I first met Clea Simon on a website for writers and it didn't take us long to become fast friends and comrades-in-arms. I'm thrilled to host her here for her edgy new novel, THE NINTH LIFE, which has been racking up the raves--and Clea was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal today!
Clea is the author of three nonfiction books and four mystery series. The nonfiction books are 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. The Theda Krakow mystery series was launched in 2005 with Mew is for Murder and continued with Cattery Row and Cries and Whiskers, and Probable Claws. Her Dulcie Schwartz series launched in 2009 with Shades of Grey, and continues with Grey Matters, Grey Zone, Grey Expectations, True Grey, Grey Dawn, Grey Howl, Stages of Grey and Code Grey. The Pru Marlowe pet noir series started in 2011 with Dogs Don't Lie and continues with Cats Can't Shoot, Parrots Prove Deadly, Panthers Play for Keeps, Kittens Can Kill and, in 2016, When Bunnies Go Bad . In 2016, Severn House launched a new, darker Blackie and Care mystery series with The Ninth Life.
A regular contributor to the Boston Globe, Clea's writing pops up occasionally in such publications as American Prospect, Ms., San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon.com.
The Ninth Life just got a rave from Library Journal, the kind that authors would kill for. Tell us about the book, where it sparked, how you wrote it and can you also talk about the "waiting for reviews" stage?
Thank you, Caroline! As you can imagine, I’m over the moon. I feel like the reviews have been getting it – the “it” being that after 19 (yikes!) cozy/amateur sleuth mysteries, I’ve written something darker, even if it also (like my other mysteries) features a cat.
I’m not sure what sparked it, actually. I know that I tend to read darker, more serious fiction than I’ve been writing for the last decade or so, so I guess it made sense that this would finally come through. I was thinking, at first, of a kind of Sherlock Holmes pastiche – only, Holmes has been removed from the scene and the action focuses on one of his Irregulars, the street urchins who did his errands. And I knew that i wanted a narrator who could not directly interact with the other characters. (Not-really-a-spoiler alert: he’s a cat.) One thing that was hard for me was finding the heart of the book. Blackie, as the narrator is called (that’s not his name, but that’s another story), is rather cool and distanced. It wasn’t until I realized that although he’s the POV character that he’s not the heart of the book that it really took off. Does that make sense?
Then it was the classic thing where I wrote a draft in a rush - and only after reading it through did I realize that there was this other theme going on, about the sexual abuse/exploitation of children. Because of my background writing “cozies,” I don’t do explicit violence. I can’t stand to be cruel to my characters for no reason, although I want them to be tested. But there is a lot of darkness in this book. So, yeah, waiting to see what the critics would think - cat mystery AND dark, etc. - has been nerve-wracking. I think PW nailed it when they said, "Noir fans who are fond of felines will find a lot to like.” Though the jury is still out on how many of those kinds of readers there are. Library Journal said "A delight for anyone who relishes cat mysteries.” And that was NOT a foregone conclusion.
I also loved that Publishers Weekly says you take a turn to the dark side with an edgy new novel--who wouldn't adore THAT phrase? Were you consciously trying to be darker, or did it just happen, or just fit with the story you were telling? I think I'm asking, how much control do you feel you really have over your writing?
This is one of those books that just came to me. I couldn’t have made it softer if I had tried - this just wasn’t that kind of book. So, I guess the answer is I didn’t feel I had any control.
Do you base the cats in your mysteries on real cats you've loved and known? Blackie, in The Ninth Life, is a new cat--how'd you go about creating Blackie?
I think he’s a person I’ve known, but I’m not sure. I know I project mightily onto every animal I see, because … hey, they’re not going to argue with you, right? He just is, you know?
You've written a lot of different series and some nonfiction books--is the writing process the same for each book?
With the series books (right now the Dulcie Schwartz feline mysteries and the Pru Marlowe pet noir books), I can’t start with a fresh slate. I not only have a cast of characters already in place, but I have a larger overall series arc. For instance, Dulcie Schwartz is almost done with her doctoral dissertation - so that has to be part of the book. And Pru Marlowe is thawing a little in her relation to other people and that’s a constant I have to at least touch on. I do pick up and momentarily abandon some of the secondary characters book by book, but the overall larger story has to be at least taken into consideration when I write the series.
You're also one of the hardest working writers I know. How do you manage your time?
Thanks, Caroline! I know for a fact that you work pretty hard too. For me, fear of deadline is a motivating factor. I always want to have something on paper – a pile of words – that i can start revising early enough so that I can conceivable make my deadline. The way I do it is I give myself a word count per day that I have to write. Right now, I’m going for 1,250 words a day. Knowing that none of them may make it into the final book helps!
What's obsessing you now and why?
The election. Don’t ask. Trump. I just … can’t.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
OK, I’m going to be self-serving here and say, “Why should anyone who doesn’t normally read cat mysteries read this book?” To which I’d say, it’s not about the cat. Its a dark take on the hero’s quest, with all that implies. Only, yeah, the hero is a feline.