We engage with the work of the authors we love on many levels. In the case of fiction, that engagement is often about a careful blend of passion and voice. In non-fiction, it seems to me it’s about heart and sincere understanding of the material under study. It’s why the authors who excel at both fiction and non are rare. Those four things — passion, skill, heart and research — are unlikely to surface in a single person. When it does crop up, more often than not, the writer in question is a journalist.
Clea Simon is not the exception to the rule. A respected journalist whose credits include The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, Ms. and Salon, Simon wrote three critically acclaimed works of non-fiction before penning her first novel, 2005’s Mew is for Murder, the first in a series of popular mysteries featuring Boston rock journalist, Theda Krakow and her well loved cat, Musetta. The fourth book in the series, Probable Claws (Poisoned Pen Press), was published in April. Despite the punny titles and the strong cat connections, Simon points out that the cats in her books don’t talk. In fact, Simon has referred to the books featuring Theda and Musetta as “kitty noir,” something she says with a smile but is only half-joking about. And she’s right: there is a whiff of the darkness at the edges of the tales she’s chosen to tell here. Murder, mystery and music via the Boston club scene that Simon herself knows very well. A strong core of animal rights and welfare run through Simon’s books, though never in a self-righteous way. Readers knowledgeable about animal protection issues will find themselves nodding in agreement, those who aren’t will find knowledge shared in an interesting way.
Mystery, music, nightclubs, animals in danger: on a certain level, it’s an unlikely combination, yet, somehow, it works very well. And why? That special blend, I think: passion, heart, understanding and voice, voice, voice. Simon’s is as strong and clear as the passion she brings to the stories she tells.
What’s your favorite city?
Well, I adore Cambridge, where I live, but I’d have to say New Orleans. Not sure I could live there, but I need regular fixes, for sure.
You only have six hours to spend there. What do you do?
Eat oysters at Acme, browse the “early novel” shelves at Beckham’s Books (where I have found many wonderful, sentimental turn-of-the-20th century finds), stop in at Louisiana Music Factory, and then head out to Tipitina’s, where through some marvelous happenstance Rebirth is opening for, oh, let’s say Dr. John. If there’s any time left, I’d end up at Coop’s or Clover Grill before the celestial ride home.
What food do you love?
Easier to say what I don’t… um, all seafood? Pheasant, quail, and andouille gumbo? Spicy boiled crawfish? (Can you tell I’m recently back from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest?)
What food have you vowed never to touch again?
The pre-cooked crawfish that a dear friend had shipped to me as a present. Very well intentioned. Very scary.
What’s on your nightstand?
Lens cleaner, a glowing squirt frog to squirt water at the cat when she gets rambunctious at four a.m. (the fact that it’s a glowing squirt frog helps), the books from the pile up the side of the nightstand that are leaning onto it for support. Clock radio set on the local college station.
What inspires you?
Talking with friends about making art (music, painting, writing).
What are you working on now?
I have just sent the sequel to Shades of Grey off to my agent. I’m sure she’ll suggest more revisions before we send it to my editor, but right now, I’m catching up on a lot of freelance and other things that had been pushed aside. Shades of Grey is the first in a new series, slightly paranormal, that Severn House will publish in September, but the sequel, tentatively titled “Grey Matters,” is due on May 31. It’s very odd to be finishing up the sequel before having any real-world feedback on the first book, but I’m grateful for Severn’s interest! At some point, I want to start revising my tongue-in-cheek pet noir, find a publisher for that…
Tell us about your process, please.
Although I try to write mornings, these days I find myself needing to get the money work (editing, mostly) done first and the creative stuff really kicks in mid-afternoon. I usually write to a word count (i.e., 1,000 words a day), five days a week. And although I have a basic idea of the book’s direction and a white board with sticky notes all over it of ideas I’ve had that often make little sense within 24 hours (such as “He has green eyes!” Or “Lloyd shows up at Bullock’s”) I tend to need to write the book out, then revise it to make sense.
Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
My iPod recharging, my various cat fetishes. A wilting daffodil and the cereal bowl from my breakfast.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I always knew that’s what I wanted. It just took a few years (as a journalist, an editor and in various other publishing jobs) before I realized it was feasible.
If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
Pulling my hair out? I don’t know. Probably just cooking a lot more, or maybe studying zoology. I always wanted to be a herpetologist. But that’s because I love frogs and toads. I hated having to dissect them.
To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
This one changes. But I still have saved, on my answering machine, my agent singing “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…” from December, when we got the Severn House offer.
For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?
The dress code. Right now, I’m wearing sweats and big fuzzy socks. Several years ago, I gave away all the suits I had from my days working as a magazine editor.
What’s the most difficult?
The waiting. I don’t even mind the rejections so much as the waiting. When someone rejects something, you can revise it and send it out again. But not knowing? The worst.
What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
Where do I get my ideas? To which I don’t have a good answer. Also, if my heroines are me. To which I can only say, all my characters are part of me.
What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
I’d like to be asked about specific plot or character developments in the book — why did this character do that? More generally, how do your stories/characters develop?
What question would like never to be asked again?
“Why don’t you send a copy to Oprah?”
Please tell us about Probable Claws.
It’s the fourth, and I suspect maybe the last, Theda Krakow mystery. Theda has reached a turning point in her life. Her friends’ lives have all changed: Bill, her boyfriend, has retired from the police and is managing a jazz club, a job that takes a lot of his time. Bunny is about to become a mother. Violet is fully ensconced in her own relationship and her shelter work. The newspaper business is changing. Theda has to figure out where she stands in this new world, and there are no easy answers. It’s funny, because my editor thought it should be obvious that the next step for Theda is to get married. I don’t think it’s obvious. I think that things cannot stay the way they have, but that she has legitimate concerns and interests pushing her various ways.
This is all set against a backdrop of a very real, and possibly unresolvable conflict in animal welfare: the issue of euthanasia. Nobody wants to kill healthy animals, but there are too many cats, dogs, etc., for shelters to care for. So lots of places are trying innovative campaigns to reduce the necessity of euthanasia — better matching people and pets, fostering animals, etc. — but it’s an asymptotic approach to the absolute of eliminating the practice. And there is a lot of tension between shelters with different philosophies, a tension ratcheted up by the struggle for funds. Well, it seems perfectly reasonable to me that in this conflict, you might have a murder. A “no kill” murder, if you will.
Because, oh yeah, there’s also a murder!
Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
I was about to type, “I’m very lazy at heart and only write out of fear of deadline.” But a lot of people know that. So, um, I’ll have to come up with something else. But then I’d have to kill you.