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.

 

TV crime time

I’m here to recommend two new Netflix shows crime fiction lovers need to be watching — Mindhunter, and Alias Grace!

Set in the late 1970s, before the term serial killer was coined, Mindhunter centers on two FBI agents, Holden Ford, and Bill Tench, who, along with Dr. Wendy Carr, a badass psych professor, launch the FBI’s first criminal profiling program. It’s the Bureau’s first attempt to use academic research to study, interview, and profile killers like Ed Kemper (shudder) and Charles Manson to see what makes them tick. It’s sort of mind boggling, considering how serials killers are so pervasive in pop culture (Jack the Ripper, for example), that the term wasn’t even coined until a few years before I was born.

Holden Ford, played by the charming Jonathan Groff, is young, ambitious, and driven by an insatiable need to understand human psychology and its relationship to criminal behavior. Bill, on the other hand, is a seasoned agent who knows how these killers can mess with the psyche. Whereas Holden views these killers as interesting subjects with something to offer their field of science, Bill never seems to forget that these men are sadistic killers who destroyed lives. It’s an interesting dynamic.

Next up…Alias Grace!

Alias Grace is a six-episode arc based off the Margaret Atwood novel of the same name. Set in the mid-1800s, the story centers on Grace Marks, a young Irish immigrant who is accused and tried for the murders of her employer and his housekeeper. But, the story is less about her alleged crimes and more about the struggles of women, particularly immigrant and poor women, in 19th century Toronto.

Grace Marks was a real woman who emigrated to Canada with her abusive, alcoholic father, her mother (who died on the ship), and her younger brothers and sisters. Not much is known about her except that she was found guilty of murdering her employer and his housekeeper. She spent 30 years in prison before she was released and moved to New York where she was never heard from again. Atwood fictionalizes Marks’s life — her harrowing voyage across the Atlantic when she was 12 years old, the abuse she suffered by her father, her employment as a maid in an upperclass home where she makes her first true friend, Mary Whitney — and does so by having her recount her life in detail to an American doctor who has come to evaluate her for release. Dr. Jordan’s job is to judge whether she is guilty or sane, but he finds himself becoming obsessed with Grace instead.

This isn’t a Downton Abbey type historical portrayal. This is a gritty, harrowing, and chilling examination of a period when women had few rights and almost no agency.

Have you seen these shows? What do you think?