Mystery author Judy Hogan shares a Made It Moment that many of us will relate to, one we’ve either experienced or are working toward. It’s that Moment when The Call (or the email) comes and we know we’ve crossed a great divide. Here’s to divide crossing of the greatest kind. And here’s to all of Judy’s other hoped for moments coming true as well.
When I received the email from Judith Ivie of Mainly Murder Press, my first thought was that it was a rejection. In my four years of more intensive querying to get published, I’d so far had only rejections, although I’d had my hopes rise with requests for fulls, and especially when I became a finalist in the spring of 2011 in the Malice Domestic First Best Traditional Mystery Contest sponsored by St. Martin’s Press. But even that had led to more rejection from agents.
Then I saw that a contract was attached to Ivie’s email.
I had an explosion of feeling–yes–all in a moment. The best word I’ve found to describe it is ecstasy, in the original meaning of the Greek –ek stasis–standing outside of oneself. I talked to myself, to the dog and the cat, who had no idea what was wrong with me. Then I downloaded the contract and made myself read it carefully, before I replied to Judith Ivie that I’d be sending back the signed contract the next day. Then I called a close friend and left her a message and began sending jubilant emails.
So many threads came together and were knotted in that moment. I am a published poet and creative non-fiction writer, and for ten years I’ve published a column about women in my county for our community newspaper, Chatham County Line. I’ve had readers before. I’ve even given a talk to the Friends of the Pittsboro Library and read them excerpts from an unpublished book about my farm, Pushkin and Chickens. But for the last four and a half years, I’ve focused on my mystery novels: revising, getting good feedback from my librarian friend, Suzanne Flandreau, who’s sympathetic to my “niche” of community activism, and seeking to publish them.
Killer Frost is the sixth novel I’ve written over the last twenty years, and there are eight now. I have a ninth planned for 2012. So the email was a successful culmination of five years of work on a clear target: get a mystery published. I’m a prolific writer, but it’s easier for me to write a new book than to work on publishing the hordes of unpublished ones in drawers, boxes, bookshelves, and on the computer. I had the idea that if I could get one out, I’d get more out. Once the gate was open, the manuscripts would escape. So here was the open gate.
Another thread was readers. George Seferis, the Greek poet who won the Nobel Prize, said that all he needed was three readers. I’ve had more than three readers for my poetry. But a lot more people read mysteries than read poetry, so it meant, I hoped, what I’d dreamed of–one day having my books in people’s bookcases. An earlier Malice Judge, Ellen Rininger, in 2008, gave me helpful feedback on mystery number four. Ellen believed in me and wrote: “Judy, you amaze me. You have the positive outlook which will get you far. And you just keep going. We know you have a good product, you are getting wonderful critiques from knowledgeable people. You are making great connections, and we are going to see your name in print on bookshelves everywhere. Just keep up the good work.”
Another thread was that I was who I thought I was. I am the author I wanted to be. I wasn’t making it up. To keep going, I told myself the story that one day people would want to read my books. Now that was coming true.
Then there’s the thread about aging. When this book comes out, I’ll be seventy-five. I’m healthy. I work at staying healthy, by exercise, diet, staying active, and writing as much as possible. I wrote three books this year and five last year, plus a poetry book. But I have a friend my age who believed age was against us older mystery writers. Maybe it has been, but I can’t say I’ve noticed. Most of the Guppy members I’ve gotten to know have been over fifty, and some have had their first books come out in their sixties, but the sooner I got started getting more books out, the better.
There was still another thread, the most important one. I believe, with Virginia Woolf, that we should write what we wish to write.
“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 color, 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.” [A Room of One’s Own, Harcourt Brace, Jovanovich, New York and London, 1957. Page 110.]
I’ve written what I wanted to write. My friend Margie Ellison used to say, “Speak your heart’s truth.” I’ve dedicated Killer Frost to her. I try to speak my heart’s truth in all my writing. In the mysteries I try to make the truth that I’ve seen in people and their behavior come alive. I’ve trusted not only what I know I think and feel, but a deeper part of me that knows more about what I have not noticed and feel than I do, and can make it alive when I set characters in motion in a story. The story draws things out of me and my experiences that surprise me.
The story and the characters, or call it the Muse, know more than I do. For this experience of creation, which I’ve been lucky enough to have, to go out to the wider world, with my truth in it as well as I could write it, could listen to its heartbeat, feel its pulse, and look into its eyes, feel it breathing in my life, is a great joy. It helps everything else be lighter and easier.
I realized immediately that I was feeling more gracious and generous toward other people. I’ve been pulling away in recent years from activism and activities, so as to give my writing as much time as possible. I’ll still be focused on my writing, less distracted by all the other worthwhile causes and projects, but I do hope my books may work on the two great crises of our twenty-first century, as I see it: learning to take care of our earth, the only planet we have, and learning to see all its people as fellow human beings–looking past the differences of culture, education, religion, ethnicity, age–whatever has tended to separate us and cause us to look down on other human beings as inferior or less important than ourselves. If my published books help even a little to work on these crises, then I will feel that I and my writing have done the work we set out to do in the one lifetime we are given.
Judy Hogan is a published poet and non-fiction writer, who lives and farms in Moncure, N.C. Killer Frost, her first published mystery is due out from Mainly Murder Press Sept. 1, 2012.