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March 10, 2009

University librarian finds stories in the stacks

University of Chicago librarian Frances McNamara is one of the relatively few people who have had the surreal experience of seeing her own work shelved among the stacks at the Regenstein. In 2008 she published Death at the Fair, a murder mystery set during the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, starring a fictional U of C student named Emily Cabot. Like McNamara herself, Cabot is a Boston native who moves to Chicago and becomes involved in the city's cultural and political life. The upcoming second installment of a trilogy, Murder at the Hull House, takes place at another historic Chicago landmark as Cabot becomes entangled in another mystery. I sat down with McNamara to discuss her work and plans for the future.

Chicago Maroon: Were the decisions to set your series in Chicago and center it around a U of C student a case of writing about what you know or something else?

Frances McNamara: I have a writing group, and I started writing [Death at the Fair]. [The area] just caught my interest, being here all the time, working. The voice came through well. I got encouragement on that which caused me to pursue it. I think that writing about what you know about [creates] a sense of where you are that makes it more attractive and more interesting. There is definitely a sense of place, living in Chicago.

CM: Why do you find the World's Columbian Exposition so appropriate for a mystery series?

FM: I just think it’s really fascinating because a lot of the problems we have today have their roots back in this time period, and a lot of things we take for granted resulted from the problems of that time period. The excesses of capitalism show up during that time. The next book, Hull House, takes you into the recession. Some of the solutions that we chafe against sometimes came out of things that were much worse at that time that they are now, certainly child labor.

CM: What is the connection between Death in the Fair and Devil in the White City, another mystery novel set during the Exposition?

FM: That was one of a number of things written about the Columbian Exposition. But I was less interested in the serial killer who was a large part of that book. I was more interested in a crime right at that time and the social connection. I was much more interested in social deviance, society being aberrant as opposed to just one person. I enjoyed the book a lot, but I wanted to make a slightly different story.

CM: You deal with a lot of issues in Death in the Fair, including women’s rights and racial tensions at the time, as well as the details of the fair itself and the historical characters in the book. How much research went into writing it?

FM: What’s helpful for this kind of story are memoirs, so the memoirs of Marion Talbot [head of the Department of Household Administration and Dean of Women at the University of Chicago], the autobiography of Ida B. Wells [civil and women’s rights activist], there’s an autobiography of a policeman that my policeman was based off of. And then there’s tons of stuff, including online stuff, that I try to mention in the afterword. When you’re writing a novel, you do a bunch of research but then you try to step away from it.

CM: Has your role as a U of C librarian affected your writing?

FM: It lets me get lots of wonderful resources that I wouldn’t be able to get at otherwise, easily getting at the text of the source historical newspapers at the time, and of course the books.

CM: What does it feel like to have your work shelved in the Regenstein?

FM: I am thrilled; it’s a stitch. I actually work on the computer systems. I see it go out into all the other databases and proliferate.

CM: What prompted you to begin writing?

FM: I have an English master's as well as a Library master's. Before I lived in Chicago, I lived in Columbus, Ohio and worked for an amateur group that ran mystery nights as fundraisers for the library, and I wrote some of the scripts.

CM: Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers at U of C?

FM: Be stubborn, join writing groups, go to writing conferences. Writers are very generous and they like to get together because you do it by yourself. Certainly Mystery Writers of America has a local, Midwest group. Sisters in Crime has a local group and a national group. Be stubborn and write a lot. They are really getting hit by the economics and the turnover to digital, so they tell you to be stubborn and keep going. There’s lots of places you can publish that aren’t traditional.

CM: Who are some of your inspirations, both for writing in general and this book in particular?

FM: I like the classics, like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Steven Saylor.

CM: What are your plans for the future?

FM: Death at the Hull House is actually finished, and I uploaded it to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. I’m working on one that’s about a death at Pullman. A bunch of people at the University of Chicago started the Woods Hole laboratory on Cape Cod, and I’m interested in starting a story there.

CM: What can you tell readers about the upcoming book?

FM: It’s winter in Chicago. Christmas day they find the body of a manager from one of the companies that runs sweatshops. Emily’s brother and Florence Kelley [a social and political reformer] are suspected. They also have to deal with an outbreak of smallpox.

CM: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that I haven’t addressed?

FM: My goal would be to have people sitting on a plane or at the beach be enthralled and get through the book. I’m trying to build a readership. That’s my goal: get more readers.