Author Tracy Clark is testament not only to great writing but also the power of determination and persistence. After years of fits and starts, her novel “Broken Places” – the first in the new Chicago Mystery series – debuted this year to rave reviews. I sat down with her recently to talk about the series, the success of the new book and the challenges and opportunities for writers of color in today’s publishing world.
Open Mic: First, tell me a bit about “Broken Places” and the Chicago Mystery series.
Clark: Well, it’s been a long time coming, that’s for sure. “Broken Places” started with a different title and different characters years ago, and over long fruitless, frustrating years of rewrites, it is what it is now. I knew from the start that I wanted to write a book featuring an African-American female protagonist, but that’s all I had, everything else sprang from that. In “Broken Places,” Cass Raines, my Chicago homicide detective turned PI, must solve the case of a dead priest found in his confessional, the body of a gangbanger close by sprawled across the altar steps. How did I get to the dead priest in the confessional? I was sitting in church and my mind wandered. I glanced over at the confessionals and thought huh, that would be the perfect place to stash a body. And “Broken Places” was born. The gangbanger came next. The altar steps were just too good to pass up.
Open Mic: I’ve heard similar tales from other writers. Did you ever get to the point where you thought you just needed to move on and do something else? Or were you committed to getting this one published no matter what?
Clark: Plenty of times. I had an agent early on, but he couldn’t sell the book, so he cut me loose. Frustrated, I decided to stop spinning my wheels and tossed the manuscript into a drawer, thinking this whole writing thing was not going to work out for me. I concentrated instead on my day job while “Broken Places” gathered dust in the dark. But there was something that just would not allow me to let it go. Whatever I did, there was this persistent voice in my head literally yelling at me to KEEP WRITING. I ignored the voice for two years until not writing became almost as stressful as failing at writing. I took the manuscript out of the drawer, sneered at it, but then dusted it off and started over again … and again … and again. I just kept at it. I tossed out more pages than I saved, but I refused to stop. I had one agent who rejected it, but also had some constructive criticism along with the rejection. Her parting advice to me was to find a writers’ workshop and get myself in it. And that’s what I did. I found The Writer’s Loft here in Chicago, and it was the greatest thing I could have done. It absolutely elevated my work. It taught me the basics of effective storytelling. And it was fun. The first year I rewrote “Broken Places” yet again, week by week, 10 pages at a time, getting expert direction from Mary Carter, a published author herself, who runs the Writer’s Loft. At the end of that first year, I had a manuscript that didn’t stink. I still had a few more rewrites to go through, but I had a good, solid story as my foundation. When rewrites were done and it was time to start sending the manuscript out, Mary helped with that too — query letters, putting in a good word for me. Before long, I had an agent. Soon after that, I had a book deal. I spent another year at the Writer’s Loft going through the same process with book two in the Cass Raines series, but by then I was a soon-to-be-published author, so some of the pressure was off.
Open Mic: Cass Raines is such a strong lead character. Did you develop her first and then build a plotline, or vice versa?
Clark: The character of Cass Raines definitely came first. I tested her out years ago in a short story entitled “For Services Rendered,” which appeared in a mystery anthology of black mystery writers titled “Shades of Black: Crime and Mystery Stories by African-American Authors.” Cass had a different name then, a different backstory, but her voice was the same. In fact, her voice was so loud, so distinctive that it practically burst onto the page. Cass is just so sure of herself, so uniquely her own person, so deeply grounded in her code of ethics that I literally could not mess her up. Snarky, bull-headed, intrepid, I could not turn her off, even after I shut my computer down. Fortunately, when she arrived, she brought friends with her, so basically all I had to do was transcribe their encounters. Thankfully, everybody had something entertaining to say or I’d have been in real trouble.
Open Mic: You’re a newspaper editor. How has that impacted your writing and storytelling?
Clark: Well, being an editor has trained me to be really clear about what I’m trying to say and how I say it. I go for clean, concise, rhythmic sentences. When I read what I’ve written aloud, it has to sound right, it has to flow. If it doesn’t, I know I’m not done. It’s like hitting the sweet spot on a tennis racket. You know you’ve hit it by the sound of the contact, ball against racket face. So, I write for the sweet spot. The construction of each sentence, the grammar, the punctuation, I have a pretty good handle on, thank goodness. Nothing should make writing any more difficult than it already is, but the rhythm, the through line in every sentence, every paragraph, every scene, has to be uncluttered, direct, so that I know I’m saying exactly what I mean to say.
Open Mic: With your background in news, did you ever consider making Cass Raines a reporter instead of a cop?
Clark: Never. I always knew I wanted her to be a cop, and that something tragic would happen to take that all away from her. That’s where “Broken Places” begins. The reader meets Cass on the worst day of her life. She lays dying on a rooftop, a bullet in her chest. You think things can’t get worse for her, but they do. She soon loses someone dear and her world shatters. How she rebounds, how she pushes forward when she’s mired in grief and sorrow is her journey. I made her a cop because I’ve always been fascinated by the job. Cops go into the most extreme situations with just a vest, a gun and a hope that they’re going to make it out alive. That’s intense. That’s life or death. That’s real. Cops look at the world differently. They have to. They’re hyper-alert, even when they’re not on duty. They see the streets the rest of us walk down without a thought with a different eye, cautious, wary, anticipating what could happen. That’s Cass’s jumping off point. I wanted her to have that weight, that mindset, that intensity.
Open Mic: How did you get that cop background down?
Clark: I talked to cops. I have cops in my family, friends who are cops, so I talked to them. I also talked to female detectives in the Chicago Police Department who do the job every day, often under extreme circumstances. I wanted to talk to them specifically to learn how they approached the job as opposed to how a man might approach it. They do the same job, of course, but women can’t rely on brute strength to get the job done. They have to cultivate other skills. I wanted to know what those skills were. How do they work the streets differently than their male partners? What do they look out for? Where do they carry their guns when they’re on a date? How heavy does that bullet-proof vest feel? I talked to one detective who said she absolutely will not eat in a restaurant or any public place and sit with her back to the door. I had never even thought about where a cop sits, but they have to think about it all the time. One cop I spoke to said she doesn’t ride up in an elevator, she always takes the stairs. She doesn’t want to be trapped in an enclosed place with somebody who might be a threat to her. No regular person thinks about things like that, do they? I know I don’t. As a writer, it helps having this information as background, and I’ve incorporated a lot of it in the books. It helps to flush Cass out and make her more believable.
Open Mic: Have you had feedback from female police officers on this?
Clark: Oh, yeah. I made a glaring mistake in “Broken Places” when I used the word “collar” instead of “arrest.” Collar was something I got from TV cop shows, but, apparently, real Chicago cops don’t say it. Who knew? I got some gentle ribbing about it, but you better believe I nailed all the jargon down in book two. I asked a detective, my brother-in-law in fact, to go over the manuscript with eagle cop eyes before I handed it in to my publisher. No more collar! Other than that little miss, though, I think I nailed it.
Open Mic: How would you describe the environment right now for women of color in publishing, and specifically in the mystery genre?
Clark: I think it’s better today than it has been, but not nearly at the level it should be, given the number of talented writers of color out there. The first African-American mystery writer I ever met was Eleanor Taylor Bland, author of the Marti MacAlister series. She quickly became my mentor and friend. She really encouraged young writers. Eleanor would critique my stuff, offer her expertise, her advice, and she really kept me pumped up enough to write in those early days when all I wanted to do was stop. But for every Eleanor, for every Barbara Neely and Valerie Wilson Wesley, there were female writers of color, men too, locked out of the chance to get their work published. I’m not sure if it was because publishers assumed black writers couldn’t write well or that white readers wouldn’t want to buy books written by black writers that featured black protagonists. Both assumptions have always been incorrect. Black writers are out there. There are more and more of us every year, thankfully. Diverse voices should be heard, and they are being heard now. And, lo and behold, white readers haven’t been scared away by all that diversity on the page. Do you want to read good books written by excellent female writers of color? Try Kellye Garrett, Rachel Howzell Hall, VM Burns, Alexia Gordon, Delia Pitts, Gigi Pandian, Steph Cha. There are so many more I haven’t room to list, but go exploring. Find them. Read them. You won’t be disappointed. We support each other’s successes. We spread the word. We welcome newcomers into the fold. One day, hopefully soon, we won’t have to make the distinction between writers and writers of color. Soon, just WRITER will be enough.
Open Mic: What is your perspective on white authors writing characters of color?
Clark: I don’t think there’s any rule that says they can’t. I certainly don’t want to be the person who tells anyone else what they can and can’t write. If you’ve got a story to tell and that’s the perspective you think you’re qualified to tell it from, have at it. Just know you’re going to have to walk in that character’s shoes, understand his or her past, pay heed to the historical, societal and personal struggles, basically live in that character’s skin and walk around in it. You have to not only know what you’re talking about, but feel it, intimately. Writers, black writers, white writers, Hispanic writers, WRITERS, should write everything, anything; nothing should be off limits. Just write the truth, and write it well.
Open Mic: Most writers at some point find themselves stuck. Call it writer’s block or what have you – how do you get yourself unstuck?
Clark: I sit down in front of the computer until I get unstuck. Coming from a newspaper background where you’re writing for deadline always, you know you don’t have time to give into a lot of navel-gazing. You have 800 words due in an hour to fill a tight slot. No excuses will be accepted. Get it done! As far as novel writing, I’ve thought myself into dark corners a million times and there’s no secret escape plan, no magic spell that’s going to get me out. You just have to keep on chipping away at the problem until you write yourself out of the mess you’re in. But writing’s funny. You might get the solution while shopping for groceries, sitting at the car wash, or taking a bath. The perfect idea might wake you from a sound sleep, or you might have to drag it kicking and screaming out of your head before you go nuts. Bottom line: You’re going to get stuck. You’re going to get stuck a trillion times. You want unstuck? Put your butt in the chair and write. You will write badly, so what. Keep writing! Eventually, you will write something that works. Writing will never get easier. It’ll make you want to pull your hair out. Keep going. Do not kick the dog!. Finish what you start. You have nothing until you finish. Then rewrite until you hit that sweet spot. Now congratulate yourself, just for a moment. You’re now a writer who writes!
Open Mic: Some writers swear by using an outline; others prefer to let a story develop organically as they go. Which way do you prefer?
Clark: Prior to my book deal, I was a diehard pantser, preferring to just go where the story took me. It was a complete adventure, broken down one page at a time. Unmasking the murderer was as big a surprise to me as it was to the reader. My signing with Kensington put a stop to that. For Broken Places, they wanted an outline. I had never written a book outline before in my life. My brain sputtered. There are writers who can’t get started until they have everything plotted out scene by scene, page by page, character by character. The outline they produce is half as long as the book itself! I don’t know how they do it. However, having written two outlines at this point, I suppose I can see the overall benefits. Doesn’t mean I have to like it. I’m still a pantser at heart. You stumble upon the best stuff that way.
Open Mic: Writers often face a lot of rejection. How do you handle that part of the business?
Clark: Before I got signed I didn’t handle it well. It bummed me out. It made me want to quit. Heck, I did quit for two years. I put that first manuscript away and vowed never to touch it again. Now, I just keep it moving. Every book’s not for every reader. Some folks will like what you’ve done, some won’t. I’m not going to sit and cry over the ones who think I suck. Life’s too short. Writing’s too hard. This is a rough business. You’re going to get rejected … a lot. I have rejection letters right now piled up in an envelope from all the publishing houses and agents who wanted nothing I was selling. The rejections stung for a bit, but now I can laugh at them. Well, maybe not laugh. Bottom line: A writer has two options either keep writing or stop writing. Nobody wins if you stop writing. How bad do you want it? If you really want it, you’re going to have to learn how to eat rejection for breakfast; you’re going to have to train yourself to walk through virtual fire in your skivvies. Rejection is part of the business. Know it’s coming, make paper airplanes out of those soul-sucking letters, but keep it moving.
Open Mic: What makes a great mystery for you as a reader? Conversely, what is a big turn off?
Clark: Most stories are either character-driven or plot-driven, and I’ve always been a character-driven kind of person. Give me unique, interesting characters I can get invested in and care about, and I’ll stick around to see how it all plays out. As for a turn off, only bad writing will make me put a book down. You rely on a writer to lead you through the story with finesse, precision, a firm hand, and when that doesn’t happen, as a reader you become distracted, you’re vaulted out of the story, things don’t make sense; you get horribly lost. At that point, I’d much rather read something else than struggle to the end and waste the time.
Open Mic: What is the most memorable mistake you made along the way, or maybe just something you wish you had done differently?
Clark: I’ve made tons of mistakes. Every writer does. Going back to earlier, there’s that collar thing, which I’ll never live down. Still, you have to move on. One thing I encountered in the second book was a name choice I made in book one that I absolutely hate now, but I’m stuck with it till the end of time. I wish I could change it, but I can’t. But that’s a minor irritation. I don’t think I’ve made any catastrophic mistakes yet, but I’m still early on in the process. Catastrophe is bound to be just around the corner.
Open Mic: Like many authors, you also have a full-time job. How do you create the time to write?
Clark: I just carve it out. I have no choice. I snatch bits of time during the week, either at the computer or writing notes to myself on upcoming scenes, plotting, crafting dialog in my head. Turn my pockets inside out and you’ll likely find crumpled Post-It notes with character descriptions, plot twists and the like scrawled all over them. Weekend’s it’s full-on butt-in-the-seat writing. I usually start in the morning, break for lunch, go back to the computer, and then write until around dinnertime. I often lose track of time, though. I sometimes miss that midday break, but only notice that I’ve done it when the light gets dim in the room I’m writing in. This schedule doesn’t allow for a lot of weekend fun, but that’s the job. In it to win it, right?
Open Mic: I have talked with writers who take great pains to avoid expressing any kind of political opinion in their writing because, whatever side you’re on, the other side buys books too. How do you approach that issue?
Clark: I don’t think I could write the stories I’m writing by ignoring what’s actually happening in the world right now. Besides, I write a mystery series set in Chicago. To ignore what’s happening here now, and how that affects marginalized people, would be disingenuous and just plain painful. Neighborhoods, communities, how people are treated, how society works, or doesn’t work, what obstacles some face – how can you avoid all that and have your story ring true? I try not to preach on the page. Nobody, including me, likes a lot of preaching. I just allow my characters to tell their stories, stories that are true to them. If a reader is turned off, then I’m sorry to see them go. If they’d stuck around, they would have enjoyed the show. In the end, I have to hope that the number of readers who stick around outnumber those who find offense where it wasn’t intended and decide not to read me. Either way, I have no control over the outcome.
Open Mic: I like to end with something fun. Let’s say I can put you together for drinks and a conversation with just one of the following Chicago icons. Who do you pick and why? Your options are: Studs Terkel, Michelle Obama or Michael Jordan.
Clark: Definitely Michelle Obama. The first African-American first lady? C’mon. That’s a no-brainer. I would have to know what she thinks of our current political situation. She’s got to have some pretty strong opinions, and I want to hear every last one of them. She strikes me as being a cool, laid-back person, intelligent, classy, good sense of humor. That’s going to have to be one long conversation. I want to know everything. I want to hear what it was like living for eight years in the White House, how she navigated around all those prickly, sourpuss pols in Washington. I’d like to know if she regrets the experience, what she learned, whether she’d choose to do it again. And then we could just chill and talk about Chicago stuff, like how things are moving on the Obama Presidential Library. That’s a big issue here on the South Side. I want her take on things. Drinks might not be enough. We might have to extend into dinner.