Being There?

The complicated return to in-person events.

Being There?

Prior to 2020, I was exhausted from attending conferences. This is difficult to explain to your spouse when you return home from a long weekend in New Orleans, wearily set your suitcases down, and complain how tired you are from sitting on panels, gossiping with friends, and spending hours at a hotel bar…all while your partner’s been home with the kids.

It’s clear that no one’s going to pity you.

But the exhaustion was real — probably from either always being “on,” or the relentless bustling and hustling, or just the sheer collective energy from so many bookish introverts trying. And so, for me, the abrupt transition in 2020 to virtual events wasn’t entirely unwelcome.

Like you, I went through the stages of attending pandemic-era events. Those first few months, when we all joined Zoom (RIP Skype) and realized how nifty it was to see people virtually? Technology’s fun! There was a warmth in the connection, in that open shared need, that human desire to congregate.

And then we all came down with Zoom fatigue, and virtual events lost their appeal. Attendance dwindled and likely reached a point where it matched that of traditional in-person attendance — which, when it comes to writing events, doesn’t exactly rival “Avengers” opening-weekend numbers.

But now, we’re at a point where the opportunity to attend events in person has returned.

A few weeks ago, I attended my first in-person event in over two years, Malice Domestic. I’ve written about the event in this space before — it’s a well-regarded conference for writers and fans of traditional mysteries.

Due to day-job and familial obligations, I was only able to attend briefly on Saturday morning. But it gave me the chance to randomly see friends I’d dearly missed. I had those moments — which always happen at these conferences — where you enjoy snatches of conversations with friends but are robbed of time for anything longer…and this happens with almost every conversation. But attending is about the pleasure of buying a book you already own just so you can ask the author to sign it. Moderating a panel so insightful that you lose yourself in the discussion, a moment the audience realizes and appreciates. It’s the variants of connection, and it’s lovely.

And, yes, a bunch of people who attended Malice Domestic contracted covid-19 and were absolutely miserable afterward. And this seems to be the case going forward for in-person events, as evidenced by the recent Gridiron Dinner and the White House Correspondents Dinner.

I didn’t get sick, but I was masked for most of Malice Domestic and, again, only there briefly. But I went through Pandemic Panic the week after, when attendees were publicly and privately telling people they’d tested positive. I tested daily, worrying over every cough, relieved when 20 minutes passed and only a single line appeared on my at-home test strip.

That said, if you do want to attend some of the upcoming conferences we’ve missed out on, and you’re confident in your precautions, I recommend doing so.

Just get vaccinated, get boosted, and stay masked. Remember that even if you’re not concerned about catching covid, you run the risk of spreading it to others who may be more vulnerable to the virus. I know this advice is now tired and generally falls on uncaring ears, but I’m repeating it for anyone who’s thinking of attending upcoming events but is understandably hesitant. As I was.

Also remember that, among friends, it’s very difficult to keep your guard up. After all, the organizers of Malice Domestic exercised caution, and everyone still ended up swapping covid like baseball cards. It’s hard to remain vigilant when you’re relaxed, and during my worried week of mild symptoms and subsequent testing, I regretted those moments when I’d lowered my mask.

But that regret doesn’t lessen the joy that attending the event brought — or soften the disquieting knowledge that I’d failed to adhere to my own precautions. And I plan on attending other events very soon, albeit with a better sense of responsibility for myself and others. This month, there are two writing events that I’m excited about:

The Washington Writers Conference is this weekend, and registration is sold out. I love this conference, and it’s one of the few I’ve tried to attend every year. For aspiring novelists, a wonderful selection of agents is on hand to take pitches, and there are multiple expert panels on different facets of writing and publishing for authors at every stage of their career.

And next Saturday, May 21st, the Gaithersburg Book Festival returns as an in-person, outdoor event! America doesn’t lack for superb book festivals, so it’s quite an accomplishment that the city of Gaithersburg boasts one of the nation’s best. Award-winning and bestselling writers — encompassing almost every genre in fiction and nonfiction — will speak and sign books throughout the day.

For those of you who missed registering for the Washington Writers Conference, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a fantastic virtual event for fans of crime fiction also happening Saturday. The Sacramento, CA, chapter of Sisters in Crime presents its Killer Workshop 2022. The virtual component will be held on Crowdcast and features keynote speaker Gregg Hurwitz and three panels on different facets of crime fiction. I’ll be chatting with writers Yasmin Angoe and Carla Damron about the complications of incorporating sex trafficking in crime fiction. (You can register here.)

After attending Malice Domestic, I realized that I hadn’t understood just how much we’ve all missed each other. Even in these times, when so much of our country is driven by division, in-person writing events are a lovely reminder of the power of unity. Maybe that reminder is even necessary.

[Editor’s note: The Independent is a proud sponsor of the Gaithersburg Book Festival. Be sure to stop by our table and say hi next Saturday!]

E.A. Aymar’s next thriller, No Home for Killers, will be published by Thomas and Mercer in early 2023. You can subscribe to his newsletter, Crime (Fiction) Works, HERE. There are monthly prizes and stuff.

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