ITW’s origins date back to the early summer of 2004 when Barbara Peters of Scottsdale’s Poisoned Pen Bookstore hosted a literary event at the famed Arizona Biltmore hotel in Phoenix. Barbara invited (in alphabetical order) Lee Child, Clive Cussler, Vince Flynn, Steve Hamilton, Gayle Lynds, myself, and Kathy Reichs to give presentations throughout that Saturday.
As we bonded at an authors’ reception and over late-night drinks at the Biltmore’s bar, many of us felt that it would be fun to get together again. Our fiction tended to be different and yet fit into a general category of thrillers. “Why not have an organization for thriller writers?” someone suggested.
Over the summer, Gayle Lynds and I had several telephone conversations about this idea with Adrian Muller, who attended the Biltmore event and later founded an annual crime writers’ conference in Bristol, England. Besides other critical tasks, Adrian arranged for a room at the upcoming 2004 Bouchercon in Toronto, where those interested in a professional thriller organization could meet.
Thirty-five people showed up, a small group in what was a very large conference room. The enthusiasm was huge, however. When C.J. Lyons received a Thriller Award at our 2013 conference, she recalled crossing paths with me at that long-ago Bouchercon and saying that she was eager to meet like-minded thriller authors. “Then follow me,” she remembered me saying. “We’re about to have a meeting.”
Gayle and I acted as moderators for that meeting. The group agreed on two guiding principles: to educate readers about the creative possibilities of thrillers, and to help one another achieve those possibilities.
In her separate account of ITW’s origins (below), Gayle gives special mention to David Dun, and I’ll add to what she says. An author/attorney, David volunteered his office and staff as ITW’s address and base of operations. In the rapid months to come, he wrote various drafts of ITW’s bylaws. The organization would never have moved forward without his generosity and legal expertise.
For Gayle and me, the most important part of the meeting was something that I didn’t know happened. I nodded to a friend who came to the meeting near its end. Belatedly, I realized that while I was distracted, Gayle and I had been elected as ITW’s first presidents. Other people graciously agreed to help, Gregg Hurwitz, Alex Kava, Lewis Perdue, Richard Pine, and Will Staeger among them. Teetering, we were on our way.
Throughout the next year, Gayle and I put our writing aside, spending long days contacting writers who we felt would be attracted to the organization. Some were hostile and actively tried to sabotage us, telling other writers that they shouldn’t have anything to do with ITW. But many authors got the point, especially those who were just starting their careers and welcomed a support group. In a way, they were the unofficial version of our much-respected Debut Authors program.
Lee Child and Tess Gerritsen joined Gayle, me, David Dun, and M.J. Rose on the first board. As Gayle notes, M.J. had the brilliant idea of presenting a gala party during Book Expo in Manhattan the next spring in 2005. The setting was famous for its association with authors: the Algonquin Hotel. Editors and agents were invited to what many remember as one of the most joyous literary receptions ever. That helped our credibility. If we could put together so splendid an affair (and afford it, thanks to generous donors), maybe ITW had possibilities.
In July of 2006, we presented our first ThrillerFest at the Arizona Biltmore, where almost two years earlier the idea for ITW was born. As with the Algonquin soiree, many people who attended that first ThrillerFest never forgot its energy and spirit.
I served as a president for three years. Gayle remained for an additional year, establishing a pattern in which the board would always have a mix of veteran officers and new ones, guaranteeing an institutional memory. Thanks to authors such as Shane Gericke, Jon Land, D.P. Lyle, and Shirley Kennett, each subsequent ThrillerFest had something fresh and exciting. CraftFest was added, then AgentFest, and new award categories, such as e-publications and the Silver Bullet award for achievement in promoting literacy.
With Hank Wagner, I co-edited THRILLERS: 100 MUST READS. I speak from experience about the generosity with which authors donated their time and talent to write stories and essays for our various anthologies. Never taking a dime in royalties, they enabled ITW to accumulate sufficient funds that we not only survived but also stopped charging dues.
The dedication and wisdom of later board members, committee members, and volunteers are inspiring as we mark the end of our first decade and approach the challenges and triumphs of the second. I wish I had the space to list everyone to whom the organization is indebted. I mentioned some here, and Gayle mentions others in her separate piece about ITW’s origins. Please look at the History page of ITW’s website, which also includes a list of the donors who helped us get started.
By Gayle Lynds
One wanders in the wilderness until one makes one’s own path. That’s the way ITW began. What fun we had. It was a time of dreams, but there was a lot of nail-biting, too, of hours reaching out through email and the phone, and of brain-storming to create innovative programs our new membership would enjoy and value.
Today, it probably seems inevitable ITW was born, but that wasn’t true in 2004. The very idea of a new author organization was met with dismay by some. “We have enough of them,” we heard. “We don’t need any more.” Others thought the thriller form was a sub genre, not strong enough to stand on its own. One author told us he would join if we took the word ‘thriller’ out of our name. Really. Even then it was funny.
We wrote personal letters to writers, inviting them to join. The price was deliberately bargain-basement – $50. (“It’s deductible as a business expense,” we’d remind them enthusiastically.) To help those who couldn’t afford it, David Morrell and I wrote checks to cover their memberships. ITW had no money to run the organization, until David Dun came up with the idea of offering higher-level memberships (i.e., more expensive). David sat on the first board and today remains ITW’s valued treasurer and financial officer.
Searching for other ways to make money, I realized no one had ever published an all-thriller anthology, so I went to James Patterson who bravely said he’d gamble on our unknown and untried organization. He agreed to be editor. With that, I solicited 16 other best-selling authors, each of whom promised not only to write an original short story, but to do it for free, as a donation to ITW. One of those was Steve Berry, who became the managing editor and eventually an ITW co-president. He sent the anthology, THRILLER: STORIES TO KEEP YOU UP ALL NIGHT, sky-rocketing.
While all of this was going on, David Morrell was thinking about the future, too. He set about the monumental task of compiling the nonfiction compendium THRILLERS: 100 MUST-READS, which went a long way to proving thriller authors across the ages have been and are – amazingly! – fine writers deserving respect.
Within seven months of ITW’s founding, M.J. Rose put it on the industry map – first by convincing BEA to choose the thriller novel as that year’s theme, and second by orchestrating a cocktail party during BEA to introduce ITW at the famous literary haven, the Algonquin. It was incredible. All sorts of publishing executives did the unthinkable – they asked to be invited, and then the party was covered by the national press. M.J. and original board member Lee Child are ITW copresidents.
Next we needed thriller awards. Gregg Hurwitz headed a committee to create rules for judging – another area of terra incognito for us. Then Jim Rollins took over and recruited judges, a daunting task since the awards were just as untested as ITW. After I retired, Jim joined Steve Berry as ITW copresident.
Finally, there was the thriller convention. We were warned that we needed at least 3 years to create a successful one. But we were in a hurry, so we did it in 18 months, with Diane Vogt at the helm and later Kathleen Antrim taking over and becoming copresident. I was fortunate to be the one who coined the titles – ThrillerFest and ThrillerMaster.
How things have changed. ITW’s membership has grown from a handful into the thousands, our publications have been so financially successful that we don’t even have to charge dues anymore, and ThrillerFest gets larger and more interesting every year. I love to walk the halls, looking at the smiling faces and listening to the talk of books and the future. Who knew anyone could have as much fun as we did starting ITW, and do it well enough that those who followed us would better us over and over?
Our tenth anniversary celebration, in July, is going to be a blast. No one should miss it. We’re not just feting what ITW has accomplished, but what the next ten years will bring. Stay tuned. It’ll be a thriller.
The 35 members who attended the first meeting (in Toronto, October 2004) to decide whether they wanted a thriller organization:
Natalia Aponte, Gary Braver, Debbie Carter, Lee Child, Lori Dandrea (A.K.A. C.J. Lyons), Wes DeMott, David Dun, Barry Eisler, Joseph Finder, Maggie Griffin, Peter Guttridge, Raelynn Hillhouse, Gregg Hurwitz, Alex Kava, Christopher Keane, Susanna Kearsley, Christine Kling, David Liss, Dennis Lynds, Gayle Lynds, Heidi Mack, Bruce Makous, Chris Mooney, David Morrell, Adrian Muller, Katherine Neville, Richard Pine, Lewis Purdue, Christopher Rice, M.J. Rose, Joel Ross, Leslie Silbert, William Staeger, Rich Thompson, and Angela Zeman.