Sunday, March 31, 2013


Judy holding a hen, winter orchard, 2010.



Every once in awhile in my life, I have arrived at a no-choice moment.  I do literally have a choice.  But, given who I am and what I care about, it feels like a “no-choice” time.  Twenty years ago my oldest daughter called to let me know she was having twins.  I had not planned on being a babysitting grandmother, but she needed me, and I went to help her for a year.  

I’ve never regretted it.  Most precious to me over my lifetime has been my writing time.  Taking care of two babies almost all the time, since my daughter had a very demanding job, didn’t leave much writing time, but as my Russian teacher told me, “It will be good for your soul, more even than for them.”  So it was.  The close bond I still have with these twins holds, despite distance and gaps of years when we don’t see each other.  As I rocked babies, I realized a veil I had had between me and my writing fell away, another gift.

A few weeks ago another no-choice moment came.  A new internet friend had sent me some Chinese proverbs translated by her mother.  I especially liked: “Under Heaven nothing is impossible as long as you have a human being with a heart.” 

I sent this to a few politicians.  Then it hit me.  I have a heart.  This proverb was for me, first.  My biggest worry right now is the drive in our North Carolina Legislature to frack the Triassic Basin for natural gas, and this is where I live, less than a mile from the Deep River, along which the shale is found, under which lies the gas.  

Seven years ago, after working on environmental and local political issues and elections since I moved here in late 1998, I pulled back from activism to attend better to my writing and publishing, and I now have three new books o show for it.  I worked out a healthy lifestyle for a woman in her seventies: some teaching and editing work, farming, no meetings and less social life.  I wanted time.  I did my token letters, calls, telling people what I thought, working on Election Day.  

By 2012 I knew I personally was in danger from fracking.  I also knew I could communicate well on the issues. I had written a novel that took up fracking, but it might be years before it could be published.  Then it hit me that I could be the person in the proverb.  No proof.  It was–is–a faith that I could make a difference.  I wrote to the Lee County “Stand Your Ground” organization working against fracking, and within hours got an email from a woman working hard there who said she could give me signs if I’d meet her half-way, which I did.  

With twelve signs, my new phase of activism began.  Now, besides speaking to my precinct group and sharing a list of reasons why I oppose fracking [See my post for March 17, 2013], and getting those signs up, mostly on my own road, the main one between Pittsboro and Moncure, I began taking two weekend hours to canvass my neighbors.  It’s planting season, but even on a good planting day, I’m giving those hours.

I’ve been surprised at how receptive my neighbors are.  I’ve spoken now to twenty of them, and they have all signed my petition.  I have eight requests for signs and I’m waiting for one of the many organizations working this issue to get me signs.  When I moved to this little house on three acres in Moncure in late 1998, I knew no one.  Most of my neighbors are African American, and they have been so good to me.  We’ve helped each other, but they’ve done more.  As I went house to house, I discovered that even the ones I hadn’t met knew about me.  Everyone I talked to signed the petition.  Most did not yet know about the dangers fracking posed for us.  

There were young men and women I had never met.  They were all polite and interested, thanked me for letting them know.  The elderly especially touched me.  Two old men, with their front doors open and the storm door unlocked, called for me to come in.  Mr. L. said, “I know you.”  He sat on his couch amid possessions he was trying to organize as his house is for sale.  I asked if he’d been over to my neighbor’s house, where men of all ages gather to talk and drink beer, as I thought I might have seen him there.  He said, “Not lately.  I saw you at the Collection Center.”  

Then I remembered that he had been on duty the day I took 300 copies of one of my out-of-print books to recycle, to make more room in my small house.  He was upset that I was throwing away books.  He asked for one and took several.  Yesterday he told me he had read and enjoyed it.  In the book I talked about the gift-giving circle, the idea that we can’t always give as much as we’d like to people who give to us, but we can give to someone else.  He nodded.  He liked that.

I said, “This community has been that for me, giving to me.”  After we talked, it became clearer to me that I was continuing the gift-giving circle within my neighborhood by alerting people and gathering signatures about the dangers of fracking.

The other old man, Mr. P., was recently home and still recovering from a leg amputation.  I met him before I moved into this house.  A friend and I were painting.  He came to the door, and I invited him to come in.  He was perhaps a little drunk but friendly.  The house had never been finished, and the shell sat empty for sixteen years.  A contractor had finished the inside.  I’d had another gift from an architect–a design to keep it as open as possible.  Yesterday Mr. P. and I chatted a little.  I told him about the fracking, and he told me about his recent problems with his leg, and how he was learning to use a walker.  He signed my petition and would give my flyer to his sister, with whom he was staying.  I remember that, after he left back in 1998, my friend was worried that I was moving into a dangerous neighborhood.  I had laughed off her concerns.  Dangerous?  It has been the safest place I’ve ever lived.

My last call was on a woman who used to be one of our precinct poll workers.  She is retired now, but she chooses to stay home most of the time to be there for her aging father.  We sat on her porch and chatted.  She knew about the fracking and was very worried.  I was tired after my walk and in no hurry to get up.  I’d done my two hours.  She wanted a sign.  She and I haven’t ever talked that much, but we were at ease, like old friends.  When I got up, she commented, “You’re getting your exercise.”

I agreed.  I was getting far more than that.  I, who had been an unknown quantity in this neighborhood in 1998, was now a part of it, known, respected, appreciated.  She reminisced about how the Moncure folks, when fighting off a landfill about twelve years ago, had gone to the Commissioners’ meeting, three hundred strong, and stood around the walls and how the Board of Commissioners, as soon as they could get our attention, said, “We aren’t going to have a landfill.”

I’d been home an hour when I found an email from a couple whose home is closer than mine is to the Deep River, up on a bluff near it, where I’d taped a flyer with my name and email to their door.  She knew about the fracking, which she called “outrageous.”  She wanted signs and bumper stickers.  She also immediately wrote to all the addresses I had on the flyer: the Governor, our Commissioners, the Compulsory Pooling Study Group under the Mining and Energy Commission, which is making rules for fracking, those rules, from all I can learn, that the gas and oil companies don’t obey, and they certainly can’t follow environmental protections carefully, given that their process involves millions of gallons of chemically dangerous water and drilling close to the water table, using water we need to live and to grow food.  

What can one person do?  Everyone has to answer that for himself or herself.  Even my six hours a week are having an effect, I see, but my soul is also receiving great gifts.  No wonder my soul insisted I had no choice.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

When We Feel Overwhelmed by Our Problems

Two springs ago, leeks and onions, which I'm planting now.  Below is an excerpt from my non-fiction book, Pushkin and Chickens, about my farm and my life in Moncure, written in 2004.

I wanted to create an island of sanity and love.  Actually I wanted to change the world so that we earth-dwellers did not destroy our planetary village out of carelessness or hatred for each other.  The place to begin, I decided, was with myself and my home here in Moncure, with what I could do, the love I could show, the work of my hands and my shovel, my ingenuity for solving problems like the disintegrating burn barrels in my backyard, where the neighbors had burned their trash before I moved in.  I had tried to get them moved or removed.  Finally, I started pulling their burned trash out, only to have the barrels collapse.  I asked my neighbor to take them to the recycle center, but he couldn’t seem to get around to it.  Finally, his son-in-law did it, and I planted flowers there.

There is always a problem and always a solution, no matter how elusive, how tantalizingly out of reach.  I never like the problems, but looking back, I see that what I have now is the natural consequence of the problems I have had.  My life is woven from the solutions I discovered or invented.  The fabric that holds my world in place and me in it is anchored by people who have helped me or whom I have helped, or both.

I hate the dark times when I can’t see, when I hurt and the problem feels huge and blinds me, seems to take away all my usual resilience and confidence.  Then something nibbles at the darkness, and Light enters as if It were determined not to be kept out, as if Light and I were partners in a very old human struggle, and no sooner did I feel bogged down and stuck in a dismal, grim place, than Light began to find the cracks I had not noticed and to enter.

Even a little gleam of light will overthrow a big darkness, and I know that another transformation has begun.  Maybe that is my main gift: transformation.  It isn’t recognized.  Men conquer.  Woman transform.  Most women don’t understand this.  I do, but I forget every time things go dark.  Which comes first: the Light returning or my remembering that such dark times are always part of transformation?  I don’t know.  For years–thirty at least–I’ve loved the idea of “eating darkness to make light.”  What does it mean?  Is that what happens?  That, when I feel overwhelmed by the problem, something in me begins to work on it, a piece at a time?  

Is this related to the many myths in which people were cut up and put in a boiling pot and came out of it whole, better than new?  I think so.  We feel divided from our usual confidence, hope, good judgment, intuition.  We feel the opposite of resilient.  We feel under instead of on top of.  Our usual sense of our resources deserts us.  We don’t want that which we are learning to be true, and we feel without any way to stop things from going from bad to worse.  Separated from our true selves, we feel anxious, alone, powerless.

Then that little gleam:  I can’t do everything, but I can do something, even if that something is merely hanging on, watching for openings.  They come sometimes when we least expect them.

To live creatively then and closely aligned with the principle of transformation is to live unswallowed by the darkness and in tension with it, alert for openings where Light may enter us or leave us in order to enter others.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Why I Oppose Fracking

My forsythia in full bloom outside my house in Moncure


My number one priority in these aging years (I’m seventy-five) is to write, revise, and publish more books.  I also want to be a good human being and compassionate to others.  I am a self-actualizing woman.  I’m also aging well.  I keep my knees and feet going, and now I’m working on better balance.  I stopped eating sugar to slow down my osteoarthritis.  I eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, more when the garden and orchard are producing.  I get enough sleep, walk six days a week, eat mainly organic food, most of which I’ve grown.  I now have organically fed hens.  I also keep my body going by farming work–shoveling, hoeing, planting, stretching to pick figs, re-doing the hens’ flexible fence, which is a gymnastic work-out.  I do lower back exercises, and now standing-on-one-foot balance exercises.  

I benefit both from the work of growing my food and eating it–fresh and organic.  I have creatures to care for–hens, cat, dog, and I feed the birds.  I love the changing seasons here in central North Carolina, though with new climate unpredictability, it’s harder than once to gauge when to plant and how to manage sudden extremes of heat and cold.  I’ve put in drip irrigation to help with droughts, more frequent now.

In the cold months, I use a chainsaw to cut my wood the size I need for my old wood cookstove.  Generous friends provide firewood and splitting, but sometimes I drag small dead trees out of my woods.  I find and cut up lightwood, the hard cores left of dead pine and cedar after the softer wood has rotted.  Many people help me, and I thank them by sharing my home grown food and homemade bread and jams.  My computer work, writing, and reading mental work is balanced by my physical farming work.

To be outside is to feel the sun on my back as I kneel to plant, to see the sliver of new moon in the darkening sky as I shut up the crooning hens for the night, to see the flash of the cardinal’s wings as he flies to the feeder, to rejoice in the sprawling forsythia bush blazing yellow, which I started and nurtured from four twigs stuck in the ground.  I live close to the magic of seeds and seedlings, so fragile, so small, to begin; then tall, sprawling, blooming, fruiting in the wink of an eye.  

I deal with frost warnings, tornado warnings, hens that get over their fence and into my precious vegetables; raiding possums and raccoons, voles that eat my carrots, beets, and sweet potatoes underground.  These are all normal problems as is my eking out my finances, watching pennies, wanting enough work to cover my basic needs but not so much that I can’t take care of my writing and publishing.

Then fracking reared its ugly head.  I’ve worked, since I moved to Moncure thirteen years ago against a seven-state nuclear dump, for safer nuclear storage at nearby Shearon Harris, against a multi-states landfill, against air pollution, for better, more forward-thinking county government, and now, after cutting back my activist work to write since the 2006 election, I am working against fracking.  Here’s why.  Can you see how my whole, carefully worked out lifestyle to stay healthy, do my writing, publish more books, and age well is at risk?  I am not the only one.  Others have different lifestyles and ways of coping with aging, but many people living in the twelve-county area where our North Carolina legislators are so keen to frack are at risk, as much or more than I am.

I have decided, however, not to panic, not to run, not to leave my little farm until I absolutely have to, but to fight, for myself and for my community.  If you want to help, let me know.  There are many organizations here and in other parts of North Carolina and in other states working against fracking.  Here are the reasons I am fighting against fracking in central North Carolina.



1.  Hydraulic Fracking [drilling with the use of water and chemicals until the shale breaks and the natural gas underneath is released and piped away] poisons our earth, our aquifers, wells, and air.

2.  The N.C. Legislature made fracking legal by 2014, when permits will begin to be issued.  Landowners do not have to sell mineral rights to have fracking occurring under their land without their permission.  This is called Compulsory or Forced Pooling and goes with the horizontal drilling.  Once they have one landowner’s permission, they can drill all around that landowner’s property.  Beware if they offer money.  They only need one landowner’s mineral rights to drill under all their neighbors.

3.  The companies doing the fracking don’t have to declare what chemicals have been used unless someone is about to die, so that medical treatment for illnesses that follow breathing polluted air or drinking polluted water, is handicapped.  Many of the chemicals cause cancer and some cause birth defects.  Doctors have to sign a non-disclosure statement before they can learn which of the 150 chemicals have been used.  They can’t tell even the patient.

4.  The main part of Chatham where these natural gas pockets are found is Southeast Chatham, including Moncure.  All citizens of Moncure will be affected even if fracking doesn’t occur next door because of the poisons released nearby into the earth, air, water.

5.  Fracking uses huge amounts of water, and in the summer we often have droughts.  Chatham is on voluntary water conservation year round.  Where will the millions of gallons of water per gas well come from to frack?  From our water supplies.

6.  Where will the chemically poisoned water be disposed of?  The Legislature is now trying to make it legal to inject it back into the earth.  

7.  Nowhere in the country has fracking been done safely, without people suffering illnesses, farm and wildlife animals dying.

8.  Fracking can set off earthquakes.  We felt an earthquake here which was set off up in Virginia a year or so ago by fracking.  Alabama recently stopped one fracking operation because of an earthquake.  We live on an earthquake fault, and Shearon Harris Nuclear plant is on that fault.

9.  Property values will drop, but it seems unlikely that people will be able to continue living in area where fracking has occurred.  We will be left homeless.  No one will pay us for having to leave our homes, nor could we sell them.  Where will we go?

10.  We do not even need this gas.  There are stockpiles of natural gas now.  The gas here in North Carolina in twelve counties, including Lee and Moore, is a relatively small amount, which will attract small, wild cat operators, who care even less about what happens to us here.  Mineral rights have already been obtained in parts of Lee County and southern Chatham.

11.  I don’t see this as a political issue.  Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, I would think you wouldn’t want any fracking to occur near you or under you.

12.  The fracking companies can also put down a large pad for the drilling on nearby property and run pipes across your property, without your permission.

13.  I can’t see how the wonderful sustainable/organic agriculture, which has flourished for some years in Chatham, will survive this fracking, which also adds to greenhouse gases and uses the water we need for farming.  What will happen to local food supplies?  Agriculture is still very important to the N.C. economy as well as tourism.  What will happen to Jordan Lake?

14.  Given the present movement in the legislature to hurry and frack, without another vote, without waiting for the committee set up to make rules (though it is stacked with industry people), we have only people power.  

15. Town and county governments who oppose fracking can be by-passed.

16.  There are better ways to provide Americans with the energy we need.  Spend the money to research and establish wind and solar alternatives that do no damage to our health and homes.

17. Put up a sign, write your representative and senators in the legislature, to the members of the forced pooling study group, the governor, and talk to your neighbors.  If enough people protest, we can stop it, one person as a time. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Review and Interview of Denise Weeks' Nice Work

Nice Work: A Jacquidon Carroll Mystery.  Denise Weeks.  Dark Oak Press, 140 E. Palmer, Taylorsville, IL, 62568. Paper. $19.95.  ISBN: 978-1-61009-040-7.  August 2012.

This is a funny novel as well as a good mystery.  Those who feel a growing skepticism with the cavalier way the corporate world operates and treats employees in the twenty-first century will identify with Jacquidon Carroll, who is laid off from her job at CSD with no prior notice because the company is right sizing.  Jacquidon is sure it is because they’re hiring a young woman.  Later she learns she is accused of stealing supplies and that her boss won’t give her a recommendation, though she has slaved years for him.  She has recently been diagnosed with diabetes, and to top it all off, she is now accused of murdering her boss.
As her world falls apart, she call her sister Chantal to her aid.  An interesting and subtle connection is made between cruel bosses and local sex cubs that feature a sadistic-masochistic lifestyle.  Don’t worry.  Nothing explicit, but the implied metaphor for the corporate world today is ingenious.
Jacquidon is given ten sessions in “outplacement,” read a referral to an agency for finding a new job.  Fred Gordon, the young man running People Power is both attractive and helpful in job-hunting as well as mystery solving.  The sisters’ mother tries vainly to keep her daughters from doing anything illegal, but how else will they find out what they need to know about what’s going on behind the scenes at CSD?  Nice Work was a Malice Domestic finalist several years in a row and won the best novel contest at Dark Oak Press in 2011.  Denise’s blog for her mystery series is:

Interview with Denise Weeks:

Hi, Judy!  Man, this one has been tough because I never have a SHORT answer to anything.  I've tried valiantly not to blorf out too much, though.

1.  When did you begin writing?  Why?

I've been writing since I could hold a crayon.

I was an early reader, around age three--probably because my mother took me places and treated me like a little adult, so I turned out precocious like the children of today.  Also, she and my father used to sit around and read, so I was eager to be like them.  Because there were very few other only children back when I was a child (most people of our acquaintance had three to six!), I spent a lot of time alone reading, drawing, and playing pretend games by making up scenarios for myself and my various toys.  This led (some might say "naturally") to my writing down the stories from an early age.

But my parents never took this seriously.  My teachers did, from the first week of first grade, and always used to exhort me to "have that published."  They had no idea how publishing worked then (regarding magazines as well as books, because there were many magazines that printed young students' work--Golden Magazine, Weekly Reader, and many others that are now forgotten).  The professors at college were similarly encouraging, but clueless about how to get commercial fiction published.  After I left school, though, I found it far more difficult to attract attention with my writing.  I've taken long sabbaticals from writing when I got dejected or depressed.  But I've never hopped off the train entirely.

The "WHY" of it is a bit more esoteric.  I thought all books fell from the sky like the Bible had (everyone knows THAT) until the second week of first grade, when I had to spend a week at home on bed rest because of chicken pox.  (The doctor made a house call and that was his verdict!)  My dad was charged with the task of going to the store to get various supplies, and I asked him to get me a book to read.  I was thinking along the lines of a "Bobbsey Twins" or "Dana Girls" book like the ones sold in grocery stores at the time; Mama usually got me the new book(s) in the series every couple of weeks when she did the grocery shopping.  Well, he had no idea (being a Ph. D. rocket scientist--I am not making this up; he worked at NASA through the 1960s and worked on propulsion and whatnot for the Gemini and then Apollo programs when we lived in Houston) what to get, so he came home with a repro edition of Howard Pyle's _Adventures of Robin Hood_.

This was way beyond my ken and the print was pretty small to boot, so when I protested, he defended his choice.  He said that the book had been one of his childhood favorites and that there were many versions.  This is when I found out that books had individual authors--mortals who had walked among us!  And that a person could write a book that stayed around after he or she was gone, in order to speak to future generations and to people he or she had never met!  This boggled my tiny little mind, and I vowed to perfect my story writing so that I could write books.  The purpose being, of course, that these books could travel on and meet people that I never would meet, and speak to generations far into the future.  Of course NOW we have no guarantee that a library will keep a book for even three years, let alone forever, but perhaps digital texts will have permanence.  Anyway, you could say that I began to write with a serious purpose because I don't want to disappear.

Who knows if it'll work?

2.  When and why did you begin writing mysteries?

Around ten years ago I discovered that books were becoming more action-oriented and less character-oriented.  The sorts of incidents portrayed in older books like _Little Women_ or _The Brothers Karamazov_, the things that you remember out of a book, were falling by the wayside.  No longer would Heidi get to make cheese-and-bread sandwiches and have a picnic, for this would not qualify as an "action" scene.  Scenes that only revealed character and/or important details were getting omitted in favor of more stabbings, bleeding, car crashes, rapes, and plundering.  I really missed the "old" sort of book.  Briefly I was fed by a craze for chick lit, but mostly I found books that didn't spend much time at all on the details of life, all the little events that actually make up most of our days.  Life IS the little things, and I missed these interludes.  (I was getting plenty of "thinking" from the damaged main characters, who all seemed to have been abused, abandoned, punished, and so forth, and often thought about this and about who they'd next have sex with--but seldom about anything FUN from their childhoods or even from the other day.)

Then I discovered cozy/traditional mysteries were still including a lot of the good stuff!  Many series characters went on to marry, have children, and have entertainingly happy lives that surrounded the obligatory crime and sleuthing.  These books seemed more my style than the action-y books, so I started reading them.  I recognized that it would take a while to learn to write a mystery, as it has to be far more planned and organized than other stories.  It did take me a while.  But I enjoy it now, and I get a bit of leeway in describing Jacquidon/Chantal and Ari/Zoë and their cohorts and their lives.  When I'm doing red herrings or hiding clues, I can do it in a scene from life that is FUNNY or that you can relate to, even if it's not an explosion scene!  Readers who click with my style and my way of doing things will discover the joys of geocaching, learn how it feels to be diagnosed with and learn to live with type II diabetes, and figure out how to break into a desk along with my sister sleuths Jacquidon and Chantal.  I've always liked to finish a novel and feel that I have learned something and have had a vicarious experience that I wouldn't otherwise have gone through.  That is cool to me.

3.  Are you writing a series or a stand-alone?  Explain your basic idea for your series.

I have two mystery series.  (Serieses?)  The first is the Jacquidon Carroll series, starring sister sleuths in the "Snoop Sisters" tradition.  Except that instead of being elderly like the original Snoop Sisters (if anyone remembers them from the NBC Mystery Movies in the 1970s), they're twenty-somethings and full of energy and curiosity.  Their banter is hilarious (usually) and the scrapes they get into will amuse and surprise you.  Their closeness will make you wish you were friendly like that with your own sister!  The idea for this series is to take readers on a fun and occasionally funny romp through an ALMOST-implausible slice of the sisters' lives.  Each book will be in the kind of setting that readers would love to see "the inside of," and readers will learn something (maybe even more than one something!) as well as laughing.

The first book kicks off Jacquidon's career as an amateur detective by placing her in the cross hairs of the police when her ex-boss Yancey is murdered (the day after she leaves the company, making quite a memorable scene in so doing).  She and her sister need to explore the intricacies of Yancey's BDSM lifestyle to find the perp, including visits to two sex clubs and a few Internet explorations.  Nothing's explicit, and there's no sex at all (even though we're not British); it's all played for laughs.  The manuscript was vetted by two friends who are/were in the BDSM lifestyle so as not to offend anyone or portray them badly (although when you have a murderer hiding in your midst, that's bound to smear a bit of nasty on the couch!)
The next book is set at a national Christmas tree-trimming contest.  (Believe it or not, there is a national gift-wrapping contest that I based this on--I went to the final round as a finalist (duh) in New York City in 1998.)  The sisters have their hands full trying to figure out who the killer is without being wrapped in tinsel and thrown into the Central Park reservoir themselves!  The book will be a Christmas release.

I also have a far darker series, the Ariadne French paranormal mysteries.  Just wanted to mention the series because _MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS_ came out last summer and has gained a following.  Here again we have a pair of sisters who are cornered into sleuthing, but the difference is that the settings and their backgrounds are far darker.  Their banter is not as light-hearted, nor is the situation they find themselves in when Ari's fiancé Aaron is killed in Marfa, Texas, home of the magical Marfa Mystery Lights as well as home to many eccentrics.  If you like darker mysteries in which the paranormal may or may not be at work, this series is for you.

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

_NICE WORK_ was a finalist in the St. Martin's/Malice Domestic contest several years in a row.  I revised it every year after its turn as a bridesmaid once again, but I finally decided that the story simply would never be to the editors' taste.  But because it was a hit with my various judges (who always sent me enthusiastic, hopeful letters notifying me that the book was among the top five finalists being sent forward to the St. Martin's Press editorial offices), I felt it would have an audience if only it could reach readers.  Agents had no luck marketing it, though.  This effort wasted several years.

I hadn't been enthusiastic about small presses, but on a whim I entered the book in the Oak Tree Press Dark Oak First Mystery Novel Contest in 2011 . . . and it won!  Oak Tree Press is a vital small press that is turning into a real force, with authors like Marilyn Meredith, Ilene Schneider, Sally Carpenter, and *me* writing mysteries (as well as several talented writers turning out Westerns and romances).  We're here and we're not going away.  The large New York houses are looking only for blockbusters and have terminated many of the contracts of the mid-list writers I have been reading for years; I think NYC has lost its way, and it can't compete with small presses, where the focus is on quality and accessibility as well as speed in getting new work out.  Nowadays, I am a small press convert.

My overall journey to publication (although you didn't ask!) began back when I was eight and sending little poems in the style of "Archy and Mehitabel" and awful little sonnets that rhymed "cheese" and "keys" off to the New Yorker (I am still not making this up) and the Saturday Evening Post as well as to the many markets that served young students.  I got back many an encouraging note scribbled by hand on the top of the quarter-page sized standard rejections.  I suspect that the slush readers back then knew that I was only a kid and wanted to encourage me.  Well, bless them, because they did.

I even wrote a novel when I was in the sixth grade, but it has been lost (and a good thing, too).  It was based on the "Godfather" that was so big at the time, except it was a comedy.  Yes, I know it must have been a real doozy.  After that, I turned to fantasy (like the Narnia books and Tolkien's work) and eventually published DULCINEA:  or Wizardry A-Flute under my pen name, Shalanna Collins.  DULCINEA was the first runner-up in the Warner Aspect First Fantasy Novel contest in 1996, but when no agents wanted to take it on (this was before Harry Potter made long YA fantasy novels golden), I went with a small press.  (You see the trend here.)  I still write YA fantasy as Shalanna Collins, and my "April, Maybe June" series will launch this summer with Muse Harbor Press.

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

The BDSM deal in _NICE WORK_ is all my husband's fault.  I was working on a different plot for Jacquidon when Hubby said, meditatively--oops, if I tell you what he said that sparked the idea, it would be a plot spoiler!  But he gave me the idea for the perp and how the perp comes to be a perp and gets into a situation that prompts the crime.  It was completely different from anything I had ever done, as I have generally stuck to more white-bread settings and situations.  I think many people are still scared of S&M (BDSM) and think of its practitioners and devotees as weirdos who don't have normal lives.  In _NICE WORK_, I show that a perfectly average middle manager in a business office (Yancey) and his ex-wife (also a middle manager) can be as mundane as buttermilk and also heavily involved in BDSM as a lifestyle and as a social setting.  This takes innocent readers on a tour of some of the "light side" of the lifestyle and shows them that people are mostly more alike than they are different (bwa-ha-haa!)  I chose to give my heroine type II diabetes in order to inform people about the disease, as it seems that everyone I know has it now . . . and readers who have it will identify more strongly with Jacquidon, who finds herself making difficult food choices sometimes and suffering the consequences.  (When someone has a low blood sugar event, her judgment may be impaired, and she might say things she shouldn’t.  If you're on the drug Glucophage/Metformin, you need to avoid alcohol . . . so if something you're drinking has hidden booze in it and you don't know that, you can get pretty incoherent.  Enough said.)

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

I have found it to be a joy.  Also a lot of hard work.  You'd think that everyone you meet would be eager to read your books, but guess what?  Now that everyone is self-published on the Kindle, it's not a big deal.  And people don't want you to market to them.  It's a tightrope walk sometimes.

My family always says, "You don't make any money from this!  Spend all that time doing something that makes money!"  They don't see merit in anything that isn't a big money-maker.  Originally my elderly mother thought that writers made lots of moolah, but ever since she has been enlightened (during social events with other writers and with editors), she has been less than enthusiastic.  Some writers have families who are supportive, and I would like to tell them how lucky they are.  It's a struggle when every day you have to justify why you are writing and hold up the contracts you have with your publishers (and because those publishers are not Random House and Penguin, the family sneers).

Still, this has been a lifelong goal of mine.  As long as the books are out there in trade paperback and as e-books, there's a chance that someone will stumble across them and will love them the way I have loved many a book over my lifetime.  There are books that made me believe again in the indomitable human spirit, and I hope my books can do that for somebody out there.  This is a hope I can hold on to during the dark nights of the soul.

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

I have received many good reviews that are posted on Amazon.  I can't abide people who are always bandying about quotations from some "famous person" or another, mostly because I don't have anything like that.  (LOL)  People who like my books are generally the more thoughtful types who like to hear a character's thoughts about what's happening to them, rather than preferring the type of character who acts before thinking and never considers the consequences beforehand.

One faithful reader mentioned that she could identify with my characters because they weren't superhero types, but just regular people caught in bad situations.  Another mentioned that the setting often becomes a character--especially in the MARFA LIGHTS series.  It's nice to have my books praised for their narrative drive and inventive plots.

My Amazon author pages (where you can read the reviews by clicking through):   (mysteries, mainstream, romantic suspense) (fantasy, YA fantasy)

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

As Shalanna Collins:
_DULCINEA_ (YA fantasy), 1999, available on Amazon
_CAMILLE'S TRAVELS_ (YA urban fantasy), ditto

As Denise Weeks:
_MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS_, as I mentioned, came out last summer and is the first in the Ariadne French paranormal mystery series.  It's available from Amazon in trade paper or on the Kindle (for only $1.99!)
_LITTLE RITUALS_ is my literary paranormal women's fiction with a chicklitty voice.  Available from Amazon in trade paper or on Kindle ($1.99!)

You can try a sample of any book if you have a Kindle.  Go to the Amazon page and get the FREE sample.  That'll give you some idea as to whether you're going to click with my voice and style.

9.  Do you have a work in progress now?  Is it part of a series?

I'm working on the sequel to _NICE WORK_, the one about the tree-trimming contest.  I am also doing the final edits (galley edits) for the first book in the _APRIL, MAYBE JUNE_ YA fantasy/adventure series.  After I finish the final edits and send that one off to my publisher, I'll go back to putting the final polish on _LOVE IS THE BRIDGE_, a standalone romantic suspense that has elements of technology (a possessed cell phone?) as well as the paranormal.  Waiting in the wings is the second book in the Ariadne French mystery series--it's a rework of a book that originally was number one in her line-up and which also finaled in the St. Martin's contest almost ten years ago.  _MIRANDA'S RIGHTS_, a standalone urban fantasy, will be next.  I've been working on that one on the back burner for several years.  More to come.

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

I used to belong to every writers' organization I could find, and it was exciting to attend meetings and socialize with others who put writing first as a priority.  We often had informative guest speakers.  But the cost of belonging to the organizations kept inching up, and I never derived any benefit from being in any of them--I'm sorry to say.  The exception is Romance Writers of America, where it's a good idea to join because you then can participate in their many contests or judge contests.  If you enter their contests, you might get feedback from an agent or editor.  If you judge their contests, you can give useful feedback (which I have tried to do every time I've judged.)  I've won the Golden Rose and the Stiletto contests in the recent past, although that never led anywhere as far as publication (although I did get a gold-plated rose as grand prize a couple of years ago; that was pretty stunning.)  I got the agent that I briefly had through a query, not through connections, and I've never connected positively with an editor as a result of any organization, unfortunately.

Sorry to sound kind of negative.  Perhaps someone who is more outgoing and who is good at schmoozing would get lots more out of the organizations by attending all the face-to-face conventions.  A LOT of this business, like any business, is who you know and who takes a liking to you.  Life is a popularity contest.  In other words, junior high never ends.  LOL!  Unfortunately, I am not good at all of that.  I'm not a basilisk, but I come across better in writing, and I only appeal to people who don't subscribe to the "too long; didn't read" philosophy.  If you can do sound bites and are charming, you might score big at a convention.

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

I'm about to get on the wrong side of a LOT of people, even though I don't mean to:  I think conference organizers work very hard to create a good experience, and I know lots of people get benefits from attending.

Me?  I attended two conferences (not Malice) that were fun and interesting, but ultimately did not lead to a business benefit when weighed against the cost of admission, travel, and lodgings.  What typically happens for me is that my contest entry always wins something, and I get an appointment (an "audience") with a high-powered agent or editor as a result, and I go to the appointment at the con, and the agent or editor is wildly enthusiastic and wants me to send the full manuscript right away.  I do so, and then about eight months to a year later I get it back with a form rejection attached.  Your mileage might differ greatly; I fervently hope that it does (using the universal "you" here, not Judy in particular!)  I know that many people report great forward strides in their careers from attending such conferences.  And they're wonderful for those who are adept at networking.  Good luck out there!

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

My books appeal to hardcore readers who enjoy cadenced prose and the clever turn of phrase.  They are probably not for someone who says, "I hate metaphors" (although usually that is said while the reader is pointing at some other figure of speech--LOL) or "I like things to be simple and easy."  For some reason, it never comes out that way for me.  But of course I welcome anyone who is curious--please download a sample chapter and give my work a try!  That's how I find new authors.

I'm on Facebook as Shalanna Collins, and I have a page for my books at

My blogs (if you want to take a peek):  (general official blog)     (personal journal)   (official Shalanna blog)  (for the Jacquidon Carroll series)

Thanks so much for giving me your blog as a bully pulpit, Judy!  I'm looking forward to reading and blurbing your upcoming new book.  See y'all on the 'net!


Denise Weeks, a lifelong writer from Dallas, Texas, has been writing since she could hold a crayon.  Like many homegrown Texas humorists, she is not funny.  Novelist, pianist, belly dancer, baton twirler (but no fire batons ever again, by order of the Renner, Texas, Volunteer Fire Brigade), and amateur radio operator.  She is a polymath (and that doesn’t mean she can still actually DO math).  A graduate of SMU many years after Laura Bush, Denise has worked as a software engineer, Dairy Queen soft-serve cone maker (she perfected that little twirl on the top of the dipped cone), and middle school math tutor.  She and her husband live happily in a northern suburb of Dallas, Texas, with their two beloved pets: a yappy Pomeranian and Denise’s elderly mother.
Her novel Dulcinea (written as Shalanna Collins)was the first runner-up in the original 1996 Warner Aspect First Fantasy Novel contest.  She collects recipes for fried yak.  Homeland Security sees her as a Person of Interest.  (Guess which two of those statements are lies.)

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Killer Frost: Reader Comments V.

Orchid and Daffodils from Early March 2012.  This March the orchid, again on my dining table, has five flower stems, and the daffodils persist despite many frosts.


Here are more reader comments on Killer Frost:  I'm still open to more comments.  Send them along.



Larissa Bavrina (Russian friend, in a letter of Dec. 1, 2012):

I fully agree with the comments from Margaret Stephens and Pam Kilby (see Reader Comments II, blog for Sept 21).  I imagined the classroom where Penny taught, the students--their characters are vivid and real, then the room at Penny’s home where her friends gathered to discuss the college problems, the scenes in the garden and the orchard.  Though it’s not clear about love–why it struck Penny unexpectedly (it I can understand) and suddenly finished (this I cannot understand).  Maybe it was friendship, spiritual intimacy, but not love?  By the end of the book, I felt like I was in a circle of people about whom I cared much and would have liked to learn how they’d live after the mystery had been solved. ... 

So this book is number 6 in the series.  Maybe there’s a description of Penny in one of the books?  There’s no information why they were in Wales?  Maybe it’s also in the previous book?  One thing is certain.  I really wonder what happens next to Penny, Oscar, and the college administration, and the students.

Review from mystery author Denise Weeks (in email 2-17-13):

I really enjoyed this book and the issues that the author explored via her setting, characters, and plot events.  It was more literary than most cozies and contains a few literary allusions (which just made me like it all the more), but you can figure those out.  Because there’s no gore or gratuitous sex/blood/violence, it’s perfect for younger readers as well as adult mystery fans.

Penny Weaver is hired to replace a fired professor in the middle of the semester at St. Francis College in Raleigh.  The school has many students who aren’t properly prepared for college (and at least one with a learning disabilities and a possible diagnosis of brain damage) because this gets them state and federal grants and perks.  She’s immediately attracted to her department chairman, Oscar, who seems intensely attracted back–and this creates tension in her mind because of her passion for her husband, Kenneth, and her fear that something will happen between them.  First the school provost and then a professor are murdered, though more important concerns come to everyone’s minds.

The characters were well drawn and believable.  I can’t resist saying that one character here (in fact, two of them, one of each gender) reminded me of Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.  The solution of the crimes turned out to be a surprise to me.  I enjoyed the portrayal of campus life, and especially appreciated the author’s knowledge that many educators are in the business of helping and saving the students who are struggling–their reward is to help students succeed despite the odds against them. (Of course there is always the unscrupulous teacher and/or administrator, and these are illuminated here as well.)  The pressures in academia now work against the traditional role of the university, which was always to teach students how to think.  Now the concerns of the administration is elsewhere.  This makes the task of a teacher ever more challenging.

I’ll note that one reason some reviewers might be upset with the book (someone mentioned the dialect spoken informally by many of the characters–I’ll get back to this) is that it reveals what’s happening in much of academia and not exclusively at traditionally Black/African American colleges, but there as well.  So very many students come unprepared and functionally illiterate/empty of study skills and unable to catch allusions and references.  This is the fault, in my opinion, of the test mentality caused by “No Child Left Behind” and also by the emphasis of the entire culture on popularity and youth/beauty instead of knowledge and strength of character (integrity).  Our youth culture may claim it is big on education, but to be “smart” in school is to be “uncool,” and celebrity worship leads children and older students to emulate dangerous and unwise behavior.  No longer is a professor held in high esteem and respect (remember in the original film “The Day the Earth Stood Still” how the little boy took the visitor to the professor as a high authority?).  This novel exposes the way that many athletes are brought to college and left on their own to cope with the more stringent requirements of their classes, and told only that they have to pass or else.  It exposes the difficulty of catching up when you have basically been passed forward without learning to read, to reason, or to put together a coherent essay (not to mention the innumeracy and lack of mathematical intuition).
It’s happening all over, so I’m sure it is happening at the traditionally black colleges as well.  If this is a hot button for you, then this won’t be the book for you.  Others with open minds will be better able to cope with these ideas.

In the book, many students and friends of the sleuth speak a dialect or form of Black English.  This is bound to offend some readers, even though it’s probably fairly accurate as a portrayal of the way some people still speak causally to their friends and those they trust.  It lends flavor and color to the setting.  It is also another indicator of how these students are not equipped to deal with college and the world beyond, to me, because they don’t use formal or business English when they’re in class, as I would.  I didn’t take offence, and in fact it enriched my understanding of the characters.

I’m looking forward to the next book in this series.  Recommended!