Judy Hogan: Sammie, a new writer friend of mine, Debra Goldstein, wants a blog from me to post on her blog in early September, to celebrate the publication of Killer Frost, and she suggested I interview one of my characters. I picked you, who are my favorite.
Sammie Hargrave: Suits me. What do you want to know? Seems like you should know me pretty well, after writing eight books in which I play Penny Weaver’s sidekick.
Judy: That’s the thing, Sammie. You always surprise me. You’re my most unpredictable character.
Sammie: Otherwise, your novels would be dull. Penny’s okay. I’m fond of her. But without me to liven things up, she might be a little boring. She’s so earnest. I mean, she tries hard to obey the rules. It only works for her about half the time, but she hasn’t caught on yet.
Judy: We can’t say the same about you, Sammie. You’re a consummate rule-bender and dodger.
Sammie: I have more fun, plus Penny never minds when we’re solving a case, and I get into Derek’s briefcase to see the autopsy results, or we conduct our own interviews when he’s told us to say out of police “bidness.” He’s worse than Penny is for rules. It’s women who generally figure things out. We see the big picture and pick up the atmosphere around people–the aura, stuff like that. I can read body language a hell of a lot faster than Penny can, girl, or Derek, for that matter, but at least Penny’s learning to trust her gut instincts and know she needs me. Can’t you see that?
Judy: I’m beginning to. I myself was raised in a minister’s family, raised to be a good girl. But by twenty-one I was in full rebellion, and I was drawn to people who had a touch of wickedness. Maybe especially it was flamboyance I liked, and straight talkers. I was sick of being nice to everyone. I suffered for it. Some of the rebels I hooked myself up with hurt me, betrayed me, you name it. Finally, I added a little bit of wickedness to my own character–balanced it.
Sammie: Ha, girl. You don’t know from Adam about no wickedness. You and Penny, who’s your alter ego–right?–are still 99% good girls. But you did get tougher, saw other people better, developed your bullshit detector, but the way we start out, stays. You never noticed?
Judy: Tell us how you started out, Sammie.
Sammie: I was raised right here in Shagbark County, central North Carolina, and my people, too, as far back as I know. Folks had plantations here, going back into the 1700s. Ships came up the Cape Fear River, which our Haw flows into. There were land grants from the King long before the Revolutionary War. I haven’t traced back past my grandmother’s people, who were slaves. She died when I was little, but Mama told me how it was.
I identify with my African beginnings, my slave ancestors, my grandmother, who grew up before World War II and did the white folks’ laundry, carrying it all from the big house to her shotgun tenant shack, and then washing it all by hand, ironing it with an iron heated on the woodstove, and then carrying it all back. Then my mother worked as a maid for rich white folks and my father did logging work until he died. She got me into an integrated school as soon as they had one in Shagbark–1972–when I started kindergarten. She saved pennies for my books and clothes, and later, for my college. I owe her so much. Yes, that much of my history I know. I have a love-hate relationship to it. So much cruelty and injustice, but I’m so proud of the strength and courage my ancestors had.
It’s why I teach at St. Francis, shitty as it sometimes gets. I want us black folks to hold onto our culture, our churches, our literature, our music, and our language, and, of course, our history. Without our language, our culture dies. So I keep it current in my mind, and I encourage my students to do that but to distinguish between when to use standard English and when to talk black folks talk.
Judy: Your friendship with Penny is so important to her, Sammie. I like to think the two of you work on healing the rift that stays between the black and white races in this country.
Sammie: Right, important to me, too. Penny is good people, even if I have to educate her half the time. Things have changed a lot, but you know how that racism sticks. I sometimes think we’ll never be free of it until people can’t tell the difference between us and everybody else–especially by skin color.
Judy: Tell me more about what’s important to you, Sammie.
Sammie: Like you, I want to be my own self, and I got this thing about clothes and hair. Hats, too. I like to look good, and I know people judge a lot by how you look. That’s where Penny and I differ. She dresses about the same way every day and rarely wears a dress.
Judy: Penny has two dresses. I own three. But we save them for special occasions–weddings, fancy banquets.
Sammie: So Penny wears jeans and slacks, blouses and shirts; shorts in the summer. See her in a dress? Must mean somethin’ big is comin’ down. But I like to dress up. Always did. Mama let me play in her old clothes and Grandma’s wigs. I’m a Thrift Store addict, and I have friends and cousins I trade off with. I like it when people notice me. I like it even better when they don’t recognize me because I look different from the last time they saw me.
But a lot of white people? They don’t see us nohow. Like we’re invisible. Run into them in a store, someone you’ve met at some political meeting? They don’t see you. So I take it one more step. They notice but they don’t realize they’ve seen me before. I can’t say why I do it. The devil in me, I guess.
Judy: I know I enjoy you, Sammie. You add zest to my writing. A lot of my characters started from people I know. Like Marcel Proust did, I often blend two or three together. But you came to me out of the blue except for one detail. I had an African American friend who also liked to look different each time you saw her. That’s all I had to start with, and now you live and breathe, and I love to see what you’ll do or say next. It’s one of the rewards of writing fiction.
Sammie: I’m glad I’m your favorite. It’s not hard to surprise you, Judy. You’re so predictable.
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Judy Hogan’s first mystery novel, Killer Frost, was published September 1, 2012, by Mainly Murder Press of Connecticut. Judy founded Carolina Wren Press (1976-91), and was co-editor of Hyperion Poetry Journal (1970-81). She has published five volumes of poetry and two prose works with small presses. She has taught all forms of creative writing since 1974. She joined Sisters in Crime and the Guppies in 2007 and has focused since then on writing and publishing traditional mystery novels. In 2011 she was a finalist in the St. Martin’s Malice Domestic Mystery contest. The twists and turns of her life’s path over the years have given her plenty to write about. She is also a small farmer and lives in Moncure, N.C.