Saturday, May 25, 2013

Review: Carolyn Hart's Letter From Home

Dear Carolyn,

I was struggling with how to write about Letter From Home, the first book of yours that I’ve read, though published ten years ago and one of fifty now to your credit, and then it came to me: I’d write you a letter.
My connection to you began because of something you said at the Malice Domestic Convention XXV, which happened earlier this month.  You were receiving the Amelia award for a lifetime contribution to the mystery community, and you’d already won three Agathas, had nine nominations for them, and been Guest of Honor (1997, Malice IX) and won the Lifetime Achievement award (2007, XIX).  During the interview you quietly said:  “Write what works for you and reflects you.  Don’t write to a trend.  Write what you want to write.”

Afterwards, I emailed you that I’d appreciated your saying that and sent you my blog address, where I’d posted my Malice report and quoted you.  You responded very quickly and said you’d like to link to my blog report from your website’s Malice page.  I’d also told you that I, too, had graduated from the University of Oklahoma, in 1959.  You wrote back that you graduated in 1958 in Journalism, so that we were contemporaries.

My first mystery was published last year, Killer Frost, and your first was published years ago, yet you treated me so respectfully, as a comrade.  Letter From Home had been mentioned in the interview with Katherine Hall Page.  It won you a best novel Agatha in 2004.  I was struck by its being set in 1944, the year, at age six, when I moved with my mother and younger sister to Norman, Oklahoma, where O.U. is located.  Your novel’s heroine and amateur detective, Gretchen Grace Gilman, is thirteen, and she lives in another small Oklahoma town.  

In 1944 I was very aware of the War.  My daddy was a Navy Chaplain in the Pacific.  My mother worked for the YWCA on the campus.  She sat at her typewriter and wrote to Daddy every day.  I didn’t know much about the bigger world in Norman, but I learned, when my mother brought home two Negro women at lunchtime during a Y conference on the campus, that Norman was a sundown town, and Negroes weren’t allowed in town after dark, nor were there any restrooms for them on campus or in town.  My mother, in fact, through the Y, worked toward the Separate but Equal judgment, which the Supreme court made before the 1954 Desegregation decision, which allowed Lois Sipuel to enter O.U. Law School, though she had to sit behind a screen.  

This early experience of racial injustice led me to a lifetime involvement with righting that wrong, but of the complex politics and social behavior of the small town I lived in, I had little idea.  Your book stirred memories though.  The song “Mairsie Doats” [“Mares eat oats”] which I loved, was one from that period.  I was not, however, thrust into the dark side of some of the consequences of that war as Gretchen was.
I like this book because of its “real people struggling with real passion,” your phrase in your essay for the big Malice XXV memory book, of why Malice was begun.  That’s what the traditional mystery was all about.  Not blood and guts.  Not explicit sex.  I found in the pages of your book a deeply human reality–the whole human comedy in the sense of the complete picture, good and bad, of those who people and run this little town.  There are plenty of folks who reject those who are different, as the woman Faye Tatum was rejected, being an artist and going to dances while her husband served in the war.  A crowd mentality comes into being fast once the word is out that the killer is at large and armed.  

Then there are the characters who challenge this small-mindedness, this tendency to condemn and rush to judgment based on fear and well before all the facts are known.  The Gazette’s editor, Walt Dennis, the police chief Frazer, Mrs. Jacobs, Gretchen’s junior high English teacher, who sends Gretchen to Dennis to apply for a reporter job, and especially Gretchen’s grandmother, Lotte Pfizer, who always sees the human beings in whatever situation, and keeps kindness, love, courage, and forgiveness front and center, for herself and for Gretchen.

All the characters are quite vivid and real, but Gretchen is the most remarkable of all to me. There she is, thirteen, asking for job because a reporter has been called up for military service, and she is already a good writer.  Mr. Dennis is rejecting–doesn’t want a girl or one so young, but he reads her “clips,” and says he’ll give her a try.  Then we witness a transformation as Gretchen slips into her new role with relative ease, also learning more about the background of her friend  Barb’s mother’s murder than the police, sheriff, or the main reporter do.

Gretchen is thrust into adulthood, doing a job made harder because Gretchen had liked Faye Tatum and worries about Barb, who is taking it hard, and also about her grandmother, who runs the Victory CafĂ© and is overworking and looking ill.  Editor Dennis comes to depend on Gretchen.  Yet she still has the child’s bewilderment, self-doubt, impulsiveness (she sneaks out at night; she doesn’t tell anyone the key information she has learned).

We also have the grandmother’s strong faith and compassion set side by side with the minister’s self-righteousness and pompous assumption that Faye must have sinned.

Throughout the book there is an understated drama of “extraordinary events in ordinary lives,” which one author at Malice said was what the traditional mystery was all about.  The characters’ dilemmas tug at our feelings.  The murder grows out of a tangle of normal and understandable human emotions.  As the book progresses, the reader feels “something is wrong with this picture,” but only at the end do we and Gretchen learn what, in fact, did happen.  I love the way Gretchen persists in doing her job, following her conscience, summoning her courage to write the truth, and taking in stride both her rejection for doing so by other teens, and the praise coming from her editor.

Thank you, Carolyn, for giving us such a book and for emphasizing how important it is to write out of our inner selves, what we know to be true and good and also what we know to be wrong and a disservice to the better part of our human nature.

Another author discovered your wisdom before you and I were born, and her words helped me as I was finding my way as a writer, fifty years ago, and these words still do help me, as did your reminder.  Sadly, this seems often a forgotten truth these days in the larger publishing world.
“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.  But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bite in comparison.” Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, p. 110, published in 1929, still in print.

Thank you, Carolyn.  

Sincerely, Judy Hogan

Carolyn Hart’s website has lots of information about her books, awards, and some Malice reports and photos.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Being Able to Cope = Wholeness

The path into Huntley Meadows, Alexandria, VA, thanks to John Ewing, photographer.  And the paths our lives take?


I move fairly quickly these years from seeing problems to working on them.  I divide things up when I have a slew of problems to solve.  One thing at a time.  I had the soybeans.  104 days to maturity.  They’re in the ground now, though I’ll be very lucky if they reach maturity, as November 17 is 17 days past the average first frost date.  In any case, they’ll put nitrogen in the soil.  I did not feel like digging the rows when I finally had the time, so I argued with myself: “Just dig the rows.”  The next day I didn’t feel like planting: “Just plant soybeans,” I told myself.  “Just spray Surround on the fruit trees.”  “Just mow.”  Today: “Just weedeat and weed.”  Divide up the tasks, the most urgent first, to make them feel manageable and bearable. 

That’s one sign that I’m whole, intact.  Another is that I don’t spend much time in anguish and almost none in self-pity.  I don’t blame others for my problems.  They are often the consequences of my own behavior.  My life feels good.  I balance between my plans and their disruption because something compelling (children’s need, politics in Chatham, etc.) feels like a priority, a thing I can’t say no to.  But I can say no when I need to.  I can set boundaries with myself and with others.  I can ask people to wait, to do without me while I take time to write.  I weather things, I cope, whether with car problems, chicken dilemmas, squirrels eating my first peach crop, having to have extra mammograms because of a tiny “spot.”  It’s maybe the main difference between being whole and not whole: being able to cope. 
I am amazed at the small things which undo my elderly poet friend Ed.  He never expects any interruption to his plans, and every interruption, no matter how small, becomes a disaster.  I see clearly the limits of his framework.  Mine needs stretching, but his is wholly inadequate for his life as lived now.  Yet I don’t think he has the emotional flexibility to change it.  I don’t think he even sees the problem.

Why the farm?  How does it add to my sense of wholeness?  Why do I hold onto it, invest so much money and time in it?  What does it give me?  I understand much better than I did what it takes from me and demands if it is to be a producing farm, even in its role of adding to my self-sufficiency by providing most of my food.

I have loved farms and the farm life since I was a young child.  I worked to bring my dream of a farm to reality, to make it come true.  I said it would give me work outside so I’d stay healthy.  I spend many hours every day sitting in my writing chair or at the computer.  Farming gets me up and moving.

Once I have seeds in the ground or animals within my care, I feel committed to them.  I may not want to go out and water or weed-eat, but I will.  It’s very hard for me to abandon plants or creatures.  They may get weed-choked or neglected for a short time, but I don’t give up on them.  I go out and start on the horrendously plentiful (lots of rain plus lots of chicken litter) crop of weeds I have.  Lee Calhoun, the man I bought my heirloom apple trees from, said I had to keep a six-foot area around the fruit trees clear of weeds, and that was the first time I’d been that disciplined.  It still slides.  I lost the strawberries because the weeds did block the sunlight and take over.  

I learn from my errors.  Farming is very much a trial and error business, and you work with unpredictables: weather, insect problems, interruptions, other priorities that pull you away from the garden.  Squirrels, voles, rabbits.  With chickens you have predators.  You have to learn their chicken needs.  I now have one baby–two weeks old–separated with her mother from the flock.  Healthy and thriving so far.  Extra protected from predators by rat wire and her mother.  These chickens lay eggs for me, which I so enjoy eating.  And selling.  I can’t imagine now living without them.  Christiana said my rooster was no good because only one chick hatched from eighteen eggs.  But the rooster’s the only chicken to which I’ve promised old age.  Chanticleer is my pet.  He was chosen–the friendliest rooster of sixteen--and named–to escape slaughter.

The farm gets only my breaks from classes, editing, my own writing, but those breaks give me ballast and a rest from mental work.  The immersion in the world outside my back door nourishes me with its beauty, its surprises (all the scuppernong grapes hanging from the chicken wire that covers the chicken yard), its rewards for my labors.

The food I grow gives me better nourishment than what I would buy in the grocery store.  I have more variety to my diet.  I can treat other people to fresh eggs or tomatoes or give away zinnias.  Everywhere I look when I go outside, I see work that needs doing.  I can’t be complacent.

The temptation as we age is to become too attached to our rituals and routines; to become set in our ways.  Someone told someone else I was set in my ways.  True, I spend more time resting, taking breaks, eating quiet meals with a book for company; I sleep more.  But I can let go of my routines for a good reason, as needed, or build a new one, like feeding chickens and letting them out into their yard when I first wake up.  I like my rituals, and I know I need breaks more than I used to.  I try to avoid time pressure, stress, getting into a “hyper” place, but I’m not, I think, complacent or lazy. 
After years of trying to, I am finally leading a reasonably paced, even leisurely, life.  I still work hard.  Counting writing and e-mail (much of it political/activist) I work ten hours a day.  I rest, exercise, garden, cook, clean, eat, read six and a half hours a day.  Once or twice a week I meet friends for a meal.  I chat with my neighbors, family, or friends on the phone a few hours a week.  I am always happy to spend time with my children and grandchildren.  My schedule flexes as need be, but I find I get done what I need to and also keep my balance in this way.

Excerpt from Chapter One, Pushkin and Chickens, 2004, unpublished, copyrighted.

Tree swallows at Huntley Meadows, Alexandria, Va, thanks to John Ewing.  Let us keep our beautiful natural world in mind.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Malice Domestic Convention--Bethesda--May 3-5, 2013

Judy Hogan at the Malice Domestic Sidekicks panel, May 5, 2013
Taken by Malice photographer Greg Puhl.


For me Malice 25 represented a double-whammy.  For my fourth Malice, I had my first published mystery out, and I loved the books of the two guests of honor: Laurie King and Peter Robinson, who was interviewed by another favorite author of mine, Louise Penny.  

Louise Penny and Peter Robinson, photo by Jim Jackson

Having a book out meant I was on an author panel as an author, and Killer Frost being my first also meant I was among twenty-six authors honored at the New Author Breakfast.

Sometimes I was so caught up in what was being said during the various panels and interviews, that I forgot to take notes, but here are some snippets of things said and things that happened in a very full weekend.

Laurie King saying “the deductive reasoning that early crime-solvers, like Sherlock Holmes, used is equal to women’s intuition” especially resonated with me, as well as Peter Robinson’s “For me character is more important than forensics.”

Carolyn Hart, receiving the Amelia award for her many contributions to the mystery community, in her interview, emphasized: “Write what works for you and reflects you.  Don’t write to a trend.  Write what you want to write.”

Aaron Elkins won the Lifetime Achievement award, and he seemed surprised that his work had been so widely read and loved, but Gigi Pandian was the real surprise.  Barbara Mertz (Elizabeth Peters) had been meant to interview Elkins, but she was in the hospital, and Aaron chose Gigi, a brand new author who is writing in the same archeological vein as Elkins and Peters.  Gigi handled it with aplomb.

Edith Maxwell, another new Guppy author, and Gigi Pandian

Felix Francis, the son of Dick Francis (Malice Remembers), entertained us with stories about his father and himself.  For a few pence, to prove he could do it, Dick, at age six, rode a mule backwards to jump a fence.  Not only did Felix pick up writing his father’s mysteries five years after Dick’s last published book, but from the beginning his mother had helped with the writing, fleshing out and correcting Dick’s drafts.  She called it their cottage industry, but “without the cottage.”

Laura Lippman, the Toastmaster, urged us to be “honest about what you want.  Until you say what you want, you don’t get it.”

Those nominated for the best novel of 2012, in their panel, talked about their writing rituals.  Hank Phillippi Ryan said hers is to do so many words a day.  Louise Penny’s is to work on her laptop with her beloved espresso machine nearby.  Krista Davis wants a hot cup of tea and to sit at her desk facing the room, not the wall.  None of them outline.  They all begin with an idea.  Louise starts thinking about the book eight months ahead and makes copious notes before she does her first of several drafts.  Hank compared her writing, scene after scene, as like dominoes: one triggers the next in line.  

When asked about their research, G.M. Malliet said she does things like visit a closed mental hospital, and she also goes to England as often as possible, but research is an excuse for that.  Hank said her life in journalism had been her research.  Louise sometimes moves her story from her main setting, Three Pines, which is familiar as she lives near such a town, to other places and then spends time there.  She spent time in a Quebec monastery for this book.

Research was also discussed on the panel with the best historical nominees, and they agreed, “If you don’t like to do research, don’t write historical novels.”  They all emphasized their belief in strong women in the past.  Rhys Bowen said women have always done a lot, e.g., they walked across America in pioneering times.  They were asked, if their mysteries left out men, what difference would it make.  Victoria Thompson likes men there to have some romance in her novels.  Carolyn Todd said her Bess character does things in her own right, but the men have their roles, too.  Catriona commented that her women characters find men a comforting presence but she doesn’t want them to be rescued by men.  She also said the plot of a suspense novel is like a bomb that doesn’t go off until the end.  Someone suggested that historical mysteries were gaining in popularity.  They all felt that men as well as women were reading their books; Carolyn said it was fifty-fifty for them.  

The best short story nominees were asked why they wrote short stories.  Art Taylor said his time was tight.  Sheila Connolly said she uses ideas that won’t fit into a novel.  B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens said some characters and situations only work for thirty pages.  Dana Cameron sees them as a way of having an adventure with her main character in an evil vs justice situation.  Barb Goffman said the Malice (traditional mystery) genre is a big tent with a lot of freedom, taking up ordinary people in extraordinary situations.  B.K. pointed out that, as to writing from experience, Henry James said, “Be one of those people on whom nothing is lost.”

I always learn and get ideas, too, from Luci Zahray, the Poison Lady.  She spoke with enthusiasm about the most famous poisons: arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide.  90% of poisoners are never caught.  All of these poisons are easy to obtain.  Arsenic once was used with burials, so it’s found downstream from Civil war burial sites.  Arsenic deaths can be slow or fast.  In fact, what matters with all poisons is the dose.  You can die in 24-36 hours, with arsenic, or it could take ten years.  Arsenic collects in the body.  There’s a test, but often it’s not asked for.  Arsenic is an odorless, tasteless white powder that looks like powdered sugar and dissolves in water.  It’s the King of the poisons and the poison of Kings.  There was arsenic in the green wallpaper and fabric that the Victorians loved.  It was used in taxidermy and embalming until the 1950s.  A piece of fly paper, if soaked in water, contains enough arsenic to kill ten people.  The U.S. now outlaws wood treated with arsenic.

Strychnine kills by causing terrible cramping and muscle contractions.  It inhibits the ability of the body to relax its muscles.  After three-five of these extremely painful contractions you die, and you never lose consciousness.  Heroine and cocaine are sometimes cut with strychnine.  It used to be put in tonics, and arsenic, too.  Strychnine heightens perception and stimulates digestion and appetite and was used for this until the 1950s.  There’s no anti-dote.

Cyanide kills fast.  They used to use it to plate silver onto glass to make mirrors.  Luci repeats her warning every year about Tylenol, one of the most dangerous poisons people tend to have in their homes.  Three-four grams of Tylenol is enough to kill you.

On the first best novel panel, the authors were asked to describe their path to publication.  Susan Boyer [Low Country Boil] tried agents first, but when they didn’t sell her manuscript, she turned to a new small press, Henery Press, begun by Kendel Lynn (Flaum), who, with Diane Vallere, had been moderator of the guppypressquest listserve, to which I and several other Guppies with new books belong. 

Susan Boyer, before she won first best novel, photo: Jim Jackson

Stephanie Jaye Evans [Faithful Unto Death–A Sugarland Mystery] won the Malice Domestic grant for unpublished writers in 2010.  Once Janet Reid came up to her, and Stephanie didn’t know she was an agent, so she asked her what kind of books she wrote.  Janet replied: “I write rejection letters.”  Janet became Stephanie’s agent.

Erika Chase felt she was lucky to get an agent for her A Killer Read.  Mollie Cox Bryan [Scrapbook of Secrets] has had thirty years as a professional writer.  She wrote novels on the side.  Mollie commented that it takes 10,000 hours of writing to succeed at it.  “Once you are published, it’s writing heaven.”

On the panel “When Death and Disaster Come Together” Shannon Baker [Tainted Mountain] takes up an environmental issue: tainted waste water is used to make artificial snow on a mountain sacred to the Hopis.  Her TV reporter Nora has to choose between the story of getting 40,000 people down off the mountain or of writing about the dead body she finds.

Lea Wait [Shadows at the Fair] writes about an unexpected hurricane hitting New England (before Hurricane Sandy).  Moderator Molly Weston suggested that when weather disasters hit, we are often prepared for certain ones but not others.  The unfamiliar ones cause the greatest crises.  New England is prepared for winter but not for hurricanes.

Jess Lourey [December Dread] writes about a terrible snowstorm in Minnesota.  Cold is a killer when people are caught in such a storm.

Nora McFarland [Going to the Bad] writes about a wild fire in California, where earthquakes are expected but not out-of-control fires–yet.  All these disasters up the ante to add suspense to the plot.

Two Guppies were on the sidekick panel on Sunday morning: Carolyn Mulford [Show Me the Murder] and Judy Hogan [Killer Frost].  We also had well-published authors Maddy Hunter [Bonnie of Evidence] and Kate Carlisle [Homicide in Hard Cover].   Patti Ruocco, an adult services librarian in Illinois and a faithful Malice attendee since the beginning twenty-five years ago, gave us questions about our sidekicks (mine is African American Sammie Hargrave, and Carolyn’s is a dog named Achilles).  These questions were great for opening up our books for the audience.

Sidekick panel with Judy talking by Malice photographer Greg Puhl
Left to right, Maddy Hunter, Judy, Patti Ruocco, Kate Carlisle, and Carolyn Mulford.

Patti ended with what she called a CSI Sidekick question.  She brought some objects, and we had to guess which sidekick the object suggested, among the beloved traditional mystery writers (from a list called Malice Remembers).  If we guessed wrong, we could ask the audience to help us.  Someone had to help me out when Patti drew out a child’s water color paint set, and I guessed Troy Alleyn, Roderick Alleyn’s wife (Ngaio Marsh), but it was Lord Peter Wimsey’s Bunter (Dorothy Sayers).  We had all been trying to bone up on the sidekicks of former years, but we didn’t do too well except for Kate, who got hers and won Patti’s prize.  I loved talking about Sammie and how she balances Penny Weaver, my main amateur detective.

As is usual at Malice, many Guppies met for lunch at Boogeymonger, a deli restaurant near the hotel, on Friday.

Left to right, Norma Huss, Kathleen Rockwood, Judy, Gloria Alden, taken by Jim Jackson

Karen Duxbury, our Guppy treasurer and Toni Goodyear, who also lives in Chatham County. Unnamed sleepy Guppy.  No wonder.

Among those Guppies honored at the New Author Breakfast Sunday morning were: Karen Pullen, Carolyn Mulford, Diane Vallere, Kendel Lynn, Jim Jackson, Gloria Alden, Edith Maxwell, Susan Boyer, Gigi Pandian, and this author.

Karen Pullen, also from Chatham County.

A new feature this year was Authors’ Alley, giving folks with new books an opportunity to draw an audience for fifteen minutes.  Among the Guppies doing that were: Gloria Alden, Jim Jackson, Debra Goldstein, Norma Huss, Kendel Lynn, and Liz Zelvin.

Gloria Alden photo by Jim Jackson during Authors Alley

At the banquet, I got to sit at B.K. Stevens’ table.  She was one of the nominees for best short story, and I was next to Linda Landrigan, the editor of Alfred Hitchcock mystery mag.  I told Linda she had rejected my story.  She looked dismayed.  I said, “It’s okay.  I’ll try again.”  Then she and I talked about farming!

Bonnie Stevens has published 40 mystery short stories.  I was delighted to sit with her.  She’s worth reading!

The First Best Malice Domestic Traditional Mystery, for an unpublished manuscript, was won by Ruth Moose, of Pittsboro and Chatham County, NC.  Ruth is an accomplished poet and short story author and teacher.  Her novel will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2013.

Then the Agatha winners of 2012 mystery novels and short stories were announced: Louise Penny won her fifth Agatha for best novel, The Beautiful Mystery.  Susan M. Boyer won the first best novel, Low County Boil.  The best short story was won by Dana Cameron’s “Mischief in Mesopotamia,” and the best historical novel was won by Catriona McPherson for Dandy Gilver and an Unsuitable Day for Murder.  Best non-fiction was by John Connolly/Declan Burke for Books to Die For: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on World’s Greatest Mystery Novels.  The best children’s/young adult novel was The Code Busters Club, Case #2: The Haunted Lighthouse by Penny Warner.  The winners are voted on by the attendees.
I’m amazed at how thoughtfully Barb Goffman arranges the panels.

Barb Goffman, Program Chair, photo by Jim Jackson

There must have been four hundred in attendance, as there were five hundred at the banquet, when many bring guests.  So many authors, at least two hundred, attended, judging by those listed in the program.  It can be overwhelming for a new author, so I appreciate how Cindy Silverblatt, who was Fan Guest of Honor, led the New Author Breakfast, which she started years ago.  Being on a panel also was great for us newbies.  
It’s amazing, too, how many Guppies I’ve seen get a book published, since I became a Guppy [the Great Unpublished chapter of Sisters in Crime] early in 2008.  Krista Davis and Liz Zelvin were just getting published then, and this year Krista was one of the contenders for Best Novel.  
A fairly new Guppy, Susan Boyer, won first best novel.  Barb Goffman’s description of Malice authors as being under one big tent is a good way of thinking about it.  What a variety of mysteries there were.  For more about Malice:
Judy Hogan