By Ovidia Yu
First, would you tell us something about THE CAT SITTER’S WHISKERS?
Funny you should ask! It just came out last month. It’s the tenth book in The Dixie Hemingway Mystery Series, published by St. Martins/Minotaur and created by my mom, Blaize Clement. It’s my third book. I took over the series after my mom passed away in 2011, just after she’d put the finishing touches on Book #7. The books are all designed to stand alone on their own, but there’s an arc to Dixie’s personal life that started with the very first book, CURIOSITY KILLED THE CAT SITTER, and is continuing even as we speak (I’m just now finishing up book #11, which will be out next year).
It’s fascinating how you came to continue the Cat Sitter series. In a previous interview you described your initial response to the suggestion: “I was horrified. My mother was thrilled.” What has been most difficult about taking on Blaize Clement’s legacy—and what most rewarding?
Yeah, I think that’s still a pretty good summation of my feelings at the time. My mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. She had chemotherapy early on, but eventually decided to end treatment, partially because it wasn’t working very well, but also because she wanted to be in control of her final days and enjoy them—to “die well” as she described it. That decision meant a couple of things: one, she knew with certainty what was going to happen, and two, she had time to plan. It was her long-time editor at St. Martins, Marcia Markland, that suggested I continue the series, and when my mom asked what I thought, I didn’t even hesitate. I said no. I think I might have said hell no. Honestly, I just didn’t think I was capable of writing a full-length book, let alone a series with new installments practically every year. At that point, the longest thing I’d published was a feature for The Chicago Sun Times, not much more than three or four thousand words, plus I didn’t think I could really do the series justice. And I didn’t think the readers would accept it. And blah blah blah. I had a million excuses. Eventually, though, I changed my mind, largely due to my mom’s not-so-subtle reminders that a good son doesn’t say no to his mother, especially at her deathbed.
There’ve been all kinds of rewards, but without a doubt the biggest reward is knowing how thrilled she’d be for me. I wish she could see what I’ve done… that I’ve actually managed to write not just one entire full-length book, but three and counting (knock on wood). And then the next greatest reward has been the full-on, open-armed reaction from the readers. The love I’ve gotten, and the continuing letters of support and encouragement, has been nothing short of astounding.
I love the way Dixie talks and her observations of people and social issues. I was afraid this would change after you took over the writing but I loved The Cat Sitter’s Cradle and The Cat Sitter’s Nine Lives. You’re male and much younger…how do you capture the “voice” of the books and Dixie’s attitude so well?
First of all, thanks, not just for your kind words about the books, but for using the word “younger” when describing me. I’m lucky in that I have a wealth of material to draw on—not the least of which are the first seven books in the series, which I read through almost every day—but also tons and tons of notes and ideas my mom left behind, as well as her journals, which number about twenty-four handwritten volumes and span over thirty years. Also, we were very close and always had been. She always talked to me about the plots for the books… but honestly, when I really think about it, I just have her voice in my head. I can hear her when I’m writing. Ha. I’ve never come right out and said that, because obviously it sounds wacky, but it’s literally true.
What are some of your favorite books? Are there any you wish you had written?
For all its flaws, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. I started wishing I’d written that book on about page two, and then the feeling just got stronger and stronger right on through to the last page. It’s brilliantly constructed, and I love its all-ages appeal, and the way the mystery is seamlessly woven into the hopes and dreams of the lead character. I keep John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men on my bedside table and read sections of it almost nightly. It’s a perfect book. Every line is a world unto itself. Fiskadoro, a little-known book by Denis Johnson, has some of the most brilliant writing I’ve ever encountered. Another book I go back to a lot is Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. Jane Vandenberg’s Failure to Zig Zag, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. Ugh. There are so many. I could go on but I won’t.
What is your writing day like? Where do you write? What’s the process that takes a book from your notes to my Kindle app?
I get up early, around 7:00 am, and ride the coffee wave until around 10:30. Then I take a break and go out into the real world and walk the dog and breathe fresh air, then I work again until around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. My brain can’t take much more than that. In the evening, I’ll sometimes revisit what I’ve written that day, but sometimes I need a little distance to see things objectively, so I won’t go back to it until the following morning. As far as the process, I have a basic idea where I want the story to go, and I make hundreds of notes on index cards and shuffle them around on my desk, but they change a lot as the book progresses. I’ve learned that if I plot things out too concretely, I get bored with it before I’m done, and then that boredom filters its way into the writing, so I like to keep myself guessing until the very end.
Are you committed to Dixie Hemingway and the Cat Sitter series, forsaking all other books, or have you plans for other books and series?
I’m committed to Dixie for as along as her readers and fans will have her. I feel lucky and blessed to be in her world and wouldn’t trade it for anything, and the future is wide open… but in my spare time, which amounts to about seven minutes a day, I am, in fact, working on a stand-alone mystery. It’s about an autistic fifteen-year old boy who’s falsely accused of killing his neighbor’s poodle, so he sets out to find the real killer. The working title is: That Curious Thing That Happened With That Dog That Night. In the meantime, I’ve also got a more original manuscript in the works, about a young boy with a secret power…more on that (hopefully) in the near future.
What conferences and events will you be attending this year and where can you be found online?
I think when this interview appears, I’ll be at Malice Domestic, a mystery-lover’s conference that I look forward to every year, in Bethesda the first few days of May. I’m also planning to make the trip to Durham, North Carolina, for Bouchercon in October, and then Phoenix for Left Coast Crime 2016 in February. For all things Twitterary, I can be found @johnclement, and then for other book events, blogs and news, please visit my website.
John Clement is the author of the popular Dixie Hemingway Mystery Series created by his mother, Blaize Clement (1932-2011), and published by St. Martin’s/Minotaur. The latest two books in the series, The Cat Sitter’s Cradle and The Cat Sitter’s Nine Lives, received unanimous praise from fans and critics alike, and The Cat Sitter’s Whiskers will hit the shelves this March, 2015. John divides his time between Siesta Key, Florida, where the series takes place, and New York City, where he’s currently working on the 11th mystery while his pup snores at his feet under the desk.