Sunday, October 28, 2012

So Subtle and Gentle a Happiness

Zinnias on my dining table, August 2011, After Hurricane Irene.  Now we wait to see what Hurricane Sandy off the coast will do.
The vase was from my first Roadmap to Great Literature for New Writers class in 1981, a Penelope vase, she who was faithful.


The Telling that Changes Everything XV. April 1, 2012

For Judi Ivie, my editor at Mainly Murder Press

Be content.

Life showers Her gifts on those who live

well, fulfill the purpose for which they
were born, and go out to meet others with
their hands full, their hearts warm, their
smiles genuine and freely given.  
–The Telling That Changes Everything I.

We can be
killed, maimed, have lies told
about us, but our truth will
shine into their darkness,
whoever they are, whatever
their intentions.  Their humanity
is as frail and needy as our own.
They also have the choice: to be
who they are or betray themselves,
the worst evil there is, and so
often not named in our world,
more and more confused about
what matters. 
–The Telling That Changes Everything II.

Keep on being who you 
are, doing what you love.  It counted before.
It counts now.  It will always count.  Don’t
worry.  You have what it takes.  
–The Telling That Changes Everything XIV.

A more complete yet so subtle and gentle a
happiness lifted me until I felt suspended
all day, for no reason, for every reason.
My work was light.  Nothing disturbed
my equanimity, the serene confidence
that was like white, layered clouds under me,
a protective quilt come to assert that, yes,
I was where I needed to be, doing what I 
needed and wanted to do.  My own life,
my way of seeing the world and other
people, my words and books, my life 
here with plants and creatures, loving
neighbors and friends, is exactly right.
I’m past the crossroads now.  It will get
harder.  It already has.  To be in the world

and not of the world is never easy, always 

fraught with potentially disturbing
consequences.  I feel ahead of time the 
jealousy, hatred, rage I may stir because 
I succeed, because I’m putting my simple 
vision of love and transformation into 
stories, into words, and other people
embrace them.  A neighbor man tells me
he loves me.  I’ve had a Christmas hug
from another man who will care for my
hens when I’m gone.  “When I was 
a little boy,” Clavin says, “I wanted to
ride the school bus.  I wanted knowledge.
But all I got was a cap gun.”  Now he sits
with Robert, who is dying of cancer.  They
have been friends since they worked in 
tobacco fields as children.  My friends
mail me checks for my new book, cheer
me on.  Susan in the post office is as
excited as I am when my new book arrives
in the mail.  Another woman copies my
pre-sales flyer and gives it to her book-
reading friends.  There may be contemptuous
looks, scornful smiles, bitterness because
I succeed where they have failed.  Always
we can choose which voices we heed and
hold close to our hearts.  I choose the
ones that made me float with seeming flimsy
clouds holding me up.  But words do lift.
My editor writes: “Yes, we believe in
your book, but, more importantly, we
believe in you, Judy.”  We choose the
reality we trust, the bonds of affection
that best pull us up to our full height,
egg us on to do our most outstanding
work, give our gifts whole and unclouded
by doubt or dismay.  It’s called an act
of faith.  It doesn’t make you rich, 
but it does make you happy. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Killer Frost Reader Comments--Part II.

Autumn trees at Sugarloaf Mountain (MD).  Photo by John Ewing


Killer Frost Reader Comments, Part II.

Carol Hay, writer friend, in an email (Sept. 16): I finished [Killer Frost] yesterday morning and loved it!  I like Penny very much and enjoyed spotting similarities between her and her creator.  I also feel drawn to the neighborhood community Penny and Kenneth have at home.  Is the next book a sequel?  You could knock off Sarah, and give joint custody of Seb to Leroy, Penny, and Kenneth. :) And I’m very concerned about the futures of those students!  I’m looking forward to the launch party and to the next book!  My warmest congratulations!

Elisabeth Stagg, writer friend, in an email (Sept 23): I enjoyed Killer Frost so much!  It was especially interesting to see the connections between Penny Weaver’s experiences and yours–and to see how artfully you turned life into fiction to illuminate so many important issues at HBCUs.  No shortage of scandals in higher ed, of course, including at our flagship UNC-CH.  Bravo!  And I hope to have the chance to read more of the series.

Debra Goldstein, mystery author, in an email (Sept. 27): I finished your book and truly enjoyed it.  I haven’t decided if I like Penny or Sammie or one of the younger girls best, but I want to get to know them all better.  

Rosalyn Lomax, English and Drama teacher, in an email (Oct 7, after the reading in Goldsboro):
Meeting you was a pleasure, but you are not the only new friend I have made.  I now have met and come to love Penny and all the characters who populate Killer Frost.  I treated myself to the luxury of reading it in its entirety today.   Your dialogue is natural; your characters are real; your murder mystery is intriguing; your portrayal of an issue dear to my heart, the sadness of underprepared college students and the frustration yet determination of faculty to make a difference, is very powerfully woven into the story as an integral part of the mystery itself.  Brava!

Chief Gary Tyson, Siler City Police, in an email Oct. 10: Judy, I just finished reading Killer Frost. It was one of the most incredible books that I have read.  I became engulfed in the reality of the plot.  In my mind, I became an eyewitness to a struggle that is all too common in many African American families.  The characters were indeed real.  They were as real as folks that I come into contact with on a regular basis.  The unsung heroes that make a difference in so many young people’s lives each and every day.  Folks like Malvina (AKA Margie Horton Ellison) who was community organizing before it became fashionable.*
The book flowed with such grace.  It kept me engaged.  There were also some jewels that could be plucked from the plot.  One was the awesome power of protest.  If only folks still remembered the protests of the Civil Rights Movement.  Folks would be doing more than “being sick and tired of being sick and tired” with ungodly stuff that is on the news and spoken at our kitchen tables on a daily basis.  Another jewel to be plucked was the dire need for good leadership and mentorship.  The raw kind of leadership that is willing to go down with the ship if the cause is right.  (We know that God looks after his soldiers.)  The kind of leadership that will either give a young person a gentle push, or, if needed, a swift kick in the butt to get them back on track (Mr. Oscar’s type).  The book offered a lot of drama with no blood, guts, and sex that dominates our airwaves and books in our current society. You were able to capture a lot of drama, with a few horrific moments, in a clean kind of old-fashioned manner.  How refreshing to read a modern day drama with an old-fashioned twist.
Wow!  Thanks for a narrative that reminds us all that even with the dire problems we face today, “the frost” has not destroyed our determination to overcome.

*Note: Killer Frost is dedicated to Margie Ellison, with whom I was privileged to work in our local Chatham County politics, 2005-6.  The character Malvina is modeled on Margie.

Margaret Stephens, writer friend (in an email Oct 10): Judy, what an intriguing cast of characters!  I especially like the feisty young black female students, nice and mouthy.  I’m glad you killed off the more objectionable of the faculty/staff.  Why not?  Glad that Penny stuck with her job, because she was obviously doing good there.  Curious about how kind and supportive Kenneth is.  Is he for real?  Or just a wonderful daydream?
I did feel a little like I was coming into the middle of things, especially when the community got together at Penny’s house.  But then, I was coming in in the middle–this is book five of the series, or so, yes?***  It would be nice to have had more background, mostly about the relationship and the local friends, who are a good combination of ages and personalities.  Really liked the twist with Sarah’s ex being such a good dad, the whole ‘who’s keeping the kids tonight’ bit.  Sarah has some growing up to do...
Penny and Kenneth are such unique couple, and the whole Wales/NC six-month life is special.
Good work.  What an achievement!  What a way to be celebrating your 70s!

*** Note: Killer Frost is #6 in the series.  I hope to get the early ones published soon, and #7-10 are already written.

Marie Hammond, writer friend (in a letter received 10-19-12): For me [Killer Frost] was revealing and enriching.  If it’s an accurate representation of student life at HBCUs (as I think it must be), then it’s a tragedy.  How sad for all those kids whose primary and secondary education has been such a failure.  Of course I realize that many of these students would not be in college at all except that the better African-American students are recruited by other schools.  That’s no excuse, however, for allowing so many to graduate high school without learning basic skills.  Your book is an eye-opener in that regard.
Other observations: the book is not a typical mystery, in that the plot contains many elements that have nothing to do with the murders.  The story is as much about good teaching, friendship, student rights, farming, and basic human decency as about crime.  I like that!  It reveals who you are.  In fact, Judy Hogan comes through as clearly and forcefully in this book as in any of your journal entries I’ve read.  Penny’s compassion, encouraging spirit, and willingness to work hard for the students are ideal traits for a teacher–we need more like her (you) in the classroom.
Here are [my favorite parts of the book]: 1) Rick Clegg’s speech at the Black History convocation is superb.  It’s a sermon worthy of Elaine Goolsby, simple on the surface, seemingly easy to understand, yet quite profound.  “The truth will out” was one of my mother’s favorite sayings and therefore is one of mine, too.  Did the speech come straight out of your head, or was it based on something you heard or read?
2) The ending is touching and multi-layered.  Various threads are tied together by the text of the song “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”  Merilee’s dream, her singing talent, the vulnerability of children, the sad and deprived childhood of many of the students, and how much better things could be if people cared for each other are some of the ideas suggested by the song.
So, congratulations on a good book, which I enjoyed reading.  Hope to see you at the Regulator Bookshop reading on November 8.

**Note: I did write Rick Clegg’s speech out of my head.  Elaine Goolsby is a good friend who writes sermons as a lay person in the Methodist Church.  I have heard African American preachers and speakers on numerous occasions.  My editor at Mainly Murder Press asked if they needed to get permission to use the speech.  That pleased me.  JH

Katherine Wolfe, writer friend, in an email 10-19-12: Sounds like your discussions of the book have been interesting and helpful.  I like the idea of ways St. Francis can help unprepared students.  An important topic!  As I read your book, I never thought about you presenting black students in a bad way... I just thought you were presenting them as they were.. And being their champion, practicing “tough love” to help them succeed.  I could feel Penny’s concern and joy in successes.

Pam Kilby, writer friend, in an email 10-19-12: Killer Frost introduces Penny Weaver, an intelligent, sensitive North Carolina writer and teacher.  She’s also no slouch as a sleuth, amateur variety, who not only walks the walk but jumps in with both feet.  By novel’s end the central mystery is solved, but the reader wants to know more about Penny.  For example, how did she meet Kenneth, her Welsh policeman husband, and what’s the source of the underlying tension between Penny and her daughter Sarah?  I’m looking forward to subsequent novels featuring Penny that will answer these questions and reveal more of her character while plunging into the midst of another compelling mystery.


I welcome more comments from my readers.  This is the best part! JH

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Review: Louise Penny's The Beautiful Mystery

The Beautiful Mystery.  Louise Penny.  August 2012.  St. Martin’s Minotaur Books.  ISBN: 968-0-312-65546-4.  Hard cover. $25.99.  373 pages.

Louise Penny’s eighth mystery novel, The Beautiful Mystery, blends many meanings of the word mystery.  It is a mystery novel, with a straight-forward plot.  Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his second in command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, live for some time in the monastery of St. Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups in order to discover and arrest the monk who killed their choir master, Prior Mathieu.

A second mystery is that surrounding the very ancient Gregorian chants, which were “soothing, contemplative, magnetic,” and were known as “the beautiful mystery.”  Monks believed they were “singing the word of God, in the calm, reassuring, hypnotic voice of God.”  In the ninth century those ancient plainsong chants were written down in the first form of musical notation: “waves--short, squiggling lines” called neumes.  When this monastery released a recording, the Church realized that they were singing that form of ancient plainsong which had gotten lost and corrupted.  But these monks lived outside civilization in the wilds of Quebec, not leaving their monastery, except for the abbot, or allowing visitors in, until the murder occurs.  So a second mystery is: how did these monks learn that very early plainsong that had been lost for a thousand years?

Gamache and Beauvoir have only begun their careful investigation into the split that had occurred among the monks between those led by the dead prior, who wanted to make a new plainsong recording and lift their vow of silence so the monks could travel and be interviewed, and those monks who wanted to keep the status quo, led by the abbot, when Gamache’s boss, Chief Superintendent Sylvain Francoeur, arrives by noisy plane and takes over the case.  A third mystery: why has the Chief Superintendent come and what is he up to besides trying to upstage and wrest control from Gamache?  Gamache and Francoeur are fully aware that they are enemies.  Gamache is determined to root out the corruption at the top of the Surete, and Francoeur is determined to destroy Gamache.
Then there is a fourth mystery: the moral struggle in Gamache.  He can’t let himself be pulled into the insidious game-playing, the baiting of traps to set off his anger that are Francoeur’s specialty.  He can’t give in to his rage.  Will he be able to stay calm, sane, in control when threatened in new and devious ways?

Beauvoir has his moral struggle, too.  He is only recently recovered from his addiction to the pain medicine he needed after his injury in the raid when so many of Gamache’s team were killed.  A fifth mystery: will Beauvoir be able to stay clean as the tension ratchets up?  He also hates Francoeur and wants to protect Gamache, who doesn’t want to be protected.

Throughout the book, we, too, contemplate the beauty of the music, and how devoted to it the monks are, its seeming to compensate for all the things in the outside world that they don’t have.  The music and their participation in it, the way they are transported and transfixed by the music, apparently satisfies them on both human and spiritual levels.  This experience of ecstasy is compared to that of an addict high on his drug of choice.  A sixth mystery: how can music be so powerful?  How could murder happen in such blessed circumstances?
Not specifically articulated here, but present, is a seventh mystery:  is the magnum mysterium a truth that can be known only through divine revelation?  

Also implied, as we explore the monastery with Gamache and Beauvoir, is an eighth mystery: the baffling, nearly unknowable reality of human character.

Louise Penny recently won the Anthony award for her 2011 novel, Trick of the Light.  She has been, with this new book, number two on the New York Times Best-Selling list; high also on many other lists, including: NPR, Washington Post, Vancouver Sun, Los Angeles Times, Toronto Globe and Mail, Macleans, Publishers’ Weekly, San Francisco Chronicle; Independent Booksellers, USA, Independent Booksellers, Canada.

This novel explores all those mysteries without once being oblivious to all the skepticism and even hostility in our twenty-first century to formal religion, to the Church.

The Church through the ages valued music as way to enchant, enlighten, delight, and reveal truth to the human soul.  Penny’s book will remind you of deep truths that often elude us twenty-first century dwellers.  Don’t miss it.  If you haven’t yet read the first seven novels, do that first.  You have a treat in store.  

This author, with her first book, Still Life, was rejected over and over by agents, in the U.S., in Canada, in the U.K.  She said in her interview [on this blog: see May 29, 2011]: “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.”

This last is for you writers who think of giving up!  Don’t.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

We Have To Know What We Feel

Photos taken at Goldsboro reading by Mary Susan Heath


The Wayne County Library in Goldsboro, which hosted me Friday afternoon, Oct 5, to read and sell books, was rewarding in new ways.  Katherine Wood Wolfe, who once studied creative writing with me, had prepared so carefully and decorated for fall and Halloween, laid out cookies and lemonade, gathered in her friends, many from her writing group, and even a rector and a local columnist for the News-Argus.  Their interest and excitement was so reassuring: they bought books, and they want me to come back for my next book.  I could tell that my characters already live in their minds.  Talk about rewarding.  Thank you, Goldsboro folks! 

Back in March, as I worked to prepare for fall readings, signings, reviews, I wrote this poem (below), already feeling that Killer Frost was going to take off.  Now here it goes!  I’ll hope to meet and interest folks at Durham’s South Regional Library next Tuesday, 7 P.M. October 9.  Durham County Library was my stomping ground back in the 80s when I taught Roadmap to Great Literature for New Writers.  It will be like coming home.  Judy


The Telling that Changes Everything XIV.
March 25, 2012

For Margaret and Paul

I wanted fame after my death, not before, but time has ripened both me and my words.
–That Inner Circling Sun XI.  January 16, 2011


I’ve passed a dizzying week and not from the pollen,
which is heavy and everywhere.  The breath of success
is what has me pulled high into a new atmosphere–
purer oxygen but harder to breathe.  The libraries, 
bookstores, mystery websites are drawn to the book
and to me, its author.  I’ve been writing stories since
I was seven; poetry, since thirteen; diary, since fourteen; 
books, since age thirty-seven–half a lifetime ago–
mystery novels since age fifty-four.  I’ve published 
some poems, articles, books, but now my debut
mystery has plunged itself into the surf and begun
to swim far out, to ocean depths I never conceived
were possible for me, for my books during my
lifetime.  So it is.  Not that I won’t be castigated,
scoffed at, dismissed, but I’m used to that.  What’s
new is being this wanted–for my words, my stories,
my truth-telling; in short, for me, the way I really
am.  I’ve rededicated myself so many times to 
my own life purpose: showing love, writing out 
my mind, putting the wisdom of transformation
into my words, helping people see each other 
and the world they live in more accurately,
letting go of stereotypes and hurried, careless
solutions to ongoing, relentless human dilemmas
and suffering. We have to know what we feel,
what we think about ourselves and other people.
We can’t glide through life, or we slip right
over the edge into the abyss and are lost.  No,
we have to make an effort, hear the lonely voice
in our soul, go out on a limb, learn who we are 
and what we’re passionate about, and then fight.
There’s no winning without some pluck and
persistence; some grit and humor.  Then,
when a wind comes along and lifts you, after
all that struggle, that picking yourself up again
every time you fall down, you have to trust it,
let it take you into a whole new place in your 
life and in the lives of other people, a new room 
where communion is frequent and possible,
where people love the characters you’ve 
created and hunger for the wisdom you’ve
locked into words, made alive in stories
they will search out far into the future, long 
after you are dead.  Keep on being who you 
are, doing what you love.  It counted before.
It counts now.  It will always count.  Don’t
worry.  You have what it takes.