Clea Simon is the author of four, mostly cozy, mystery series and one standalone thriller. Her latest book, A Spell of Murder, is about witch cats and is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her books have a sparkle and edge to them that’s delightful to discover in a cozy.
Mystery Scene: You didn’t start your career as a mystery writer, but as a journalist. What brought about the change?
Clea Simon: Honestly? I think I needed the time to build up my courage, as well as my writing chops. When you’re doing journalism or writing nonfiction (I wrote three nonfiction books before my first mystery), you can tell yourself that the writing doesn’t matter. You’re giving people information. But when you’re writing fiction, all there is is your writing—it’s all your imagination. It takes a lot of confidence to believe that my writing alone would be enough.
Specifically, what happened was that after my third nonfiction book, The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats, came out, Kate Mattes—the owner of the much-missed Kate’s Mystery Books—invited me to come sign at her annual mystery holiday party. I pointed out that my book wasn’t a mystery, and she said, “Believe it or not, Clea, there’s a huge overlap between women who love cats and mystery readers.” So I did and I signed along with dozens of other authors and I had a blast. And at the end of the night, Kate said to me, “You should write a mystery.” It was like she was giving me permission. And so I did!
Why mysteries? Were you a fan?
Very much so! I’ve always loved mysteries, from my Encyclopedia Brown days on. That and historical fiction, but I know a lot more about digging out facts (thanks to my years as a journalist) than I do about history, so...
Your early books were nonfiction, including one about cats—so what prompted the interest in cats? It’s obviously a passion that winds through your novels.
I’m not sure, actually. I’ve always loved cats. Maybe because as a writer I spend so much time alone except for the cat. And of course I talk to my cat. Everyone does, and so…sometimes the cat talks back!
You have now written five series. What have you learned about writing and publishing during that time?
Hmm, good question. I’ve learned that it is important to get something on paper, even if it’s lousy. You can’t revise if you don’t have it on paper. And along with that, I’ve learned that you have to revise. You have to be merciless. Do whatever is necessary to make the book better, even if it hurts!
While the book coming out now is also about cats, this one, A Spell of Murder, is about witch cats. Talk about witchcraft a bit if you would, what you know about it, how you researched it, etc.
I have dabbled in Wicca for years. At one point, I was considering a nonfiction book about it. When I was a kid, I made up a religion in which I worshipped trees, so it seems kind of right. I like the feminism and environmentalism of it—the idea of cosmic balance. And I have friends who practice, so that helps.
You also have a straight-up thriller that came out last November. What brought about that book? What made you want to write about the club scene?
World Enough was the final realization of a book I started 30 years ago, when I was a rock music critic. I kind of found myself in the punk rock scene—it was a very communal arts subculture that gave me a structure and a home and several lifelong friends—and I wanted to write about it. But at that point I didn’t have the chops, nor did I have perspective. So when I went back to that early manuscript and basically tore it apart, I realized that one of the things I wanted to write about was my longing for community—and how much we fool ourselves when we need to. It’s also kind of about looking back on youth from middle age. Fun stuff—with rock and roll!
I was always a fan of your Pru Marlowe, pet psychic, books, which sounds so cheesy when you write it down like that, but the books aren't cheesy at all, and they have quite a bit of edge. Can you talk about that series a bit?
Sure! I think the key to that is that in my heart, I’m as much Wallis (the crotchety tabby) as Pru. Wallis is the one looking on and cutting Pru down a bit, whereas Pru is trying to be tougher than she is. They both need each other. I love that series because it’s really about them working out their relationship and boundaries as much as anything. Plus, I get to research and write about different animals with each book!
Can you also talk about your Blackie and Care series? Interesting concept.
Blackie and Care started as a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. What if Holmes dies and was reincarnated as a black cat? And what if he hooked up with a former Irregular, a street waif whom he had employed? Only, of course, the Irregular is a girl so.... I guess she’s me, feeling lost and alone in a scary world with only her cat for company. OK, I’ve probably said too much!
It annoys me that cozy writers are often dismissed as fluff when many of you include very serious things in your books along with the fun parts. Do you have a comment on that?
Yes, it annoys me too! Writing is writing, and cozies—all genre fiction, really—have some of the most astute characterizations and social commentary in current literature. Only we make it enjoyable, so people discredit it.
Finally, what book was a transformational read for you? What book changed your life as a reader or writer?
Probably J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It was my first experience of a character’s transformative journey and an immensely emotionally and intellectually satisfying read. Morally too! I still re-read it pretty regularly.
Thanks for having me!
Clea Simon is the author of more than two dozen cozy/amateur sleuth mysteries featuring cats (Blackie and Care mystery series, the Theda Krakow mystery series, the Dulcie Schwartz series, and the Pru Marlowe pet noir series), three nonfiction books, and one punk rock urban noir, World Enough (Severn House). Clea lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, with her husband and one cat. She can be reached at www.cleasimon.com and on Twitter @Clea_Simon.
(Editor’s Note: We can never have enough of Agatha Raisin. The new series is the subject of Mystery Scene magazine’s cover story for our Winter issue. And here is an interview with actress Ashley Jensen, who brings to life the character of Agatha Raisin.)
Although she doesn’t resemble the Agatha Raisin character as depicted in M.C. Beaton’s popular novels, Scottish actress Ashley Jensen certainly captures the spirit of this amateur sleuth in the TVs series, now in its second season on Acorn TV.
In Beaton’s 29 novels about the former public relations who opts for early retirement then moves to a small village in the Cotswolds in England, Agatha is described as “short, dumpy with dark hair” and hardly glamorous.
That is not a description that even begins to describe the stylish, svelte, blonde, and, yes, glamorous Jensen.
“Well, I am short,” said Jensen during a telephone interview—one of many Jensen had back-to-back that day—punctuated by frequent laughter thanks to her easy sense of humor.
Physicality aside, Jensen perfectly brings to life Agatha’s character—prickly, nosy, unfiltered, confident, and a bit vulnerable. Agatha’s the kind of friend you want to hang out with every day because she would be fun to be with: drinking lots of wine together and being on top of all the gossip.
Jensen said she was drawn to Agatha because the character is so relatable.
“People can see themselves in her,” said Jensen, best known for her supporting roles in HBO’s Extras and ABC’s Ugly Betty. Jensen received two British Comedy Awards and a BAFTA nomination for her role in Extras. Her role in the 2007 Christmas Special earned her an Emmy Award nomination.
“Agatha’s just like us. We see her when she is a bit hung-over, when she’s had a bit too much wine, or getting dressed, or just not looking her best.
“At the same time, Agatha does what she wants and says what she wants. She doesn’t like to be proven wrong, especially by a man,” Jensen said.
“She’s a single lady in a small community. She’s strong and independent and successful. But still finding herself, which we all go through.”
Jensen also likes that Agatha has strong friendships. “These friendships bring out the best in each other,” Jensen said.
While Agatha first appeared in 1979’s The Quiche of Death, the Acorn series updates the character. “Ours is a more modern take on Agatha,” said Jensen. “She is very much a contemporary woman, a woman of her times.”
Jensen’s interpretation of Agatha not only appeals to fans but also to Marion Chesney, author M.C. Beaton’s real name. “Marion Chesney said she liked me and that was good enough for me,” said Jensen.
Viewers can see why the author is smitten with the actress’s performance. That wasn’t the case when Beaton’s series about Hamish Macbeth, the laconic, unambitious Highland village policeman, was filmed as a television series. Beaton was quoted in several publications as objecting that, in her opinion, Macbeth, played by actor Robert Carlyle, was turned into a brooding pot-smoker.
“Hamish Macbeth the TV show was so different from the books. I had a rotten time with the TV company,” Beaton was quoted in the Scottish Sun. “Whereas the present Agatha Raisin, I’m very pleased with. Agatha does not look like Ashley Jensen but in character she is just like her—she is a brilliant actress.”
Jensen said she has not read Beaton’s novels, preferring to bring her own interpretation to the character. “I love a good mystery but I don’t tend to read a lot of them just because of time. I can’t sit down long enough,” she said. “I do watch a lot of them on television.”
Still, there is something very appealing about a mystery fiction, she said. “That fish out of water—that’s Agatha,” she said, adding that she has real Paula Hawkins’ novels and those of British author Clare Donoghue, whom she considers a friend.
The backdrop of Britain’s Cotswolds also are appealing to viewers, she said. “It’s a beautiful area and we can show it off to American audiences,” she said.
Agatha Raisin did so well during its initial season that the second season is Acorn TV’s first sole commission. The second season features three 90-minute television movies—Agatha Raisin and the Wizard of Evesham, now streaming on Acorn TV; The Fairies of Fryfam debuting on Christmas Eve and The Curious Curate in late January 2019. To view visit Acorn TV.
(More coverage about Agatha Raisin television season is in the current issue of Mystery Scene.)
Jensen mainly is known for her high-profile supporting roles. The Agatha series is the first time she has been the lead. “I started at the bottom, one line, one scene, at a time. Now I feel a responsibility at being the captain of the ship.”
During our interview, she frequently named members of the television series’ crew, thanking them for their help. That attitude impressed Beaton, who commented in the Scottish Star, that Jensen “knows the name of everyone on that TV crew and bonds them together like a family.”
“It is a team thing,” said Jensen of the crew and various support members who work on the series. “We are all in this together.
”I can’t get ill. Too many people counting on me. I get a lot of sleep and take vitamins. Sometimes I drive around with vitamins.”
Photos: Ashley Jensen as Agatha Raisin. Photos courtesy Acorn TV