Sunday, May 29, 2011

Interview with Louise Penny--Mystery Writer Par Excellence

"Valley of the Roc" by Julia Kennedy.  I traded eggs and bread for this painting, which hangs now in my living room. 

In 2009 at the Malice Domestic Mystery Convention in Arlington, VA, I met Louise Penny for the first time, and I'd recently read her book The Cruelest Month.  I interviewed her by email for the Guppy newsletter, First Draft, and she has given permission to reprint it now.  Since 2009, she won Best Traditional Novel of 2010 and of 2011, Agathas for The Brutal Telling and Bury Your Dead

A recent notice on DorothyL, a mystery lovers' list, by Kaye Barley in Boone, declares about her new one, due out in August 2011:  "A Trick of the Light is stunning, and, yes, it is the best one yet.  How does she keep doing this?  And continually top her own work?  I have no idea other than the fact that she must be one of those angels walking the earth we hear about from time to time.  She is, in my opinion, a writer of the very rarest kind of talent."  I agree, Kaye, and right now she's my favorite of the contemporay mystery writers.  Here's the 2009 interview.  Judy Hogan


Louise Penny Interview
 Louise Penny lives in Quebec with her husband, Michael, and is the internationally best-selling author of the Armand Gamache mysteries, Still Life, A Fatal Grace/Dead Cold, The Cruelest Month, and A Rule Against Murder/The Murder Stone. Her fifth book, The Brutal Telling, will be published in October 2009.
Before turning to writing, Louise was a journalist with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Her books have won the UK Dagger, the Canadian Arthur Ellis, and in the U.S. she’s won the Anthony, Barry, Dilys, and the Agatha for Best Novel two years in a row, the first author to do that in almost 20 years. Her latest novel made the New York Times best seller list.
Interviewer Note:
1. When did you first write mysteries? And why?

I started writing my first mystery in 2001,though I’d actually quit work at CBC radio in 1996 to write, then immediately developed writers’ block. Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, "She is clever to do that–and to suffer it for five years."

It was horrible! I realized I was trying to write the wrong book. So I regrouped, looked at the stack of books on my bedside table, and saw there Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, Michael Innes, and realized I needed to simply write a book I would love to read. And so I did. All my literary decisions were selfish. I chose characters I’d want to spend time with, a protagonist I would marry, and a mystery that wouldn’t leave me petrified in bed. Indeed, my books, while clearly mysteries, are actually about friendship and community, about love and goodness.
2. Tell us about your road to publication. I think you’ve written that it wasn’t easy.

Blech, it was horrible. I was an international failure... If I could have had my manuscript shot into outer space, I’d have been an intergalactic failure. No one wanted it. The objections were three-fold–the "traditional mystery" is passe, the protagonist is too content, not enough people are killed. Never mind the agents and editors who just thought, generally, it stank. Feeding my 3 am certainty that everything I do is a piece of crap. And I’m fat and ugly and stupid, and often late. You can see how much fun this process was for me.

In fact, I almost shoved the manuscript under the bed for some poor surviving relations to find 30 years from now, after my toss away. Then I was, unexpectedly, short-listed for the Debut Dagger sponsored by the CWA in Britain, and my life changed. I didn’t win, but I did find my agent out of it. And suddenly the novel no one wanted became the novel everyone wanted. That was STILL LIFE.
I was so taken by my experience, and upset at the thought of many wonderful mystery writers who were also turned down and might have given up, that my husband, Michael, and I have started (with the Crime Writers of Canada) a Best Unpublished Crime Novel competition.
 3. Why are you committed to the traditional mystery (which a lot of Guppies write)?

Well, honestly, I wish I could say it was a moral or even creative choice. Frankly I love them because I read them. There’s a comfort I crave and appreciate in traditional mysteries. There is also, I believe, a great deal of scope and depth to explore the human condition. Murders in cities are dreadful, terrible. But I often think a murder in a village is worse. Because you’re killed by someone you know. The betrayal, the violation, is complete. And the suspects soon realize someone isn’t who they seem. There is, in fact, a stranger among them.

But, more than anything, I’ve found in my life a desire for peace...especially when my job was particularly stressful, when my life was falling apart, when the world proved less kind, less gentle, less loving than it might have been. I crawl into bed with my gummi bears and diet coke and a traditional mystery. And for a few blessed hours the world is right.
4. Who are your favorite authors, past and present, and why?

Agatha Christie–perhaps more for nostalgia than any literary value, but I do still adore her.
Michael Innes--a British author of the Golden Age...wonderful, literate mysteries...often extremely wry.
Dorothy L. Sayers–I had a crush on Lord Peter, and hated that horrible woman who stole him from me. Harriet something. Tramp.
Reginald Hill–his characters are brilliant, his settings so well described...his crimes central but rarely too graphic.

But my favorites are:
Georges Simenon–the Maigret books. Wonderful, crystalline in their clarity, each a short, sharp gem...a stunning evocation of France in the 1950s.
But mostly, Josephine Tey. Stunning writer. Clear, concise, often funny, always "true." I adore all her books, but my favorite (while Daughter of Time is close) is The Franchise Affair.
5. What do you tell people when they suggest you write "literary novels."

I tell them I do. And I tell them I haven’t yet begun to explore the depth or breadth of mystery novels. I’ve grown weary of being asked that, with its implication that I don’t but the questioner feels, if I apply myself, I might be good enough to. A sort of implied compliment. And I need to explain, gently, that simply because mystery novels have a structure doesn’t make them less literary. Haiku has a structure. Sonnets have a structure. That’s the challenge. To both occupy and transcend the formula. To live within the strictures while rising above them. No one would suggest sonnets are lesser poems because of their rigid structure. Would anyone suggest Hamlet was a lesser play, or Macbeth, because at their heart they deal with murder?
6. What routines/rituals do you have for getting your writing done?

I’m extremely disciplined. I write every day that I can, which amounts to six days a week, often seven. I get up at about 7 am, am writing by 8:30, and for the first draft I set a minimum word count for the day. When I’m just beginning a new book, I set it quite low, so as not to scare myself off. 250 words a day. Then 500, then up to 1,000. These are minimums. Because I’m quite competitive, I almost always exceed them. Sometimes this takes three hours, sometimes five. I have, however, come to appreciate that quality, not quantity, is what I’d rather hit my word count and feel good about the day’s work than write 5000 merde-like words. Though I don’t always, of course, feel good about my day’s writing. Probably about 60 percent of the time as I struggle through the first draft.
7. How do you handle/cope with the public attention and your need to work on your career that goes with being a published and prize-winning author?

That’s an excellent question and one that I never considered when yearning to be a writer, though not a day goes by I’m not keenly aware of how lucky I am. Again, I find I need to be extremely disciplined, and get things done right away...otherwise everything piles up and my stress goes through the roof. For instance, I began work at just before 9 am, editing book six, and it’s now 9:20 at night, and I’m still working, answering your questions. But if I don’t, when will I? Tomorrow will be no easier. And compared to the work I used to do, compared to the work that most people do, this is bliss. How wonderful when my job involves editing my own book, and answering smart questions for smart people?

Having said that, I have grown better at declining invitations–I say no to things at least once a day–and fighting for my precious writing time, because nothing else exists if the books start to get bad. In fact, I’d stop writing. I couldn’t imagine doing that to the readers, or the characters whom I’ve grown to love.
8. How did you feel when you won Best Novel Agatha at Malice Domestic 2009, when two other nominees, Anne Perry and Julia Spencer-Fleming, had been your mentors/supporters?

You know, I felt deeply grateful to them, but I also know that sometimes the sun shines on me and sometimes it shines on someone else. That happened to be my turn, but Anne’s and Julia’s and Rhys’ and Donna’s books were all superb, and it could just as easily have been them. And I would have happily applauded. It felt natural to accept, just as it would have felt natural to congratulate any one of them.
9. In the U.S. there is rather a harsh climate among the big publishers with emphasis on books, like thrillers, with violence and weird behavior so it’s surprising to me that you have been so well-published and received here. Have you run into any difficulties with agents or publishers being unsympathetic to your good characters like Gamache and Clara or reacting negatively to the cozy qualities of your Three Pines village and its rituals, which I love.

Well, as I mentioned, the climate was definitely polar to begin with. And I cannot for the life of me explain what changed except great good luck and the fact that I think publishers might not totally appreciate the longing among us all, American, Canadian, British, French, etc.,for community and belonging and friendship. For a world not ruled by sarcasm and cynicism. And brutality. A world where goodness exists. The readers found the books and turned the series into what it is. I’m extremely fortunate in my publisher, Minotaur Books in the US! And my editor, the wonderful Hope Dellon. They understand the books and support them. But I know they were also a little surprised at the success. And no one was more surprised than I was. But the success is uniquely due to the readers, who spread the word. Which I why I write a blog and respond to every email I possibly people know how grateful I am. Not only in word, but in action. At the age of 51 they’ve given me my dream.
10. Do you seek feedback from others after you have a good first draft? How do you handle revisions?

Not after the first first drafts are real dog’s breakfasts. Characters disappear halfway through, new ones appear. Names change, subplots disappear. Yech. A great deal of the shape of my books and my characters comes out in the editing. I love editing. I’ll do at least two edits before showing it to anyone...and even then it’s generally just my husband, Michael, and my brother, Doug. And they’ve been instructed to tell me, "God, Louise, it’s brilliant!!" Then I send it off to my agent and fight nausea for two weeks.
11. What is it like to work with your St. Martin’s editor (Minotaur Books), Hope Dellon?

Oh, I’m so glad you asked this question...she is bliss...on every level. Not only does she completely understand what I’m trying to achieve, she knows how to bring the best out, of the books and me. I don’t respond well to bullying, to sharp retorts, to commands. I need to be handled carefully. I wish it was different and I had a thicker skin, but I don’t. Not when it comes to my books. Each takes a year to write, after having thought about them for about a year before beginning. I don’t need someone whacking it and me, with a figurative frying pan. And Hope never does. Her notes are clear, diplomatic, thoughtful, and kind. And always constructive. Any thought and suggestions I don’t agree with we discuss. Some she sees my point of view, some I see hers. We always agree, amicably.

Hope is one of the truly creative, great editors today. Anyone who gets her is lucky indeed. She has made every one of my books she’s worked on better. And made me a better writer in the process. I so enjoy her company, in fact, that Michael and I had dinner with Hope and her husband, Charles, in New York earlier in the summer.
12. You have at least three major audiences in the U.S., Canada, and U.K. Are they all responding in a similar way to your novels or do you see differences?

I see quite striking differences. In the UK I think they’re still viewed as quaint village mysteries, which surprises me. The setting is definitely a village, and the people are definitely kindly, for the most part, but that’s the most superficial reading of them. There’s an emotional and philosophical underpinning that both the American and Canadian readership seems to get, but the UK doesn’t. They’re often referred to as "cozies" there, while here, I think, for the most part people have realized they aren’t exactly that. Still, happily, the readership is strong, and while I’d love everyone to read the books I meant to write, I am happy they’re giving pleasure.
13. Tell us a little about your fifth book, The Brutal Telling, due out in October.

I decided after The Cruelest Month, which is the third book, that Three Pines really couldn’t sustain every novel. And as a writer, I also wanted to explore other terrain and characters, while retaining Chief Inspector I decided every second book would be set, for the most part, away from Three Pines. As a result A Rule Against Murder (The Murder Stone –UK and Canada)–book 4--was set on a nearby lake. But book 5– The Brutal Telling –is back firmly in the village. What a pleasure it was, too, to be back with all the familiar characters. Peter and Clara, mad, brilliant Ruth, Myrna, and of course, Gabri and Olivier. In The Brutal Telling we find out more about Olivier. Who he is, what brought him to the village, his history, and the secrets he carries that finally come creeping out. A body is found in his bistro, and the investigation takes Chief Inspector Gamache deep into the forests around Three Pines, and across the continent, trying to solve the murder. And yet, all avenues, all clues, all the evidence points back to Olivier. Until all his secrets are stripped away in a final, brutal, telling.

I’m very excited about this book!
14. How do you approach promoting your books, beyond your email newsletter, going to conferences, and accepting invitations to read/speak?

Well, I do things like this, and my daily blog. And I ask readers to tell friends and family. And I realize how powerful the internet is and social networking. Many readers have huge influence on their own blogs and websites, or they have access to others...and the ability to spread the word. So I ask them to please, if they feel comfortable, to do that. I also go on whatever book tour Minotaur Books wants to send me on, and my other publishers. Book tours are quite tiring. While it’s clear the publisher doesn’t want you to actually drop dead while on tour, they do want to see how close they can come. Midnight flights, early morning interviews, late night events. And when I get tired, I remind myself that this is the dream, this is what I wanted, what I asked for, and what I am lucky enough to get. Who else gets to have an audience as an office?
15. Do you think about your readers as you write? Knowing now more about who your fans are, does that affect your writing?

No. I only still ever write what I would like to read. One great moment of awareness for me was that, after almost a lifetime of thinking I was special and different (and better) than others, I realized I was just the same as everyone, and everyone was the same as me. If I liked something, chances are lots of other people liked it. If most people like something, chances are I will, too. I am not, and never will be, a pioneer. I realized, if I was yearning for a peaceful village filled with croissants and cafĂ© au lait, with kind friends and thoughtful, funny conversation–then others might be, too.

People ask if Three Pines exists, and I have say, no, not physically. But I think of it as a state of mind. When in the harried, sometimes harsh, world we choose kindness over cleverness, when we choose goodness over cynicism and sarcasm. Then we choose to live in Three Pines.

We all create the village.
16. What do you believe the goal of art is? Per Alexander McCall Smith, it’s "to help us to live better." [The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday, p. 170]. Do you agree with that? In short, what do you hope to achieve in your mysteries, beyond entertainment?

Personal peace. And if others find it, too, while reading the books, I’m thrilled.
Judy Hogan is an enthusiastic Guppy, who founded Carolina Wren Press in 1976. In 1984 she helped found the North Carolina Writers’ Network, serving as its president until 1987. She has published five volumes of poetry with small presses and two prose works. She has written seven traditional mystery novels featuring Penny Weaver, a poet and amateur detective, and Kenneth Morgan, a Welsh detective inspector, for which she is seeking an agent through AgentQuest. A freelance editor, she is also a small farmer. Email her at Check her web page at
Louise Penny’s books and her story to publication help me believe in my still unpublished books. I treasure the fundamental human tone/reality in her mysteries. Movies these days, and many books, emphasize excessive violence and sex, and general weirdness. I remember the movies of the 1950s, where human suffering and joy, human problems and their solutions were the focus. These same problems have been endlessly interesting to us since the first recorded stories and songs. They are the great human dilemmas of love, loss, growing up, growing old, our fears, hates, loyalties, prejudices, failures to be and do what we aim to, and our successes after overcoming many obstacles. It’s called the human condition, and it’s still news, and Louise Penny knows how to open it and so engage us that we can relish every sentence, every scene, every real human dilemma. Her books are, to me, simply delicious. I want to eat the food, know the people, solve the crime, be there. Thank you, Louise, for sharing yourself in the interview below. Judy Hogan

Friday, May 20, 2011

Malice Domestic. Part II. Clues and Tidbits

When I drove up to DC for Malice in late April, I left my beets, peas, leeks coming into their own.

 It’s easy to be overwhelmed as a mystery fan, much less as an author, when you go to a conference where over 150 published mystery writers are trying to interest you in their books. Most I’d never heard of. I’d learned some names from my fellow Guppies, who were moving from unpublished to published status during 2008-10. I’d read and enjoyed books by Liz Zelvin, Jeri Westerson, Sandra Parshall, and Krista Davis.

My very favorite mystery writer right now, Louise Penny, was there and carried off her fourth Agatha Award teapot for Best Traditional Mystery of 2010. Nancy Pickard was there, and I’d read all of her books and recently enjoyed another Kansas novel, The Scent of Rain and Lightning. Carolyn Todd, whose books with her son, under the name Charles Todd, I love, did the Agatha Tea interview.

Sue Grafton was quietly the star of the show. I think most of us had read her alphabet series. She was so open and down to earth. She wrote Kinsey Milhone books to create a life different from her own, as she married young, had children, baked her own bread, now has grandchildren, and chickens, and every year she attends the Kentucky Derby. She asked for a tip as to the winner, and my new friend Sasscer gave it to her.

I chose panels which had writers I already liked or topics that interested me. I was too engrossed to write much down, but I’ll share odds and ends, snippets of encouragement and insight.

The Guest of Honor was Carole Nelson Douglas, whose costumes suggested a gypsy and whose book covers, displayed on the Malice Program, featured black cats and sexy women. I wasn’t drawn to her, but she said one thing that stuck. "You have to reinvent yourself," which she has often done, and she has written and published 60 books. She has hit roadblocks many times but found her way around them.

My first event was the Malice Go-Round. We sat at round tables, eight of us with two authors at a time, who had books out in 2010, and then about forty or fifty of these authors played musical table, and moved in pairs, table to table, to give us 90-second spiels about their books and hand out bookmarks. Of the ones I’d never heard of, one stuck out for me, and she didn’t have a book mark: Sara Sue Hoklotubbe, who is writing a series about Cherokees living in Oklahoma. She is in the tradition of Tony Hillerman and Margaret Coel, and she herself is a Cherokee who grew up in Oklahoma. Her first one is Deception on All Accounts. Website: I tried to imagine what it would be like to rush table to table for an hour and a half and give a 90-second spiel. They were very good-humored about it. There’s a waiting list to get to do this!

Louise Penny interviewed Janet Rudolph, who received the Poirot Award for her support to the mystery community. Louise rather put her on the spot by asking why she’d never been invited to one of Janet’s soirees at her home in the Berkeley Hills. Janet has spent twenty-five years teaching, writing, editing, producing mystery events, and organizing the first international group for mystery readers. She also has a website for this org, Mystery Readers International, which also gives out the McCavity Award. Under that organization’s aegis, the quarterly Mystery Readers Journal, is published. Louise asked her why she didn’t write mysteries, and she said, because she didn’t think she could take the criticism.

At the Friday evening panel of those women who were up for the Agatha Best Novel, I was struck by how at ease they were with each other. They all hoped to win, but yet they joked and showed real affection for each other. Donna Andrews, also the Toastmaster, Louise Penny, Nancy Pickard, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and Heather Webber. Nancy joked that she wished she had Louise’s husband, who was sitting beside me on the front row. He didn’t react, but Louise glowered when two others said the same thing. Afterwards, I said to him, "Do you think Louise will win?" "Yes." She did.

On Saturday I went to the First Novel Nominees panel, moderated by Margaret Maron, who also lives in central North Carolina and all of whose novels I’ve enjoyed. She read a short excerpt from each book, a very nice way to open these new authors to the readers in the room. I had sampled two of them before the conference, and I’d already picked Sasscer to vote for. I knew the story behind Avery Aames (real name Daryl Gerber), who did win the Best First Novel Agatha. Her cheese shop mysteries were a three-book deal offered to her through Agent Jessica Faust by Berkeley Prime Crime. The publisher gave her the "hook" or setting, and she wrote their series rather than her own. Curious to me, but several other Guppies got similar deals.

Being bombarded, on the panels, too, with writers I had known nothing about, who used the panel to court fans, I think of how I felt when I first went to Pacific Grove, CA, as a young pregnant woman, in my 20s, already determined to be a writer, and all the new people I met, dozens of them, were writers or artists.
It made me feel without a place. Where and who was I to think I had anything to offer? At the convention I wondered how my book, should it be published, would find its place in this non-stop hoopla. It was reassuring to talk to mystery fans, when I encountered them, often up near the front of a room, going in early to get a good seat, as I had, and we compared notes on which authors we liked.

I want to believe I write more like the mystery authors I admire, but time will tell. Ultimately, it comes down to readers. I want my books to be loved. Funny, all the hoopla, but ultimately it means me sitting by myself, creating, inventing, playing, as Sue Grafton calls it. In the article on her in the program as well as in her interview, she stressed "trusting the Shadow."

"Ego is a writer’s enemy. I can’t write when I’m sitting there worried about my editor, wondering if the critics will hate the book, wondering if my readers will complain, wondering if my fans will be bored. All good writing comes from Shadow, which is Ego’s opposite. Shadow holds our intuition, energy, imagination, insight and humor. Shadow also holds our rage, our pettiness and our secret, mean-spirited response to the world. Shadow is the child in us and all she wants to do is play. I have to remind myself over and over that writing is not about money or sales or fame or glory or recognition. Writing is about play. Writing is an expression of our souls and our innermost selves. That’s a lesson I have to learn anew every day when I sit down at my computer. So far Shadow is winning out over Ego, but I’m the one fighting to keep her on top." [Interview by Hank Phillippi Ryan]

All these hints and experiences help me somehow, but still the best part was the people. Besides Sasscer, Diane, and Kendel, I was able to have quiet lunch in a nearby Quizno’s with Gloria Alden, also a small farmer and a Guppy, and we’re of an age. We’ve corresponded a lot by email, sharing children, farm, and writer dilemmas and joys. Important, too, were the quiet chats with fans, many of whom come a long way for this, and seeing my favorite mystery writer, Louise Penny, carry off another Agatha Teapot. Look for more on Louise next week.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Zesty Women: Sasscer, Diane, and Kendel at Malice

Sasscer Hill, with George Strawbridge, Campbell Soup heir and major owner of champion horses, (left) and Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard (right), at Kenneland Race Track, Lexington, KY., October 2010.

Malice Domestic Mystery Convention, Bethesda, MD, April 29-May 1, 2011–Part I, People.

I’d been to Malice in 2009, when I knew no one except, by email, certain Guppies, the Great Unpublished subgroup of Sisters in Crime, which I’d joined in late 2007 to help me get my mystery series published. Some of the Guppies were getting published, and I’d read some of their books.

I had also recently read Louise Penny’s April is the Cruelest Month, set in the French Canadian village of Three Pines, and I had loved it. She was one of the Agatha nominees for that very book for Best Traditional Mystery of 2008, and I sat next to her husband during one of the panels and told him how much I admired her book. After the panel, I also told her and said I was especially interested in how she had handled having her hero, Inspector Gamache, be a good man. My heroine, Penny Weaver, is a good woman. The challenge is to keep them human.

What I learned from Louise’s books (Bury Your Dead was the current Agatha a nominee and A Trick of the Light will be released in August 2011) is that a truly good character, with a minimum of flaws, to be believable, has to suffer. Meeting Louise, and later, interviewing her by email for the Guppy Newsletter, First Draft, was the highlight of the 2009 conference for me. She won her second Agatha that year, and her third in 2010, then the fourth Agatha for Bury Your Dead at the 2011 Malice.

Malice is a three-day mystery convention, having this year about four hundred people in a big Bethesda hotel, and at least a hundred and fifty published writers, famous, not so famous, and probably fifty writing but not yet published, and it can be overwhelming. I had so many impressions, which it took me awhile to sort out. I’ll do this report in two installments.

What made it especially worth going to Malice 23? People, three in particular. At the Saturday night banquet, the Agathas are announced for Best First Novel, Best Short Story, Best Children’s/YA Book; Best Non-Fiction book, and Best Novel of 2010, as well as the winner of the Malice Domestic First Best Traditional Mystery Contest, which would be published by St. Martin’s Press.

This year, in late February, I learned that I was a finalist in that last contest for the sixth mystery in my series, Killer Frost. I had tried the contest seven times, and I was elated. But by the end of March, I was certain I hadn’t won, as I hadn’t heard anything from St. Martin’s, and I knew that a winner in a recent year had received a phone call in late March. I had already been querying agents, and I had some interest from them, but not as much as I had hoped from being a finalist. But I was going to Malice, in any case.

Diane (left) and Kendel (right), moderators for our Guppy Press Quest listserve.

During the reception before the banquet Saturday night, I chatted with Kendel Flaum and Diane Vallere, who moderate a relatively new Guppy listserve called Press Quest, which I’d joined. I’d had better luck with small presses that publish mysteries. Of the six presses we’d learned about through interviews Diane and Kendel had arranged, four had requested material from me. They all passed, but I’d been more encouraged than I was after three years of agent searching.

Kendel and Diane were startled, apparently, to realize I was in my 70s, not my 40s, given my energy. Kendel confided that she, too, had been a finalist, and her agent had been able to learn that she wasn’t the winner, but Kendel thought maybe the winner didn’t know until it was announced at the banquet. Also, at the reception, when I spoke to Carolyn of the Charles Todd author duo, she also said she thought the winner learned at the banquet, which began immediately.

I was thrown into turmoil inside. Was this possible, that I might still win? Common sense flew to the winds. My emotions rattled around loose like marbles being shaken inside a cup. I had nowhere and no time to get a grip.

Sasscer Hill, author of Full Mortality.
But I’d chosen to sit at Sasscer Hill’s table for the banquet. Sasscer’s novel on horse racing, Full Mortality (see my blog posted May 8, immediately before this one), was up for an Agatha for First Best Novel of 2010, and I’d voted for her. Convention members vote for all the Agatha awards. I hadn’t yet read her novel, but I’d read a short story of hers in 2008. I’d ordered her novel, but it hadn’t arrived by the Thursday I left for Alexandria, to stay the weekend with my friends Sharon and John, and go to the convention by Metro. Nevertheless, based on her short story, I was sure the novel was good.

Sasscer welcomed me to her table. She confessed to wanting to go into the bathroom to scream–she was so nervous about the Agatha--and I confessed I’d gotten unsettled because two people had told me the winner of my contest might not yet know. So we consulted each other and compared notes on the two asparagus spears laid neatly on our plates beside the fancy chicken and beef entrees, and a very small scoop of mashed potatoes, not to mention the gnocchi appetizer–some kind of dumpling, I figured out by tasting--smothered in a tomato sauce. I don’t think Sasscer tasted hers. She was suspicious. The fancy chocolate dessert with raspberries (Chocolate Pots du Creme) was good.

Then the Agathas. Louise won Best Novel for the fourth time–a record. Another Canadian, Mary Jane Maffini, won Best Short Story. I did not win the Malice Domestic First Best Mystery and a publishing contract with St. Martin’s. Linda Rodriguez, for her novel Every Secret Thing, won, and Sasscer did not win First Best published mystery, although another Guppy did, Avery Ames, with her cheese shop mystery, The Long Quiche Goodbye.

But Sasscer and I may have made more of a bond because we didn’t win. When I got home, her novel had arrived, and I have now read it. After you read my review, you’ll see what a winner it is, Agathas or not.

This is a horse Sasscer bred and raised, as a one-year-old, name of  Out Smarten, with flowers in his mane.

So sharing that suspense with Sasscer was worth the convention. I reminded her that the fact that we were writing about what we cared passionately about, was what mattered, not the prizes, and comforted myself in the act of comforting her.

Sunday we got to hear Sue Grafton be interviewed by Julie Smith, a writer she’d known since her youth. Sue was charming, down-to-earth, easy to love. I had talked to her once, too, when she sat near me, and I told her I’d read all her books, from A is For Alibi through U is for Undertow. Sasscer and I had agreed to how much we loved chickens at the banquet, and Sue talked about how she now had chickens, how much she loved them, how she and her husband made gourmet food for them so they wouldn’t get bored, and how the chickens climbed the fence when they carried it out to them every evening. After the interview was over, Sasscer and I both rushed up to tell Sue about our love for chickens, too.

Sasscer, age 6, with her rooster, Whitey.  Caption:  "Get Your Own Chicken."

At that interview, and at the Agatha Tea afterwards, I got to sit with Diane and Kendel, such warm, lively women, and I felt cherished. I’ve learned that I enjoy new places and situations most when I feel valued. I’m pretty sociable, but my introverted side comes out, as does that of many writers, I think, in such a big convention, so I’d spent a fair amount of time alone in the crowd, but here I was with two women with whom I shared our common struggle to get published, and we all three liked and valued each other.

We laughed when, at this big Tea, lavishly provided with cake, sandwiches, and other goodies, coffee or decaf, no tea came, as Kendel and Diane had requested, until toward the end, when they were offered an elegant box of tea bags to choose from, but it was another fifteen minutes, and the tea was over, when their hot water finally arrived.

Agatha Christie herself couldn’t have been more surprised than we were at the hotel’s failure to provide the chief ingredient for Afternoon Tea. Next time, will these lively women ask for decaf? Will we all have books about to be published by then? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Someone once told me that the closest ties are made with people you go through something hard with. So I think I’ll always feel closely connected to Sasscer, Diane, and Kendel.

Left to right, Diane, Kendel, Judy, and unidentified mystery fan waiting for Sue Grafton interview, front row!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Full Mortality: A Nikki Latrelle Racing Mystery by Sasscer Hill

Midsummr at Hoganvillaea Farm:  White Rock Hens, Zinnias, and Cosmos.

Full Mortality. Sasscer Hill. A Nikki Latrelle Racing Mystery. Wildside Press, Rockville, MD, 20850. 2010. 176 pp. ISBN: 978-1-4344-0398-8.  A Review.
 The cover of Sasscer Hill’s first mystery novel, Full Mortality, proclaims it "America’s answer to Dick Francis." I was never one to become involved with horses, and I surprised myself a few years ago when I went through every Dick Francis novel I could get my hands on. I even found a few in the Kostroma, Russia, regional library.

This claim about Full Mortality is true. I never figured out how Francis kept me racing through his pages, but I recognize the same mysterious pace and constant tension in Full Mortality as Nikki, a young jockey, once a run-away from an abusive step-father, pulled me from one danger to another, revealing her physical and spiritual courage, and what I can only call grit–the same grit I find in Sue Grafton’s character Kinsey Milhone.

Yet the voice, the story, and the characters are very much Hill’s own creation. This lonely, compassionate young woman stumbles into the middle of con men, insurance and betting scams, and grieves over every abused horse. She can set aside her errors about people, who betray and mistreat her right and left, and risk everything she has to save a horse or bring a killer to justice. She rises again every time she is deceived or knocked down. She simply won’t give up.

This novel was nominated for an Agatha in the recent Malice Domestic mystery convention in Bethesda, for the first best traditional mystery novel of 2010, and deserves a wide audience, beyond the world of horses and racing. Sasscer Hill not only knows her horses, but the human world that surrounds them.

What I love best are the relationships of trust and love that Nikki builds with the rather gruff horse-trainer Jim, for whom she rides and occasionally snags jockey jobs; her friend Lorna, who had been in a reform school and is slowly pulling herself up because of her love for horses. Nikki helps her with a difficult horse, but Lorna has her turn to rescue Nikki. Then there’s Mello, the black man who knows horses in a way that goes beyond intuition into mysticism. He claims Nikki’s horse is the same fabulous horse that won races years earlier. Nikki is spooked at first but comes to trust Mello, who never lets her down.

I like the way Hill breaks all the stereotypes. Reading this book is fun but at the same time, deeply serious and moving. Here’s a mystery author who writes with her heart in her mouth. Read her. For more about Nikki and Sasscer:

Judy Hogan, Hoganvillaea Farm, Moncure, N.C.

*** I will soon post my thoughts on the Malice Domestic conference, where I enjoyed the awards banquet sitting beside Sasscer Hill.  JH