David Cole, author of the Laura Winslow Series, continues his short interviews with Cool Canadian Crime Writers. Today: Barbara Fradkin. Barbara was the Local Guest of Honor at Bloody Words, the Canadian Mystery Conference last weekend.
Barbara Fradkin is a child psychologist with a fascination for why we turn bad. She recently scaled back her full-time practice as a child psychologist in order to devote more time to her first passion, writing. She has always had an affinity for the dark side, and her two dozen short stories haunt various magazines and anthologies such as the Ladies Killing Circle series. She is a two-time prizewinner in Storyteller Magazine's annual Great Canadian Short Story Contest, as well as a four-time nominee for the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story, including "Voices from the Deep" in 2007.
David Cole: You're a clinical child psychologist who practiced full time until recently. How does that experience and outlook affect your writing, especially in that mystery novels always implicitly raise the question of where does evil come from?
Barbara Fradkin: Mysteries are about the dark side of human nature. About what people do when they’re desperate. But they are also about how the struggle to go on and the heroism that arises in the midst of tragedy, sometimes from unexpected corners. They are about relationships, about longing, fear, hope and rage - all emotions a psychologist grapples to understand every day. Writing about them helps me stay sane. Evil is a loaded word, implying something apart from us, a monster in our midst. Evil is knowing that murder is wrong but not caring, maybe even deriving pleasure from it the way a serial killer does. This kind of evil is rare, and of less interest to me than the person who knows murder is wrong, cares about people, but kills anyway. I write about ordinary people who are pushed beyond their limits, who make desperate choices and struggle with the consequences. That’s a far more intricate and troubling psyche than the serial killer. At the end of my books, I want the reader to understand the villain I’ve created, to walk in his shoes and maybe even think ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.
DC: Your central character, Inspector Michael Green, has seen a his share of evil and he must have some conclusions by now as to how evil, or the darkness gets in. How do you develop this in each book?
BF: Green is much more of a psychologist than most real-life police officers probably are. I made his wife a psychiatric nurse so I could sneak psychology in the back door. Green is very attuned to the victim’s story that has led to the murder, because that’s my fascination. What has led up to this murder, and why? Green knows forensic anaylsis and street canvases form the backbone of a murder inquiry, but he personally is after the story. His sleuthing leads him back into the victim’s and suspect’s pasts, their relationships, and to surrounding events, to unpeel the story of why the murder occurred. Usually in the end he, like me, sees evil not so much as something dark coiled inside a person, but as a tragic choice. Like a door one opens at the end of a frantic journey.
DC: You have a strong sense of place in your books. Can you tell us a little about why you chose Ottawa, and how important the city's identity is to your work?
BF: Ottawa is much more than the purveyor of doom-and-gloom on the eleven o’clock news; it’s the perfect microcosm of Canadian society. It’s small, tight-knit rural villages with secrets as old as time. It’s brand new refugees from the Third World and proud new Canadians creating communities and hopes. It’s the two founding cultures mingling more here than anywhere else in the country. It has biker gangs and Rockcliffe mansions, orderly suburbs and chaotic markets, festivals and family parks. It also has spectacular beauty – three large rivers, a canal and a lake to drown victims in, clifftops and bridges to push them off, and wonderful vistas for chases. There is a place for every kind of murder. Yet it is still a community, small enough to feel as one, as intimate as a family when murder strikes.
DC: What would you like to see more of, and less of, in crime writing these days?
BF: I love subtlety and intelligence in stories. I don’t want manufactured suspense and action, I want to sink into the complexity of people’s lives and follow an intelligent, sensitive sleuth as he or she unravels the story of the murder. Serial killers are obviously popular, maybe because they put the threat outside ourselves, but they don’t interest me nearly as much as looking in the mirror.
DC: I know you've just finished another book. How about a sneak preview?
BF: Ironically, my new book is called “This Thing of Darkness”, a phrase referring to the darkness inside ourselves. Not evil, but darkness. A retired psychiatrist is mugged in the Byward Market and the suspects include not only some local gang punks but former patients who may have reason to feel betrayed.
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