From time to time, we introduce you to other crime writers whose work might interest you. Usually Maine writers. Sometimes writers whose work we’ve read and enjoy. Today’s interview is with Clea Simon, whose latest book is Hold Me Down. Some lucky reader who leaves a comment will win a copy of the book.
Give us a little background, please.
I have written stories for as long as I can remember, since I learned how to write. (My mother saved one of my favorites, concerning a frog prince, in which I still didn’t quite have the correct alignment of letters down.) In high school and college, I found an outlet in school newspapers and literary journals. I ended up in journalism because it was an actual job that involved writing, and because as an arts journalist I could write about music, my other big interest.
You started out as a journalist, so how did you become a mystery writer?
I credit the late Kate Mattes of Kate’s Mystery Books. You remember, I’m sure, that she would have these great holiday parties. By 2002 or so, she and I knew each other fairly well – I was a regular customer, and we’d often talk books. That winter, my third nonfiction book, The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats (St. Martin’s) had just come out, and she asked if I wanted to sign at the holiday party. I pointed out that Feline wasn’t a mystery, and she responded, “You do realize there’s a huge overlap between women who love cats and mystery readers, right?” Well, of course I did – and she stocked my book and I signed copies and we all drank a fair amount of wine. And at the end of the night, when we were cleaning up, she said, “Clea, you should write a mystery.” I started what would become Mew Is for Murder (Poisoned Pen) the next day.
In retrospect, I realized that when writing nonfiction, I felt like my writing was a useful vehicle for conveying information. Ultimately, it was the information that was important. To write fiction I had to accept that my writing alone had value. Kate gave me permission to believe that.
It seems like you’ve written in many corners of the big genre tent. Why is that?
To some extent, I’d say my various books spring from various moods; sometimes I’m feeling cozy. Sometimes not. Beyond that, different stories want to be told in different ways, and I am always grateful when a new story comes to mind.
Looking at your body of work, it appears that you write books both dark and light. Is that a challenge for you? Do you alternate between dark and light or just write the stories that come to you?
I’d love to alternate between dark and light, but it’s really just as things come to me. I’ve done some odd hybrids too – like my Blackie and Care series (three books) came to mind as a Holmes pastiche, but it turned into a dark futuristic feline fantasy. Go figure!
Readers are always curious about a writer’s process. So what’s yours? Pantser? Plotter? Do you write every day (or almost every day) or do you wait for the muse to appear and inspire you? Do you have a picture of your office/workspace you could share?
I start with a basic concept that may be as simple as a conflict I want to explore, or I may have an idea about the ending, but then I just go from there – so basically I’m a pantser. The pandemic has thrown me, and I always take some time off to do promotion, but now I’m back to my daily word count. For me, at this point in the process, that means going for 1,000 words a day, Monday through Friday.
Where are your books set?
It depends on the book! Hold Me Down is set in Boston, in the rock clubs of the ‘80s and ‘90s and today, A Cat on the Case is set in Cambridge. So, yeah, most are local to Massachusetts, though the Blackie and Cares are set in a futuristic ruined coastal city that may have been Boston but is never named.
Along with dark psychological mysteries, you write cozies with cats. So tell us a little about writing with cats? Do you have cats? Do your cats help with inspiration? Do you also write dark books with cats?
My husband Jon and I have one cat at a time. Currently, we cohabit with Thisbe, a tortoiseshell rescue from West Virginia. She has a mind of her own and keeps us on our toes. I find cats both calming and inspiring. They’re so intense! What is going on in those little heads? And, yes, my Blackie and Care series – The Ninth Life, As Black as My Fur, and Cross My Path (Severn House) – are all rather dark. These are narrated by a feral black cat who watches over a homeless teen, Care.
Over the years, we’ve talked a bit about the book we love that we can’t get published.
Mine is called Teach Her a Lesson. Is Hold Me Down that book for you? How does it feel to finally have it in print?
Absolutely wonderful! In retrospect, the years that I spent wit Hold Me Down before Polis published it this last October really allowed me to polish it. I’m extremely proud of it and, perhaps for the first time, I can say that this is exactly the book I wanted it to be.
You began as a reporter writing about the rock music scene. Your latest, Hold Me Down, is a return to that world. Tell us a little about the book and then what it was like to be back in that world while you were writing. It must have been a fascinating journey.
It was! I came of age in the Boston post-punk club scene, as a fan, a musician, and ultimately as a music critic, a role that gave me some standing and purpose in what was essentially a self-contained subculture. I loved that time, and there is still something that music evokes in me that I can’t necessarily articulate. That’s always the challenge of writing about music, isn’t it? But that’s what I love wrestling with – that and the various personalities who all came together in that scene.
Hold Me Down is, in some ways, a return to the world (and the style) of my 2017 psychological suspense World Enough (Severn) in that it also deals with a woman whose youth was spent in the Boston rock scene, which shaped her in unusual ways. World Enough is centered on the fallibility of memory and the seduction of nostalgia. Hold Me Down expands on those themes to explore how events can alter our life’s course. In Hold Me Down, I also got to explore the complexity of relationships (with partners, bandmates, and families of choice) and how everything from love to trauma to decisions about family and parenting play out.
What is one interview question you’ve always wanted to be asked but never are?
Hmm…. How about what writers would I love to have dinner with? That would allow me to bring up some favorites, like J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. LeGuin (both of whom would magically come back to life) and Hilary Mantel (who was about to come to the US for a book tour – which she never does! – before COVID hit!! Damn!!), rounded out by Donna Leon, whose general erudition – especially about opera – would really add something. I’m a bit of a foodie, so you know I’d go all out for this dinner! No idea what I’d make, except that it would involve multiple courses, and I suspect I’d keep fussing with the dishes because I’d be a bit intimidated and just want to listen to them all talk.
What would you like to add?
Just that I’d like to encourage people to try something new. Try a book that seems slow at first and let it grab you. Those are the best! That and thanks for having me, Kate.
A former journalist, Clea Simon is the Boston Globe-bestselling author of three nonfiction books and 29 mysteries. including the new psychological suspenseHOLD ME DOWN. While most of these (like A Cat on the Case) are cat “cozies” or amateur sleuth, she also writes darker crime fiction, like the rock and roll mystery World Enough, named a “must read” by the Massachusetts Book Awards. Her new psychological suspense Hold Me Down (Polis Books) returns to the music world, with themes of PTSD and recovery, as well as love in all its forms. Clea lives in Somerville with her husband Jon and their cat Thisbe. She can be reached at www.cleasimon.com, on Twitter @Clea_Simon and on Instagram @cleasimon_author