Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Getting Inside A Man's Head: The Dangerous Work of Barbara Fradkin

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Getting Inside A Man's Head: The Dangerous Work of Barbara Fradkin

Welcome to hump day. Did you know that on this same date in 1996 the first installment of midlist author Stephen King's little-known 'Green Mile' trilogy appeared in stores? Makes you feel old, I know.

Today I'm happy to share an interview I had with Barbara Fradkin, author of the popular Inspector Green series, including the latest, Beautiful Lie The Dead. I moved past the fact that our last names both start with 'F', which means that we occupy the same shelf in bookstores, only Ms. Fradkin occupies a whole lot more of it. But not, I should mention, when I change all of her space-hogging face-out books back to spine-out. Anyhoo, I digress ...

CB: We had a great radio interview together a while back and the host was asking about men writitng women and vice versa. Your protagonist is male. Any tricks to stepping inside the (often vaccuous) head space of my species?

BF: We women spend half our lives trying to figure out what’s going on inside men’s heads. Why did he do this? Why didn’t he do that? What did he mean by that?

CB: That's time you won't get back ...

BF: This was especially true while my two daughters were teenagers, when conversation around the dinner table revolved totally around boys. Occasionally my husband or son would hazard a guess from the sidelines. As well, writers (and psychologists, which I also am) are always observing, making connections and spinning theories. It helped too that I had a father, brother, husband and son, as well as my “masculine” side.

CB: Do you have an end in sight for your character and series? What comes after Green?

BF: There is no end in sight for Inspector Green, although I can’t picture myself on novel #19. Having a city homicide cop as a protagonist allows me to legitimately tackle many different types of characters and themes. Human trafficking in one book and mercy killing in another. I’ve not yet done either of those, but who knows? Green grows older, family situations change, colleagues come and go, adding constant evolution to the series. However, there are certainly times I’d dying to break out. I have other stories to tell, other characters and settings to explore. My next Green novel breaks out of police procedural mold by being more an adventure thriller in the Nahanni National Park. I also have a totally different series on the go with Orca’s Rapid Reads books for adult literacy. Cedric OToole, the hero in that series, is truly an anti-Green

CB: Editors and writers sometimes have a love-hate relationship. My experiences have been good and constructive. Tell me about your experience with these mysterious practitioners of the dark art.

BF: I have been very lucky to have had a publisher and editor who allowed me to tell the story I wanted and who demanded very few changes for the sake of marketability or target audience. By the time I sent my manuscript to them, it has been through numerous drafts and polished within an inch of its life, and so there were very few editorial changes to be made. However, I have a critiquing group of fellow writers who read the manuscript beforehand, and that is where the real dark art is practised. They catch flaws in character development, lags in pacing and holes in logic that I am too close to notice. No writer should be without them!

CB: How do you put your novels together? Draft all the way to the end or do you stop and start or patchwork it together?

BF: I use the “fly by the seat of my pants” technique of writing. I don’t outline; I have almost no idea where I’m going, what characters I’m going to meet along the way, nor how I’m going to end the story. I don’t know whodunit either. This is a chaotic process, at times terrifying, often exhilarating, but I am never bored nor do I feel I’m doing paint by number writing. To begin, I play around with an idea in my head for some time, exploring “what ifs” and character possibilities, until the opening scene of the book comes to me. Once I have that, I start to write, and then follow the story as it unfolds. I wrote a lot of really bad mainstream novels that now languish in my basement. I’m extremely grateful none of them got published, but I learned a lot about how to write, pace, structure, create story arc, etc. So those concepts are floating around in my head as I write this first chaotic draft. When I get stuck, I ask questions like “What needs to happen next?” or “What would this character be doing at this point?” It all serves to push the plot forward. Sometimes it inches along, other times it races at a breathless pitch. By the end of the book, I know the characters in the story and what the story actually is. At that point I can fix it up, make it hang together, develop or eliminate scenes, strengthen characters, and all that good rewrite stuff.

CB: Do you think setting your novels in Ottawa - let alone in Canada - limits your potential readership? That wasn't a knock at Ottawa. I happen to live there. And yet I set my stories in Toronto. I love Toronto, but I hate the Leafs.

BF: Much as I hate to admit it, it’s possible. I think Canada itself limits potential readership, in part because it limits access to the big markets in the US and UK. Everything we like about Canada – its polite and gentle people, its safe streets, its civility and history of compromise – also contributes to its perception as a rather dull relation who never causes trouble but isn’t much fun to visit. And among Canada’s big cities, I suspect Ottawa has the reputation – undeservedly – of being the dullest, especially among other Canadians. “Don’t you roll up the sidewalks at five o’clock up there?”

I grew up in Montreal and did graduate work in Toronto, but after experiencing Ottawa’s coming of age in the past forty years, I love setting my series here. My work as a psychologist traveling all over the city gave me an inside knowledge of all the different people and neighbourhoods. Ottawa has everything the big cities have, from immigrants to biker gangs to gentrified downtowns and elegant waterfront mansions. It has a stunning geography of rivers, lakes and parks. It also has farms and country villages shoehorned within its boundaries. It spans Canada’s French and English identity like no other city in the country, and has the largest Inuit population south of Nunavut. And this is before even considering all the intrigue of Parliament Hill and international diplomacy. Setting a series here, and introducing surprised readers to the rich textures and layers, is very cool.

CB: Geez, you should work for Ottawa Tourism. Have you ever received any weird notes from readers?

BF: I hasten to add that most notes from readers are positive. Even those pointing out the missing “o” in “those”. I do get a kick out of notes that warn me not to kill of Green’s frail father or divorce Green’s long-suffering wife, although I get others who can’t believe she hasn’t booted the bum out long ago. It shows readers can be just as caught up in my characters’ lives as I am.

CB: Name a protagonist or a villain in a novel that you wish you had created.

BF: Magnus Pym in John Le Carre’s 'A Perfect Spy', who is a bit of both, but most of all a brilliant psychological study of disintegration.

CB: A few good books you can recommend for us?

BF: I don’t get as much time as I’d like to read for pure pleasure. For my latest Green book, The Whisper of Legends, for example, I recently read eight non-fiction books as research. I usually avoid “blockbusters”, but prefer to sample a varied palate of lesser known and less predictable books. My tastes run to UK and Canadian books, partly because my friends keep writing them and partly because I enjoy all the regional variations and surprises. I’m going to get in trouble if I mention some but not others. So to play it safe, I read two books recently that really stayed with me – Room by Emma Donoghue and The End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina. Stunning books.


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

C.B. Forrest

C.B. Forrest is the author of the literary crime novels The Weight of Stones and Slow Recoil.

Go to C.B. Forrest’s Author Page