Tuesday, July 11, 2006

INTERVIEW: Author Clea Simon Chats about Cats, Cambridge and Coffee Shops

You graduated from Harvard in 1983. Do they still ask you for money?
Do they ever! For some reason, they seem to think that with each passing year, I should be making more money. Clearly, they’re not authors.

Seriously, though, what was your major, and what was your Harvard experience like?
Seriously, I majored in English and American Literature and Language (note the“language” part—we had to take at least one course in Middle English, such as Chaucer. I wimped out and took Anglo Saxon—Beowulf, Bede, etc.—in translation). I wrote my thesis about the development of female characters in the early English novel, more or less focusing on how female characters moved from being morality-tale figures in Defoe and Richardson to more fully fleshed folks in Fielding. Which, well, you could say it gave me an excuse to read and re-read (and re-read) a lot of big, fat, fun novels with strong women in them! And seriously? I loved being at Harvard. I probably would have loved being at any college. I mean, I was away from home and living in a vibrant city with my peers. Plus, I got to hang out with fun people who read books—and nobody called us nerds!

Fully fleshed folks in Fielding! (See alliteration comment in Bob Morris interview).

You are a journalist as well as a writer. How did you become involved with the Boston Globe, for whom you write the Radio Tracks column?

Most of us journalists do consider ourselves writers! Just to let you know... But I went into journalism as a way to earn a living. Out of college, I landed a job at my alumni magazine and sort of built from there. I thought I’d be on the editorial side at first. But I loved music, was always out at the clubs, so when an opening came up to write about bands for a small (now defunct) Boston weekly, I jumped at it. Necessity made me expand my freelance subjects, and one job lead to another. I ended up with the “Radio Tracks” column about eight years ago because I was working at the Globe as a copy editor and freelancing for every section I could. Then the then-radio columnist took a job in sports so our editor asked if I wanted to take the column on. Not knowing anything about radio, I said, “Sure.” I hope I’ve learned a bit since then!

I guess I should distinguish between “mystery writer” and “news writer.”

You have a mystery series with a protagonist called Theda Krakow. Each book features a kitty on the cover. Do cats feature prominently in the book?
You bet! Thus far, each mystery has focused on one real feline issue. Mew is for Murder dealt with cat hoarding, the so-called cat “collectors” who may have a dozen—or a hundred—cats in their house. The second, Cattery Row, deals with pedigreed cats and the questions of breeding animals where there’s a surplus, and also with illegal kitten “mills.” The third, Cries and Whiskers, which I’m working on now, tackles the problems of feral cats and feral cat trap-neuter-return.

Theda is an interesting name. Is there a story behind it?
Theda herself explains its history in Mew is for Murder. I had heard on a National Public Radio program that the silent-screen vamp Theda Bara was really a “nice Jewish girl” from Cincinnati named Theodosia, which she shortened to Theda. Now, I’ve got a rather fanciful first name, Clea, which is taken from a Lawrence Durrell novel (Clea, one of his “Alexandria Quartet”). And my mother, Iris, also has an unusual name for her time and upbringing (Brooklyn/Jewish). And my last name, “Simon,” was given to the family on Ellis Island. And so I created a heroine who also has a fanciful first name and an “Ellis Island” last name—given to her family because of where they were from, Krakow, Poland. (My family is actually Russian-Romanian, but same idea).

Your book Cattery Row comes out in August. Tell us about it.
Wow—well, I love it. Mew is for Murder was my first mystery and close to my heart. But honestly, I think I learned so much about plotting and tension that Cattery Row is the better mystery. I just adore my characters, not only Theda but her sidekick, the updated riot grrrl Violet. If I were 20 years younger, I’d want to be Violet! Beyond that, I’ll give you the official 50-word summary: Someone is stealing show cats, and when a kindly breeder is implicated, Theda Krakow determines to uncover the truth. But when Theda is attacked and her pals start acting strange, the feline-friendly freelance writer realizes that more than pedigree pusses are at stake – and that not all the competition is in the ring.

You suggest, in your book The Feline Mystique, that there is “a mysterious connection between women and cats.” Can you expand on this a bit?
Well, I did write an entire book on it... but in brief: We all know that women and cats are linked in popular culture. Nobody, for example, makes cracks about single MEN and cats. But single women and cats? Well, we’re either neurotic, witches, or “crazy cat ladies.” I figured where there’s that much negative stereotyping there must be a lot of fear. And if people are afraid of us, well, that must be because we have so much power. So I traced a lot of the cat-women stories back and discussed ancient mythologies that link women and cats, religious links, folk tales, etc. I also interviewed a ton of women who have cats or work with cats, and basically I focused on what a positive connection this is. We love cats and cats complete us in some way. So... I explored the mystery, but I also left it a little open and mysterious.

Your husband is also a writer. Do the two of you ever collaborate or plan to do so?
Nope. We write in very different styles. But we do read and edit each other’s material. He’s an editor at the Boston Phoenix and used to teach writing, so he’s great at reading my work and pointing out what doesn’t work—and at being incredibly encouraging and loving. If people are curious, they can read his jazz column, “Giant Steps,” at http://www.thephoenix.com .

You started out writing nonfiction. Tell us a bit about Mad House and Fatherless Women.
They are both nonfiction and based in memoir. Mad House is about the experience of growing up with two siblings with schizophrenia. Fatherless is about how my life changed after my father died. But I’ve never been interested in writing straight memoir, so for both I talked to dozens of other people who had been through similar experiences and also interviewed researchers, therapists, scholars, etc. I wanted to talk about the experience as an educated layperson, but also provide resources for other people in similar situations. There are excerpts of my books up on my website, by the way, at http://www.cleasimon.com

You say that you came to Cambridge to attend Harvard “and never left.” Did you fall in love with Cambridge?
Completely! It has changed a lot since 1979, when I came here. But I can still walk to an independent (non-Starbucks) coffee shop and at least two independent bookstores. VERY important to me!

How many cats do you have? Are they pampered? (Your website suggests yes.)
Only one! I’m serially monogamous and now live with the diva Musetta, my black-and-white medium haired kitty. Cyrus, the gray long-hair on my site, is now deceased, sadly. His story is the framing device of The Feline Mystique. Both were mixed breed rescue kitties.

You’ve done some music criticism as well. Do you have a music background? Who are your own favorite artists?
I do! I play, well, used to play, really bass and moved from my classical training to playing in rock bands back in junior high. I briefly played out in the clubs here post-college, but basically have used my love of music and knowledge as a music critic. That’s a hard life, a lot of competition for few gigs, late hours, and bad money. So now I still do the occasional record review, but I still listen and get out to hear live music as much as possible. This week, for example, I’ll get to hear Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello, which combines my great love for New Orleans music (I’ve been a regular at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival since 1989, including this year) and wiry post-punk. I love the agelessness of much Cajun and zydeco (some of my favorite performers are octogenarians), but listening to the college stations (think post-post-punk/experimental) keeps me, well, sort of young!

Thanks for chatting with me, Clea!
My pleasure.

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