An Interview with Clea Simon

Clea_w_cat1It is my pleasure today to introduce you to Clea Simon.  Clea is the author of three nonfiction books and two mystery series. The nonfiction books are Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadow of Mentally Ill Siblings (published as a Doubleday hardcover in 1997, released as a Penguin paperback in 1998), Fatherless Women: How We Change After We Lose Our Dads (Wiley, 2001) and The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats (St. Martin’s Press, 2002).  Her Theda Krakow mystery series was launched in 2005 with Mew is for Murder and continues with Cattery Row and Cries and Whiskers, all now available in paperback, and Probable Claws.  She just launched her new Dulcie Schwartz series launches this month with Shades of Grey, and it will continue in March 2010 with Grey Matters.

Clea’s essays are included in the following anthologies: Cat Women: Female Writers on Their Feline Friends (Seal Press) and For Keeps: Women Tell the Truth About Their Bodies, Growing Older, and Acceptance (Seal Press).  Her short mysteries are found in Deadfall: Crime Stories by New England Authors (Level Best) and the upcoming Cambridge Voices.  She has also written new introductions for two Agatha Christie classics, The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Secret Adversary, published by the Barnes and Noble Library of Essential Reading in March 2009

Clea is also a respected journalist whose credits include The New York Times and The Boston Phoenix, and such magazines as American Prospect, Ms., and Salon.com.  She used to do a fair amount of music criticism, but now primarily focuses on relationships, feminism, and psychological issues.

Clea grew up in East Meadow, on suburban Long Island, N.Y., and came to Cambridge, Mass., to attend Harvard, from which she graduated in 1983.  She’s never left, and now happily cohabits with her husband, Jon S. Garelick, who is also a writer, and their cat Musetta.

As a longtime fan of Clea’s writing, I’m thrilled to welcome her to The Conscious Cat today.

Thank you, Conscious Cat.  It’s a pleasure to be here.

Clea, you’re about to launch Shades of Grey, the first in your new Dulcie Schwartz series.  Can you tell us a little about the book and the series?

shades_of_grey_145Have you ever lost a pet – and then felt like your cat isn’t really gone?  That’s how Shades of Grey opens.  Dulcie Schwartz is having a miserable summer.  Her graduate studies are going nowhere, her nice roommate has been replaced (temporarily) by a boorish subletter, and, worst of all, she’s had to put her beloved cat, Mr. Grey, to sleep.  So when she comes home from her crappy summer job to see a cat who looks just like Mr. Grey sitting on her front stoop, she’s sort of shocked.  But then when that cat says to her, “I wouldn’t go inside, if I were you,” she doesn’t know what to make of it.  Being Dulcie, she doesn’t really pay attention and goes inside – to find her roommate dead, with her knife in his back, and a whole mess of problems waiting.  Perhaps it would be a good time to point out here that Dulcie is studying the Gothic adventure stories of the late 18th Century.  She just never expected her own life to become a ghost story…

What made you decide to start a new series, rather than continuing the successful Theda Krakow series?

I actually wrote Shades of Grey while Cries and Whiskers, the third Theda book, was in production. I needed to take a break, I wanted to try something different and … voila!  Then my editor at Poisoned Pen Press asked about Theda and I was happy to return to her and write Probable Claws.  But soon after that, Shades of Grey sold on the condition that I write a sequel.  I’ve just finished Grey Matters, which will be out in December in the UK, by March in the US.

You are a prolific writer – did you always know that you wanted to be a writer? 

Always.  I’ve always liked telling stories and I wrote those stories down from the first days I could write.  It was just a question of figuring out if I could do this for a living.

You’ve written both fiction and nonfiction.  Do you prefer one over the other, and if so, why?

These days I much prefer fiction.  I find it more fun.  But it requires a different kind of effort.  Nonfiction, and for me that also includes journalism, is about presenting a truth, or truths.  Facts and research.  I believe in over-researching, that is, doing enough interviews and research so you start to hear the same stories again and again.  I always want multiple confirmations of anything I’m writing about.  I want to make sure I have the story right. I’m also very conscious of what a very smart editor once told me: we strive for objectivity, but it doesn’t exist.  We all have a bias, a viewpoint, a prejudice.  So when I write nonfiction I also want to make sure that I present the options and, when possible, that I’m aware of my own bias or viewpoint. When I can, I try to state who I am as the writer in a piece.  Let the reader know, so she or he can make up her or his own mind  about how to read what I’ve written.

For fiction, I’ll do some research but it’s different kind of work.  It is more important in fiction to make a believable world than an utterly true one.  I am reminded of something Barry Unsworth said about writing historical fiction.  (He’s a wonderful writer – check out his Sacred Hunger.)  Someone asked him about his medieval mystery, Morality Play, specifically about the hand gestures early actors used.  How did he find out that particular tidbit, he was asked.  He didn’t, he replied.  He made it up.  It seemed like something actors of that period ought to do, so he had them do it.  And it works, because it makes perfect sense in context.

Another thought on the fiction/nonfiction divide:  My husband (Jon Garelick, who now writes about jazz and works as an editor at the Boston Phoenix) used to write and teach fiction.  When I first started writing fiction, I said, full of glee, “Hey, this is great! I can make shit up!”  And he replied, “Yes, but you have to make shit up.”  Which about sums it up.  You don’t have to dig up facts and figures, but you do have to keep mining your imagination in order to get words on the page.

What does a typical day of writing look like for you?

I make myself write every weekday, Monday through Friday.  Basically, I give myself a word count for the day, most days.  I like to write at least 1,000 word or 1,500 words a day.  That can take from an hour to all day.  I wrote Grey Matters on deadline, making myself write 2,000 words a day and my readers think it’s the best thing I have ever written, but that was hard. I’m happier at 1,500 words a day.

What do you love most about being a writer?

The writing.  I love my characters and my books.  I just love spending time with them.

What do you like least about being a writer?

The waiting.  I was tempted to say “the writing,” because when it’s not working, it’s a bear.  I’ll grind out 1,000 words of description or dialogue and know I’m going to cut it later.  But really, the worst part is waiting to hear from your agent, from editors, from publishers, from critics.  If I could just write and then not care, I’d be much, much happier.

The cat in Shades of Grey is a “ghost cat” – how did you come up with the idea for Mr. Grey?

The idea came from two sources: my own experiences after I had to put my much loved cat Cyrus to sleep.  I felt like he was still around.  I mean, I know rationally that it was just that I was used to him, but it really felt quite strongly that he was still a presence in my life.  To the point where I actually believed I saw him, sitting on a stoop a few blocks from my house.  I told myself, well, there must be another cat who looks like Cyrus.  But I kept going back and I never saw that cat again.  And, yes, Cyrus is the model for Mr. Grey: a longhair grey with a face more Siamese than Persian, a quiet and dignified manner, and huge white whiskers.

The other spur came from my fellow authors.  We were at the Mystery Lovers’ Book Shop annual shindig in Oakmont, PA, the Festival of Mystery (an incredible daylong bookfest, if you ever get the chance), and we were all talking about what to do next.  And one — I think it was Karen E. Olson (author of The Missing Ink) — said, “You should write about a ghost cat.” And that stuck.

Who or what inspires you?

Everything. Random bits of overheard dialogue, things seen out of the corner of my eye.  Suggestions made lightly but remembered…

What is one of the most memorable experiences you’ve had at a book signing or event?

That’s a hard one, because so many are so cool.  What I particularly like is meeting aspiring writers – and then finding out later, at other events, that they have gotten published too. I’m a huge fan of libraries and independent bookstores. Places like Brookline Booksmith and Harvard Book Store here, M is for Mystery in San Mateo, New York’s Partners and Crime, Baltimore’s Mystery Loves Company… those events are always good.  I’m also a member of an international group called the Cat Writers’ Association (http://www.catwriters.org) and we have our annual conference alongside a big cat show every year, so we always end up signing right by hundreds of show cats.  That’s a blast, and between signings, we can go see the kitties.  That’s always fun.

What are you reading at the moment?

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.  Mantel is a British novelist, possibly my favorite writer.  This book, a retelling of the life of Thomas Cromwell, comes out in the US in October but my husband got me a signed copy of the British release as a birthday present. I’m trying to make it last. I sort of read too fast for my own pleasure sometimes. (I’ve been cutting it with other books, most recently Sara Stockbridge’s Grace Hammer, a fun Victorian.)

Thank you so much for this opportunity, Clea, and much success with Shades of Grey!

You can learn more about Clea and her book on her website and on her blog.

12 Comments on An Interview with Clea Simon

  1. Ingrid
    September 10, 2009 at 6:55 am (10 years ago)

    Thanks for your comment, Wendy – I’m glad you enjoyed the interview. I was a little sad at first that there wasn’t going to be a new Theda book, at least not for now (but I’m not giving up hope!), but once I read Shades of Grey, I liked Dulcie immediately and now I can’t wait for Grey Matters.

    Reply
  2. Literary Feline
    September 10, 2009 at 3:50 am (10 years ago)

    I’m a little slow in commenting, but I did want to thank you for the wonderful interview, Ingrid and Clea! As much as I like Theda, I am so glad to have met Dulcie.

    I always like hearing where authors get their ideas. Having lost pets in the past, I know exactly what she means about having that feeling that they are still hanging around. Paranormal mysteries are pretty common these days, but I really think that Clea brings something fresh to the table and I look forward to seeing where it leads.

    Reply
  3. Clea Simon
    September 7, 2009 at 1:49 pm (10 years ago)

    You’re welcome!
    I realized after I posted that I didn’t really answer all of your question. I do force myself to write, to hit that word count, and I also accept that several thousand words (maybe tens of thousands of words) will end up cut from my first draft. But I also have a vague sense of where my book is going (even though I’m not an outliner). That means that there is always some scene that I know I will ahve to write: Dulcie talks to the cops. Dulcie’s mom has a prophetic dream. Whatever. So even if I end up writing a rough draft of that scene, and will totally rewrite it later (or even discard it), that helps me come up with what to write on the uninspired days.

    Reply
  4. Nance
    September 4, 2009 at 6:44 pm (10 years ago)

    I love your summary: The ability to write is like a muscle. Use it and it gets stronger. Thanks for the reply!

    Reply
  5. Clea Simon
    September 4, 2009 at 5:40 pm (10 years ago)

    Hi Nance!
    Yes, I do – but I make myself hit my word count in dialogue, descriptions, and transitions. Those days are awful, but you know there’s always something you can write. You can tell yourself, well, Dulcie likes food. Maybe I can write her going out for lunch and something will come up. Most of the time, once you’ve started, even if you think you’re writing just the most trite, disposable stuff — stuff you’ll cut later — you find something grabs you and then you’re off. IThe ability to write is like a muscle. Use it and it gets stronger.

    Reply
  6. Ingrid
    September 4, 2009 at 4:53 pm (10 years ago)

    Patty and Tammy, I think you’ll both really enjoy “Shades of Grey.”

    Nance – what a great question.

    Reply
  7. Nance
    September 4, 2009 at 4:06 pm (10 years ago)

    WHAT A GREAT INTERVIEW! I have never read any cat novels, but these questions and answers make me want to order Shades of Grey right now. Reading this interview has opened me to choosing topics I would not have previously considered for casual reading.

    Clea, have you ever had “writer’s block” when you can’t come up with a thousand words for that day? If so, do you write nothing or force yourself to write something, as that way you have sentences and content for that day which can always be rewritten or modified? I have a grandiose concept that words just flow from the universe into a writer’s brain. But at the same time, it seems as though writing is hard work.

    Reply
  8. Clea Simon
    September 4, 2009 at 3:58 pm (10 years ago)

    Thanks for the warm welcome, folks! If anyone has any other questions for me, please feel free to post them. I’ll come back and answer.

    Reply
  9. Tammy
    September 4, 2009 at 3:25 pm (10 years ago)

    Thanks for posting this great interview! I love hearing about new authors/books to try out! I’ll have to see about finding one of Clea’s books! 🙂

    Reply
  10. Patty
    September 4, 2009 at 2:59 pm (10 years ago)

    Thanks for the head’s up on what sounds like a wonderful book! As a fellow cat lover who is currently owned by two, 14 year old brothers, I know how hard it is when we lose our furry family members. And while we can no longer reach out and pet and cuddle with them, I know they are still with us in spirit.

    Looking forward to reading about Mr. Grey!

    Reply
  11. Ingrid
    September 4, 2009 at 10:25 am (10 years ago)

    Thank you for being here, Clea.

    Reply
  12. Clea Simon
    September 4, 2009 at 9:36 am (10 years ago)

    Hi and thanks so much for having me here today!
    I’ll drop by often in case anyone else has any questions for me… or Mr. Grey.
    – Clea

    Reply

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