Tuesday, March 20, 2012

My Interview With Judy Hogan: Mystery, Chickens, and More

Today I'll be talking with Judy Hogan, a fellow mystery writer, who like me uses an educator for her sleuth.  

1. Tell us what you’d like us all to know about Killer Frost.

It will be published September 1, 2012 by Mainly Murder Press in Connecticut. $15.95 paper, ISBN: 978-0-9836823-8-7; Nook and Kindle, $2.99. ISBN: 968-0-9846666-5-2.
            I am doing pre-sales now.  For $20 I will ship a signed copy to you early in September.  Send me an email and your address with a check or money order: PO Box 253, Moncure, NC 27559.

Here’s the plot teaser:

When Penny Weaver agrees to teach freshmen composition at historically black St. Francis College, her teaching and relationship skills, not to mention her detective instincts, are more challenged than they’ve ever been.  She falls in love with her boss, Oscar, who is very passionate about saving their students from ending up in prison because of how ill-prepared for college they are.  When the Provost is killed, Oscar is the primary suspect, because of his anger at the Provost for not firing the History professor who traded sex for an A with Penny’s student Merilee.  Penny’s detective friend and her husband, Kenneth, are investigating and ask her help, but because Oscar is confiding in her and she’s convinced he’s innocent, she doesn’t want to help them.  She tries to throw suspicion on the abusive History Professor and the Vice President for Financial Affairs, formerly in prison for embezzlement.
            After a spirited convocation speech on truth-telling, Penny’s students lead a protest about Merilee’s abuse, bad food, filthy dorms, but the President undercuts them by threatening to take away student scholarships. Meantime Penny struggles with her conflict: she loves her husband, but she can’t deny she loves Oscar.

Here’s the back cover comment I’m especially happy about:

A charming puzzler of a traditional mystery, this classic academic mystery debut is a pageturner populated with layered, interesting characters.  My hat is off to Judy Hogan on a stellar debut.  I look forward to the further adventures of Professor Penny Weaver at St. Francis college!
            –Julia Spencer-Fleming, New York Times Bestselling Author of One Was A Soldier.

2. What inspired you to write the new book?

This is the sixth mystery in my series, written in 2008.  I had been teaching in a local black college 2004-7, and I was disturbed by how poorly prepared for college a significant number of students were.  I was teaching reading and pre-composition with the goal of their being able to read and write at college level after these one semester courses.  This was a hopeless task for those reading at grade school level.  I came to love the students, and I wanted to call attention to how their hopes were raised by being admitted to college and then dashed when there was no hope of their passing even remedial courses.

3. Tell us a little about your main characters.  Which one is your favorite?  Why?
My heroine, Penny Weaver, is sixty-four in 2001, when Killer Frost takes place.  The first book in the series, The Sands of Gower, not yet published, took place in 1991, when she was fifty-four.  She is married by 2001 to a Welsh police detective, Kenneth Morgan, whom she met in the first book, and they spend about half their time in Wales, on the Gower Peninsula, and half of it in the village of Riverdell in fictional Shagbark County in central N.C., where most of the books take place.  She is enjoying her postmenopausal zest phase now that her children are grown.  She teaches English at a local community college and is a published poet.  She also works closely with others in her village on environmental and other community issues, e.g., the unsafe storage of nuclear waste, air pollution, a difficult local election. 
            She likes to cross the lines that usually keep people apart.  The community group, ACTNOW, is interracial.  By the third book, she is also a small farmer, with her neighbors, as they begin an orchard.  In the fourth book they get chickens.  Penny can usually see into people’s characters more quickly than the police investigators, and she usually intuits the killer before they do. 
            Kenneth is more laid back than Penny.  His main reason to worry comes from her persistence in getting herself into dangerous situations.  They normally work well together as a team, and she is happily married, which is why it throws her off balance when she falls in love with her new boss at St. Francis.  Derek Hargrave is a lieutenant and lead detective in the Shagbark Sheriff’s Department.  Penny and Derek’s wife, Sammie, usually solve the crime before Derek or Kenneth do.  Penny has a young adult daughter who has had various unwise relationships, and she now has, in Killer Frost, a child by one of Penny’s neighbors, who is a little strange and anti-social until you get used to him, Leroy Hassel, but Penny and friends have come to love him.  Other characters include a Lesbian couple, Belle Jones and Kate Razor, very sharp women, the first in public relations, the second, a lawyer.  Then Rick Clegg is a local African American community activist leader and minister, who is now a county commissioner.  He’s the one who suggests that Penny teach at St. Francis.
            My favorite character, who is totally made up (Penny is loosely based on me, and for some characters I’ve had living models to begin), is Sammie Hargrave.  She is African American, also teaches at St. Francis in Killer Frost.  She is bolder and more street savvy than Penny.  She dresses and wear wigs so as to look different every time you see her.  She’s funny, smart, blunt, compassionate, provides a realism to balance Penny’s idealism.  I never know how Sammie will react.  She always surprises me.  She lives in my mind, and I love learning what she’ll say or do next.  Sometimes she makes me laugh, and sometimes she makes me cry.  She’s my favorite because she’s educating me about what she’s like, rather than the other way around.

4. Who is the most memorable character you’ve ever written?

Sammie, as far as I know.  I’ll be interested to see how readers react to her.  

5. Judy, could you tell your readers something about your process of writing.  Do you outline or shoot from the hip?  What is your discipline?

I like to know who the murderer is and who the victim will be before I begin.  I follow the advice of Elizabeth George in her book Write Away: I use prompt sheets as to the characters’ background, description, behavior under stress, strengths and weaknesses.  Then I brainstorm the scenes as far as I can.  Sometimes one chapter is a scene; sometimes a chapter has several scenes.  I may add or subtract scenes as I go.  There are often surprises, which I like, but generally, I follow my plot plan.  Then I find it easier to write.  I set aside some weeks, optimally a month or two, to focus on the book and then write almost every day.  The most recent book I spent several weeks planning (that was the place I struggled most).  Then I wrote it a chapter a day, nineteen chapters in nineteen days, with two in there when I had to be away and couldn’t write.  That way I don’t have to keep rereading the whole book, though I do always reread my most recent chapter before starting a new one. 
            My discipline is making sure I sit down for two hours each afternoon and each evening and do about ten pages a day.  Generally, people see me as disciplined.  I think of it as having rituals.  I follow a daily schedule, and since I work at home (still teaching creative writing and doing free-lance editing), I can vary my work between writing/preparing for classes/editing and gardening and outside work, with breaks for reading, meals, and email.  I’ve been limiting my activities and social life in recent years so I can get more writing done.

6. What is it you want people to take away from Killer Frost?  Do you have a message?

With all my books, I hope to break stereotypes about other people and help my readers consider the feelings and experiences of people different from themselves.  I want the books to help people cross boundaries that usually separate them from others.  In Killer Frost I want to make more people aware of what is happening in the education of young African Americans, especially those coming from inner cities, how poorly they are prepared for life in our computer age, and how tragically blinded we are to their plight.  For me these young people are an endangered species. 

7. For you, Judy, what is the most difficult part of the writing process?

Plotting.  Characters are easiest for me, and once I’ve figured out who they are and what they’re like, the challenge is to put them into a plot with sufficient conflict and surprise for the reader to find the book an engaging read. 

8. What are you working on now?

I have finished the first draft of my ninth in the series, Bakehouse Doom.  I’ll be sending it to some readers for feedback and then revising it as needed.  I plan to revise next a short story that had some problems when I entered it in a contest, and then I want to try to publish it.  It would take place right after Killer Frost, with the same characters.  This summer I hope to do a tenth mystery, going back to St. Francis College.

9. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

I have often advised aspiring writers, since I’ve been teaching them and also was the founder and editor of a small press (Carolina Wren Press, 1976-91).  I’ve never told a writer that her work was bad.  I always suggest finding someone to give her honest but supportive feedback, but then trusting her own best interior sense.  We often know when someone points out a weakness or a strength, but it helps to get that reinforcement.  I also tell people to persist.  In getting work published, be sure it’s as good as you can make it, because no matter how good, it’s going to be rejected.  You have to keep after it, keep your faith in your work.  I myself go by Virginia Woolf’s advice: “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.” [A Room of One’s Own, p. 110]

10. Could you tell your readers what are you favorite reads and why?

I’ve read a lot of literature, going back to Homer.  The Odyssey and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time are my two all-time favorites.  I also love Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope.  I often go back to reread them.  In the mystery realm, which I started reading only in my forties, I especially love now Louise Penny and Julia Spencer-Fleming.  I have many favorites.  What I love in books are the complex emotional tangles people get themselves into and how they sort it out.  In mysteries I probably read most for the sub-plots and the feelings, also for going into and learning about new places, new groups of people.  The puzzle of the plot carries me along, but it’s not why I want to read the book.  I started on the traditional mysteries from the Golden Age: Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James, Ngaio Marsh, Marjorie Allingham, Josephine Tey, Michael Innes, but in this time I also love Charles Todd, Elizabeth George, Susan Hill, Jacqueline Winspeare, Laurie King, Faye Kellerman, Cara Black, Cora Harrison, Martha Grimes, Sara Paretsky, Margaret Maron.  There are many I enjoy, and I’m always on the lookout for new ones.

11. Judy, would you please give your readers any information you’d like them to have: Website, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, blog, you name it.

            On the blog I cover mysteries I’ve enjoyed, writers, both poets and mystery writers; health, aging, recipes, farming (I have chickens and do chicken workshops)–whatever suggests to me keeping up the zest in the postmenopausal years.  I often post poems I’ve written. 
            So far I haven’t joined in the rush to social network sites, but I like to have guest bloggers and to be a guest blogger.
            I blogged on “My Black Baby Doll: The Sources of Killer Frost” on Kaye Barley’s www.meanderingsandmuses.com back on Jan. 29, 2011, and on Jenny Milchman’s “Made It Moment” blog: www.jennymilchman.com on Feb.15.  I’ll be chatting with Sasscer Hill, a good msytery writer friend, on “Two Women Chat About” on Kaye Barley’s blog July 18, 2012.
            Sometime in September I’ll be blogging for Debra Goldstein on her blog.
            If you live in the Triangle area of North Carolina, I will be reading locally starting September 22, with a launch party at my Hoganvillaea Farm.  If you’re nearby, you’re invited.

Thank you, Robert.  Excellent and challenging questions!  Judy Hogan

You are most certainly welcome, Judy.  I’ll be on the lookout for Killer Frost in September.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for such an illuminating and informative interview! I love your treatment of writers who have submitted to your press. Everyone has to start somewhere.