Saturday, November 8, 2014

Clea Simon talks about her gripping new novel, STAGES OF GREY, subtext, how meaning matters, and so much more

 I first met Clea Simon on a now-defunct writers' forum many years ago, and we soon became friends. She's not only a prolific and talented author, she's the kind of friend you email every day for advice, support, or just to say hello. She's the author of three nonfiction books and the Theda Krakow and Dulcie Schwartz mystery series. The Theda books include Mew is For Murder, Cattery Row, Cries and Whiskers, and Probably Claws, all published by Poisoned Pen Press. Her Dulcie Schwartz series, featuring Dulcie and the ghost of her late, great cat Mr. Grey (from Severn House) are: Shades of Grey, Grey Matters, Grey Zone, Grey Expectations, True Grey, Grey Dawn, and Grey Howl. And, finally, her  Pru Marlowe pet noir series began with Dogs Don't Lie, Cats Can't Shoot, Parrots Prove Deadly, and continues this spring with Panthers Play for Keeps

Here, she talks about her latest Dulcie Schwartz mystery, Stages of Grey, writing, and so much more. I'm delighted to have her here. Thank you, Clea!

Steal Away

When writing a novel, we tend to start with a story. Character and plot. For a mystery writer, that usually means a murder. But as I work on a book – and I think this is common to all of us writers – I often come to realize that there’s something else going on. A subtext. And as I read through my latest mystery, Stages of Grey, I realized that I wasn’t writing about a murder as much as I was really writing about stealing – specifically about how art steals – or, perhaps I should say, how art appropriates.

Central to Stages of Grey is a theatrical production based on a real-life theatrical experience – a musical, a disco interpretation of Midsummer Night’s Dream that was launched in New York and has since spread nationwide, proving hugely popular. Called The Donkey Show, I saw it when it opened in Cambridge, and, well, I hated it. I felt robbed of the two hours I spent watching it. I came of age in the disco era – Nile Rodgers still gets me dancing – but I thought The Donkey Show was crap. Worthless as an interpretation of the original Shakespeare But not perhaps useless…

Allow me to step back for a moment and explain. Stages of Grey is the eighth in a series featuring my amateur sleuth Dulcie Schwartz, graduate student doing her dissertation at Harvard on the Gothic novels of the late 18th Century.  These books – like the contemporary spin-offs of the same name – are wild adventures, replete with ghosts and romance, vampires, sex and violence.

Now, although she is quite taken by these books, Dulcie sees herself as a highly rational person. Although readers will I hope see how her bookishness may in fact blind her to reality, she thinks of herself as an intellectual, a realist. Clear headed. This despite the fact that there are the elements of the Gothic – in particular, a certain feline ghost – that creep into her well-ordered scholarly life.

Dulcie’s life is in her books, and therefore she must be dragged by her friends to her local theater – in her case to see a disco version of Ovid’s Metamorphosis – a production that I’ve called Changes, the Musical.

To give Changes a believable, if laughable, life on the page, I borrowed bits and pieces from everywhere. From The Donkey Show, of course, but from other productions as well. And because my readers have come to expect a certain feline presence in my books – more important to my mysteries than any particular dance numbers – from Spiegelworld, the adult-themed tented circus, I stole one particular star turn} a cat who walks on a tight rope. All of this went into imagining a production that hides betrayal and results in a gruesome murder, because these, of course are not only the basics of Gothic fiction, they are essential to crime fiction.

When Dulcie sees the play, she is unaware of the nasty backstage goings on.  She is, however, totally unimpressed by Changes, In particular, she feels it misappropriates. That it steals to no purpose. And at some point, while working on this book, I realized that the entire Dulcie series is a study on appropriation

Some of this was intentional: The Gothic novels that Dulcie loves were popular fiction – hugely popular – They were written largely by and for women – and largely disparaged by critics. And so, yes, for me, they have served as a stand-in for crime fiction and the debate over genre fiction going on today.

It may be important to note that when I started the series, I couldn’t find one Gothic novel that served my purposes – one book that my heroine could attach herself to. So I patched together tropes and clichés, endangered ladies and nefarious lords to create The Ravages of Umbria, the fictional fiction that is subject of Dulcie’s dissertation. After all, I told myself, there is nothing new under the sun – or under the blood-red wolfish moon that shines over the Mountains of Umbria, where Hermetria – the heroine of The Ravages, battles a fiendish power. Yes, mountains in Umbria. The original Goths weren’t big on authenticity either

We writers are all carrion crows – feasting on the scraps. Not just in the Gothic or crime fiction genres but also in so-called high art literary fiction. (We all know literary fiction is just another genre, right?) We all do it.

Shakespeare did it, too. One source of Midsummer Night’s Dream was Ovid’s Metamorphosis. And Ovid’s masterwork was itself a composite of hundreds of earlier myths.

But we crime writers are a moral lot, and so I feel the need to justify.  If there is nothing new, and it is all appropriation – what Richard Posner in his “little book of plagiarism” calls “Creative imitation” – the issue, then, isn’t of originality, but as I realized when I was first trying to understand my own reaction to The Donkey Show and Stages of Grey. The question is of utility. And once I had arrived at this, I began to realize how many other things I had stolen – and how complicated this process is.

How do we use what we’ve stolen? Do we transform it? Do we find new meaning in old forms – using them to shed light on something eternal, like Ovid and Shakespeare did, to study the different facets of love? Or can we put them to use to illustrate and explain something current, like perhaps an ongoing contemporary literary debate about genre?

Maybe, ultimately, meaning doesn’t matter. Maybe all that matters is that the appropriation updates something of value. That it entertains. In other words, Does it have a beat and can we dance to it? In the case of The Donkey Show, excuse me – Changes, the Musical – I think not. For Stages of Grey  and for Dulcie Schwartz in general, well I hope so.

I’m not saying I’m Shakespeare, far from it – though he too was a commercial writer churning them out for an audience just like so many of us are.  But I am saying he stole with the best of them and is – in turn – stolen from. So maybe I have to forgive The Donkey Show. Without that, I wouldn’t have Changes, and without that, I wouldn’t have Stages of Grey.

Clea Simon writes the Dulcie Schwartz and Pru Marlowe mysteries, the next of which will be Kittens Can Kill, to be published by Poisoned Pen Press in March 2015. Stages of Grey was published by Severn House in October. She can be reached at or on Twitter at @Clea_Simon


NoraA said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NoraA said...

Now I'm really sorry I was stupid enough to think I could get a parking spot by the bookstore. I could have taken the subway like any sane person.

I'm also sorry I got to miss out on meeting everyone that I invited to this wonderful talk and of course the dinner group afterwards.

Caroline thanks for posting this so I could at least enjoy it from home.