Monday, December 31, 2007

In defense of the cozy, take 2

Hi, everyone! Hope your holidays have brought you all the treats you desire (like this basketball-playing kitty) and no lumps of coal. As we wait for 2008 to come 'round, I thought I'd cheat a little and re-post something not quite new.

A version of this ran on Linda L. Richards' blog , where it sparked quite a few comments. Most of them were supportive; the few that weren't seemed to think I was apologizing for what I write. I'm not, and therefore I've revised my "Defense" to reflect that. At the risk of being redundant, I re-post here, with many thanks to commentators like Roberta Isleib (who pointed out the money differential), Elaine Flinn (who has famously noted, "What is cozy about murder?"), and most of all to Linda for the original space. (And look for Linda to be guestblogging here, as well, in January when her own hotly anticipated fourth crime novel (Death was the Other Woman ) comes out.

So let me start again. What is a cozy? I confess that I was thrilled when the website blurb posted by Partners and Crime, called my new mystery, Cries and Whiskers “cat-friendly tough-girl crime fiction.” I mean, it's true that I always make a point of telling people that my books aren’t cutesy, my cats don’t talk, and they don’t solve the crimes. Punny titles and cute cat covers aside, I’m not one of those people who refers to her pets as her “furbabies.”

But it’s time to give up the pretence and come clean. Hi, I’m Clea Simon, and I write cozies. Classic Cozies. My books feature an amateur sleuth (a rock critic, rather than a nosy old lady). They take place in a small self-contained community (the club scene, rather than an English village). The crimes involved tend to come about because of human nature, not psychopathology, and the sex and violence are pretty much out of sight (I rather like the description that “the blood is dry before it hits the page”). And while some of us may be using the label “traditional” to distinguish ourselves from the treacly side of the genre, I’m ready to stand up and admit it. Hell, I’m sick of apologizing. I want to reclaim the cozy.

Yes, cozies have fallen out of critical favor. They are now looked down upon as vaguely embarrassing. Nursery lit. Some of it is our own damned fault: a trend in the subgenre toward humor, crafts, and cutesiness has helped bring down our reputation. Some of it, I deeply suspect, is sexism. Cozies are largely written by and read by women. They're gentler. Therefore (and this follows a long tradition that ranges from arts coverage in newspapers to pay equity in "pink collar" jobs) they are considered of lesser value.

Because even when we aren’t self-destructively winsome, even when we are at our best, we still tend to lose out – in review space, in serious consideration, in awards, in size of advances, press runs, and more – to harder-boiled crime fiction. In part, that's because hard-boiled and noir tend to push our buttons a little more, tend to push our boundaries. Transgressive styles of art have always attracted more attention from critics and from those outside any field. They are what’s new, what is edgy. What is, in some form, outrageous.

I have nothing against transgressive art. Not that long ago, I found my soul in punk rock. The energy of the music - not just anger, but a pure, visceral cry - gave voice to my own inchoate emotions. I believe it literally saved my sanity, giving me a means of expressing that which had been choking me. I will never deny what this music, what this art form, did for me, and I reject, as well, the idea that this music - or any art - is of a particular stage or age. Don’t give me your adolescent angst; emotion is eternal.

But so is the best writing. That’s why I believe a stylist with the skill of a Linda Richards or a Megan Abbott will continue to be read. Denise Mina, too, and doubtless many others.

Along the same lines, and for the same reasons, so will the best of the traditional mystery authors – the cozy writers. Just like those other writers, we write from our hearts – but our hearts, or at least our palates, are differently inclined. We’re the ones who focus on character development, rather than action or atmosphere, writing about people we know rather than the ones we dream – or have nightmares – about. We’re the ones who go for subtlety over shock value, for the human resolution over the bloody denouement. For a bit of humor, maybe even a bit of romance. You know, the stuff of real life. We don’t hit you over the head with our craft, and these days particularly, we don’t get the credit for what we can – and reliably do – provide. It’s a different palette, sure, like working in watercolors in an age of high-gloss graphics, but I think it’s time to quit apologizing for that difference. To quit ducking the label, or qualifying it as "not-quite-cozy" or "quirky cozy," both of which I confess to using. No, it is time to reclaim our own genre.

So here goes. I write traditional mysteries, with characters I want you to believe in, with settings you’ll recognize and motives you may share. Guess what? I write cozies.

See you all – with fresh posts – in the New Year!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Here comes the sun!

We've made it thus far, to the shortest day of the year. From now on, the sun will linger a little longer. Hang in there!

Happy Solstice!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Addicted to cats?

According to this article in the New York Times, there may be a biological basis for cat hoarding (not animal hoarding in general, but specifically cats). It cites the Centers for Disease Control talking about how the common parasite, toxoplasma gondii, may make us less sensitive to the smell of cat urine. Granted, it's a huge leap from not minding kitty pee to becoming a "crazy cat lady" or even a harmless multi-cat rescuer, like the murder victim in my first mystery, Mew is for Murder. But as one Stanford researcher said, "The idea doesn't seem completely crazy."

Then again, this UCLA study looks at the neurobiology of animal hoarders and finds that hoarders have significantly lower brain activity in the part of the brain known as the anterior cingulate gyrus. The study was looking at activity in that part of the brain for people with obsessive compulsive disorder, since hoarding has until now been seen as a manifestation of OCD. But hoarders had lower levels of activity there than other people who suffer from other forms of OCD. Therefore, the researchers concluded, hoarding may be more similar to age-related dementia – a finding that may aid treatment of compulsive "cat collectors." How did the researchers find all this out? A PET scan, of course.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Thank you, RTE!

Reviewing the Evidence has come to be one of the most respected crime fiction review sites, covering both US and UK books. And they can be critical. Therefore, I was overjoyed to see this review of Cries and Whiskers. How can you not love a review that opens like this?

"Clea Simon is turning the cat cozy on its furry little head in her wonderfully fresh series. CRIES AND WHISKERS is her third entry and, for my money, her strongest yet."

Sunday, December 16, 2007

"Cats Are Not Killers, They Are Predators"

Louise Holton and Maggie Funkhouser of Alley Cat Rescue sent me the following response, both to the New York Times Magazine article that discussed feral cat predation and to my own talk/blog, "Is This Kitty a Killer?" I think they make some excellent points.

Humans have double standards when it comes to judging and treating animals and how they judge and treat their own species. Environmentalists focus on the cat as predator, making exaggerated claims about cat predation and often overlooking or minimizing the tremendous damage done by humans. At this time in history, when the human population is so destructive to the earth and wildlife, we need to remind ourselves of our species’ responsibility and consider our “double standards.”

Urban sprawl, parking lots, road building, and golf courses play a large part in reducing habitat and food sources, negatively affecting wildlife. We poison our air with exhaust fumes from over 120 million automobiles and spray 4 billion pounds of pesticides into the atmosphere annually. The WorldWatch Institute cites deforestation, due to razing forests for croplands, pastures, and real estate, as one of the major factors contributing to the loss of all birds, including songbirds. In addition, power lines electrocute tens of thousands of birds, and estimates of birds killed in collisions with automobiles and glass windows every year run to the hundreds of millions.

So, to place blame on cats as a major cause for the decline of bird populations and to advocate their eradication does not make sense or solve the problem. Yes, there is no denying cats kill birds. They are predators, they hunt, and they do so out of instinct just as other mammals do. But that doesn’t mean we should round up all predators and decide who we should kill and who should live. Plus, many zoologists have observed that feral cats are more scavengers than predators. Their begging and opportunistic behavior “has enabled many feral cats almost to give up hunting altogether,” says Peter Neville, a UK biologist; this behavior has contributed to their being domesticated in the first place over 5,000 years ago.

Studies have also shown that cases where cats were eradicated mice and rat populations exploded, and they began to prey on ground-nesting birds. On Amsterdam Island, biologists eradicated the feral cats to protect seabirds; however, this caused an increase in black rat and house mice populations, and they preyed on the seabirds. Same occurred in New Zealand, when feral cats were exterminated to preserve native bird populations; only, there was an increase in the rat population, which posed deadly to the birds.

In the end, ACR believes all animals, whether exotic, alien, introduced, non-native, or so-called pests, are sentient beings and should be given humane care and treatment. If a species needs controlled in order to preserve another, then all humane, non-lethal methods should be utilized. In this day and age, everyone should be trying to instill more compassionate ethics towards the earth and all of her inhabitants.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

My putative pub date.

Note to actual readers: Real blog topics begin right below this bit of BSP. Please read on.

OK, for the BSP: Today is my Amazon pub date, a date chosen pretty much at random (Barnes and has had my book for at least a week, as have various lovely independent stores), because my publisher only specifies "December."

To celebrate, I'm guestblogging over at The Lipstick Chronicles, a great multi-author mystery blog featuring Nancy Martin and friends, and also at Linda L. Richards' blog. (She's the editor of January magazine as well as the author of four mysteries, the latest being the upcoming Death Was the Other Woman.) So if you've "pre-ordered" (why not simply "ordered"?) from Amazon, your copy should ship today.

But, hey, consider a different option. If you click on or call one of the following independent bookstores, where I've done events recently, you can purchase a freshly signed Cries and Whiskers (as well as new trade paperbacks of Cattery Row and Mew is for Murder). You'll also be supporting an independent business!

Why not order from Partners and Crime in New York (212-243-0440). Or my hometown stores, Harvard Book Store (617-661-1515), Kate's Mystery Books, (617-491-2660) or Brookline Booksmith (617-566-6660). They don't bite, and they do ship.

Want a personalized, inscribed book either for yourself or to give your Great Aunt Ruth for Christmas? Owe a belated Chanukah gift? Order a book from Kate's, Brookline Booksmith, or Harvard Book Store and tell them I'm coming by to personalize it. Then email me. All these stores are conveniently located. I'll sign your book within 24 hours - and the bookstore will ship it. Honest.
Thank you.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Is this kitty a killer?

Look at the book cover to your left. Look at that little black and white face. I ask you, is that the face of a killer?

Now, I write murder mysteries, but even for me that question might sound a bit odd.I mean, I’ve always promised my readers that no matter how many human bodies stack up, I will never hurt or kill a cat in one of my books. But make a kitty the murderer? Well, it’s a possibility.

You see, the seed for my new Theda Krakow book, Cries and Whiskers, was planted a few years ago by an email. That email was about a prominent animal rights group. It said PETA KILLS PETS. Well, I didn’t know what to believe, so I followed the links, did some reading and talked to some people – and found myself smack in the middle of a debate that pitted animal rights against animal welfare advocates.

In brief, and to vastly oversimplify, I should explain: Animal Rights people basically regard us all as equal creatures. Animal Welfare people see us - humans - as as, well, dominant and thus responsible for the care of animals, including those we’ve domesticated.

So where’s the conflict? Well, some animal rights people - not all - think that we should eliminate domestic animals. They look around at the damage that domestic animals, such as my beloved cats, do to native species – birds, voles, whatever – and regard them as hostile invaders. This topic has recently come to a more general audience thanks to a New York Times Magazine article that discussed predation, referring to a recent case in Texas of a birder who shot a cat because it was hunting piping plovers, which are endangered. The magazine article cites the World Conservation Union as saying that domestic cats are among the 100 worst invasive species.

So, in other words, these particular animal rights people are the folks who would answer yes - that cute kitty is a murderer! Animal welfare people, and I guess I’m in that camp, say theres a middleground - that we owe something to these animals that we created.

But what? Well, to some extent, there’s a compromise that can settle part of this conflict. Keep your cats inside! It’s better for the birds - and its healthier for the cats as well. And if you think your cat will be deprived, think again. Cats are obligate carnivores - hunters. They have short bursts of energy and they sleep or rest - as many of you know - at least 70 percent of the time.

Play with them 20 minutes maybe twice a day, and you’ll have given them sufficient excercise. Then give them a nice window seat, maybe a pillow or a blanket, where they can watch the birds. That's all you need to do. You'll be saving birds. And you’ll save them from dangers ranging from poisoning by antifreeze to being eaten by coyotes and fishers. Yes, there are coyotes in man suburbs now. And you’ll save your pet from the risk of being shot by an avid birder

But this compromise doesn’t help with a bigger part of the problem: Ferals. Ferals, after all, are domestic animals - such as cats, though there are also feral pigs and dogs - that have been abandoned and “gone wild.” Often feral colonies contain multiple generations - animals that have grown up in the wild and are no better suited to be pets than a bobcat or a lynx would be. But they are not wild, not “Native” - and they do hunt to live.

There are people are working with feral cats. Some people trap them and keep them inside, but that has its own problems. What is more common is TNR - trap, neuter, return, in which the cats are trapped, then often vaccinated and always neutered, and then released back to the area and social community they know. This is another compromise, and not without its critics. Some people call it abandonment - but many see it as the only practical solution. But it’s only a partial solution. The colonies may not grow (or they wouldn't if we could get people to stop abandoning their pets), but they are still out there, suffering through all kinds of weather and, yes, hunting to live. And so even TNR doesn’t resolve the basic conflict.

When Cries and Whiskers opens, a woman is out in a winter storm, trying to trap and save cats that have lost their last bit of shelter. But it’s a touchy subject and as my heroine Theda and her buddy Violet find out soon, things can get violent. After all, the winter can be deadly to animals and people alike – and in Cries and Whiskers Theda and Violet have to deal not only with winter storms but also a deadly designer drug, s money-hungry developers and people of strong – some might say rabid – convictions. A lot of these people mean well, but as we all know, sometimes the best intentions go very far astray.

The above is a version of a guest blog I did for Working Stiffs, which then evolved into a talk I gave at Partners and Crime, Harvard Book Store, and Brookline Booksmith last week and this past week. It has sparked some lively discussions, so I thought I'd reproduce it here. By the way, I signed stock at all three of these bookstores, so if you're looking for a signed copy, click on through to them. They'll ship your signed copy to you.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Doris Lessing

Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise . . . but the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us - for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

Thanks to Galleycat for making me aware of Doris Lessing's marvelous Nobel acceptance speech. I love the above quote, but she makes some other points, too. Worth reading.

Again, I excerpt:

Writers are often asked: "How do you write? With a word processor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand?" But the essential question is: "Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write? Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas - inspiration." If a writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn. When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. "Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?"

Are you?

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Animal Connection

Dateline: Boston, Monday afternoon!

Cries and Whiskers makes the New England Cable News Animal Connection, featuring friend and colleague Vicki Constantine Croke. (She's the author of a wonderful true-life animal adventure, The Lady and the Panda, and several other great animal books.

on another front, I take on Richard Marinick's "In for a Pound" for the Boston Globe.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The ethics of mysteries...

Hey, if you're reading this, you probably have heard this basic idea already. Supposedly mystery readers love mysteries because our books impose some kind of order on the universe. Things make sense, clues lead to conclusions, and justice is served. (This is different from thriller readers - I think they're more into the adrenaline rush of danger, or experiencing a very different kind of consciousness, such as being inside the mind of a serial killer.)

But at my reading on Monday, a woman who is both an author and a psychotherapist pointed out that my books have a strong ethical underpinning. I was wildly flattered, but a little confused - I guess I'd not really thought about my books like that. I mean, to be honest, if someone told me a book was "moral" or "improving" or even "educational," my first thought would be "Not fun!" But ethical, well, maybe that's different.

Anyway, her very nice compliment led me to wonder:

Do you think mysteries have or promote ethical systems?
Can a book be moral or immoral?
Do you care if justice is served?
Do you read different books for different purposes?
Are mysteries a comfort read for you?
In other words, when the world is going crazy, do you read a mystery just to get some sense of order back?

(If you need a lighter topic today, please check out my guest blog at First Offenders. And if you're in the Cambridge/Boston area, tonight I'll be at Harvard Book Store for my book release party, too! Wine, cheese, cookies, books.)

Or you can just click on the following:

Thursday, December 6, 2007

my virtual cat-driven tour...

I'm continuing to make the rounds of the blogosphere! Today, I'm at Working Stiffs and tomorrow I'll be at First Offenders. Of course, tomorrow for real I'll be at Harvard Book Store for my book release party, too! (7 p.m.! Wine, cheese, cookies, books). Thanks to everyone for hosting me!

(and retroactive thanks to Caroline Leavitt for hosting me on her blog on Monday!)

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Weighty topics

(Relaxing after New York trip)

So somehow last night, we ended up talking about female characters and their body issues

"Why is it," one of the lovely people who came to Partners and Crime last night asked, "that so many mysteries focus on women who are naturally thin and never gain weight, women who are proudly heavy, or women who are heavy and obsess constantly about food and dieting?"

"Sales," came the obvious answer from more than one of us. "Weight is such a common concern that some marketing folks have pushed writers to make it a primary focus. The result: our dream (i.e., the characters who can eat anything), our runner-up dream (ok, I weigh too much - but I don't care), and our all too common reality (the weight obsession)." But is that really what we want to read? Do such characterizations make us feel better about who we are, or do they just feed our worst self-image neuroses?

While we were batting this around, I admitted that my Theda Krakow works out a lot more than I do (wish fulfillment - she runs, albeit irregularly; I peddle away at a stationary bike and read). But she's not obsessed, and she (like I) work out as much to relieve stress as to burn off calories. (Hey, it may as well be doing some good!) Besides, I get so many of my good ideas while I'm at the gym that my husband is now used to seeing me, dripping from the shower banging away at my computer keyboard. So, I figure it's good for me, as a 46-year-old woman and as a writer. But is it a good trait for a character?

After all (and you knew there had to be a tie-in here somewhere), cats don't exercise much. And they have absolutely no body image issues!

Monday, December 3, 2007

Guest blogger: Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt is one of my favorite people. Not only is she a generous friend and kindred spirit, she's a wonderful writer. Her latest novel, Girls in Trouble was a BookSense pick and was named a top book by Mostly Fiction, and I know she has another in the works! (She has her own fun blog, Caroline Leavittville, too.) It was while we were talking about her latest work-in-progress that the idea of pets in books came up, and she sent me this sweet essay on "Animal Instincts and the Novel."

(I'm down in the New York metro area, Caroline's neck of the woods today, speaking at Partners and Crime and seeing her will definitely be one of the highlights of my trip!)

If I could, I would have six cats and four dogs. Or at least one of each. But I’m allergic. Really allergic. Sigh and alas. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t have a pet—which I did for twenty years, a beautiful, cranky, jagged shelled Vietnamese tortoise named Minnie. Minnie kept me company through my single years in NYC, and was even the litmus test for whom I would marry (Jeff was the only man who would eat dinner with Minnie perched on the dining room table). Minnie recently died, but because characters—and animals—live forever on the page, I paid homage to him by making him a character in the novel I’ve just finished.

My novel
Traveling Angels is about how we forgive the unforgivable. It revolves around Isabelle, a photographer whose car crashes on a foggy road, killing a mysterious woman who is standing in the middle of the road, her car turned the wrong way. Wrestling with guilt, Isabelle becomes obsessed and involved with the survivors—and one day, impulsively, she rescues a tortoise in a pet shop, which becomes a catalyst in her relationships.

I never had so much fun writing the tortoise scenes. Nelson, the tortoise, not only gave Isabelle a deeper humanity, but I found that when initial readers were scanning the pages, they were always fascinated by him! Suddenly tortoise lore was interesting! Was it true that tortoises bite red things and the only way to get them to loosen their incredibly strong jaws is to put them in a bathtub (yup.) Do tortoises really make clicking sounds like reptilian music? (They sure do.)

My novel fast forwards thirty years at the end. “Nelson must be gone by now,” a character remarks sadly, but how could I let that happen? By novel’s end, he’s older and probably no wiser, but he’s still there, alive on the page and in my heart. Just like Minnie.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Guest blogger: Deb Grabien

*This just in: This New York Times Magazine article went deeper on the cat vs. bird episode I blogged about a few entries down ("A Cat Shooting in Texas," Nov. 17). This is yet another side of the ecosystem battle Deb blogs about. Its a war of the worlds, isn't it?

Deb Grabien may be best known for her musical mysteries, the lovely "haunted ballad" series, of which the latest New-Slain Knight is just coming out now. And she's got a rock and roll series in the works, too. But she and I talk cats a lot. Because Deb does what a bunch of the folks in my own new Cries and Whiskers do – she works with feral cats. And therein, dear readers, lies a tale:

I opened my email yesterday morning, staggering in the post-Thanksgiving wind-down. My brain has spent the past week focused on the Business At Hand: feeding a small army of people, and keeping them happy.

The first email was from a friend with the San Francisco SPCA's TNR feral cat program in Golden Gate Park. There was a video attachment, taken on her cellphone in the early hours of the morning: A full-grown male coyote, circling a dumpster ten feet from the children's carousel in the Park, as a terrified raccoon huddled on top of the dumpster.

Recipe: take one urban park, with a fully contained biosystem. Add breeding coyotes and an Animal Control department headed up by a political appointee who, in 23 years, hasn't secured a single conviction for animal abuse.

The stew that bubbles up is called

You know what's sad, and infuriating, and makes me want to reach for my crossbow?

This is nothing new. Animal Control has known about the coyotes for a year. And they've done nothing at all.

A little history:
My husband and I are addicted to cats. Our house is full of them, all rescues. We also take care of two feral colonies. One is in San Jose, 50 miles south; every other night since 1999, we've driven down and back to feed them. We've found homes for many, grieved at the inevitable attrition, done what we could for the rest.

The second colony gets fed every night, as part of the SPCA program; these are the Golden Gate Park cats.

Last year, people began noticing something odd in the Park; coyotes. In our nightly feedings, we'd seen foxes, possums, cats, owls, gophers, skunks, and raccoons. The coyotes were newcomers, and it took no time at all to realise that the rest of the wildlife was disappearing.

People called Animal Control. Not just the TNR late-night cat feeders: people walking their dogs at night, jogging, driving. Everyone was seeing them. Since the sightings were often a mile apart in less than three minutes, it became obvious that the coyotes were just that: plural. They were breeding.

The normal biosystem began disappearing. The foxes went first; coyotes' first order of business is taking down their competition. The possums disappeared next. That had a serious trickle-down effect: possums naturally control yellow-jacket and wasp populations by eating the nests, and the insects began swarming. Skunks became rare sightings. The various ground birds (ducks, herons) were elsewhere at night, when the coyotes were prowling.

And then, there were the cats. We lost one to the coyote predation, a sweet little tabby called Ghost, a housecat someone had dumped in the Park, with no reason to think anything would hunt her. She was wrong.

Among our nightly regulars is a black cat called Dark. She's another ex-housecat someone dumped. She's cautious, but friendly; she rubs up against me, waiting while I open cans, purring when I skritch behind her ears, realising suddenly OMG a HUMAN is TOUCHING MEEEEE! and backing up. Never too far, though; she wants to come home with us.

Ghost was Dark's hangout partner when we first started feeding them. And then Ghost was gone, bits found in the morning, leftover from a coyote attack.

We called Animal Control: DO SOMETHING. Their response was an eye-rolling insult piece in the San Francisco Chronicle. They've made it clear: they will do nothing.

We've heard it all: coyotes are indigenous to the area. So? Velociraptors were indigenous to the Badlands - would dropping one into a playground in Omaha be a good move?

We're working to get the cats out of the Park, into no-kill shelters, trying to find homes for them. We've relocated some. The rainy season is coming, and the coyotes are breeding. The foxes are gone, the possums gone as well. And the coyotes are hunting the cats.

I'm writing a YA novel right now, called
Dark in the Park. I just hope the cat for whom the narrator is named can survive the winter and the coyotes long enough for us to find her a home.