Just to keep herself busy, Clea Simon moved in December to a 100-year-old "worker's cottage" in Somerville, Massachusetts, with her husband Jon and Musetta the wonder cat. The author of three nonfiction books and the Theda Krakow mysteries, she is now working on the second Pru Marlowe pet noir and the fourth Dulcie Schwartz feline mystery, following the release of Pru #1, "Dogs Don't Lie" (Poisoned Pen), and Dulcie #3, "Grey Zone" (Severn House). Musetta takes credit for both series, as well as the house.
IT'S BEEN A YEARby Clea Simon
When I tell people I have two new mysteries coming out next month, they often look at me as if I had two heads. I have to admit, that would make things easier. As would saying the cat wrote one (or both), and I know she would be happy to take credit. The truth is far more prosaic, but it does provide a little window on just how crazy – frustrating, but ultimately satisfying – the writing life can be.
It might help, to start with, by talking about what the writing life is not. It is not, in any professional sense, guaranteed. For authors on my level, which we politely call “midlist,” it can be most uncertain. I’ve been writing for more than 20 years, and April’s books – DOGS DON’T LIE (Poisoned Pen) and GREY ZONE (Severn House) – are my tenth and eleventh to see print. So by this point, I am usually pretty sure when a story can be a book – or at least a book-length manuscript. I am, however, less certain – even now – that it will find a home with a traditional publisher. That was something I grew up understanding, with a mother who was an artist and whose career was often less than satisfying (more on that later). But one thing I dead-on rock solid know for sure is that I will keep writing. And that, you could say, is what makes all the difference.
Two, or maybe it was three years ago, I was in the doldrums. My editor had suggested that I take a break from my Theda Krakow mystery series after the fourth book, Probable Claws. Although I was sad to do so, I understood. Theda was my first fictional character, and she had moved from a place of insecurity into a comfortable mode. That meant if I were to continue with her, the whole tone of the books would change. I wasn’t sure I was ready to do that.
About a year earlier, though, someone had planted the seed of another idea. In 2007, I attended the Festival of Mystery, sponsored by Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, PA. While there, I got to chat with several of my wonderful colleagues about what was then the fairly new trend toward paranormal mysteries – “woo woo,” as we call them. And someone – Karen E. Olson, maybe? – said, “Clea, you should write a ghost cat.”
So, now that I had time, I thought, “Why not? Even if no one sees it, I’ll have fun with it. Maybe I’ll show it to my husband…” And I started writing about Dulcie Schwartz and her late, great cat Mr. Grey. And Dulcie let me know that this would be much more fun if she were studying the original ghost-ridden Gothic novels, and so I went back to my old college library and did some research, and soon Shades of Grey was born. Some people have suggested that the ghost of my own late, great cat, Cyrus, helped with that. I won’t argue.
By the time that was done, I was ready for something else. I went back to my editor (who I knew didn’t like paranormal) and made a few other suggestions.
What about a Theda spinoff in which one of the other characters – punk rocker Violet Hayes, for example – took over? She nixed the idea, and in the interim, I went to Sleuthfest in Deerfield, FL. While there, one of the lovely Level Best editors told me I should write a short story to submit for their annual anthology. Well, I love a challenge, so one day, by the pool, I drafted the rough outline of “Dumb Beasts,” trying on a noir voice that I’d never used before.
The Level Best folks went for it (and the story ended up in their Dead Fall anthology). But Dulcie, meanwhile, wasn’t having much luck. My agent was sending Shades of Grey out, but only rejections were coming back. Our field is tough at the best of times, and here I was, trying to launch a sweet new series about a girl and her ghost cat just as various presses were killing their cozy lines and scuttling their midlist authors.
I had other work in the meantime. Barnes and Noble had me write introductions to new editions by Agatha Christie and Mary Roberts Rinehart that got me reading the classics again. I reviewed. But in terms of my own books, I was getting nowhere.
I felt like I’d been left out in the rain, while others were attending a fabulous party, and I was not gracious about it. I sulked. I threw tantrums that scared the cat. When my mother told me that it would all work out, I laughed – a cold, bitter laugh. I undoubtedly strained my poor husband’s otherwise boundless sympathy. And then, ultimately, I did what writers do: I got sick of my own self-pity, and I started on another project. That short story had been fun. I’d liked the character, a kind of smart-alecky tough gal. And I found myself thinking – what if she had an equally smart-mouthed feline sidekick? The tabby Wallis was born. From then, it seemed natural – Pru Marlowe (named for the great Chandler detective) would be an animal behaviorist who happened to hear what animals are thinking. Therefore, when a dog she’s training seems to be guilty when her owner is found dead, Pru might know otherwise. But how could she explain to the cops? And what would Wallis think of her helping a dog? I started to write.
I had no pub date, no publisher. Nothing in the works. But I was writing again.
I was happy.
And then, when I was almost done, we got great news. An editor at Severn House, a British publisher, got the humor in Shades of Grey. She loved the characters, and she wanted the book. With one condition. Severn House only wanted it if it were the start of a series. Could I get them a second book? Of course! How soon?
For fear of losing their interest, I named a date five months off, and set to work on what would become Grey Matters. As I wrote, I fell back in love with those characters – finding facets of Dulcie’s life as a student that I could research and meeting her “friends” as they came to light. The deadline was a little crazy, but I didn’t care. I had a contract. Dulcie got a kitten (not that the kitten could ever replace Mr. Grey), and a series was born. I got the book in on time and prepared to give myself a summer off.
And then, as Grey Matters worked its way through the editing process, my world collapsed. My mother, who had been declining for several years, got a foot infection. This landed her in the hospital and then rehab, and it soon became clear that she wasn’t going back to any kind of independent living.
I was grateful then for the relative flexibility of the writing life: I managed to find her a decent nursing home, nearby, and packed up the assisted living apartment where she’d lived for five years. She had been an artist, working in media from etchings to oils, showing and selling her work to collectors and museums despite years-long dry spells that brought the black dog of depression into our home, fitting in her work between keeping house and raising a family.
Even in retirement, she kept up with her watercolors, decorating her assisted living apartment with still lives that hung alongside her views of Rome and Paris, souvenirs of earlier travels. And she was always an avid devourer of culture – books, operas, films. You name it.
But illness and dementia have no respect. By the time of her foot infection, she had had trouble attending theatrical events for years. After this latest hospitalization, things got worse. Fairly quickly, she lost the ability to read – even the fantasy novels of Naomi Novik, which she’d loved (me, too), became “too confusing” for her. There are too many characters,” she’d say. Then the TV became too much (“it’s broken,” she’d say of the remote), and I couldn’t count on her being able to manage the phone. And so I became the one who accommodated, visiting pretty much daily, bringing DVDs she’d once loved and watching them by her bedside while she dozed. Somewhere in there, I finished up Dogs Don’t Lie, too, as much to hang onto normalcy as anything else, and my agent started sending it around.
And then Dulcie was a hit, at least in small-press terms, and Severn House wanted another – quickly. I not only loved Dulcie, I was thrilled to be publishing again – and so I got back to work, bringing my laptop to the hospital when my mom landed there again. Writing in the between times, and late at night.
And then, just as my mother’s health took another precipitous drop, my agent called: Dogs Don’t Lie had found a home with my old publisher, Poisoned Pen.
The editor wanted some changes, but they wanted to put it on their schedule.
Could I commit to working on it – now?
There’s a line from the Joan Rivers documentary A Piece of Work that explains her lifelong career. “Joan knows that to get struck by lightening,” her agent says, “you have to stand out in the rain. Joan’s been standing out in the rain for a long time.”
I love that quote, because it’s so true. But I’d add a corollary. Not only do you have to stand out in the rain – you have to grab that lightening when it strikes. And so I told my agent, “Sure.” I’d work with one editor on getting Dogs Don’t Lie in shape. And I’d finish the book that became Grey Zone for the other. And I’d also find a way to sit with my mother, telling her about my adventures – the good parts, anyway – as I had as a young girl, bringing home stories to share. After all, she was the one who read to me as a child. Who introduced me to C.S. Lewis and The Wonder Clock, Edward Gorey and Kipling’s Jungle Book. Who taught me that the work of our minds and our hearts is to be valued, even if sometimes dinner is late (or gets burned). Even if the money is little, and uncertain. If you love it, you do it.
My mother died on March 21, 2010, just over a year ago as you read this. She was talking about painting up until the last few weeks, even though I knew – and she probably did, too – that she no longer had the coordination to hold a brush, to shape a form. But she knew I was writing, and she was fully prepared to read whatever I wrote, provided it didn’t have “too many characters” or wasn’t “too confusing.” And so I keep on writing, through whatever life throws at me, and that, ultimately, is why I have two books this spring – the vastly different Grey Zone and Dogs Don’t Lie. Both, I now realize, in time for Mother’s Day.