Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Clea Simon: Cat Mysteries with a Difference

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Clea Simon is the author of the Theda Krakow mystery series as well as three nonfiction books: Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadow of Mentally Ill Siblings, Fatherless Women: How We Change After We Lose Our Dads, and The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats. She is also a journalist, writing for the Boston Globe and other publications, and a member of the Cat Writers’ Association. Her third mystery, Cries and Whiskers, will be released December 15, and her first two, Mew Is for Murder and Cattery Row, are available in trade paperback. Clea and her husband, writer Jon S. Garelick, live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with their cat, Musetta, who appears in the mysteries as Theda’s pet.

SP: Let's get to the most important question first: Is that your cat, Musetta, on your new book cover?

CS: It is! The designer asked for a photo of her, just for inspiration. Then he ended up doing some computer manipulation and – voila – she's a cover girl! The others are stock photos, alas. Pretty cats, but no real character.

SP: Your books can be called "cat mysteries" because they're mysteries involving cats, but they're far more serious than other novels in that subgenre and deal with some difficult topics. Has this brought you any interesting feedback from readers?

CS: Every now and then I get a gratifying "You go, girl!" from a reader, or a group like Animal Rescue League up here in Boston. Some feedback comes in the form of silence: My first mystery, Mew is for Murder, won some very nice awards from the Cat Writers Association, including their annual President's Award, which among our small crowd is quite a big deal. But my second mystery, Cattery Row, which dealt with breeders, was shut out. Now, maybe the judges just didn't think the writing or the plotting was that good. But I wonder.

SP: Why did you make Theda a music critic/reporter instead of giving her an animal-related job?

CS: I wanted her to be a real character, like a lot of single women I knew when I was younger. We all had pets, which we loved and which sustained us, but we had other aspects of our lives as well. And in the spirit of traditional mysteries, I wanted to set my books in a village-like subculture, which the rock world is. So, I guess I wanted to combine a bunch of elements. Focusing only on the animals would have seemed a little lopsided to me.

SP: You have a two-writer household with only one cat. This sounds like a recipe for ugly rivalry. Who does Musetta hang out with when the writing's
being done?

CS: This made me laugh out loud! I'm lucky. My husband spends most of his days at his office; he works at the Boston Phoenix, an alternative arts weekly here in Boston. So I get all Musetta's attention during the day. But today is Sunday, we're both at work – and she's under his desk purring. I'm a little hurt, frankly. But I figure I'm old hat. I'm always at my computer. Jon only works at home on the occasional night or weekend, so she probably figures he needs more help.

SP: The very thought of one of our cats going missing is enough to give me nightmares. Was writing about Theda's missing cat in Cries and Whiskers difficult for you?

CS: Yes, it was. I kept checking to make sure Musetta was on her usual perch behind me. When she wasn't, I'd go around the house looking for her at various points. But my agent told me she thought I should up the suspense for this third book, and I thought: What am I most afraid of? So I had to have my heroine face death, alienation from her friends and ... the loss of her cat.

SP: You've written honestly about growing up with mentally ill siblings. Have you used any of your childhood/teen experiences in your fiction, or do you plan to?

CS: Well, you know, what you learn about human nature always comes into play when you create characters and you start thinking about motivation, blind spots, etc. Specifically, in terms of using my family history and my research, it's a catch as catch can (or catch as cat can) situation. I did have a character in Mew is for Murder who had schizophrenia. He was the adult son of the murdered "cat lady," and, of course, a suspect, and I tried to be true to his situation.

SP: Did journalism help you develop any skills that are useful in fiction writing?

CS: Oh, definitely: Writing on a deadline is great discipline. You can't have writer's block when you're paid to produce for a daily paper! Other than that, it introduced me to a lot of characters. I also worked as a copy editor for about a decade, and that was great in terms of learning to cut out the fat. As we used to joke, we could get the Ten Commandments down to six.

SP: Was the first novel you published also the first one you wrote, or do you have some unsold "closet manuscripts" like a lot of writers?

CS: I have half a closet manuscript. I was in love with it, and in retrospect I wish I'd at least finished it. But I showed it to a man I was dating at the time, and he read it and then said, "Honestly, it's not very good." I was crushed. It was years before I attempted fiction again -- and not until I was in a much more supportive relationship!

SP: How do you divide your time between fiction and nonfiction writing?

CS: Nonfiction can take over, largely because I have more immediate deadlines -- and more immediate paydays. So I have to make an effort every day to put aside some time for the fiction. I'm pretty good at this by now, but at times it is only an hour or two. On my best days, I wander around the house and work on the fun stuff until around 1 or 2. Then I go outside (this is important - especially as the days get shorter), do some errands, get some air, and come back and do the nonfiction until dinner.

SP: Do you have any other mystery series or standalones in mind, or would you prefer to stick with Theda for a long series?

CS: I do have another book I'm working on, which could be a standalone or the beginning of a new series. It features an English lit graduate student named Dulcie Schwartz. She's doing her thesis on the original Gothic novelists -- the pop fiction writers of the late 1700s. Of course, she ends up with a ghost and some other fun complications. I'm not sure what will happen with that, though. I certainly don't want to give up on Theda! I don't know how long she'll be around, but certainly for at least one more book.

SP: What advice do you have for aspiring writers who are still struggling to find an agent and/or a publisher?

CS: Persist. Sometimes I think perseverance more than talent wins out. At least, that's what I tell myself, because we don't have control over talent or inspiration. But we can decide to give up -- or not. At any rate, you'll never get published if you give up!

SP: What’s next for Theda and Musetta?

CS: Well, I don't want to give away too much – but Theda's connection to the cops is gone, so she's certainly more vulnerable now, isn't she?

Visit the author's web site at .


Sassy Brit @ said...

What a great blog. A friend from my Yahoo group mentioned you, so I popped in to have a look. So glad I did. Mind if I add you to my blogroll? As soon as Bloglines is back up and running, that is. :D

I run a review site, and I have to say I have never heard of cat mysteries before. Now we are all intrigued.

Enjoyable interview, keep up the good work!


Sandra Parshall said...

Never heard of cat mysteries? Hmm. What about the "Cat Who" books? And the Midnight Louie mysteries? And Rita Mae Brown's mysteries that feature talking cats, dogs, rats, and every other kind of animal, who help solve the murders. In Clea's books, the cats are just... well, cats. And that's good enough for me. I've had cats all my life, and frankly, I've never had one who could have stayed awake long enough to solve a crime -- assuming the animal had any interest in the first place.

Clea Simon said...

Thanks, Sassy and Sandra, for reading! (and Sandra for the good questions - that one about feline jealousy really cracked me up.) Yup, Sassy, cat mysteries are not unique to me, I fear. You might check out Shirley Rousseau Murphy, Carole Nelson Douglas (the "Midnight Louie" books), Lillian Jackson Braun (the "Cat Who" books) as well as mine, depending on how you feel about talking cats. They're all hugely popular, so maybe my cats should start chatting up a storm. I just don't think they're really that interested in what we're doing.

Of course, if I had a middle name, perhaps I'd think differently...