Episode 48: Frankie Bow

Inside the navy-blue Victorian house two blocks off Main Street, four women sat around a sturdy kitchen table.

As you watched them chatting and sipping sweet tea, you might assume you were observing a church committee or a quilting circle.

You would be wrong.

— Frankie Bow, The No-Tell Motel

I am thrilled to chat with author Frankie Bow, who has not only her own delightful series of campus mysteries — the Professor Molly Mystery Series — but also writes in Jana DeLeon’s Miss Fortune Mystery Series. Her latest, The No-Tell Motel, is hot off the presses as this interview goes live.

I would love to offer you a list, in order, of her books, but they are too many and too varied. Instead, I will link you directly to her website, where you can find these goodies for yourself. Although I will point you to the first in the Professor Molly Series, The Musubi Murder. Musubi looks like a Spam sushi roll; if you’ve never seen one — or simply don’t believe me! — you must check out the photo on a guest post Frankie did for Lori’s Reading Corner. Other unexpected uses for Spam are also included.

I do want to mention yet another series that Frankie writes: the children’s books about Alice Mongoose and Alistair Rat, illustrated by her father. Together, they work under the name of Mary Pfaff, an “author” who is also a plot point in one of her Professor Molly Mysteries, The Invasive Species. These books are absolutely charming in their own right, and if you have children in your life, you should definitely check them out.

Interested in campus mysteries? Here’s the link to Frankie’s guest post about why campus mysteries are so much fun, on the blog Christa Reads and Writes — a blog well worth a look for mystery lovers, filled with reviews and interviews. Frankie gives a shout out to fellow writers of academic mysteries Cynthia Kuhn, Joanne DobsonAmanda Cross, and Sarah Caudwell, as well as one of the first American detective novelists, Anna Katharine Green. Meanwhile, I give a shout out to Leslie Karst, whose cozies are also on the less-sweet side. 

Enjoy!

— Laura

Transcript of Interview with Frankie Bow

Laura Brennan: Like the protagonist in her charming Professor Molly series, Frankie Bow teaches at a public university. Unlike Molly, Frankie is blessed with delightful students, sane colleagues and a perfectly nice office chair. And, I would hope, fewer dead bodies to stumble across.

Frankie, thank you for joining me.

Frankie Bow: Thank you, Laura.

LB: The first thing I want to talk about is your Professor Molly series. Your series is definitely amateur sleuth, it’s a campus mystery, there’s a strong supporting cast of recurring characters and a love interest. Would you consider it to be a cozy?

FB: That’s a really good question because I think, of all the categories, it fits into cozy best. But it’s really on the least sweet end of the cozy spectrum. There’s a very sort of cynical — cynical and realistic — worldview behind it. Things are resolved, but the good guys don’t always triumph. The bad guys get away with things sometimes, just like in real life. And Molly has to be fatalistic, and work within a corrupt system. So, yes, it’s cozy in the sense that it’s small community, recurring characters, amateur sleuth, but it isn’t really, really sweet.

LB: That’s interesting that you say she has to live within a corrupt system, because that’s what the University she works at is presented as, that kind of thing.

FB: Yes! And I have to hasten to say that this is not my actual employer that I am depicting here. I actually look at the higher education news and I pick all the juiciest and most scandalous news items out, and I think, how can I put that into my story? So, for example, you might have somebody who actually went to jail for — a Dean went to jail for fraud, to prison for fraud, for fixing students’ grades so that their pass rates would be higher. And it’s like, oh, that would be an interesting plot, right? I just have to say, this is not my actual employer that I am writing about. I am writing about a theoretical university.

LB: That’s right. Your university is only the best people with the best of intentions.

FB: Yes, exactly. Although in the book, everybody does have the best of intentions. That’s the thing. Everyone thinks they are the hero. The Student Retention Office, who goes around bullying and arm-twisting the faculty into dumbing down their classes so that everybody can succeed, they think they’re on the side of the angels.

LB: Right. You had actually written about that. I read one of your blog posts in one of the guest blogs that you did — and I’ll link to it in the show notes — where you talk about how everybody at a university actually has a different agenda depending on whether they are a student or an administrator or teacher.

FB: Exactly. Exactly. So, for example, an administrator might say, oh, a lot of students are having trouble with this math class. From the teacher’s standpoint, the answer might be, oh, well, maybe we shouldn’t have 80 students in the math class. Maybe we should divide it into four sections and have smaller sections, and then we can give the students more personal attention. And the administrator might say, well, let’s just do away with the math class. It’s an obstacle.

LB: It’s an obstacle to graduation as opposed to a necessary building block for understanding the world.

FB: Exactly, yes. Oh, nicely said! [Laughter.]

LB: Thank you! I also love campus mysteries. Did you always plan to set it on a campus? Was that what came first when you were developing the project?

FB: Well, let me tell you how it came about. It’s a little bit of a non-cozy story, in that it makes me look petty, but I’ll tell you anyway. I was exercising, I was on the elliptical machine, and I love to read mysteries. And I was reading a cozy mystery, it was a very popular series. And I was reading it, and there was an attempt at humor where somebody makes a joke, and then in the book, everybody laughs and laughs. Then it goes on for pages and pages about the antics of the cat… And I’m sitting there going, you know, I could do better than this. And I honestly, that very — not only that very day, that very moment, I stepped off the elliptical, I went downstairs to my computer and I started writing. And so that was kind of the kick in the pants that inspired me.

When I wrote was something that I would want to read. And to me, things that go on on college campuses can be very funny and also very convoluted and Byzantine, and so that’s why I wrote what I wrote.

LB: If someone hasn’t yet picked up your series, what would they need to know to be able to follow our conversation?

FB: Okay, they would have to know that Professor Molly, the main character, she graduated from, she got her PhD from a top-ten literature and creative writing program. And she went out into the world expecting to immediately get a wonderful job at an exclusive campus teaching small seminars of bright English majors. And the reality of the job market just hit her in the face as soon as she stepped out the door.

So she’s in a situation now where she looked for a job for a year and she sort of broadened her expectations you might say, until she finally found a job teaching resume writing in the business school, the College of Commerce, at the Mahina State University in Hawaii, which she had never even heard of. And her dissertation advisor has absolutely disowned her; how could you take a job teaching slack-jawed baseball caps how to pad the resumes? And she’s like, listen, I need health benefits and a living wage. And so she’s had to readjust her expectations. She’s really happy to have a job but she’s a fish out of water and she realizes, I need to just keep my head down and do a good job until I get tenure. So, of course, she immediately starts tripping over dead bodies practically as soon as she gets there.

LB: Well, of course. That’s what happens when you want tenure.

FB: That’s right! Her life is very different from what she’s planned, but she is trying to grow where she’s been planted.

LB: I’m glad you said that, because I do feel that she grows over the course of the novels.

FB: Well, thank you for noticing that. Yes.

LB: In your first book, The Musubi Murder, she seems more resigned to things.

FB: Exactly. Because at first, she’s like, oh, I’m stuck in this backwater, but I guess I have to make a living. And then, as she settles into the community and settles into her job, she starts to really feel the rewards of when she can reach a student. She’s very cynical, and she really doesn’t like it when students cheat or slack, but when a student sincerely wants to learn, then she realizes it’s very rewarding to reach them. Yes. And she grows more and more a part of her community as it goes on. So, yes, thank you very much for noticing that.

LB: Oh, absolutely. So let’s talk a little bit about her community, because I am totally in love with Emma.

FB: Oh, yes! Emma, so Emma Nakamura is her best friend. Emma is half Japanese and half native Hawaiian, her father’s Japanese. And Emma grew up in Mahina, around Mahina, teaches biology, and is very outspoken. Emma is actually modeled on somebody I’m very close to — actually, a couple of people. Her biography comes from one person, her personality comes from another person, and I’ve blended the two together. But both of the people that she’s composed of are very close to me and so I have good resources to draw on to illustrate her.

She will say the things that Molly is afraid to say. Maybe they’re both thinking it, but only Emma can say it because Molly is so careful and trying to blend in, and she realizes she’s an outsider and she doesn’t want to offend anybody. Emma has no such compunctions. And the other thing about Emma, which — now this is something that I’ve noticed working in academia, that if you’re a woman in science, you tend to be invisible. And Emma is a woman in science, she’s in biology, and she’s short. She’s 5-foot nothing. And she’s native Hawaiian, she’s a woman of color. So she has all the things about her that can make her sort of invisible. And so to counteract that, she behaves in a way that is like, you are not going to make me invisible. I am here. She’ll just say what she feels and she does not worry about hurting people’s feelings, and that’s her way of not being invisible.

But she and Molly have a lot more in common than you would get from their surface actions, because Molly is of course a lot more reticent. And Emma will sort of act as the voice for both of them.

LB: Oh, she’s a terrific character. And you just do so many little fun touches. One of the things I love is that your blog is the same name as the blog of one of your characters.

FB: Yes! Island Confidential. That’s the news blog where you see all the real news. That’s Pat Flanagan. He’s also modeled after a friend of mine who passed away, and I miss him so much and it’s sort of a way to still have him around, is in this character.

Yes, so he’s an underpaid adjunct and he’s a victim of the newspaper layoffs. He was a reporter and now he’s teaching as an adjunct, and he runs a news blog, and that’s where you get all the real news. And then the actual Mahina city newspaper has of course been reduced to running car dealership ads and wire service articles because they’ve laid off all their reporters.

LB: It always amazes me that you think you can have a reporting service without actual reporting going on.

FB: Yes! And what’s been happening in the newspaper industry, I’ve sort of been watching it and it’s — yeah. These real reporters have been shed wholesale and there’s been this consolidation and we’ve seen it here in Hawaii. We’ve seen newspapers consolidate, and so that has touched the fictional town of Mahina, and that’s how Pat Flanagan ends up in the mix.

LB: Well, I think that’s lovely that you’re able to honor your friend that way. I mean, writers write for so many different reasons, and so many different pieces of ourselves get put into those books.

FB: Yes.

LB: You have six or seven different books in the series and a short story.

FB: Yes.

LB: Your most recent one is Mother’s Day.

FB: Mother’s Day, yes. I wrote that for the UK Storytellers Competition; I saw that coming up on Amazon, and I thought, oh, I want to write something for that, but it had to be something new. So I thought, well, maybe I can put out another Professor Molly story just in time. And I just wanted to have that deadline to spur me to write it.

LB: That’s fantastic. I have no idea how you were able to write it so quickly.

FB: Well, so, I’m an outliner and, I will tell you, I am a shameless borrower from the classics. I love classic mysteries. And so, for example, Anna Katharine Green. To the modern reader, her writing is very flowery and sort of overstuffed, but she has some really neat tropes, like the creepy old house full of sinister goings-on. And I sort of stole that idea from Anna Katharine Green. I thought, well, what if you had the creepy old house with sinister goings-on, but you put it in modern day Hawaii. How would that work out and how would Professor Molly happen to interact with that?

So I have, you know, once again the administration has this fundraising scheme where — and this is actually based on a real thing where a student is not really academically qualified to stay in school, but their family is wealthy and the school wants to keep the connection. So they set up this special tutoring program and give it a fancy name and press some of the faculty into service to be special tutors. So I added an extra level of humiliation for Molly where she was supposed to be the “tutierge” which is the tutor/concierge. So she’s supposed to go to this kid’s house and tutor him and do whatever else he might want, like if he wants her to deal with some other thing for him, that she has to do that. That’s how she gets pulled into it.

Yes, so I outline and I borrow elements, and that’s how I was able to write it under the deadline.

LB: This is not all you write though. You do something very interesting where you write in Kindle Worlds.

FB: Yes! Kindle Worlds — what a great idea. Maybe we complain about Amazon kind of gutting retail in America or whatever, but this Kindle Worlds is such a great idea. Because for years, people have been writing fanfiction and they’ve had to hide it. They’ve had to kind of go on their websites and never getting any compensation for it. And then Amazon has decided, well, let’s bring this out into daylight and let people make some money from it.
And so an author, they’ll approach authors and they’ll say, do you mind if other people write with your characters? And if the author says yes, they set up a Kindle World and they invite people to write in that world. I write in Jana DeLeon’s Miss Fortune world. She wrote Louisiana Longshot and the sequels to that, she has 10 books in that series now. They’re very funny. And if I sell a book, the royalty is 70% and Jana and I split it. So the fanfiction writer and the original author split the winnings. It’s wonderful. It’s such a smart idea.

LB: Well, and it’s also a way for you to be a different person, really. You have a very different flavor to those books. They’re a lot of fun.

FB: Oh, thank you. Yes, you’re trying to capture the original characters and capture the flavor of those characters. And it’s kind of nice because the world-building has already been done for you. I mean, I still do a lot of research. I do a lot of research about what is the weather like in Louisiana? When is sunset, and what kind of bugs are there, and what kind of noises to the animals make at night? Because you want to put those touches in. But as far as, these are the characters and these are their existing relationships, that’s already been done. It kind of gives you a steppingstone.

LB: It is a really neat idea, yeah. You write other things as well. So there’s some things that you write under your, academic things that you write under a different name. But then, you also write — am I correct in assuming that you have a hand in some children’s books?

FB: Yes. So this was actually a spinoff from the Professor Molly mysteries. There’s a plot point in The Invasive Species that has to do with a children’s author named Mary Pfaff, who is known as the Beatrix Potter of Hawaii, who wrote books about Alice Mongoose and Alastair Rat in the early part of the 20th century.

Now, Mary Pfaff is entirely fictitious. But, as I was writing, I was thinking, gosh, those would be cute books though, wouldn’t they? And I approached my father who is, he’s a retired mathematician but he’s also an artist. And I asked him, how would you feel about illustrating books about characters, these two characters, Alice Mongoose and Alastair Rat?

In the premises, mongoose and rats are natural enemies. In Hawaii, what happened was, of course rats are on ships everywhere. And so, when European ships came over to Hawaii, rats came, too. And when they started growing sugarcane, rats were a real pest in the sugarcane fields because they’d eat the sugarcane. And so somebody had the bright idea, well, mongoose are the enemies of rats, let’s bring over some mongoose to kill the rats. Okay? So this is sort of biocontrol. One detail that was not thought through was this: mongoose are awake during the day, rats are awake during the night.

LB: [Laughter]

FB: Now we have two populations of critters who don’t really meet each other and it didn’t really help that much with the sugarcane rat problem. But now we have mongoose and rats.

So the idea of the book is that Alice Mongoose comes over from India to work in Hawaii, because that’s where mongoose originally came from. She doesn’t know what her job is going to be, but she’s so excited because she’s going to have her first real grown-up job, and on the way over she finds out what her job is going to be. And that’s to kill rats. And she’s horrified. She doesn’t want to do that. That’s not what she does. She likes to eat eggs, but other than that, she’s a very gentle mongoose.

So when the ship lands, she goes off on her own. She says, well, I’m just going to find something else to do. She looks for a place to stay, not successful, and finally she sees a charming little house for rent. She goes to meet the landlord and he’s Alastair Rat. He’s got a little monocle and spats and the whole thing. So he doesn’t know she’s a mongoose, he’s very nearsighted. He invites her in for a cup of tea and they chat, and she says she’s a mongoose, and he says, surely not. And she says, yes indeed. But they find that they both like to eat eggs and she thinks the house is charming and she rents the house from him. So they become friends, and later in the series, they try to go into business together and they open a little restaurant and so that’s the story of Alice Mongoose and Alastair Rat.

LB: Well, the illustrations are absolutely — I mean, the books are charming, but the illustrations in particular. Kudos to your dad.

FB: Oh, thank you. Yes! They are wonderful. They are just so, so cute. The postures and the expressions, I just love them. I feel very, very fortunate.

One thing that he and I worked very hard on, you wouldn’t necessarily know, is the house. So the houses are modeled after real plantation houses and we were looking at old photographs and architectural plans and, you know, the supports that go under the roof. And the gauge of the tin roof, should it be big like it’s a real tin roof, or should it be miniaturized? You know, the number of ripples in the roof, should it be small because they’re small creatures or should it be like they used the scrap of a real tin roof, in which case it would only have like three waves… So all these decisions that we had to make together. A lot of effort went into it. But I’m very happy with the result.

LB: Tell me what is next for you then?

FB: That’s a really good question. I’m just about to release another Miss Fortune book. It’s called The No-Tell Motel. A girl goes missing from a hotel, a roadside motel in Texas. The head housekeeper comes to the ladies in Sinful and says, help, I have to find this missing girl. She was an employee, I was letting her stay in one of the rooms. Don’t tell my boss. Just find her. And so that kicks off the mystery. So they have to go across the border from Louisiana to Texas. And, of course, things are more complicated than they seem and there are adventures.

LB: And for Molly? What’s next for Molly?

FB: I – okay, so, at the risk of being spoilery, when we last left Molly, she was suffering from morning sickness and trying to do her job and not let anybody know she’s pregnant. And so I’m trying to think about how do we work things with a new baby . Because that could be, it could be interesting, although if you notice on sitcoms, when they have a baby plot, they’ll have like the baby and there’s a lot of drama at first, and then the baby sort of disappears because there’s only so much you can do, right? So I’m trying to think through how I can work that in.

LB: Right. And her already rather crazy life.

FB: Right, exactly. I really enjoy writing them. They have a very particular audience, I think. They don’t have as broad of an appeal as some other things, but I enjoy writing them and I even enjoy reading them, as vainglorious as that sounds.

LB: Obviously, if people like Jana DeLeon, they’re going to love you.

FB: Oh, thank you!

LB: Who else? Who else would be adjacent to you?

FB: Well, at the rist of — I hope I don’t offend any of these other authors by, you know, they might go, what? I’m nothing like her! But, Cynthia Kuhn, who writes a young female college professor on campus. So I think, if you like Cynthia Kuhn you might want to try a Professor Molly mystery. Joanne Dobson. And of course Amanda Cross. And then one author that I just love, and not enough people know about her, is Sarah Caudwell.

LB: Oh, I love Sarah Caudwell!

FB: You love Sarah Caudwell? Oh, she’s just my favorite. Everytime I read her books, I just collapse with envy. She’s so good.

LB: Leslie Karst and I oohed about her last week, too.

FB: Oh, yeah, she is, she is just wonderful. She breaks all the rules of being brief and cutting out adverbs, she just piles on the language and it’s just gorgeous and hilarious. I would not dare to say that I’m like her, but I think if you appreciate her and her kind of humor, you might like Professor Molly, although I wouldn’t say they’re similar.

LB: Well, thank you so much, Frankie, for joining me today.

FB: Oh, thank you. Thank you for having me.