WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hey Clea! It’s so exciting to get to pick your brain about Hold Me Down. This is a really exciting and thrilling new crime novel that’s grounded in Boston and music and a lot of topics really relevant to America today and women in general. Can you talk a little about how you conceived Hold Me Down and how long it took to write? Did this novel in particular end up how you wanted it to be as when you first sat down to write the first draft? How did it change?
Clea Simon: I can try, Matthew, but honestly, I’m not sure I remember. I’ve been working on Hold Me Down for several years now. I don’t know how many drafts I went through, though I can tell you that every time I sent out a draft to a reader, thinking I was done, I would find issues – usually with the tense changes and I’d be appalled!
For me, this was the kind of book that gets deeper with each iteration, though. Like, take the songs in the book. I knew that Gal, my protagonist, wrote songs, and so I came up with some. But only after a few revisions did I realize how revealing these songs were – not only of what she thought she was writing, but what she was really showing about herself. (I have to add here that I love having these songs – because once they’re written, they stand on their own. Different characters react to them in different ways. Even Gal reacts to her own songs in different ways over time!) As for how it ended up: Yes, I’m really very happy with it.
MT: I love that a lot of crime writers often pick a place, oftentimes even more than authors of different genres, and really develop the landscape and people of the setting of many or all of their novels. Can you talk about the world(s) of your different novels, and what brings you back to a place in more than one novel, and how you find something new to write about using place in each novel?
CS: I’m happy to talk about setting, but for me it’s the other way around. The stories I want to tell are so intrinsically bound up in their settings that these are never consciously chosen. The settings are part of the stories. I mean, I adore my city – the two adjacent cities of Cambridge and Somerville (what now we tend to call “Camberville”). It’s very artsy and weird and makes a perfect setting for my witch cat cozies – because we actually do have many active covens here. At the same time, with all the gentrification and development, we have some natural antagonists, for my protagonist Becca and her cats!
Hold Me Down is a very different book, obviously. In many ways, in general, the music scene is a perfect setting for a mystery because it’s a self-contained little subculture. People who care passionately about music are thrown together, making it a hotbed of relationships and also antagonisms. Add in various substances, and you’ve got a dozen different plots to kick off. But for me, this world was also important because it’s a world I know very well. It was home for me for many years, and I got to mine my own experiences for the book.
Of course, I also did my research and spoke to a lot of the old crew and came up with additional details that ended up helping me with the plot. Like, at one point, a friend who used to sing in local bands told me that she didn’t think anyone knew this, but that from up on stage, she could see all the way to the back of the club. What a great detail, right? So I have Gal noting that. But I also hope that readers can suss out that her perceptions might not always entail what we would call truth.
If I had one recurring theme in my music-world books – Hold Me Down and 2017’s World Enough – it is that memory and perception are flawed. That, thanks to nostalgia or denial, we all see what we want to see – and remember what we want to remember. I guess that’s true of me and the Boston music scene, so for those stories, I suspect I’ll keep on coming back to the clubs.
MT: Can you talk about your history with music, why it’s so important to you, and why or if you feel mystery novels and music go together? Do you feel there’s any connection or similarities between the two?
CS: I started my writing career as a music critic, and, before that, I played in bands. I was one of those people for whom a certain set of clubs served as a “third place,” you know – not my home or work. As the years have gone by, I’ve certainly done that less and less – but music, live music, has remained important to me. I started HMD pre-pandemic, so spending a couple of hours in a loud and crowded club was still a reasonable option.
When I talk about the music world – or club land, as I think of it – it encompasses a whole range of places: the bars and basement clubs, the stinky practice rooms – and anyone who has ever spent hours in a windowless basement cell trying to grind out something good knows what I mean – and the late-night load outs. The decaying burlesque theaters that have been repurposed for rock shows, and also the radio stations and record stores and even the tour buses of what we used to call “major label” bands, back when there were record labels.
Rock and roll has a thing about authenticity. Punk, especially, with its DIY ethos, is not simply supposed to be about entertainment. It is supposed to be about tearing something out of ourselves. Creating something out of nothing and hoping that it sings. That’s what we do as writers too, of course. In crime fiction, we’re looking for the truth – the whodunit or the whydunit. But on a larger scale as storytellers, as novelists, we’re also always looking for a larger truth: Who our characters are. What makes them tick. Why we care about them.
MT: What novels, recent or decades past, have helped shape you as a writer and informed or helped develop a book like Hold Me Down? Were there any books that helped shape you as a writer and the novel in particular during the writing process itself?
CS: I read pretty widely, and I think everything feeds into everything, so I’ll just say that I love Hilary Mantel and Lauren Groff and my new favorite find is Melissa Broder (check out The Pisces). I also review books for the Boston Globe and other places, and that makes me read very critically. I think I learn from all of these – what to do or not to do. I’ll be reading something and it will hit me, “oh, that’s an interesting way to deal with exposition…”
MT: What are your favorite music books? Novels in any genre relating to music? What are the best ways crime novels that somehow use music in a really great way that feel incredibly honest or true?
CS: I just wrote a piece on my favorite novels about music but that aren’t crime fiction! To excerpt myself, I’d start with Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, which is just poetic perfection (about jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden). Then I’d move onto Pagan Kennedy’s very funny The Exes, a fictional tale of a Boston band made up of two former couples and Walter Mosley’s RL’s Dream, a wonderful and moving straight novel – not a mystery – about a bluesman. Those are great books that I don’t see people talking about – so let’s give them a plug!
In terms of crime fiction, I love how Donna Leon and Kate Ross use (or used, in the case of Ross) the opera world and the theatrical backstage world. They so clearly knew it and lived in it, and that helps. There are so many others, and I’m going to pass on naming them because I know I’ll leave too many people out! What I don’t like are books that just try to put on the setting for the glitz. I mean, I used to love Anne Rice, but when she made one of her vampires a rock star, Lestat, I think, I lost it. She so clearly did not know the world, and it just read very false.
MT: What are the albums, bands, artists, etc that have shaped the novel? Could you give us a sample of what a music playlist might be like for someone who loves Hold Me Down, and also for you while you’re writing any of your novels? What type of music do you return to during the writing process?
CS: I do want to do a playlist! I think there ought to be some good tough women rockers up front: L7 and Sleater-Kinney for starters, and X and X-Ray Specs and the Bangles, and just kickass singers like Etta James, Barbara Lynn, Irma Thomas, and Kate Bush. But while I was writing this, I also found myself listening to a lot of male-fronted bands that had the right mood. Songs that I could hear Gal writing (and singing), like the Lazy Cowgirls, the Rankoutsiders, the White Stripes, the Nervous Eaters and the Outlets (both Boston bands!). And, of course, the Clash. Always the Clash.
MT: Do you feel (whether due to your own life or the time you’re living in) you could have written this exact novel—or something remarkably close to it—at the very beginning of your career, as opposed to now? As a writer, how have you changed over the years, and has this also affected you as a reader?
CS: No, I could not have. True story: I started World Enough 20 years ago, and it didn’t work. I didn’t have the writing chops to carry it off. More important, I didn’t have the distance, or maybe simply the emotional maturity, to see what it was really about: the false promise of nostalgia and the ways in which we choose to view the past. Hold Me Down deals with these same issues, but it goes deeper. There were issues in this book that I was not even aware of a few years back. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but one thing I have learned in the last few years is that it is easier psychically to take on responsibility, or even blame, than to acknowledge that we may have had no control over a situation. I didn’t know that when I started writing, and even if I did, I doubt I could have written about it.
MT: Like many great crime novels, Hold Me Down functions as a mystery and a nicely drawn character study. Which came first, the crime or the character, as far as the writing process is concerned, or how did they each shape one another? Why did you feel Gal was especially well suited for this story, and what are some other characters do you feel are especially well drawn in crime fiction?
CS: Thank you! I don’t think I can separate character and story here. Like the setting, they all come up together.
MT: If you had to group Hold Me Down with any other books currently being read today, or which should be more well read, what would they be? What books do you feel Hold Me Down could be in conversation with, and what books or authors would you like to see discussed with you and Gal?
CS: I’m thinking of other books that are really focused on their complex, flawed characters. I mean, in an ideal world, I’d like to put Gal up against Melissa Broder’s characters – or Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell! Within the genre, I’m a little stuck – I’m catching up on months of backed-up reading and I fear I’m not current and that I’m missing wonderful character-forward authors. I do know I’d be honored to be considered alongside Catriona McPherson, Naomi Hirahara, Laura Lippman, or Attica Locke. I am doing an event locally in March with the poet Lloyd Schwartz. We’re friends and we read each other’s works, so we’re going to have a discussion of our new books and the themes that appeal to us both.
MT: Do you have any books by rock stars, fiction or nonfiction? What’s something I probably haven’t read, but should? What would you recommend?
CS: I have Dr John’s memoir, Under a Hoodoo Moon. It’s not very good, to be honest, but I loved him and so it’s fun for me. A better music book by (sort of) the musicians themselves is The Brothers by the Neville Brothers with David Ritz. Other than that, if you’re looking for good music writing, I’d look for people who are writers first: David Hajdu, Anthony DeCurtis, Tom Piazza, and the like. David Hajdu wrote a very funny and utterly delightful skewering of the avant garde/art music scene called Adrienne Geffel. Now that’s a music novel!
MT: Did the answer to the mystery, the solution to Gal’s problem, or anything else essential to the novel change as you were writing it? Did you have any revelations regarding Hold Me Down or Gal as you wrote this novel?
CS: Yes! I don’t want to give any spoilers, but originally I did think that Gal’s recovery of what happened in her life would be the big reveal. As I wrote that, though, I realized there was more – that a bigger issue was her realizing the implications of her initial reaction. Is that vague enough?
MT: You’re an incredibly gifted and prolific author, and I wonder: what book of yours is your favorite, and are there any of your books you’d like to write again, either to correct an error or to simply enjoy the writing process all over? Are there any books you’d avoid all together? What’re you writing now? What book will you come out with next?
CS: Oh, I hate all my old writing – I see all the clunky bits – until I start reading something again and fall in love with it. And then I wonder, how did I do that? How will I ever do that again? As for what’s next, I’m working on a sort of creepy he said/she said about a couple very, very, very loosely based on my parents. She’s an artist. He is not. They have issues. I think it’s got a kind of Patricia Highsmith vibe, which surprises me, but there it is. I’m also trying to finish a draft of a more conventional (but, I think, very fast and fun) amateur sleuth set in a newsroom with a cop reporter with a weakness for bad boys. We’ll see if anyone wants to publish either of them!
MT: Clea, thank you so much for letting me pick your brain. I loved reading and rereading Hold Me Down and recommend it to anyone who wants to marvel in a slower-burning mystery about a complex heroine with an incredible story. I loved this book and can’t wait to see what you come out with next. I can’t wait to see what readers think as well!
CS: Me as well! That said, it was a pleasure to hang here today and to think about your thoughtful questions. Thank you, Matthew!
Matthew Turbeville: Welcome to Writers Tell All, James! It’s so great to be able to interview you about your incredible and stellar novel, Five Decembers. Can you tell us a little about the book and why you wrote it?
James Kestrel: I wrote it before the pandemic upended everything, and back then I was traveling a lot between Honolulu (my home), Tokyo, and Hong Kong. Whenever I’m in a new place, I like to walk around and explore the history. And I kept coming back to how these three places were connected, and how the sea in between them had become a chessboard from 1941 to 1945. I wanted to tell a story that grappled with that, and after thinking about it a while (I believe I was on a China Eastern Airlines flight, drinking a Tsingdao, when it all came together) I saw a way to use a character like Joe McGrady to propel a narrative.
MT: A lot of reviews I’ve seen have compared the novel favorably to All the Light We Cannot See, but I loved Five Decembers even more. I also really love the rare, great crime epic. It’s sweeping, it’s massive. Do you mind telling us a little about what it’s like to write such a sprawling novel, both in size and scope, and what research and other elements of the writing process went into crafting the novel?
JK: It was great fun to write such a big book. Everything I’d written previously had been smaller in scale, and crammed into a shorter time frame. Having such a huge canvas and such a long time for the story to play out was like filling my lungs with oxygen. I spent some time researching before I began writing, but then continued it as I was writing. With the research, the hardest part was to know when to stop. I was still researching after I’d sold the book, after it had been edited, and after it had been sent out to reviewers. When my editor at Hard Case finally confirmed that there was no longer any chance of changing things, I stopped researching because it would kill me to find something I wanted (or needed) to fix, if fixing it was an impossibility.
I spent a lot of time in the basement of the Hawaii State Library, which has a microfilm collection of all the local newspapers during the relevant time period. I also got a copy of the 1941 Oahu telephone directory, which was priceless, because then I knew where all the businesses were located. I ordered maps from the period, so I wouldn’t risk driving my characters down any streets that didn’t yet exist. And I spent a lot of time at the Waialae Country Club, hanging out with my 83 year old boss and his cronies, and listening to their stories.
Hong Kong and Japan were obviously much harder to research. Accurate period maps of Hong Kong were easy to find, and (because of my day job) I had a connection to a former Hong Kong detective. Tokyo was pretty much burned to the ground during the war, much of it on a single night. So walking around Tokyo isn’t a particularly good way of learning about what it was like in 1941—except there is one neighborhood, Yanaka, that miraculously escaped bombing. It’s a good way to get a handle on what Tokyo would have looked like. I also had some friends in Japan who take hospitality to another level, and they put me up for three nights in a hot spring town, in a guest house that used to belong to the Emperor. I’m not sure I want to know what they paid for that, but it was a fantastic way to become familiar with traditional Japanese domesticity (albeit on the high end).
MT: How do you manage the amount of information, historical and general, that goes into a novel? I’ve read some criticisms of other historical novels about the unnecessary factual information in the novels used to make the novels seem more authentic, but it feels like you use just enough, with sparse, almost poetic language. What books inspired you to write Five Decembers? What are your favorite novels, what are your favorite crime novels, and what are some of your favorite historical novels you feel have had a great impact on you, in general and in writing this novel?
JK: I research as deeply as I can, because I want to know things that would inform my characters or improve my understanding of them, even if those particular details don’t actually make it into the book. Case in point: I wanted to know what a Honolulu detective’s annual salary was in 1941. It’s the sort of thing you need to know, because it will dictate what kind of house he lives in, what kind of car he drives when he’s off duty, etc. But you don’t need to write a scene where he looks at his pay stub and multiplies it by 24. So I try to find out everything I can, but then try to let the story dictate what gets written down.
MT: What was your journey like to writing this novel—both in “becoming” a writer, whatever becoming might mean to you, and also in getting the novel published? I loved Hard Case Crime, and I’m so interested in how the publisher got its hands on such a brilliant novel too!
JK: This one is a bit tricky, because James Kestrel is a pseudonym. This is the tenth novel I’ve written, and the seventh I’ve published. I wanted this book to stand apart, though. The way I got to Hard Case Crime was pretty straightforward: my agent sent me a list of a dozen or so publishers she wanted to submit to, and I asked her to add Hard Case. The entire time I was writing the novel, I thought it would be a perfect match. And I am so glad it ended up where it did. Hard Case has a fantastic (brilliant, even) editor named Charles Ardai who was not only instrumental in reshaping the book from its first draft, but who has also been an unwavering champion of it since the day he made an offer.
MT: Do you feel the novel has any particular relevance today? I think about McGrady, the protagonist, and his sort of forced exile during the war, and there’s a sense of claustrophobia, of great change and unrest that rings true today, too. When were you writing this novel and were there any events going on in particular you feel affected the way the novel was shaped?
JK: I hadn’t thought of the forced-exile connection to our current world, but now that you point it out, it’s definitely there. I wrote this book before the pandemic, though, so that certainly wasn’t intentional.
MT: Language and style is such an important part of your novel. You have this beautiful, poetic style that’s filled with these unfurling sentences, and also a lot of staccato-like precision. When you write and revise, how closely do you pay attention to the actual style of your prose, and what’s that revision process like for you?
JK: Wow—thank you! Sometimes I’ll read passages aloud to make sure they have the right rhythm. The book is told from a close third-person perspective, so I wanted the prose style to echo the character of McGrady as much as possible. When he’s thinking like a beat cop, the sentences come out like he’s banging out a report on a rusty typewriter. But I had to spend some time adjusting the sentence structures and the pacing in the middle section of the book to better fit the scenes in which McGrady has been knocked out of his element and off the course of his investigation. He’s not thinking like a cop there, but like a bewildered man trying to keep a handhold on the world.
MT: The quote often attributed to Toni Morrison, about writing the novel you’ve always wanted to read, is something I’m always interested in. Do you feel you’ve read that sort of novel before, and if so what might it be? If not, do you think Five Decembers is the book you always wanted to read, or do you think that’s still coming?
JK: I’ve never talked to him, but I believe James Ellroy must have felt that way while writing The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential.
MT: What book or books do you feel Five Decembers might be most in conversation with, or paired with for the most interesting effect? What about other forms of art? Does it work as a response or complement any other work in a way you want to draw attention to?
JK: What an interesting exercise—like a wine and cheese pairing, but for books and other forms of art. When I was writing the story, I’d often listen to 1940s jazz. It wasn’t something I’d listened to at all before getting into this novel, but I it certainly put me in the right frame of mind.
As for book pairings, I would be interested to see what other people think of the comparison with All the Light We Cannot See. Now comes the embarrassing moment where I have to admit that I have not yet read that book. It came out shortly after my son was born, so I was kind of tied up. Then I was writing my book and the last thing I wanted to do was read an acclaimed World War II novel. What if it knocked my socks off, and I stopped writing mine? What if his voice was so powerful I couldn’t hear my own, and started borrowing his? But now I can read it, and I will.
MT: What’re you working on next? Can we expect another book from you in the near future, and if so, do you mind sharing any information about the novel?
JK: Right now I am trying to work my way out from beneath a mountain of pandemic-induced lethargy. I do sort of have an idea, though, inspired by some research I did for Five Decembers which had no direct connection to the book. All I can say is that I was researching denominations of US currency in circulation in 1941, inspired by the fear that I’d have McGrady hand someone a $5 bill, only to be told by a notaphilist / mystery reader that there was no such bill until 1954. My fear turned out to be ungrounded, but in the process I stumbled across something incredibly interesting.
MT: Thank you so much for letting me pick your brain, James! It was such a thrill reading your novel, and I hope others will pick it up as well. It’s a great novel and really deserves all the attention it’s getting and more. Thank you so much again, and I can’t wait to see more from you!
JK: Thank you so much. I’m truly humbled that you read the book at all, let alone that you enjoyed it.
Buy Five Decembers here.