Chatham author blends community and activism in newest novel

Posted 7/17/20

Writing, organizing and spreading the word about “one problem after another” has turned Judy Hogan into a Chatham fixture who rarely shies away from the political side of writing. Things are no different in her newest book, a novel in her “Penny Weaver” mystery series called “The Pernicious Poll.”

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Chatham author blends community and activism in newest novel

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MONCURE — When local author and longtime community activist Judy Hogan moved to her home in Moncure in 1998, she felt the weight of her decision.

“When I first moved,” Hogan reflected, “they wanted to do a low-level nuclear dump in our neighborhood. And I really wanted the house. And I said, ‘I’ll take the house and I’ll fight against the problems.’ And it just was one problem after another.”

Writing, organizing and spreading the word about “one problem after another” has turned Hogan into a Chatham fixture who rarely shies away from the political side of writing. Things are no different in her newest book, a novel in her “Penny Weaver” mystery series called “The Pernicious Poll.”

The Pernicious Poll, which published July 15, is the 10th of Hogan’s “Penny Weaver” books set in Chatham County. Familiar Chatham faces and plenty of southern foods dot Hogan’s pages as characters enter and exit heroine Penny Weaver’s home with news of local drama. According to Hogan, the similarity to Chatham is not an accident.

“The Penny Weaver books are cited first in a sort of version of Pittsboro, close to the Haw River,” she said. “And then I moved the characters to a new home in what was Moncure, but I call it New Springs.”

Hogan has had plenty of time to steep herself in Chatham — and in the North Carolina literary community — since moving into the community in the mid-90s. She helped found the North Carolina Writer’s Network and started Carolina Wren Press, a publishing house that later merged with Blair Publishing. Her activism work on various environmental issues — for instance, fracking initiatives, coal ash and chemical disposal — has earned her local recognition.

“Since I was going out house-to-house to talk to people about Formaldehyde and fracking all that stuff; getting signatures and putting up signs, I got to know a lot of people in Moncure,” Hogan said about her activism work. “And people would come up to me in the post office knowing a lot about me… Not that everybody likes me, but a lot of people decided I was OK based on what they were learning and hearing from other people.”

North Carolina’s poet laureate, Jaki Shelton Green, is particularly grateful for Hogan’s contribution to the arts landscape. Hogan published Green’s first collection of poems, Dead on Arrival, in 1977. The two have remained longtime friends.

“I remember when she moved [to Chatham] and she was selling bread and giving away poems with the homemade bread,” Green recalled of Hogan. “And I thought, ‘Well, that’s a neat way to build community.’ But she’s always created a table that was open and welcome.”

“The role of the writer; the role of the artist, is to disrupt and to agitate,” Green said. “When I think of agitation, I think of cleansing. I think of what happens when we put our clothes into a washer. The agitation is what cleans. Judy has always stood for speaking out for the underdog, being on the right side of justice and protecting the quality of health and well-being of all citizens.”

As in many of Hogan’s books, her characters engage in the activism work that she herself has undertaken. In The Pernicious Poll, her characters wage a legal battle against a controversial North Carolina voter identification law. Hogan and fellow activists organized against the real-life legislation that later inspired The Pernicious Poll — North Carolina’s 2013 voter ID bill — by conducting research and communicating new voting documentation requirements to community members across Chatham.

As it turned out, the controversy didn’t last long. A three-judge panel of 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals struck the bill down in 2016, saying its provisions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Still, voting legislation is not the only political facet of The Pernicious Poll. Hogan’s book also ties in issues of race, environmental stewardship and teenage sexuality. Two of the youngest characters in the book — an interracial couple — land in hot water after engaging in sex too early. Even Hogan’s youngest characters engage in town politics, and the environmental scene in the novel should be familiar to anyone who’s lived in Chatham for a while. Throughout the book, Hogan even uses a fictional name to denote a “Haw Riverkeeper.”

Emily Sutton, Chatham’s real-life Haw Riverkeeper and a longtime advocate for environmental protection through her work at the Haw River Assembly, says that Hogan’s work helps unite both the literary and activist community in Chatham.

“She is a really great organizer,” Sutton said about Hogan. “She’s really persistent…when she hits a brick wall, like so many of us often do in this work, she keeps pushing. She doesn’t give up.”

Hogan doesn’t plan on stopping her work anytime soon. She’s busy writing her newest novel, called A Teen’s Christmas in Wales. In her spare time, she teaches poetry and prose classes to other writers.

“I’m not selling millions of books,” she said, “but enough to keep me encouraged.”

So You Want to be a Writer?

Hogan’s advice on inspiration, character development and the best books

After publishing more than a dozen novels and multiple collections of poetry — not to mention helping to start a publishing house and the North Carolina Writers Network — Judy Hogan has built a toolbox of writing tricks.

“I don’t believe in too many rules,” Hogan says about her writing. “I only have two rules: One is to make it vivid, and the other is to hold the reader’s attention.”

Hogan’s own introduction to writing came when she was seven years old and caught Rheumatic fever.

“That was during World War II,” she says, “before they had Penicillin and antibiotics. They just put me to bed for a year, and that’s when I started writing.”

When she begins writing a story, Hogan uses Elizabeth George’s 2004 book Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life as a guide to creating characters: “She suggests that you take each character and think about their name, what they look like, what their mannerisms are, what their gait is — how fast or slow they walk — what their core need is...and related to your core need is what you do when you can’t get it,” she said.

Hogan also recommends that writers should get words on a page as often as possible. Keeping a diary, she says, can help writers stay consistent in the craft. She also recommends reading good books:

“Not just current books,” she says, “but going back even to the Illiad and the Odyssey, 19th century novels, Jane Austen and others. And you can learn a lot without even especially thinking about it just by reading the books. The patterns and ways of expressing yourself kind of get into your mind.”

Hogan’s Top 5 authors for inspiration:

• Marcel Proust

• Virginia Woolf

• Dante (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso)

• T.S. Elliot

• Ezra Pound

Hogan shares her writing expertise in her classes on poetry and prose, which she teaches from her home. These days, those classes take place using video conferencing tools. But in those classes as well as in her books, Hogan tries to remain true to her convictions.

“I learned pretty early that you can’t please everybody,” she says. “You have to go with the people who like what you’re doing, and don’t worry about those that quit.”

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