Bookpleasures.com is honored to have as our guest Professor Frankie Y. Bailey of the School of Criminal Justice, University at Albany (SUNY). Her areas of research are crime history, and crime and mass media/popular culture. She is the author of the Edgar-nominated Out of the Woodpile: Black Characters in Crime and Detective Fiction (Greenwood, 1991).
She is the co-editor (with Donna C. Hale) of Popular Culture, Crime, and Justice (Wadsworth, 1998). She is the co-author (with Alice P. Green) of Law Never Here: A Social History of African American Responses to Issues of Crime and Justice (Praeger, 1999).
With Steven Chermak and Michelle Brown, she co-edited Media Representations of September 11 (Praeger, 2003). She and Donna C. Hale are the co-authors of Blood on Her Hands: The Social Construction of Women, Sexuality, and Murder (Wadsworth, 2004). She and Steven Chermak are the series editors of the five-volume set, Famous American Crimes and Trials (Praeger, 2004). They also co-edited the two-volume set Crimes of the Century (2007).
Her most recent non-fiction books are African American Mystery Writers: A Historical and Thematic Study (McFarland, 2008), nominated for Edgar, Anthony, and Agatha awards, winner of a Macavity award. She is the recipient of the George N. Dove Award (2010). With Alice P. Green, she is the author of Wicked Albany: Lawlessness & Liquor in the Prohibition Era (The History Press, 2009) and Wicked Danville: Liquor and Lawlessness in a Southside Virginia City (The History Press, 2011).
Frankie's most recent work of fiction What the Fly Saw is a sequel to The Red Queen Dies.
Norm: Good day Frankie and thanks for participating in our interview.
How did you get started in writing and what keeps you going?
Frankie: I started writing when I was a teenager. I persuaded my parents to sign me up for a correspondence course offered by the Famous Writers School.
My parents were surprised when a salesman turned up at our door in response to the coupon I had sent in. But they bought me the course. I still have the short stories that I wrote and the folder with feedback from the various instructors. As I recall, I didn’t finish the course, but I do still have the four textbooks that they sent on fiction and nonfiction writing.
The important thing about the experience was that it helped to shape my vision of myself as a writer. I planned at the time to become a veterinarian, but I also wanted to write. I ended up switching from Biology (pre-vet) to English and Psychology when I got to Virginia Tech.
In grad school, I majored in Criminal Justice. And my first non-fiction book (after I’d finished my dissertation) was about black characters in crime and detective fiction. When I was doing research for that book, I was teaching at a university in Kentucky.
To meet the mystery writers I wanted to interview, I joined MWA and started attending “Of Dark and Stormy Nights,” a one-day mystery conference put on by the Midwest Chapter. Shortly after, I joined Sisters in Crime. Years before, when I was living in Seattle, WA (as an Army food inspector), I had spent my evening writing a couple of romantic suspense novels.
I tucked them away in a desk drawer when I started grad school. But, now, I decided to try my hand at fiction writing again. When I moved back to Albany to accept a position at UAlbany in the School of Criminal Justice, I joined a writing group and started work on my first mystery.
What keeps me going? I love doing research and I love writing. Of course, as an academic I’m expected to do both. But it’s terrific that my two careers -- criminal justice professor and mystery writer -- overlap.
Norm: Why have you been drawn to writing about crime? As a follow up, are there aesthetic advantages and disadvantages peculiar to crime fiction? Does it have a form?
Frankie: Not so much “drawn” as having it as a natural outgrowth of being a criminal justice professor. I write what I know, or want to know more about.
Aesthetic advantages? As in “murder as a fine art”? I do think that matters of life and death tend to have the natural advantage of focusing the attention of both the writer and the reader. If someone dies, it should matter. The context in which that death is presented may be tragedy or comedy. But the genre itself invites the reader to ponder deeper issues and the story can raise profound questions about morality and justice.
I’m not sure there are aesthetic disadvantages – unless they have to do with the fact that violence often repels. Graphic description of an act of violence may be difficult for both the writer and the reader. A writer will attract readers who share his or her perspective about how much should appear on the page.
The form has to do with the various subgenres – if I understand your question correctly. The writer’s preferred subgenre – classic detective, noir, thriller, police procedural – will shape the choices that a writer makes.
Norm: Are you a plot or character writer?
Frankie: Both. Since I write series, character development is important to me. I enjoying watching my characters change and grow. What happens in their lives is a part of the series arc. At the same time, the plot of each book – the crimes that are committed and the investigation – are also important. With each book, I start with an idea or topic that I want to explore. I think about who – other than my series characters – could logically appear in this story. And then I move back-and-forth between plot and character as the story evolves. The plot never really comes together until I can see and hear the characters in action.
Norm: Is your work improvisational or do you have a set plan?
Frankie: I’m a hybrid. I don’t (as I suggested above) have a multi-page plot outline. Neither do I fly by the seat of my pants. As a hybrid, I like to have a basic road map. I need to have one because all of my books require research. I like to do this research before I begin writing because often I get additional ideas while I learning about a topic. The other reason is that I need to be as efficient as possible with the time I have available for writing, so I need to have a general idea of what’s going to happen so that I don’t waste time with false starts. But once I’m into the story and rolling along, I don’t mind when a character says, or does, something unexpected. Then I improvise. I also improvise when I’ve written myself into a corner. But that doesn’t always work. Sometimes I have to backtrack to the place where I took the wrong turn.
Norm: In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is too much?
Frankie: I can’t speak for other writers. But, as I’ve said, I do love doing research. Since my books and short stories are often inspired by something I’ve come across in the course of my academic research, I tend to insert my fictional scenario into a truthful premise. When it comes to non-fiction, I’m an academic. I’ve been trained not to take liberties. In my nonfiction, I provide endnotes and references so that readers can locate my sources. Actually, I also include an “Author’s Note” about sources in my mysteries. Mystery readers often want to know what is true and what is not when a writer draws on real-life events or writes about a real place.
Norm: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
Frankie: I was born and raised in the South – in Danville, Virginia. I grew up listening to Southerners (including my family members) tell stories. I suppose that was why I developed a love of reading. When it came to telling stories, writing them down came more naturally than the oral tradition of storytelling.
Norm: What genre are you most comfortable writing?
Frankie: Mystery/detective fiction – I thought classic detective (amateur sleuth), but with my new series, I’m really enjoying the form of the police procedural. Actually, with a near-future police procedural series set in a parallel universe version of a real place, I’m now doing a bit of genre-bending or blending.
Norm: Are the experiences you write about in your works of fiction based on people you know, or events in your own life?
Frankie: No. I don’t write about people I know (fear of lawsuits) and my own life isn’t that interesting (no mysteries to be solved).
Norm: Could you tell our audience something about your most recent work What the Fly Saw?
Frankie: With The Red Queen Dies, the first book in my Hannah McCabe series, I hit on the idea of drawing on children’s literature for inspiration. This second book in the series, What the Fly Saw, is inspired by the old ballad, “Who Killed Cock Robin?” The title comes from the stanza: “Who saw him die?/I, said the Fly/With my little eye/I saw him die.”
Cock Robin is killed with an arrow. In my book, the victim is a funeral director, who is killed with an arrow from his own hunting bow. My funeral director is a member of a megachurch in Albany. He is a respected member of the community, a beloved husband and father. So who could have wanted him dead? The time is January 2020. The place is Albany, New York.
The murder happens during a blizzard, and Detective McCabe and her partner, Mike Baxter, are short on physical evidence because of the impact of the extreme weather conditions on the city-wide surveillance system and the cleverness of the killer. Meanwhile, Hannah’s family is drawn into a political situation and the city itself is dealing with the possibility of a cholera outbreak.
Norm: What would you say is the best reason to recommend someone to read What the Fly Saw?
Frankie: I think the best reason is because I had fun writing this book and I think that comes through. The book deals with serious topics – murder, climate change, politics, family conflicts – but there are also whimsical aspects of my near-future world that I think readers will enjoy.
Norm: What purpose do you believe your story serves and what matters to you about the story?
Frankie: In this book – and in the series – I want to invite readers to join me in thinking about what is important and worth preserving or struggling to achieve in a world that is a bit out of whack.
Frankie: My WEBSITE
Norm: What is next for Frankie Y. Bailey?
Frankie: I’m working on a nonfiction book for general readers about dress, appearance, and criminal justice. I’m also doing research for the third book in the Hannah McCabe series. And eventually I hope to finish my 1939 historical thriller.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Frankie: That’s a tough one. Or, maybe not. I just looked over at a friend who is curled up under a table.
You should ask me, “Do you have a pet or ‘animal companion’?” I would respond that I have a cat named Harry (formerly Tyson). He’s a Maine Coon mix. I adopted him about three months ago. Harry now has his own page on my website, where he will be occasionally sharing photos and his comments about life with a human who has never had a cat and has always thought of herself as a dog person. Harry has a purebred counterpart who appears in a scene in The Red Queen Dies. That was how I became interested in Maine Coons. It’s a fascinating experience learning to live in a small house with a cat who weighs more than some small dogs – and who has turned out to like taking naps in my lap while I working at my computer.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your books.
Frankie: Thank you. It was a pleasure