Dulcie Schwartz, her cat Esme, and the spirit of her departed cat, Mr. Grey, are back! In Code Grey, the ninth installment in Clea Simon’s Dulcie Schwartz mystery series, featuring the Harvard graduate student, it’s spring break, but Dulcie has stayed behind to continue to work on her doctoral thesis about a mysterious 19th century author of two gothic novels. Most of her friends have left Cambridge, even her boyfriend Chris is visiting his family in New Jersey.Continue Reading
I always look forward to a new installment in Clea Simon’s Dulcie Schwartz mystery series, featuring the Harvard graduate student, along with her kitten Esme and the spirit of her departed cat, Mr. Grey. This series has become one of my favorites. In Stages of Grey, the eighth book in the series, Dulcie is still working on her doctoral thesis about a mysterious 19th century author of two gothic novels. Her relationship with her boyfriend Chris finally seems to be on an even keel, and her black and white spirited cat Esme, and the spirit of her beloved Mr. Grey, are both guiding her through life as best as they can.Continue Reading
“Do you mind? I was working on something just now.”
“Oh, all right.” Don’t let it be said that Musetta the cat was ever less than gracious, especially as you’ve been so kind to drop by. Let me just stretch a bit. These long naps – excuse me, meditations – can leave my spine a bit stiff these days. Besides, this gives you the opportunity to admire my thick black fur. And see these paws? Yes, they are very white and clean. How very observant of you.Continue Reading
Clea Simon’s Dulcie Schwartz mystery series, featuring the Harvard graduate student, along with her kitten Esme and the spirit of her departed cat, Mr. Grey, has become one of my favorite cat mysteries. In Grey Howl, the seventh installment of the series, we find Dulcie helping with preparations for a prestigious literature conference. Dulcie is in the final stages of her doctoral thesis about an obscure gothic novel by a mysterious author, and she is excited about presenting her paper at the conference. But as the visiting scholars arrive, things begin to go wrong, and Dulcie finds herself in the middle of a tangled web of academic rivalries. A presentation is sabotaged, a scholar disappears, and another is murdered. And to top it all off, Dulcie’s boyfriend Chris is acting strangely.Continue Reading
I’m a huge fan of Clea Simon, and was eagerly awaiting this fifth book in the Dulcie Schwartz mystery series, featuring the Harvard graduate student, along with her kitten Esme and the spirit of her departed cat, Mr. Grey. I knew enough from reading the previous four books to set some nice chunks of reading time aside when I received my review copy of True Grey, because once you pick up one of Simon’s mysteries, you’re not going to want to put it down.
In this book, we find Dulcie finally making some real progress on her thesis about an incomplete gothic novel written by an unknown author in the 18th century. But just when things are going so well, Melanie Sloan Harquist, a visiting scholar, shows up and claims that not only has she found the incomplete novel, she is preparing to publish a biography of Dulcie’s author! Dulcie is devastated, because this would mean that years of research were wasted. Dulcie makes several thwarted attempts to contact Harquist. When she finally plans to pay a friendly visit, it’s too late: she finds the woman murdered, and ends up – literally – with blood on her hands. To make matters worse, Dulcie had threatened to kill Harquist just days before the murder when she was venting her frustration about the situation to friends.
Two weeks ago, Clea Simon told us about her fictional cats in The Cats in the Pages. Today, she shares some of the stories of her real life cats with us.
Guest post by Clea Simon
Before James came into my life, I knew too much about certain areas of life, but in terms of cats, I was feline ignorant. Roughly eight years old when my older brother brought home the black-an-white tom, I’d lavished my affection on turtles, hamsters, and one particularly fine toad (named Dyatt), finding my best family in these four-legged creatures. But never, before James, was my nearest and dearest a cat.
James, when he came to us, wasn’t particularly my pet. My brother had adopted him at college and, as is so often the case, only discovered afterward that cats are not allowed in dorms. Thus, his next trip home he brought the large thumbed cat to stay with us – only temporarily, we were told. But James – full name, James from Nashville (no, I don’t know why) – soon became a full-fledged member of a family that was, in many ways, odd.
Like so many cats of that era, this being the ‘70s, our family’s approach to James was very live and let live, a condition that I might now associate with neglect. In many ways, this was symptomatic of other elements of my family, which had been disrupted early on by the schizophrenia of my brother and my sister, and my parents’ inability to communicate, or cope. But in the case of cat care, I suspect it was largely out of ignorance that we let James wander at will, and soon he – an intact male – was getting into fights. Half the kittens in town resembled him, or had his big mitten-like paws. The other half resembled the hated “red cat,” whom we would see in our yard on occasion and against whom we united as a family, often yelling at the orange-red tom to scat even when James was happily napping on one of our beds.
James returned our hospitality by keeping us well stocked with a variety of prey. The local voles, we discovered soon enough, didn’t agree with him, and after a while he would bring those in whole. We couldn’t figure out why we were only the recipients of squirrel tails, however. Was he only able to catch onto the end of these fast arboreal rodents? We were disabused of this rather silly notion when we found his cache, under a dormer window. He was bringing us the tails – and keeping the rest for himself.
His freedom would bring him to tragedy. A fighter as well as a lover, he often disappeared for days, often coming back with wounds that we’d wash and try to treat, usually from animal combatants, sometimes of more mysterious origin. I still remember the morning he slunk in, covered in motor oil and heavy green paint. Sick, listless, and heaving, he’d obviously tried to clean himself, with disastrous effects. After attacking my mother in a panic when she’d tried to rinse him off, we wrapped him up in a beach towel and rushed him over to a neighbor. She had been raised on a farm and would brook no nonsense from a cat. While we watched, wringing our hands, she submerged the howling tom in a basin of soapy water and scrubbed him clean. By the time she was blow drying him, all the while holding him firmly by the scruff of his neck, he wasn’t even mewing. My mother got a tetanus shot. Our neighbor, Jeannie, undoubtedly saved his life. When he went missing before a ferocious summer storm, several years later, we waited for such a return, calling for him all around the neighborhood. He was gone.
But we were hooked, and James was followed by Thomas, who was hit by a car. A neighbor brought his still body to us, crying, and influenced forever my “indoors only” policy. Tara was next, the cat of my teen years, and I missed her more than I missed my family when I went to college. When I returned after my sophomore year, for a brief break, my mother broke it to me that my tuxedo’d pet, had died in a freak accident weeks earlier. Later that day, I was told that my brother had died, too, during my absence – committing suicide after years of disappointment, of hospitalizations, and dashed dreams. I remember my shock and disbelief, that these essential beings were gone – and that I hadn’t known – but my family has always been silent, and I didn’t question my parents further. I returned to college quietly devastated, and determined to avoid the kind of toxic secrets my family held onto so tightly.
Small wonder, perhaps, that after graduating, some of my closest bonds were with my cats. First, there was Cyrus, my eminence grisé – a longhaired grey who served as confidante, comforter, and wise counselor for sixteen years. A quiet cat, Cyrus was a gentleman from kittenhood on. In fact, the only time he ever bit me – when I was trying to remove a piece of Styrofoam from his mouth (he did have a bad Styrofoam habit) – was an accident. He looked at me, then, as shocked as I was, and swallowed the foam pellet. It passed through him safely, and until the day my husband and I had him put to sleep, he remained a devoted and sweet companion.
Musetta, as my readers will know, is every bit as sweet. But compared to Cyrus’s gentlemanly behavior, she’s a regular riot grrrl – a rowdy punk rocker of the feline world. Where Cyrus would rarely mew, perhaps gracing us with his near-silent open-mouthed “meh,” Musetta is a chatterbox. Demanding, too, and capable of an amazing range and volume when she wants something or simply has something to express. She also, I am embarrassed to admit, likes to bite. Not hard – never hard – but after a morning spent watching squirrels out the window, she’ll display some displaced aggression by pouncing on my foot, throwing a paw over it, and neatly nipping at where my foot’s spine would be, were it in fact a small independent animal. Should I have trained her otherwise? Possibly so, but I confess, after so much loss – after my own silent childhood – I love my cat’s freedom of expression. I love the joy she takes in life, her spirit. Her will.
At times, I think I love all the cats in my life for all the ways they are themselves, for they are the model of what I aspire to be.
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?
Have 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 (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.