Tracy Clark is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and Crime Writers of Color. She is a Chicago writer who, like Sara Paretsky, puts her female detective on the streets of Chicago. The Cass Raines Chicago Mystery series has been winning awards since its debut novel “Broken Places.” New York City hosts the national conference of Mystery Writers of America in late March, complete with a banquet to announce the Edgar Award Winners. It is the Academy Awards of mystery writing. This year, Covid-19 forced Clark to hear about “Borrowed Time” winning the Sue Grafton Memorial Award via Twitter and consequently, she posted her acceptance speech on YouTube.
Clark works by day in the newspaper industry as an editor, and writes mysteries at night.
When did you decide to become a writer and why?
I don’t think I ever made a formal decision to become a writer. I think I always was one. As far back as I remember, I would write little stories in a notebook or on paper. I remember holding the yellow number-two pencil in little fat fingers, and to this day have a callous on my left middle finger where I pressed down too hard for too long. No one ever saw those stories, of course, not even my mother. I wrote them just for me, just because. All through school, writing essays and term papers were the easiest things I had to do. I could knock out a book report like nobody’s business. I was the LeBron James of book reports. The decision to write a book came much, much later when the voices showed up and wouldn’t leave. They were characters begging for an outlet, so I gave them one. I decided to take a shot at writing a short story about a kidnapped dog. The notebook was long gone by this time, but I managed to tap out a complete story. I even sold it to a mystery magazine right out of the gate. They paid me five dollars. I held onto that check for years. I’m figuring now, “Huh. That wasn’t so hard. If I can write a short story that someone wanted to publish, how hard could writing an entire book be?” (HAHAHAHA.) Yeah. It took another thirty years.
Talk about your new book.
“What You Don’t See” is book three in the Cass Raines Chicago Mystery series. Cass is between cases and her ex-partner, Detective Ben Mickerson, asks her to work with him to act as security for a local celebrity, Vonda Allen, the prima donna publisher of her own vanity magazine. Allen’s been receiving threatening letters and anonymous flowers, which she’s chosen to ignore. Allen won’t involve the police, and Cass quickly suspects that Allen knows who’s threatening her, but the great lady refuses to divulge her secrets, though she does want someone to watch her back. When people around Allen die violently, Cass and Ben’s simple bodyguarding work turns dangerously serious. When one of the attacks strikes too close to home, Cass hunts the city solo for a craven killer, the clock ticking, before the next body falls. (Cue ominous music.) LOL. Vonda Allen’s a real pill, but I think everyone has encountered one or two Vondas in their time. I know I have, which is why she’s on the page in all her haughty glory. Takeaway from that? Never piss off a writer.
Why did you pick the Chicago Police Department as your protagonists’ former employer?
I knew at the start I wanted to write crime fiction. I knew my main character would be female. I knew she would be African American. I knew my African-American female would work in Chicago, and I knew I wanted her to ultimately be a PI because I’m a great fan of that subgenre. There are a few avenues to becoming a working PI. Cop was one of them, so I went for that. I wanted Cass Raines to have some expertise, some heft. I didn’t want her to be an amateur sleuth or an accidental crime solver. I wanted her to know exactly what she was doing. I wanted her to know exactly how to handle herself. And I wanted her to move through her world with a cockiness and an assuredness that comes with having her professional experience and history. Cass thinks like a cop, walks like a cop, follows leads like a cop. She has that cop stare. She is legitimate, no joke; she doesn’t own a cat. There are usually dirty dishes in her sink, she rarely uses her stove, and if she has to, she’ll chase a killer to the ends of the earth and back.
Why is she named Cassandra Raines?
Raines I pulled out of the air. I wanted something strong, simple, one syllable, something that offered a quick punch. Also, I liked that Raines put me in mind of reins, which, I hope, Cass keeps close grips on as she works her cases. Cass? Personal selection there. I was searching for a name and scrolled down my Pandora playlist stopping at Mama Cass Elliott. From the start, Cass was always Cass, not Cassie. Her name’s formally Cassandra just because most people have a formal name, but it’s Cass. Interestingly, going back to that first short story I wrote way back in the day, the main character was an early version of Cass in a lot of respects, only her name was Eve. I changed the name when I discovered Nora Roberts’ “In Death” series. Roberts got there first, and well, I began looking for an alternative that fit my character. Now I can’t imagine Cass being named anything else. It’s strange how characters take on a life of their own.
Give us a look into your writing process.
I make a cup of tea and sit down at the table with my laptop, and I don’t get up until I’ve written something that doesn’t suck rocks. That’s it. Sometimes writing days go smoothly, sometimes it’s pure torture, but you have to take what you get. I still have a day job, so during the week my writing schedule is segmented (or it was before the lockdown). I’d write for an hour at lunch, then a couple hours at the end of the day. On the weekends, it was pretty much nonstop, barring a run to the grocery store or the bank. I’d start in the morning, write, break for lunch, then write, then clock out at dinnertime. Like a job, which it is. Now that everyone’s locked in, locked down and quarantined, I’m on a slightly altered schedule. I’m up at around 4am, writing, then I switch over to my day job duties, break for lunch, more day job, then my couple hours at the end of the day. I’m used to editing for deadline, so writing for deadline uses the same muscle memory. It’s like my brain knows to kick in whenever my butt hits the chair. It knows what scene I have to get through, what chapter, and so it clocks in when the laptop boots up. That’s when things are going well. There are also those days when brain says, “Nah, Not today, sis. There’s a ‘Murder, She Wrote’ marathon on Cozi TV. Catch you mañana.” Luckily, those days are few and far between.
Do you see a difference in writing between female and male mystery writers?
Not really. Each writer is different and yet the same. Each writer has their own energy, their own style, their own perspective. A writer is a writer. Now there’s some difference between male energy and female energy, but I wouldn’t want to get into generalizations here. And there are things male writers tend to focus on that maybe a female writer might not? But as for the process, the craft, the tools, the art of writing, that stuff’s the same for whoever. Writers are all climbing the same mountain, taking the same hits, licking the same wounds, pulling out the same hairs, praying to the heavens for just 10,000 more words. Makes no difference whether they pee sitting down or standing up.
Where do you see black mystery writers in the future?
Everywhere!! We’re here already. We’re in the game, at the party out on the dance floor, right smack-dab in the middle of everything. I’m honored to be a member of a wonderful group of diverse writers called Crime Writers of Color. There are more than a hundred of us now, and we’re a close-knit family of writers who offer each other support, encouragement, fraternity. We write everything—cozies, crime, historical fiction, sci-fi—you name it, we’re writing it. And we’re good. We’re award-nominated, award-winning. We’re legit. This is an exciting time for us. We still have a way to go opening up more seats at the table, but we’re coming. Seriously, I don’t understand the resistance. A good book is a good book whether it has been written by a writer with a black or brown face or by one with a white face. To borrow from Shakespeare, the play’s the thing. The best thing about the writing community so far, at least from my experience, is that the writing community, as a whole appears to feel the same way I do. A writer is a writer. A good book is a good book. Everything else is nonsense and not worth the time or energy.
Do writers change the world or do they simply report on it?
A similar question was asked of television back in the day. Whether TV created what we saw played out in society or simply reflected what was already there, then fed it back to us as entertainment. I think both things could be true about television. I also think the same could hold for writers. As a crime writer, I certainly use what’s out there in the world to elicit a reaction from readers, help them identify. I want them to say, “Hey, I know that feeling!” or “Hey, I know that place!” or “Yep, that’s how it is, isn’t it?” I want each character to feel and sound real, because they kind of are, at least in my head. You can’t write crime fiction without lasering in on what’s going on around you. In that sense, I’m reflecting, but I’m adding a whole lot of other stuff too. Having said that, there are some wonderful writers out there who have certainly impacted the world with things they’ve written. Take Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” or James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It On The Mountain.” These are works so clean, so precise, so deep, that they couldn’t help but inform readers, alter their perspectives, open their eyes to injustice, educate, make them feel. Enlightenment, empathy, understanding, walking around in a character’s shoes for a time, can change the world because it changes the reader. It changes the writer too, incrementally, often one book at a time. Change doesn’t often happen in grand sweeps of upheaval; change is small, slow, deliberate, personal, inevitable.
Who is your favorite writer?
I have so many favorites. First fave, Dr. Seuss. “Green Eggs and Ham” got me through some rough days in kindergarten. Peggy Parish’s “Amelia Bedelia” books were also my go-tos, and I remember carrying Louise Fitzhugh’s “Harriet the Spy” around in my backpack for the longest time. Then there was a shift somewhere around age twelve or thirteen. Not quite sure how it happened, but I got hooked on traditional mysteries and began devouring Agatha Christie novels. I stuck with those for a while, until the eighties rolled around and women writers burst out from nowhere and made their mark on crime fiction—Valerie Wilson Wesley, Sue Grafton, Eleanor Taylor Bland, Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, Margaret Maron, Linda Barnes, Barbara Neely. It was fantastic! They each featured smart, resourceful, brave, capable female protagonists solving crimes, thwarting bad guys, doing the thing. It was glorious. It still is, because now we have so many more talented women writers out there, especially more writers of color. This is an exciting time. I won’t name current favorites because I don’t want to leave a single one out and you haven’t the space for that long a list anyway. Suffice it to say, they’re all fantastically talented and my TBR (To Be Read) pile teeters under the weight of their good works.
Which bookstore is your favorite?
Honestly, I’ve never met a bookstore I couldn’t stay in for an entire day. Same holds true for libraries. I’m good in any place that has a book in it. You know those bargain bins of books in the grocery store? I’m the one pawing through the pile looking for something interesting selling for $2.99. Chicago, thank goodness, has some wonderfully delightful indie bookstores. I’m glad for them. The Book Cellar, Centuries & Sleuths, Women & Children First, Madison Street Books, City Lit, 57th Street Books, Bookends & Beginnings, so many more. I haven’t ventured out of my city yet for any book events, but I have my first one set for late June (pandemic willing) at Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis. I’ve heard great things about it and can’t wait to see it. I’ll bring a blanket and snacks to sustain me.
L. D. Barnes writes mystery, historical fiction and poetry. She is working on the second novel in her Chicago Street Crime series while living on the far south side. Barnes is a member of FLOW (For Love of Writing), Longwood Writers Guild and Mystery Writers of America. She performs locally.