Debbi Mack interviews crime fiction writer Clay Stafford.
Debbi (00:54): But first I’d like to put in a good word for Blubrry podcasting.
I’m a Bluburry podcasting affiliate, but that’s not the only reason I’m telling you about this. I’ve been using Blubrry podcasting as my host for the podcast for years and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. They provide great service. You can run your podcast from your website. They provide fantastic distribution at a reasonable price. That’s why it’s a company I can get behind one hundred percent and say, “You should try this.”
If you want to podcast, try out Blubrry. It doesn’t require a long-term contract. It’s just a great company, and they provide great technical support, too, by email, video, and on the phone. I’ve included an affiliate link on this blog.
Unfortunately, our scheduled guest had to cancel. However, I was lucky enough to have someone else waiting in the wings. 🙂
FYI, this post includes an affiliate link or two.
Debbi: Hi, everyone. Today’s guest is uniquely accomplished, to say the least. He is, and I quote from his bio, “an author, screenwriter, playwright, producer, director, actor, showrunner, publisher, songwriter/composer, CEO, educator, speaker, and needless to say, entrepreneur.” He is also founder, CEO, and president of the Killer Nashville Conference for writers. He’s done numerous things we can discuss, actually. And it’s my great pleasure to introduce Clay Stafford. Hi Clay. I’m so glad you’re here today.
Clay: Well, hey, Debbi. And all of that only says that I am very old. That’s what it comes down to. Right?
Debbi: But you have done so much with that time.
Clay: Well, thanks. Thanks. You know I started as a kid actor. Did you know that?
Debbi: I was going to ask how you got started. How did you get started?
Clay: Yeah. I started actually working professionally when I was 10, and so have been in the business ever since then. Worked and then formed my first production company when I was 16 years old, and started doing commercials for banks and other things. And so everything kind of went from there.
Debbi: Wow, that’s really impressive. What led you to a life of literary crime?
Clay: First of all, I love all literature. I’m incredibly eclectic. I love the classics. I love … The only thing I say that really just pushes me too far is romance when we get into the shower scenes, and everybody always hears me talking about the shower scene. Can’t stand the shower scenes, but I can skip that. Romantic suspense, I love. So I just love everything, and when we founded … I guess we’re going to talk a little bit about Killer Nashville, the conference. Right?
First of all, I love all literature. I’m incredibly eclectic. I love the classics.
Debbi: For sure.
Clay: When I founded Killer Nashville, it was, as you can see, based on stories that contained elements of mystery, thriller, suspense. And to me, I think no matter if you’re writing literary, if you’re writing straight crime noir, if you’re writing science fiction, those elements actually are propelling the story forward and keep the reader’s interest. I know we have the genre of mystery and crime, but you can do that in multiple–historical, sci-fi, fantasy–ways, and still impose the same elements on there of the storytelling.
I think no matter if you’re writing literary, if you’re writing straight crime noir, if you’re writing science fiction, those elements actually are propelling the story forward and keep the reader’s interest.
Clay: So as long as it’s got that, which to me tells me that the story’s moving forward, I’m all in. So it doesn’t really matter about the genre itself. So how did I get involved with crime? Well, that’s just the Michael Jackson song, just another side of me. So that’s just part of one of the techniques where the mystery, thriller, suspense come in. And I just happen to love the genre.
Debbi: You’re so right about all those aspects being in fiction, no matter what genre or if it’s genre. I think that’s so true.
Clay: And I am one of those. I’m of the belief that genre pretty much is where we classify things in a bookstore. And for writers, I think really the focus should be on telling the story. And you’re going to get a lot of opposing advice on this. But from a reader and someone’s who’s done this writers’ conference and been with writers my whole life, and been in writing my whole life, for me, I think the story is probably the most important, and then let’s put it in the category it needs to go to later on. And I know readers have a personal preference, so you need those break ups of theme. But from a writer’s perspective, I think concentrating on the great story is the important thing, not necessarily trying to get it to fit into a certain bottle.
I’m of the belief that genre pretty much is where we classify things in a bookstore. And for writers, I think really the focus should be on telling the story.
Debbi: I couldn’t agree with you more. How does one go about starting a conference?
And I know readers have a personal preference, so you need those break ups of theme. But from a writer’s perspective, I think concentrating on the great story is the important thing, not necessarily trying to get it to fit into a certain bottle.
Clay: Well, I have done several. Leading up to this point, I’d dropped out of college, and then I went back. So I mean, the story’s good. I went back and then I got my terminal degree and everything because I found out no matter how much experience, you know I worked in the studio system and everything, but however much experience that you have, academic likes to see a piece of paper that says that you’re qualified to teach. So I ended up going back to school and getting an MFA and teaching at several universities, including the University of Miami and some stuff at the University of Tennessee. And we’re based in Franklin, Tennessee now, so this has been my home for the past 27 years.
Clay: And so I have a long history in education. I started a small writers’ conference here in Williamson County, which was for more local authors. But about that time, the internet came on. And you and I talked before we started recording how technology is very frustrating to me, but I’m also the first one that goes, “Oh, great. We can do this. We can do this.” So as soon as the … And I guess let me preface that I love writers, I love people, and I love talking to them and getting their stories. So when you suddenly presented me with an opportunity that I could sit at my keyboard and I could talk to people around the world in kind of a unifying way, and understand people, it just was like a big turn on for me.
I started a small writers’ conference here in Williamson County, which was for more local authors. But about that time, the internet came on. And you and I talked before we started recording how technology is very frustrating to me, but I’m also the first one that goes, “Oh, great. We can do this. We can do this.”
Clay: So suddenly, I had this local conference that I wanted to expand, and the people here didn’t really want to expand it. They wanted to have it continue, the local conference, so I started the Killer Nashville International Writers Conference. And the second year, we had people coming from Canada and South America. Now we have people coming from all over the world. And my goal is eventually to make a list of all of the countries and see if I can’t get one author from all of those countries to eventually come to Killer Nashville before I become truly old and kind of kick the bucket. But that would be one of my bucket lists, if I could put one together, that we did have it because I truly think, and this comes from my personal philosophy as well, I truly think that our writing is something that we’ve got …
Clay: The world, we’re not in a bad place in the world. People like to think we’re in a bad place in the world. There’s a lot of division. There’s a lot of whatever. I love history. I’m a history nut. There’ve been some really rough times in history that don’t even, this time doesn’t even compare to that. And everybody survived and think, but once you see the through line is the writers who are sharing ideas. It is the writers who are unifying and showing the commonness of everybody around the world. And suddenly, we have the technology to reach around the world. And so all of that just excited me to no end.
I love history. I’m a history nut. There’ve been some really rough times in history that don’t even, this time doesn’t even compare to that. And everybody survived and think, but once you see the through line is the writers who are sharing ideas.
Clay: And I said, “We’ve got to have an international conference that brings together writers, and not just bringing together writers to talk, but to bring together new writers,” because it’s so important to have new voices, new perspectives. And I’m not talking about in terms of age. I’m talking about in terms of demographics, in terms of socioeconomic levels, we need to hear those people because those people are going to be the ones that give us an understanding. And to me, that’s why I read, because I want that understanding. I want to learn. I want to understand.
Clay: And so I feel very, obviously, passionate about Killer Nashville and what we’ve been able to do bringing people in. But to hear somebody’s coming in from Japan, get to talk to them, someone from Italy, some from Scotland, from wherever, and to have them here present. And yes, it’s one thing to talk, and of course, this was pre-Zoom, so we didn’t have the pictures and everything that went along. But it’s one thing to type and have a pen pal relationship with someone. But to actually have someone there and sit down and have a lunch and the hotel, and talk to those people. I mean, to me, it’s an incredible experience.
Debbi: I couldn’t agree with you more. That’s absolutely true. I think what you’re doing is fantastic, by the way. I think that’s just fantastic.
Clay: Oh, thank you.
Debbi: I know that COVID has made it impossible to have in real life meetings and signings and things. Do you have any thoughts on the future of in-person conferences versus virtual?
Clay: Yeah. We canceled … Killer Nashville is live this year. And where we are, the hotel has redesigned everything. We do everything for our lunches, for our dinners, for everything, it’s included, most of those are included in the registration fee because we want everybody together. We want everybody to get to know because it’s all about networking and all about people getting to know each other and finding resources to help. And so what we did, the hotel this year, for example, the buffet line used to be what we always did. Well, you can’t do the buffet line now because you’ve got COVID, so you’ve got to have it protected. So now we’ve turned it into the cafeteria. Do you remember the old cafeterias?
Debbi: Oh, yeah.
Clay: They don’t have them anymore. I loved cafeterias. You go in, and it was like, “Oh, yeah, I’d like a bowl of that, a bowl of that, a bowl of that.” And so we have the all you can eat cafeteria style, but it’s all protected. We’ve got the table arranged where there’s distances. We’ve got the rooms arranged, where there is distances, people are encouraged if they want to wear masks, they can. And we follow the state, the local, and the hotel, which is of course a private organization, guidelines on what we are doing in terms of COVID. But I am, everybody knows me, I’m a germaphobe. And I’m married to a doctor. Go figure that one out because there’s some sort of psychological whatever in that one.
Clay: But I am a germaphobe, and so if I feel comfortable, everybody should feel comfortable in what they’re doing. So we’re having a live event this year. Last year, we had the … We canceled. Broke my heart, absolutely broke my heart because I live to see all of these other people. I’m probably like you, sit in my office all the time alone, working. And so these conferences and book festivals are wonderful ways to get out and meet everybody.
Debbi: I know.
Clay: And so it was just an emotional hit to not be able to have that one on one interaction. Like I said, I love people. Nothing makes me happier than sitting down, looking you in the face, and having this conversation right now because that’s what I live for. So last year when we were forced to kill the show, everybody said, “Are you going virtual?” I took a poll of the Killer Nashville attendees and said, “We can postpone or we can go virtual.” Just about everybody said postpone because if we do virtual, it is not what Killer Nashville is. You haven’t been to Killer Nashville.
So last year when we were forced to kill the show, everybody said, “Are you going virtual?” I took a poll of the Killer Nashville attendees and said, “We can postpone or we can go virtual.” Just about everybody said postpone because if we do virtual, it is not what Killer Nashville is.
Debbi: No, I have not.
Clay: You should. You should come.
Debbi: I really should, yeah.
Clay: You should, because it is a family of supportive people, not that other conferences aren’t, but that is what we’re geared for, that family support of people. And looking at my background, you may have looked into it. I’m an Appalachian kid. I grew up in the middle of nowhere with railroad tracks. And I knew those railroad tracks went somewhere, but no idea where. But I dreamed about going beyond that. And there was absolutely no reason that I should have ever have found myself in New York, in Los Angeles, in Miami, coming from the region that I came from and the circumstances that I came from, except for people helping me, reaching down and saying, “This guy, he’s really trying. He’s got a little bit of talent, I’ll help him out. I’ll give him a chance to see if he can prove himself.”
Clay: And people have been so kind to me over the years, and that is the impetus for creating Killer Nashville. So when everybody comes together, the whole idea is leave your ego at the door because you are there to help other people. What we do is, if you’re coming to Killer Nashville and you’re going to be a speaker there, from law enforcement, to guests of honor, to regular attendees, you have to be willing to give your business card to everybody there, to build that relationship so that people have a network and support to be able to go to the next level.
Clay: Now if you’ve looked at how the schedule is laid out, we’ve got things for beginning writers, people who go, and I’m talking really beginning writers, people who go, “I have an idea, but I’m not even sure how to write a book.” Okay, starting there, all the way through to people who are already New York Times bestsellers, who show up not because they’re guests of honors. They show up as attendees because they want to take our marketing classes and our publicity sessions to be able to see, “How do we go to that next level? How do we use the new technology?” And so we’ve got this wide range of people who are there.
Clay: And when you have that mix of those newbies versus really, really good veterans, you’ve got such a wealth of networking, a wealth of opportunity of information, if you just take advantage of it, in that one thing. And we go to the Embassy Suites Hotel in Cool Springs, which is right outside of historic Franklin, and about 20, 15, 20 minutes from downtown Broadway, Nashville. So you can go down to the Broadway and have fun if you want to, or you can go to the Civil War, Harpeth River rafting, whatever you’d like to do here in the historic side. So a lot of people come here bringing their family and do a vacation.
And when you have that mix of those newbies versus really, really good veterans, you’ve got such a wealth of networking, a wealth of opportunity of information, if you just take advantage of it, in that one thing.
Clay: But you bring all of those people together, and then we have just sharing, so it’s with the COVID, to answer your question, the COVID, I think we’re cool this year. It really disrupted and broke my heart last year. But for our area where we live, it’s not the issue that it was. But again, encouraging people, if you have some sort of issue, health issue, whatever, you feel more comfortable wearing a mask, I think the hotel and some of their situations requires maybe some people who wear a mask if there’s anything. But once you get into the rooms, it’s up to you. So I think we’re coming back to some degree of norm, which I am so happy for.
Debbi: I too am happy for that.
Clay: And you are welcome. I talk, so you’re welcome to cut me off at any point and go to the next question because I talk.
Debbi: I do love to listen though. That’s the thing. I love listening to other people’s stories.
Clay: That’s very funny.
Debbi: It’s bad when two people who like to listen to other people’s stories get together. You have a conference magazine also. What kind of content do you publish and how often?
Clay: We started the Killer Nashville Magazine, and it’s been something that I’ve wanted to do for some time. And it follows the same thing. And this is a good segue for the conference too. Most of the people, there’s no subscription fee for Killer Nashville Magazine. It’s something that we’re doing for free. The content itself … I apologize. The phone just rang and I will turn that off really quickly so it doesn’t do that again. The conference itself is designed for the people who need it most. And the magazine, we’ve got articles in it that I would put up against any paid magazine, writer magazine, but we’re offering it for free every two weeks, every two weeks.
We started the Killer Nashville Magazine, and it’s been something that I’ve wanted to do for some time. And it follows the same thing. And this is a good segue for the conference too. Most of the people, there’s no subscription fee for Killer Nashville Magazine.
Clay: And it’s a great resource for writing techniques, so we’re always looking for new writers who would like to write for it. When you go out, we’ve got around a demographic of around 60,000 people. So for a writer who wants to get his, her name out there for … We offer for all the articles, you have a picture of the author, picture of their latest book, or their work, or whatever it is they’d like to promote, plus a link to go where they need to go. So if any of your listeners or viewers out there want to write for us, just have them contact us.
Clay: But what everybody needs to do is just subscribe. It’s free. You get it every two weeks. Full of interviews, articles, book reviews. And we wanted to make it free. I really wanted to make it free because I sometimes feel that the people who need the information the most are those who can’t afford it. So another thing, segueing to the conference for a minute, people have shared that vision. And if you go and look on the Killer Nashville website, which is killernashville.com, look under scholarships because we have a load of scholarships for authors who cannot afford to come to Killer Nashville.
And if you go and look on the Killer Nashville website, which is killernashville.com, look under scholarships because we have a load of scholarships for authors who cannot afford to come to Killer Nashville.
Clay: Some of these scholarships pay for everything, hotel room, flights, the conference fee itself, all the extras that go with the conference fee. And it’s all because people are just willing to give back, these authors are willing to give back to other authors. And some of them are people who came in as newbies in Killer Nashville, went through Killer Nashville, found success. I mean, we’ve had people who, we have tons of people who’ve gotten agents. We’ve got tons of people who are published. We’ve even got somebody who got a movie deal based upon what happened at Killer Nashville. And these people believe in what we’re doing, this giving back, and this sharing, to the point that they’re literally putting their money where their mouth is and offering scholarships to people.
Some of these scholarships pay for everything, hotel room, flights, the conference fee itself, all the extras that go with the conference fee. And it’s all because people are just willing to give back, these authors are willing to give back to other authors.
Clay: So if you’ve got anybody out there who says, “I have a dream,” they’ve been working hard, trying to get somewhere, and can’t find traction, some little Appalachian boy somewhere that can’t get some traction, well, this is the place where the helping hand is coming out. And it’s coming from your fellow authors. Take advantage of it. Apply for these scholarships. Subscribe to Killer Nashville Magazine.
Debbi: Yes, a little boy from Appalachia, or a little girl from Queens, such as myself.
Clay: A little girl from Queens, it doesn’t matter. And what is so cool is to get those emails, as you well know, from people who say, “I read your book, or I went to the conference. And I am, this is my story.” And of course, you know I’m a sucker for stories. This is my story, and you really changed my life. And the conference really changed my life. And so I mean, you can go on killernashville.com and see all sorts of testimonies of people who have done it. But our goal, we never set out to make a profit. I’ve never been paid. I’ve been doing this as a charity work since 2006. I’ve never gotten a dime.
Clay: Everything that we get goes back into scholarships and supporting authors, and so really, once again, our goal is to, through the written word, unite this globe internationally in a way that makes it a better place, and that’s where we’re going to go.
Debbi: That’s so fantastic. That’s just so fantastic. I think what you’re doing is absolutely wonderful. I feel like I’ve been missing out by not going to Killer Nashville now.
Clay: I need to see you this year.
Debbi: I want to go. I don’t know if I can go this year. My husband is also kind of paranoid about germs. He’s been really, really careful about this stuff.
Clay: Well, we’ve been incredibly careful. And as I said, my wife is in the medical profession, and she’s one of the first responders, and so we’ve been living on the forefront of this thing for an entire year and a half. And it’s really affected … I’ve got two children. And I’m just curious how this is going to affect psychologically. I mean, we’re digressing from what we’re talking about. We’re just having a conversation here now. I’m really concerned about how these PTS syndromes are going to affect people years from now because these young people, we can kind of make sense of it and what’s going on, but suddenly, all social activity has stopped. Their whole life has changed, the ways to build relationships has changed. And it just really makes me wonder what kind of long-term effect does something like this have. But again, this is not the first epidemic that’s ever hit the planet.
Clay: So looking at it historically, we’ve got some rough times going on here. But there have been worse. There’ve been better, but there have been worse. And we did survive. But I really think it comes down to people who have, to the great communicators, whether they be orators, or they be writers, to those people, I think those are the ones that get us through all of this. And so that’s what I want from Killer Nashville and everybody that’s there.
So looking at it historically, we’ve got some rough times going on here. But there have been worse. There’ve been better, but there have been worse. And we did survive. But I really think it comes down to people who have, to the great communicators, whether they be orators, or they be writers, to those people, I think those are the ones that get us through all of this.
Debbi: A laudable goal, very much. Just out of curiosity, do you see any difference in the number of people who are seeking agents actively now that there’s so much indie publishing?
Clay: Yes. Yes, I do. I do. We have the same numbers pretty much. I don’t think that there is anything changed. I think it’s a different mentality, what you want to achieve.
Clay: And that has not changed. And so a person may have this goal, and a self-publishing route is the best thing. A person has another goal, and there’s gives and takes on both sides of this coin. Somebody has another goal, they want to go the traditional route. And we’ve still got the same number of people who wish to go to the traditional route. What’s interesting though is sometimes there’s some traditional route people who do some hybrid stuff and do some self-publishing as well as the traditional, and that’s okay too.
Clay: Every time something happens, a movie’s come out, it’s the death of the book. When TV comes out, it’s the death of the book. When the internet comes out, it’s the death of the book. There is no death of the book. I don’t believe that at all. And I think that niche marketing, or niche, however you wish to pronounce it, marketing, is probably something that is a bigger factor right now than it necessarily used to be. But the flip side of that is I’ve found that people who suddenly decide not to do the shotgun approach, but want to go with niche marketing, actually have greater success than the ones who do the shotgun approach.
Clay: And sometimes the niche marketing works best if you’re doing the self-publishing. Sometimes it works best if you’re doing the traditional. Again, it’s what you want to get out of it.
Debbi: Absolutely, absolutely. You also have an anthology out right now. Don’t you?
Debbi: Killer Nashville Noir.
Clay: Yeah, we do. Right here, Cold-Blooded.
Debbi: Look at that thing, Cold-Blooded, I like that.
Clay: Cold-Blooded: Killer Nashville Noir. Cold-Blooded. It’s got stories by Jeffery Deaver, Anne Perry, Donald Bain, Jefferson Bass, Robert Dugoni, Steven James, Mary Burton, Heywood Gould, and just a host of other people. And it’s a wonderful collection. There’s a shameless plug, but just happened to have that one.
Debbi: You have a few decent writers in there.
Clay: What now?
Debbi: You have a few decent writers in there.
Clay: I’ve got some … And you know what was really cool, one story in this, I mean, it’s gotten rave reviews. And it was an Amazon bestseller, and it’s just for consistency. I have to say, the editor was incredible. I was the editor. All of the critiques that we’ve got is that it’s such a solid piece of anthology work that every story in it is good. There’s no clunkers. How’s that?
Debbi: I can believe it.
Clay: These are people who’ve been a part of Killer Nashville. But I want to point out one of the success stories here, Jonathan Stone did a story called “Mailman”. Otto Penzler picked this one out of this book, first one we published, picked this one as one of the best mysteries of … And I can’t remember what year it was, but you know the Best Mysteries Collection, we got a story in the Best Mysteries Collection on our very first book that we put out. So I’m excited about that.
Debbi: That’s great. That’s fantastic. Wow. I am so impressed with what you’ve done. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we finish up?
Clay: No, no. But I would love to hear more of your story, as some point.
Debbi: Oh, my gosh. I will have to tell you somebody when we’re not limited for time.
Clay: When you come to Killer Nashville, how’s that? When your husband feels comfortable, you guys come to Killer Nashville. We will sit in the bar and have a conversation. How does that sound?
Debbi: Yes. Consider it done.
Debbi: I’m going to tell him we’re going to set up a date to do that after we’re done here.
Clay: That’s great. And you know what’s really interesting, we were looking, I don’t know the exact numbers, but we are having a bumper crop of people who are coming this year. You would think that we were going to be impacted negatively by the whole COVID issue, but people are … I mean, we’re breaking records this year in everything that we’re doing.
Debbi: I think people are anxious to get back together.
Clay: I do too. I do too.
Debbi: Because these Zoom meetings, I’ve got to tell you, when you take enough of them, they get really exhausting.
Clay: Yeah. I was talking to one of our writers, who’s a psychologist, and he was telling me about this Zoom fatigue or something like that. You know what I’m talking about?
Clay: Okay. And that it’s a very real thing. And he’s actually been in his private practice helping people with their Zoom fatigue.
Debbi: I can believe it.
Clay: Yeah. I don’t know. I’m just from that old school, where face to face, sitting across the table, having some great Southern un-sweet iced tea. It’s just nice.
Debbi: I’m with you 100%. There’s nothing like being in person. Let’s see. Well, I guess thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate it, Clay.
Clay: Oh, absolutely. Well, if you ever need anything, you let me know. And I hope that your listeners, if they ever need anything, reach out. We really are in the spirit of giving to authors. And any of your people can contact me directly if they ever have any questions at all. It’s firstname.lastname@example.org. I answer emails. I answer them personally. I get back because we really, really, really want to help people.
I’ve had a really good life. And there’s absolutely no reason that some other person shouldn’t have that same sort of experience. And we want to give them that. And at the same time, it doesn’t matter. You do not have to be young to have that experience.
Clay: You looked at my bio. I’ve had a really good life. And there’s absolutely no reason that some other person shouldn’t have that same sort of experience. And we want to give them that. And at the same time, it doesn’t matter. You do not have to be young to have that experience. Maybe you are 55, 60, and you’re going into what I think I read one book about how the careers … You’re going into your third career now. And this is going to be your career. You know what, let’s make it Grandma Moses. Let’s make it something that’s spectacular for you, and let us help you do that. So your viewers are welcome to reach out to me directly because we really want that experience for these people.
Let’s make it something that’s spectacular for you, and let us help you do that. So your viewers are welcome to reach out to me directly because we really want that experience for these people.
Debbi: All right. Well, I love your philosophy. That’s fantastic. Thank you so much.
Clay: Thank you for having me. I’ve been looking forward to this. Appreciate talking to you.
Debbi: Same here. I appreciate talking to you. And just so you know, everyone, my indie published audiobooks are half priced all throughout July, along with most of my books on Smashwords, except for my books with film reviews, which are free on Smashwords. And we are Patreon supported. So on that note, I will see you in two weeks when our guest will be Thomas O’Callaghan. Until then, take care and happy reading.
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