Twas the Month Before TFOB

February is a very short month. Tucson Festival of Books is scheduled for the first weekend in March, so plans for that are well underway along with plans for the Collateral Damage book tour later in the month. Details of my TFOB appearances are listed on the schedule page of my website. Details for the tour itself are not yet finalized. Once they are, they go up, too.

Right now TFOB is front and center in my mind’s eye. Fourteen years ago when I was invited to the first one, I admit I had a few qualms. I had been to book festivals before in both Los Angeles and Washington DC, but I wondered if Tucson would be able to pull one off. Let me tell you, pull it off they did! Each year more than a hundred thousand people flock to the University of Arizona campus that weekend.

By the way, my appearance at the LA Times Festival of books was what you might call a one and done. For some unknown reason, organizers put me on the “Noir” panel. Since I don’t consider what I write to be “noir,” I was surprised by that particular placement. The moderator’s first question was, “What do you think of when you hear the word ‘noir’?” I raised my hand and replied, “Pinot.” My fellow panelists who took the Noir very seriously were not amused. My reply may or may not be the reason I’ve never been invited back since, but what I remember more than anything else about that festival was how messy it was—messy as in trash. There was trash barrels everywhere, yes, but once they filled up, they didn’t get emptied, and garbage simply accumulated around them. Mountains of it. The same thing held true for the festival in Washington DC—loose trash was everywhere. And the fact that Bill came down with food poisoning from eating in the hospitality tent put a huge damper on my DC book festival experience.

With that history in mind, I approached that initial TFOB with a good deal of trepidation. I’m a U of A alum, and I more or less expected that the mall would turn into a trash heap. I’m happy to report that didn’t happen—not during the first TFOB and not during any of the subsequent ones, either. The festival runs on an army of volunteers, and some of those, the ones on the trash detail, make sure those boxes are emptied and the bags hauled away LONG before they overflow. That may be an odd thing to bring up as my first item of note about TFOB, but you never get a second chance to make a good first impression, and my first impressions of those other trash-filled festivals continue to linger.

But what’s really important for me about the Tucson Festival of Books are the special moments I’ve had there, ones I continue to treasure. At TFOB # 1, I was on may way to a signing, when a guy in a golf cart stopped by. He told me that one of my fans, an older woman on her way to the signing area, had tripped over a power cord and injured her ankle. (By the way, since that time, all power cords on the mall have been topped by protective plastic coverings). The cart driver told me that he had just given my fan a ride to her car in the parking garage. He said if we hurried, we might be able to catch her in time for me to sign her book. Into the cart I went, and the fan’s book got signed in a timely fashion.

At one TFOB, a lovely woman named Rosie showed up wearing a to-die-for sun hat and lugging two full shopping bags laden with twenty-five J.A. Jance hardbacks. Since my corporate policy is to leave no book unsigned, I signed them all, although, out of respect for the other people standing in line with only one or two books, I made her wait until the end of the line.

TFOB is the brainchild of a Tucson dynamic couple, Bill and Brenda Viner. They may be the head honchos, but they’re also hands on volunteers, supervising workers and offering directions to visitors and authors alike. For years, one of my most devoted Tucson fans was a blind woman and her guide dog who attended many local signings. Prior to one TFOB she wrote to me and said that I had any number of blind fans in the area who accessed my stories via Talking Books. She told me that she and other readers like her often felt overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of attendees at the festival and wondered if it would be possible to set up a semi-private event just for them. I posed her question to Bill Viner. He immediately reserved a room in the Student Union building where I was able to meet with thirty or so of my visually impaired readers along with their caregivers and guide dogs. It’s Bill Viner’s careful attention to all details, both big and small, that made that happen.

Being a part of that private event was very meaningful, but it by no means tops my TFOB list, so stay tuned.

Funds raised by the festival support any number of reading-focused charity organizations in southern Arizona. One of them, Literacy Connects, specializes in helping illiterate adults learn to read. At some point, one of their reading tutors reached out to me via email explaining that a student of hers, a forty-eight year old woman named Marcia, was using my Joanna Brady books as textbooks while she learned to read. The tutor asked if I would send her a few words of encouragement—which, of course, I did.

The next time I was in Tucson on tour, as I was finishing a Barnes and Noble event, a woman approached the signing table and introduced herself as Marcia. She explained that she was Hispanic. In school, not only had English been her second language, she also struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia. At age forty-eight, determined to be able to read books for her grandkids, she went to Literacy Connects asking for help. She told me that the Joanna Brady stories were interesting enough that it made struggling to read them worth her while.

Several years passed. At a later TFOB, while doing one of the ball room panels with several name brand mystery authors, I was thrilled to see Marcia seated in the front row. The other writers were from out of town. They were there to do their stuff, but I wanted them to understand WHY their appearances mattered, so on our way to the signing area, with Marcia along, I stopped them and introduced them to her, letting them know that she was one of the living, breathing beneficiaries of their coming to Tucson to appear at the festival.

As the other walkers continued on their way, Marcia told me that she was now caught up on the Joanna Brady books and was starting the Beaumonts. She said that someone asked her why she didn’t just listen to books on tape. She said, “I told them, no. I want to read every word.”

It was wonderful to be given the TFOB Founder’s award a number of years later, but that encounter with Marcia takes the top TFOB memory prize hands down. By the way, I heard from her a couple of weeks ago, and she’s planning on being in attendance at this year’s edition. I hope Rosie turns up as well.

One of my devoted fans in Colorado, Terry House, is a huge fan of Craig Johnson’s books. Last year, when Craig and I ended up sharing a signing table at TFOB, we had a photo taken together to send to Terry. We were both wearing wide-brimmed hats, his being his signature black Stetson. After giving me a hug he said, “I knew you had to be a girl from the West. They’re the only ones who know how to hug wearing hats.”

This year, I’ll be on the Dog Day Afternoon panel. The moderator is Margaret Mizushima, formerly of Montana and now transplanted to Washington state. One of my fellow panelists will be David Rosenfelt. Both Margaret and David write dog-centric mysteries that are also at the top of Terry’s list of faves, so I have a reminder in the calendar to be sure to have a photo taken of the three of us together so I can send it to Terry. Health considerations make it impossible for her to attend in person, but we can make sure she’s there in spirit.

I have no doubt there will be some special moments in this year’s TFOB. I’m looking forward to finding out what they’ll be. Anticipation is making February feel like a month-long Christmas Eve with me eagerly waiting to see what I’ll find in this year’s TFOB stocking.