Friday, July 29, 2011

Why I Write Mysteries by Judy Hogan

Judy Hogan was born in Zenith, Kansas.  She has lived in the Triangle area of N.C. for 40 years.  She brought to the state a new poetry journal (Hyperion, 1970-81) and in 1976 she founded Carolina Wren Press.  She has been active in the area since the early 70s as a reviewer, book distributor, publisher, teacher, writing consultant, and organizer of conferences, readings, and book signing events.  She was Chair of COSMEP (Committee of Small Magazine Editors and Publishers) 1975-78.  In 1984 she helped found and was the first President of the N.C. Writers' Network, serving until 1987.

She has published five volumes of poetry with small presses, and two prose works, Watering the Roots in a Democracy: A Manual for Combining Literature and Writing in the Public Library (1989) and The PMZ Poor Woman’s Cookbook (2000).

A translation of her poetry book, Beaver Soul, was published by the Kostroma Writers’ Organization in 1997.       

Her papers, correspondence, and 25 years of extensive diaries are in the Special Collections Department of the Perkins Library at Duke University.

She has taught all forms of creative writing since 1974, through libraries, in extension programs, and on her own.

She taught Freshman English 2004-2006 at St. Augustine’s College, an historically black college in Raleigh.  She does free lance editing and offers workshops for creative writers.

Between 1990 and 2007 she visited Kostroma, Russia, five times, teaching American literature at Kostroma University in 1995 and giving a paper to a Kostroma University Literature Conference in March 2007.  She worked on five exchange visits, as well as cooperative publishing with Kostroma writers and exhibits of their painters.  She has been active in environmental and community issues in Chatham County.

She’s also a member of Sisters In Crime (Guppies, GuppyPressQuest list).

Judy lives in Moncure, N.C., near Jordan Lake, in Chatham County.
Why I Write Mysteries
by Judy Hogan

I began reading mysteries in 1980, when my elder daughter left for college. Once the two younger children were in bed, and I'd finished my work for the day (I was editor and publisher of Carolina Wren Press, as well as teaching some writing classes for adults), there was an hour or so when I wasn't sleepy yet. I began with Agatha Christie. Amy and I had watched Mash together. Now I read mysteries.

My father, a United Church of Christ minister, had read mysteries to relax, so I asked him for suggestions and began with British women: Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James. Friends suggested Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Amanda Cross, Martha Grimes, Arthur Upfield, and over the years I've been delighted to read all the books of: Louise Penny, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Elizabeth George, Laurie King, Peter Robinson, Stephen Booth, Lindsay Davis, Charles Todd, Eliot Pattison, Michael Innes, Margaret Maron, Marjorie Allingham, Jacqueline Winspeare, Barbara Hambley, Alexander McCall Smith, Tony Hillerman, Margaret Coel, Elizabeth Peters, Ellis Peters, Reginald Hill, and new favorite, Sasscer Hill.

I liked a plot, but what gave the most pleasure were the subplots, the exploration of human relationships, and the different worlds I could enter. Mysteries became a way to relax and let go my worries and responsibilities for awhile, yet have new things to think about. I especially liked strong women protagonists, but I loved best the books that gave me what I call the cozy feeling. I liked it when the protagonist and friend would have comfort food, give each other emotional support. The crime had to be solved, but there was time for food, drink, humor, and love.

These days a cozy has come to mean a craft mystery novel, but when I think of a cozy mystery, it's more in the Malice Domestic Traditional Mystery mode (as in their contest sponsored by St. Martin's Press for the first best of these novels): no explicit sex or violence. The victim and the murderer are known within a limited world; there are suspects, and the reader is given enough clues to be able to guess whodunit.

In 1981 I began going abroad when I could afford it, as my ex-husband took the children more in the summer. I called these trips writing vacations, and my favorite place to go in the 80s was to the Gower Peninsula in Wales, where I could explore a variety of landscapes and historical sites down through the ages, from Ice Age caves to prehistoric stone monuments like Arthur's Stone, Norman castles, limestone cliffs, bays with their exotic wild flowers and tide pools teeming with sea life. I'd write poetry, but in the evening, I'd read what my landlady called "murders." She couldn't get me to watch the telly. I'd be too caught up in a "murder" provided by the little local library.

Then in 1990, on one of my long walks between Rhossili and Llangennith, I sprained my ankle. No more long walks that year. I wrote poetry and read, but I was housebound for several weeks. My landlady said, "Why don't you write a murder?" I'd never thought I could do it. They seemed at the opposite end of the literary spectrum from poetry, but, for fun, I began to plot my first mystery, set on Gower in a Bed and Breakfast, and the next summer I wrote The Sands of Gower.

I've begun my eighth mystery this month, going back again in imagination to Gower. In between, over the last twenty years, I've had my amateur detective, Penny Weaver, a mid-fifties poet, who likes to cross the ethnic and cultural boundaries that usually keep people apart, working on environmental and other local issues as part of an interracial community group. She is married to a Welsh Police Detective. Killer Frost, the sixth novel, when Penny teaches in an historically black college, was a finalist in the St. Martin's Malice Domestic First Best Traditional Mystery contest this year. It gave me my first major lift up. By 2007, when I became semi-retired, I joined Sisters in Crime and the Guppies (the great unpublished) and worked on finding an agent for the early books in the series. But, even with being a finalist, no agent grabbed up Killer Frost. I'm now querying small presses, using information provided by the SinC GuppyPressQuest listserve. Generally, I have had more interest from the small presses doing mysteries than from the agents.  I think the early ones are worth publishing, but for me now, I want to get Killer Frost out there first, and then I'll see how to handle the earlier ones.

Why do I write mysteries now? There are human experiences I've had and things I know that I can't get into poetry or my journal and autobiographical books but only into fiction. It also gives me an opportunity to take up social and cultural issues I care about. I have been an activist like Penny, working on safe nuclear storage, air pollution, local elections, etc., but I feel now that what I have to give the wider world that is potentially the most helpful are my writings - all of them - and the way I see people and the world we live in.

Our two biggest issues, I believe, in the twenty-first century, are learning to take care of our earth so we can continue to live on it and learning to understand and appreciate people different from ourselves, instead of warring, persecuting, and generally reducing to less than human those with whom we share Planet Earth. Like my favorite mysteries do, I want to give the reader cozy moments, time to eat, laugh, and love, between the difficult issues we all have to cope with, and I take the opportunity to explore what I know and didn't know I knew about people, as my characters interact.

Thank you, Kaye, for inviting me to blog here on a blog I deeply respect, Meandering and Muses.

Judy Hogan, Moncure, N.C.


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Judy, Welcome to Meanderings and Muses. I'm tickled pink to have you here!

I loved your interview with Louise Penny, by the way!

(here's the link for those of you who'd like to read it: )


L.J. Sellers said...

What a thoughtful post! I was so intrigued by Kaye's description of you, I had to stop in.

I like it that you write mysteries "to take up social and cultural issues I care about." (Me too.)

Judy Hogan said...

Thank you, Kaye, for your warm welcome here. I'm honored. Of course right now I'm not doing all those things--just writing, farming, and in the fall I'll be teaching Proust to writers and backyard chickens to new farmers. Judy Hogan

Sasscer Hill said...

Great post, Judy. Love what you said about giving people something to enjoy between the stresses that life keeps hurling at us!

Vicki Lane said...

Excellent post! I agree that mystery is a terrific genre for exploring social issues.

Judy Hogan said...

Thanks, L.J. and Vicki, for leaving comments. I see social issues coming up in lots of books, but so far, in the publishing effort, it hasn't been a plus. I remain hopeful, however.