Hi. Barb Ross here. Lots of people know that MaineCrimeWriter’s own Paul Doiron was nominated for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar® award this year for his first novel, The Poacher’s Son. Fewer may know that Maine had another Edgar nominee this year—North Waterford’s Judith Green was nominated for Best Short Story. As a co-editor/co-publisher at Level Best Books, I was privileged to publish Judy’s nominated story in Thin Ice: Crime Stories by New England Writers.
Every year for the past eight, Judy has published one of her short stories in the annual Level Best anthology. (MaineCrimeWriter’s Kate Flora was a founding co-editor of Level Best Books and published the first seven of Judy’s stories.) All revolve around schoolteacher Margery Easton and her family and take place in the same Maine town, though the tales range across decades and generations. Each one is absolutely brilliant and they need to be collected someday. (Think Olive Kittredge, but of course, completely different.)
In addition to her short stories, Judy has a novel with an agent whom she pitched at the New England Crime Bake. She has also published twenty-five high-interest/low-level books for adult new readers.
Here’s my interview with Judy. It’s a story about Maine, writing, persistence and it also contains my favorite quote of the year.
Barb: Hi Judy. Welcome to MaineCrimeWriters. Tell us about your Maine connection.
Judy: Well, I’m the seventh generation on my hillside in North Waterford, in the western foothills of Maine. My great-great-great-etc. grandfather, Samuel Warren, came up the coast from Massachusetts by packet, then came to North Waterford on foot by compass through the woods in 1787 at the age of 20, having bought 580 acres sight-unseen off a range map. He was the first settler in the area. He built a lean-to out of elm bark, which he lived in that summer while he cleared the land of its huge beech trees. He returned to Portland for the winter, where he worked as a cooper, and came back to his land the next summer with some major home improvements such as a mattress ticking to fill with straw.
The third summer he came back and found another family building nearby. He boarded with them while he built his house, then went back to Massachusetts for his brother, and they married the two daughters of the family. That house is still in the family, and I could show you the boards he cut by hand, and the bricks he made, and his favorite chair, and also follow the generations down—how the old farm supplied the Union army during the Civil War; how my great-grandmother sold off the larger barn in the 1920s; how my grandmother was married at the farm, and my husband and I, and my daughter and her husband; how my grandchildren now use the swing in the barn. We built our own house just down the road, but we keep our garden at the old farm in the summer, and cross-country ski through the woods in the winter.
Barb: Congratulations on the Edgar nom. What did it mean to be nominated?
Judy: It was an incredible thrill. Here’s how I found out: I’d been stuck in an airport in Appleton, Wisconsin, for two days due to snow, and when I got home and booted up my computer, my email was packed. I sat there staring at the column of subject lines saying “Congratulations” and wondered what on earth I had done.
When Kate Flora, Ruth McCarty, and Susan Oleksiw decided to give up publishing the Level Best anthologies, I thought I would never be published again. I felt quite despondent. Less than a year later I had an agent for my novel, and I was headed to New York City to the Edgars! It meant the world to be recognized for my work.
Barb: How did North Waterford react to your nomination?
Judy: I think all 1,036 of the population heard about it, and Melby’s General Store has had to restock Level Best’s Thin Ice twice. The only down side was after my trip to New York, having to tell 1,036 people that I didn’t actually win. Seriously, they were tickled.
Barb: Your short stories all revolve around the same Maine town. How does that sense of place inspire you?
Judy: A lot of the events in my stories are based on happenings here in North Waterford, and when I’ve done readings locally my listeners can often say, “Oh, I remember that” or—more problematically—”Oh, I remember him.” But of course reality and memory and invention are all woven together to make a new story. In “Listen”, the church treasurer is stealing from the church’s accounts–but, um, in reality, the treasurer of the North Waterford Congregational Church is completely honest. Really. (I’m the treasurer!) The inspiration for “Dark” came partly from my father’s warnings about the old ice box in the cellar (I still have it, but he jimmied the doors so they wouldn’t close) and partly from a World War II veteran, badly scarred, who shot at my great aunt through her bedroom window one night. Only of course the story turned out differently—
Barb: Your family has lived North Waterford for generations, but if I’m not mistaken you spent at least some of your growing up years and your college years “away.” How does that time away shape your perspective?
Judy: I went to school in Connecticut, because that was where my father landed a teaching job, and I was at Brown in Rhode Island. Once you’ve lost your “cred” by going away, it’s hard to get back. One old guy overheard me mention that I’d been born here and said, “Now, Ju-day, kittens born in the oven aren’t biscuits!” But my heart has always been here. We’d be home again every summer the moment school let out, and I hated going back to Connecticut in the fall. I told my parents that when I grew up, they couldn’t make me leave. They thought it was cute. I was very fortunate: I essentially invented my own job locally, as the Adult Education Director for the local school district. I held the post for 30 years.
Barb: You got your agent from at pitch at the New England Crime Bake. Tell us about your book and where it is in the process.
Judy: Yes, my agent is Ellen Pepus of Signature Literary Agency. When I pitched to her, she said to send a partial; what a day that was when she said to send the full! I’d sent out hopeful cold-call emails to other agents, but didn’t get more than a nibble. It was great to be able to pitch the book directly to an agent at the conference. The book centers around Margery Easton, of course, but I got her out of town. She is hiking across England with her husband on the Coast-to-Coast walk, when another American on the hike is found under a bridge rather dead. The story line becomes a variation of a locked room mystery, since all of the suspects are hiking from town to town across the country along with our footsore sleuth. As to where it is in the process, Ellen is working up a list of best places to send it, and I’m busy finalizing a what I hope will be the next book in a series, which takes Margery off to Russia to see how much trouble she can get into there.
You can buy the Level Best Books anthologies that contain Judy’s stories (and lots of other fantastic stories) here.
Judith, I was part of the Edgars short story committee a few years back, so believe me when I say it’s truly an honor to be nominated. Despite the loss of several magazine short-story markets, there is still an enormous amount of short fiction to be considered every year. It’s really the cream that rises to the top.
Congratulations on getting your agent! We all look forward to seeing your book hit print.
At the awards banquet they said that to get to the list of five short story nominees, they’d had to cut stories by several prominent authors, including Joyce Carol Oates. The look on Judy’s face at that moment was priceless.
I’ve had the honor of being Judy’s publisher for seven crime story collections, and each year, we looked forward to reading her stories. To continue Judy’s interview…last summer, on the same day, I had an e-mail from Judy in the morning, expressing her sorrow that we were going to stop publishing the Level Best crime story collections and her belief that probably no one would ever publish her stories again. That evening, I did an event at the Wells Library with Barbara Ross, who was part of the team of writers taking over as editors at Level Best. “Who is this writer, Judy Green?” she asked me. “She’s just wonderful.”
And she is just wonderful. She has such an incisive talent for capturing the nuances of small town living. For giving different generations voice. For understanding how evil is sometimes evil and sometimes greed and sometimes misunderstanding. Her story about the church treasurer, and the way a threatened livelihood can sway people’s morality and sense of community, is really brilliant. If you grew up in a small Maine town, as I did, you are completely at home in one of her stories.
Every time I read one of your posts, I’m so envious of you all living in that beautiful state. Thanks for another wonderful interview.