Sunday, May 27, 2012

Judy Turns Seventy-Five

Judy Hogan fall 2011


I am seventy-five today.  More importantly, I am healthy and feel in my prime.  I grow half my food (most of my fruit, vegetables, and I have eggs and occasionally chicken from my small flock).  I walk five or six days a week and do most of my own outdoor chores: weedeating, mowing, and as a small farmer, I use hoe, shovel, and rake to prepare the soil, plant, weed.  I harvest, preserve soups, stews, vegetables for the winter, freeze and can fruit, and make jam, preserves, and pickles.

I still work for a living: teaching, editing, and I sell figs, leeks, and eggs, an occasional loaf of bread.  I’m finishing up a ten-month self-declared sabbatical from teaching writing, in order to focus more on my own writing, though I did a backyard chicken workshop in April.  

I don’t travel much, but the end of April I attended the Malice Domestic mystery convention in Bethesda, drove there in my ’96 pickup and rode the Metro from my friends’ house (Sharon and John Ewing in Alexandria).  May 31-June 5 I’m visiting my elder daughter’s family to celebrate, my twin grandchildren's (Megan and Will) graduation from high school.  I took care of them when they were babies.

This summer in the spaces I’m writing my tenth mystery novel, Death of a Hell-Razor, the second novel to take place at fictional St. Francis College.  The first, Killer Frost, is coming out September 1, and I have a busy fall of bookstore and library readings scheduled, with a book launch at my Hoganvillaea Farm in Moncure on September 22, in the afternoon, the autumn equinox.  Everyone invited.  It’s pot-luck, bring your own drinks, and buy or pick up a book you’ve already paid for.

I’m at the autumn equinox of my life, too.  My body is still up to all that I ask of it, but I pay attention to its signals, rest more, break up my work stints, alternating garden chores and indoor writing and reading time.  I usually sleep well.

My body needs more consideration, and my daily walks are necessary for my knees, heart, circulation, digestion, as is my keeping active and engaged, physically, mentally, spiritually.  I have most of what I want in this life: good, stimulating work, people to love and be loved by, land to farm, care for, and enjoy. 

I love all the birds that flock to the feeder, the way the hens come running from the orchard when I open the back door, the small apples, pears, peaches swelling on the fruit trees; the blueberry bushes crowded with pale blue fruit.  The big green figs ripening slowly, the heavy rain, when it finally comes, to give all my growing things a good drenching, all the signs of my work and care over thirteen years of feeding the soil and eating its produce.

Some things I wish for I know now I probably won’t have in this autumn phase, and others I have to wait for. But, as so many elders tell me when I ask how they are: “I can’t complain.”  I have a very rich life.

The saddest part of staying healthy and aging well is losing people you love and value, sometimes much younger than you are, so three weeks ago, May 5, I lost Tuddy (Walter Hackney), one of my neighbors, whose life work or “calling” was helping people, though he never said so.  He liked to mow my lawn when I wasn’t home.  He wasn’t a talkative person, but he was so kind and good.  I wrote about him the day I learned he’d been killed.  This poem also catches the “place” I am right now, as I turn seventy-five.  Enjoy!

The Telling that Changes Everything XIX. May 6, 2012

I dreamt I was alone, at the beginning
and at the end.  I joined a big family group
that included young children, and they 
ordered me food–fries and a drink.  I knew
I couldn’t stay, but when I tried to leave
the restaurant, my arm was held fast.  I
had to pay first.  I couldn’t remember the
name of the people who had treated me,
and they had left the restaurant.  When
I asked help, someone told me they were
outside.  Someone else said, “They’re
with the Army, and the Army has a 
different system for paying.”  I still felt
lost and helpless when I woke up.  I
remember that I had my own goals, that my 
way was different from that of the big
family I’d been with.  Something in me,
though slowed, impeded, baffled, was
determined to reach my own goal.  It’s 
my life.  I’m part of many worlds, including 
that of my family and my children’s 
families, that of the writers I know and
love, including mystery writers.  My poems,
true stories, and novels go their own way,
speak their own truth, as do the doubts
that niggle at me when I’m tired.  The fears
I dream at night throw light into my
darkness, but I cope.  I replace the bulb
I can barely reach.  Two days ago I feared
I’d lose my balance and fall off the chair.
I scolded myself: “You can certainly
change a light bulb.  Learn how.”  I read
books where the author presents goodness
through a smokescreen of self-doubt, 
satire, and dismay.  That’s not my way.
Goodness suffers, but I know it wins 
in the end.  Emma calls to tell me Tuddy
was killed last night, hit by a car while
walking on 15-501.  Tuddy, who has
helped me quietly, as if he didn’t want
me to notice, these years I’ve lived here:
mowing the grass outside my fences, 
caring for my hens when Robert
got too sick, building me a clothesline
closer to my house.  Loving, giving
man, now gone.  One year he came 
over on Christmas day to give me a 
Christmas hug.  I gave him token
gifts, but I could never thank him
enough, and now he’s gone.  We all 
go.  I hope, when I’m gone, that some
trail of goodness is visible behind me,
some trace of my solitary quest for
the words that will release the truth
we all need and offer healing.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Interview: Eleanor Sullo's Menopause Mysteries

Eleanor S. Sullo


1.When did you begin writing?  Why?

I began writing and illustrating my own stories as a child. (I thought it was my job when Mom and Dad bought me a little, used desk to fit my 7-yr.-old frame.) Throughout school I wrote short stories  which met with approval from teachers, and knew then I wanted to write forever, if my stories made people happy, and they did. I didn’t start writing full time though until post menopausal days. Late bloomer, my sister says.

2.When and why did you begin writing mysteries?

I had written four romances and a memoir, and edited a cookbook before I realized mysteries were calling to me—about six years ago. Again it was a teacher’s inspiration, and the inspiration of a group of “older” women I’d met—the Red Hat Club—that got me going. These women were so smart and full of energy and creativity, I realized they could probably solve crimes. So I put six of them in my mysteries, and watched them shine.
3.Are you writing a series or a stand-alone?  Explain your basic idea for your series.

     Menopause Murders is the name of the six-book series, in which six friends, old and new, decide to get together to have fun and avoid the doldrums of older age but immediately are taken hostage and face dangers of every kind—before they solve the murder in their midst. Solving murders becomes a lifestyle for them, and each one stars in a different book, finds or restores romance in their lives, and is supported in outstanding ways by their cohorts—the Women on Fire.

4.Tell us about your journey to publication with this book.

      I tried marketing the series with New York publishers, using the title, Red Hat Homicides, but found the RH organization held strict licensing fees and no NY publisher would touch my books because of that. I had to change the title and the specifics particularly of the group to be “legal”, and so I returned to the small press publisher who had done my first book ever, an historical mystery-romance, Wings ePress. They were happy to oblige and are publishing the entire series. It’s a small, POD press, but they’ve got all my work out there both in paperback and digital, with great editing, and good people at every level, so I’m happy with them.

5.Why did you choose to write about the topic, community, issues you chose?

The issues I’ve dealt with are things that really matter to me, and become themes for the mysteries I’m working on. Things like the benefits of community and women’s friendships in particular, respect for the aging, romance for older women, and May-December relationships, where the woman is older. In general, my Women on Fire heroines show they’re far from settling in the old rocking chair, are brave and bright, and continue to start new exciting projects rather than wrap up old dreary ones in their lives.

6.How have you found it to be published?  Share that experience.

It’s very satisfying to be published, and I’ve found it really suits my personality to give talks, have book signings and do other PR work—not that I sell that many books, but each one is rewarding. I love the idea that I can work forever, God willing, at something I love. Though I love gardening, I’m starting to feel too many aches and pains for the more physical tasks, except for putting all those great fruits, meats and vegetables into pretty good fare. And I’m still the chief seed-starter in our extended gardening family, which I can do on my back porch in comfort.

7.Do you have comments from readers or reviewers you’d like to share? 

      I loved what this reviewer had to say at the conclusion of her review:

“This is a story full of love and laughter and hits a deep chord of truth as all the characters are easy to relate to. There is a depth of emotion without bogging the reader down. Overall, my favorite part of this story is the strong friendship elements, the affection (among the women) is almost palpable.” 
                                           (Venus, Reviewer for Coffee Time Romance & More)

8.What other books have you published and where, when?

Moonrakers, 2002, Wings ePress
The Emerald Eye, 2002, Trebleheart Books
A Year in Poughkeepsie, 2003, Trebleheart Books
Seasons of Love:A Journey of Faith, Family and Community (memoir), 2004, Paulist Press
 (under pseudonym, Eleanor Sampeck)
Too Damned Hot, 2010, Wild Rose Press
Menopause Murders:Hostage, Wings ePress, 2010
Menopause Murders:Harem, Wings ePress, 2010
Menopause Murders:Hurdles, Wings ePress, 2011
Menopause Murders:Hot Pursuit, Wings ePress, 2012
9.Do you have a work in progress now?  Is it part of a series?

Actually I just finished Hot Pursuit, which came out on May 1, 2012. The next work in progress is being outlined now and doesn’t have a full title yet.

10. If you belong to Sisters in Crime, and/or the Guppies, has that been helpful?  How?

       Since I started out in Romance, my affiliations have been with the Romance Writers of America, both the Connecticut and Charter Oak chapters. I also belong to CAPA, Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association. I hope to join a mystery writers’ organization soon.

11. What benefit to you has it been to go to mystery conferences like Malice Domestic?

           I have been to a writers’ conference of one sort or another every year since the late nineties. I have learned so much from them, and met so many helpful and inspiring people. Editors, agents, other writers and the speakers always tune me up and energize me for the writing road ahead!

12. What else would like to say about your books, the next one in your series?

         My current new release, Hot Pursuit, takes place mostly in Provence, a place my husband and I have visited often. It was a great fun to recreate Provence scenes, food, markets, and public officials and know I could back up each reference with on the ground research. It made dealing with the central crime and the villains, and the May-December romance so much easier. I felt like I was there, in the flesh, and I hope my readers will experience that reality as well.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Benefits of Chickweed

My hens outside their coop waiting for chickweed, their favorite food.


The Telling that Changes Everything V. January 1, 2012

My backyard is covered in chickweed.
Each time I check on the hens, I pull up
handfuls, clumps, sometimes by the roots,
but still the chickweed flourishes.  By
March it will be thick with long strands.
I make pesto from it and eat it on
vermicelli, but mainly I lavish it on
the hens, their feathers newly white,
their tails perky with vigor and health.
This home was once strange and too
new for me to get comfortable.
Thirteen summers have passed, and
every tree, rock, fence, and overwintering
herb is familiar.  Here is home for one
who moved house to house forty-two
times until she was sixty-one, and then
she stepped into this refurbished home
and made it hers.  A little dust in the
corners, cobwebs in the windows helps.
Even more, the paintings from Russian
friends, the photos, children’s drawings,
the poster of Finnish islands, the ancient
wood cookstove that takes hours
to put out enough heat for me to
unwrap myself from wool scarf, 
Mexican serape, Russian fur-lined
waistcoat.  The kitchen cabinets are
covered with photos and phrases I
like: “It’s more noble to grow one’s
own food than to be religious.”
“Healthy Living to a Hundred.”
More children’s drawings.  I sit in
my old writing chair, my feet 
on the comfy computer chair
ergonomically correct.  I look out
at the tops of the pines in full sun
now.  In the mornings, when I 
walk my dog, the leaves on the 
forest floor shine, and the holly
holds up candles.  Even in the dead 
season, the woods are alight.  The
succulent in the window is full 
of buds that will open red.  Lonely
I may sometimes be now that I’ve
slowed my life to a human pace,
but, as Gene says, “It’s inside the well
of loneliness that we are who we really 
are.”  He puts his visions into mosaic
walls; I, into words.  Debbie said I
lived in “a rich world of words...
They are in her head tumbling around
waiting for their chance to be put
to permanence.”  I don’t experience
any tumbling, but when I ask for them,
a spring opens on the forest floor, and
words flow out, slowly at first, then
in a steady stream, enough to water
my soul and refresh the spirits of those
who would drink.  To put it another
way: my mind is fertile, and in winter, 
when the grass dies, it grows chickweed,
enough to feed the hens and me, 
a green carpet undeterred by frost
or even being pulled up by handfuls.
It’s the little pot that never ran out
of porridge, the hen that kept laying
golden eggs as long as her keeper
wasn’t greedy.  Loneliness is a small
price to pay if you have that field of
chickweed in your own backyard,
and friends who comprehend that
art and loneliness are twin sisters.
To flourish, we allow the mind to
empty, the feelings to experience
hunger.  Then the words and the love 
rush in.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Malice Domestic Convention 24, April 27-29, 2012

Malice Academic Panel, Sunday morning, April 29.  
Audience members, Gloria Alden and Jenny Milchman


My third Malice was different from my first (2009) and second (2010). This time I knew more people I felt connected to, and I had a role for the first time: moderating the Academic Panel.  By the time of the convention, having read all their books and given them the opportunity to do a blog interview for me, I knew my panelists fairly well.  The panel itself, late Sunday morning, came off well.   Here are a few things they said:

“Colleges are hotbeds of crime.” (Linda Rodriguez)  “Give a power-hungry professor control over a classroom of students, and you can be sure he’ll take advantage of them.” (Camille Minichino/Ada Madison) “Those big empty buildings can be scary at night, and that’s when I’m usually there working.”  (Frankie Bailey) “I love teenagers.  They’re so honest.”  (Robert Spiller) “I wanted to write a book fun to read at the beach and have the murders and the tensions within the faculty be the subplot.”  (Debra Goldstein)


Photo of Linda, Robert, and me


Several people told me they liked our panel.  I was quite relieved when it was over, but it came as a rare opportunity because my own academic mystery, Killer Frost, won’t be out until September.  Here are some snippets of things other people said or I learned at Malice.  Dana Cameron, who writes archeological mysteries and was our Toastmaster, fell in love with Cleopatra at the age of eight.  Dana gives herself permission “to try new things.”  Her interviewer, Hank Phillipi Ryan, said that was “turning fear into freedom.”

Lee Goldberg, our Poirot award author, is now doing a lot of self-publishing.  He has put his out-of-print books on Amazon, as have other authors he knows, and Jan-April 2012 he earned $100,000.  He says New York publishers are no longer the gatekeeper.  “It’s like what happened to radio when TV came along.  The big publishers are stuck.”  He likes Amazon’s mind-set in relation to authors.  “Authors and readers win.  E-books are there forever.”

The Best Novel nominees told us what they have to know before they start a book.  Margaret Maron has to know the situation,, but she doesn’t have to know the victim, and the killer can change three-four times.  G.M. Malliet said she had to know how the murder was done.  Krista Davis said she has to know the killer to understand the murder.  Donna Andrews has to know the lines of conflict in the situation.  She tries several victims.  Krista commented later that “the difference between a writer and an author is perseverance.”  Louise Penny didn’t come.

During the Best Short Story panel, Daryl Wood Gerber (Avery Aames) pointed out that a short story has to have one final twist at the end, one burst of immediate emotion.  Other thoughts: because of its brevity, use dialogue to reveal inner feelings and to show where the action is going.  Have one incident, no subplot, and of the tripod of setting, character, and plot, you need only two legs for a short story. 

In the First Best Novel panel, Kaye George said she’d been working to get published for ten years.  Sara J. Henry, who won the Agatha for first novel, said that, after her book was published, her highs have been higher and her lows have been lower.  She especially appreciates it when readers tell her they’ve connected to the book.  When she won, she repeated this theme.  Janet Bolin, who had worried about giving readings, discovered she was a ham, and it was easy.  Kari Lee Townsend said it took her fourteen years to be published.  Rochelle Staab said “being published keeps me going.”  Advice offered was: “write every day” and “please yourself.”

I took sandwiches for me and Jenny Milchman, who does the “Made It Moment” blog, so we could hear Luci Zahray (the Poison Lady) talk about ethanol, methanol, isopropyl (rubbing alcohol), and antifreeze as poisons.  They’re all cheap and easy to obtain.  Several can be used instead of alcohol in a mixed drink and not be noticed.  The symptoms are easily confused with those of a drunk person.  Alcohol is the antidote to the others.  Methanol is used to clean carburetors and de-ice windshields.  At a certain point methanol, which could be served as a mixed drink, causes irreversible blindness.  In about twelve hours, you die, and it would be hard to know what you died of, unless someone got a whiff of formaldehyde, which is what methanol metastasises into.  

The homeless sometimes drink a little antifreeze, go to the hospital, and get alcohol as the antidote, food, clothes, a warm place to sleep.  If people leave antifreeze on the ground and dogs or children drink it (it tastes sweet), they die in aobut twelve hours, if given no alcohol.  I’m pretty sure that the dogs next door died that way.  If only we’d known they needed alcohol.

Only two authors were present for the Best Historical Novel panel.  Rhys Bowen, who won the Agatha, had fallen Thursday night and cracked her pelvis.  She sent word that, if it had to happen, she was glad to be with friends and have room service.  On Saturday she was flown back to California, and will need forty-six weeks of bed rest.  Jeri Westerson couldn’t come, and Jacqueline Winspeare didn’t.  

Ann Parker writes about a woman saloon owner in Leadville, Colorado, in 1879, a gold boom period.  J.J. Murphy sets his novels in New York City in the 1920s, with Dorothy Parker of the famous Writers’ Roundtable as his sleuth.  Why do people like to read about the past?  Because they can get closer to reality, away from the day-to-day routine, or to escape from present reality into the past, a new area of exploration.  One comment was: “Don’t let truth stand in the way of fiction.”

On the Mysteries as Modern Morality Plays, only Carolyn Hart came down strongly on the premise that, because people want goodness to prevail, they read mysteries.  R.J. Harlick’s sleuth gets involved because she sees injustice.  Nancy Cohen saw her sleuth’s issue more as one of personal, rather than societal, morality, e.g., searching for redemption.  Tracy Kiely thought that “what is justice” was a mystery question.  Margaret Maron thought the goal in her mysteries was justice alone.  She said that, in North Carolina, not long ago the argument that a victim “deserved killing” could be used in court.  She also said the traditional mystery appeals because of feelings.

A delightful hour Saturday afternoon gave us Barbara Mertz (Elizabeth Peters) being interrogated by her characters: Amelia Peabody (Joan Hess), Emerson (Parnell Hall), Ramses (Daniel Stashower), and a nameless character protesting that Barbara had abandoned some of her series, e.g., Vicky Bliss, also her historical romances as Barbara Michaels (Dorothy Cannell).  They ganged up on her with wit and humor about how she treated her characters, teased her unmercifully, and she was clearly delighted.  Peters got several standing ovations as well as the new Amelia award for contributions to the mystery community.  She was a founder of Malice.  I found her newest Peabody novel in my book bag, A River in the Sky.  What a treat to see and hear her.

Saturday night is the big banquet, and when we register, we can select a table at the banquet where we’d like to sit.  Most of the famous people’s tables are full, but I was happy to see that there was space at Sara Henry’s.  She was up for a First Best Mystery Agatha award, and I’d enjoyed her book and blogged about it (Learning to Swim) back on April 11.  I sat right next to her, and when she won, I had the presence of mind to get out my camera and take her picture with her new Agatha teapot.  

Sara J. Henry with teapot

The Tony Hillerman (Malice Remembers) slide show of the Southwest landscapes mentioned in his books, narrated by his daughter Ann and Don Strel was worth seeing.  Hillerman was encouraged toward English and writing away from chemistry, which he hated, by a teacher.  He was driving a truck in New Mexico and was allowed to attend a tribal ceremony, and so began his love affair with the Navajo.  An early agent urged him to “take out all the Indian stuff.”  Fortunately, he didn’t.

Simon Brett, in his interview by Parnell Hall, said several things worth pondering.  “People say the opposite of what they mean.”  “The concept of an amateur sleuth solving a crime is a huge leap of faith.  I know nothing about police procedure.  Don’t limit your options.”  Brett obviously writes what he enjoys writing.

We closed with the Agatha tea, and it was fun to sit with my friends from Guppy Press Quest, Kendel Flaum, Diane Vallere, and Anna Castle.  


Anna, Kendel, Diane, and me

My Alexandria friend, where I stay for Malice, Sharon Ewing, came Sunday, too.  She took the Sunday photos.  

PressQuest folks also met for supper Friday and chewed over their small press experiences.  


Gloria Alden and Barbara Emrys, nominated for a non-fiction Agatha--At the Guppy Lunch at Boogeymonger's, both Pressquesters, who were also at the Pressquest supper.


There were two opportunities to be with Guppies for lunch at a deli near the hotel named Boogeymonger, Friday and Saturday lunchtime.  I went Friday with two panel members.


Sasscer Hill and Sandy Parshall, both Guppies, were there.


 and Judy, Robert, and Debra.


A lot of brand new mystery writers were there at the convention.  Malice is great about including us newbies in their programming.  Next year I hope to do the New Author breakfast.