The Godfather: Peter Corris on his first writers’ conference
In 1981 with only two crime novels published (The Dying Trade and White Meat), I was invited to attend a crime-writing conference in Sweden. The organisers wanted the event to be international and, casting about for an Australian, they would have found that I was about the only one around at the time. Heidi von Born, a Swedish writer I’d met during her visit to Australia, arranged the invitation. My publisher, Pan Books, kicked in for the fare.
I was working for the National Times then and would get a reasonable fee for any article I wrote about the conference. I had very little money and there was no per diem, but as it was only for a little over a week I felt I could support myself for that time. Wrong.
I flew to Denmark, caught a ferry to Sweden and a night train to Stockholm. I found it difficult to get a budget hotel room and had to settle for an expensive hotel. One night’s stay and breakfast came close to cleaning me out.
Most Swedes, middle-aged or younger, spoke English and I had no difficulty getting directions to the conference building. We foreigners were greeted warmly and given a plastic briefcase with everything we needed to know inside. We were also each issued with a magnificent umbrella bearing the logo of the Saab Automobile Company, one of the sponsors of the conference. Although it was summer it was raining.
At an initial mass meeting we were introduced individually and were required to stand to be identified. ‘Peter Corris, Austria,’ came the loud voice. I stood and yelled, ‘Australia!’
There were the usual panels on the usual topics with busy interpreters working overtime. As I was to learn after attending many conferences, the most pleasurable, interesting and often unusual aspect is the meeting with other writers. I met Desmond Bagley from England, then a preeminent writer of blockbuster thrillers, Peter Lovesey, author of the Thomas Cribb historical police novels which I loved, Tony Hillerman, who created a whole sub-genre of Native American crime fighters, Harry Keating, author of the Inspector Ghote novels and others including the surviving half of the duo of cousins who wrote under the name of Ellery Queen. I later corresponded with Bagley and with Hillerman, who told me that reading Arthur Upfield’s ‘Bony’ stories in the Saturday Evening Post had influenced his choice of subject.
My main problem was lack of money. After sleeping one night in a railway station I found a student hostel that I could just afford. I managed by surreptitiously putting as many items as possible from the smorgasbord breakfast aside for lunch and once or twice for dinner.
A trip to Finland was a highlight. We boarded a comfortably appointed boat and cruised past islands, some occupied, some preserved as parks. Time ashore in Finland was short but accomplished with an almost complete absence of bureaucracy. My most cherished memory of the trip was hearing the clear, top-drawer tones of Ruth Rendell announcing, ‘I will not pay that for a thimbleful of gin.’
Heidi von Born had invited me to stay at her country house, which gave me the chance to travel by local train and see something other than the city. I got an insight into how Europeans lived when she remarked that her husband was driving back from Paris. I was a keen jogger at the time and ran for miles around the area, sometimes fitting in two runs in the long, long days. The grey barns and other buildings spoke of the severity of the winters.
It remains as one of the most enjoyable of the many conferences I’ve attended and I did write it up for the National Times.