Sunday, November 27, 2011
Sara Sue Hoklotubbe: Review and Interview
Sara Sue Hoklotubbe, author of Deception on All Accounts and The American Cafe.
Sarah Hoklotubbe’s Cherokee Mystery Novels
Tony Hillerman about Deception on All Accounts: "A dandy mystery novel. Don’t miss it."
Sara Sue Hoklotubbe’s mystery novels, set in the Tahlequah region of northeastern Oklahoma, fall into the tradition of Tony Hillerman and Margaret Coel, whose books Sara admires. If you like their writing and learning about another native American tribe in the twenty-first century, the Eastern Cherokee, originally in the mountains of North Carolina, but forced to take the "Trail of Tears" to Oklahoma by Andrew Jackson in the early 1800s, you’ll enjoy Hoklotubbe’s books.
Deception on All Accounts came out from the University of Arizona Press in 2003 and is the story of Sadie Walela, who was a bank teller in the small town of Sycamore Springs. One morning she makes the decision to go into the bank alone, although it is against the rules, because no other employees have turned up, and she needs to open the vault and then open the bank on time. A robber had hidden inside and makes her give him a huge amount of cash from the vault, and then he kills another employee when that man disobeys the robber.
Not only do we have the mystery of who the robber was and how he can be identified and brought to justice, but we learn about Sadie’s life on her farm, with her beloved wolf-dog, Sonny, her horse, Joe, and her Uncle Eli and his wife, Mary, who live nearby and stand in for Sadie’s parents. Sadie, her aunt, and her uncle live on Indian land portioned to their family when Indian Territory became the state of Oklahoma.
Sadie not only goes through the trauma of the robbery but is suspected of colluding with the robber. Then she’s promoted at the bank. Her whole relationship to the bank management is confusing and depressing.
The plot moves quickly, and the book’s title is more than justified. I identified easily with Sadie and wanted to cheer as she worked her way through the various land mines on the path at the bank.
Tony Hillerman and Margaret Coel both lived close to and respected the tribal people they have written about, but Sara is Cherokee, and we learn much about their traditions and ways in present day Oklahoma.
Sadie returns in The American Café (2011, University of Arizona Press). Having inherited some money, she buys and opens a café that had once belonged to her great aunt. She keeps its original name, The American Café. Before she can get the café ready for customers, a Creek man named Red and some sawmill workers who come in regularly for their morning coffee present themselves. Their response to her telling them she’s not open yet is to offer to make coffee and then help themselves. Before they leave, a woman whom the men claim is looney comes in with a shotgun and threatens Sadie, calling the café a "godforsaken den of sin." The men help control her, and Sadie checks the shotgun–no bullets.
Then Sadie learns that Goldie Ray, the woman who had sold her the café, has been killed, and Sadie is pulled into unraveling the problem of who killed her.
I highly recommend Hoklotubbe’s series. I learned about it last April at the Malice Domestic Convention for mystery fans and authors, at the "Malice Go-Round" event, when new authors circulate, telling a roomful of people about their recently published mysteries, in a 90-second spiel.
I asked Sara to answer some questions about her writing. Thank you, Sara.
1. When did you begin writing? Why?
I started writing in 1997 when I got married, moved to a new state, and couldn’t find a job. With extra time on my hands, my husband encouraged me to do something I’d always wanted to do – write. I invested in a couple of writing courses at the local community college where I made contact with other writers and published my first newspaper articles. A few years later, I started on my first book.
2. When and why did you begin writing mysteries?
I didn’t set out to write a mystery, it just turned out that way. I wanted to write about the inequalities women suffer in the banking business, something I had personally experienced for over twenty-one years. However, as I began to write and the story unfolded, the characters took over and before I knew it I had a murder mystery on my hands.
I think Tony Hillerman inspired me to write mysteries. I could hardly wait for the release of his next book. I felt like I knew Chee and Leaphorn personally and loved learning about the Navajo and Hopi people. As a Cherokee citizen, I wanted to write about my people and set my books in the middle of the Cherokee Nation where I grew up, and I wanted to tell realistic stories void of the mythical stereotypes that show up all too often in books about American Indians. I believe reading books by authors such as Tony Hillerman and Margaret Coel have helped me do that.
3. Are you writing a series or a stand-alone? Explain your basic idea for your series.
I am currently working on the third book in the Sadie Walela Mystery Series. Sadie is a Cherokee woman who seems to always end up in the middle of a murder investigation. Her friend Lance Smith, also Cherokee, is a police officer who lends his expertise to solve the crime, while Sadie has a tendency to root out the reason the murder happened in the first place.
4. Tell us about your journey to publication with this book.
Soon after I finished the manuscript of my first book, Deception on All Accounts, I attended a gathering of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. As a novice writer, I had already had several unpleasant exchanges with agents and editors that had left me wondering why I had bothered to write anything. No one seemed to be interested in what I had written. At the awards banquet, I approached the winner of the Writer of the Year award and asked him how he had published the fiction book he had written about a small tribe in the southern United States. He gave me the name of his editor at the University of Arizona Press and suggested I send a query letter. He thought they might be interested in my work because it was about Native people. I sent the query and they asked for my manuscript. Six months later they offered me a contract.
Needless to say, I was ecstatic. They also published my second book, The American Café.
During this whole process, I discovered something very important – rejection doesn’t always mean your work is bad. While it is of utmost importance to submit quality work, it is of equal importance to make a connection with the right publisher. I like to think of it as two pieces of a puzzle that have to fit together correctly in order to make a complete picture. It is futile to submit to publishers who have no interest in what you write.
5. Why did you choose to write about the topic, community, issues you chose?
The first rule of beginning writing is to write about what you know. I write about the Cherokee people because that’s who I am. While my books are mysteries, I like to think they go deeper than that. When my readers turn the last page of my book, I want them to feel like they learned something about Cherokee life, about relationships, and hopefully about themselves.
Some of the issues I’ve written about are discrimination, pride, love, jealousy, family secrets, and veterans with post traumatic stress disorder. These are not Cherokee issues, these are people issues. Everyone should be able to relate to them.
6. How have you found it to be published? Share that experience.
It’s surreal. I don’t know if I will ever get used to opening a package that holds the advance copy of a book with my name on the front of it. When I scan the pages and see my words, I get emotional every time. I feel so unworthy. Writing is very hard work for me, but the reward of seeing my book in print is like a dream come true.
7. Do you have comments from readers or reviewers you’d like to share?
I continue to be amazed when I receive praise from readers who took the time to send notes to me through my publisher. It is extremely humbling and I have saved each and every one.
My favorite review for The American Café came from Margaret Coel. She wrote:
"An absorbing mystery that draws the reader into the rich history, culture and landscape of Cherokee Country. The American Café has all of the twists and turns expected in a first-rate mystery, but those are only part of its charm. A gifted storyteller, Sara Hoklotubbe writes of family, the fragile ties that bind people together and the links to the past that are always just below the surface of things. Compassionate and wonderful!"
Another great review came from Library Journal:
"Great characters and an authentic Native American setting make this second series title a good pick for Tony Hillerman fans."
8. What other books have you published and where, when?
The books I have published so far are: Deception on All Accounts, 2003, and The American Café, 2011, both published by the University of Arizona Press.
9. Do you have a work in progress now? Is it part of a series?
I am currently working on the third book in the Sadie Walela Mystery Series and my goal is to have it ready to submit by the end of the year.
10. If you belong to Sisters in Crime, and/or the Guppies, has that been helpful? How?
I have been a member of Sisters in Crime for several years and I especially appreciate the support and information they provide for both published and unpublished mystery writers. I enjoy their newsletters and blogs, and their research about the current state of the mystery publishing business is invaluable. I highly recommend membership.
11. What benefit to you has it been to go to mystery conferences like Malice Domestic?
Malice Domestic, Bouchercon, and Left Coast Crime are all great fan conventions. The formats are similar with an array of panels on every subject imaginable as it pertains to mysteries. I have served as a panelist at all three conventions and enjoyed meeting other authors and fans.
I participated in the "Malice Go Round" this year and it was great fun. We had to pitch our newly published book to potential readers in only a few minutes, one table at a time, in a banquet room full of tables. Each author handed out bookmarks, postcards, or something unique, hoping the listeners would keep it and then seek out their book. I was pleasantly surprised to hear from several people later who either bought my book or found it in a library as a result of my presentation. What a great way to meet new readers!
12. What else would like to say about your books, the next one in your series?
The working title for my current work-in-progress is Giggle Hill. It tells the story of Sadie’s neighbor, an elderly Cherokee man and WWII veteran named Buck Skinner, who disappears and is then accused of murder. Sadie’s attempt to prove Buck’s innocence uncovers more about her neighbor than she could ever imagine.