Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sara Sue Hoklotubbe: Review and Interview

Sara Sue Hoklotubbe, author of Deception on All Accounts and The American Cafe.

Sarah Hoklotubbe’s Cherokee Mystery Novels 

Tony Hillerman about Deception on All Accounts: "A dandy mystery novel. Don’t miss it."

Sara Sue Hoklotubbe’s mystery novels, set in the Tahlequah region of northeastern Oklahoma, fall into the tradition of Tony Hillerman and Margaret Coel, whose books Sara admires. If you like their writing and learning about another native American tribe in the twenty-first century, the Eastern Cherokee, originally in the mountains of North Carolina, but forced to take the "Trail of Tears" to Oklahoma by Andrew Jackson in the early 1800s, you’ll enjoy Hoklotubbe’s books.

Deception on All Accounts came out from the University of Arizona Press in 2003 and is the story of Sadie Walela, who was a bank teller in the small town of Sycamore Springs. One morning she makes the decision to go into the bank alone, although it is against the rules, because no other employees have turned up, and she needs to open the vault and then open the bank on time. A robber had hidden inside and makes her give him a huge amount of cash from the vault, and then he kills another employee when that man disobeys the robber.

Not only do we have the mystery of who the robber was and how he can be identified and brought to justice, but we learn about Sadie’s life on her farm, with her beloved wolf-dog, Sonny, her horse, Joe, and her Uncle Eli and his wife, Mary, who live nearby and stand in for Sadie’s parents. Sadie, her aunt, and her uncle live on Indian land portioned to their family when Indian Territory became the state of Oklahoma.

Sadie not only goes through the trauma of the robbery but is suspected of colluding with the robber. Then she’s promoted at the bank. Her whole relationship to the bank management is confusing and depressing.

The plot moves quickly, and the book’s title is more than justified. I identified easily with Sadie and wanted to cheer as she worked her way through the various land mines on the path at the bank.

Tony Hillerman and Margaret Coel both lived close to and respected the tribal people they have written about, but Sara is Cherokee, and we learn much about their traditions and ways in present day Oklahoma.

Sadie returns in The American Café (2011, University of Arizona Press). Having inherited some money, she buys and opens a café that had once belonged to her great aunt. She keeps its original name, The American Café. Before she can get the café ready for customers, a Creek man named Red and some sawmill workers who come in regularly for their morning coffee present themselves. Their response to her telling them she’s not open yet is to offer to make coffee and then help themselves. Before they leave, a woman whom the men claim is looney comes in with a shotgun and threatens Sadie, calling the café a "godforsaken den of sin." The men help control her, and Sadie checks the shotgun–no bullets.

Then Sadie learns that Goldie Ray, the woman who had sold her the café, has been killed, and Sadie is pulled into unraveling the problem of who killed her.

I highly recommend Hoklotubbe’s series. I learned about it last April at the Malice Domestic Convention for mystery fans and authors, at the "Malice Go-Round" event, when new authors circulate, telling a roomful of people about their recently published mysteries, in a 90-second spiel.


I asked Sara to answer some questions about her writing. Thank you, Sara.

1. When did you begin writing? Why?

I started writing in 1997 when I got married, moved to a new state, and couldn’t find a job. With extra time on my hands, my husband encouraged me to do something I’d always wanted to do – write. I invested in a couple of writing courses at the local community college where I made contact with other writers and published my first newspaper articles. A few years later, I started on my first book.

2. When and why did you begin writing mysteries?

I didn’t set out to write a mystery, it just turned out that way. I wanted to write about the inequalities women suffer in the banking business, something I had personally experienced for over twenty-one years. However, as I began to write and the story unfolded, the characters took over and before I knew it I had a murder mystery on my hands.

I think Tony Hillerman inspired me to write mysteries. I could hardly wait for the release of his next book. I felt like I knew Chee and Leaphorn personally and loved learning about the Navajo and Hopi people. As a Cherokee citizen, I wanted to write about my people and set my books in the middle of the Cherokee Nation where I grew up, and I wanted to tell realistic stories void of the mythical stereotypes that show up all too often in books about American Indians. I believe reading books by authors such as Tony Hillerman and Margaret Coel have helped me do that.

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

I am currently working on the third book in the Sadie Walela Mystery Series. Sadie is a Cherokee woman who seems to always end up in the middle of a murder investigation. Her friend Lance Smith, also Cherokee, is a police officer who lends his expertise to solve the crime, while Sadie has a tendency to root out the reason the murder happened in the first place.

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

Soon after I finished the manuscript of my first book, Deception on All Accounts, I attended a gathering of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. As a novice writer, I had already had several unpleasant exchanges with agents and editors that had left me wondering why I had bothered to write anything. No one seemed to be interested in what I had written. At the awards banquet, I approached the winner of the Writer of the Year award and asked him how he had published the fiction book he had written about a small tribe in the southern United States. He gave me the name of his editor at the University of Arizona Press and suggested I send a query letter. He thought they might be interested in my work because it was about Native people. I sent the query and they asked for my manuscript. Six months later they offered me a contract.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic. They also published my second book, The American Café.

During this whole process, I discovered something very important – rejection doesn’t always mean your work is bad. While it is of utmost importance to submit quality work, it is of equal importance to make a connection with the right publisher. I like to think of it as two pieces of a puzzle that have to fit together correctly in order to make a complete picture. It is futile to submit to publishers who have no interest in what you write.

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

The first rule of beginning writing is to write about what you know. I write about the Cherokee people because that’s who I am. While my books are mysteries, I like to think they go deeper than that. When my readers turn the last page of my book, I want them to feel like they learned something about Cherokee life, about relationships, and hopefully about themselves.

Some of the issues I’ve written about are discrimination, pride, love, jealousy, family secrets, and veterans with post traumatic stress disorder. These are not Cherokee issues, these are people issues. Everyone should be able to relate to them.

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

It’s surreal. I don’t know if I will ever get used to opening a package that holds the advance copy of a book with my name on the front of it. When I scan the pages and see my words, I get emotional every time. I feel so unworthy. Writing is very hard work for me, but the reward of seeing my book in print is like a dream come true.

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

I continue to be amazed when I receive praise from readers who took the time to send notes to me through my publisher. It is extremely humbling and I have saved each and every one.

My favorite review for The American Café came from Margaret Coel. She wrote:

"An absorbing mystery that draws the reader into the rich history, culture and landscape of Cherokee Country. The American Café has all of the twists and turns expected in a first-rate mystery, but those are only part of its charm. A gifted storyteller, Sara Hoklotubbe writes of family, the fragile ties that bind people together and the links to the past that are always just below the surface of things. Compassionate and wonderful!"

Another great review came from Library Journal:

"Great characters and an authentic Native American setting make this second series title a good pick for Tony Hillerman fans."

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

The books I have published so far are: Deception on All Accounts, 2003, and The American Café, 2011, both published by the University of Arizona Press.

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

I am currently working on the third book in the Sadie Walela Mystery Series and my goal is to have it ready to submit by the end of the year.

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

I have been a member of Sisters in Crime for several years and I especially appreciate the support and information they provide for both published and unpublished mystery writers. I enjoy their newsletters and blogs, and their research about the current state of the mystery publishing business is invaluable. I highly recommend membership.

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

Malice Domestic, Bouchercon, and Left Coast Crime are all great fan conventions. The formats are similar with an array of panels on every subject imaginable as it pertains to mysteries. I have served as a panelist at all three conventions and enjoyed meeting other authors and fans.

I participated in the "Malice Go Round" this year and it was great fun. We had to pitch our newly published book to potential readers in only a few minutes, one table at a time, in a banquet room full of tables. Each author handed out bookmarks, postcards, or something unique, hoping the listeners would keep it and then seek out their book. I was pleasantly surprised to hear from several people later who either bought my book or found it in a library as a result of my presentation. What a great way to meet new readers!

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

The working title for my current work-in-progress is Giggle Hill. It tells the story of Sadie’s neighbor, an elderly Cherokee man and WWII veteran named Buck Skinner, who disappears and is then accused of murder. Sadie’s attempt to prove Buck’s innocence uncovers more about her neighbor than she could ever imagine.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Healthy Mind

Judy during a chicken workshop, spring of 2011. 
Photo by Sarah Cress.


The ancient Greeks emphasized a healthy mind in a healthy body as a human ideal. We know now that a healthy body promotes a healthy brain. Our brain is not, in my view, exactly the same as our mind, but the brain is the mind’s base, its mode of operation certainly. If we lose our brain, our minds are helpless.

Aging brings most of us new experiences of forgetfulness. Not only: where did we put our car keys, but what was it we walked into the kitchen to do? Or what is the name of that woman or that author? One successful author I know said bluntly: "I’m having trouble with nouns."

Sometimes I can’t remember an adjective or a verb either. I know the meaning, but the exact word won’t come to me.  I’ll open a thesaurus and look for similar words, and usually I’ll find it or it will come to me. In fact, most of the forgetting I experience is because the memory is delayed. If I relax, the word will float in sometimes in a few minutes, sometimes a day later.

One explanation I heard was that we have so much stored in our brains that our filing cabinets are full, and it takes awhile to retrieve a name or a verb. Fortunately, the kitchen errand usually comes back to me once I’m in the kitchen.

These experiences can make you wonder: Is my mind going? Am I getting dementia? I’m sure I’m not since generally my memory and muse (Memory was the Mother of the Nine Muses in Greek mythology) are both healthy, active, and constant companions as I write books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction.

An article in AARP Magazine, March/April 2010, page 39 ff, "Boost Your Brain Health," revealed new information about our brains: "An accomplished mathematician in his early seventies consulted [his doctor] after struggling with calculations, and after his wife noticed he was getting cranky. [The doctor] put the mathematician through a battery of tests–and the man got top scores on all of them, including 30 out of 30 on a memory test and a whopping 140 on his IQ test. So when [the doctor] saw his brain scan, he was stunned: it had all the markings of full-blown Alzheimer’s disease.

"Usually people with such profound brain changes can barely carry on a conversation....An answer, many scientists believe, is ‘cognitive reserve’: the combination of a person’s innate abilities and the additional brainpower that comes from challenging the mind. Studies show that diverse, mentally simulating tasks result in more brain cells, more robust connections among those cells, and a greater ability to bypass age- or disease-related trouble spots in the brain."

Here are some recommended lifestyle habits/routines for a healthy brain:

1) Walk and talk with a partner.
2) Vary your routine. Novelty stimulates neural connections.
3) Be a lifelong learner.
4) Play.
5) De-stress. Focus your mind and relax.
6) Imagine. Include creativity in your day.
7) Socialize and make new friends.
8) Eat right–a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fish.
9) Work with your doctor to keep blood pressure, weight, blood sugar, and cholesterol in check.
10) Shun gimmicks. Rely on challenging new habits.

You can get a reprint of the article by calling 866-888-3723. You can find it on line at

I do walk alone. I see people to talk to usually over a meal. When I teach, I see more people more often. I talk to people in the post office, in stores, to my neighbors, and I have some regular email friends.

I do love my routines, and I hate it when I hit interruptions like a problem with my chickens. A predator came into the orchard midday last week and killed a hen. Or my car breaks down, or I get sick. I do work to avoid such crises by being proactive, taking good care of my hens, my car, and my health. When the problems arise, and they always do, our brains can get to work at solving them.

Here’s where the mind and attitude come in.

It doesn’t even occur to me to stop keeping hens. I begin to "brainstorm" on solutions. I ask my growingsmallfarms listserve for advice. I ask people who understand dogs about possible guard dogs for the hens. Getting a new dog would be a major challenge at this point in my life, plus expense, but I’ll do that rather than give up my hens or put them back into the orchard without a good solution.

If my car is fixable, I get it fixed, even though it’s sixteen years old. If I’ve gotten sick, I do everything I can to get back to full health, and if need be, I change my lifestyle: more exercise, stop drinking coffee, more servings of fruit and vegetables daily.

The mind can throw up its hands and despair or set the brain to work on a solution.

All human beings have problems. Wise human beings accept that there will be problems, some within their power to solve, others beyond their control. That’s why the Alcoholics Anonymous Serenity Prayer is so potent: "Give me the courage to change the things I can change, to accept the things I can’t change, and the wisdom to tell the difference."

The first thing we can change is our attitude. I know too many people my age who accept the changes aging brings as inevitable, steps closer to death. They expect to have a stroke or a heart attack. When they have new problems with legs, feet, knees, hips, they bow to the inevitable or expect doctors to solve their problems with medicine or surgery. Obviously sometimes doctors are needed, but we can often improve our own health even when we’re old.

I was having twinges in my knees twenty years ago. A man who worked in fitness told me to walk more. My doctor also kept urging me to walk farther. "The more exercise, the better. Walk two miles instead of one." So I have been walking, and my knees rarely have twinges.

I eat less–small, more frequent meals, and I stopped my bedtime snack. I gave up coffee, and now I can tell better when I’m tired. It was a silly reason I finally worked on losing weight, but that also helped my knees. I’d bought a dress I liked for my son’s wedding, but I needed to lose ten pounds for it to fit comfortably. I did fairly easily: less food, more walking, and I’ve kept that up.

It may be harder to change and try new things as we age.

Sometimes I’m scared, as I was about attending the Writers’ Police Academy in High Point last September. But I summoned my courage, got help with directions, and did it. I got lost twice, but I found my way. Then, not only did I have the reward of an excellent program, from which I learned new things to help me in my "after fifties" career of mystery writer, but when I wrote up my experience, the editor of the National Sisters in Crime Newsletter, In Sinc, asked to quote part of my blog on her article on the Writers’ Police Academy on page one of the December issue of In Sinc.

It has been true all my adult life that, by taking on my problems (I do have a stubborn streak), by learning to "invent in desperate circumstances" (Sartre’s definition of a genius), I have not only found new solutions but have become more confident for the next time. My "reach" out into the world grows with each new challenge taken on.

I can’t always solve my problems myself. But that means asking help, and I do. I give to others what I can, and they give to me. Within reason, other people like to help.

When I had a small press, I needed so much help. I was always trying to find money, volunteers, or ideas for finding money or volunteers. Yes, people said no. So I learned which people might give money; which, time; which might give me a ride or might have ideas for solutions. I always emphasized that they had a choice: "If you want to. If it’s convenient. Or maybe you know someone?"

It’s hard to ask, but we forget that most people like to help if they can.

Yesterday Eric offered to paint the fascia boards on my house. Debbie was here to take photos for her article on me and my new book. She realized, too, that I’d need a good photo for the promotion of the book. I didn’t even have to ask. I accepted both offers gratefully. Their six-year-old daughter, Beckett, who had been shy yesterday afternoon, gradually tuned in to the spirit of what was going on with the adults.

When I asked her to draw me a picture to put on my refrigerator, she did. Now I have a handsome Thanksgiving boy turkey, with very colorful feathers, smack dab in the middle of my refrigerator.

Humor, too. Don’t forget that a healthy mind sees humor and can laugh, not only at the foibles of others, but at one’s own.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

As Simple and Holy as a Bouquet of Cosmos

Bouquet of Sensation Mix Cosmos on Judy's desk October 2011.


 In That Inner Circling Sun VIII. I wrote:
My path is clear now, and straight.
My all-too-human body has its twinges
and its doubts about all that I still plan
to accomplish, which is why that inner
sun must carry the workload and egg me on.
My greatness is an unknown, and yet I
feel it settle comfortably into the driver’s
seat, turn the key, and tell all the other
passengers: "We’re off."

In That Inner Circling Sun XIV. I wrote:

Lonely you
may be. You venture farther than most
writers want or dare to go. Your life is

lived inside a safety net around this work
you do of heeding every impulse of the
Muse. She leads. You follow. It doesn’t
get simpler, or harder, than that. Stay
where you are. Write and grow food.
Help people when you can’t say no.
Love your life, your work, every strand
that connects you to others and to your
world, where birds and other forest creatures
are as at home as you are now, here.

Let it be as simple and holy as a bouquet
of Sensation Mix cosmos, cut in a
neglected meadow, blown sideways,
then growing upward, living now,
so briefly, in a honey jar, their stems
drinking water but never fast enough
to keep them from dying. Pale lavender,
purple that is nearly red, pink--pale and
dark--white–with curving stems, buttons
ready to bud, but never with petals as
free and perfect as those that drew
their life direct from the soil, the last
heavy rain, and the south-moving sun,
A tangle of winding stems, spidery
leaves, they speak of freedom, careless
joy, and seed that persisted. The field
was bush-hogged, and they rose up
as if it had been cleared for their
benefit. Then the sweetgum saplings,
blackberry briars, tall feathery weeds
competed for space, soil, nutrients,
but they waved aloft their elegant
pastels, living and dying with equal

The fact is: I await sun.
The morning fog was warmed until
it disappeared. While they waited,
the hens groomed their feathers
back to gleaming white, huddled
for warmth, with enough space
to allow such circumspect cleaning,
like nymphs in the wood of Artemis
bathing around their goddess. When
I’m among them, they circle around
me. I’m taller, more powerful, but
Bringer of Food, Rescuer when
Lost, Speaker to their early morning
reluctant scratchy voices and their
last murmurs of contentment as
they settle at night, their dinosaur
toes gripping the wooden bars,
where they’ll sleep, and if it’s cold,
with feathers fluffed for warmth.

To put it another way, I wait upon
the Muse. If I’m a queen in the
human hive, it’s only because I’m
Her servant, desolate when she
disappears, fully alive when she slips
in again, whispering words I hadn’t
expected to hear so soon, which,
of course, subtract my power in order
to enhance hers. Servants do try to
outwit their masters. They sometimes
succeed. Oh, I can argue, and I do.
Postpone, if I don’t push it too long.
I can languish, and I do, when she
absents Herself. But then the sun
returns, it catches these variations
on the royal purple theme and
makes them glow with inner light,
and my soul becomes illumined,
too. So it becomes win-win. After
that, can I possibly believe that aging
will conquer me, or death do me in?
may be. You venture farther than most
writers want or dare to go. Your life is
lived inside a safety net around this work
you do of heeding every impulse of the
Muse. She leads. You follow. It doesn’t
get simpler, or harder, than that. Stay
where you are. Write and grow food.
Help people when you can’t say no.
Love your life, your work, every strand
that connects you to others and to your
world, where birds and other forest creatures
are as at home as you are now, here.
writers want or dare to go. Your life is
lived inside a safety net around this work
you do of heeding every impulse of the
Muse. She leads. You follow. It doesn’t
get simpler, or harder, than that. Stay
where you are. Write and grow food.
Help people when you can’t say no.
Love your life, your work, every strand
that connects you to others and to your
world, where birds and other forest creatures
are as at home as you are now, here.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

After the Backyard Chicken Workshop

This photo of my hens was taken last April by Sara Cress, a professional photographer.  The hens are two years old, laying well, and in their new feathers.  I love them!  The poem comes after the October workshop.

THAT INNER CIRCLING SUN XXVIII. After Chicken Workshop. October 9, 2011
Earlier in poem X of this book I wrote:

Yet we flourish. The Muse speaks.
We eat well from food we grew
and saved. Time opens its huge
flower. We live closer than ever to
the end of our lives, with maybe
four/fifths of our work done, and
yet we see inwardly and outwardly
into the souls of others, better than ever,
and some few see us well enough
to love and nourish us.

Then in poem XV:

May Creation’s awesome power enliven
my every hour and hold me steady
on my course, comforting, like a
frightened dog in a thunderstorm,
every nightmare my depths send up
to warn me that I’m getting old.

And in poem XXVI:

It isn’t size that matters
or whether people notice you all
the time. It’s that you live, you
flourish, you do the work you’ve
cut out for yourself every day.

It isn’t how I’m seen, but how I see.
I picked up his bored, discontented air,
wondered why he was here if he didn’t
want to learn, wondered what he saw
as others, their eyes alive with curiosity
and later gratitude, asked questions,
stared at my hens as if to memorize
every motion of their chicken behavior.
The hens fled their curiosity but returned
to peck at the corn and oats I tossed out.
That one’s not tuning in, feeling contempt,
making some judgment I wouldn’t like
but, more importantly, will make him
sick if he doesn’t let go his refusal
to see what might make his life bearable,
even pleasant. Was I seeing my enemy
then, Despair? I’m moving into
Erikson’s last stage of human maturity:
ego integrity versus despair, which
hovers in the wings, picky, discounting
whatever I’ve already achieved, throwing
wet blankets on my scheme to flourish
into and through my nineties. But the
upshot of these inner wrestling matches
will be enhanced surety, an unerring
confidence in my worth and sense of
direction. Remember: your life goes
well, and smoothly runs the river that
was once merely an intermittent creek
bed, leaf-strewn, susceptible to drought,
at times a dirt path, then a gushing
flood, hoisting heavy debris out of
its way. Even doubters and nay-sayers
notice things. Will he remember
something from his hours in my presence,
see chickweed spring up in his own
lawn and let it grow to feed his hens?
Will he revel in an omelet prepared
with fresh onions, herbs, and cheese,
eaten with new laid eggs? Will he
notice the ever-changing life around
him when he stands in a field? Will he
hear bird call, chicken gabble, soft
wind rustling grasses gone to seed?