Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My first reader: a guest blog by Clea Simon

This week marks the launch of my new mystery, Shades of Grey, first in a new series, and I should be celebrating. I’ve set up some readings and am guestblogging at various sites all month. But the champagne is still on the rack, its glorious pop postponed. Because my first reader is fading away.

It is sadly ironic that Shades of Grey deals with death and with those half shades of existence that come before, and possibly after. Unlike my previous books, Shades of Grey is a ghost story, a paranormal mystery, as they’re now called. In it, a young, vulnerable grad student is studying the Gothic novels of the late 18th century. But then her own life turns Gothic as the ghost of her beloved cat shows up – and various other psychic phenomenon start intruding into her orderly, academic life. In Shades of Grey, I deal with these topics gently – this is essentially a cozy mystery. A light read, but the topics are there.

When people ask me where I get my ideas, I don’t know what to tell them. I’ve always written, because I’ve always read. In fact, I still have a copy of the first story I ever wrote. In labored, oversize lettering, it tells of a prince who was changed into a frog – but who then decided to make the most of his amphibian existence. I have it because my mother, when she was moving, decided she no longer had any use for many of the keepsakes she’d saved over the years. Although I was hurt by this at the time, I now see that she was shedding her former life. Various forms of dementia – normal pressure hydrocephaly and other complications – were taking their toll. She was moving from her condo to assisted living, and she was holding on only to what was vital. To what she thought she could keep.

My mother was my first reader and has been, over the years, one of my biggest supporters. It wasn’t easy for any of us. Both my brother and my sister developed schizophrenia while I was still a child, and while that made me, by default, my mother’s favorite – the good child – the price was way too high. That story of adaptation – that resigned frog – wasn’t simply a fable. We made do. We moved on. Family dynamics being what they are, we had other issues over the years – issues I poke loving fun at in Shades of Grey, as Dulcie fights with her neo-hippie mother and mourns her absent father. In a way, my life was designed to make a writer out of me. When I wrote about our family, in Mad House, my first nonfiction book, this caused my mother pain, I know. But whatever else was going on, I could always count on her to read my work. Once I started writing mysteries, I think she quite enjoyed them.

I am very aware of another sad irony. While I’m loving Dulcie Schwartz, I have another project out making the rounds. Called Dogs Don’t Lie, it’s my tongue-in-cheek hardboiled mystery, what I’ve labeled a “pet noir,” with a bad-girl animal psychic, and I and my agent thinks its some of my best writing yet. I’d told my mother something about it while I was writing it. But I didn’t tell her all. Because, you see, dementia plays a role in Dogs Don’t Lie, and it’s not a pretty one. For months, I wondered about this – wondered how far I dared push it. Would any publisher take an interest? If so, how long would publication take? Now, I know I don’t have to worry. Even if we were to get an offer tomorrow, my mother will probably not live to see it published. Even if she did, she wouldn’t be able to read it. I’m launching a new book and a new series, but it’s my mother who is fading into shades of grey.


  1. I'm very sorry about your mother. It can't be easy to balance the sadness of watching your mother fade away with the excitement of launching your new book.

    I think dealing with topics such as death and psychic phenomena in the way you're dealing with them in Shades of Grey is an excellent approach - it challenges readers to think about them, but without the heavyhanded approach with which these issues are generally addressed. I hope "Dogs Don't Lie" gets published. Even though your mother won't be able to read it anymore and regardless of the timing, it will be a wonderful tribute to your first reader.

  2. Thanks, Ingrid. I'm hoping I can post a much more optimistic update - and somehow relate it to writing! - after the "family meeting" today. (I find it odd and sad that I'm the only family left.)

  3. I'm glad you have the comfort of writing & publishing in these hard times because it's reading that has gotten me through mine. Feline Mystique is still on my shelves, and I don't keep many books anymore. I look forward to your new read, they are like cats nudging my ankles, always getting my attention.
    Your First Reader will always be with you, in your heart & in your head. ~catylaine

  4. thanks, Catylaine.

    Actually, some good news after meeting w/ her "care team" today - my mom is actually noq doing very well in rehab. She may never actually read another book of mine (she can read about a page of a large-print book a day... and then she forgets what she was reading) but she may get back into her assisted living apartment, with the help of an aid. At least, that's the plan today and she's getting at least another week of rehab to work toward this. This doesn't sound like much, but I'm overjoyed. Just came back from the meeting and promptly fell asleep for about an hour - now I feel like I have life again, at least for awhile.