Interview with Clay Stafford, founder of Killer Nashville

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Our guest today is Clay Stafford, founder of Killer Nashville and Clay Stafford Books.

Hi Clay. Welcome to Mysteristas. You’ve done so much from acting, producing, play and screen writing, writing and producing music, writing bestselling children’s books, to being the CEO of American Blackguard Entertainment and founder of Killer Nashville and now Clay Stafford Books. I would love to ask you about your days at Universal Studios, or what it was like to work with Steven Spielberg or Woody Allen, but since we’re a mystery writer’s blog, I focus on your mystery writing and your tireless promotion of other mystery writers. 

KO: How did you make the move from Hollywood to Nashville? And what led you to found Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference? 

CS: First of all, Kelly, thanks for talking with me. I’d like to think that my life has been brilliantly planned out, but instead it has been more of a circuitous, flowing experience. I call it “bumbling.” I was living in Beverly Hills, California writing, ghost writing, and developing, supporting, and promoting television shows and literature at the time of the Northridge Earthquake in 1994. Having lived through the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in Miami, Florida just two years before, I really had no interest in hanging around Los Angeles during the rebuilding after the Northridge earthquake damage. A production executive at Hollywood Pictures, knowing that I was originally from Tennessee, advised I might want to go back to my home state and see what kind of locations and production support might be available for future projects. I loaded my dog in the car, drove back to Tennessee, was amazed at what I found, and stayed. My agents, management, and attorneys were still back in Los Angeles and I found I could work long-distance just fine. I met a Tennessee lady I fell for in the process and after a year-and-a-half of traveling, that was that. To misquote Jed Clampett, I decided Tennessee was the place I ought to be. And workwise, I didn’t miss a beat.

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Guests of Honor accepting personalized guitars at Killer Nashville 2018. J.A. Konrath, Clay Stafford, Otto Penzler, and Ellery Adams.

As far as starting the conference itself, that was a bit circuitous, as well. I had always been interested in teaching and went back to graduate school (while working 60-80 hours per week for PBS) to get my MFA so I could teach at the college level. I taught at several universities and loved the teaching part, but didn’t care much for the administrative aspect. I also couldn’t give up what I considered my day job (writing, directing, and producing) and that interfered with my teaching schedule. So I ended up teaching adjunct at several universities for a while until even that became too much. Back to writing and developing projects full time again, I was asked by Miami Dade College to create their new film program. That gave me a taste for curriculum design. After moving to Franklin, Tennessee, I co-created a local writers’ conference, but I wanted something with a larger impact where writers could mingle with other writers on an international level rather than just local. I strongly feel we learn from getting to know people outside our own community. By this time, the Internet had grown and I really wanted to connect with writers, readers, and movie/TV viewers in other countries. I also wanted something with a stronger genre feel. I had grown up reading genre literature, worked in Los Angeles on such productions as “Murder, She Wrote,” “Magnum, P.I.,” “Simon & Simon,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents…”, “Amazing Stories,” “Legal Eagles,” “Psycho III,” “Jurassic Park,” “Back to the Future,” “Weird Science”, and other projects so the feel I really wanted was something that had to do with mystery, thriller, and suspense. So in 2006, I produced the first Killer Nashville. Within two years we had an attendee from Canada. Within three years, we had attendees begin to visit us from other continents (Spain, Australia, and Japan, I think). The Internet worked. Frankly, it has grown beyond what I imagined it would become. And much more than just a writers’ conference, we’ve actually been able to turn it into a philanthropic effort, as well. We’ve helped build a library in Africa and in the past have given away nearly $85,000 worth of books every year to local needy American libraries. So we’re not just focused on worldwide writers, we’re supportive of worldwide readers, as well. It’s a major charity for me.

unnamed-32018 Killer Nashville Awards Banquet.

KO: Why did you decide to make Killer Nashville a writer’s conference instead of a reader’s convention—not that writers aren’t also readers? 

CS: I’ve always loved teaching. Elementary school, high school, college. I love every age. I continue to visit schools and universities every year, all at my own expense. Schools are so strapped for funds and students are so hungry for knowledge and inspiration that it has become my charity. If you knew my personal history, my roots, you would know it is a miracle that I’ve gotten to do the things that I’ve loved to do and work with the people I have long admired. I got those opportunities, though, because others believed in me and helped me. It became my turn to do the same thing. My heart is with the developing storyteller. It’s so important for new voices and perspectives to be heard, and to be given an opportunity to be acknowledged. When you set out as a writer, you don’t know what to do, what path to follow. I wanted an organization where we could take writers by the hand and help them along. I haven’t forgotten readers, though. Readers are always welcome at Killer Nashville. Readers are why writers write and every year we have readers with no ambitions to write sign up for Killer Nashville just to hear the writers talk. Barnes & Noble runs the bookstore at Killer Nashville. And the book signing events at Killer Nashville are open and free to the public. But it is the author (published or unpublished) who really has my attention because they are so vital, their voice is so important, to the diverse world in which we are living today.

KO: In my experience of writer’s conventions, Killer Nashville is unique in that you foster a genuinely supportive environment and it’s clear you want to help writers succeed. For you, what makes Killer Nashville unique?

CS: For me, it is the mentorship, the education, and the honesty. I’ve spent my entire life working behind-the-scenes to support creative individuals and develop and package projects. We/I actually do care about each person who comes to Killer Nashville. After the conference, and sometimes a year or two after, when we know that someone has something going on, we will follow up to see how they are doing. We really do care. When I first began Killer Nashville, I made it clear from the start that Killer Nashville was a way for more experienced authors to give back to the “next generation” (that’s not referencing the age of the writer, but instead the moment that the writer puts her foot into the pool). That sense of mentorship still continues and permeates all we do. And writers need honesty. We all do. I’ve been to conferences, gone to seminars, seen ads on Facebook, where we are told how to become the next New York Times bestseller. If it was as easy as going to a seminar, then everyone would be the next New York Times bestseller. Those are snake-oil conventions designed to profit off authors’ dreams. Not all writers can become bestsellers and it has nothing to do with the quality of their book. There are so many factors involved, so many of them uncontrollable to the author. Have we had those kinds of success stories with Killer Nashville? Yes. We’ve had numerous and many writers go on to a publishing career as a result of contacts they have made at (or because of) Killer Nashville or its influence. Writers have found agents and publishers. One even landed an incredible movie deal. I love it and feel a sense of satisfaction when writers get to experience those peaks. But you’ve got to be honest and realistic. That’s the only way to succeed: with real information. And we give real supportive information, which is why organizations such as Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, the Authors Guild, and the National Writers’ Union, among others, have supported us over the years. So if it appears that we are unique in that we foster a genuinely supportive environment and we really want writers to succeed, I think that comes from the collective and mutual intent of all the attendees and sponsors who share in that mission. It’s a family business. It makes me feel good because I feel we may have accomplished what I originally dreamed that we could do. Giving back. Encouraging others. Fostering that next generation. That’s the basis for Killer Nashville.

unnamed-1Ellery Adams leading a workshop at Killer Nashville 2018, “How to Make a Career of Writing.”

KO: It’s so exciting that you’re in the publishing business. Tell us about your move to publishing and Clay Stafford books? 

CS: Founding a publishing company has been a wonderful learning experience, which has shaped even more relevantly how this year’s conference schedule was put together. It’s a traditional small press. I started it to again help authors find an audience. I began working as a publisher, editor, and acquisitions exec back in the 1980s when I acquired and published companion books for PBS projects. We used the TV shows to basically sell books. As a writer myself, I got spoiled in my early career having my books sold through Big Box outlets such as Sam’s, Walmart, Target, Costco, etc. I thought it was normal to sell-through thousands of hardcover books in a month. But the industry has drastically changed. Even though there are more readers (and there are), there are also more writers. Way more. We’ve edited and published some really good books through Clay Stafford Books, books I’m intensely proud of, books that can be purchased worldwide, but each book published is literally one in a million books available that can be purchased by a single reader. That staggering reality, that change in the industry, has given me incredible insight, an MFA unto itself, into the realities of the publishing business today from a publisher’s perspective, including how some of these obstacles might be overcome. I hope to use those experiences to help other writers who are coming to Killer Nashville.

KO: What’s next on your plate?

CS: Let’s look at today: I am currently doing a polish for my agent on an original standalone novel that I’ll be publishing under my own name. I just finished the first draft of a novel I hope will be a series with a writing partner (who has a long and high-profile career in law enforcement). I’m working on getting distribution rights for a TV project I developed years ago. I’m putting the polish on this year’s Killer Nashville. We’ve got a wonderful lineup including David Morrell (of “Rambo” fame), Joyce Carol Oates (major bestseller and award-winner), and Alexandra Ivy (one of my favorite romantic suspense authors), as well as agents and editors, literary and “commercial” writers. It’s going to be a wonderful year. And like everybody in this nontraditional business, I get up in the morning and see what unexpected opportunities present themselves and then align my day based upon what I discover and what inspires me. There’s the “bumbling” again.

KO: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

CS: Write because you love it. Nothing more. Persevere. That is the endgame. Money, fame, publishing deals, movie deals…these are all icing on the cake and none of the pieces are given out fairly. But if you love what you are doing, then that sustains and nourishes you no matter your career highs or lows. I’ve worked with some people who were huge “names” in the past. I’ve watched them rise and disappear. I mention their names to my kids; my kids have no clue. These “celebrities” (even “legends”) had their moment and now they’re gone. When the focus is on the “success” of the project, then it is a guarantee of pain. Instead, focus on the love: writing, telling a good story, being the best you can be, working conscientiously and humbly at your craft, truthfully cheering your co-writers when success comes to them, though this time misses you. This is what endures. I can remember as a young man in my twenties living in Hollywood in an “efficiency” apartment with only dreams and a typewriter (a real typewriter, one that didn’t even require electricity). At the end of many of those months when I would be terrified I would find myself homeless in my car, I consoled myself because I knew as long as I had enough money to buy paper (and carbon paper – that’s really dating me), then I could be happy. I stayed with it and a world I never expected opened itself to me. I wasn’t after the fame. I was buzzed by the creativity, the energy. It has given me a wonderful life. Persevere. Align with others through events like Killer Nashville where you develop a network of like-minds who can be there for you and help you find your way. But keep your eyes on the real prize: the story you are working on right now, the expression of something that only you can create. If you can find bliss and contentment in the act of creation itself, then nothing life gives you can either enhance or diminish it. You have found your center and your joy.

KO: Thanks, Clay.  See you at Killer Nashville!

CS: Thank you, Kelly!

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CLAY STAFFORD is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and filmmaker. He has sold over 1.5 million hardcover copies of his children’s adaptations and has seen his film work distributed internationally in over 14 languages. Four of his five staged murder mysteries have had Los Angeles premieres. Publishers Weekly has named Stafford one of the top 10 Nashville literary leaders playing “an essential role in defining which books become bestsellers” not only in middle-Tennessee, but also extending “beyond the city limits and into the nation’s book culture.” (PW 6/10/13). He is the founder of Clay Stafford Books and Killer Nashville, and founder/CEO of American Blackguard Entertainment. More can be learned about Clay, here. 

Learn more about Killer Nashville.

 

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Death Comes in Through the Kitchen

Today on Mysteristas, I’m excited to interview Teresa Dovelpage, author of Death Comes in Through the Kitchen.

I loved this mystery with its colorful characters, twisty plot, and mouth-watering recipes.

Matt, a San Diego journalist, arrives in Havana to marry his girlfriend, Yarmila, a 24-year-old Cuban woman whom he first met through her food blog. But Yarmi isn’t there to meet him at the airport, and when he hitches a ride to her apartment, he finds her lying dead in the bathtub. The police and secret service have him down as their main suspect, and in an effort to clear his name, he must embark on his own investigation into what really happened. The more Matt learns about his erstwhile fiancée, though, the more he realizes he had no idea who she was at all—but did anyone?9781616958848

Teresa Dovalpage was born in Havana, Cuba. She earned her BA in English literature and an MA in Spanish literature at the University of Havana, and her PhD in Latin American literature at the University of New Mexico. Teresa is the author of twelve other works of fiction and three plays, and is the winner of the Rincón de la Victoria Award and a finalist for the Herralde Award. She lives in New Mexico.

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KO: Teresa, welcome to Mysteristas. What was your inspiration for Death Comes in Through the Kitchen?

TD: The initial spark was lit when my mom, who still lives in Cuba, started pestering me about preserving my grandmother’s recipes. My grandma had a culinary repertoire that included many typical Cuban dishes like arroz con pollo (rice and chicken cooked together), picadillo (ground beef with raisins) caldosa, etc., but she always gave a personal twist to them, like adding a bit of honey to the aforementioned rice and chicken dish. I knew that nobody would buy a cookbook written by me (I am not even a good cook, you can ask my husband!) so I added the recipes to a mystery I was writing at that time. In it, I intended to portray a different Cuba, one that didn’t revolve around life in tenements and jineteras, which are the main themes of many Cuban “dirty realism” novels. Here readers see another face of the island: college graduates who speak several languages, enterprising restaurateurs, B&B owners…

KO: What inspired to you to turn to writing crime fiction?

TD: Once I started writing some themes surfaced like challenging people’s preconceived ideas about Cuba—Yarmi doesn’t look like the classic curvaceous Cuban beauty, Havana isn’t at all like Matt imagined it—and exploring the role of women in mysteries and life. Strong female characters like Isabel, Lieutenant Martinez and even Yarmi are mujeres fuertes, fully fleshed and, in my opinion, representative of real Cuban women. I was happy to feature them in my first mystery.

KO: With Yarmi Cooks Cuban and the recipes, the book has familiar cozy elements, but it also deals with some issues that are not so cozy. How did you balance the cozier elements with the difficult issues?

TD: I tried to have un poquito de todo a little bit of everything. In a way, the novel could be used as a travelogue for people who want to visit Cuba but don’t know much about it. I tried to create a realistic setting and believable characters… and I did my research. Among my “sources” was a former Havana police officer now settled in Miami—she was my inspiration for Lieutenant Martinez. She agreed to help me on the condition that I would disguise her in the novel so nobody could recognize her. “And while you are at it, give me a big fondillo like the one I would have liked to have in real life,” she said. I did. I also wanted a gripping plot with the promise of suspense and surprise so I balanced all these elements the best I could.

KO: What is your favorite recipe from Yarmi Cooks Cuban? Can you reproduce the recipe for us?

TD: Of course! This is one of my favorites, la caldosa.

Here is the passage from the book:

It’s about time I devote a post to this nutritive and delicious dish. In case you don’t remember, La Caldosa is also the name of a dear friend’s restaurant, home of the amazing rice and chicken a la Isabel.

Caldosa is a mix of meats and vegetables, boiled together until all the flavors are brought out. Quite simple, though it takes a few hours to “gel.” Therefore, the first step is making sure that you have the whole morning, or afternoon, to spend in the kitchen.

Fill a caldero (the biggest pot you have at home) with water. Boil and add four pounds of pork. Any cut will do, but bones and heads provide a nice consistency. After half an hour, add the chicken: wings, breasts, thighs, and giblets. It doesn’t matter. Again, bones are good.

Simmer for thirty more minutes and add the vegetables: potato, pumpkin, yucca, taro, plantains, cassava, sweet potato, corn… Whatever you have—caldosa is very accepting. Keep boiling. All the tubers are expected to become soft.

Make sure to add water when it gets too low.

In the meantime, take out the pan and fry (in lard, of course, unless you want to be health conscious and use oil) two onions, one chopped garlic, and three bell peppers. Add cumin, oregano, and tomato paste. Let it simmer for a few minutes and pour the mixture into the caldero. Boil for another forty minutes, adding salt and pepper to taste.

A common question: when do you know it is ready?

Answer: when the meat and vegetables are so tender that you don’t need a knife to cut them.

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Caldosa is one of the few Cuban dishes that have its very own song, composed by Rogelio Díaz Castillo and made popular by El Jilguero de Cienfuegos. I have danced to the caldosa rhythm many times!

KO: I loved the effect of hearing Yarmi’s voice from beyond death. The cooking blogs were a great device. Can you tell us about how you developed the character of Yarmi and what is was like trying to write her after she was dead? I must say, I’m sorry we won’t see Yarmi again….or will we?

TD: Yarmi was a key character but since she is dead at the beginning of the book I had to come up with a way to bring her back. Otherwise, why would readers care about her? Then it occurred to me that she should have a food blog—that would explain why she and Matt met online too. (I got the idea one evening when I was baking merenguitos.) I wanted readers to hear her voice and the blog first-person format was perfect for it. And it was important not to make her a total victim…Even in death, Yarmi still has power over Matt and others. I have thought of a prequel, something shorter, maybe a short story. The one who has come back, though, is Lieutenant Martinez. She is the main character in my novella Death by Smartphone, published in serialized form in English and Spanish in The Taos News.

KO: What are you working on now? Are you writing more mysteries? 

TD: I just finished another novel that features Padrino and Lieutenant Martinez. The title is Queen of Bones, a reference to an orisha, an Afro-Cuban deity named Oyá, the guardian of the cemeteries. I am also writing another novel in Spanish with a crime element in it, though not totally a mystery. I am afraid that if I don’t use my language I will end up saying “Voy a lunchear” or “Tengo que comprar groserías.” ¡Qué horror!

Thank you so much for interviewing me!

Thank you, Teresa.

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Praise for Death Comes in through the Kitchen

“Dovalpage’s first crime novel is a well-cooked stew of culture and cuisine . . . [A] stunningly unexpected conclusion.”
The Taos News

“[A] dazzling culinary mystery . . . Those expecting a traditional food cozy will be happily surprised.”
Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

“The parade of colorful characters helps Dovalpage paint a vivid portrait of late Castro-era Cuba.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“Don’t let the title and included Cuban recipes mislead you into thinking this is a cozy—this novel shows the gritty side of Cuba.”
—Library Journal

“[Dovalpage] creates a mélange of clashing cultures, multilayered deception, even traditional Cuban recipes, that are both entertainment and a revealing exposé of how a strangled society bypasses laws to survive, and dare to enjoy, daily life.”
—Booklist

“From tantalizing recipes to irresistible scenes of seduction, Death Comes in through the Kitchen provides a sumptuous feast for readers, who will fly through the pages to uncover not only the culprit, but also to discover the true identity of the victim. In her debut crime novel, Teresa Dovalpage delivers her signature sass and bawdy wit, while rendering a bittersweet portrayal of Cuba in the last years of Castro’s reign.”
—Lorraine M. López, author of Homicide Survivors Picnic and Other Stories and The Darling

“You’ve never read a mystery like this one! In Dovalpage’s Cuba, love, murder, food and politics form a deliciously dark and funny stew.”
—Chantel Acevedo, author of The Distant Marvels and The Living Infinite

 

Photo Credit: Chris Turner