Cleo (because it’s easier to call you that for the interview), would you introduce yourselves to the readers?
Greetings, everyone, I am Alice Alfonsi, and I collaborate with my husband, Marc Cerasini, to write The Coffeehouse Mysteries and Haunted Bookshop Mysteries under the pen name Cleo Coyle.
Marc and I also work independently under our own names. We’ve written popular fiction for
As for our Coffeehouse Mysteries, we’re celebrating 15 years in print, three starred reviews, and the publication of the seventeenth entry with Shot in the Dark. We’re now working on our eighteenth Coffeehouse title, due for publication in 2019 by our longtime publisher (PRH’s Berkley).
I was so excited to see the return of Jack Shepard and Penelope Thornton-McClure. It’s been a number of years, so would you introduce Jack and Pen? And, please share their good news.
Happy to! After a decade-long hiatus, Marc and I have resumed writing our Haunted Bookshop Mysteries for Berkley. The Ghost and the Bogus Bestseller is out this month with more titles to come. We dedicated the new book to our readers, who never gave up on seeing Jack come back. And who is Jack?
Jack Shepard (deceased circa 1949) is a wisecracking PI whose spirit haunts a little Rhode Island bookshop run by an earnest, young widow named Penelope Thornton-McClure.
Penelope’s late father, a small town cop, gave her an early love of crime fiction, including the hardboiled detectives of the Black Mask school, which begs an ongoing question. Why does she alone hear Jack’s voice? Is he an actual apparition? Or is he some kind of alter-ego? There to counsel and bolster Pen, and express the things she can’t. Whatever the truth, when crime happens, Jack encourages Pen to investigate— and appears to enjoy educating her in the tricks of his trade.
After creating the series in 2003, we wrote five entries and (for a variety of reasons) let Jack rest in peace. The fans, however, weren’t ready for his untimely end, which is why we finally decided to make our ghost reappear.
The brand new book in our series is an entertaining murder mystery that has plenty to say about life and death; readers and writers; and our wacky book business. The story includes some intriguing insights into the book trade’s history of hoaxes (our “Bogus Bestseller” was inspired by many that came before it).
Readers should have plenty of fun guessing whodunit with our hardboiled ghost Jack teaching his earnest PI student, bookseller Penelope, a thing or two about how to crack a hard case. We’ll even take you back to Jack’s 1940s New York, where a missing pooch leads to a missing author, two lively subplots that help our amateur sleuth better understand her case at hand.
I know what inspired the stories of Jack and Pen, but readers may not. Would you share the backstory, please?
Years ago, I read the novel The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by R.A. Dick, the pen name for author Josephine Leslie. The book was a bestseller in 1945. Two years later, Hollywood turned it into a classic film, which inspired a 1968 television series.
What influenced me most, however, was a realization about the era in which the novel was produced. World War II had just ended, and many young women were grieving the loss of their husbands. Ms. Leslie’s novel gave these women the story of Mrs. Muir, a young widow like themselves, who is befriended by the spirit of a colorful sea captain, one who even “dictates” a bestselling book to her.
I appreciated the comfort that novel must have brought to war widows of the time. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir made vivid the idea that spirits are looking after us. Whether the spirits are real or residing within ourselves—as imagination, passion, or creative potential—the notion is an uplifting one.
Of course, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is not a mystery, and though Ms. Leslie’s novel provided a baseline inspiration for our series, Marc and I worked hard to create a fully realized world of original characters, settings, and stories, as well as a functioning structure that could support multiple works of crime fiction. The amazing Carolyn Hart, of course, pioneered the idea of a series centered around a mystery bookstore—that wasn’t new ground, but…
As longtime fans of film noir and the Black Mask writers, my husband and I knew mixing that ingredient into the series stew would spice things up. We also developed flashback subplots for our ghost character, Jack Shepard, along with a fictional device that allowed our earnest bookseller to join him in a kind of unconventional PI school.
Pairing Jack’s hardboiled darkness with the lighter character of Penelope proved an entertaining match for many readers, and we hope they’ll be pleased to see them team up again in The Ghost and the Bogus Bestseller (2018).
As a fan of this series, I could ask so much more, but I want to pay a little bit of homage to the Coffeehouse Mysteries. Would you give us the elevator pitch about that series?
Our Coffeehouse Mysteries follow the misadventures of a single mom named Clare Cosi, who runs a landmark Greenwich Village coffeehouse for an eccentric older woman, while doing her best to mother and protect her daughter and the young staff she manages. Clare is a mature woman who has a complicated love life and routinely finds herself mixed up in murder. One fan called it Murder, She Wrote meets Starbucks. Marc and I are fine with that description since we both happen to love Murder, She Wrote!
What inspired the Coffeehouse Mysteries?
The inspiration for the series came from my time living in New York’s East Village, shortly after I moved to the city from Western Pennsylvania. You can see the actual building where the Coffeehouse Mysteries were born by clicking here.
Back in 1985, this part of Manhattan was far from the trendy, hipster neighborhood that it is now. The area was rough and gritty with plenty of street crime. I was working at my first job out of college, a cub reporter’s position at the New York Times. That may sound impressive, but the work was far from glamorous. The hours were long, the pay pitiful.
Since my working-class parents couldn’t afford to supplement my living, which is how many well-off young people survive high urban rents, I did what most of the planet’s population does to make ends meet—I improvised. A female friend in an NYU grad program agreed to share the rent with me. She slept in the tiny bedroom, and I used a pullout couch in the Lilliputian living room.
While this cramped, shotgun apartment was located across from a rundown park notorious for drug dealing, it also sat above a small coffee shop and bakery called Bread and Roses. That friendly women-run shop on the ground floor of my old address offered a warm and cozy oasis, smack in the middle of the big-city land of not-so-nice noir.
Years ago, in a published essay for Mystery Readers International, I used the phrase “Urban Cozy” (as far as I know, I coined the term) in an attempt to describe the particular blended sub-genre in which we write—amateur sleuth mysteries with cozy mystery elements, like close relationships and humor, but set in an urban environment with edgier crime stories.
Certainly plenty of authors blend genres, and we’ve been influenced by many writers who came before us (more on that below), but the particular voice and vision for our Coffeehouse Mysteries came from my early experience living and feeling that odd juxtaposition of cozy and noir.
Keeping our cozy readers in mind, Marc and I ultimately set our fictional Village Blend not in the East but a short distance away in the more beautiful, landmark preserved West Village. Yes, with a bit of cheeky irony, we made sure our amateur sleuth lived in a picturesque “village”—and, in all honesty, our NYC neighborhoods share many of the same attributes as the villages of more traditional mysteries. People work hard to run their businesses. They care for their families and friends. They try to do the right thing in their community. They gossip and make mistakes; withstand heartache and loss; and, most of all, do their best to (as our character Madame would say) “Survive everything, and do it with style.”
Now, just a couple personal questions. How did the two of you meet?
Though we were both born and raised in different small towns outside of Pittsburgh, PA, Marc and I didn’t meet until we each moved to New York City. We got to know each other while working in the same office, over twenty-five years ago, and we’ve been together ever since. We’ve been New Yorkers ever since, too, and reside in Queens.
How did you decide to write together?
For years, we wrote independently, publishing popular fiction for adults and children and tie-in projects for a number of studios, including Disney, Imagine, Universal, Marvel, and Lucasfilm.
Marc also wrote nonfiction, including The Future of War: The Face of 21st Century Warfare; Heroes: U.S. Marine Corps Medal of Honor; (a major essay in) The Tom Clancy Companion; and O.J. Simpson: American Hero, American Tragedy, which spent 4 weeks on the New York Times list (1 million copies printed, 700,000 sold).
Around the same time, I authored four paranormal romance novels for Berkley (Eternal Vows, Eternal Love, Eternal Sea, and Some Enchanted Evening). That experience led to my ghostwriting Hidden Passions, an original novel based on an offbeat, paranormal NBC daytime drama. The book spent 8 week on the New York Times bestseller list and was named media tie-in book of the year by Entertainment Weekly.
My Harper editor on the novel, who also knew Marc’s work, asked if we’d like to work together on a new project, and we said yes. It was our first official collaborative project and also the first work of tie-in fiction attached to the Emmy-award winning Fox TV series 24.
We learned some interesting thriller techniques from Virgil Williams, 24’s story editor at the time, who guided and advised us along the way. We both enjoyed working together and agreed that a great next step would be to develop our own mystery series.
How do you work together? Who does what in the writing?
Our collaborative process is a little like two chefs in one kitchen. We brainstorm the menu (rough outline) together. Then we go off and cook up different parts. Throughout the months of writing, we’ll continue to suggest ideas to each other—over morning coffee, evening meals, and long walks through our neighborhood. But we always write our sections alone, dreaming up things in separate rooms. Then we come together and share. I go over Marc’s pages and he goes over mine, each of us working to improve, smooth out, or punch-up the other’s prose.
We never outline a book from start to finish. After we agree on a concept and general direction, we’ll throw our characters into the thick of things and let them tell us the story from there. By the midpoint, we’re brainstorming again, researching new twists, turns, and locations, and we rarely know the ending until we’re about three-quarters through. We like it that way. If we can surprise ourselves, we’re more likely to surprise and entertain our readers.
One last note, readers should not assume that Marc writes all the men and I the women (an unfortunate assumption that we sometimes encounter). Each of us writes scenes and sequences using every character. Marc writes Clare Cosi, Madame, and Penelope Thornton-McClure as often as I write NYPD Detective Mike Quinn, coffee-hunter Matt Allegro, and the ghost of Jack Shepard.
I love to know answers to this question. When friends come to visit, where do you like to take them?
To Junior’s for the best cheesecake on this or any other planet, the TKTS booth in Times Square, and between the lions of the New York Public Library. Runner-up jaunts include the High Line; Bryant Park; the Staten Island Ferry, and our “Coffeehouse Mystery” tour of Greenwich Village. For adventurous souls, we’ll throw in a ride on our local Queens #7 Train (aka “The International Express”) with noshing stops in Little India, Little Manilla, Flushing’s Chinatown, and the Irish pubs of Woodside.
You probably have different answers to this question, so I’ll take answers from each of you. What authors influenced you?
ALICE: A host of authors, playwrights, and poets, have influenced me over the years. They include (in no particular order): Nora Ephron, Raymond Chandler, Neil Simon, Thornton Wilder, R. A. Dick (Josephine Leslie), Susan Isaacs, Fay Weldon, Janet Evanovich, Agatha Christie, O. Henry, Mark Twain, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, Thomas Harris, Carolyn Hart, Diane Mott Davidson, Rex Stout, Nan and Ivan Lyons, Dashiell Hammett, Woody Allen, Paddy Chayefsky, Tom Stoppard, Tom Wolfe, David Mamet, Edward Albee, Clare Booth Luce, Fitzgerald, Poe, Shakespeare, Sondheim, Sylvia Plath, (working-class poet and my former teacher) Jim Daniels, and…(okay, I’ll stop already, but I consider the list open-ended).
MARC: Robert E. Howard was a major inspiration, but until I was fourteen I mostly read the books lying around our family home so the list is pretty eclectic. Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Jack London, Clark Ashton Smith, C. L. Moore, Shirley Jackson, Jane Gaskell, Frank Herbert, Philip Jose Farmer, Harlan Ellison, Larry Niven, Michael Moorcock, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Richard Matheson, Jacqueline Susanne, Harold Robbins, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Rex Stout, James Ellroy, and James Clavell. I began taking note of screenwriters before I was twelve and so include Jimmy Sangster, Paddy Chayefsky, Joseph Stefano, Charles Beaumont, and Nigel Kneale.
Again, there may be different answers to this one. Name an author or book that you wish had received more attention.
ALICE: My husband doesn’t know I’m going to say this, but I’m naming his groundbreaking literary study. Marc Cerasini co-wrote the book Robert E. Howard: A Critical Study with award-winning writer Charles Hoffman, and the year it was published, the book was short-listed for the World Fantasy Award. Novalyne Price Ellis, who knew Howard well—and was portrayed by actress Renée Zellweger in The Whole Wide World, a moving film about Howard’s life and death—was delighted with the work that Marc and Charles did, and personally conveyed her gratitude to them. Robert E. Howard was originally published by Starmont House/Borgo Press, a company that went out of business and took the book out of print with its demise. The study really should be back in print (and in libraries!) for Howard enthusiasts to enjoy.
MARC: Though she received plenty of attention when she published her first novel at sixteen, British fantasy author Jane Gaskell is pretty much forgotten today, and her books are long out of print. This is sad because her Atlan series (The Serpent, Atlan, The City, and Some Summer Lands) greatly influenced me. Told in first person by a perfectly ordinary princess taken hostage and dragged across prehistoric South America to Atlantis, Gaskell’s saga was free of the stilted, high-sounding language often found in the genre at that time. Along with a vivid imagination, she possessed a journalist’s flair for detail and description, so it’s no surprise she gave up fiction to become a reporter for Britain’s Daily Mail.
And, my final question. I’m a librarian. Tell me a story about a library or a librarian in your life.
MARC: I lived in a fading steel town outside of Pittsburgh that had a very imposing library built by the town’s namesake, Andrew Carnegie. One summer my dad was appointed to the City Council, so on Tuesday nights, seven until nine, he had to attend weekly meetings. I often went with him because the library seemed like a really cool place to a twelve-year-old, with its huge bronze statues of classical warriors, swords and shields on the walls, and even a suit of armor. On those trips, I walked around the library alone and unsupervised, after hours. More than once, I got lost in some book in a hidden stack, and my dad had to come find me. I remember reading Call of the Wild in two visits, relieved no one had borrowed it in the intervening week!
ALICE: In my little hometown, we had no bookstores, not even a proper library, but that didn’t discourage my steelworker dad from making sure his daughters received a good education. That was his mantra, and one of the reasons my older sister Grace is a respected M.D. in Denver and I’m (forgive me, must say this for Dad) a New York Times bestselling author. Without fail, Antonio Alfonsi would drive his daughters to the Carnegie Library system’s bookmobile, which rolled into our local Acme parking lot once a week. We were always there to greet it, excitedly picking up or returning books. God bless this country’s libraries, librarians, and bookmobiles, especially those that serve lower income communities, where bookstores are as scarce as polo ponies.
Thank you, Cleo, Alice, and Marc. Come back tomorrow for my review of The Ghost and the Bogus Bestseller.
And, a note from the authors - FYI - Our main website is www.CoffeehouseMystery.com and for those interested in going straight to our Haunted Bookshop Mystery page, we have a dedicated web address at www.HauntedBookshopMystery.com