Frankie Y. Bailey is a criminal justice professor at UAlbany (SUNY). Her non-fiction books include a study of African American Mystery Writers (2008). She has been nominated for several awards and is the winner of a Macavity Award. She is a recipient of the George N. Dove Award for her research on mystery and crime fiction. She has five books and two published short stories in a mystery series featuring crime historian Lizzie Stuart. The Red Queen Dies, the first book in a near-future police procedural series featuring Detective Hannah McCabe, came out in September, 2013. The second book in the series, What the Fly Saw is due out in March 2015. Frankie is a former EVP of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime.
R: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became interested in writing.
I’m a Southerner, born and raised in Virginia. I attended Virginia Tech, where I majored in English and Psychology. Both of these things led me to writing. Southerners love listening to and telling stories. I grew up reading, and when I was a teenager, I convinced my parents to pay for a correspondence course offered by the Famous Writers School. I never finished that short story course, but I did begin to think of myself as someone who might one day be a published writer.
R: You write non-fiction as well as fiction. Which do you prefer and why?
I don’t have a preference. I enjoy doing the research for the non-fiction, but I also do a lot of research for my mysteries. I like going back and forth between the two and exercising different sets of muscles. The one thing that the fiction does allow me to do is give full rein to my imagination. I get to make stuff up. But because of my protagonists’ professions – a crime historian in one series, and a police detective in the other -- I do feel obliged to be as accurate as I can about how they do their jobs. And when I’m tearing my hair out because I’ve written myself into a corner, being able to use my imagination doesn’t always feel like a plus. And, of course, genre fiction does have its own structure and reader expectations. Both non-fiction and fiction are hard work -- and fun.
R: Is there a writer you credit with having the most influence on your own writing?
Shakespeare. I’m not kidding. In high school, we read Shakespeare and would occasionally watch the movie version of one of the plays. I loved the monologues. I loved it that his characters would share an aside to the audience about what was going on in their heads. I can still recite bits and pieces of monologue. I think I liked Shakespeare for the same reason I liked Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost – and Edwin Arlington Robinson (“Whenever Richard Cory went down town . . .”). Or the first line of Moby Dick – even though all these years later, I’m still trying to get all the way through that book. I was influenced by writers who gave me word pictures of characters and what they felt. And I read whatever came to hand. So there are too many writers to mention who influenced me in one way or another. I think – long after I begin to write – I was impressed when I discovered The Conjure-Man Dies, a little jewel of a book written by Rudolph Fisher, an African American physician, and set in Harlem in the 1930s.
But my greatest influence as a mystery writer – even though I read Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple – the writer who influenced me most was Richard Martin Stern. When I was a teenager, I discovered his Johnny Ortiz series, and wrote him a letter to tell him how thrilled I had been to discover Dr. Cassandra Enright, the biracial (black/white) cultural anthropologist, who became Johnny Ortiz’s love interest. Stern was the first mystery writer I’d read who created a multiracial cast of characters. He sent me a lovely note in response to my letter. Years later, when I was writing my first nonfiction book, Out of the Woodpile, I contacted him again, and he responded to the questions I was posing to selected authors about black characters in crime and detective fiction.
R: Tell us about your Lizzie Stuart series. How did you decide on “crime historian” for your character’s profession?
I’m a crime justice professor, who specializes in crime history, and crime and mass media/popular culture. I wanted to use my research in the series. What I intended to be the first book in the series was inspired by an incident that I discovered when I was doing my dissertation research on Danville, Virginia, my home town. I needed to create a protagonist who would be interested in and able to do the historical research that would solve my fictional crime. That book, A Dead Man’s Honor, ended up being the second book in the series. The first book in the series was set in Cornwall, England, where Lizzie is on vacation with her best friend, Tess Alvarez, a travel writer. That first book, Death’s Favorite Child, was my tribute to Agatha Christie – murder involving a closed circle of suspects at a private hotel. One of the police officers involved in the murder investigation was a visiting American homicide detective, John Quinn. Quinn was not supposed to be a continuing character, but because of how the first book ended, readers were interested in knowing what happened with him. Over the course of the series, he and Lizzie have become romantically involved – something I’ve enjoyed writing about because they are so different. She’s black, he’s white. She’s a “bleeding heart liberal.” He’s ex-military, a cop, and he carries a gun. Aside from her time at college and grad school, Lizzie has spent her life in a small town in Kentucky. He is well-traveled, an Army brat who became an Army officer. The list goes on – but the one thing they have in common is a shared belief in justice. Actually, they also have in common having grown up in unusual family situations. Their relationship is secondary to the mysteries, but it does require them both to grow and change. I like to have characters evolve in response to what is happening in their lives.
R: Do you have an “how I got my agent” story you’d like to share? How did you feel when you got the call your first novel had sold?
I got my agent through a friend. I didn’t need an agent for my Lizzie Stuart series because those book have been published by a small independent publisher who specializes in Southern books. I worked directly with the editor. But a few years ago, I had an opportunity to pitch a series idea to an editor at St. Martin’s. She liked my idea for a near-future police procedural series set in Albany, New York. In fact, when the book was written, she bought it. I didn’t have an agent at the time, but found a literary agent/lawyer who represented me for that contract. Then I set out to find an agent who would take me on as a client. After a few false starts, I asked a writer friend of mine if she thought her agent might be willing to talk to me. She had raved about how terrific he is in her holiday newsletter. She was right. He is great, and he took me on as a client. So now, I have an agent. It’s nice to have someone who can help me think through my career decisions.
The call about the sale of my first novel -- I may have received an e-mail about that. I don’t really remember clearly how I felt when I learned my first Lizzie Stuart novel was going to be published. I think I was surprised – I had spent five years working on what I thought would be the first novel in the series. The book that I ended up selling was a book that I’d started writing while I was on a vacation in Cornwall (a friend from grad school had invited me to come over and spend a week with her and her son). I’d written that book in about nine months. I had struggled with what I thought would be the first book in the series for years, through multiple drafts. So, I was really surprised that a book that I’d written in nine months had sold. But, of course, I wouldn’t have been able to write my Cornwall book if I hadn’t spent five years trying to write the other book (that became the second in the series). It did occur to me that I was going to have to scramble to rewrite the book I had been working on because now John Quinn was going to stick around. He also had been in the other book, but he had been a cop in my Virginia town and I had only intended to have him appear in that one book. Now, I had to get him from Philadelphia to Gallagher, Virginia. So I guess I was surprised, excited, and a little concerned about what I was going to do about that other book.
R: What’s a must have for you when you are writing? What aids the creative process?
Time, I do better when I have chunks of time rather than half an hour here and there. I try to plan for that. And I try to do a lot of writing in my head, so that when I have a few hours at my computer, I can accomplish as much as possible.
I also need endless mugs of herbal tea. And I’ve developed a lollipop habit – this really good cherry lollipop that lasts a long time and leaves my hands free for typing.
I also need to be in a cool room. I’m not a hot weather person, and I find it much easier to settle in and write when the temperature is around 68 degrees. I sound a little picky here. It’s just that I’m beginning to experience my annual summer blues – too much heat and too much light. I loved the weather in Seattle when I lived there. I wrote my first two novels while I was stationed there in the Army. Of course, those are the two novels in the desk drawer that most writers accumulate before they go on to write a book someone will publish.
R: If you had access to a time machine, which historical moment would you travel to and why?
The historical moment of the thriller that I’ve been working on for several years now. It’s set in 1939 and moves from Washington, D.C. (on Easter morning), to New York City (the summer of the World’s Fair), and finally to Atlanta (on the weekend of the premier of Gone With the Wind).
R: What is one thing your readers would be most surprised to know about you?
Maybe that I was in the Army. I was not a good soldier, but I was a terrific food inspector.
R: What is the craziest thing you've ever done?
After college, I worked in a department store for a few months while I was waiting to get into grad school. Then I blew all the money on a trip to Europe – two weeks in Madrid, Paris, and London. It was a great adventure for a small town girl from Virginia.
As you can see, “craziest thing” for me is just a little tame. Maybe being persuaded to join the Army after returning from my European vacation was the craziest thing I’ve ever done. Basic training was really hard. But it’s turned out to be useful when I’m writing about characters with a military background.
R: What do you hope readers will most take away from your writing?
The connections that I try to make between past, present, and future. Whatever I’m writing, I try to provide context. I also try to deal with social issues without getting onto a soapbox. So, for example, in my Hannah McCabe series (that begins in 2019), the effects of climate change are a part of the “new normal.” I’m also looking at urban life and the haves and have nots.
In both series, relationships matter. I hope readers will care about my characters. I spend a lot of time trying to get into their heads and understand who they are and how they interact with each other. I don’t like disposable victims, so I try to tell my victims’ stories as well as those of my protagonists. And I hope my killers also have a story that readers can understand.
R: What are you working on at the moment / next?
I’m doing the revisions of What the Fly Saw, the second book in my Hannah McCabe series. It’s due out in March 2015. I’m also working on the outline of the third book in the series. And I’m plodding away on my 1939 book, which requires tons of research before I can start writing. And, I’m writing a non-fiction book about appearance, dress, and criminal justice (colonial era to the present). Luckily, it’s summer, so I have three precious months to focus on writing.
R: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
A hybrid. Because my books require research, I start out with a plot summary (a rough approximation of a synopsis). I know the victim, and I play around with the motives that the other characters might have for wanting him or her dead. And I have some idea of the locations that I’m going to use. In the Lizzie Stuart books, I’ve visited the places that Lizzie will go to and walked through the research she will do in the archives because I need to know what she would find if she did that. In the police procedural series with Hannah McCabe, what happens next is determined to some extent by what police detectives do when they’re investigating a murder. Because of my other career as a criminal justice professor, I’ve had an opportunity to interact with police officers, including female cops, and attend an autopsy, and I know how and where to find the information that I need. Because the McCabe series is set in Albany, New York, where I live, I don’t have to travel to do research. But it’s an odd situation because I do have to do a bit of “time travelling.” The series is not set in the “real Albany” (that I live in). I’ve created a fictional Albany, existing in the near future and set in a parallel universe. So I draw on the history of the real Albany, but the series is set in a world where the timeline and events may not be the same as the world we live in. For example, in my series, Elvis Presley gave a farewell concert in Central Park in 2000. But that is simply a passing historical fact that pops up when McCabe is listening to his 2000 concert on her way to work. The McCabe books are police procedurals, not science fiction. So I follow the same process, outline as much as I can, write, outline, write, and keep on doing that until I get to the end. I don’t outline the end. I let that happen.
But starting out with no idea where I’m headed would really scare me.
R: What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks? :)
I bought a small house a few years ago, so I like to “play house” – moving things around, trying not to kill my plants, thinking about what I’d do if I could afford to remodel the kitchen. I love HGTV. I like to go to plays and museums. I like to travel. I love movies. I spend a time on pet adoption websites looking at dogs and wondering if I should get one – or maybe a Maine Coon cat. I have one in my Hannah McCabe series, but I’ve always thought of myself as a dog person. I have dogs in both series.
R: Where can we find out more about you and your work?
My website is www.frankieybailey.com
Oh, and I’d like to mention that my second published short story (“In Her Fashion”) is in the July 2014 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Here’s a link to an excerpt:
R: Do you have any advice for beginning writers?
Keep writing. Writing is one of those things that does get better – not easier, but better -- with practice.
R: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
Well, I do have another career. I would be doing that. But since my other job – as a criminal justice professor – also requires writing, it’s hard to imagine not writing. I did once want to be a vet – actually, I realized later that what I wanted to be was a zoologist. But that was long after I’d changed my major. But even there, I think I would have been better at writing about a primatologist like Jane Goodall then trying to live that kind of life. It’s probably not a coincidence that in my third McCabe book, my victim is a scientist who studies wolves.
Just for Fun:
Night or Day? Night
Dog or Cat? (answer carefully) Dog – but once volunteered in a cat shelter R: Yay!)
Beach or Pool? Beach
Steak or salad? Salad – steak salad
Favorite Drink? Hot cocoa made with almond milk
Favorite Book? Alice in Wonderland
Favorite TV Series? Tough one – vintage sitcoms
Favorite Movie? Depends on the genre – High Noon for westerns, Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt for mystery/detective
Favorite Actor: Tough one again – Cary Grant (just saw him in a movie this morning)
Favorite Actress: Bette Davis – really hard, there are so many great actresses I could name
Dirty Martini or Pina Colada? Pina Colada
Hawaii or Alaska? Alaska
Finish this sentence: If I could meet anyone in the world, past or present, it would be _Eleanor Roosevelt (I’ve been reading her “My Day” column)__________________
If I had just one wish, it would be: To have three wishes (Yes, I know that’s a Captain James Kirk-style violation of the scenario)_____________________________________
If I could trade places with anyone in the world, it would be: No one. I’m sure I would find out the other person’s life wasn’t as terrific as it looked (I’m also a Twilight Zone fan)
Thanks for a great interview, Frankie!
Folks, Frankie will give away A hardcover copy of The Red Queen Dies (first book in the Hannah McCabe series) and A signed copy of the July 2014 EQMM with “In Her Fashion” to one lucky commenter!
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