Saturday, April 14, 2012

Clea Simon talks about Cats Can't Shoot, Grey Expectations, writing, doubt, joy, and so much more

I first met Clea Simon on this writing site we both frequented. I really liked the funny, smart way she was presenting her ideas, but more than that, I was thrilled that she was the author of Fatherless Women, a book I loved. We became friends online first, and then began to manage to see each other once a year. I read more of her books and loved all of them. We go to each other's readings, we do a daily email check in, we boost each other up and cajole and nag and talk about everything from writing to money to morale--honestly, I depend on Clea and I don't know what I'd do without her. 

I'm thrilled she has two absolutely terrific, smart new mysteries out, with another coming out next year--and I'm even more thrilled she's here on my blog. Big hugs and thanks, Clea! 

Writing is a lonely business, which is one reason I’m so lucky to have Caroline as a writing buddy. She and I email each other all the time, complaining of plot complications that won’t be resolved. Character flip-flops that caught us unawares, and inevitable insecurities of the wait, when the agent, the editor, the reviewer reads our work. Sitting here, alone in my office, I don’t know how I’d get my work done if it weren’t for friends like Caroline.

But even as we bat our anxieties back and forth, and she reassures me that, yes, after thirteen books, maybe I am a “real” writer, I’ve become increasingly aware of a major difference between us. You see, for the past few years, I’ve been writing series mysteries. Specifically, I am now writing two series for two different publishers: the Dulcie Schwartz mysteries, which feature a graduate student in Gothic literature, who happens to get visits from the ghost of her late cat, and the Pru Marlowe pet noirs, which feature a tough-girl animal behaviorist who can hear what animals are thinking (and has an even tougher tabby as a sidekick). This month, I’ve got the two newest books in each series out – Grey Expectations (Severn House) is the Dulcie, Cats Can’t Shoot (Poisoned Pen) is the Pru.  Next year, when Caroline’s next book will be out, I may have three.

Crazy, isn’t it? Caroline and I go through so many of the same processes – the electric thrill of inspiration, the crazed zone of furious writing, the doubt, and the joy – but these days, I seem to be doing it double time. And so when she and I talked about what I could guestblog about, I thought that writing series might be a good topic, and she obliged by asking me some questions.

What is your schedule this year?
I’m actually writing three books right now. Severn House decided they wanted my Dulcies to come out a little more frequently, and they contracted me for two more. How could I say no? But I also had the last in my three-book Pru contract due, so...  I turned in the manuscript for the fifth Dulcie, True Grey, last month, and am awaiting edits. I am now finishing up Parrots Prove Deadly, the third Pru book, which is due in June, and when I’m done with that, I have another Dulcie due Sept. 1. What I’m hoping is that going over the edits for True Grey will get me back in the Dulcie mindset and remind me of the threads I left hanging. (I also have pretty good notes.)

How do you get it all done?
I’ve had to become super disciplined. I don’t outline, I find it kills creativity, but I do have a good idea of the direction of each book. And I make myself write at least a certain number of words each day. The good part is, when I’m writing regularly (1,500 or 2,000 words a day is standard for me), I find the ideas keep coming. The problem is that sometimes I get so caught up I lose track of time. Over the winter, there were many days when I did not get outdoors during daylight. And I’ve learned to keep a portable egg timer with me. Too often, I’d put up something for dinner and not heard the timer down in the kitchen going off. We had many scalded pots and acrid artichokes before I started carrying my little egg timer back up to my office with me.

Do you worry about repeating yourself?
Yes, I’m terrified of it. But there is so much out there, so many possibilities, that what usually happens is that I run into something that I think I can use and I can’t fit it in. And I rely on happy accidents: I was having Pru work with a raccoon and it hit me: She gets that close to a wild animal, it’s going to bite her. Suddenly, I was researching rabies and rabies vaccines, and my book was going off in a whole different direction.

Both your protagonists are so different. Is it difficult to switch voices?
Yes, I need a little rest time between. When I’m writing Pru, as I am right now, I think of Dulcie as a wimp. Na├»ve and silly. But when I’m in a Dulcie book, I adore her, and I think of Pru as an unsympathetic bitch. At some level, it’s probably good for me to explore both these characters!

What are the other challenges of writing series books on deadline?
I’m terrified of what I might miss. I force myself to be hypervigilant when I’m revising, and I am extremely grateful both to my small, core group of readers and my editors for their input. But still, in Cats Can’t Shoot, there was a stupid gun error – I don’t even want to repeat it – in the ARC. A reader caught it, and I was able to make the change before the printed version, but that’s what gives me nightmares. I try to write freely and wildly, but I have to be extra careful in every stage of revisions, because there’s just no time.

Yikes! Are there advantages?
Yes, indeed! I love my characters, and I love watching them grow and change from book to book. Relationships are developing and changing. All sorts of stuff that really has no connection to the mystery in each book, but is deeply gratifying to me. Plus, I get to avoid that post-book post-partum depression. I know I’ll see these folks again soon.

Still, you must have some pet peeves?
Oh, I do. It still amazes me how many people look down on mysteries– they say they’re “just” mysteries, not “real books”  – like mysteries are automatically a lower form of writing. Yes, I write quickly, but I revise carefully – and writing slowly is no guarantee of quality. When you’re in the zone, you’re in the zone. That said, I’ve written more serious books, nonfiction, and this is what I want to be doing now, so I try not to let that get to me (too much).

Sounds like I should let you get back to it!
It was lovely to take a break with you, Caroline! Thanks so much for letting me talk about the series side of writing. – Clea

Excerpts from Clea’s books may be found on her website, at


Clea Simon said...

Thanks so much for letting me vent, Caroline! You truly are a wonderful friend.

jenny milchman said...

How nice to read about a true writing friendship. I very much enjoy Clea's posts on the listserv, DorothyL, although I'm new to her work, and Caroline, I've read all of yours--and you even offered me encouragement way back at one point during my long slog to get published (my debut is coming out next February). Congrats on all the deserved success with PICTURES, and to both of you for sharing just what a writing kindred spirit can do.

Clea Simon said...

Thank you, Jenny, and so glad your debut is coming out! I think it is essential to have writing friends like Caroline (and you!). Who else understands this crazy profession of ours?

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