Ottawa Writers Festival: Barbara Fradkin’s second Amanda Doucette novel takes new series to new level

Barbara Fradkin. Photo: Alan Dean Photography

Ottawa writer Barbara Fradkin has just released her second novel featuring the former foreign aid worker Amanda Doucette and is busy on a third.

Doucette is an unusual protagonist for a mystery/thriller series set in Canada. She is recovering from a traumatic incident in the field when she was unable to help people she was working with.

When Fradkin created Amanda she was writing another popular series centred on Inspector Michael  Green of the Ottawa police.

“I do have 10 books out in the Inspector Green series and I think we writers never want to write the same book twice. We never want to repeat ourselves. I had mined the field long enough. And I wanted to explore a different style of story.

“A police procedural, no matter how you stand it on its head, is a case in which a police officer unpeels the onion to figure out what happened. I wanted to write a story that would be more free-flowing and more focussed on the motivation of the protagonist.”

So she set Green aside. It’s not that she is saying she’ll never revisit his story. But not now or for the foreseeable future.

“I wanted somebody else’s company.”

In her prior life, Fradkin was a child psychologist working in Ottawa schools.

“I was on the front lines trying to figure out what needed to be done. I was exposed to a lot of different people and different problems and I liked that.

“I always felt I knew the neighbourhoods better than anybody except maybe taxi drivers.”

She wanted to bring the lessons learned there into her books and she also wanted to travel Canada in her books.

She was inspired in this by the Big Ride done by the Olympian Clara Hughes a few years ago for mental health.

“It was an interesting concept going from place to place, doing some kind of charitable thing.”

In her hunt for a new hero, Fradkin says she was looking for a protagonist who could carry enough passion to investigate and help people in trouble and a person who was resourceful, who could make something out of nothing.

“I got the idea for a foreign aid worker when the Boko Haram kidnapping of school aged girls took place in Nigeria.

“I wondered, ‘What’s the aftermath? How do people cope? How did the NGO workers cope with fact that they couldn’t protect these children. It’s not a story that’s told. Somebody would have to cope with that for the rest of life. As Romeo Dallaire says, that kind of thing haunts you.”

All of this came together in the person of Amanda Doucette. The first adventure took place in Newfoundland. This latest book The Trickster’s Lullaby, is set in Quebec, especially in the wilderness north of Mont Tremblant.

To locate her book Fradkin visited the area. One twist she had to overcome in the novel was the fact that Quebec provincial parks don’t allow dogs. And one of the key elements of the Doucette books is Amanda’s Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever Kaylee. Fortunately there was some land beyond the park where dogs were allowed  so the location could work. (Book three will be set in the Georgian Bay area.) Fradkin has always had an affinity for the outdoors. As a child the family would “pile into the old Dodge with tents and sleeping bags and go camping for our summer holidays.” And she also has two Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers and just loves them. “I’ve owned four. They are smaller than goldens and labs. They are of border collie size but they have a retriever temperament.”

The new novel is based on a terror plot that draws elements from the Toronto 18 and from various stories about young Canadians leaving to fight for ISIS.

In the book Amanda leads a group of CEGEP students into a wilderness experience not knowing that they were also plotting a terror attack. One of the ringleaders is a young woman.

“Part of my interest was what is in this for girls? How do they see themselves having a role? Everything you read about women in ISIS is all about sex slaves and forced marriages.”

But it was writing about young Muslims that concerned her. She didn’t want to create misplaced stereotypes.

“So I approached it very warily. I was aware that I didn’t want to create stereotypes. Whether I have succeeded, readers will judge.

She says she did not make contacts in the Muslim community.

“I actually didn’t want to suck them into the story. I didn’t want them to feel an obligation to speak for their community and put them in a conflicted situation. For me I didn’t want to feel like I had to present a particular point of view just because I talked to them.

“It was a dilemma for me, but I opted to develop story through secondary sources.”

The psychologist in her wanted to understand what makes someone want to do something so nihilistic.

“It’s a hard thing to get your head around. It requires a fundamentally different assumption bout the meaning of life.”

Fradkin is aware of issues around the appropriation of voices in different cultures.

“I actually think writers should spread their wings and explore other points of view. In this book I’m writing in the voice of a white woman like me. I don’t think I would want to write as if I was a Muslim woman or an aboriginal woman.”

Despite it all she forged ahead.

“I’ve always written. I think people are born with different types of creativity. In my case, everything I read or see sparks a thought. Psychology was such an interesting marriage with writing. That’s what a psychologist tries to do, figure out the root causes in people’s actions.

“The training allowed me to develop a strong empathy. We are trained to see from the other’s point of view so we can figure out how to help them. It’s second nature to me.”

Writing can also be cathartic, she says.

“I’d clear out the hard stuff. You can make the boss a suspect and let him squirm.”

Scene of the Crime with Barbara Fradkin and Ann Cleeves
Where: Southminster United Church, 15 Aylmer Ave
When: Oct. 10 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Barbara Fradkin‘s latest novel is The Trickster’s Lullaby (Dundurn).

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.