Jacqueline Freimor made a distinguished debut as a fiction writer in 1995 when she won the Mystery Writer’s of America’s Fiftieth Anniversary Short Short Story Contest in the new writers category. The story was subsequently published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Twenty-five years later, in our current issue (July/August 2020), she is making her EQMM debut with the story “That Which Is True.” The intervening years saw stories of hers featured in a variety of publications, and she received two honorable mentions from Best American Mystery Stories for her work. In this post she answers indirectly—and very originally!— the question so often asked of writers: Where do you get your ideas? —Janet Hutchings
“A man becomes preeminent, he’s expected to have enthusiasms.” Thus speaks Al Capone, as portrayed by Robert DeNiro in one of my favorite movies of all time, The Untouchables, before he beats an associate to death with a baseball bat. That line is only one of many memorable lines in the film, but I hear it echoing in my head more often than the average person would think reasonable. I’m not sure why it keeps resonating with me. Maybe the reason is that although I’m not preeminent (or a man), I have a lot of what you might refer to as enthusiasms. And luckily, I get to explore them all as a writer of crime fiction.
Before I was a writer, I was a reader. I remember exactly when I learned to read, and when I say exactly, I mean the actual moment. It happened in first grade, in Mrs. Tannenbaum’s class, and we had been working our laborious way through the Dick and Jane primers—you know, “See Jane run! Run, Jane, run!”—when one day, just like that, the letters linked themselves up into words, and the words lined themselves up into sentences, and the sentences marched across the page into a story. I could read it. It made sense. The story wasn’t interesting—I knew that even then—but I didn’t care. I was beside myself with joy because I could read (“See Jackie read!”), and reading was the key that would unlock the mysteries of the world. Reading was the secret of life.
I became a voracious reader, insatiable, hoovering up every scrap of writing I saw. I wanted to know everything, even the stuff written on cereal boxes and street signs and clothing labels. I didn’t read for the usual know-it-all reasons, though, not to get good grades or to impress people at parties. In fact, as an introvert’s introvert, I would rather stick a fork in my eye than go to a gathering with more than four people. No, the reason I read everything, everywhere, all the time was that I wanted to know how it all worked, and why things happened, and whether anything made sense.
Spoiler alert: nothing made sense (and it still doesn’t, now more than ever). By the time I figured that out, though, I was an adult, and I had stopped envisioning life as a quest to complete a giant jigsaw puzzle and started thinking of it as a long (hopefully) walk through a seaside amusement park dotted with fascinating and diverting attractions. Pre-Internet, I read random entries in encyclopedias, which led me to other entries, which led me to others, ad infinitum, the information blossoming and spreading like ink spilled across a page. I read book indexes, too, for the unanticipated detours. For example, who wouldn’t travel to “Easter Island (Rapa Nui)” when they saw “creation myth chant,” “Pacific rat and,” and “sweet potatoes grown on,” as in the index to Christina Thompson’s Sea People? Then when the ultimate index, the Internet, did come along, I discovered that the intricately woven filaments of the World Wide Web could transport me from “funerary customs of ancient Egypt” to “The Battle of Bosworth” faster than you could say Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The world, as they say, was my oyster. (And if you want to know who actually said that, Google it. Just kidding. It was Shakespeare.)
So I became a woman with enthusiasms. I’ve held a bunch of jobs—typist, typesetter, anthropology student, medical editor, music teacher—that have no obvious common thread other than providing me with an opportunity to collect interesting bits of information. These random factoids lie dormant in my psyche until new ones appear and glom onto them, and then, like molecules, the combinations keep forging and breaking bonds to create entirely new substances.
For example, a Marxist critique of class entwined itself with an entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders about erotomania, and then a checklist of the common characteristics of serial killers adhered to them, too, and voilà!—I had an idea for a story about an adolescent boy and how he found his sociopathic calling. I actually did write that story—my first—and sent it to one mystery magazine after another, but no one wanted it. Convinced that my enthusiasms had created a good story, though, and with nowhere else to submit it, in 1995 I entered it in the unpublished writers category of MWA’s 50th Anniversary Short Story competition—and it won first prize, which included publication in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. (This experience taught me an important lesson. It’s great to have enthusiasms, but enthusiasms alone are not enough. You also have to be stubborn as hell. But I digress.)
Since then, my stories have owed their lives to a number of different fixations. Cardiology, the death penalty, Holocaust survivors, the paintings of Edward Hopper, and the internal documents of the Brown and Williamson tobacco company are a few of my former obsessions that were transmogrified into stories. Three more recent interests—jury duty, the criminal potential of 3-D printing, and the “Queen Bee” syndrome in young girls—combined to create the story “That Which Is True,” which to my enormous delight has just been published in the current July/August issue of Ellery Queen.
I’m happy to report that I have only just begun to obsess. Right now, I’m writing a novella that explores stamp-collecting curiosities and the mechanics of nation-building as well as a novel that begins on New York’s Island of the Dead—all while plotting another novel that satirizes the cutthroat world of early childhood music education. Each project has nothing at all to do with the next, which is the way I like it. I get to indulge all of my enthusiasms, and I hope that readers will find them as fascinating as I do.
If not, there’s always that baseball bat.