Monday, September 14, 2009

Cool Canadian Crime: Cheryl Freedman

David Cole continues his Cool Canadian Crime interviews. Today: Cheryl Freedman

Previously, David interviewed Louise Penny, Barbara Fradkin, Mary Jane Maffini, Thomas Rendell Curran, Gail Bowen, Garry Ryan, RJ Harlick, Anthony Bidulka, Rick Mofina, Lou Allin, Anne Emery and Vicki Delany. This group of authors were chosen by David to represent a variety of mystery genres, styles, and historical periods. Some of the authors have won or been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis award for best mystery novel. More to come.

Cheryl Freedman is a freelance editor and writer, working in areas as diverse as occupational health and safety, contemporary Kabbalah, high finance, rheumatology, pedagogy, crime manuscript evaluations, and other fields. As a friend pointed out, editing is a perfect job for her – people ask her what to do and pay her to tell them. She has a degree in journalism, but except for producing freelance documentaries for CBC Radio for a few years, she's never been a practising journalist. She also owned The Worldhouse, a game store (role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, wargames, collectible card games, etc.) in Toronto, for 18 years. Her goal is to finish the first draft of her first mystery by her birthday in December.

David Cole: As long as I've known you, people have called you the "mothership" indeed, the website/internet voice of Crime Writers of Canada - however did this come about, and how long have you been so called?

Cheryl Freedman: When I started using the term “Mothership,” lo, these many eons ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was thinking in terms of the mothership of an SF fleet – the flagship, so to speak. So for me, Mothership simply referred to CWC headquarters in Toronto, where the bank account, all the records, and I resided. (The CWC consists of regions—currently six regions - BC, Prairies, Toronto/GTA/southern ON, Ottawa/eastern ON, Quebec/Atlantic Canada, and international—but is headquartered in Toronto.) Then somehow down the line, the term became attached to me personally. Well, I may have been partially responsible for this because every time I sent out Fingerprints Online, the CWC member e-newsletter, Mothership would harangue the members for some reason or another, and Mothership just happened to have the email address, the one I used.

But honestly, cross my heart, the first time I realized that I personally might be seen as Mothership was a few years ago (not being more precise, to protect the guilty) when the CWC president at the time asked me to please stop using the term Mothership because there were rumblings in the ranks that it sounded as if I WAS the CWC (or thought I was).

I’ve also been referred to as SWMBO (She Who Must Be Obeyed), a term that the incomparable (and incorrigible) Mary Jane Maffini coined when she was president. It’s hard to embarrass me, but I was mortified when MJ introduced me at a BookExpo Canada as She Who Must Be Obeyed to our contact at the Canada Council for the Arts.

One of my favorite titles – although I don’t use it too often – is “the glue that holds us together,” in inscription on the Derrick Murdoch Award that I was given in 2004 by then CWC president Maureen Jennings. The DM award is the president’s award for service to the CWC (or lifetime writing achievement).

DC: You've recently relinquished being the "mothership" - who's now the "voice" of CWC?

CF: Liz Brady, who won an Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel in 1999 for Sudden Blow, is now the public voice of the CWC. I think Liz will do great things for the CWC, and it doesn't hurt that she has a wicked sense of humour, something that's truly crucial for remaining sane in this job.

DC: CWC stands for Crime Writers of Canada - tell me about the history of this Organization?

CF: CWC was founded in 1982 by a group of journalists and crime writers, including Howard Engel, all of whom had decided that it was high time Canada had a crime writers organization similar to the MWA and Britain’s Crime Writers Association. According to Howard, they felt that Canuck crime writers no longer had to pretend to be British or American and could set their books here in Canada…and publishers would buy them. (Alas, now, 27 years later, it’s not that easy to sell a Canadian setting in the US, but back then…) Right from the beginning, the founders wanted the CWC to be a writers (not a fan) organization, but one that treated the craft of crime writing with a dose of irreverence and fun, and where members could expect the unexpected.

Hence, Arthur, the actual physical award for the Arthur Ellis Awards, is a wooden jumping-jack of a guy standing in front of a gibbet. You pull the string, and Arthur, well, dances on air. The award is named after the nom de travail of Canada’s official hangman, who plied his trade across Canada from 1913 to 1935.

DC: How many members are there in CWC, and how does this reflect the total number of Canadian writers? I guess I'm asking if CWC truly represents the majority of active Canadian mystery writers?

CF: We currently have just under 300 members. A couple of years ago, this very question came up in the CWC executive – how well does the CWC represent the number of active Canadian crime writers – so we figured we’d look at the number of submissions to the Arthur Ellis Awards (the CWC’s award for the best in Canadian crime writing from books and stories published in the previous year) and see how many came from our members and how many from non-members. Applying this admittedly quick-and-dirty method to the 2009 submissions, it appears that we represent approximately 75% of Canadian crime novel writers. However, even with our relatively small numbers, I’m proud to say that our members have won (some multiple times) or been nominated for almost every English-language crime-writing award.

DC: Since I joined CWC, I've received a lot of emails to the membership, often weekly, but with great regularity a notice of author events all over Canada - I'm not accustomed to such regular details, how did this develop? and however did you find the time to be so prolific?

How did I find the time to be so prolific? By not working on my own novel … which is one of the reasons I resigned last month as exec director of the CWC – so I’d free up some time to write.

How the author events listing evolved goes back around 8 or 9 years when Fingerprints Online was Fingerprints Onpaper, a quarterly print newsletter. Well, it was supposed to be a quarterly, but never managed to come out that regularly. So I figured, being the yenta that I am, that I’d just solicit news and send out the occasional email announcing events, courses, congratulations, etc. This evolved into a more formal e-newsletter, Fingerprints Online, which I put out twice a month for several years. But it’s bloody hard work being clever and cunning for a twice-a-month publication, so I spun off the monthly author events listing in late 2006, allowing me to produce Fingerprints Online only once a month.

D.C: The first "C" in CWC stands for "crime" - is there any distinction in Canada between "crime" and "mystery"? CF:

Oh lordy, don't get me started on this one! Oops, too late! OK, here we go. Crime writing is a broad category of genre writing that includes mysteries, suspense, thrillers, and all the subgenres you can point a gun at. Police procedurals, courtroom drama, cozies, amateur sleuth, espionage, cross-genre, mystoricals (great term, eh? – coined by Mary Jane Maffini for historical mysteries), romantic suspense, true crime – they’re all part of crime writing.

Four or five years ago, when I gave a series of workshops to librarians looking to build their crime fiction collections, I had to come up with a concise definition of crime writing. At its very core, for a book to be a work of crime fiction, there has to be (1) a crime - either already committed or anticipated – and (2) someone to deal with that crime – either to solve it or to prevent it from happening. And there you have it in a shell casing.

And I’d say the distinction between “crime” and “mystery” probably exists in the US, too – it’s not limited to us Canucks. But I do have to say that convincing judges for the Arthur Ellis Awards that the awards are for CRIME writing, not mystery writing alone, easily generates at least a dozen emails every year.

DC: At the recent Bloody Words mystery conference in Ottawa - wait, how long have these conferences been held? the first? do they happen in different provinces or have they been mostly Toronto-centric?

Bloody Words was founded in 1999 by Caro Soles, who stepped down permanently as BW chair in 2007 but will always be for all of us Da Bloody Boss and Eminence Grise of BW. I've been associated with BW since the beginning, usually as publications chair (I do the program book) but twice as con chair, and am on the board of directors.

BW was first touted as "Toronto's mystery conference," but it's now become "Canada's Mystery Conference." Ottawa held its first BW in 2003 and then its second earlier this year. We, the BW board of directors, would love to see other cities in Canada hold a BW, and we're looking to alternate between Toronto (in the even-numbered years) and other cities (in the odd-numbered years). So BW is back in Toronto in 2010 for our 10th birthday (register now and save money and click on the link to Bloody Words 2010) and then Victoria, BC, will be hosting it in 2011.

DC: Bloody Words - I'd hardly miss one of these wonderful conferences, which to a US writer are smaller than Bouchercon, but more enjoyable and friendlier (that's my view, probably not representative of all) - similar conferences in the US are Left Coast Crime and Mayhem in the Midlands, to name two of my favorites - back to the question, Bloody Words-- how are the conferences organized?

What you've noticed about BW being smaller than B'con, LCC, and other such US cons (yup, and quite probably friendlier and more enjoyable as a consequence) is deliberate. From the very start, we decided to go for a more intimate feel, and I think we've achieved this.

Essentially, BW is organized the same way most genre cons are organized – with a group of crazy volunteers (in our case, Da Bloody Gang) that wades through chaos for 11 months of the year, yet always manages to produce a great con. We’re just very clever at hiding the bodies.

Bloody Words has three concurrent tracks of programming (one track with presenters from various areas of forensics, criminology, and publishing; one track with panels about various aspects of crime books; and the Mystery Café where invited authors discuss their books), three concurrent workshops (two dealing with writing, one aimed more at readers), a reception and banquet (included in the cost of registration), a special event on Friday night (this year’s event will celebrate the fact that we’re still alive after 10 years), a short story contest, manuscript evaluations, an opportunity for authors to pitch their books to an agent or editor, a dealers room, loot bags, and a great op to schmooze.

DC: During my recent panel at Bloody Words, I seemed to amaze/stun the audience with my widespread use of slaughter, whereas Canadian mysteries are much more gentle, even civilized, perhaps a death by poisoning, but not a general killing spree - what distinguishes this mellower sense of Canadian mysteries from the US version? I'm thinking of character-driven novels by writers like Louise Penny, just to name one (and there are many others)

I dunno. Maybe because we Canucks are more polite than Americans? You know: “I beg your pardon, excuse me, but I’m just going to have to shoot all 27 of you. So sorry.” But seriously, don't kid yourself; there are Canuck crime writers whose books are just as violent and whose perps are just as psycho as yours. Try Rick Mofina, who has won two Arthur Ellis Awards for his books. Rick Blechta, too, has some pretty harrowing descriptions of violent acts in his books. Linwood Barclay has some pretty sick-o killers in his thrillers. I bet if you did a breakdown – gallon for gallon and pound for pound – Canadian crime books would have just as much blood and guts (and the perverted purveyors thereof) as US crime books.

You’re probably asking the wrong person this question, though, because my favourite subgenre is mystoricals. As a matter of fact, the book I’m working on now is a sort-of cross-genre mystorical. And mystoricals do tend to be a bit gentler, if only because the technology usually isn’t up to a truly memorable killing spree.

D.C: So, enough of CWC, and aside from Cheryl as the "mothership" - what's your own background? Why are mystery/crime books/authors important? Do you also write? In short, some biography, please.

C.F: I’m a freelance editor and writer, working in areas as diverse as occupational health and safety, contemporary Kabbalah, high finance, rheumatology, pedagogy, crime manuscript evaluations, and other fields I can’t think of at the moment. As a friend pointed out, editing is a perfect job for me – people ask me what to do and pay me to tell them.

I have a degree in journalism, but except for producing freelance documentaries for CBC Radio for a few years, I’ve never been a practising journalist. I also owned The Worldhouse, a game store (role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, wargames, collectible card games, etc.) in Toronto, for 18 years.

And yes, I’m finally working on my own mystery, which is based on a ballad “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight.” My goal is to finish the first draft by my birthday in December.

I wish that crime books and authors got more respect in Canada, especially from the “literary” community, and the Canadian media. After all, a well-written crime book reflects both the worst and the best of the human condition. It essentially looks how a crime throws society and/or an individual into chaos and disequilibrium, and tracks the return to equilibrium through the resolution of the crime. And crime books are a fascinating read—a 2005 survey of Canadian reading habits, conducted by the federal Department of Canadian Heritage, found that the “mystery, suspense, detective, spy, adventure” was by far the most-read category of books (62% of general reading) over the previous 12 months.

DC: You're also the person responsible for the newish blog called "fingies" - I know you've got a wicked sense of humor, care to talk about it? and what does the future hold for "fingies"?

No, no, no! Fingies (or to be more formal, Fingerprints Online or FPOL) isn't a blog!!! I certainly admire people who can write something interesting every day for their blog, but I certainly don't count myself in their number.

I see FPOL as a mash-up between a magazine with articles of interest to crime writers—from news (like the Google settlement) to how-to info (like setting up a writing group) to articles on, say, forensics—and a newsletter with more time-sensitive items like courses, writing contests, events, and CWC info. Plus I hope to revive such soapbox columns as “The Grumpy Grammarian” as well as my infamous “Interludes” containing all the fun stuff I pick up from other lists and just general surfing. Each issue will be built around a theme, and the upcoming one is all about the CWC and its members, including a database of our members’ area(s) of interest/expertise.

As for FPOL down the line, who knows? It looks as if I have carte blanche with it, so between what the members would like to see and what I can produce, we’ll see what the future holds. But I can promise that Fingies will definitely be Fun…and, I hope, a tool to draw our scattered members together and to give them a true sense of belonging to a terrific organization like the CWC.


Anonymous said...

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Eileen Schuh: said...

I love Cheryl Freednan's homey sense of humour. It trickles through the bureaucratic cracks, infuses all CWC members, and bonds us.

Eileen Schuh, Canadian Author

Janet Rudolph said...

Great to hear. Strong leader.

N. J. Lindquist said...

Cheryl has done amazing things for Canadian crime writers. No idea where we'd be without her.


Cheryl Tardif said...

Cheryl Freedman has been an important element in the growth of the CWC. As a member, I've come to rely on Cheryl as someone who knows what's going on in the crime writing world or as someone who can connect me to someone who knows. I can't imagine why anyone would think her use of "Mothership" was in any way inappropriate. She kept us on track as a group and helped us promote our events and news and has always been hugely supportive of all of our successes, while sacrificing time she could have used to work on her own personal writing dreams.

Though I'm sad to see her relinquish her past position with the CWC, I am very happy to see that she is now pursuing more personal goals. And so she should. She gave of herself tirelessly (or at least never showed us anything different). She cracked the whip when she needed to (to get us to send proper event info) and I found her correspondence to always be enjoyable.

Cheryl, this is your time to dare to dream--your time to dream BIG! And I for one will be clapping for you when you reach your dreams. You deserve every success! Thank you for everything!

Cheryl Kaye Tardif
bestselling Canadian author and proud CWC member