My Night at the Edgar Awards

Starring Stephen King, R.L. Stine, some riot police, and the guy who played Al Borland in Home Improvement

May 9, 2015 — I was sitting at a table in a tuxedo for the first time since my older brother’s wedding 20 years ago. Two tables away sat Stephen King. Two tables in another direction was R.L. Stine. Mary Higgins Clark was somewhere in that ballroom. And Brad Meltzer stood at the podium on stage. In the middle of my table was a square of white chocolate painted with a dour countenance I knew all too well: Edgar Allan Poe.

I owe you guys an account of my night at the Edgar Awards banquet. And I’m not using that verb flippantly. I sincerely owe you. I’ve said it before, but the books thing wouldn’t be happening without the OTIS thing and the OTIS thing wouldn’t be happening without the you-reading-it thing. I also owe some of you in particular: those who either appear in Poe-Land or helped me behind its scenes in some way. You were the reason I got to give an acceptance speech in front of literary giants.

The Edgar Awards are an annual event thrown by the august Mystery Writers of America, who for 70 years have been championing a genre invented by Edgar Allan Poe. That’s why the organization named (and shaped) its award after him and that’s how someone generally classified as an oddball travel writer was up for a major mystery genre award: Because of my weird, Dewey-Decimal-mangling biography-travelogue that is Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe.

I knew a lot about the Edgars just as a result of my trek through Poe-Land. Saw a handful of them and even got to hold one or two. In other words, when I was doing this:

I had no clue that 16 months later, I’d be doing this:

The event took place at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan. First on the agenda was a nominee reception, where the red nominee ribbon under my name badge gained my wife Lindsey (who looked absolutely stunning) and I entry into a small party where we could mingle with fellow nominees. Mostly, Lindsey and I sipped wine off to the side. We were a little out of place. Because of me.

Sure, I write books and have a traditional publisher. But I’m not at all in any kind of literary scene or really connected. I don't even have an agent. I write weird, macabre, experiential books from a state many people go their whole lives without even mentioning for a small publisher whose portfolio is mostly cookbooks and hiking trail guides. My work has a hard time fitting in.

Yet, there we were, at one of the biggest literary events on the calendar. I’ve never been surrounded by so many writers. They’re surprisingly people-like. At one point we tried to find space at the six-foot-long portable bar to get drinks, and Lindsey squeezed right next to crime fiction writer James Ellroy, who was there to accept a Grand Master Award. While we were waiting, someone else stepped up to the bar, stopping behind Lindsey because he couldn’t get closer. She didn’t notice him, but I almost pulled an eye ligament trying to get her to turn around to see that she was an elbow swing away from knocking the breath out of Stephen King. He was there because he was nominated for Best Novel for his Mr. Mercedes. Finally she turned around and gave him a, “Oh, hi. I’m Lindsey” while shaking his hand. Then we tried to extricate ourselves and our drinks from between the two men, who were apparently meeting for the first time, judging by Ellroy’s, “At last, Mr. King.”

After getting my picture taken with my fellow nominees for Best Critical/Biographical, we left that reception and joined the larger one outside the room, where we again rambled around and found a place on the outskirts. There we were taken pity on by Hester Young, whose debut novel The Gates of Evangeline comes out in September. She was there with her husband, and the four of us had a great chat that ensures I’ll be checking out her book when it drops.

From there, it was on to dinner. We walked into the ballroom, and it was packed with hundreds of people, all dressed smartly and sparkly. That’s when it hit me. Nerves, man. Up to that point and for the past few months, I’d been luxuriating in the nomination, happy with the oversized certificate that had been leaning on a shelf in my study. Now I was heading home to either frame it or to replace it with a piece of painted ceramic. At that point, winning or losing mattered less than getting through the banquet without running screaming into the streets of Manhattan.

My publisher, Countryman Press, is owned by WW Norton, which had a dedicated table since they had two authors of their own who were up for Edgars: Tom Bouman in the Best First Novel category for his Dry Bones in the Valley and Kevin Cook in Best Fact Crime for his Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America. We ate and chatted and stared without apology at the famous. I took blurry pictures.

R. L. Stine. Reader, beware.

Then came the awards. There were speeches and short clips on the big projector screens on both sides of the stage. The non-category awards were given out. R.L. Stine of Goosebumps fame swept past inches in front of us for the podium to give out the award for Best Juvenile. Soon, though, it was time for the Best Critical/Biographical category.

Leslie S. Klinger was the presenter for my category. I had met him earlier, briefly, at the nominee reception, but hadn’t put together until a few minutes later that he was, well, Leslie S. Klinger, the editor behind some of the best and most ambitious annotated editions out there—Dracula, Sandman, Sherlock Holmes, and, most recently, H.P. Lovecraft. He headed the group that judged the Best Critical/Biographical category, which included Peter Straub, Laura Caldwell, Shelley Costa, and Phillip Margolin. That means some pretty cool authors were forced to read my book.

Leslie S. Klinger

In his speech, Klinger said something about how nonfiction writers don’t have the luxury of telling lies like all the fiction writers in the place, but I don’t remember anything else. I decided to hide behind my camera. It was the only way I could deal with the stress of the moment. I took a photo of the table. Of the ceiling. Of Klinger. Of the screen nearest me, which sequentially unveiled the covers of the five books nominated in the category. I thrilled inwardly when people politely clapped as Poe-Land glowed yellow there at the end. I took a picture of my shoe. Then they announced the winner.

I had to use Picasa's straightening feature on this photo, my hands were so jumpy at the time.

I felt more than heard those first two beautiful syllables Klinger spoke: Poe-Land. I felt as if something that I hadn’t realized was lodged in my rib cage the entire night suddenly went supernova. I set the camera down, aimed a kiss in the general direction of my wife’s face, and tripped my way to the stage.

I didn’t have a speech prepared, but I knew exactly who I needed to thank. And I’m pretty sure I thanked them. It’s all kind of hazy for me. I remember being congratulated by novelist Sara Paretsky, who stood at the back of the stage as the new president of the Mystery Writers of America. I remember the surprising weight of the award. I remember looking out across the crowd as I sped through my words. I remember leaving the stage with Klinger, gushing over his Annotated H.P. Lovecraft to him while our pictures were taken. He handed me the announcement envelope as a souvenir.

Much thanks to Hester for taking this photo.

There’s video of all this that I’ll post as soon as the Mystery Writers of America do, so I hope I’m telling it right [UPDATE: Posted at the end of this article].

After that, I just floated. I made it back to the table, put the Edgar on it, turned my chair around, and tried to concentrate on the rest of the awards. Later, Bouman would win in his category, placing a matching pair of Edgars among the scattered dinnerware on the WW Norton table.

Richard Bachman

Of course, the pinnacle of the night was the Best Novel category, which Stephen King won. It was his first category Edgar (he received a Grand Master Award in 2006). Somehow, it feels like King winning his Edgar made my Edgar even better by association.

Then it was over. After a group photo with the other winners, Lindsey and I returned to our room. It was close to midnight, but we didn’t want the night to end yet. I marooned Edgar on a bedside table, and we left the hotel to walk to Times Square, still in our formal wear, while random people congratulated us on our wedding/asked if we were going to the prom. As we meandered, we passed clumps of heavily armored policeman on every corner, while police buses and vans sped down the roads. I only kind of noticed it all. Still floating.

My favorite part of this photo is the Batman backpack. Goes with any style of tuxedo.

We found a nice-looking bar and went in. It was almost closing time, but we ordered a couple of drinks and watched the news on TV, where we learned about the NYC Freddie Gray protests, which explained why Midtown was suddenly a semi-police state.

The bar was empty except for four people in the corner. After a few minutes of my eyeballs annoyingly pulling toward the group of their own accord, it dawned on me that I recognized one of those people: Richard Karn, the actor who played Al Borland in the sitcom Home Improvement. He was a little grayer and a lot less plaid-er, but otherwise he seemed the same. A quick search on my phone confirmed it was him.

Seeing that dude at that moment reminded me of something I hadn't thought of for a long time. Years ago, while Lindsey and I were dating, we worked for the same company. We used to sneak away to her apartment on lunch breaks to eat Subway sandwiches and watch Home Improvement, because that's what was apparently on in that time slot. I would love to travel back in time and tell those two kids sitting on the floor with crinkly paper and shreds of lettuce all over the carpet everything I just told you.

But if we ever do invent time travel, my ticket will have to be for the early 19th century, so I can thank Edgar Allan Poe. Because I owe it to him, too. Big-time.

Still buyable. The book, I mean.