writers’ Conference has hosted bestselling authors such as Mary Higgins Clark, Walter Mosley, Otto Penzler, and Joyce Carol Oates
Clay Stafford is the founder of the well-respected Killer Nashville, an annual writers’ conference event for mystery/suspense/thriller/crime writers that takes place the third weekend in August in Nashville, Tennessee. This August will mark their 16th year.
Over the years, the conference has hosted bestselling authors such as Mary Higgins Clark, Walter Mosley, Otto Penzler, Joyce Carol Oates, and others. The conference also offers a number of scholarships for writers who don’t have the resources to attend that he would like aspiring writers to know about and spread the word.
What has helped the conference to grow over the years?
Three things: content, word-of-mouth, and sincere focus on building a writing community. Because of my past history in publishing, filmmaking, and education, and my contacts in the industry, we have a reputation for thinking outside the box and creating fresh, engaging topics for our sessions each year, which continues to draw new crowds. For example, we were one of the first traditionally focused writers’ conferences to welcome and share how-to sessions on self-publishing in the vein of Upton Sinclair, Margaret Atwood, e.e. cummings, Mark Twain, and Stephen King, to name a few. We heralded the arrival of electronic publishing with enthusiasm while others lamented the sky-is-falling death of books. We follow the industry closely and gear Killer Nashville towards what is relevant now. Our attendees, our driving force in terms of size, spirit, and content of the conference, have responded as a close-knit community of writers and creatives by becoming excellent emissaries of Killer Nashville over the years and have spread word of our conference far and wide. Our attendees come from the United States along with a fair number from Japan, Australia, Italy, South America, Canada, Great Britain, and other places around the globe. We’re thankful that so many have found a home within the Killer Nashville community and have invited others to share in that experience. I’d say those are the reasons, for example, that for the past two years, we have been the #1 voted conference in The Writer’s annual survey and Publisher’s Weekly says we give “fledgling writers a supportive environment in which to develop their talent,” saying further that Killer Nashville and myself play “an essential role in defining which books become bestsellers” throughout “the nation’s book culture.” Our focus is on one thing: our attendees. It is the road less traveled, and it truly has made all the difference.
Are mystery/suspense/thriller writers a unique breed from other types of writers?
In some ways, yes, though I think we’re all (all people included) more alike than different. Perhaps it’s unique to Killer Nashville, but the overwhelming majority of writers at our conference are really down-to-earth and approachable people. I don’t mean to say that other writers aren’t, but it seems to be the common denominator for those who attend our conference, presenters and audience members alike. They’re also unique in that they often work in the very fields (or adjacent fields) that they write about. Many are forensics professionals or members of law enforcement—the kind of people who have seen real mysteries up close. And I have to emphasize something that separates us: on the very first line of our website, we tell you we are the forum for all genres incorporating mystery, thriller, or suspense elements. This accounts for a huge diversity in our demographics. The incorporation of these elements indeed covers mystery, suspense, and thriller writers specifically, but it also includes many other genres, as well. Good writing and finding a publisher and growing an audience make up about ninety percent of all our sessions. These apply to writers of multiple types of genres.
What do you feel is unique to Killer Nashville vs. other writer conferences?
There are many writers’ conferences available these days and the question becomes what are you looking for? For us, it is about delivering the goods: getting authors connected, helping them in their career trajectory, providing fresh information that they need to thrive in our current publishing environment, and supporting it with samples of fifteen years of documented success stories related to our conference). Due to our cap on attendees that keeps our conference relatively small, Killer Nashville has an intimate and personal feel that you don’t find at a lot of larger events. The connections made at Killer Nashville are lasting. Attendees become friends, family. There’s a palpable sense of excitement and homecoming throughout the weekend. Killer Nashville is also special because we encourage a culture of equality. Unpublished, beginning, and emerging authors from all backgrounds often eat at the same table as NYT bestsellers and their agents, swapping stories and making meaningful human connections. Everyone is expected to support one another, no matter the stage of their career. All egos are left at the door. Again, Killer Nashville has never been about our presenters; it is about each individual sitting in the audience. I think that is what makes us special.
For the past 15 years, when other conferences, publishers, and writers’ organizations were glossing over the subject, you have been stressing how important diversity is and how vital it is that each writer’s voice be heard. Talk about that a bit.
Diversity and discrimination come in many forms and, being a child raised in the sixties in the South, I have had a lifelong sensitivity to that, and it is a pillar of who we are as an organization. In the early years, we swam upstream championing those whose lives and points-of-view were different. I am adamantly against censorship of any kind, the banning of the publishing (or even the continued publishing) of any book by someone else. I am proud that Killer Nashville was the first mainstream conference to welcome authors of various points-of-view and lifestyles when other conferences would not. I’m proud that Killer Nashville has been a strong proponent of women writers. I am proud that Killer Nashville welcomes writers from all backgrounds, especially those who are marginalized and can’t afford to come to Killer Nashville. We offer three such scholarships for those who cannot otherwise afford to attend: The Ellery Adams Cozy Scholarship, the Kris Calvin Scholarship, the Lisa Jackson Scholarship, and other unpublicized Killer Nashville Scholarships. Because of one’s view on life or one’s economic situation or lifestyle, there is no reason someone shouldn’t attend Killer Nashville. Everyone is welcome as long as they view others as welcome. Every voice is vital to who we are as humans. I remember a session a few years ago (before diversity was the new “in” thing) when I sat in on a harmonious and warm panel talking about character development and it hit me who was on the panel: an Indian Muslim author, a Southern Christian author, an LGBTQ author, an African American female author, and a noir hardboiled male author. What kind of a mix was that? All in camaraderie and all talking about what makes a good character. Where else other than Killer Nashville would you see this? And where else other than Killer Nashville can you say that you’ve been seeing this for the past fifteen years? I can’t emphasize it enough: our focus is genuine, and we believe in the specialness of every single author who walks in the door.
What is your favorite part about hosting the conference?
I love seeing the joy and excitement for writing and education that attendees experience throughout the conference weekend. There’s nothing better than when a long-time attendee comes up to tell me that they attended the most interesting panel, or an agent requested their manuscript. I live to see lives changed. Equally as satisfying is when new attendees, many of whom have never had a chance to be around so many authors and industry professionals, tell me they are overjoyed by how accessible and nice everyone is, how they feel they’ve found a community of supportive, like-minded people. Above all, the connections made are most paramount and rewarding. Come Sunday afternoon, attendees are mentally and physically drained, but the common mantra then becomes how they can’t wait to get back home and write or get that manuscript off to this editor. Watching people leave with that kind of exhausted excitement reminds me every year why this is my way of giving back to a community and a profession that has been so good to me.
You have several annual awards that are presented at the conference. Talk about those.
We have four awards and I’ll tell you about each of them.
The Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award was founded in 2008 to honor the best books of the year previous. Entrants in this award range from NYT bestsellers to authors who have only sold a handful of books. It is the book, not the reputation of the author, that counts. In a world where titles are being published at previously-unheard-of rates, winning or placing in this contest can really help an author stand out amongst the competition. It’s bragging rights. Most importantly, many of the authors who enter our contests are up-and-comers. It’s important to recognize those who aren’t backed by huge publishing companies with limitless budgets. This award matters to these authors and it matters to us. Sometimes, it changes everything.
The Killer Nashville Claymore Award was created in 2009 to help unpublished or genre-changing authors get their foot in the door. It is so difficult getting past the slush pile these days. The competition is open to the first fifty pages of an unpublished manuscript. This may be my favorite of our awards, as it’s often an author’s “big break.” Winners and finalists of the Claymore have gone on to get agent representation, book deals, movie deals, audio deals, etc. Often, our entrants are authors who have never been published in any capacity before. It’s amazing for me to be a part of that. This award has helped dozens of new authors find homes for their manuscripts and realize their dreams of being a professional author.
One of the most beloved features of Killer Nashville is our Mock Crime Scene, which is put together by real special investigators, special agents, and forensic experts. It’s often modeled after real crime scenes that officials have encountered in the field. Throughout the weekend our amateur sleuths visit the crime scene room again and again to attempt to solve the mystery of the fictional Ralph Reed’s perennial and fresh murder and the best detective takes home the Killer Nashville C. Auguste Dupin Crime Scene Award. So far poor Ralph has been killed fifteen different and gruesome ways. We have some really masterful detectives at the event, so competition is fierce. The person who solves the mystery receives heavily discounted admission to the next Killer Nashville and a special coin from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
The Killer Nashville John Seigenthaler Legends Award, founded in 2014, is bestowed upon an individual in the publishing field who has a history of championing First Amendment rights to ensure that all opinions are given a voice. As authors, this issue is of utmost importance to us. It’s a hallmark of who I am as a person. The winner is also a mentor and example to writers, a supporter of new and diverse voices of tomorrow. The award’s namesake was a well-known editor, publisher, writer, TV personality, First Amendment champion, Civil Rights proponent, advocate for writers, longtime supporter of Killer Nashville, and a dear friend of mine. This award is as much to honor his memory as it is to honor those who embody those same qualities. The 2021 recipient is Walter Mosley, one of America’s most celebrated writers. Previous recipients include Joyce Carol Oates, Otto Penzler, Robert J. Randisi, Robert K. Tanenbaum, Max Allan Collins, and my personal mentor and friend, Donald Bain.
What is your greatest hope for this year’s conference?
In short, that attendees have the courage and the means to write what they see and feel. My greatest hope for the 2022 event is that it feels like a homecoming for our long-time attendees and newcomers alike. Many people have spent this past year in isolation. What is special about Killer Nashville cannot be reproduced on Zoom. It has to be experienced. I want our 2022 event to be a celebration and I want people to feel as if they have a ready-made community of authors, editors, agents, and resources as soon as they walk in the door. Most of all, I want everyone to leave feeling excited and inspired to write and grow as authors and to know, as an organization, Killer Nashville always has their back.
Where can the readers find more information on the Killer Nashville Annual Writers’ Conference?
Thank you, Clay, for letting the readers know about the Killer Nashville Writers’ Conference. I’m sure it will be a great success,