If you have ever harbored dreams of becoming a published writer, it’s likely that anyone you have asked for professional advice has either replied, “Write what you know” or “Write the kind of book you like to read.” Jeanette A. Fratto, author of No Good Deed, not only brings to the table a longstanding fondness for the mystery genre but also shares much in common career-wise with her intrepid protagonist – Probation Officer Linda Davenport.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: Let’s start out with some background on your personal journey as a writer and, in particular, your decision to start penning mysteries.
A: I’ve been writing all my life, short stories, essays, and articles. I didn’t tackle a novel until I retired from a 26-year career with the Orange County Probation Department, and chose a mystery because it’s one of my favorite genres to read.
Q: Were you a voracious reader when you were growing up? If so, who were some of the authors and what were some of the books that you feel had the most influence on your own style and sense of story structure?
A: Voracious! I read all the famous fairy tale and Nancy Drew books, graduating to adult books as soon as I could. Many authors have probably had an influence on me – Mary Higgins Clark for her simplicity in story telling, James Patterson for his ability to keep you turning pages, T. Jefferson Parker for his very intelligent writing and plotting. I admire them and many others but I’d like to think my own voice is distinctive to me.
Q: If you could go to lunch with any famous mystery writer that has ever lived, where would it be and what is the one question you would most want to ask him/her about their life, their books or the publishing industry?
A: So many questions, and authors pop into my mind. For sheer fun I’d like to have lunch with Janet Evanovich and ask her how she came up with such crazy, likeable characters in her Stephanie Plum series. Our restaurant would probably have to be a very non-serious place, like IHOP.
Q: What’s the first thing you ever had published and do you remember what your reaction was?
A: Aside from articles in my local Detroit paper about my high school doings, my first real publication was in 1983, a short story “true romance”. Since it was supposed to be “true” I did not have a byline, but I signed a contract and was paid $160 by McFadden Publications. My reaction was – wow! I guess I’m now a professional writer.
Q: Do you ever go back and read some of your earlier writings? What’s your reaction when you do?
A: I occasionally revisit earlier writings and I usually think they’re not too bad, and sometimes really good. Other times I wonder, why did I take on that topic?
Q: Your latest release, No Good Deed, is actually a sequel to your first book, No Stone Unturned. Was the decision to do the sequel because you had unfinished elements you wanted to explore or, like many authors, was it because it was hard to part company with the characters you had brought to life and spent so much time with?
A: Actually it was neither. When I finished No Stone Unturned I doubted that I’d ever write another book, and went back to my short stories and articles. However, my readers seemed to have other ideas. So many asked me if I planned to write a sequel, as they wanted to know more about my characters. As time passed, all the turmoil connected with writing and publishing dimmed in my mind, and I thought “why not?” I had my main characters. All I needed was a new plot.
Q: In the film industry, movie sequels typically draw 60 percent of the audience that liked the original. There’s a danger, however, in either reinventing exactly the same wheel or taking the sequel in a different direction that inevitably disappoints. From your own experience, was it harder or easier to write No Good Deed? How did strike the right balance between delivering something new and yet retaining that which was already familiar?
A: I found the sequel much easier to write. Where the first book took me several years, the sequel was completed in a year and a half. I had my main characters, and had the book begin about six months after the first one ended. The familiarity was the setting. Linda Davenport is no longer in training but is settled in her first assignment as an investigator. Now she’s involved in something new, investigating a Hollywood movie star accused of molestation. This brought about some new characters, one of whom may continue into a third book.
Q: Speaking of Hollywood, if No Good Deed were adapted to a movie or a TV series, who would comprise your dream cast?
A: Funny you should ask. I was able to get my first book to Oprah. Although it didn’t make the book club “cut”, the feedback I received was that it would make a good movie and I should find a literary agent who could help me with this. That never worked out. However, I often thought about who could play Linda. Hilary Swank came to mind, and more currently, Rachel McAdams. Jan should be played by Sara Rue, Edith by Betty White, Gregory by Ben Affleck, and Carol by any current pretty blonde star, since Carol’s part is quite small. David could be played by Josh Duhamel, or if they could find a young Jude Law, that would be the best.
Q: Did you work from a formal outline at the outset or invite your characters to “speak” to you as you went along?
A: I didn’t use an outline. I had a rough idea and I let my characters speak to me as I went. Amazingly they spoke to me in directions I didn’t plan on taking.
Q: Let’s talk about your intrepid protagonist, Linda Davenport. Her career starts out as a school teacher in Michigan. What was the inciting incident that compelled her to become a probation officer and move to Southern California (besides, of course, our fabulously lovely weather)?
A: Linda moves to California for a job in publishing. While on the plane to Los Angeles, she makes the acquaintance of probation officer Carol Alder, who regales her with the many interesting aspects of her job. Linda’s publishing job fails to materialize and Carol dies in a suspicious auto accident, but not before sending Linda information on how to apply for the next training class of probation officers. Linda is determined to stay in California, but her job hunting is not successful. She begins to think about Carol’s suggestion that she look into probation. In the meantime, Carol’s brother Gregory has contacted Linda to voice his concerns that Carol’s accident might have been foul play, and he thinks someone in the court system is responsible. If Linda is able to become a probation officer, she might be able to uncover the truth and put Gregory’s mind at ease. She applies and is accepted. Thus begins her journey through the system and her discovery of the truth about Carol.
Q: As a long-time Southern California resident yourself, are some of the settings depicted in your two books favorite hang-outs of your own?
A: I’ve definitely never hung out at the Swallows Inn, but I live near Laguna Beach and have visited the Laguna Hotel many times for dinner or lunch on their terrace. Streets I mention are streets I’ve traveled. The location of the probation offices is accurate as well.
Q: What traits do you and the fictional Linda have in common? In what ways are you radically dissimilar?
A: Linda and I are similar in that we both came from Detroit, loved to visit the library with our dads, and or course, became probation officers. We’re dissimilar in that she’s an only child, I’m not; she was a teacher, I never was: my dad was not an accountant; and Linda came to California alone while I came with my husband and two children due to my husband’s job opportunity.
Q: Probation departments aren’t a typical aspect of law enforcement that people read about. Why did you choose to give it an audience?
A: For two reasons. When I worked, I realized that few outside the field really understood what probation officers do (much more than just supervising people). Also, mystery writers rarely write about probation, yet it’s an important component of the criminal justice system. When they infrequently mention it, they usually get it wrong, mixing it up with parole. In California, probation (county) and parole (state or federal) are separate functions. I knew the system intimately and decided it was time probation had its own exposure via mystery novels.
Q: Any plans to make Linda’s adventures a full-fledged series?
A: Possibly. Many readers of my second book are asking me when a third will be available. I’ve been busy promoting No Good Deed so it will be a while before I can concentrate on a plot for #3.
Q: Like many authors, you’ve gone the route of self-publishing. What were some of the considerations that went into your decision to ultimately choose Outskirts Press?
A: Initially I planned to be traditionally published, period. But after endless queries, and an agent who wanted to represent me but turned out to be unscrupulous, I decided that what I really wanted was to see my book in print. I began researching self-publishing and talking to writers who had done so. Outskirts Press had a good reputation, we had a comfortable fit, and the cost was fairly reasonable. It has worked out well.
Q: What is a typical day of writing like for you?
A: If I’m working on a book, I usually set aside a day or two just for writing. When I know I don’t have to write every day I don’t obsess about it. I make notes as ideas come to me, but my main focus will be on my writing days. I’ve tried the “write a few lines every day” that other authors do, but it didn’t work for me. If I wasn’t writing something, I felt guilty.
Q: You’re also passionate about volunteering your time to adult literacy. What brought this interest about?
A: My love of reading and the desire to volunteer in the community in a helpful way. It’s amazing how many adults are unable to read, or read very poorly. I’ve been with READ/Orange County for over thirteen years and have had various assignments. For the last several years I’ve been the site supervisor for the literacy office at the Aliso Viejo library. READ has a wonderful free program and many adults have learned to read through the efforts of their volunteers.
Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about you?
A: Let’s see, I have two adult children, three grandchildren, speak Spanish, and love to travel with my husband. I’m also a graduate of CaliforniaStateUniversity, Fullerton (B.A. and M.A.). In my probation career I held many titles, starting as a probation officer. By the time I retired, I had been a division director for many years. My husband and I like to keep fit and over the years have taken pilates, yoga, and strength training classes, not all at the same time. I’m currently doing Zumba once a week, and working out with a personal trainer on two other days. I guess I believe in the saying, “if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it” and I’d like to “keep it” for as long as I can. Regarding my writing, in 2011 and 2012 I was one of the winners in a Writer’s Digest competition, in the categories of short story, feature article, and essay. I’ve also been published in three anthologies in the past two years, She Writes, The Write Balance, and Royal Flush. I have a short story entered in a current Writer’s Digest short story competition, but winners have yet to be announced.