An Interview with Judith Smith-Levin
by Sharon Cullars
Judith Smith-Levin has been during various times in her life a model, a disc jockey, a secretary, a playwright, a newspaper reporter, a television line producer, a bookstore owner, as well as the first Black female uniformed patrol officer on the Worcester, Massachusetts force. Quite an extensive resume for one woman. And yet, it still isn’t complete. Add to it mystery writer.
In her two books, Do Not Go Gently and The HooDoo Man, Smith-Levin has created an intelligent, smart, take-no-mess sister named Starletta Duvall who also happens to be a homicide detective lieutenant in the fictional town of Brookport, Massachusetts. With her Starletta Duvall series, Smith-Levin joins the small but growing rank of sisters who have put ink to paper and have created some very interesting and entertaining African-American heroines. Just like Valery Wilson Wesley’s Tamara Hayle, Terris Grimes’ Theresa Galloway, and Barbara Neely’s Blanche White, Starletta is an independent Black woman whose job or circumstance places her in a position to solve baffling murders and bring justice to those in dire need of it.
Ms. Smith-Levin has granted Elan an opportunity to ask a few questions about her books, her career, and writing, in general. Following the interview is an excerpt from her last book, The HooDoo Man, which is available through Amazon.com.
I guess the obvious question is how did you come up with the character of Star Duvall and how close does the character parallel your own personality? Are there similarities other than the law enforcement background?
She came out of two things. My own experiences and my ownership of a small bookstore in Carmel, California, which I'd purchased and turned into a mystery book store. I read practically everything that came in, in order to talk to my customers and to recommend certain books.
I noticed that there was a host of female writers creating private eyes, but no real cops. Star just kind of sprang to life because of that. I'd long wanted to write about my own experiences as a police officer, and I felt the mystery genre provided a way of doing that. It also allowed me to create a fictional character whose experiences would be based on the reality of a woman in the police department. And yes, some of the things that happen to her, actually happened to me.
As for our similarities, we're both tall, Black, and we love cats, chocolate and Motown music. That's about it.
As a police officer, you probably dealt with some rough cases. Did you draw from any particular case or cases to set your plots for your novels?
In my first book, Do Not Go Gently, I used a couple of incidents that I witnessed as a police officer, as a basis for some of the killings. However, I did not wish to exploit what had been real-life tragedies, so I fictionalized crime scenes and events.
The second book, The Hoodoo Man, deals with murder by voodoo, and of course, I never saw such a thing, but I thought the idea was very interesting and it worked beautifully.
My third book, Green Money, deals with the very real topic of kids committing murder these days. People are dying in the manner of a very popular computer game, and all the signs point to a group of very wealthy and privileged students at an exclusive boy's school. However, in the tradition of great mysteries, things aren't always as they seem.
Starletta, or Star as she's called in the stories, is a Black woman in a predominantly white setting and has to deal with some racial antagonisms. Was that the case in your own experience?
Unfortunately, yes. Not only did I have to deal with racism, I had to deal with sexism. It's a sad, but true fact, that police work has long been a male dominated field and when a woman takes that job, she's often perceived as "less than." When you add race to the mix it can be doubly mean and nasty. However, I'm happy to say that the majority of my fellow officers looked at me and saw blue and no other color. Still, there were a few who made things difficult for me.
It's a sad fact of human nature that people are afraid of what they don't know or understand and so they try to destroy it; either by actually killing it, or by dehumanizing it and making it "inferior" in their own small minds. The solution is to know who and what you are, and stand up and do the absolute best you can, and disregard the ignorant people who try to destroy you. It's hard, but it can be done, and another fact is that in Star's case, she's a Lieutenant, she's the boss and so she also has to command the respect of her squad and she does.
On a personal note, how did you happen to become the first Black female uniformed officer on the Worcester, Massachusetts force?
Actually, that's a pretty funny story. I'd moved to Worcester from Chicago, and while I worked as a reporter for one of the city's newspapers, I noticed that there were no black cops. Worcester is the second largest city in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and it just struck me as strange that a city that size didn't have any black officers. (It turned out in it's entire 200 plus year history, they'd had two. One was dead and the other was retired. ) I became very vocal about this, and the fact that I didn't see any female cops either. (There had never been a female "street cop.") I hammered pretty hard until one of the captains summoned me to his office and suggested that if I was so disturbed by the makeup of the force, I should take the next exam.
I said, "I don't want to be a cop." He said, "Then shut up." Well, being from the Southside of Chicago, that pretty much ticked me off, and so I agreed to take the next exam. To make a long story short, I took the patrolman's exam which, up until that time, had only been taken by men. I came in with the 4th highest score in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I was sworn in with three Black male cops, so it became a real "event." The running joke was we could organize an African-American Patrol Officers League and meet in a phone booth at Kelly Square.
I admit I took the job on a dare, and to prove a point. I'd planned to do it for one year, just to show them that a woman could indeed be a uniformed, patrol officer, and I got hooked. I loved it. I lasted five years. I left because the work destroys your emotions. You see so much pain and suffering that you have to harden yourself, just to do the job. Sometimes it's difficult to step out of that shell that you've built around yourself, and relate to real people in the real world. Slowly, you find yourself living in a world that's populated entirely by cops, because they understand you and they understand what the job can do to you. I'd reached that point. I witnessed the aftermath of a suicide and found to my shock and surprise that I felt absolutely nothing for the victim. It was then I decided it was time to go.
What drew you to writing in general, and writing mysteries in particular?
I love words. I've always been a reader and a writer. I wrote my first novel when I was 13 years old. Writing is my gift. It's the one thing I've always been able to do, without even thinking about it. I love it, and I'm grateful that I'm Blessed to do it for a living. I've written other kinds of books, but when I had the mystery book store, I was made aware of the popularity of the genre. I'd always liked reading "whodunnits", but I'd never thought about writing them until I saw the number of female authors who were doing it, and noted that they weren't writing about cops. I thought I could fill that void.
Have you had the opportunity to meet with any of the other Black female mystery writers? Do you have a particular writer who has influenced yourstyle in some way?
I've been fortunate to meet and spend time with Evelyn Coleman, Paula Woods, Nora DeLoach, Terris McMahon Grimes and Valerie Wilson Wesley. I find each of them to be terrific women, fun and very supportive. They all have their own special touches and styles. Though we're all writing about African-American women, we're all different.
I don't think I've been influenced by any writers, mystery or otherwise. I find Star to be unique in that she has a distinct voice of reality and she's born of the actual experience of being on the front lines of police work. So...as much as I admire the writers I've listed, as well as many others, I can't say that my work has been influenced by anyone.
For many writers, it takes years to get published. What were the difficulties, if any, to getting your first book published?
I know it sounds trite but every obstacle that can come your way, will, and you really have to keep pushing. I was rejected roundly by seemingly every publisher in New York City. Mainly because I didn't have an agent and I was just sending stuff "over the transom" which means it's unsolicited and usually ends up unread. I didn't stop, I just decided to go another route, which was to find an agent, which was hard, but I did manage.
Writer's Digest puts out a book every year, which I understand now is divided into several books, which lists all the publishers, and the agents who will read unsolicited work. It gives lots of information on submissions and guidelines and so forth. I used this book to get a list together. I went to the library with a legal pad and a couple of pens and I copied the address of every agency that would read. Then I put together a packet with a query letter and three sample chapters and sent it all out. I got an agent through actively getting out there and looking for one.
Another way is to attend writer's conferences. There are usually agents at these affairs, whom you can talk to and from whom you'll get an honest evaluation of your work. But you must have an agent, a reputable one. Once that's accomplished, they do the work of getting to the editors in the various publishing houses. It takes time. Do Not Go Gently took a couple of years to sell, but once it was sold, I still had a lot of rewriting to do. I talk to a lot of fledgling writers, who expect it all to be an overnight process. It isn't. It's long and hard and tedious, so you have to love it to hang on. Rejection is part of the process, so don't take it personally. Once you're sold, it's best to have another book already written or to be working on one, since nowadays most contracts are for at least two to three books.
I have been informed that Do Not Go Gently is out of print. Any plans for reissuing? I know that I tried to get a copy from Amazon Books, but they still haven't been able to find a copy.
Do Not Go Gently is supposed to be re-released from Ballantine, however, I don't have a date when that is going to take place. The book was originally produced by HarperCollins, and since I'm no longer with that company, it is and will be unavailable until the reprint.
Is there another book in the works, and, if so, how soon is it due out?
The third book,Green Money is actually being produced as we speak, and should be in stores by late April or early May, 2000. I'm currently working on the 4th book in the series, which will be out in the Spring of 2001.
Final question. What is the one characteristic that Star Duvall has that you wish was your own?
That's a hard question, because there's so much in her that I like. If I had to distill it down to one characteristic, I'd have to say it's her ability to feel so much. She has great love and trust for the people in her life, and she has feelings and empathy for the survivors and the victims that she comes across in her job. She's not a sap, but she has a very loving heart, and she's able to separate the ugliness of her job from the life she lives outside the department. For me that was very difficult and probably the main reason I'm an "ex" cop.