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A Writer’s Perspective: An Interview with FASP Author Abigail Padgett

Perspective d’une écrivaine: Un entretien avec l’auteure de FASP Abigail Padgett
Laura M. Hartwell
p. 138-148


Ancienne investigatrice du tribunal de San Diego, Abigail Padgett, installée aux États-Unis, est auteure de mystères. Sa série de cinq titres: Child of Silence (1992), Strawgirl (1994), Turtle Baby (1995), Moonbird Boy (1996), The Dollmakers’s Daughter (1997) décrit les aventures de Bo Bradley, membre fictif de Child Protection Services (CPS) à San Diego. Dans cet entretien, Abigail Padgett décrit l’acte d’écriture de FASP, ainsi que sa propre définition d’un « thriller ». Elle parle aussi de sujets parallèles tels que les sous-genres des mystères, les auteur/es FASP, le droit et la culture aux États-Unis, les Amérindiens, la publication en ligne, les moteurs de recherche et même un peu de magie.

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1A former San Diego Court investigator, Abigail Padgett is now a popular mystery novelist from the United States. She has also taught creative writing at Harvard University and at the University of California, San Diego. Padgett holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English from Indiana University, a Master’s Degree in Educational Counselling from the University of Missouri and has advanced to candidacy for a Doctorate in Sociology from Washington University, St. Louis.

2Her Bo Bradley series, Child of Silence (1992), Strawgirl (1994), Turtle Baby (1995), Moonbird Boy (1996), The Dollmakers’s Daughters (1997), follows San Diego County’s Child Protection Services’ investigator Bo Bradley as she resolves crimes. The series is published by Mysterious Press or Warner Books and in French translation by Rivages.

3Abigail Padgett accepted to be interviewed on the topic of writing FASP and on teaching and learning English. The following interview was recorded at her California home in November 2010.

4Thank you Abigail Padgett for accepting this interview about writing fiction by professionals of a given domain. There is a research group in France interested in what is called FASP which stands for fiction à substrat professionnel, or profession-based fiction, which are thrillers written by professionals in which plot and characters are based on a particular profession, such as Grisham in law.
Fiction in general, that by Grisham for example, is by definition very fast and dramatic. Months, even years of complex real-life activity may be packed into a brief fictional span of time. Career-oriented fiction could only be useful to students on countless levels as long as they don’t imagine anything in reality happening as neatly or quickly as it does in fiction!

5There are mysteries, romances and literary novels based in every kind of profession. Teaching, social work, medicine and law. I’m aware of mysteries in which the protagonist is (a) an auto mechanic, (b) a cleaning lady and (c) a bartender. Novels are set in bookshops, tattoo parlors and logging camps. The son of one of my former students publishes a mystery series based in a mortuary! (Tim Cockey, The Hearse You Came In On). These can provide insider information about issues specific to individual careers or contexts, and in a fun, non-textbook fashion. But readers should be aware that certain aspects of any job or situation will not be included if such aspects are likely to offend readers, so fictional accounts may be “sanitized” for the reading public. For example, Child Protection personnel regularly encounter babies that have suffered retinal detachment as a result of having been shaken. The condition is so common that the medical diagnosis is abridged in private professional conversation to “shake ’n bake.” This is the gallows humor employed by workers in difficult professions, a means of keeping the necessary psychological distance, but would, quite reasonably, outrage readers. Students reading FASP novels will not encounter such gritty, deep-insider aspects of any profession. That will only come on the job. Of course many mysteries/thrillers include lavish descriptions of general mayhem, wounds, weapons and the mental states of killers. But these are not specific to any profession. They do not reflect the private, in-house language common to any form of work.

6So two of the major differences between fact and fiction involve the whole idea of time: it takes much longer in reality, than in fiction, and you have to be attentive to the reader’s sensitivity?
Yes, fiction is not real life. Fiction is real life refined, enhanced, stripped of non-essentials and presented at warp speed. Good non-fiction is essentially the same. No one wants to read the diary of a man who walks his dog to the same tree every day for a decade unless he happens to include dramatic, fast-paced stories observed while walking to the tree. So fiction is – or should be – valuable and entertaining, stimulating and packed with interesting information. But how do you find the right books, the FASP novels that will appeal to your students? How do you find really well-written, well-plotted, believably charactered, attractive novels that deal with specific professions?

  • 1 On medical FASP, see: Charpy, Jean-Pierre. 2010. “FASP médicale et substrat professionnel : le miro (...)

7Do you have the answer to that question?
No, but what an intriguing project for any number of graduate students! They would deliberately read for professional content, but also read for quality, producing bibliographies suitable to the various professions. I’ve just ordered an academic analysis of professional medicine as it is represented in the TV series, House1. That isn’t at all the same idea, or actually is the same idea from the other side.

8Are you doing this for personal interests or for your writing?
Everything is for my writing. I’m just curious. But, how will your students who are trying to become comfortable with English in professional settings by reading fiction, find the fiction?

9That is a good question. I don’t have the answer to that question. Perhaps, this interview will help to find an answer.
I keep asking the question because it’s really quite exciting, from a writer’s perspective.

10Who are some of your favorite authors?
Oh… Elizabeth George, Kathy Reichs, P.D. James of course, Carl Sagan, Jeanette Winterson, Mike Connelly, Sarah Waters, James Lee Burke… I read constantly and really, whatever I’m reading at the moment is my favorite.

11Speaking of mysteries, FASP is often defined as a thriller. Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times Book Review has characterized your work as “as thrilling as thrillers get”. How would you define a “thriller”, and particularly what is a good thriller?
There are so many overlapping categories or catch phrases or jargon words that are used to describe this huge genre. A “thriller” generally means that it is not a “cozy”. “Thriller” means that there is a threat, usually to the protagonist, a grizzly threat. Great mental manipulative and diagnostic skill is required to evade the threat, which arises from someone trying to kill the protagonist for unclear or misleading reasons. But almost all mysteries include thriller aspects now, especially in a series, which may employ dimensions of various sub-genres as the same characters move through sequential books. The thriller’s counterpart is the cozy, in which the threat is less immediate and the violence is a bit offstage. Cozies appeal to readers who are uncomfortable with graphic violence and serious social analysis, but just want an entertaining read. Most are written for women readers, but there are a few male-oriented cozies. See Jeff Abbott, Do Unto Others, about Jordan Poteet, a man who leaves the big city to work as a librarian (another possibility for FASP?) in a small Texas town.

12OK. It’s not a “cozy”. What is a “cozy”?
Cozies are a category within the larger mystery genre. Cozy mysteries were originally those involving little old ladies in English villages who had vicars for tea just after discovering a dead body in the rose garden. The cozy sub-genre has expanded since then, however, to include any of the gentler, often humorous, mystery novels in which there is no graphic violence, either physical or social. I just thought of one that might be appropriate for students training to be wedding planners, Laura Durham, Better Off Wed.

13But there are countless sub-genres under the mystery aegis, not merely thrillers and cozies. There are private and professional sleuths, police procedurals, romantic mysteries and history mysteries. There are cat, dog, holiday, disaster, noir, religious, gay/lesbian, senior, young adult and noir mysteries. Recent arrivals are cyber and steampunk mysteries.

14Steampunk? What is steampunk?
Steampunk can be fantasy or science fiction or a mix of either, sometimes within a mystery novel. It derives from the Victorian Age and the Industrial Revolution and the inventions and symbols associated with both. Clockwork, an obsession with machinery and its effect on human life, Victorian costumes and bric-a-brac, traditionally figure in steampunk novels. I recently saw an actual steampunk installation in Paris. It was a contraption on wheels, two bicycles supporting a bizarre, clocklike structure surrounded by what looked like inverted umbrella water fountains on the ground and powered by a generator. I have no idea what socio-psychological issues steampunk may express, but it’s fascinating!

15So, returning to your writing, Publishers Weekly’s review of Turtle Baby concludes that the novel is exceptional by its “description of the workings of public child protection”. I know you mentioned differences in time or for example dark language, but overall do you agree that the Bo Bradley series actually reflects public Child Protection Service settings?
Yes. Totally. It may be that now there are minor changes. But the Bo Bradley series is set in California, and California was the trend setter for the rest of the US for CPS. Some of the earliest and most stringent laws came out of California, and now they are essentially the same across the nation. You can walk out of a CPS office in California and walk into another one in Iowa or New Jersey and they are basically the same. Nothing changes. There are just certain things you do or don’t do when you take a child out of a home. These books might actually be useful for a grasp of the technical language, a “sibling petition,” for example. The term is used to describe the legal documentation required to remove all children from a home in which there is suspicion of abuse involving only one child. That is a sibling petition, which is different from the original petition. It all has to be done in a juvenile court, and there are minor differences from state to state, and even from county to county. But, yes, they do reflect reality.

16How many years did you work in Child Protection Services?
Two. I worked two years, developed an ulcer, and would often come home, sit in the driveway, and just sob. Not only because of the abuse by parents and caregivers, as bad as that was, but because of the additional abuse by the system I was working for, i.e. by me. All bureaucratic systems operate within rigid parameters, sets of rules that do not bend to specific circumstances. And yet a certain amount of “bend” may be called for when dealing with troubled, sometimes desperate, people. A drug-abusing mother, for example, may be given ample bus tokens for the trip to her court-ordered, three-times-a-week drug treatment program. But the round-trip by bus takes four hours and she has three children under five who must accompany her since she has no one to care for them in her absence. The logistics are insurmountable for her and of course she fails to attend the drug program, which results in the court removing her children and placing them in foster care. A few mothers rise to the challenge, get clean and after many months regain custody of their children. Others never do, and if family members cannot be found to assume responsibility for the children, they may languish in the foster care system for years. All because the system, while well-intentioned, is not structured to accommodate individual situations. So seeing this every day, enforcing a system every day, was difficult. At times heartbreaking.

17But did this work give you material for your books?
Yes, five books and others in outline form.

18Is it possible to describe how that works? What is the jump from real life to on-paper? That must be a long process.
No, it wasn’t long at all. I knew the rules. I knew the routines and the protocols of the profession. I wasn’t sure when I started writing those books if anyone would want to read about child abuse. But, it was also a way of getting even.

19With the system?
Not just the system, but actually with some of the pedophiles. Men who molest children. Imagine an interview with some guy, and all you want to do is take a large piece of heavy furniture and bash it into his skull. But you can’t. You have to be professional. So, I got to kill them in books. One of my favorites involved a molesting character shredded to death on barnacles. He was at Ocean Beach, woosh, there was nothing left of him. Barnacles are awful.

20That will do it. Did you go down and test the barnacles to write this book?
Oh, I already knew about barnacles! (Laughter) I was trying to think of some awful way to die, and being lashed to and fro by the ocean against barnacle-shrapnel appealed to me. So, no, it wasn’t hard. I already had written other things, short stories and poetry, so I just slid right into it.

21You have spoken about revenge and delicate issues, but I notice your work also reflects an avid interest in Native American culture and desert preservation. Is this social consciousness typical of the “thriller” genre?
There are a number of mysteries by authors who have a deep interest in one issue or another. For Native Americans, the most popular in Europe was Tony Hillerman, who recently died. The Native Americans in this area are very interesting and are totally, totally misunderstood. The Kumeyaay are painted in some anthropological literature as sort of dense people, not very bright. But nothing could be farther from the truth. They are a very mystical people and that appeals to me. So, when I started writing mysteries, I wanted to enfranchise them in a way that hadn’t been done. Since then, there have been the casinos and an accompanying financial power among local native tribes. But at the time I began writing the Bo Bradley novels, it really angered me that there was such a misrepresentation of the Kumeyaay. They are indigenous to southern California and Mexico, have lived in this area for centuries. They have a very complex world view. They are a quiet people, but quiet doesn’t mean dense. In fact, that silence may reflect a survival strategy during the long years of invasion and usurpation by invading Europeans. I wanted to talk about the Kumeyaay, the Paiute and other Native American peoples who lived here. And who are still here. And are still trying to withstand the encroaching Euro-centric mentality that isn’t necessarily healthy for people. It is unstoppable. It isn’t all bad, but it isn’t the only way to look at things, and I wanted to suggest that idea in my novels.

22Yes, you can have multiple perspectives on US culture.
You may have students working with Native American or other indigenous populations; they really need to understand that the Hollywood view, and even the anthropological view, is often completely inaccurate.

23And what would you consider the first thing that is completely wrong with these views?
The assumption that European culture is superior. (Laughter) We are more efficient and thus more civilized. Give me a break! No, no.

24OK. So, I just want to back up a moment here. So, in your descriptions of CPS, the setting is accurate. Besides the question of dark humor, does the discourse reflect actual CPS discourse? Is the language found in your books, the language that is also found in the office?
Yes. Again, the writer can’t use excessive legal language, because readers won’t understand it. Or the language must be explained and that gets boring. But the idea of the ticking clock, which I used in all five books, is both useful for suspense, and a reality. The investigator has 72 hours to make a case. The child has been taken away and is in a temporary “holding” institution with strangers. The investigator must either document that something criminal has happened or close the case within 72 hours. That means sifting through people’s garbage, going through their homes and their DVDs and movies for pornography. A picture must be compiled of evidence, interviews with neighbors, medical evidence. So, the language is accurate, although there are probably minor differences from state to state. What changes is the increasingly complex nature of law. There are more and more laws about child pornography, for example, and reasonably so. Child pornography is atrocity. But because child sexual abuse is an intensely emotional issue, rationality in regard to it may be lost.

25A man was killed in jail here earlier this year. He had child pornography on his computer, wasn’t too bright and took his computer in to be repaired in the town where he lived in another state. The repairman found the pornography and, as he should have, called the police. A warrant was issued, the computer-owner fled across the country and was ultimately arrested in California. Two days later he was dead on the sidewalk outside the jail, supposedly having thrown himself from a second-story window. Such a fall is unlikely to be fatal, and his body was covered in cuts and bruises incurred before the fall. It is not unreasonable to suspect that the man was beaten and killed inside the jail, with or without the complicity of officials. There was no investigation; his death was ruled a suicide. In this case, the mere possession of child pornography may have been a sub rosa capital crime, its perpetrator executed with the tacit approval of a society happy to look the other way.

26Mysteries and crime fiction reflect this social hunger for revenge, and endlessly provide it. Indeed, for the purposes of your study, such fiction can provide a window on issues of concern to various cultures. These will differ from culture to culture, but no matter what issue he embodies, the fictional bad guy always gets what’s coming to him. He is killed, imprisoned, confined, and the imbalance he creates within his society is leveled. In reality, however, a calmer and more reasoned approach to crime than that of mystery novels is necessary. The possession of child pornography, however appalling the reality, is not a capital crime despite public outrage. And yet the scenario described above is scarcely unusual.

27You can’t kill them, except in fiction. (Laughter)
Absolutely. There is a difference between imagining revenge – the function served by crime fiction – and actually seeking revenge, and the difference is called civilization. It is one thing to fantasize and quite another thing to act. Crime fiction provides a vicarious discharge of the need for “revenge,” or the evening out of an event that has tipped social stability, made people feel frightened, angry, and insecure.

28In your Bo Bradley series, there are many different settings in San Diego: San Diego’s backcountry, Sunset Cliffs. You covered a lot of territory. Is that for the reader’s enjoyment or is that part of CPS?
As a child abuse investigator you are out in the field all the time. However, the supervisor character in my novels – who is always impeccably dressed – never goes out of the office building, immediately establishing disparate views of every case. The social workers, the investigators, are out of the office running around every day that they’re not in court, covering a region that extends to the edges of San Diego County. This could be six hundred miles out in the desert, sometimes thousands of miles further when a child must be retrieved from another state.

29In one of my novels, Turtle Baby, Bo Bradley investigates a case in Mexico, which technically she could never do. Investigators cannot cross international borders, having no authority outside the U.S. But I wanted to illustrate a number of immigration issues as well as the curious and complex cultural interchange between Tijuana and San Diego, so brave Bo again ignored the rules and dived into the Mexican border-town demi-monde to rescue a Mayan baby. The setting to me is always a character – Mexico, the desert, the mountains. And again, your readers from other countries might find specific, location-based mysteries quite helpful in understanding not only the job involved, but also the “feel” of the geographical setting.

30Then for you, this is one of the essentials to a well-written book?
I do like to think of setting as an essential, if subtle, “character” in novels, less obvious than voice or storyline, but always there.

31Speaking of learning, you have taught creative writing. What can you tell us about that experience? What guidelines would you give?
The prime mover for any writer is a passion for reading. The successful romance writer will have read, and loved, thousands of romances. The successful mystery writer will have devoured countless mysteries. Readers intuitively imprint the protocol, the timing, the way a story is framed in the different genres, by reading them. No less important is a thorough competence with the language in which one is writing. No matter how elegant or intriguing a writer’s ideas may be, those ideas will fall awkwardly upon the page unless the writer is adept with her or his use of language. Written language is vastly unlike spoken language, subject to formal constraints that must be mastered long before the writer begins chapter one. Beyond that, writing is really an altered state difficult to describe, a created interface between the writer’s known world and another world shared, if only briefly, by writer and reader. Writing is deep, deep fun!

32I understand that you will be publishing your works on line. Do you think this will change the reading process?
We are in a paradigm shift that history may interpret as the most significant, to date, in human history. The development of agriculture and the Industrial Revolution pale in comparison to changes wrought by the technological advances now swarming around us. For writers and readers and the publishing industry that has served both since the invention of the printing press, the change centers on the nature of “books.” Is a “book” read on an e-reader really a book? How is an e-book like and unlike a bound, traditional paper book? And most to the point, is the psychological experience of reading somehow different in print and electronic formats?

33In my experience, there is no significant difference. I have an e-reader, a Kindle, and find it indispensable for traveling. E-books currently cost a third of hardcover print volumes – some much less, and thousands of classics are free – and can be downloaded in seconds from anywhere. The implications for textbook publishing are interesting, as is the option of instant self-publishing now available to all writers. At the moment all is anarchy, with thousands of poorly-written books suddenly available in e-format. But anarchy inevitably settles and the rules of supply and demand do not change. Well-written work will find popularity in any format, and poorly-written work will not. I’m very excited about publishing four of the Bo Bradley mystery backlist, now out of print, in e-format, as well as a new, stand-alone mystery. Another, new, magical realist novel is in the hands of an agent at the moment, but if a traditional publisher doesn’t grab it right away, I’ll publish that one in e-format as well. I love the sense of openness, the free-for-all nature of e-publishing now, and as a writer do not perceive it as negative. At all.

34Can you use a “find” option on a Kindle? Can you enter “sibling petition” and find each entry in the book? That would be an interesting tool for learning specific vocabulary.
You can’t do that on a Kindle, but you can make a note each time you read the phrase, “sibling petition,” and then go back to the notes within a particular text. Versions of the Kindle subsequent to mine may be more efficient in this regard. However, the Kindle Store, and no doubt other e-reader content providers with which I am not familiar, offers numerous functions that enable prospective readers to find exactly what they want to read. “A police procedural mystery involving art theft set in 1930’s Hong Kong,” for example. As authors become more proficient at labeling the content of their work within search engine categories, readers will easily be able to locate targeted materials.

35For the purposes of your population – students interested in reading fiction specific to various professions – I would imagine these e-book search capabilities to be optimal and great fun. A whole class in “Business English” might list all potential represented occupations and scour Google, Amazon and other search engine categories for appropriate novels. Of course, at the moment many of the novels they find might be sub-par and thus not useful, suggesting that a pre-selected list of good-quality novels would be in students’ interests.

36So besides, putting your books on line, what are your current projects?
I’m interested in “magical realism,” a literary and cultural perspective with roots in Eastern Europe although primarily associated now with Latin America in such writers as Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez. The perspective is almost entirely absent in western cultures, in which “the rational” is highly regarded and anything “irrational” is suspect, possibly evidence of madness. In my new novel, The Paper Doll Museum, very western, very American characters must deal with a series of irrational, “magical” events. Not vampires and werewolves, but the sorts of events experienced by most people but dismissed as inconsequential because western culture provides no framework for their interpretation except that of psychiatric illness. Nobody wants to be seen as “crazy,” so nobody mentions these events. The door glimpsed in a basement wall, then gone. Music drifting from an abandoned building. Or your schnauzer at three a.m., suddenly intent and growling at something hidden in darkness. Something that vanishes when you turn on the light. Such things happen. They don’t have to mean anything, but they’re interesting and worthy of acknowledgement.

37There are also all sorts of unusual people and places that may function as gateways to “magic,” otherness, the uncanny. Some cultures, the Native American for example, grant validity to the inexplicable, observe and document it, even celebrate it in individuals, objects and places. Western culture fears and denigrates the inexplicable, which intrigues me. The new novel is a small attempt at turning that around.

38This says something interesting about US culture.
US and western culture in general. Oddity, otherness, the inexplicable, are either dismissed as madness or distorted into sometimes silly cult movements or subsumed in religions. The whole idea of irrational events is not valued and is pushed into obscurity. Western cultures literally worship rationality, but in doing so lose a certain edge. I’m interested in sharpening that edge.

39We have covered a lot of material. Did you want to add something?
The question of finding the materials for your FASP students to read remains an interesting one. What are the typical professions that people are going to be reading about in fiction? Medical? Business?

40Business is actually a difficult one. There aren’t that many sources by FASP authors.
Novels are available, but not necessarily by FASP authors. Additionally, there is a huge body of non-fiction reflecting the experiences of professionals in various fields.

41The best narrative I’ve ever read about the career arc of doctors is Dr. Danielle Ofri’s Singular Intimacies: Becoming a Doctor at Bellevue. Ofri’s book would be enormously helpful to foreign medical students anticipating rotations in large American metropolitan hospitals, not only because it illustrates doctor-patient encounters, but also the doctor-doctor social hierarchy – which is often hilarious.

42What about law? Who would you choose in law?
Lawyer sleuths have enjoyed great popularity since Erle Stanley Gardner created Perry Mason in 1933, followed by many more. A short list – P.D. James, A Certain Justice; Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison; anything by Scott Turow, John Grisham, Richard North Patterson, Lia Matera, or Christine McGuire.

43Another domain is the sciences. The problem with Internet is the domain of science. If you type in science, and fiction, you get “science fiction”, and that isn’t useful at all.
Obviously, bibliographies of profession-appropriate fiction and non-fiction can be created fairly easily using basic Internet research. Suitability of individual titles for specific student populations would have to be determined by the teacher, who would have to have read the book. Having taught at high schools and universities for years, I am aware that teachers do not have limitless free time. So I suggest that professional organizations provide platforms, perhaps website pages, on which teachers may describe, recommend or not recommend various works of both fiction and non-fiction for their particular student populations.

44Thank you, Ms. Padgett, for sharing your insights on writing and teaching, on fact and fiction.

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1 On medical FASP, see: Charpy, Jean-Pierre. 2010. “FASP médicale et substrat professionnel : le miroir éclaté. ASp, vol. 57 : 49-65.

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Laura M. Hartwell, « A Writer’s Perspective: An Interview with FASP Author Abigail Padgett », Cahiers de l’APLIUT, Vol. XXX N° 2 | 2011, 138-148.

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Laura M. Hartwell, « A Writer’s Perspective: An Interview with FASP Author Abigail Padgett », Cahiers de l’APLIUT [En ligne], Vol. XXX N° 2 | 2011, mis en ligne le 12 avril 2012, consulté le 28 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Laura M. Hartwell

Laura M. Hartwell est responsable de l’enseignement des langues au Centre Drôme-Ardèche (Grenoble I) où elle enseigne l’anglais de spécialité. Elle est membre du Laboratoire inter-universitaire de recherche en didactique des langues (LAIRDIL) à Toulouse.

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