Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Interview with Author Clea Simon, Theda Krakow Mysteries

Mysteries come in all shapes and sizes. They range from the hard-boiled to the cozy and everything in between. Protagonists can be anyone from police detectives to the amateur sleuth. Reporters fall into the role naturally--they have a penchant for seeking out the truth and following leads regardless of risk (at least most of the fictional ones do). Clea Simon's Theda Krakow, freelance journalist and music critic, is no different in that regard. And yet, Simon's series does stand out in the sense that her series is more character based. Theda's personal life and relationships, not to mention her beautiful cat Musetta, are just as much a part of the novel as the mystery itself.

Probable Claws, released just last week, is the fourth in the Theda Krakow mystery series. The author, Clea Simon, was kind enough to drop by and answer a few of my questions about her writing and books.

Please join me in welcoming Clea Simon to
Musings of a Bookish Kitty!

Literary Feline: How did you get your start writing?

Clea Simon: I've always written. Seriously, one of the earliest elementary school exercises I remember (and that my mother saved) was a story I wrote about a prince who was turned into a frog. He could only be turned back if he could reach the fountain at the end of the world. So he hopped and he hopped, but he realized he'd never get there so he decided to be happy as a frog. The end. As soon as I could read, I was the classic bookworm, always taking a book out into the woods behind our house to read or burrowing into one in a corner. And so I always wrote, as well. It just went hand in hand. But somewhere in college, I lost faith in my ability to write fiction. Too many creative writing classes and too much intimidation! And by then I was also writing for the school newspaper, and so I put away the fiction writing for a good ten years or so.

Literary Feline: You have written a few nonfiction books in addition to fiction. What made you decide to make that leap? I imagine there are different kinds of challenges that come with each format. What kind of challenges did you run into in writing one or the other?

Clea Simon: Honestly, in retrospect, I think it was a question of confidence. When you write nonfiction, you are purveying information - facts or an analysis of a situation. Something "real." So you can tell yourself that the writing doesn't matter, that you are giving people information. But when you are writing fiction, you are saying "I've totally made this up out of my head, but I think it has worth." It took a long time for me to make that leap.

I made my living for years as a journalist and arts critic, primarily as a music critic (like Theda). Which may sound like "making stuff up," but you are actually trying to give your readers a lot of information - it's not just "I like this" or "I don't like that." It's, well, "this band is interesting because it is drawing on this tradition, which I'll tell you a bit about. But they're doing something new, which I know because I've made a point of listening to everyone. So you might want to give it a try, but listen for that twist - that new thing it brings... " Stuff like that. That is actually sort of what I did with my nonfiction books. The first, about my family ("Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadows of Mentally Ill Siblings") was me saying, well, yes, lots has been written about schizophrenia. But as the younger sister of two people with schizophrenia, I think it affected my life in a unique way. Let me talk to other siblings who don't have the disease and see if we have anything in common... and we did. The same went for my other two nonfiction books ("Fatherless Women: How We Change After We Lose Our Dads" and "The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats"). In both cases, I did research and interviews. I may not have said anything new, but I tried to put information and first-person accounts together in a new way, give readers a new perspective on something that maybe they had lived with.

The challenge of that, of course, is that you feel you have to get it right. You have to talk to everybody available. And you have to try to account for the effect that your interviewing has on the people you are interviewing. I mean, we don't always tell the truth -- we don't always KNOW the truth -and the act of being interviewed affects how we answer (really). So you have all these variables and you really want to get it right, show all the options. That's the challenge there. With fiction, the burden is entirely on making a made-up world SEEM utterly real and convincing. Your people have to act as real people might, your actions have to be believable. And there are no facts -- there's no excuse for the story except that it will entertain.

I've told this story before, but I made the leap -- or the leap backward, you could say, since I'd written stories as a child -- because a local bookstore owner gave me permission, in a way. Kate Mattes of Kate's Mystery Books here in Cambridge invited me to a holiday party at her store. She does these every year, has a ton of local authors sign and she knew me because I read mysteries, and she asked me to come and sign "Feline Mystique." I said, "But Kate, that's not a mystery." And she said, "Believe it or not, Clea, there's a huge overlap between women who love cats and mystery readers." Well, I came and signed and had a blast, and at some point in the evening she turned to me and said, "You should write a mystery." And so I started the very next day.

Literary Feline: In your books, you tackle important social issues, and not just those involving animals. Where do your story ideas come from?

Clea Simon: Life! They interest me. For example, someone sent me a clipping saying "PETA hates pets" and it was all about the idea that pets, especially cats that go outdoors, are invasive species and should be done away with. That was the core of "Cries and Whiskers." For "Probable Claws," the nugget was something I heard about one animal shelter accusing another one that claimed never to euthanize healthy animals of, in fact, euthanizing animals it couldn't place -- and saying that those animals weren't "healthy" or "socialized." There's a great push on to end unnecessary euthanasia, and I'm for it - but there are too many animals out there and no simple solutions, so I wanted to look at that. I mean, that's simplistic, but that was the core of it. There are just so many interesting conflicts out there.

Literary Feline: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

Clea Simon: That these are complex issues! Oh, and that pet overpopulation is a serious problem and that they should spay/neuter their pets to stop unwanted suffering!! And they should have a good time while they're reading, too.

Literary Feline: The question many of the fans of your series are asking: Are you going to continue writing about Theda and Musetta now that you've started a new series?

Clea Simon: I would very much like to!! I have many other stories to tell and I love those characters. To some extent, it really depends on my publisher(s). Poisoned Pen thought that maybe Theda needed a rest -- and then Severn House bought "Shades of Grey," which I'd been working on on the side -- and they've contracted a second Dulcie Schwartz book, so that's what I'm working on now. But I'd love to go back and spend time with Theda and Violet and Musetta. Maybe give Violet a chance to solve the crime!

Literary Feline: Tell us something about your new series!

Clea Simon: Dulcie Schwartz is another side of me, I guess. Where Theda is the rock and roller, Dulcie is the bookworm - only she goes farther than I ever did. She's working toward her PhD in Gothic literature, studying those great, campy novels of the 1790s (which, by the way, were largely written by women and were popular and all the critics poo-poohed them). And she thinks she is very sane and logical, unlike her sort of ditzy mom, but then she stumbles across a body and she seems to be hearing her much-missed, late cat Mr. Grey speaking to her and helping her figure things out... Needless to say, her very ordered life starts to take on elements of the Gothic novels she so loves. I'm trying for more humor in these books. It's a very different type of writing for me and I'm having a blast!

Literary Feline: Who or what inspires you?

Clea Simon: Oh lordy, everything. I'm constantly reading books that I admire and I'll think, "I wish I'd written that." My agent now has a sort of tongue-in-cheek hardboiled mystery I wrote after reading a lot of Linda L. Richards and Megan Abbott. Who knows what will happen to that? And people constantly inspire me. Right now, we're having a tough time and my old profession -- journalism -- is in particularly bad straits, but the resilience of people inspires me. I'm actually very optimistic about life in this country right now.

Literary Feline: Is there a question you have not yet been asked by anyone that you wish someone would ask?

Clea Simon:
Hmmm... you've asked really good ones! How about "So what's next?"

And then I'd answer: Well, I've just hacked my way through a first draft of the second Dulcie book, tentatively titled "Grey Matters." I find these days that I can only do the roughest sorts of outlines and then I really have to write the book. As I write it, I realize more and more what it is really about --who the characters are, what the crime is really about, and what should happen. It's not a time efficient way of writing, because now I have to go back and work in a lot of things that I realized should have happened -- and clues, too! -- but it seems to work for me. So I'm about to start re-reading it and doing a rough revision, putting all those missing bits in (I have a load of Post-it notes all over my computer!). Then I'll print it out an read it through carefully..

And I'm waiting to hear what might be the fate of my humorous noir, which features a tough-girl animal psychic named Pru Marlowe and her sidekick, a snippy calico named Wallis. So after this, it could be another Dulcie or another Theda -- or I could end up working on another Pru! I'll be sending Dulcie #2 off at the end of May. I know I'll have to do more revisions on it, but sometime in June I'll get to think about what's next at least.

Literary Feline: What is one of the more memorable experiences you've had on a book tour?

Clea Simon: One of the nicest experiences I had was walking into Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis and seeing a small, but very friendly crowd -- maybe a dozen people -- and having a great time with them. They were real readers and had great questions. And then, before I could leave, the owner cornered me -- she'd had phone orders for my book from about a dozen MORE people so she needed me to sign copies! What a lovely surprise!

I'm sure I've had other great stories, but I'm feeling sort of brain dead at the moment, I'm afraid. I've been going on quite a bit!

Literary Feline: Are you reading anything at the moment?

Clea Simon: Silly question!! I just finished "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," which I'm reviewing and I loved it. I adore Austen anyway, but this is a very smart spoof and I kept laughing out loud and interrupting my husband to read him parts. I laughed till I cried. I also just finished the new Sarah Waters, "The Little Stranger," which is positively creepy fun. And so I treated myself to the new Laurie R. King, "The Language of Bees," which I've only just started, and I think I'm going to also splurge on the new Ariana Franklin, "Grave Goods." Oh - and I have an ARC of the upcoming Megan Abbott, "Bury Me Deep." I don't usually like noir (except Linda L. Richards' books), but I love Abbott. Fast, tough-girl, positively crackles!

Literary Feline: Thank you for this opportunity, Clea.

Clea Simon: Thank you so much for interviewing me, Wendy! Just to let you and your readers know, I'm updating my website, and there are now excerpts from all the books on it, as well as information about readings and more.

You can learn more about Clea Simon and her books on the author's website and on her blog, Cats & Crime & Rock & Roll.

Please stop in tomorrow for my review of
Probable Claws!


  1. What a cool lady! Anyone that writes mysteries and loves cats is my kinda author. I thoroughly enjoyed this interview, and the nice thing is that she really took her time in thoughtfully answering all of your questions. I've read several interviews where you can tell the author didn't want to give up their time. Authors like Clea will definitely sell books by showing her personality in this way!

  2. This was such an entertaining and thorough review Wendy. I can't think of anything else to ask :)

    This book looks great and I don't believe I haven't heard about the first 3 books in the series.

  3. Thank you, folks. But Sandy, I'll tell you a secret: It's much more fun to do an interview like the one Wendy sent me than to do rewrites. Ugh. I hate rewrites. I know I need to do them, but they're just not half as fun as the original creating...

    Which reminds me -- I'll be dropping by in case anyone else has any questions. - Clea

  4. OK, this came up on my Google alerts -- it seems to be a translation (into French?) and then retranslation of our interview, Wendy. It's truly bizarre ... and I am "glad as a frog."


  5. same thing, better url:

  6. Terrific interview!

    Wendy, you know I don't read much genre fiction, but I was introduced to Clea Simon when (either the first or second, I can't remember) Theda Krakow mystery was excerpted by my e-mail book club, DearReader.com, and your frequent mentions of her and her novels have only piqued my interest more. But I've had trouble finding her books in the bookstores near me, so I may need to look online one of these days. Even though I'm a dog person, I think I'd like them :-).

  7. Thanks, Florinda. I'm not speciesist!

    That said, yup, I'm with a smaller press (or, now, two smaller presses). So while my local indie bookstores are good about stocking my books (for which I am most grateful!!), they're most readily available at places like Amazon and BN.com. That said, you could try indies like Powell's (I believe Wendy has linked to Powell's) or some of the stores on my home site (like Harvard Book Store).

    Thanks for your interest! Let me know how you like them.

  8. Excellent interview! I love Clea's work and I can't wait to get Probable Claws!

  9. Great interview! These books sound interesting, I'll have to check them out :-)

  10. Great interview, Wendy! :)
    I haven't read anything by Clea but you can bet I'll be checking out her books now!

    Thanks for sharing with us, Clea! :)

  11. Great interview!

    I read "The Feline Mystique" when it first came out and have re-read it many times since - I consider it one of the best books ever written on the relationship between women and our cats.

    I just recently discovered the Theda Krakow series and am thoroughly enjoying it.

  12. Sandy - I enjoyed the interview quite a bit too. Clea makes a good interview subject. :-)

    Eliza - I am glad you enjoyed the interview. Clea did all the hard work. :-) I'm posting the titles of the first three books in the series along with my review tomorrow, if you are interested.

    Florinda - You might enjoy this series. Especially with the music tie-in. :-)

    Yvonne - Thanks! I know you can't resist a cat mystery. :-)

  13. Melissa - I hope you like them if you do try them. It's a fun series.

    Melody - Thanks! I do hope you will give the series a try. I need to talk Alice into trying it as I know she loves cats. :-)

    Ingrid - I haven't yet had a chance to read "The Feline Mystique" although I've thumbed through my copy. I liked the little I did read of it.

    I am glad you are enjoying the Theda books!

  14. Clea - I have a kitten who is staring at me over my monitor. :-)

    Thank you again for taking the time to answer my questions!

  15. Thank you again, Wendy, and thank you everyone who wrote in. As always, if anyone has any other questions or comments, I'm reachable by email.

    Now Wendy, go give that kitten some attention!

  16. I've read the review and now the interview. Great job, Wendy! There's no reason why I shouldn't go get the book!

  17. This book really does sound like somthing I'd enjoy. Great interview Q &A!

  18. What a warm and wonderful interview! Thanks for sharing :)


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