Writing is generally a solitary occupation and I'm probably happiest when I'm sitting at my kitchen table making up stories. But crime-writers and readers are wonderfully sociable people and I've made good friends all over the world. Bill and Toby Gottfried are readers, mystery experts and regulars at CrimeFest in Bristol. When I found out that they were helping to organize the Left Coast Crime Convention in Monterey, that was enough to convince me to sign up. My husband had never been to the west coast of the US so he decided to come along too and it was lovely to have him there as driver and admin support and someone with whom I could share the west coast experience.
Left Coast Crime felt very Californian to me - warm, friendly and relaxed. The hotel was just a few minutes walk from the famous Fisherman's Wharf (home to some noisy sea lions that kept us awake for the first night). I caught up with old friends and made a lot of new ones. We showed the pilot of SHETLAND and I was delighted by the response of the huge audience. We were in Monterey for a week and had allowed another fortnight for bookshop and library events. It turned out to be much harder than I'd expected to arrange gigs from half way around the world, so if you're a librarian in North California and you'd have welcomed a visit, I'm sorry! I'd have loved to meet your readers, but it didn't quite work out.
However, for a writer nothing is wasted and besides being an exciting road trip our exploration of Northern California has provided enough material for a whole anthology of short stories. It's the small details that stick and provide inspiration; of course the drive down the Big Sur, with its steep cliffs, was magnificent, but I remember the hitchhikers we picked up. Students, who might feature one day in a tale about boredom. In Pinnacles National Park we had bed and breakfast with John and Jan, who gave us wine from their own vineyards before dinner and free run of their estate. It's the light I remember there and the view as the sun went down,the fact that water had to be shipped up from the valley.
Near the Sequoia National Park we sat in a bar with the locals, looking out for American Dipper in the river that ran past the window, and discussed weather and the royal family. That was the place where the storm finally broke bringing relief to Californians who were desperate for rain. That night the roof of our motel room leaked (despite the owner having described the accommodation as 'top hole') and we listened to the splash of water in the waste-bin we'd put to catch the drips. In Sequoia we drove above the snow-line. shivered in a blizzard and saw the biggest and oldest tree in the world.
It seemed to me that California is a place of contrasts. Perhaps that's true of the US as a whole. The food is either wonderful or pretty dire. The best meal of the trip was cooked by our old friend Chaz Brenchley who lives now with his astounding wife Karen in Silicon Valley (and she's not astounding just because she took on Chaz...) but my husband developed a taste for truly awful doughnuts. We drove past houses in San Francisco worth millions of dollars and wandered around downtown Fresno which has the air of a ghost town with boarded up shops and empty pavements. It seems not even Starbuck's has made it there. My husband described Fresno as 'Sunderland but warmer and not so busy'. Yet even there we had joyful encounters - with the Japanese tea-blender who provided tea when we were desperate for a cuppa, and the guy at the bus stop who talked us through the intricacies of the Fresno public transport system.
Our trip ended in Berkeley where Janet Rudolph lives and where the sun came out big-style. In the US every reader and writer of crime fiction has heard of Janet. She's an enthusiast, an expert, a provider of support, a runner of groups and organizer of conventions. She invited me to speak at one of her literary salons and suggested the Claremont Hotel as the base for our stay. It's a white fairy-tale castle of a building with views right down to the Bay and across to San Francisco as far as the Golden Gate bridge. At the salon there was cake, wine and criminally good conversation. Our last day was spent as guests of Janet and her husband Frank and they gave us the insiders' tour of San Francisco, ending up where we'd started, right on the ocean. Their kindness and generosity sums up the hospitality we received from Californians throughout our trip.