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Psychological Thrillers and Domestic Suspense in the Pandemic Era: A Roundtable


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I’m back, and this time we have a power panel of psychological suspense writers: sisters Lynne and Valerie Constantine, whose high-toned suspense novels have a splash of Judith Krantz (collectively they’re known by the pen name Liv Constantine); debut novelist Susie Yang; the delightfully creepy Liz Nugent (to clarify: the books, not Liz, are delightfully creepy); rising star Samantha Downing; and the juggernaut Ruth Ware, who is just as funny and quick as you’d want her to be (remember this when you read about how Agatha Christie wrote 12 novels during WWII without mentioning war once).

I assembled the roundtable to talk about how we are going to talk about domestic suspense during a worldwide lockdown, but our conversation was much more freeform than that. In reading it over I see how talking about that thing which supposedly bonds us—reading and writing psychological thrillers—is a secondary matter. What happened was a bunch of smart, stressed, and isolated people had a conversation about what it’s like to live through a situation which was outside the realm of even these prodigious imaginations a little over a year ago.

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clockwise from top left: Susie Yang, Liz Nugent, Samantha Downing, Ruth Ware, Valerie Constantine, Lynne Constantine

You can find the authors’ most recent novels here:

Susie Yang: White Ivy

Liz Nugent: Little Cruelties

Samantha Downing: He Started It

Ruth Ware: One by One

Liv Constantine: The Wife Stalker

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The Case of the Country House Mystery in the Pandemic

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Lisa: So how has everyone been doing in the pandemic/lockdown? Oh, and quickly say where you are.

Samantha Downing: I may or may not feel bad saying that it’s 70 here in New Orleans….

Susie Yang: I am in Chicago but will be moving to Seattle soon. Just returned from the UK. Pandemic has been like one long Groundhog Day.

Ruth Ware: Ok I cannot add a photo so you’ll just have to imagine me basking in the Sussex sunshine.

Lisa: I find that on brand for you Ruth Ware

Liz Nugent: Sorry, hello, I’m in Dublin Ireland. We have been in full lockdown since Dec 26th. Finding it very hard to write during pandemic. Worried about everything. It seems endless. Our vaccine roll out is very slow.

Valerie Constantine: Ours isn’t great either. Moving into 2021 seemed like things would ease, but it’s the same thing!

Lisa: When I read One by One I thought you must have been psychic to write a country house mystery while the world was on lockdown Ruth Ware!

Ruth: I wish! It was so strange editing it while the world closed in…

Lisa: We had a brief summer respite but otherwise it’s coming up on a year of lockdown. Canada doesn’t play. (I’m American, we moved in summer 2019 from NYC to TO).

Lisa: Does the pandemic fuel your imaginations at all?

Susie: Only in terms of wanting to escape reality lol

Valerie: Not in a way that has anything to do with the pandemic.

Lisa: What do you mean Valerie?

Samantha: We have been in lockdown or semi-lockdown for the past year. I’ve been writing the whole time…but none of it has been good. I’ve thrown everything out that I’ve written over the past year. Well over 100k words.

Valerie: Actually, writing is an escape from the pandemic and the everyday sameness.

Lynne Constantine: Yes, it’s been a blessing

Valerie: The writing, not the pandemic

Lynne: Yes – the writing!

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“I feel like it’s hard to write about a world that I can’t partake in.”
—Liz Nugent

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Liz: It fuels my imagination in the wrong way. I feel like I’m on high alert all the time. My shoulders are so tense. I need a massage so badly, but I can’t have one because of you know what.

Ruth: At the very beginning when it was still this strange faraway thing, I actually considered writing a pandemic novel. I wanted to set it in a hotel where some journalists had been trapped by closing borders and were being forcibly quarantined—it was loosely inspired by an episode of the Wall Street Journal podcast which described some journalists in exactly that nightmare. But then it got too close to home for me to write about. I find I need some distance from events to make sense of them in fiction.

Lynne: I have nightmares of being out where people are maskless.

Ruth: I mean that was back in January or February—by March I had abandoned the idea completely!

Liz: I feel like it’s hard to write about a world that I can’t partake in.

Lisa: I wonder if it will resurface later, Ruth

Valerie: I do wonder if our world is going to change to such an extent that future stories will be impacted by that change.

Ruth: Lisa I’m sure it will. But probably in a weird, sideways way.

Lisa: I think it has to, Valerie. I saw a TV show with people casually hugging and it flipped me out.

Valerie: We’ll all have to write historical fiction.

Samantha Downing: Same Lisa

Susie: For my current WIP, I sort of had to shift time back a year because I wanted to avoid writing about 2020.

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“What will people want by 2022 or 2023? What will the world look like? Will we still be clinging onto our masks or will we all be carefree and trying to forget what we went through?”
—Ruth Ware

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Lisa: Handmaid’s Tale style fiction, ahistorical and scary

Lynne: I had a long discussion with my son (20) about why handshakes need to stay gone—he doesn’t agree.

Valerie: and hugs

Lynne: A world without hugs NO

Ruth: I think part of the problem is that it’s very hard to figure out right now what audiences will want or need by the time our novels come out. Publishing timelines being what they are, anything written now won’t see the light of day until 2022 or 2023 at the earliest. What will people want by then? What will the world look like? Will we still be clinging onto our masks or will we all be carefree and trying to forget what we went through?

Valerie: Absolutely. It’s a dilemma.

Samantha: I feel like no one will want to read about this time right away because we’ve all been through it. In 20 or 30 years, people who didn’t go through it or were too young to remember may want to read about it.

Susie: Lynne one of the funniest tweets I’ve read was how the old Chinese tradition of kowtowing should be brought back.

Lynne: Susie I totally agree!

Valerie: I like that idea.

Ruth: Samantha maybe people will become obsessed with the period the way they are about WW2. If you read novels written at the time, it’s often barely mentioned. Agatha Christie wrote 12 novels during WW2 and she doesn’t mention the war in any of them. Now of course we can’t get enough of it as a background for drama.

Lisa: I think people are going to rearrange their lives in ways that conflict with traditional structures of institutional power.

Lynne: And hopefully less wasted time. I looked through my calendar before this started and there was a lot of meaningless activity and busyness.

Valerie: That’s interesting. My son and his family have built a house in Colorado that’s off the grid – solar power, generators, etc., and he says it feels like they’re unaffected by what’s going on.

Samantha: I think this pandemic has accelerated what already started – more people working from home, even more people ordering online. My own mom never ordered supplies online until the pandemic, and now she orders everything.

Lisa: Certain historical backdrops are perpetually interesting—the CIvil War, WW2 especially around 1945, the 1920s.

Ruth: It’s interesting, I think it could go two ways. Here we’re seeing an exodus from the cities partly because people are finally no longer tied to their desks. But I wonder if when this is all over, we’ll be desperate for bright lights and company and busy bars. Maybe people will go flooding back?

Lynne: Also wonder about college in the future in this country—it’s so expensive—many may opt for distance learning in the future.

Valerie: For us it’s one thing, but what about the kids growing up now. How will they be affected?

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“We can’t get enough of WW2 because we weren’t there! I think it will be the same with this.”
—Samantha Downing

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Liz: I’m not sure that readers will want to read about pandemic while it’s still going on. And I’m reading a book at the moment set in France during the occupation in WW2, seeing all kinds of parallels. When will this be over? Will it ever end? What will the world be like afterwards? How many of my loved ones will survive? And I know it’s a crazy analogy.

Samantha: I agree Ruth—we can’t get enough of WW2 because we weren’t there! I think it will be the same with this.

Lisa: I think people will recognize they don’t have to live in expensive cities to derive the benefits of them.

Valerie: Yes!

Lisa: What does this mean for domestic suspense as a genre? Both domestic and suspense are terms in flux now.

Ruth Ware: I know I can’t wait to go to the theatre and see friends and attend live events. I’ve seen so many tweets and posts saying, “Will live bookshop events ever come back now we have Zoom?” and while I hope Zoom events stay in some form, because they’re so good at widening access, I think it underestimates how many people are desperate to sit shoulder to shoulder in a real live bookshop again and get a real signature from a real person.

Valerie: And it’s so much more enjoyable to be able to connect in person with readers!

Liz: I think it will definitely be an altered world afterwards. Far less foreign travel. Way more working from home. Greater appreciation of teachers and healthcare workers.

Lynne: Lisa Domestic suspense typically has a smaller world so much of it, I think, can remain the same.

Lisa: I love your optimism, Liz.

Samantha: As far as live music, it will definitely be back in New Orleans. Our city lives on it. We already have “Porch concerts” where live music is played outdoors.

Liz: I’m grasping at straws here!

Lisa: So you think people will write domestic suspense in a world where none of this happened, Lynne?

Susie: I still have yet to do a single in person event so don’t even know what that’s like. 

Liz: I did one live event in 2020 and cancelled 21.

Lynne: Lisa I think for the time being, mostly. Even the shows now are not really addressing except for THIS IS US, and GREY’S ANATOMY. I really didn’t enjoy watching it. It was too much. I wanted an escape.

Lisa: Samantha they were doing porch concerts here too.

Lynne: I’m saying all this on the assumption that things will continue to improve – I hope.

Samantha: I had a live tour for the paperback of My Lovely Wife at the beginning of March! As soon as I got home, we were in quarantine. Weird time in the US.

Liz: We’re not even allowed to have outdoor gatherings here, so no porch concerts for us.

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“I don’t think you can keep people from being human and wanting to connect with each other. That’s a good thing.”
—Valerie Constantine

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Lisa: Lynne I think the type of TV that’s been popular in the pandemic is going to be the way we think about cultural consumption—Queens Gambit, Bridgerton, Indian Matchmaker, Schitt’s Creek.

Lynne: Lisa Good point. I still gravitate to all the psychological thrillers and series out there – but I always have enjoyed the darker themes – big surprise.

Samantha: I agree Lisa. Anyone who wasn’t binge-watching TV before is definitely doing it now. And it’s an escape.

Lisa: And I a hardcore TV watcher have done less and less. I’m too fidgety.

Lynne: Lisa I watch a ton as well.

Valerie: When it started last year and we began wearing masks, people would avoid looking at you in stores. It was like an invisible wall where no one wanted to even acknowledge another person. So strange. Now, there are see-through masks so that you can see someone’s expression or ones with a smile inked on them. I don’t think you can keep people from being human and wanting to connect with each other. That’s a good thing.

Liz: Schitt’s Creek saved me during the first lockdown. Call My Agent is getting me through this one.

Ruth: I find the printed smiles so spooky! It’s so performative – the person could be glaring daggers at you.  It’s somehow much more scary than someone just frowning!

Lynne: Valerie true – you can definitely see the smile. And on a positive note – much less flu and colds this year!

Lisa: I agree, Valerie. But I think there is going to be an undercurrent of fear around casual social encounters which could be very troubling.

Susie: Valerie yeah, I regularly wore masks for pollution purposes in Asia. I can attest to this. People get used to masks.

Ruth: I think that would be a great image for a suspense novel: someone wearing a mask with a smile to hide what’s underneath.

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“How’s this for a quarantine domestic suspense: How do two lovers continue their extramarital affair on lockdown?”
—Lynne Constantine

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Samantha: For domestic suspense, I think it always has been and will continue to be an escape. A way for people to wonder about what’s happening behind all those closed doors (and find families more dysfunctional than their own!).

Lisa: More dysfunctional than families in the pandemic?

Lynne: How’s this for a quarantine domestic suspense – how do 2 lovers continue their affair on lockdown?

Lisa: That is a question people are living, Lynne.

Valerie: When they’re both married to someone else

Lisa: Or how do people start dating, and what is dating anyway?

Lynne: Lisa I think about that, how it’s impacting marriages. It could be saving some marriages.

Lisa: And dooming others! We are headed for a divorce wave and a baby boom.

Samantha: Personally, as a domestic suspense writer, I wonder how many bodies are buried in backyards during this time.

Ruth: There must be some fascinating dilemmas being lived out on that scale already. Like, what if you get contacted by Track and Trace over a suspected case. Do you fess up to your extramarital affair, or endanger a whole load of people by lying?

Liz: I’m reading way more now. To escape. But I’m reading every genre. And a lot of books that are set in foreign parts since I can’t visit them.

Lynne: Samantha Of course you are! xo

Lisa: And how many COVID coverup murders are out there…

Lynne: Lisa Definitely

Liz: I think incidents of domestic violence have skyrocketed during this time.

Samantha: Good point Ruth! I’ve seen examples here where people have refused to comply with tracers. They don’t answer the phone

Samantha: Absolutely Liz – domestic abuse and child abuse

Lynne: That’s so heartbreaking

Lynne: I really worry about the children whose only escape was school

Lisa: YES the domestic and child abuse numbers must be dire.

Liz: Lynne Same.

Ruth: It’s bad enough being locked down with people you love. I can’t imagine the special hell of being locked down with someone you’re afraid of. One of the first things I did when we went into lockdown last year was make a donation to Refuge (our charity for people fleeing domestic abuse).

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“People with disabilities of all sorts or people who suffer from social anxiety can now attend online festivals. I have found readers all over the world that I would not have reached otherwise. That’s a good thing.”
—Liz Nugent

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Lisa: Well, that is another way this could produce some great domestic suspense. We are seeing into other people’s lives now in a very intense way.

Liz: And what an opportunity this is for gaslighting.

Lisa: YES let’s talk gaslighting. We are ALL being gaslighted on a governmental scale,

Lynne: And media

Valerie: and SOCIAL media

Ruth: It’s funny because in some ways we’re more cut off from each other than ever before, but in other ways we’re more connected. I don’t know about anyone else, but the immediate reaction in our neighbourhood was for everyone to establish WhatsApp groups to organise shopping and so on. The endless message chains have become a totally fascinating window into the lives of people I never really knew before all this started.

Lisa: Social media has definitely changed. People reveal even more…

Samantha: I’ve found I know my neighbors a lot better now…we talk to each other across the balconies!

Liz: Lisa YES! Mixed messaging. Blame your neighbors instead of monumental mistakes by governments. How do you type so fast Ruth Ware?

Lynne: Ruth That’s so nice. I’m in a beach neighborhood and we’re all Facebook friends so it’s similar. We can also just open our front doors and shout to each other!

Ruth: Ours has been quite tame, but I’ve heard some absolute horror stories of people virtually coming to blows over the neighbourhood WhatsApp group. I think there’s definitely a novel to be had out of that!

Lisa: That reminds me of Louise Candlish’s book Our House.

Lynne: Peyton Place in the time of Covid

Samantha: I was never on social media before being published. For me, it’s only about the “author life” or books or pop culture….rarely do I post anything personal. That’s for private channels with family.

Susie: I’m not much on social media or in contact with neighbors, but I have been FaceTiming with friends and family regularly when I used to only text. We’ll all open Google Hangouts and play board games or card times together as a social event to keep from going crazy.

Lisa: Lynne There’s your best seller

Lynne: Lisa I’d better write it down!!

Lynne: I do a mix  – my dogs, a few beach pics etc. But I’ve seen some authors put VERY personal stuff out there – I don’t. But it’s interesting to see what others are comfortable sharing.

Susie: Surprisingly I also browse social media less. I think there’s too much noise and screen time already.

Liz: One benefit for readers is that people with disabilities of all sorts or people who suffer from social anxiety can now attend online festivals. I have found readers all over the world that I would not have reached otherwise. That’s a good thing. And I think festivals won’t altogether jettison the online part when they come back.

Ruth: How do people feel about Zoom? Personally, it’s made me paranoid about my appearance in a way I never was before all this started. I never used to wear makeup, now I slather it on as soon as the laptop camera goes on!

Lisa: What are some of the elements of COVID-era life you think we’ll see in CF?

Susie Yang: haha I’m the opposite Ruth. I used to wear makeup every day. Now if I put in my contacts, that’s me trying.

Lynne: Ruth I like Zoom but I try to schedule on the same day for the same reason – having to put on makeup! You know you can also choose a filter to polish your appearance. I forget what it’s called.

Valerie: I absolutely dread Zoom appearances for the same reason. And all of the zoom videos of how to do the right lighting so that you don’t look like a zombie, and what to do with you makeup. Stressful!

Ruth: Lisa I think lots of the themes of covid-era life are ones we’re already exploring in crime fiction. The idea that small actions can have horrific consequences. The way that we’re all interconnected and our actions can ripple out through the community. The idea of personal responsibility vs personal freedom.

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“Zoom has made me self-conscious because you are seeing yourself all the time. I’ve realized that I have a resting bitch face so have to consciously smile on screen all the time.”
—Liz Nugent

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Samantha: I think bookstores and book events will end up being a combination of both in-person and online. It’s impossible to travel to all places, so online is a wonderful way to reach people you otherwise wouldn’t.

Susie: i enjoy seeing people really casual in their homes on zoom. It feels like we’re all just trying to keep going.

Lisa: That’s interesting, Ruth. You are more self-conscious on Zoom than in real life?

Ruth: WAY more self-conscious. I think it’s because I can see myself all the time. I get fixated by the way my hair looks odd in a way that I wouldn’t even notice in real life.

Lynne: I agree

Valerie: I read that people were zooming in to see what books were on your bookshelf on zoom events.

Lynne: Samantha Since a lot of bookstore appearances have more to do with connecting with the booksellers than with pulling a huge audience. I think we will see a lot more virtual events because they’re much more cost-effective and anyone can join.

Samantha: Yes Valerie

Ruth: All of my [books] are my own because my zoom background is the bookshelf where I keep all my author copies. What does that say about me!?

Liz: I’m like Ruth. Never wear makeup at home but Zoom has made me self-conscious because you are seeing yourself all the time. I’ve realized that I have a resting bitch face so have to consciously smile on screen all the time.

Valerie: I love the resting bitch face Liz.

Liz: Valerie I don’t! Ha ha!

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“My noise canceling headphones are the MVP of COVID.”
—Susie Yang

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Ruth: I’m curious to know how other people are tackling COVID in their novels. Are you acknowledging it? Or setting the books in a pre/post COVID era?

Valerie: We are pre-COVID.

Lisa: Ruth raises a good question: What is our personal responsibility in terms of COVID?

Lynne: We’ve not incorporated it at all. We have a book coming out in July that was written pre-COVID and the one we’re doing now does not take it into consideration.

Samantha: Ruth – for my book coming out this summer, I actually had a line in it that referenced “ebola” because someone got sick. We changed it to COVID. That’s the only mention of it in the book. Presumably, it takes place in the post-vaccination world.

Lynne: There may have to be an author’s note in all our novels acknowledging that we’re not acknowledging it.

Susie: I like that idea haha

Lisa: I think there will be lots of books without it, but I wonder what the appetite will be for—yes pandemic, no pandemic.

Susie: I cannot imagine trying to write about it anytime soon until I get any sort of perspective.

Lynne: I think it’s too close right now.

Susie: nor do I want to read about COVID, so no appetite here

Samantha: The book I’m writing now won’t be out until 2022, and I’m not planning to mention it at this time.

Liz: The thing I miss about IRL festivals is meeting other writers and engaging with readers, and of course those book signings. But mostly the camaraderie of other writers. It’s often been said that CF writers are a lot more collegial than other genres because we let our darkness out on the page.

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“I look forward to when everyone is vaccinated and we stop hearing about COVID deaths. I would like to focus on fictional death!”
—Samantha Downing

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Ruth: I wrote a scene in a bookshop yesterday and it made me so nostalgic. I haven’t been in a real bookshop in months. Buying online is just not the same!

Lynne: We’re lucky here – bookshops are open.

Lisa: I miss bookshops and bars.

Susie: I miss working in cafes the most.

Liz: I won’t be writing about Covid in my WIP – out in 2022.

Ruth: I don’t want to write ABOUT COVID exactly, but I am sort of wondering if I should add in “her mask” alongside “picked up her coat and scarf” type thing. I haven’t at the moment. It’s set in a sort of nebulous non-COVID time that could be pre or post or just alternative.

Samantha: Agreed. I miss hanging out in coffee shops with my writer’s group friends.

Liz: I miss the library as an alternative place to work.

Valerie: I would love to go to a coffee shop with my laptop and write!

Lynne: I miss in-person book club.

Valerie: I do too. Zoom is not cutting it for book club!

Lynne: And I miss writing in-person with my sister!!!

Susie: My husband also works from home and takes lots of calls. My noise canceling headphones are the MVP of COVID.

Lisa: Let’s start wrapping up. What do you most look forward to in the post-COVID world?

Liz: The devastation has been very traumatic for a lot of people. I don’t see publishers actively seeking out pandemic books at the moment.

Samantha: I have to say one positive that has come from COVID is all the book clubs that now meet online. I have attended book club meetings all over the country!

Lynne: I look forward to seeing my siblings, hanging out with them, hugging them. Going out to dinner. Traveling.

Valerie: So many things. See my kids who are out of state, hanging with Lynne who I have seen in forever, seeing my other siblings, going out to dinner, not wearing a mask. I could on and on and on.

Susie Yang: I look most forward to traveling to see my family and friends, and just travel in general.

Samantha: I most look forward to the point when everyone is vaccinated and we stop hearing about COVID deaths. I would like to focus on fictional death!

Liz: Lisa Book festivals, travel, meeting friends for dinner in restaurants.

Lynne: And Thrillerfest in New York

Susie: like remember vacations lol

Samantha: And travel. It’s been over 15 years since I’ve gone this long without traveling.

Valerie: Yes, travel!!!

Ruth: Lisa I miss too many things to list! Right now I would just love to go to a hotel by myself and sit in a bar and people watch with a cold glass of chablis, and then go up to my room and write 5000 words without being disturbed. But of course I also want to hug grandparents and meet readers and browse in a bookshop… so many things. I even found myself missing sitting with a book in an airport lounge with my headphones in, which is not a thing I thought I would EVER miss in my entire life before.

Liz: Sun drenched beaches!

Valerie: Greece

Lynne: Yes, Greece

Susie: Tokyo Olympics! They feel so mythical at this point

Lisa: On that note, may we all meet someday in a land of sun-drenched beaches and no masks.

Lynne: Sounds great!

Valerie: Love it!

Samantha: I hope so!

Lynne: So nice chatting with you all! Stay safe and well!

Valerie: Thank you!

Ruth Ware: I also can’t wait to have the house to myself again. I find it really hard to write with other people around, and much as I love my family, they take up a lot of SPACE. I just want to prowl around from room to room thinking about my characters with nobody asking for a snack or complaining about the WIFI cutting out on a work Zoom call.

Liz: I don’t miss airports. I wish they’d hurry up and invent that transponder thing they had in Star Trek in the 60s. What’s taking them so long? Though I do miss airport bookstore sales!

Lynne: Thanks, Lisa!

Ruth: Loved chatting with you all – may we meet again in real life some day!

Samantha: Thanks everyone! It was wonderful to have this chat

Liz: Thanks so much Lisa. Lovely to chat with everyone. Hope we can do it IRL with a cocktail sometime!

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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