Can You Infect a Protagonist With Wise-assery and Still Elicit Empathy? Tracy Clark Talks about Her New Novel, Broken Places

What might surprise you about Tracy Clark?

“A major Broadway fan, I can sing (though not well) the songs to almost every Rodgers & Hammerstein, Jerry Herman and Lerner & Loewe musical. That makes you real popular at a cocktail party. NOT.”

SR: Where did your idea for this book come from?

Broken Places coverTC: In BROKEN PLACES, the murders of a priest and gangbanger take place in a church. The priest’s body has been stuffed into a confessional, the gangbanger has been shot dead on the altar steps and is found lying in a pool of his own blood. The idea for the bodies came while I was actually sitting in a church. The mind has a tendency to wander at times like that, and as mine did, I happened to glance over at the empty confessional and thought, “Huh. What if somebody found a body in there?” I think every mystery novel starts in a similar fashion, with the writer, asking what if? Once I had the body in the confessional, I quickly knew the victim had to be a priest. From there, it was nothing to add another complication, the dead gangbanger. From there, I was off and running. I had to then figure out how it all went down, and then have Cass Raines, my intrepid PI, solve the whole thing.

SR: Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Katniss Everdeen or Arya Stark? If your protagonist could be any fictional character for a day who would it be and why?

TC: Luke Skywalker. I think there’s something of the Jedi about Cass. She’s a Force kinda gal, fighting against the dark elements in society. She’s a great defender of the weak, the voiceless, and she fights tirelessly to set things right. And that light saber is beyond cool. It beats a wand, bow and arrow or sword any day of the week.

SR: What’s one thing that you and your protagonist have in common?

TC: Cass is a bit of a wiseass, and I’m afraid I suffer from the same affliction.

SR: Tell us something about you that isn’t common knowledge.

TC: That would be everything, at this point. Truthfully, I kind of like it that way. You gotta keep ’em guessing.

SR: Carpool karaoke. What would be your protagonist’s song? Yours?

TC: Cass would go for anything Motown. It’s her grandparents’ music, and she listens to it to feel closer to them now that they’re gone. A lot of what fuels and sustains Cass is rooted in a painful past. She’s a motherless child whose father abandoned her at the age of twelve. Her grandparents raised her, at great sacrifice, so she holds fast to memories of them and to those tangible things they left behind. This is her foundation, her jumping off point. She’s an amalgam of past and present, as we all are. Motown pins her to a time when her family was whole. In book two, Cass hums along to “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” It’s fitting given her history. As for me, I’m a Broadway baby all the way. I love musicals. Give me a little Lin Manuel Miranda or Audra McDonald and I’ll follow you almost anywhere.

SR: Cage match between you and your protagonist. It’s a fight to the death. Which one of you will be left standing, and why?

TC: Cass wouldn’t play along. She’d refuse to take a life for sport, even if that meant her life would be forfeited. No amount of coercion or threat could make her take part in a fight to the death. Instead, she’d figure a way out of the cage … for both of us.

However, just for argument’s sake, let’s say Cass somehow got taken over by body snatchers or something, and this cage match thing went down. She’s an ex homicide cop. She knows at least a dozen ways to take a person out without breaking a sweat. I’m a writer. My tools of the trade are a laptop, a dictionary and reams of blank paper. I would barely have time to squeak out a pathetic plea for mercy before she punched my ticket.

SR: What’s the first book you remember reading that had a huge impact on you? How did that story affect you? How do you think it shaped your desire to be a writer?

TC: I think the earliest book I remember reading on my own was Louise Fitzhugh’s “Harriet the Spy.” I think what I enjoyed most about the book was the fact that Harriet was a lot like me. She was a keen observer of the world around her and wrote everything down in her little notebook. I read the book numerous times and carried it and a notebook around with me for a good while. I thought at one point I’d become a reporter, but quickly discovered that I enjoyed writing my own stories. You can go anywhere in fiction, create any world you want, any kind of character. That beats real life hands down.

SR: What do you think the hardest emotion to elicit from a reader is? Why?

TC: Empathy. To get a reader to feel for a character you really have to drill down to the bolts to a character’s vulnerabilities, weaknesses, fears. You have to make all of that familiar and identifiable or else readers don’t invest in how characters triumph, or if they don’t triumph, in how they fail, which often is more telling. Characters don’t have to be heroic or goody-goody in order for that connection to be made, but they do have to be revealed, they have to ring true on some level, or else what’s the point?

SR: What was your journey to publication like? What kind of obstacles did you have to overcome?

TC: I encountered the usual obstacles all writers experience. I’ve been writing a long time, trying out different ways of telling a story. I’ve grabbed tips and advice from wherever I could, practiced writing one way, then another. I’ve wasted a lot of paper, pulled out a few hairs. I’ve gotten all the usual rejection letters, the ones wishing you well, but…. I even stopped writing for a time convinced publication was just not in the cards for me. Something, however, just wouldn’t let me put it down, walk away and forget it. I started over again, and again. I’ve started again many, many times.

Finally, an agent who rejected my manuscript was kind enough to email a personal note to tell me how much she really liked the book. This is, as most writers will tell you, is not something agents routinely do. Her one piece of advice to me was to get myself into a good writers’ group, which I did, immediately. And she was right. The group was led by a published writer who really knew her stuff, and little by little my manuscript got broken down to its foundations and then built back up again to the point where I could finally see light at the end of the tunnel. The feedback, support and encouragement I received from this group was invaluable, and so I would give the same advice to new writers as this agent gave to me, get yourself into a good writer’s group!

SR: You have to flee the country. Where are you headed to and why that location?

TC: I’m assuming I’ve committed some horrendous crime, in which case, I’m going somewhere with no extradition treaty with the U.S. Hopefully, somewhere with good Wi-Fi, Netflix, Haagen-Dazs and a nice bathtub. Somewhere not so buggy and humid. I think my best bet would be Vatican City. I assume the gelato’s good? The constant bell ringing might get to me after a time, but I think I’d adjust.

SR: It’s the zombie apocalypse. You have to pick a weapon from what’s currently within 10 feet of your present location. What will you defend yourself with?

TC: I’ve got a computer, my cellphone, and a desk with rubber duckies, Pez dispensers and a dictionary and thesaurus on it. I can’t even take a shoe off and throw it. I’m barefoot. I may as well just lie down, crawl into a shroud and wait for the zombies to devour me; although, now that I think about it, zombies don’t move that quickly, do they? They sort of shuffle along like drunken sleepwalkers; I might be able to outrun them.

SR: How long will you survive in the zombie apocalypse? How long will your protagonist survive? Why?

TC: If the outrun them plan doesn’t work out, I wouldn’t last long. You can’t reason with a zombie. Cass, however, would be the last one standing. She’d rig something up, even if she had to strangler every last one with her bra straps. She is absolutely indefatigable.

SR: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

TC: I’ll give aspiring writers the same advice I was given — KEEP WRITING. Do not stop. Write. Write till you find your voice. Write badly until you learn how to write well. Write, write, write. Writing’s like priming a pump; the more you apply the elbow grease the closer you get to the water, so go for it. What have you got to lose? Learn what you don’t know, be curious, find what works, apply the lessons and WRITE till your fingers bleed.

SR: Now for fun, if you were stuck on a deserted island and found that magic lamp with a genie and the genie had the power to bring any character in any of your books to life to be your companion, who would you pick and why?

TC: Sister Barb Covey. She’s Southside Irish and tough as nails. She would definitely come up with a way to get us off that island if she had to fashion a canoe out of coconuts. Plus she’s got an “in” with THE BIG GUY UPSTAIRS. There’s bound to be a miracle performed at some point.

SR: And if the genie would only bring characters from works by another author to life who would you pick to spend eternity on that deserted island with?

TC: Eternity? Really? No chance of getting off, huh? In that case, I’d need somebody who doesn’t go in for a lot of drama and chitchat. I’d go with Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe; he’s moody, reclusive. He’d take one side of the island, the one, hopefully, with a lot of orchids on it, and I’d take the other, each of us left to our own devices. I have no problem amusing myself, although eternity might stretch the limits of my imagination just a skosh.


Tracy ClarkTracy Clark, author of the Cass Raines mystery series, lives in Chicago. Her first short story, “For Services Rendered,” was included in the mystery anthology “Shades of Black: Crime and Mystery Stories by African-American Authors.” When not working on her next book, she wastes inordinate amounts of time watching “Say Yes to the Dress” reruns and “Murder, She Wrote” marathons. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, PI Writers of America and Mystery Writers of America.

You can visit Tracy on Facebook or go to her author website at

Check out what’s on Tracy’s TBR pile

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