Today, it’s a pleasure to welcome Tracy Whiting to Mysteristas. Tracy is the author of the Havilah Gaie mysteries, international action adventures with a cozy flair. And she’s also one of my colleagues at Vanderbilt University, where she is a distinguished professor of French.
Tracy has been a commentator on NPR, FOX News, and MSNBC and her work has been reviewed in the Washington Post, the Nashville Scene, and Ms. Magazine. Her first foray into mystery, Miss Baker Regrets, was published as Book II in Bricktop’s Paris: African American Women in Paris Between the Two World Wars (2015).
Tracy’s second mystery–a cozy with an action thriller twist, The 13th Fellow: A Mystery in Provence, is set between Paris and a seaside Provençal town called Cassis (not pronounced like the liqueur) in the South of France; its heroine is the amateur detective and American professor, Havilah Gaie, who, like the author, is inquisitive, a foodie, globetrotter, and an avid reader. Tracy’s favorite places to write are Paris, France and Newport, Rhode Island. Otherwise, she resides in Nashville, Tennessee with her daughter and husband.
KO: You’re well known for your nonfiction, especially your work on Black women in France, Hip Hop, and more recently on the speeches of Barak Obama. How did you move from writing nonfiction to writing fiction, and mysteries in particular?
TW: I always wanted to write fiction and I particularly fancied mysteries—from Christie to Mosley. I’ve always loved academic murder mysteries with their send-up of our antics—like Publish and Perish. I think I really became moved to jump into the fray, so to speak, after reading and teaching Stephen Carter’s doorstop-of-a-book, The Emperor of Ocean Park. He’s a Professor of Law at Yale. In many respects, he became my model for an academic who wrote mysteries though non-academic Pamela Thomas-Graham’s Ivy League series was also a forerunner to Carter. There are of course other women academics who delved into the genre. But Carters’s world was much more diverse, inclusive, and provided insight into the Martha’s Vineyard black elite along with academic intrigue.
My first mystery is actually contained within Bricktop’s Paris. The book is in two parts—nonfiction, covering American women in Paris in the Jazz Age, while the second part recreates that world in fiction. That mystery is more noir (here I was channeling Mosley’s amateur detective, Easy Rawlins, and of course “place”—Paris—was essential to creating the atmospherics). Bricktop is the detective. Josephine Baker is her catalyst. F. Scott Fitzgerald plays a singular fascinating role as do Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney—the famous American salon hostesses.
KO: What is the inspiration for your elegant polyglot amateur sleuth, Havilah Gaie, who describes herself as an academic version of Pam Grier’s characters?
TW: Of course, Pam Grier was an inspiration—minus the sexist tripe of that film genre! I think it was important at times to remind the reader of Havilah’s blackness. Grier allowed me to signal that. I also wanted readers to continue to get a glimpse of cosmopolitan blackness in the mystery genre. Havilah is a mixture of women academics I know as well as strong, Southern women family members. She’s feisty and well-accomplished in a profession still dominated by men who sometimes don’t take her seriously despite these accomplishments. She’s also insanely hilarious and just plain befuddled romantically when it comes to men. There is a lot of food in this series. And Havilah likes to eat and feels no guilt about it. She’s a foodie and she’s fit. All these characteristics make her relatable, I think.
KO: The international settings are part of the adventure in your mysteries. How does place and setting inform your writing? How do you choose your locale?
TW: As a professor of French literature, history and culture, travel is extremely important in my academic life. So, I needed my detective to embody that part of my life. I wanted to allow the readers’ imaginations to travel with Havilah. To taste the foods, experience the places and cultures with her. These are travel narratives as much as mysteries that aim to give the reader a glimpse into cultural differences and sometimes hysterical miscues and encounters. I choose locales based on places I’ve been and thoroughly explored, quite honestly. I’ve spent time in many different countries, small towns, and cities because of my research and my love of travel. I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica, and about 55 countries. The French were everywhere due to their involvement historically with slavery, colonialism, as well as their status as arbiters of culture globally from the 17thcentury onwards and their important place in the Eurozone today. So, this small country, in comparison to the US, keeps me moving globally—through Europe to South America to Africa to the Caribbean to Tahiti. France is central to my work. I love the French; I think they are sometimes misunderstood. And there is such a diversity in the country itself, from North to South, East to West. We won’t run out of places. Hopefully, my readers will be intrigued enough to visit those places.
KO: I love the chemistry between Havilah and French police agent, Thierry Gasquet. What’s the trick to maintaining that romantic tension throughout the series?
TW: I do love their banter! Havilah can only go so far, I think, without her feeling she’s losing herself. She’s been disappointed in love before. It’s that fear of vulnerability that keeps them both circling each other. That I think produces a lot of the tension.
KO: After Paris-A-Go-Go, where is Havilah Gaie going next?
TW: Aix-en-Provence. One of my favorite cities in Provence.
KO: Thanks, Tracy. I can’t wait!
If you haven’t read Tracy’s clever mysteries. Check them out!
Author Tracy Whiting on train platform in Paris about to board Orient Express/Carlson Wagon Lit (doing research for Paris-a-Go-Go!).
Tracy’s daughter, Haviland, from whose name our amateur detective, Havilah, is derived, with the cabin steward.