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interview by Alexa Schlosser, Managing Editor, IBPA Independent magazine —

Clay Stafford

A Q&A with indie publisher and writers’ conference founder Clay Stafford.

After having to take a year off due to the global pandemic, Killer Nashville founder Clay Stafford is looking forward to holding his 15th annual writers’ conference this August. IBPA Independent caught up with Stafford to chat through what it was like starting an independent publishing company, the history of his event, and his philosophy on diversity.

IBPA Independent: Tell me a bit about yourself and your publishing company.

Clay Stafford (CS): I’ve been involved in entertainment and publishing since a very young age. I was an actor for many years and then became a director and writer, and I have decades of experience in the publishing and filmmaking industries. I decided that it made sense for us to have a publishing company that would be an extension of Killer Nashville. We formed the company, joined IBPA, and started publishing with some success. Before that, I created companion books for PBS, and I worked at Universal Studios. I did things where I had an organized structure and distribution was completely taken care of. But when you form your own independent house, that’s an entirely different story. Those things are no longer a given; you have to work them out for yourself.

IBPA Independent: So, what’s Killer Nashville? How did it come to be?

The bookstore at Killer Nashville.

CS: Killer Nashville started in 2006 to fill a void in the area. If you look on our website, it says “incorporating elements of mystery, thriller, and suspense,” which covers a wide range of genres. When you see “mystery, thriller, and suspense,” you might think it’s just a noir novel, detective novel, or a thriller, but we cover horror, romantic suspense, science fiction, Westerns, as well as the traditional thriller and thriller subgenres, and mystery and mystery subgenres, etc. We have a wide variety of people who come in from purely genre focused all the way to literary focused. My background is in education, so my focus has always been in educating as well as creating, and it was natural for me to form the conference. I was on the board of Mystery Writers of America at the time, and we were looking at conferences across the United States, and there was this big area that had no conference presence at all for genre fiction. We’ve got a wonderful event here in Nashville, the Southern Festival of Books, which has been a great supporter of us, but we wanted to focus more narrowly, plus be a teaching organization. Instead of what would be a reader’s conference, we wanted a writer’s conference. So, with the blessing and support of Mystery Writers of America in 2006, I pitched Killer Nashville to my team, and we decided to do it. It’s been a wonderful experience. It’s given me the opportunity to meet and discover new writers, and we’ve built a wonderful community. Last year, COVID-19 broke my heart because we had to cancel the conference. A lot of conferences went virtual, but I sent out a poll, and the majority of people said it would just not be the same virtually, so we moved the conference date to this year, Aug 19-22, 2021.

IBPA Independent: Did you rethink the format or try to evolve things for this year?

CS: We run five sessions concurrently throughout the entire four days. The session topics change every year because the industry itself changes every year, and we try to stay on the forefront of it. There have also been changes in promotion, and some of them are here to stay because of COVID-19. COVID has been awful, but there have also been some wonderful things to come out of it. With Zoom, you can have conversations with people that you normally would not be able to have conversations with.

IBPA Independent: Do you find your writers at Killer Nashville?

CS: I packaged a book for Diversion Books called Killer Nashville Noir: Cold Blooded. It was a collection of stories from people at our conference. Some of our authors who we have published, were from the transom, and the one that won the Shamus Award was Richard Helms, who I knew previously through Mystery Writers of America. So, it varies. I’m looking at some other projects right now that are going to be completely outside of the Killer Nashville community, released within the same genre. There are so many good writers, and there are a lot of good writers at Killer Nashville, but if I limited my writers to that, I’d be missing out on other opportunities.

IBPA Independent: I understand you champion diversity at Killer Nashville and strive to amplify marginalized writers’ voices. Talk about that a bit.

From left: J.A. Konrath, Clay Stafford, Otto Penzler,
and Ellery Adams.

CS: Writers are vital to any society or civilization. They are the transmitter of thoughts. They are carriers of tradition. They are the people who are pushing the box. It is vitally important, and it has always been vitally important, that every single person be welcomed at Killer Nashville. I can’t remember the exact demographics, but we once had a trans author, a Christian author, an Indian author, and a white male author on a panel talking about character, and I thought, “This is gold. This is perfect.” We’re more alike than we are different. What makes us different is where we grow up and the perspectives that are handed to us in that environment. What I cannot reproduce is your perspective, so it is vital to be able to hear your voice. And the only way I can hear your voice is for you to write, and the only way for you to write is to be given an opportunity to do so. Many of our attendees are in isolation and have absolutely no clue how they are going to get their words out there, so we try to give them that avenue. Nothing makes me happier than when I hear someone say at the start of the conference, ‘I don’t know that I belong here. These are, like, real writers.’ I say, ‘No, you’re a real writer,’ and then later in the conference, when they come running down the stairway saying, ‘Clay, they want to see my manuscript!’ I think, ‘Good. Now that particular voice is heard.’ In 2006, I was at this stage in life where I said, ‘You know, what a wonderful life that I’ve been able to experience. Let’s let everybody else experience it, too.’ Lisa Jackson is an international bestselling romantic suspense author, and she was at the conference as our guest of honor and asked how she can sponsor people to come to Killer Nashville. She started a scholarship fund for people because she had been a single mom trying to raise kids with no support from anybody, and she had a dream of being an author. She felt that same sort of vision at Killer Nashville, so she started a scholarship fund. Chris Calvin also has scholarship, and Ellery Adams has a cozy scholarship for people who want to write cozies. We’ve been able to use that scholarship money, along with some other Killer Nashville scholarships, to allow people to come and mingle with those who can give them an opportunity that they may not have otherwise been able to find.

For information on scholarships, visit killernashville.com.

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