DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Mar 7 2008

Interview with Mystery Writer Clea Simon


Mystery writer Clea Simon wowed readers and critics alike with her 2005 debut novel, Mew is for Murder, which Publishers Weekly called “a strong start to what one hopes will be a long series.” It was the first of three (so far) mysteries featuring journalist Theda Krakow, and two passions that author and character share: rock music, especially of the independent kind, and cats. In addition to her mysteries, Clea is also the author of three non-fiction books, including The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats.

In this interview exclusively for DCPLive readers, Clea gives us the scoop on mysteries, why she loves libraries, and the timeless allure of the cat:

Why do you think so many readers love mysteries, and why did you want to write them?

They are so much fun, what’s not to like! I’ve always read mysteries, from Encyclopedia Brown on up to the present, so writing them should have come naturally, but it didn’t exactly. I’d been a journalist for close to 20 years and had my third nonfiction book out when I ran into Kate Mattes, a co-founder of Sisters in Crime and a bookstore owner up here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called Kate’s Mystery Books. Kate knew me because I was always in the store as a customer. But the book I had just written, The Feline Mystique, was nonfiction, not a mystery. Still, she knew me and she asked me to be one of the authors signing at her annual holiday party. I said, “But, Kate, it’s not a mystery.”

She replied, “Clea, believe it or not, there’s a big overlap between women who love cats and people who read mysteries.”

And so I came to her party and she stocked my book and I signed and I met a lot of authors and had a great time. And at the end of the night, she turned to me and said, “You should write a mystery.”

The next morning, I started Mew is for Murder.

Your Theda Krakow books are sometimes described as cozy mysteries, and like many others in that genre, they appeal to animal lovers. Yet in some ways, you don’t write the typical cozy. How would you explain your mysteries to a prospective reader?

Well, what do you consider a typical cozy? I think of cozies as the
most traditional form of mystery, the real Agatha Christie-style of
puzzle mystery. The guidelines for these, as I understand them, are:

The crime stems from human failing or weakness. I love this, because I
want to understand my villains. They’re not irrational psycho killers.

The setting is some kind of contained environment. I replace Christie’s
English villages with the rock club scene, but it’s the same kind of
self-contained community.

The sleuth is an amateur, and a member of the community. Of course! Because who else will everyone speak to?

And, finally, the blood is dry before it hits the page. That works for
me, too, because I read harder stuff but I find it difficult to write

So, by this definition, I think I write very traditional cozies! Just
not cutesy. I don’t like cutesy, which is why my cats don’t talk.
They’re real cats and I think they’re just fine that way.

What’s the strangest, or most puzzling, reaction you’ve ever received from a reader of your books?

Well, I just came from a book group at a local library where a reader
wanted to know what the expression “hit the head” meant. Before I could
explain, another reader explained that it was a Navy term for “go to
the bathroom.” I hadn’t realized it was a Navy term, so I learned
something there!

That was certainly the oddest question I’ve had today. Otherwise, the
most consistently strange—but gratifying—reaction I’ve gotten is about
Violet [a recurring character in Simon’s mysteries]. Even though she is
quite outside the mainstream (she is a punk-rock playing, purple-haired
lesbian) she seems to be adored by everyone. I’m glad, I love her, too.
But that always amazes me.

As a journalist and now a mystery author, have you found libraries or librarians to be helpful in your work?

Without libraries and librarians, I would never have become the reader
I am. The weekly bookmobile visit to my corner was one of the
highlights of my childhood. I always took out the two book maximum, and
I was always amazed that I could just borrow any book there. Priceless!
More recently, librarians have been enormously helpful with my
research. A librarian at my local library helped me recently track down
a British scientific journal about cat predation. I had very little to
go on, but she found it—and got me a copy within two days. My local
library (the main branch of the Cambridge, Mass., public library) is
closed for renovations and I miss it terribly! I’ve donated a short
story to a small booklet the Friends of the Library will be publishing
to celebrate its reopening next spring and there is a substitute
library in our local high school, but it’s not the same.

In addition to your mysteries, you’ve written a book, The Feline
, about the bond that seems to exist between women and cats.
What did you conclude from researching and writing that book?

That was my third nonfiction book, the one that got me to Kate’s party.
To call it by its full title, The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious
Connection Between Women and Cats
came about because I kept running
into those links. I mean, we’ve got Batman – but Catwoman. And think of
all the goddesses of ancient times who were linked to cats: Bast,
Freya, Hecate… So when I started researching the connection, I found
some things out that seem obvious, or intuitive. Cats, for example,
have long been used for sympathetic magic for fertility and childbirth.
Cats give birth to multiple young, seemingly without effort, so cats
have been used for charms around childbirth since prehistoric times.
And cats’ seeming magic, their ability to see in the dark, for example,
has long been seen as symbolic of an ability to cross between
worlds—the living and the dead, for example. Women have long been the
keepers of those crossroads, the ones in charge of birth and often
healing and death rituals, as well, so the association between women
and cats and magic came into being. Plus, cats are sensual and
beautiful, and thus seen as more feminine than dogs. In more modern
times, this connection has been denigrated: Cats are seen as bad, and
cat-women (including witches and, of course, the sexy and alluring
Catwoman) are evil. But the history shows that there were powerful
reasons for us to be associated!

Our thanks to Clea Simon for chatting with us on DCPLive.  To learn
more about Clea and her books, check the DCPL Catalog, or visit her
website (and blog!) at www.cleasimon.com.

by David T

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Clea Simon March 7, 2008 at 9:37 AM

Thanks for chatting with me! If any of your readers want to peruse an excerpt of my books (including the followups to “Mew is for Murder,” “Cattery Row” and the new “Cries and Whiskers”), they can find samples at my website. Just click on the book covers.

Clea Simon March 7, 2008 at 12:17 PM

By the way, if folks have any interest, I’ve got a blog up called “cats & crime & rock & roll,” covering all those topics, at http://cleasimon.blogspot.com – drop on by!

Ken March 10, 2008 at 11:44 AM

Thank you to both the interviewer and Ms. Simon for this interesting post!

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