Thursday, June 23, 2016
CLEA SIMON LETS THE 'CAT' OUT OF THE BAG
BY DOUG HOLDER
Clea Simon is an accomplished writer of mystery/crime novels which feature the object of her affection—cats. Cats play any number of roles with Simon's human sleuths as they experience the unsettling of their worlds and then try to set them right again. Simon is a book reviewer, and often contributes to the Boston Globe, and has written several works of non-fiction including “ Mad House...,” that deals with the mental illness of her brother and sister and the impact it had on her family, as well as an exploration of the bonds that bind cats and women titled, “ The Feline Mystique.” Her latest work in one of her her mystery series is ”The Ninth Life” which is narrated by a cat named Blackie. I spoke with Simon at my usual backroom table at the Bloc 11 Cafe in Union Square, Somerville.
Doug Holder; A cat named Blackie is the narrator in your latest book “Ninth Life.” My cat Ketz is a great observer—he never misses a trick... and he talks a lot. I would think if he could write he would be a damn good writer. Do you think cats have the qualities that make for a good writer?
Clea Simon: They do. Cats are great observers. But their priorities are not the same as humans. What a cat may choose to tell you may not be about what you think of as motivations, etc... Humans are sight-centric, and cats draw on so many more senses.
Doug Holder. I love cats. So do you. What people that don't own pets can't realize how intense, nuanced, and loving these relationships can be. Can you talk a bit about the relationship between cats and writers?
Clea Simon: Colette talked a great deal about the bonds between cats and writers. This speaks to us—those who work at our desks for long hours. The quiet and contemplative cat is the best companion. It doesn't ask for much. But at the same time you spend so much time with each other, you are free to interpret each others' behavior and motivations. This helps stimulate the imagination. I look at my cat and ask, “ What is she thinking?” “What matters to her now?” It is only one more step for me to write fiction.
Doug Holder: Your third non-fiction book was was “ The Feline Mystique.” In that you discussed dogs vs cats in the context of their relationship to their owners.
Clea Simon: There are differences that people have in their relations with their dogs versus their cats. A dog is something akin to having a child—something that is utterly dependent on you. Owning a cat is liking having a mysterious roommate from a foreign culture. You don't quite understand each other, but you learn from each other and try to figure out ways to get along.
Doug Holder: In “The Feline Mystique” you write about how certain men are threatened by cats because the represent female sexuality.
Clea Simon: Men of quality are not threatened by cats. In many cultures cats have come to symbolize female qualities. This ranges from sexuality—to the mysteries of life. Cats have night vision and can survive falls. So cats in many ways are viewed as death-defying. In certain cultures women were always the ones who cleaned up after the dead. Women are seen as controllers of the boundary between death and life. Cats are associated with this because of their physical qualities.
Doug Holder: I read that cats were sort of a litmus test for men when you were single.
Clea Simon: I think this is true for all pets. If you watch how a person treats an animal (when he or she thinks no one is looking)—you see what a person is really like. Someone who is all smiles to you but then kicks a dog—isn't a nice person. Someone who is petting a cat and talking to it is more often than not a nice person.
Doug Holder: I have worked at the psychiatric facility McLean Hospital since 1982, and I have a lot of experience with mentally ill populations. In your earliest book "Mad House...” you go into your experiences with your brother and sister who were afflicted with mental illness and the impact it had on your greater family. Did you ever check yourself to see if you had signs of mental illness?
Clea Simon: I did for many years. I am the younger sister, and both my brother and sister developed schizophrenia in their late teens, which is sort of classic. I thought it was a normal part of life. I felt pressure to make up for my siblings. I tried to be the perfect child or I acted out. The family can freeze in place. For many years I was afraid that I too was going to develop the illness. Because of extensive therapy I was able to get over this.
Doug Holder: There seems to be a lot of mental illness among writers and artists. Why do you think this is?
Clea Simon: It is also high among Ashkenazic Jews—what I am. Studies reveal that there is a link between Bipolar Disorder and creativity. On the upswing of the manic phase the neurons and synapses. are more active so that may increase creativity. When it is full blown mental illness it stifles creativity because people have so much trouble just coping. Everyone one would like a touch of something that would make them special—allowing their brains to think in different ways—but now one would want to go through the full blown illness.
Doug Holder: You are the author of four mystery series where a cat plays a central role.
Clea Simon: Yes in my different series they play different roles. In my first series—the cat—is simply a cat. The stories deal with real animal issues that are concerns for animal lovers. In another series it features a Harvard graduate student—she is studying Gothic Literature—and the ghost of her late, great cat that speaks to her and helps her solve mysteries. The starring cat was based on my late cat, Cyrus. In my latest book “ Ninth Life,” Blackie—the cat—is the narrator. These are all mystery/crime stories.
Doug Holder: Do you think writing about cats undermines your image of a serious writer?
Clea Simon: I certainly run into that prejudice. At one point someone I talked to said to me, “” I write real books.” My genre, called “Cozy Mysteries” are character-driven novels so they stand with best literature out there. My genre is denigrated because it is largely written by women, and read by women. But the genre is serious and character driven. Any great story has to involve a journey—and in the mystery genre involves the upsetting of the world and setting it right. I think that is literature of the highest order.
Doug Holder: Can you name some of your favorite mystery writers?
Clea Simon: Donna Leon. She is a keen observer of life—Denis Mina—a very dark writer—Laura Lippman, C. S. Harris and others.
Doug Holder: Your husband is Jon Garelick—a noted journalist ( The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, etc..) Are you two guys competitive at all?
Clea Simon: Jon is incredibly supportive. I think it is unfair because he will send me an article and I will give him a 300 page manuscript.
Doug Holder: You have written many book reviews for The Boston Globe and elsewhere. What are the components of a good book review?
Clea Simon: Well, don't judge a book by what you expected it to be. Judge it on the merits of what you feel the author is trying to do. I don't like to read just summaries of books. The critic should look at what the writer tried to do—and determine if he or she succeeded. The critic should offer provide some context for the book he or she reviews.