Diary of an Agatha Nominee

By Roberta Isleib

May 2, 2000; Washington, DC. I skulk around the Malice Domestic mystery convention with an unpublished manuscript clenched in my armpit. I stumble into a packed auditorium and listen to a panel of authors giddy with talk about their first mystery novels and their lives as "New Kids on the Block." I don't know who they are or how they got here, but when I grow up I want to be just like them.

(Time passes. I find an agent, she finds a publisher (Berkley Prime Crime,) my first mystery hits the bookstores. It's a dream come true…)

February 16, 2003; Madison, CT. At home on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, I take a call from Linda Rutledge, awards chair for Malice Domestic. My debut novel, SIX STROKES UNDER, has been nominated for an Agatha award for Best First Mystery. I'm instructed not to tell anyone until all the nominees have been contacted. I immediately spill the beans-to my husband and dog.

March 1, 2003; Pasadena, CA. Margaret Maron emails me asking for a copy of the book so she can be prepared for our New Kids panel. MARGARET MARON wants to read my book! I call home from California and instruct my husband to send it off immediately before she decides she can't bear to read a golf mystery. He suggests hiring a carpenter to widen the doors in our home to accommodate my swelled head.

March-April, 2003. I read the books written by the other nominees. They've produced an eclectic group of protagonists including an antique print dealer, a chef, an Episcopal priest, a girl with a lost mother, and a society page columnist. I reread my own book and swing madly between despair and hope-the book stinks, it's brilliant, it's not a real cozy, mystery readers hate golf, the other nominees are far better, the others are deeply flawed …My husband and dog have grown oddly hard of hearing-but only when I'm in the room.

May 3, 2003, 10 am; Washington, DC. A dark semicircle of sweat ripples out into my best silk shirt as I wait for my panel. This is a new convention experience-a panel scheduled at a desirable hour on a subject more than remotely related to my book. And MARGARET MARON is the moderator! Margaret introduces the panelists and reads a snatch of each of the books. That last one doesn't sound half bad. Wait! Did I write that?

May 3, 2003, 7 pm. I meet my agent in the bar. She's driven eight hours for the sole purpose of attending the awards banquet, three of them an unnecessary and unwelcome detour onto the New Jersey Parkway and the Cape May ferry. I'm grateful, though wracked with guilt. We sit through what feels like hours of people smashing cream pies in each other's faces along with skits rendered incomprehensible by inside jokes and bad acoustics. At last the winner is announced-congratulations to Julia Spencer-Fleming for In the Bleak Midwinter! I file out of the banquet hall with my tablemates and steam off to the bar for a consolation round of champagne.

May 4, 2003. I meet my brother for breakfast. I tell him that while I would have loved to walk up on the stage and accept the teapot, I wouldn't trade the last four months for anything. We writers spend so much time alone, struggling for the right words, trying to build characters that feel real and stories that might capture the readers. Any feedback from the world that we accomplished some small part of that feels amazing.

July, 2003. I read a discussion on a mystery website about how the Agatha and Anthony awards are really just popularity contests, unrelated to the true quality of the books. The Edgar, now there's an award nomination that means something…
My husband thinks we may be able to cancel that carpenter. Miraculously, the dog's hearing improves.

Clinical psychologist Roberta Isleib lives with her family in Madison, CT. Her second mystery, A Buried Lie, was published by Berkley Prime Crime in May 2003, with Putt to Death to follow in April 2004.

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