How Killer Nashville Got Started

Nancy: As a native Nashvillian, I clearly remember when there was no Killer Nashville, no place for writers to meet agents or editors. I think I remexmber when the first one was held, but I don’t think I’ve ever known what was the genesis of the conference.

Clay: I can’t say it was an accident; I can’t say it was on purpose, either. As my wife tells it, I walked in the door one afternoon and said, I’m starting an international mystery, thriller, and suspense conference. And that’s how it began. At the time, I was president of SEMWA fulfilling the role our esteemed Maggie Toussaint is currently excelling in. I used to be a college writing and filmmaking professor (University of Miami, University of Tennessee, others) as well as being involved myself in publishing and filmmaking. Teaching is a part of my make-up, as is giving back, volunteering, and (aggressive) advocacy. Following my previous years at the universities, I had started another writers’ conference for the county that I lived in to highlight authors in that designated community. Education and motivation are the two game-changers. As SEMWA president and inspired by the reception of previous endeavors, I saw a need on a larger level beyond that of a countywide gathering. We had the Internet. We had a worldwide community that had not been accessible before. On this, Killer Nashville was founded and has grown.

Nancy: Just walked in one day and announced you would begin an international mystery, thriller and suspense conference not in New York, but in the Nashville area. That kind of confidence can move mountains. I think I’ve been working with Killer Nashville from its beginning. If I’m right, the first conference was small and held at a local bookstore. But even then, you had the amazing Carol Higgins Clark as your special guest. Since that time, you’ve had some of the biggest names in literature at the conference. How do you draw them to Nashville?

Clay: Part of it is my work in publishing and filmmaking, packaging, promotion, and distribution. I know a lot of these people from my regular work life from studios, networks, and publishers. But that was 2006. I think we had around 70 that year. We were at the Embassy Suites where we are again this year, but you’re right, we did do some presentations at Barnes & Noble to tie in the conference and give an opportunity for authors to sell and sign books. That was before we put the bookstore onsite in 2007, which was a result of the sheer volume of books we sold in the store in 2006. After the idea hit me, I had given my thoughts to Reed Farrel Coleman who was then Executive Vice President of MWA and President Janet Evanovich. Both loved the idea. We do nothing alone and we can take no credit for anything that happens alone. It takes a team. I brought up my idea at one of the phone-in national board meetings and the MWA board said if I would create it by putting in the sweat equity, they would help out by becoming our first sponsor. MWA has been a sponsor ever since. I’d give you the board members names’, to whom I’m eternally grateful, but it would be too long for this article. Needless to say, MWA and SEMWA have been important sponsors of this from the very beginning, and still are. We got Carol to come on short notice via Margery Flax, the MWA Executive Director who was, and continues to be, a great friend and resource. Note to those who aren’t members of MWA: It’s a great resource; if you’re not a member, then join. Once the ball started that year, though, it has been easy to attract other “known” authors simply based upon reputation, and the team gets all the credit for that. In fact, we took off beyond my expectations. By 2007, we had people coming from Canada. By 2010, we had attendees from Italy, Great Britain, Asia. This year, I think the attendee who will travel the farthest is a writer from Denmark. I’m constantly amazed. Beth Terrell, a dear friend, started volunteering in 2007 and informed me that I could not do this alone. She was exactly right. I can remember you (Nancy), Mike and Tracy Bunch, Allan Ansorge, and others, I think around 2007, being at a gathering at my house before the event grew too large to have the gathering at the house. To answer your question, how do we attract these big names and people from other continents to Killer Nashville? Frankly, it’s word-of-mouth and the efforts of volunteers like you who are so critical to making it a success.

Nancy Sartor: MWA has been a blessing in my life. Margery is an amazing resource, but I think we must give you credit for drawing the right people to you at the right time. Speaking of resources, you’ve done a great job with Killer Nashville. For instance, I’ve met a lot of agents and editors at KN who were more than willing to work with aspiring writers. How do you choose them? Is there an established criterion?

Clay Stafford: Yes, absolutely, there are criteria. They have to have a track record; they have to be hungry; they have to be actively acquiring new clients; and they have to have the personality that realizes that Killer Nashville is not about them; it is about the attendees. That latter criterion is crucial and, expanding from your question before this, it is ONLY about the attendees. No matter how famous someone is, they are required to leave their egos at the airport. To be a part of Killer Nashville, you have to be willing to give (agent, author, editor, publisher, forensic specialist); you have to be both successful and humble enough to realize that you did not get to where you are alone. People come to Killer Nashville for two reasons: to share information or to get information. It’s the next generation of writers (not referring to age, but to those jumping into the process) for whom we are concerned. Voices today need to be heard. Good voices will rise to the top. The agents and editors we pick are chosen as aggressive emissaries and partners who can expedite that for the attendees.

Nancy: Speaking of those attendees, your sessions seem to run the gamut from those attractive to beginning writers to those for more seasoned writers and authors. What process determines those sessions? Do you do questionnaires beforehand?

Clay: We do have questionnaires and exit surveys. Those are important. But over the course of the year from my work behind-the-scenes in the publishing, filmed entertainment, and gaming industries, I see trends. Those current trends, those fresh topics, are really the true determinants. Publishing is an interesting animal right now. Years ago, one might have said our focus should be on the beginning author. Today, even a New York Times bestseller is one book away from losing his or her contract. Self-publishing has become a viable option, one that Killer Nashville has championed from the beginning. All authors need help now no matter who they are. No one can lean back into his or her lazy chair with security. That’s gone. From “where do ideas come from” to “how do I get my book in Europe”, from “how do I get an agent” to “how do I go from selling 12,000 of a release to 1 million”, those are the questions we try to address. Every writer, every person, is on his or her individual journey. Killer Nashville tries to be a shoulder for writers at every stage.

Nancy: I live here, so I’ve taken advantage of many of the things Nashville offers its visitors. Overall, the City and surrounding areas are very attractive venues for any conference. Do you offer your guests opportunities to explore the area while they’re at the conference?

Clay: Absolutely. Nashville, Franklin, and Williamson County thrive on cultural and historical tourism. From country music to progressive racial history to Civil War to water parks to ghost tours, Middle Tennessee is where, not only attendees, but also their families can come. Attendees can come and go as they please at any time, of course, but Friday nights are always set aside for attendees to explore the area.

Nancy: Friday nights are good times for music venues, too. KN participants can taste a bit of our country music or perhaps soak up a bit of Mahler or a Beethoven. While we’re talking about the supporting role our community plays, let’s talk a little about you and your family. Your wife is a successful physician. Is she involved with Killer Nashville as well?

Clay: Absolutely. That first year she and my friend Eddie Lightsey were all I had to put 2006 together. She’s been involved with Killer Nashville from the very beginning and has continued as the solid rock ever since. She is The Rock.

Nancy: A most lovely lady whose devotion to her patients is legendary. You and she have two children, I believe. Your son, Ellis, seems old enough to be interested now. Does he participate?

Clay: Yes…when he’s not cooking and playing basketball or football. Both of my kids are a handful, which is something any parent can say about their own. But they are pure joy. Ellis has written a novel himself, which is sitting on my desk impatiently waiting for me to edit it per Ellis’s request. Ellis has been involved with the conference and has been serving water to attendees since he was big enough to hold the pitcher and not spill it on the papers. My daughter, six years old, will probably function as water girl this year. Ellis will be working video and sound. It’s a good way to serve others.

Nancy: A novel of his own and an excellent cook? This young man is moving ahead at light speed. Thank you for sharing your family with us, Clay. If we may go back to the conference for a moment: I’m sure you have stories of writers who benefitted greatly from attending Killer Nashville. Could you share one or two with us now?

Clay: Well, right off the top of my head because she was volunteering at my side for years is Beth Terrell-Hicks, whom I mentioned above. Writing as Jaden Terrell, she found her agent through Killer Nashville and then her publisher. As Beth has been writing full-time now for the past two years with no time to volunteer anymore, I kick myself that she found those introductions at Killer Nashville. Not really; I’m incredibly happy for her; that was the game plan; she’s an incredible writer who brought the goods and when opportunity came, she was ready, like all our other success stories. Another is Jonathan Stone. He had a manuscript in his drawer for I think 12 years and finally decided to send it to our Killer Nashville Claymore Award competition, which is for best first fifty-pages of an unpublished novel. It was a good decision on his part. We saw his talent and from there he got an agent, a traditional publisher, and a Hollywood movie deal. I chose his unpublished story for inclusion in a Killer Nashville short story anthology, and then Elizabeth George singled it out for Otto Penzler’s Best American Mysteries series. I could go on, but we’ve helped literally hundreds of writers find that open door through which they can proceed. And, something that is little known, Killer Nashville encourages readers. Without readers there would be no use for writers. Any profits from Killer Nashville go to support literacy programs. For several years, we’ve given away $85,000 or more worth of books and supplies to needy libraries and schools, actually delivered them to their doors.

Nancy: I think everyone who ever attended KN celebrated Beth Terrell Hicks’s first publication, but I was unaware of your outreach program. Eighty-five thousand dollars is a generous donation to institutions that badly need private donations to survive. I have one more question, and it may be the most important of all. What’s the future of Killer Nashville? Do you see it expanding? Will its current format remain or do you have plans for change?

Clay: Again, we try to watch trends and stay on top of things for writers. Yes, I see us always changing, expanding, growing. In the business world, we say if we’re not growing, we’re dying. It applies to everything. I hope it continues to change and be an educational resource and vanguard of the industry. We were one of the first traditional conferences to embrace self-publishing, even at the ridicule of the “establishment”. Our Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Awards was, I truly think, the first major literary award to acknowledge that because publishing has changed, the best book may not be a hardcover, it may not be even printed (digital only), and it may not even be traditionally published, all of which we got flack for at the time (though most others soon followed). Our entertainment company, American Blackguard, is the producer of Killer Nashville. Just look at the name American Blackguard and it will tell you everything you need to know about the culture of our organization. Killer Nashville is not here to protect the establishment, and the very definition of that is change. As we change, people come, people go, people applaud, people fade away, people love it, sacred cows are slaughtered, and that’s part of the journey. So, yes, we will change as the times and needs change. Singularly, we are here for the writers of tomorrow and the voices of today and wherever that leads us, we are happy and ready to champion and lead.

Nancy: Thank you, Clay for taking the time to talk with me. I’m sure SEMWA members are looking forward to seeing you at Killer Nashville 2017, August 24-27, at the Embassy Suites820 Crescent Centre Drive, Franklin, Tennessee, 37067. For more information about the conference, go to or give a call at 615-599-4032.

Nancy Sartor is a Nashville native, a charter member and current president of Word Spinners Ink, a member of RWA, MWA and SinC, the secretary of SEMWA, a graduate of Donald Maass’s Breakout Novel Intensive Workshop, workshop on micro tension and the Writer’s Police Academy. Nancy has three published novels: BONES ALONG THE HILL, CHRISTMAS ACROSS TIME AND BLESSED CURSE. She lives in Rural Hill, Tennessee, just east of Nashville with her husband, classical composer and conductor, David Sartor and two Maine Coon cats.