TO: Amanda Killgore, Huntress Reviews, The Eternal Night UK, http://mistsandstars.blogspot.com/
FROM: Alice Alfonsi, author (www.CoffeehouseMystery.com)
SUBJECT: Q&A with Alice Alfonsi, who writes as Cleo Coyle and Alice Kimberly
1. For newbie readers, tell us a bit about your dual identities and what "they" write.
Cleo Coyle is my writing ID for the Coffeehouse Mysteries, a series of light amateur sleuth novels that have been (so far, anyway) national bestsellers. Cleo’s mystery series focuses on the misadventures of single-mom, barista, and coffeehouse manager Clare Cosi, a woman who routinely finds herself mixed up in murder. One fan called it Murder She Wrote meets Starbucks – that’s a fair description and a nice one, actually, since I happen to love Murder She Wrote!
Berkley Prime Crime has published six books in Cleo Coyle’s Coffeehouse Mystery series thus far: On What Grounds, Through the Grinder, Latte Trouble, Murder Most Frothy, Decaffeinated Corpse, French Pressed and (coming in late September, the first hardcover of the series) Espresso Shot.
If you start with book one and read the books in order, you’ll see that Clare Cosi moves along on a sort of amateur sleuth learning curve. Your average barista, after all, isn’t going to be ready for a starring role on CSI right out of the starting gate, you know? So during the first novel, an NYPD detective named Mike Quinn becomes one of Clare’s regular coffeehouse customers (not too big a stretch since cops usually down coffee by the gallon during their tours). The more Clare learns from Mike Quinn about detection and crime solving, the better she gets at practicing it.
My second alias is Alice Kimberly. Alice writes the Haunted Bookshop Mysteries (also for Berkley Prime Crime). The amateur sleuth in her series is Penelope Thornton-McClure or “Pen” for short. Pen owns the Rhode Island bookshop of the series title and during the first novel of the series she discovers that her bookshop is haunted by the spirit of a big city private detective named Jack Shepard, who was gunned down on the premises while investigating a murder. Now Jack’s ghost is stuck within the fieldstone walls of Pen’s shop—and, brother, is he bored with his small town afterlife. But then bodies start dropping around Penelope, and Jack livens up. (After all, murder was his business in life.) Jack’s hard-boiled attitude often tries Pen’s patience, but the ghost has a lot more experience with solving homicides than she does. And Pen soon finds the ghost to be an invaluable crime-solving partner, even though he and his license did expire back in 1949.
The Alice Kimberly Haunted Bookshop series was launched in 2004 and there are four titles published thus far with more on the way: The Ghost and Mrs. McClure; The Ghost and the Dead Deb; The Ghost and the Dead Man’s Library; The Ghost and the Femme Fatale; and (coming in January 2009) The Ghost and the Haunted Mansion.
2. You write with your husband, yet your narrative has one voice. How difficult is it to so perfectly blend?
My husband and I have collaborated on a number of projects so by now we work pretty well together—like one person (we hope). So far, so good!
3. What made you transition from paranormal romance to mysteries?
More than ten years ago, I wrote four paranormal novels for Berkley Jove (an imprint of Penguin) under my own name, Alice Alfonsi: Some Enchanted Evening, Eternal Sea, Eternal Love, and Eternal Vows, along with a short story in an anthology, featuring a wonderful tale from the amazing Jo Beverley (Star of Wonder). Back then, the paranormal genre wasn’t as wildly popular as it is now, so the audience was pretty small, a real niche corner of the mass market, and my titles didn’t stay in print, which broke my heart, but that’s what happens when you put something out there as a writer—sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Even so, those novels led to a great opportunity.
Because I became comfortable with mixing contemporary romance with odd paranormal elements, like ghosts and Jinns, magic and mysterious plotlines, NBC television selected me from a short list of authors to “ghost” write for a fictional witch by the name of Tabitha Lenox. “Tabitha’s” book, Hidden Passions: Secrets from the Diary of Tabitha Lenox, was an original, hardcover work of fiction based on characters and situations in NBC TV’s paranormal daytime drama Passions. This was a huge job for me to take on. It was a big book, a tight deadline, and I was working a full-time day job so I did all of my writing at night and on weekends. But this offbeat novel turned out to be a New York Times, USA Today, Publisher’s Weekly, and Wall Street Journal bestseller. Entertainment Weekly recognized the cheeky fun of the book, saying “camp takes courage,” which, believe me, it does! They gave it a B+ in their book review section and in their year-end issue even named Hidden Passion’s 2001’s media tie-in book of the year. The book’s editor thought we’d be very lucky if Hidden Passions made the New York Times list for one week. We were on it for eight.
Hidden Passions was also a great learning experience for me. I wrote a big, original novel, tied to a major media property, quickly and successfully. After that, it was a relatively easy process joining forces with my husband, Marc Cerasini, to co-write the first tie-in work of fiction attached to the Emmy-award winning Fox TV series 24. In our book, 24: The House Special Subcommittee’s Findings at CTU, counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer must appear before Congress and defend the actions he took during the course of 24’s first television season (“Day 1” for fans of the show). My past experience as a news reporter was helpful there, too, since we had to create fictional news articles tied to Jack Bauer’s actions.
Marc and I learned some interesting thriller techniques working with Virgil Williams, the story editor (at the time) for 24, who guided and advised us along the way. We both agreed that a great next step would be to begin developing our own book series. But what?
Because we live and work in New York City, we wanted to set the series in the Big Apple. But there were already so many serious, dark stories about New York. We wanted to give the readers something different. Over the years, we’ve both enjoyed comic mysteries. I also knew the “village” setting was a standard for cozy mystery, so we decided to set our first mystery series in New York’s Greenwich Village.
It’s a bit of cheeky irony for the cozy genre, setting your series in the “Village” of big, bad, busy New York instead of the more traditional cozy village of a small town, but we figured the readers would give us a little license to play. And, the truth is, many aspects of New York living aren’t so dissimilar from conventional, small town life—from the city’s unique neighborhoods and mom-and-pop businesses to the love of baseball and pets. The quiet, picturesque, historically preserved neighborhood of Greenwich Village with its quaint shops and welcoming coffeehouses has plenty in common with historic small towns, too.
After getting the Coffeehouse Mysteries off the ground (with On What Grounds) in 2003, my husband and I developed our second mystery series. Given my continued fascination with the elements and themes of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (see my out-of-print paranormal novel Eternal Sea!), you can understand how Jack Shepard, ghostly PI, ended up haunting Penelope and her bookshop. (FYI: A former boyfriend of mine had a sister who owned an old Stanford White house in Newport, Rhode Island, so I’ve been to Rhode Island a number of times, which is how the setting was developed—and there are a lot of authentic ghost stories in that locale, too, by the way!)
4. When you begin a story, do you know "who dun it?" to borrow a phrase from Ellery Queen, or do you learn over the course of the story.
We almost always know who “dun it” early in the writing. How exactly we develop our plots and write our novels can differ from book to book. And, yes, on occasion we may choose a murderer later in the story. But that’s very rare. What’s much more common is our knowing from the beginning of the writing who the victim is, who the murderer is, and why the murder was committed.
5. How did you get hooked on ghosts? I got so excited to see the Ghost and Mrs. Muir quote, and as I recall as Alice Alfonsi you had several ghost romances, that I emailed my "Gamm" loop to say, “She quoted ‘our’ guy!” And, Jack would be a welcome member of the spectral fraternity with Captain Gregg, I'm sure.
For you to consider Jack worthy of sharing any plane whatsoever with the Ghost and Mrs. Muir’s Captain Gregg is one of the best compliments that you can give me. Thank you. I greatly admire author Josephine Leslie for her novel, which (as you know) was turned into a Hollywood movie after it became a bestseller in England in 1945.
I often consider the period when Ms. Leslie wrote that book—at a time when many young widows were grieving over the loss of their young, vital husbands on the bloody battlefields of World War II. Ms. Leslie’s novel (written under the pen name R.A. Dick) gave these women the story of Mrs. Muir, a young widow like themselves, who finds companionship with the ghost of a virile sea captain. Captain Gregg even becomes Mrs. Muir’s muse in the course of the novel, dictating his adventures as she writes them into a book.
I can’t think of many better uses for fiction, or any art, than to comfort the grieving; to lift them up with an idea that maybe they really aren’t so alone, that maybe there really are spirits looking after them, even if those spirits reside within themselves—as imagination, passion, or creative abilities they have yet to tap.
As to my own relationship with the spirit realm, it’s kind of morbid, but while I was growing up in Pennsylvania, I used to spend a lot of time in a small Revolutionary War-era cemetery as a kid, reading gravestones and hanging out alone with the dead. I even convinced my girlfriends to have a picnic there. (We were quiet and respectful, I assure you.) Only later in life did I learn about the Day of the Dead ritual and realized I wasn’t such a weirdo after all.
My fascination with ghosts just came naturally and very early. It’s definitely something that started before I was old enough to understand where it came from. What I call “ghost hunting” is a favorite pastime of mine and my husband’s, which is what I call visiting places purported to be haunted. I’ve even had my own encounters with ghosts/spirits—one with my husband as a witness, so I assure you that I’m not crackers. Anyway, now that my mother, my beloved Aunt Mary, and a respected mentor have all passed over, I feel a real connection to people on the other side, so when I write about ghosts, it’s from a genuine perspective. And if anyone reading this thinks the spirits of the dead are a big crock, by all means chock my viewpoint up to my superior imaginative abilities (or my unbalanced creative mind). Either way it works for me when putting specters on paper.
6. Your love of the timeless classic movies shone through, especially in all the quotes. What's your favorite of them?
If I had to narrow down my very long list of favorite old films, I’d say:
GAMM (of course!), aka The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
Double Indemnity (1944)
Laura (1944), which also stars The Ghost and Mrs. Muir’s Gene Tierney, my late mother’s favorite actress
The Thin Man film series (1934 – 1947), starring William Powell & Myrna Loy
The Dark Corner, a very entertaining 1946 film with Lucille Ball as the hard-boiled gumshoe’s gutsy but steadfastly loyal secretary – a very Penelope and Jack kind of relationship!
Michael Shayne: Detective: the first in a seven-film series starring Lloyd Nolan as the title character and spanning from 1940 to 1942. This is a fun, unique detective film series, sort of hard-boiled “light” where serious hard-boiled action moments are juxtaposed with screwball comedy – based on the series of novels with the same interesting mix of elements by “Brett Halliday”
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer stars in this one.
The Big Sleep (1946 version) with screenplay by Leigh Brackett and William Faulkner
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946 version)
Lady in the Lake (the surreal one, directed by Robert Montgomery in 1947, that gives the camera’s perspective to the PI, essentially making YOU the viewer Philip Marlowe), and, finally...
The dark, intense, romantic, and wonderful: Rebecca (1940).
7. What do readers have to look forward to from you under any name?
Look for Coffeehouse Mystery #7: Espresso Shot in September 2008 (for the first time releasing in hardcover – yeah, baby!) and in January 2009, look for Haunted Bookshop Mystery #5: The Ghost and the Haunted Mansion.
As Cleo Coyle, the teller of Clare Cosi’s coffeehouse tales, I’ll also continue to write and maintain the website www.CoffeehouseMystery.com, where I’m able to keep in touch with the series readers. I also post coffee news and recipes, give away a monthly “coffee pick” to random e-newsletter subscribers, and host a Coffee Talk message board, where readers often share favorite coffeehouses, recipes, and foodie stories. (The e-newsletter is free, by the way, and your readers are most welcome to stop by and sign up.)
Both my husband and I have quite a few ideas for more novels. If fortune smiles upon us, and allows us to continue making a living as full-time writers, we’ll be able to put in the time to develop these and get them into the hands of readers. In the end, we know ours may not be a success story. But, you know, if life’s a crap shoot, then we’re staying at the table. Odds are, the dice will be nice to you eventually—but only if you keep throwing.