This blog is being reposted because trying to correct a technical glitch erased it from the memory banks. My apologies to Barbara for deleting her. This blog first appeared on December 27, 2007.
Barbara Fradkin is a Canadian author whose work as a child psychologist provides plenty of inspiration for murder. She has a fascination for how we turn bad. Although she has had two dozen short stories published in various magazines and anthologies, she is best known for her two-time Arthur Ellis awarding-winning series featuring impetuous, quixotic Ottawa Police Inspector Michael Green, whose passion for justice and love of the hunt often interfere with family, friends and police protocol.
PDD: You say right up front on your web site that you have an affinity for the dark side, and your books certainly reflect dark issues: Holocaust survivors, child molestation, families that come apart, young athletes and drugs. Your books are moving and thoughtful, without being wrist-slittingly depressive. How do you manage that balance of tacking serious subjects without overwhelming a good story?
One of the reasons I write mysteries is that I love to explore the complex stories of real people’s lives. People are messy, multi-layered and contradictory, and the deeper you delve, the less clear the judgment of right and wrong, good and bad. So in the midst of tragedy there is inspiration and hope. I’m a naturally upbeat and hopeful person; without that optimism you’d be of no use in the helping profession.
At the same time, I realize that writing is a catharsis for me. I write about issues that trouble me, about people whose dark stories need to be told. Writing allows me to turn a spotlight on those issues from all sides, and even though there are no “happily ever after” endings or neat solutions to the complexities, I do get to play God just a little and find the best possible solution under the circumstances.
I also know that my first job as a mystery writer is to create vivid characters and spin a good story. Chapter after chapter of wrist-slitting depression will not keep people turning the pages. In fact, it wouldn’t keep me writing the pages; it would drive me to drink! It also helps that I created a sleuth who’s easy to spend time with. Inspector Green is like me, a bit jaded and cynical after all he’s seen, but still optimistic he can make a difference. Green is a restless, rebellious rogue struggling to have a normal home life. He has humor and passion. It’s hard to stay depressed when he’s nattering at you all day.
PDD: The importance of "wilderness" in Canadian books has been debated for centuries. Michael Green, your detective, is unapologetically "city." He was born and raised in Ottawa and he gets a little nervy when he has to move to the suburbs. What part does the city of Ottawa play in your books and short stories?
Canada is like the quiet guy in the corner whom everyone judges on the surface but who has hidden marvels once you look beyond the stereotypes. It’s true that Canada’s wilderness – and our weather! – are the first thing people think of, but most of Canada is urban and cosmopolitan. But even our cities suffer from stereotypes. Montreal is exotic, Toronto is diverse, and Ottawa… well, that’s the land of gray suits and taxes. I’m a Montrealer born and raised and have also lived in Toronto, but I’ve come to know and love all the back streets and neighborhoods of Ottawa through my years as an itinerant school psychologist. It’s well worth a deeper look.
My short stories are set all over the place but my Green novels are all set in contemporary Ottawa. It’s a perfect mystery setting – big enough to have wealth and poverty, biker gangs, homelessness, diverse immigrant groups, and a lively cultural scene, yet small enough that all the homicides would be handled by the same close-knit detective squad and Green could be reasonably expected to know the details of every ongoing case. Within Ottawa’s jurisdiction there are crumbling highrises, parliament buildings, exclusive enclaves, country villages and rural farms, all of which provide enough diversity for endless stories. Plus the geography is spectacular. Three rivers, a lake and a canal to drown people in, bridges and cliffs to throw them off, and an intricate maze of naturalist parks woven throughout the city where a body could be stashed for days. My latest book, Dream Chasers, starts on the cliffs of Hog’s Back Falls, virtually in the middle of the city but as wild and dangerous as any wilderness setting.
PDD: Tell me about your historical short stories, featuring an Ottawa doctor modeled on your great-grandfather.
There are six so far, published in various magazines and anthologies and featuring a newly minted family physician named Dr. David Browne. Some would be hard to find now, but I hope to publish them as a collection when I have enough. The first was set in Montreal, where David Browne grew up, but he had to leave there after alienating the establishment, and he moved up to Ottawa. The timeframe is the 1870’s just after Confederation, when Ottawa was trying to transform itself from a brawling lumber town to a civilized seat of national government. It was a dramatic time, with rapid changes in social structures, medicine, industry and technology which in some ways mirror today. Each story deals with a different social theme which would have been prominent at the time, and I research the period carefully in an attempt to be accurate. I find it fascinating to write about social issues such as ethnic hatreds and the treatment of the mentally ill, which although vastly different back then, still grapple with the same basic questions we do today.
My great-grandfather, Dr. Fraser Gurd, was a legend in the family, who lived into his 90’s and helped implement enormous changes to medical practice in Montreal, yet stayed true to his simple immigrant roots and never turned a patient away. I have a photo of him in his horse-drawn sleigh, covered in a buffalo robe as he made his house calls. I thought he was the kind of hero worth writing about; hence Dr. David Browne was born. Like my great-grandfather, he was a child of Irish peasants who fled the potato famine in Ireland and landed in Montreal to face disease and death, abject poverty and rampant prejudice. Both Browne and my great-grandfather had fathers who were haunted by the traumas they’d endured and who drowned their pain in alcohol, and both were supported through medical school by older brothers who made money as entrepreneurs during the industrial boom. In my latest story, called “Roads to Redemption” in Sue Pike’s anthology Locked Up, Dr. Browne and his father finally reconcile. Dr. Browne is not a crusader or a social activist; he is a gentle, unassuming young man with a strong sense of obligation to his patients. That, together with his determination and sense of fair play, embroils him in numerous cases where social justice – and the mores of the time - are found lacking.
PDD: You're a member of the infamous Ottawa Ladies Killing Circle. Can you talk a little about how they got started, and what they are up to now?
Infamous, are we? Chico’s and outlet malls beware! The group actually started about fifteen years ago when some local romance writers decided they were much preferred murder to romance. They invited a couple more writers to form a critiquing group. The original six members were Sue Pike, Linda Wiken, Vicki Cameron, Joan Boswell, Mary Jane Maffini and Audrey Jessup. When Audrey died a few years ago, I was invited to join.
Early on, the group discovered there were few markets for the mystery short stories they were writing, so they decided to put together their own anthology and find a publisher. I was invited to contribute, and when the anthology, The Ladies Killing Circle, came out in 1995, I had two stories in it – my very first publications ever! The publisher was so pleased with the result that he asked for another, this time with a theme. Now, twelve years later, there have been six anthologies, each with a different theme, and they have become one of the most important short story markets for Canadian female mystery writers. As well, they have been instrumental in launching the writing careers of several authors, including the LKC members themselves.
Now, the Ladies Killing Circle is much more of a friendship circle than a mere critiquing group, and when we travel together, we share lots of laughs, wine and good food along with shopping advice, wanted or otherwise. We have just put the finishing touches on the next anthology entitled Going out with a Bang, which is now in the hands of the editors and should hit the shelves in the Fall of 2008. After that, who knows?
Visit Barbara and her books at http://www.barbarafradkin.com/
Canda Calling returns next year, with a new line up from sea to sea to sea.