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Cat Fight, An Article by Clea Simon

I never thought talking cats would be controversial. Honestly I’m still not sure they are, but if you saw the Wall Street Journal on March 1, or if you listened to NPR’s “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” the following weekend, you’d see that I have supposedly found myself in the middle of a – well, a cat fight in the world of cat mysteries, centering around the question of whether or not our feline characters can or should talk. As the Journal put it, on its front page, no less: “In Cat Fiction, Fur Flies Over Whether Stars Should Hold Their Tongues.” And, yes, I am the “one author” of the subtitle: “Claws come out as chatty kitties rack up awards; one author decides to turn tail.”

WSJ coverNow, I’ve been a working journalist for long enough to know better than to condemn the mainstream media with one broad sweep. Partly that’s because, yes, I understand that sometimes a writer needs to stress a point to find a hook. Deadlines, like tides, wait for no woman, and the writer had already spent something like two weeks talking to various members of the Cat Writers Association (yes, that’s a thing; yes, I am a member) looking for a story. I can easily picture her editor, like some newsroom King Canute, hovering: “You promised me an A-hed feature, Maloney. Where is it?”

But “fur flies”? Worse, this subtitle implies that I changed my style of writing in order to win contests. (For the record, the piece does not mention that I have won six of the CWA’s coveted Muse Medallions, and that I received them for books featuring both speaking and silent felines.) What is true is that after four mysteries with non-talking cat characters (my Theda Krakow series), I started to write cats that speak. As I told the Journal: I realized at some point that we all talk to our pets. And most of us imagine the other side of the dialogue.

Of course, I said a lot more, as well, including that we cat writers are a very congenial community (as are crime fiction writers), whose claws are usually happily retracted. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. That Journal writer needed a story, and a story needs a conflict to make it bump along. But since this piece has run, I’ve realized that the question should not have been “should cats talk?” but “can an author make a talking cat credible?” Well, that wouldn’t have been news. But as a writer, it is much more to the point.

Whether or not my cats talk – and for now they do – what I really need to be asking is: can I make you suspend disbelief and join me in the world that my story is presenting? Can I make you hear the same voices – human and animal – that I do? Because, of course, any fictional world is just that – the creation of our imagination. The stuff of dreams. And any story, whether it is hardboiled crime fiction or high literary art, is only as realistic as our craft can make it.

Credibility is something that is of increasing interest to me, especially as I launch my new mystery (and a new series) with The Ninth Life (Severn House). It has me thinking about realism and – novel for a cat writer, perhaps – about writing darker.

I’ve been reading darker for a while now. Although my previous mysteries (all 19 of them) tend to be either cozy or amateur sleuth, depending on who you ask, I have found myself drawn increasingly to the works of writers like Megan Abbott and Denise Mina, both of whom portray particularly grim landscapes and some pretty hardcore protagonists.

Because of my reading habits, I’ve been trying to write darker, too. In my Pru Marlowe mysteries, of which the sixth, When Bunnies Go Bad (Poisoned Pen), is now out, I attempted to emulate these authors. To find my own bitch-goddess heroine. Instead, even as I came up with a tough amateur sleuth, a single gal with a taste for bourbon and good-looking men, I found myself writing lines for her even tougher tabby. The result was humorous – at least I hope it is. My new venture, The Ninth Life, is something different again.

Yes, it is a cat mystery; that is, a mystery in which a feline figures prominently. For reasons even I don’t fully understand, I do not seem capable of writing a book without a cat in it. But unlike the usual cat cozy, even my not-so-cuddly cat cozies, this new book deals with some very dark themes.

Specifically, the book chronicles the adventures of a homeless girl, a young teen named Care, and a black cat whom she calls Blackie, as they find their way – and incidentally investigate a murder – in a dark and dystopian city full of drugs, crime, violence, and abuse.

For me, the big challenge in this book was finding its heart, its emotional core. Usually I find that core in the narrator. The POV character is who we most easily relate to. Whose experience we share. But, perhaps in part because of the harshness of my new fictional landscape, I didn’t find that to be true when I started writing The Ninth Life. If anything, my new narrator seemed to me to be cold. A creature capable of taking in the filth and violence of my new world with clear eyes. This POV gave me the distance I needed to put my characters at greater risk. To make them sweat, and even bleed.

However, I also needed someone to relate to. Someone I – and, ideally, the reader – could empathize with and worry about. I found this, the heart of the book, in a second character, one whose perception was not quite so clear. Who wasn’t quite so tough. Once I realized who was vulnerable, who was most at risk, the writing went easily. And once I had finished a first draft, I realized that my POV character had some vulnerabilities too, even if he may be the last to see them.

Ninth Life The revisedThere’s a story that comes to mind about the golden age of Westerns. It may well be apocryphal, but it works for me. Supposedly, in all those great Westerns, whenever there was a battle – cowboys v. Native Americans, whatever – the actors were professional about getting “shot” and falling down. The horses, however, had to be tricked. And supposedly – and, yeah, I hope this wasn’t true – they were tripped. Literally, forced to tumble over a rope, so that they would appear to have been brought down in battle.

I think of this often when I write. It’s a great metaphor for the tricks we use to get ourselves to do the necessary. To make the leap into a new style – or a newly violent world. And maybe confusing myself with my new POV and my split-screen conscience was part of that. This was a book I wanted to write, but I needed to do it this way to surmount the challenges.

What was not a challenge for me was whether the cat in it could speak. I found it quite easy to write this voice – to channel it, if you will. To hear a feral creature looking out for another, less powerful feral in a dark and dangerous world. Perhaps because I believe in a world that witnesses real conflict, and not simply that made up for a headline. A world that can at times be terrifying to individuals on their own. To small creatures who need an advocate and a friend. Will that make sense to the reader? Will you believe it when you hear a cat speak? I’d like to think you will. If not, there are certainly other cat mysteries to choose from, no flying fur or even modifying claws necessary. Purrs out.

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Clea Simon is the Boston Globe-bestselling author of 19 traditional/cozy mysteries in the Theda Krakow, Dulcie Schwartz, and Pru Marlowe pet noir series, most recently Code Grey (Severn House) and When Bunnies Go Bad (Poisoned Pen). In March, her 20th mystery, The Ninth Life, (Severn House) launched the new, dystopian Blackie and Care series. www.CleaSimon.com

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