Clea Simon has frequently commented on here, and I've had the chance to review her Theda Krakow books. Now, the author of those mysteries, the new Dulcie Schwartz book, and the owner of Musetta, has taken time to answer some questions for us. Thank you, Clea.
Lesa - Clea, my readers should recognize your name from your Theda Krakow mystery series. But, now, you're starting a new series. Would you first introduce yourself to my readers?
Clea - Of course, and thank you, Lesa.
I'm a Massachusetts-based writer (Cambridge, as those who have read my Theda Krakow series will know, which is across the river from Boston, its "left bank") and an almost-entirely-former journalist. I used to work, like Theda, as a music critic and a copy editor for a variety of publications, most recently the Boston Globe. But like my new heroine, Dulcie Schwartz, I was once a Harvard student, in love with the novels of the 18th and 19th centuries. I never made it to grad school, as Dulcie has, but the books she reads still sit on my shelves and it was a pleasure to take them down again. Other than that, I live with my husband, Jon, who is also a writer and an editor, and our cat, Musetta, who is the successor to our own late, great grey longhair, who was named Cyrus.
Lesa - Shades of Grey is a little different from your other series. Would you summarize the new book for us? Why is there a ghost?
Clea - In the new book – and the entire new series – Dulcie receives enigmatic (and very feline) visits from the ghost of her cat, Mr. Grey. As "Shades of Grey" opens, Dulcie is having a horrible summer – she's got a lousy summer job, no thesis topic, her roommate has been replaced by a boorish subletter for the summer, and her cat has died. And then she comes home to see a cat that looks just like Mr. Grey sitting on her stoop and telling her not to go inside her apartment. She does anyway, and finds her nasty roommate dead on the floor. That scene was the first one I came up with for the book, and I think it has just about everything in it that I wanted to launch this new series.
Mr. Grey came about through a few different sources. In part, he was conceived because, after we had to put Cyrus to sleep, I kept "seeing" him. There was one time when I was about two blocks from my house and I was sure – absolutely sure – that I saw him sitting on a stoop, and then he was gone. I went back many times, convinced that there must be a cat in the neighborhood that looked like Cyrus – grey longhair, but a face more Siamese than Persian. But I never saw that cat again. And then there was the time my husband called me from work to tell me about a hawk that had settled on the ledge outside his office window (red-tailed hawks have come back to our city, which is thrilling). He said the hawk looked at him just like Cyrus used to, and I understood what he meant perfectly. I think that these creatures are such a part of our life that some part of us finds them again for a long time afterward. And it is comforting to think that our departed pets are still, somehow, with us, so why wouldn't they become verbal in the afterlife? We always suspect that they know more than they're letting on, don't we? And then, on a totally pragmatic front, a few years ago, I was at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop's Festival of Mystery in Oakmont, PA, and a bunch of us authors were talking about trends and someone – Karen E. Olson, I think – said, "You should write about a ghost cat." And that stayed in my head.
Lesa - You've never had feline characters talk before. What has changed?
Clea - I love cats and have always wanted to present them as the characters that I know and love – and that has meant that they shouldn't talk or solve the crimes. But in truth, don't we petlovers really, in our heart of hearts, believe that we know what our animals are thinking? For me, the ghost of Mr. Grey evolved quite naturally out of this idea – that we are just catching his intent and his observations, and after all, he is not a living cat. I still want my cats to act like real cats (or like I think real cat ghosts) act. They're perfect the way they are, and I don't want to suddenly make them cutesy. And I want my humans to be the main actors in the books. But for a cat to share some enigmatic, but affectionate thoughts? Well, that seems right to me – for this series, anyway.
Lesa - Theda and Dulcie are quite different. I won't ask which is your favorite, because I'm sure you're equally fond of both "children". Would you tell us about their differences and similarities?
Clea - Theda is older and bit tougher than Dulcie. Dulcie is an academic. Very smart, but sort of sheltered. She's even softer looking – shorter, curly hair and a bit chubby – and a bit less self-assured than Theda. I'm not sure how I came up with her background (her mother is a sort of hippie, a self-proclaimed psychic who lives in an arts commune in Oregon), but that kind of explained her to me. Although the details of both my heroines differ wildly from my own life, they're both parts of me. As, I guess, all my characters are.
Lesa - Clea, I know you were a journalist and nonfiction author. What brought you to crime fiction?
Clea - I've always read mysteries, from "Encyclopedia Brown" on, and I have always written stories – since I could write at all. So I wanted to find a way to earn my living with words. I did internships in book publishing, but that world was a little slow for me. Journalism had a pace I liked. I've worked for bimonthlies, monthlies, weeklies, and daily papers and magazines and loved them all. But I think I needed to develop more faith in my own abilities before I could try any kind of fiction. When you're writing journalism or nonfiction (and I have three nonfiction books in print), you can justify your efforts by saying that you are giving information to the reader. What's the justification for fiction? Nothing, unless the writing itself gives pleasure or enlightenment.
I've told this story before, but it's true and bears retelling. When my last nonfiction book, "The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats," came out, Kate Mattes - the owner of the very much missed Kate's Mystery Books here in Cambridge - invited me to sign at her annual holiday party. "But Kate," I said, "my book isn't a mystery."
"Clea, you may not believe it," she replied, "but there's a huge overlap between women who love cats and mystery readers."
Well, I went to that party and signed books alongside the several dozen other authors. And at the end of the night, after we'd all had several glasses of wine, Kate said to me, "You should write a mystery." It was like I was getting permission. And I started the next day on what would become "Mew is for Murder."
Lesa - What crime fiction authors do you read when you have time?
Clea - Everything! I do read a lot of crime fiction. I just finished Colin Cotterill's "The Merry Misogynist" and Stuart Neville's "The Ghosts of Belfast," and I'm about halfway through Sara Stockbridge's "Grace Hammer." I'm just back from a week on Cape Cod, during which my husband and I just lie on the beach and read and swim, and so I've also recently finished Lisa See's "Shanghai Girls," Peter Lovesey's "Skeleton Hill" and "The Tick of Death." I'm also trying my best not to rush through Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall." Mantel is possibly my favorite living author and my husband got me a signed copy of her latest in the British edition (comes out in the US in Oct.) for my birthday. It's 600-odd pages and I've got only 100 pages left and I'm trying not to read it too fast.
Lesa - Can you tell us what you're working on now?
Clea - Right now, for the first time in ages, I am not working on anything! I mean, I've just gone through the copy edits for "Grey Matters," the second Dulcie book, and I'll get the page proofs soon (it pubs in March in the US). And I'm doing the writing-for-hire and editing that I do to supplement my income, but that's it. After Labor Day, I need to get onto something again - this feels restful, but too odd. But I'm waiting to hear whether Severn House will want another Dulcie book, and thinking about maybe returning to Theda. But my agent is also sending around another manuscript -- a sort of tongue-in-cheek "pet noir," with a tough-girl animal psychic whose sidekick is an irascible tabby. If that sells, I may do another of those. Or something completely different. I'm writing this in the last week of August, so I'm thinking one more week of catching up with the for-pay deadlines, and then ... back to work! I'm looking forward to it.
Lesa - Do you have anything you would like to say to readers?
Clea - Just that I really like hearing from them. You can email me via my website, www.cleasimon.com. Please let me know what you think, and thank you very much for reading.
Lesa - I'm sure you're familiar with my last question. Do you have a story about libraries you can share?
Clea - Oh, just my excitement!! My local library – the main Cambridge Public Library – is FINALLY reopening this Sept. after several YEARS of renovations. We've been using a temporary library, and the staff has done its best, but it's just not the same. I walk by the renovated building every day and I love watching how it has come together. I wrote a short story for a commemorative book they're publishing to celebrate, and I don't even remember it, that was so long ago. These days, we do so much alone at home on the Internet, but I cannot count the times a librarian has helped me track a source or find a journal article. I want to hold a big "welcome home" party for them all when the library reopens.
Thank you, Clea, for taking time for the interview! And, good luck with Shades of Grey, and your future books.
Clea Simon's website is www.cleasimon.com
Shades of Grey by Clea Simon. Severn House, ©2009. ISBN 9780727867810 (hardcover), 216p.