Thursday, August 4, 2011


Today I’m going to go on a bit of a rant. Humour me. The summer is glorious. The corn, tomatoes, wild blueberries and new potatoes are cropping up in markets and roadside stands. If I shut my eyes, it’s possible to block out the tragedy of Norway, the insanity of the US debt crisis, the privatizing of libraries, and even the silly chatter of the latest “national unity” crisis. It’s possible to hear only the echo of the loon over the lake, the hum of crickets and the lapping of water on the shore.

This is a rant, you ask?

The truth is, we’re never satisfied. There is always something to complain about, so here I go.

Soon I will be embarking on a six-week road trip through the Maritime provinces – Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. My sister and I will be renting an SUV three times the size of my house, piling ourselves, our camping and writing gear, and our three dogs into it, and setting off to research our father’s early life. We have been planning this trip for over a year, dreamed of it all our lives. We have identified locations where he lived, contacted relatives and local historians, booked places to stay – a challenge with three dogs! – and figured out what we needed to research and where. Daily life in an outport on Trinity Bay, the Boy’s Industrial School in Halifax, for example.

Our ultimate goal is to write the story of his life from his impoverished outport beginnings to his PhD in philosophy from Harvard University. Along the way, he was orphaned, contracted polio, was thrown in reform school, studied in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, and caught the eye of a rebellious Westmount private school girl who was determined to marry him. All in all, an extraordinary, inspirational Canadian tale. Or so we thought.

The trip will be very expensive, even with camping and hunting down accommodation bargains on kijiji. So last year, thinking this might be the type of project that the Canada Council for the Arts might wish to encourage, I applied for a grant. As required, I submitted the first few chapters of the book-to-be, a detailed outline, bios, rationales, and all the other paperwork, including my list of publishing credits. Perhaps this was my undoing. All my publishing credits are in crime fiction - nine novels and about thirty short stories. Perhaps the jury thought that a crime writer could never write a worthy biography, even in the style of creative non-fiction that we had chosen. Perhaps the jury thought that a crime writer couldn’t write anything worthy at all. I have never applied for a Canada Council grant before, although literary writers routinely apply for grants to help them subsist during the writing period. Other crime writers have applied for grants, and other forms of support, always without success. Not real writing, apparently.

Fantasy, science fiction and horror writers tell me that as low as crime fiction is on the scale of worthy literature, their writing is even lower. Small consolation, since we are all bastard stepchildren at the literary banquet. One might have thought that a crime writer who wished to break out of her inferior genre ghetto would be encouraged, but the jury didn’t leap at the chance. Perhaps the reason is not bias but simple math. Perhaps there are too many writers asking for support and not enough money to go around. But that still leaves the question. How did they choose? And why didn’t they choose me? An established, respected writer who’s never asked for a dime before in my career. Why don’t they choose my crime-writing colleagues, who not only write very good stories about Canadian issues, characters and settings, but also tackle important moral and social questions that our country confronts.

This trip will happen, and this book will get written, because it deserves to be written. It deserves to be read. Even though there is no grant, even though we will be considerably in debt by the end. I know I’m not the first author to struggle. But I wonder how many unusual and worthy stories will not get written and will never be read, because the writer needed to eat.

Barbara Fradkin is a child psychologist with a fascination for how we turn bad. In addition to her darkly haunting short stories in the Ladies Killing Circle anthologies, she writes the gritty, Ottawa-based Inspector Green novels which have
won back to back Arthur Ellis Awards for Best Novel from Crime Writers of Canada. The eighth in the series, Beautiful Lie the Dead, explores love in all its complications. And, her new Rapid Read from Orca, The Fall Guy, was launched in May.


  1. I've applied for various grants over the years, never received a penny, and I do belive it's because I write crime fiction. That's just the way it is, and I recognize that now. However, your project, Barbara, is so worthwhile that it's hard for me to understand why you didn't get a grant. I suspect the taint of crime fiction hung over you, I'm sorry to say. Perhaps we're both wrong, and I'll apologize when I see a mystery writer get a grant. (Vicki Delany here, lately I have been unable to leave comments on blogspot)

  2. The line ". . . bastard stepchildren at the literary banquet" --- if it had been submitted on your application --- SHOULD have warranted a grant, imho!

    As for eating . . . perhaps the Council subscribes to the old saw that artists SHOULD starve for their art?

    The book sounds amaing, Barbara. Its ultimate success will prove even sweeter w/o their help. Prove 'em wrong and have a great research trip!

  3. Thanks, Susan. I wish I could take credit for that line, but I think I first heard something similar from Howard Engel years ago. Needless to say, it stuck with me.