Sunday, March 29, 2015

Interview with T.J. O'Connor, Author of Dying for the Past

Dying for the Past, T. J. O’Connor.  Midnight Ink, Woodbury, MN, 2015. ISBN: 978-0-7387-4206-9. Paper. $14.99. 395 pp.

When did you begin writing?  Why?

I began writing in grade school—about the fifth grade. Later, in high school, I penned most of a novel, which was horrible of course. As a grade schooler, I fell in love with reading and used every resource to read books as an escape from a tough home life. It started with Mystery of the Witches' Bridge by Barbee Oliver Carleton, and then Gordon D. Shirreffs’ Mystery of the Haunted Mine. From there, I began reading every Franklin W. Dixon Hardy Boys mystery I could find. By the time I finished my third book, I wanted to be a writer—and my first mature book I’d read, Six Days of the Condor by James Grady, clinched it. These books set me on my path to be an anti-terrorism/counter-intelligence consultant and an author. 

When and why did you begin writing mysteries?

My love of books and writing began with mysteries—Carleton, Shirreffs, and Dixon. It was a natural progression from there. I also write thrillers and that love came from the first thriller I ever read, Six Days of the Condor by James Grady; that story is the focus of my most recent blog at my site But, mysteries continue to be my first love, and five of my eight novels are mysteries. 

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

A series, and I’ve just finished book three. The series title is The Gumshoe Ghost, is a traditional mystery with a paranormal twist. It’s about a detective in Winchester, Virginia, who is killed and returns to solve his own murder with the help of his wife and ex-partner. Think Richard Castle meets Ghost, or, for movie lovers like me, Topper meets the Thin Man. The first story in the series is Dying to Know, published last year, and the second, Dying for the Past, is just out from Midnight Ink. In each book, there are three elements—the first murder that sets the stage for the characters and plot; a historic subplot that is historically accurate to an event in the area’s history; and in the end, the collision of both reveal a larger, more complex story. I should note here that The Gumshoe Ghost moniker was not my idea and I don’t care for it. But, my publisher knows best. My point is that the series is not a ghost story. The reader forgets quickly as the lead character, Oliver Tucker, tells the story. Oh, there’s some paranormal events that allow Tuck to move from place to place and sometimes return in time to the historical subplot—that’s the paranormal twist—but those are just a means to tell the story and connect the historical mystery with the modern day one.

In Dying to Know, the main murder is Tuck, the lead character. The historical subplot revolves around the discovery of Civil War graves that interfere with a major highway construction project around the town. In the end, the killings are all connected and lead to a secret that has been kept for more than sixty years and encompasses the murders of many others.

In Dying for the Past, the first sequel just released by Midnight Ink, Tuck is back. He is investigating the murder of a mysterious philanthropist with ties to the Russian Mob and 1939 gangsters. The murder and other intrigue revolves around finding The Book, an old gangster’s journal keeping track of his enemies and World War II spy rings around Washington DC. In the end, the events all culminate with modern-day powerbrokers and corruption. It also reveals a lot about Tuck’s family lore and that being a ghost may be hereditary. 

Many folks who know me and read the books say Tuck reminds them of me. I’m not sure if they think I’m dead or just a smart-ass investigator. That has me worried sometimes!

Tell us about your journey to publication with this book.

It has been difficult and very common. I began trying to publish about twelve years ago with my first thriller, The Whisper Covenant. After about six months trying to land an agent, I gave up and decided I needed a better novel. When I finished my second thriller, The Hunter Betrayal, I tried for two years to get an agent and nearly landed several. In the end, they all passed. All the while I kept writing, improving, and trying to figure out my weaknesses and a strategy to go forward. Ultimately, I penned Dying to Know for my daughters; it was never meant for publication. When it was done, it turned out so well I decided to test the waters and on the third agent I queried, I found Kimberley Cameron. She signed me. Within eighteen months, she sold Dying to Know, Dying for the Past, and Dying to Tell as a series to Midnight Ink. 

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

It was a nightmare—literally. I was a government anti-terrorism agent some years ago and I was working overseas during the first Gulf war. When I returned home and resigned to pursue a career as a security consultant, I was plagued by a recurring nightmare that I was killed and came back to find my killers. I told my daughter about the dream and she encouraged me to write it as a novel. I did, but just for her. My nightmare morphed over the years and followed me to Winchester, Virginia. The setting and my nightmare seemed to work well in the story so I kept it—small historical town, murder, etc. Also, Winchester is a wonderful town filled with hundreds of years of history. As I’m a history-lover, I did some research of the town’s past and found some events I could use as a historical subplot—the building of a highway bypass around town and the many Civil War battles that took place here. The other historical events ended up supporting my three-book series. 

In Dying for the Past, the historical subplot revolves around 1939 gangsters. In truth, back in the World War II days, gangsters were reported to cooperate with the U.S. Government to look for Nazi, Japanese, and even Russian spy networks. In Dying for the Past, those events are stretched a bit and fit into the hunt for The Book—the gangster’s journal of spy networks he was watching for the FBI. Ultimately, The Book, and the murder of the philanthropist, all culminate in modern day corruption and intrigue.

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

Bittersweet. So many people think that once you get published, you’re there. You haven’t even scratched the surface yet. It was a tough climb to find an agent. A tougher climb to get published. And now, a new flight of stairs—nearly vertical—to get fans and keep going and building a following. It’s tough, but it is exciting, too. Unlike other professions, there are really not that many published authors. It’s a small community in comparison. I’ve met some wonderful people—both superstar authors and beginners like me (and all in-between). I spent an enormous amount of time trying to get my books noticed and read, spent tons of money, and still have to find time to write the next one. It’s tough and exhausting at times, and worth every bit of it. 

I’m not complaining, mind you. I don’t think you can gain anything of value without a little trial and struggle. I never have. In fact, if anything ever came easy to me, I’d throw it back for fear it was a scam from some foreign nation seeking my bank account numbers—and boy, would the joke be on them!

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

Well, I’m not very well known, but it’s both a thrill and a humbling experience when a reader reaches out to me or finds me at a conference or book signing. I have a few loyal followers and hear from them quite often. Those are the real humbling experiences when one of them takes the time to write me an email or find me at a conference just to say hello and chat about my books. The first time someone approached me at Malice and asked if I were me, I thought one of my author-pals set me up for a laugh. It was real. I gave that fellow a signed book and bought him lunch. No, that is not an invitation to assail me at Malice this year!

There are also the reviewers and I have to say, I find most of the experience very helpful—fun even. Then there are always a few I get frustrated with or have to scratch my head. Like those who complain about the cover, a few spelling/grammar goofs, or that they don’t like mysteries and therefore didn’t like my book. Here’s a clue—I have little say in the covers, I edit but the publisher is primarily responsible for final copy, and if you don’t like mysteries, why did you pick it up? But then, all publicity is good publicity. Right … ha!

What other books have you published and where, when?

My other publications have been with the series beginning with Dying to Know. Dying for the Past just hit the shelves in January 2015 and Dying to Tell, the third in the series, will be out January 2016. They are all from Midnight Ink.

My amazing agent, Kimberley Cameron, also has another mystery with a paranormal/historical twist—New Sins for Old Scores—that she’s shopping around. So, if you’re a publisher, please …

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

I am working on two other mysteries right now. Both were works I’d finished before Dying to Know was sold and stole my time to write the sequels. So, both have been pining for my attention to return. My books love me that way.

The Killing of Tyler Quinn, is about a Gulf War journalist who goes missing for years. He returns to find his former newspaper pal and rival murdered. He has to find out who and why his pal is killed and it leads all the way back to Kabul and to a possible string of murders from the 1970s. 

The Consultant—Double Effect is a murder mystery intertwined with a thriller. It will be a series about a security consultant who takes on major consulting projects—leading investigations, engineering security programs, infiltrating companies to test their security—and he always ends up tangled up in murder and mayhem. Sort of like raising five kids but without the shooting and killing and car chases. Okay, maybe a few car chases raising them … The opening story is about The Consultant—Jonathan Hunter—who returns home from an overseas project to find his estranged brother murdered. His brother—a Virginia State Detective—may be a corrupt cop tangled up with a Latino gang smuggling guns and bombs with domestic terrorists. 

I’m working on both stories and trying to get them shaped up to about 100 pages each. Then, I’ll decide which to finish first—typing on two keyboards with two computers hurts my fingers. Oh, I’ll finish both because I love both stories (and they love me). I’m having a hard time deciding which to attack first. So, I’ll write the openings, hide at my favorite Greek restaurant with my mentor—Wally—who will help guide me in my quest, and choose which to finish first. 

In truth, Wally has already decided which to finish first. He’ll just play along like he’s really helping choose until he raps his gavel and passes on my sentence. 

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

I just joined Sisters and haven’t had the opportunity to get involved yet. I’ll be pursuing that this spring when my schedule lightens up a little. I’ve heard nothing but great things about the organization and I’m looking forward to becoming active with them. So if there are any Sisters reading this, drop me a line! 

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

Probably the biggest benefit is networking and meeting other authors and readers. I very much enjoy doing panels and this year is my second panel at Malice. I’ve done other panels elsewhere and find that it gives me great exposure to fans of the genre—I also get to goof around and have fun with some amazing authors who really know what they’re doing. Somehow, they still let me on the panels!

I thoroughly enjoy hanging out with other writers and my publisher and just relaxing and talking books. In my real profession—a terrorism consultant—I don’t get much opportunity to do that—relax and enjoy a weekend. So, I take every opportunity I can to switch hats and just enjoy colleagues. I keep having to remind myself that the other authors are not terrorists so I don’t follow them around taking notes and sneaking photographs of them at lunch. I still check under my bed at night, though.

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

The next book, Dying to Tell, was one of my most enjoyable to write. Tuck is back and he’s on the trail of the murderer of a wealthy bank executive who has a dark past involving a World War II OSS (Office of Strategic Services) Operative in Cairo, Egypt. The bank executive, along with three other pals, got caught up in a caper in Cairo and it followed them home after the war. Now, Tuck has to figure out who killed the executive, what connection it has to Cairo—if any, and what a stash of missing Egyptian treasure has to do with all of it. 

Dying to Tell was particularly enjoyable because it wraps several of my favorite topics—Tuck and his pals solving murder, World War II, Egypt, and the OSS. My mentor, Wally, is one of the last surviving OSS operatives in the world. OSS, as many know, is the forerunner to the CIA. Wally fought the Germans in WWII as an operative and went on to be a senior big shot in the CIA, too. But, I love all things history—especially Egypt—and always loved the old movies centering on that. So, it was a blast writing a story that brought all those things together. Dying to Tell also addresses Tuck’s personal situation—being a dead detective and married to a beautiful, brilliant history professor. Tuck’s fate—and the murderer’s—become entwined and the outcome will surprise.

So for those of you who may know me, no, this book is not about me either. I’ve never been a bank executive, never served with the OSS in Cairo, and I don’t have a stash of Egyptian antiquities in my basement. And, I’m not dead (yet). I’m just a lonely author who has had the great fortune of knowing most of these amazing people. Just don’t tell them I write about them!


Tj O’Connor is the author of Dying to Know and Dying for the Past, the first two novels in a mystery series that follows a dead detective as he solves murders and learns to be back among the living but not one of them. The third installment of his series, Dying to Tell, will hit the shelves in January 2016. Tj is an international security consultant specializing in anti-terrorism, investigations, and threat analysis—life experiences that drive his novels. With his former life as a government agent and years as a consultant, he has lived and worked around the world in places like Greece, Turkey, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, and throughout the Americas—among others. 

Many of Tj’s plots and characters come from his travels and cases he’s worked around the world—except for being a dead detective, he’s making that up as he goes along—at least, so far.

Dying to Know is the first published novel of eight and was selected as a finalist for Foreword Reviews’2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year for Mysteries. Between consulting and writing, Tj has little free time, and that time is spent feeling guilty for not consulting and writing.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Interview with Tonya Kappes Author of A Ghostly Undertaking

A Ghostly Undertaking: A Ghostly Southern Mystery by Tonya Kappes.  William Morrow, Witness, An Imprint of HarperCollins.  Mass market paper. 296 pp.  $7.99.

1.  When did you begin writing? 

I was not a reader. In fact, my love for reading didn’t happen until I was in my early 30s when I had gone through a divorce. I had become recluse, especially when my son from the marriage would go visit his father every other weekend. I was in graduate school and one of my classmates asked me to come to her book club. It cracked me up because I didn’t read, but she said they had wine and chocolate so I asked her what time I should be there. I didn’t buy the book, I just showed up. I continued going to book club for the socialization and finally after a few months, I did go to the bookstore and buy the book club book. I still didn’t pick the book up for a couple of weeks and then the magic happened. I got lost into the world of fiction. I found out how they took me out of my real life situation for just a few hours and it made me feel good. I began coming out of my depression and back among the living. 

A few more years until I was remarried and with four small boys and same book club, my husband had picked up one of my many books and read a couple of pages. He told me I could tell a story better than the author and just an hour later I was telling a story to my book club and some of them even told me to write a book because I could tell a good story. 

Two people in one hour encouraged me and that was all it took for it to stick into my head. That night I woke my husband up and asked him if he was serious about me being able to tell a story. He was. I also asked him if he thought I could help one person escape their problems with a story like books had helped me so many years ago. He said yes. The next day, with only ONE reader in mind, I started writing under a big oak tree at my son’s peewee football practice and I’ve never looked back.

2.  When and why did you begin writing mysteries? 

It wasn’t until a year or so later I began writing mystery. I really wanted and thought I was a romance writer. It wasn’t until another writer who was reading my material asked me if I was sure I was a romance writer because there was no romance but hand holding and a dead body showed up in every few chapters. She was right! I was hooked on killing people!

3.  Are you writing a series or a stand-alone?  

I’m a serial writer. All of my novels are tied to series. My current series, A GHOSTLY SOUTHERN MYSTERY, is about a young funeral home director who sees ghosts of clients that have been murdered. The small town is just as much of a character as the protagonist. The town has all the Southern charm you can think of and colorful characters who live there. 

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

Well, originally I self-published A Ghostly Undertaking, the first novel in the Ghostly Southern Mystery Series, and sold over 80,000 copies in the first few months. I had interest from some NY publishers and I hired an agent, Steve Kasdin with Curtis Brown LTD. It was very important for me to hire an agent who got me and my journey since I had self-published over 26 novels and had success when two of my novels made the USA Today Bestsellers list as well as becoming an Amazon top 100 and Barnes and Noble top 100 author. I didn’t want to give over 100% of my creative control. 

Steve got me. He knew my vision. We ended up selling the first four novels in the Ghostly Southern Mystery Series to HarperCollins in a dream deal. They wanted A Ghostly Undertaking as well. 

It was very important to me for the books to be released pretty close to each other because I knew my readers and in today’s book world, readers are reading so fast and they don’t want to wait the year or year and a half between books like traditional publishers do. HarperCollins agreed to my terms and they are releasing the first four books this year. I’m over the moon about it.

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

Writing about an undertaker sounds very morbid, but I write with humor making it a little more fun. When I decided to write this series, I used my own experience growing up with a friend whose family owns a funeral home. It was like a second home for us and we ran around like it was her home. There wasn’t another series out there that I knew of where the protagonist was a female funeral home director. I also pulled on my experience from growing up in a small town to place my protagonist and her funeral home. I grew up in a small Southern town where everyone knows everyone, you never locked your doors, your waved at everyone who drives by, and funerals were more of a social gathering than a wedding. 

Then I threw in a murder and ghosts who can’t cross over until the undertaker helps them figure out how and who murdered them. The ghosts are snarky and full of fun which is where the humor comes in. It has been a lot of fun to write this series and these characters.

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

“Usually I take a pass when it comes to novels like this with talking ghosts and other supernatural elements, but after reading just a few chapters of this one I was hooked. Not only are the characters fun, but the writing is also crisp and the plot features some unexpected twists and moves quickly.”

“I love this series it has everything you can think of--romance between Emma Lee and her sheriff Jack Ross, it has great characters that add something to the story.  This book flew fast for me. I found I was finished and wanting more.  I can't wait to read the next book--it really is addicting.  I especially love everyone referring to Emma Lee's funeral trauma as an excuse for Emma acting weird or odd.  Tonya Kappes has really hit on something with this book!  I am a huge fan of her work.” Community Bookstop

“If you like twists and turns and a good mystery.  With Southern charm and well Ghosts tossed in then this is deff for you.” Crossroads Reviews

“2015 Books I've loved so far: A GHOSTLY GRAVE & A GHOSTLY UNDERTAKING by  @tonyakappes11” 
Murder By the Book Bookstore , Houston, TX

“This book was a lot of fun. From the character of Emma Lee Raines, to the antics of her grandmother, and the sometimes acidic personality of Ruthie Sue Payne. All the characters bring life to the story, and really bring the small Southern town to life. Each character is very well designed and developed, and has a robust personality. Even the side characters are 3 dimensional and add to the story.” Rhoades Reviews

“Kappes has written a whimsical mystery with plenty of Southern charm and humor with snippets such as the old saying that "when the husband dies, the widow blossoms like a morning glory." Iron Mountain Daily News

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

I have 26 published titles that can be bought at any online book retailer. If the bookstores do not have them on the shelf, you can always ask them to order one for you. 

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

I have two other series out there right now where my agent is working on a deal as well as continuing to write other novels in my self-published series. 

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

I do not. I have in the past and didn’t find it very helpful though I’m sure they do help a lot of writers.

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

I’m always looking to connect with my readers. If a conference draws them, I will be there. 

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

I’m just very excited how my readers don’t have to wait a year between releases so they can stay connected with their favorite characters. 


Tonya Kappes has written more than fifteen novels and four novellas. all of which have graced numerous best seller lists,including USA Today.  Best known for stories charged with emotion and humor and filled with flawed characters, her novels have garnered reader praise and glowing critical reviews.  She lives with her husband, two very spoiled schnauzers, and one ex-stray cat in northern Kentucky.  Now that her boys are teenagers, Tonya writes full-time but can be found at all her guys' high school games with a pencil and paper in hand.  Come on over and fan Tonya on Goodreads.  

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Book Display at Kostroma Regional Library

Judy's poetry books in the Kostroma Regional Library, 
March 2015


I learned recently that the Kostroma Regional Library will be having an exhibit of my poetry books this month.  Tatiana Podvetelnikova of the Kostroma Regional Library in Kostroma, Russia, is arranging it.  They have an ongoing Readers Corner on their internet site, where they feature books by their Sister City authors.  

Link to Kostroma Library Readers’ Corner:

There have been, between 1989 and now, many exchanges between Durham and Kostroma people: doctors, librarians, business people, artists, and writers.  In 1990 I traveled to Kostroma as the guest of Mikhail Bazankov, head of the writers’ organization there, and we did four exchanges of our writers by 1993.  After that, we did many cooperative publishing projects, including the publication of Earth and Soul: An Anthology of North Carolina Poetry in a dual-language edition (2001).  I met Tatiana then at the library.  Earth and Soul went out to all the libraries and schools in the Kostroma Region, which is about the size of North Carolina, with Kostroma as its capital city.  In 2009, both cities celebrated twenty years of exchanges, and I read my poem From Sun 15 at our celebration in Durham about what it was like for me to live in Kostroma for three months when I was teaching at Kostroma University in 1995.


For the people of Kostroma and especially my friends here, 
while looking at a study by Sergei Rumyantsev and a photo 
of Nadya Belikh with her grandsons, Alyosha and Mitya.

And Paradise?  I found it here.
And what is Paradise?  My father
told the story of how, when people
died, they went to heaven or to hell,
but, in either place, their problem was
they couldn’t bend their elbows and
hence couldn’t feed themselves.
The people in hell starved, he said.
But in heaven they figured out that 
they could feed each other.  So my
Paradise is like that, and my soul
is as happy as an empty boat,
bumping against the bank, waiting
for the next good thing that Life
here has in store.
In the ancient city
of Kostroma my soul is overflowing
and not only with happiness.
In the painting the boat is empty.
An approaching storm clouds the
water and ruffles the hair of the
trees on the opposite bank.  But I
know that soon the boat will
have its passengers again, just
as I, from time to time, have my
You see, I feel like a forest
creature living alone in my tree
stump.  Not many people do live
alone here.  Three generations often
share the same apartment.  Every
day the other creatures and I come
out of our tree stumps.  We carry
our bags to the market.  Sometimes
we ride the forest trolley, packed
in tight like honey crowded into
the comb.  In the market we buy
a wedge of delicately flavored
Kostroma cheese or some butter
so fresh that you think it came 
from the cow only yesterday,
and probably it did.  Old women
sell carrots, potatoes, beets, and
parsley they grew themselves.
They line the carrots up on the
table so everyone can see just
how many carrots are in a
kilogram.  The parsley they wrap
in a little bit of newspaper or in
an old book from Soviet times.
I always buy more than I can
easily carry home.  I can never
decide which pears or apples,
oranges or bananas to buy, so
I do it whimsically.  I feel like
a squirrel who has been out
gathering the nuts the wind shook
loose in the night when I arrive
home with all my trophies.  Then
I go out again for hot bread,
fresh milk, kefir, and sour
cream ladled from a bucket 
into my clean jar.  The cheese
and fruit, bread and sour
cream are for my guests.
There’s company coming tomorrow.
And as we talk and eat and
laugh, feeding each other as we
do in Paradise, our souls grow
heavy with words that say just
what we mean, just what we
feel, and with the look of loved
faces, just as in photos that
hold fast some moment: a 
day midsummer when the 
grandmother stopped her work
to pick flowers with the children,
two boys, one blonde, one dark,
squinting at the sun, lying on the 
grass and leaning comfortably near
the body of the woman who held
the red pail while they ran this way
and that to pluck daisies and other
wild grass flowers.  Behind them
the Russian forest, as always,
gives its blessing.  It’s never
that far away in Paradise.
Here, when we feed each other,
we all hum with happiness,
as if we were carrying buckets
and buckets of honey but felt
no weight.  We can’t sleep for
happiness when our guests 
have gone home.
A Paradise
without work?  No, in this paradise
we’re all working, and sometimes
we wish life were easier, that
we could buy more and better
meat, have sour cream more often,
and not just when guests come.
The children are sick, some of the
food we saved for the winter
has spoiled, and it’s not even
winter yet.  And winter does
come in Paradise.  We put on our
furs early this year.  The November 
wind has a piercing bite.  We get out
our fur hats and go to hear Beethoven
played in the Philharmonia Hall.
Never mind that the North Wind is
blowing in snow that feels like
needles when it hits the face.  We
will leave our coats at the desk
and hear our musicians tune up
for a night of forest wonder.  For
music is the language of the heart,
and when we all play from the heart,
we find the path to Beethoven’s
tree stump.  And his passion comes
alive again in the air; then everything
else is forgotten.  We may be lying
in a boat on a placid pond or 
clinging to a lower limb of an
elder oak, but we don’t know
for some minutes where we are.
We’re in the music and inside
the fingers of the musicians and
in the strings and lost from ourselves,
lost, happily lost, in our own souls.
And you think that such a place
is easy to get to, easy to find?
Oh, no, not at all.  It’s, in the first
place, guarded by an angel with a
sword in his hand.  If he moves
the sword even a little, a flame
runs along its edge.  And all who
fear for their own safety turn back.
That flame scares them more than
the sword itself and much more
than the angel, who has guarded
his post so long that he can do it
in his sleep or while he reads the 
newspaper.  Only the brave in heart,
who love more than they fear,
may enter this forest and live
as simple creatures do live in
their cozy bungalows.  The angel
is wiser than he knows.  His
heart’s understanding runs in
his veins.  He doesn’t have to
explain anything to himself or 
to you.  But you can expect him,
on your fourth morning in 
Paradise, to show up with a sack
of new-dug potatoes from his garden.

Judy Hogan, written in Kostroma, November, 1995, and read on the occasion of the 20-Year Anniversary of the Sister Cities relationship between Durham, N.C., and Kostroma, Russia, November 15, 2009.

Tatiana put From Sun 15 into her literary corner.  Now she plans to put my poetry books, including the newest one This River: An Epic Love Poem.  The Russians are celebrating Literature this year and in Kostroma the years of our sisterly relationship.  We who lived through those years of friendship and cooperation between our cities know that our good Russian friends could not be our enemies. There are too many bonds of affection spanning that ocean that lies between us.

I also received yesterday a review of This River from Roberto Bonazzi in San Antonio.  Part of this review will also appear during April (poetry month) in the San Antonio News-Express.  Bonazzi published my collection Light Food in 1989 through his Latitudes Press.  This review also includes a review of another poet Tad Cornell.

 Judy Hogan’s 100-page epic love poem reveals ecological aspects of the muddy Haw River in North Carolina, which flows as the Volga in Russia, near where her love resides. The unrequited love poem is for Mikhail, who is married but loves her also, and with whom they created a sister city exchange. “We are working together beside our two rivers which, though six thousand miles apart, rush toward the same ocean.” Poets have imagined rivers as time, yet she asks, “What is ocean but the river that holds the world in place and reminds it of eternity?”   
         Throughout Hogan personalizes the river with natural, unforced imagery. “This river has two/incarnations. She is the Volga at night not letting me sleep; making me listen to the urgent message her moonlit water carried me as I stood, half awake my heart’s door swung open. . .”  There is an earnestness in the lines—often prosaic, at times lyrical—that typifies Hogan as a “Romantic” poet. But who else would embark on an “epic love poem” except one capable of loving? She loves every aspect of the river where she meditates. Her observations remind more of Thoreau on Walden Pond than romantic verse. Some sections read like love letters during an era before emails, but Hogan avoids the sentimentality and self-pity of unrequited love.

         These poets are not part of the commercial publishing establishment, but their authentic voices have contributed to American literary culture: Judy Hogan as writer, teacher, editor, and publisher of Carolina Wren Press, bringing over 100 authors into print; and Tad Cornell as a dynamic performance poet and a tantalizing innovator.   Both had early connections with independent imprints in Texas. Cornell, who now lives in Philadelphia, had two titles from Latitudes Press when he was a social worker in Houston; Hogan, a North Carolina resident for decades, also published a book with Latitudes and had close ties with Thorp Springs Press in Austin. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

A Vision is a Gift

Night-Blooming Cereus.  September 2014.

GIFTS XXVIII.  February 8, 2015

My part is to live
by my deep inner sense of what I must do
and be: myself and no other.  If I do
this work well, something magical will
happen.  I can’t know exactly what or when,
but I do get hints.  Inside I’m clear, my
heart is clean, my will surrendered.
One day full confirmation will come,
and it will be like the cereus putting
out its bloom after years of looking
ordinary and not very interesting.
Straight out of a hard green leaf the
stalk puts a finger out, then a stem,
then that bulb of white.  I go out
each night to check, but it takes 
several days.  Then the bloom shows
signs of a hundred slender petals
swelling.  That night the cereus opens
its huge flower head.  Even then
anyone could miss it.  One night, one
good look is all you get.  It’s enough.
–Gifts XII.

A vision is a gift.  I was mid-life when
I saw my own life’s archetype clearly.
It seemed presumptuous.  It still does.
Yet I believed it then and I do now.
Shakespeare’s sister from Virginia
Woolf?  Yes.  I could be a woman
who had the freedom both of speech
and of experience to write what I
wished to write as well as the wide
vision of human nature.  Healer?
I already knew I could both harm
and heal.  If I saw truth, I must
find a way to speak, not hold back
until I spoke cuttingly and hurt 
more than healed.  Master?  That
seemed beyond me.  It wasn’t.
I have studied writers ancient
and modern, here and elsewhere
and learned from all to use everything
that resonated within me.  I have
trusted my deep inner voice, my Muse,
or call it the God within, where what
I try for touches and harmonizes
with “the grain of the Universe.”
I wanted my writing to share wisdom,
tell truth, show love, and slip past
walls of indifference, anger, cruelty.
Penelope to an Odysseus?  I wanted
it so much, but it kept slipping
away.  Now I see that it was there
all the time, and it’s still there.
After twenty years I’m coming home.
We both waited for this moment

whether we knew it or not.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Interview with Pat Shipman Author of The Invaders

The Invaders: How Humans and their Dogs drove Neanderthals to Extinction. Pat Shipman. Harvard University Press, ISBN 9780674736764, 288 pages. Cloth, $29.95. Release: March 2015.

From the Harvard University press release:

 “If you want to understand your own mind, read this remarkable and important book. Summoning new evidence, Pat Shipman shows how our coevolution with wolves contributed to the extinction of Neanderthals and further transformed us through the process of domesticating dogs. You will never look at Fido the same way again!”
— Nina G. Jablonski, Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology, The Pennsylvania State University

With their large brains, sturdy physique, sophisticated tools, and hunting skills, Neanderthals are the closest known relatives to humans. Approximately 200,000 years ago, as modern humans began to radiate out from their evolutionary birthplace in Africa, Neanderthals were already thriving in Europe—descendants of a much earlier migration of the African genus Homo. But when modern humans eventually made their way to Europe 45,000 years ago, Neanderthals suddenly vanished. Ever since the first Neanderthal bones were identified in 1856, scientists have been vexed by the question, why did modern humans survive while their evolutionary cousins went extinct?

The Invaders musters compelling evidence to show that the major factor in the Neanderthals’ demise was direct competition with newly arriving humans. Drawing on insights from the field of invasion biology, which predicts that the species ecologically closest to the invasive predator will face the greatest competition, Pat Shipman traces the devastating impact of a growing human population: reduction of Neanderthals’ geographic range, isolation into small groups, and loss of genetic diversity.

But modern humans were not the only invaders who competed with Neanderthals for big game. Shipman reveals fascinating confirmation of humans’ partnership with the first domesticated wolf-dogs soon after Neanderthals first began to disappear. This alliance between two predator species, she hypothesizes, made possible an unprecedented degree of success in hunting large Ice Age mammals—a distinct and ultimately decisive advantage for humans over Neanderthals at a time when climate change made both groups vulnerable.

Interview with Pat Shipman

1. Is it true to say that this new book The Invaders is an outgrowth of many years of research in the fields of anthropology and archeology? Give us some background. 

The original Neanderthal skull, from Germany, was found in 1858 and was the first skull EVER to be recognized as like a human but not human. Neanderthals were, in a sense, the original caveman. Since then, Neanderthals have fascinated professionals and amateurs alike. And one of the most hotly-contested questions is why they went extinct, while our ancestors (early modern humans) lived & thrived in the same place. 

2. When did it come to you that the domestication of wolves played a part in the conquest of the modern human beings over their cousins the Neanderthals? 

In 2009, a Belgian colleague of mine published a really interesting article on how to tell dogs from wolves using sophisticated statistics. Since dogs & wolves today are still so alike that they interbreed, it was a tough challenge. What was especially cool is that the earliest dog she was able to identify was about 32,000 years old, not 14,000 years old as everyone in the field expected. It was a startling result. That started me wondering what the impact would be of having dogs if you were an early modern human. What difference would it make to your life & your abilities? The whole book grew out of these musings. 

3. I believe your specialty has been writing on archeological and anthropological themes for the lay reader. How did that come about? Why is that important to you? What other titles do you have in print?

I have always had a gift for writing and a knack for figuring out how to explain complicated scientific topics for lay readers. I believe, deeply, that a reasonably intelligent person can understand ANYTHING if it is explained properly. Too often scientists and experts forget that everyone doesn’t speak the same specialized language they do – jargon or technical terms – and they simply confuse everyone. Explaining things is telling a story, that’s all. But it isn’t easy to do. As I have developed my own skills as a writer and as a scientist, I have realized how very very important it is to put important ideas before the public in ways they can understand, so that is what I strive to do.

I had to go to Amazon to see how many of my books were still in print. I think it is 14. And they are rather diverse in topic. Recent books include THE ANIMAL CONNECTION, FEMME FATALE, THE APE IN THE TREE, and TO THE HEART OF THE NILE (published in the UK as THE STOLEN WOMAN). 

4. Tell us a little about yourself, and what drew you to this field and keeps you working in it?

I probably live too much in my head, but I am in love with words and ideas. I am devoted to the scientific method of looking for truth. To me, the biggest scientific question ever is: How do you know that? It applies everywhere, all the time. The next one is: what evidence would make you change your mind? If NOTHING could make you change your mind, you are not doing science. 

5. How did you end up in Chatham County? 

When my husband & I retired, we decided we would never see my son & his family (wife, grandkids) if we didn’t move closer to them. (They live in Morrisville.) And much as we loved State College, PA, where we had been living, the winters here were much better – except this one! I am basically a country mouse, I do not like cities, so living in Chatham County suits me perfectly. To my delight, in the last year or year and a half I have finally tapped into the many writers’ groups in this area, so I have friends to talk with about writing. 

6. In your travels these days are you and your husband still working in your field? 

Yes and no. I find I learn something or gain a new appreciation of something almost everywhere I go, even if it takes years to come to the forefront of my mind. My husband has retired more completely than I have, but I love writing books and investigating things & can’t stop.

7. How much new research and writing are you doing in your retirement?

I am primarily writing and not doing much primary research – no excavation, rarely going to museums to see or measure things any more. But if I come across another fascinating subject for a biography (I have written three), or a scientific issue, I’ll go wherever that takes me. 

8. What especially pleases you about this book? 

I love the cover. It is by an artist, Dan Burr, who painted it without any consultation from me but who has created an image that is as I would ask him to draw it. I also like the satisfaction of coming up with a new hypothesis about an old question – why are Neanderthals extinct & we are not? – that made me rethink a lot of information that I and others have been gathering for decades.

9. Are you likely to have other people in your field arguing with your conclusions? 

Of course. I have two main themes in this book. 1) humans are an invasive predator and are best understood as such; and 2) the early domestication of dogs may have been the dramatic change that made us such very successful invaders. Lots of people will agree with the first idea, though it hasn’t been said enough, but lots of people are very resistant to the idea that dogs of some kind (I call them wolf dogs so people won’t think of them as, say, early poodles) have been around for so long. But domesticating dogs from wolves is not like domesticating stock animals like sheep or goats or even horses. Dogs are not food on the hoof; they are companions, collaborators, hunting aids, alarm systems, and much more. Early humans working with dogs is a powerful partnership.


Pat Shipman is a retired Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University.