Sometimes it feels like half the people I know around Boston have contributed to the newspapers and magazines I have written for over the past couple of decades. Even if it’s only been a music or arts review or two, reporting on one’s scene is something of a rite of passage for a lot of hardcore culture fiends. And for those who have considered themselves to be scenesters at some point or another, there is always quite a bit of dirt that gets buried with time, for better or worse.
Clea Simon, whom I know from my former gig with the Boston Phoenix, has been a regular on several scenes and knows where lots of sketchy nooks are hidden. In addition to being a novelist of note around these parts, she also did her time, mainly as a music fan, in the legendary nightclubs of the Hub’s grimier halcyon days. When the Boston Globe needed someone earlier this year to revisit the Rat, the iconic Kenmore Square venue that shuttered in ’97, for a major spread on bygone Boston music eras, Simon got the call, and she penned one heck of a tribute.
The author happened to be in the right mindset for an adventure down memory lane. Her latest mystery novel, the newly released World Enough from which she will read at Harvard Book Store next Thursday, dives deep into the brightest, as well as many of the darkest, shadowy sides of Hub life from the late ’80s on through the aughts—from A&R vultures to parties on the waterfront before glitz and glam seized the skyline. A snippet:
Scott snorted as he scribbled notes, pawing through a pile of fliers from fledgling bands. But Tara was hopeful. Every week, the rumors promised that a contract was near. Epic. Elektra. MCA. All the labels had come courting. Numerous professional management firms, as well. But like some airhead debutante, Chris Crack had kept them all at bay. Playing them against each other, as if for the sheer fun of it. They’d been flown out to LA—down to New York—so often that their gigs were becoming rare occurrences, and between the slush and the cold, the on-again, off-again of clubland’s new favorites was straining everyone’s nerves.
Simon’s details and backdrops—finely tuned by her contemporaries who were also there while real-life versions of these bands were getting wined and dined by major labels—are in some ways reflective of modern Boston. Forget the bourgeois makeover the city has experienced over the past several decades; facts of life like crowded T cars, the nightmare of “rush hour and the Sox,” and the sketchy innocence of Allston house parties remain. We sat down with Simon at Lord Hobo, formerly the B-Side Lounge as older heads who will dig her new book may recall, to ask about her life and career as a creative on the Boston scene that led to this rather epic departure from her usual work.
On getting started as an author
I write a lot. I started as a journalist, and my first three books were nonfiction—I wrote Mad House, about growing up with mentally ill siblings, and that grew out of a Boston Globe magazine story. That was 1997. I was at the Globe and I was looking to write bigger things, and it was liberating, because that was right around when my father died … That was my first book, and the response to that was great …
My third book was The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats. That was 2003, and it was a local bestseller.
On writing mystery novels
I started writing mysteries because a bookseller, [Kate Mattis] who used to run Kate’s Mystery Books, she basically gave me permission. I used to read a ton of mystery, but I was writing nonfiction. She had a holiday party every year, and a ton of local writers would come and sign their books. This is after The Feline Mystique came out, and she said I should come sign copies, and said, ‘Believe it or not, there is a big overlap between women who love cats and mystery readers.’ They were always wild parties. You couldn’t even get to your own books to sign them. So at the end of the night, after we had been drinking, she said, “Clea, you should write a mystery.” And I went home that night and started writing.
On inspiration for World Enough
This is my 23rd book, but all of my other mysteries have involved animals. They range from softer to harder ones, and this is definitely the darkest one. It’s the same genre [as previous books], but a different end of the spectrum. Publishers of mysteries want series, and I have one series that’s set in a dystopian world that’s roughly based on Boston. It features a homeless girl and this black feral cat that sort of adopts her, and that’s the hardest book [before World Enough].
This is a much darker book, and much more reality based. It’s all crime fiction in that a problem is set up, there is a question, a possible crime, a death, and some kind of mystery. We don’t know if it was an accidental death, we don’t know what happened. And that will be, if not resolved then at least explained by the end … [Mystery writers] set the world awry, and then we set it right again. This is one of the darker ones because there is no resolution, and I’m not saying justice will be done, but you will understand what happened by the end. It will be clear …
I finally got to write about the rock scene, but it’s also about the fallibility of memory, and that weird nostalgia. We all look back on our youth as some kind of golden time, but we’re all subjective, we’re all flawed. How much of that is real?
Ripped from the headlines?
None of these bands are real. All of my early readers have said, “Yes, yes, I understand that it’s fiction, but who are the Aught Nines based on?’ All the incidents probably happened. I don’t recall ever seeing a band get on stage so drunk that the drummer puked and fell off his stool before his set, but I am sure that happened.
I certainly tried to make it real. And I wanted to get the feel of it. The book is set between 1987 and 2007; Tara [the main character] is younger than I am now, and she needed to be because she’s a lot more passive than I am, and a little more naive. A friend who is a literary novelist described it as my coming-of-age novel. This is a woman who is entering her 40s, and she’s looking back on what really was the high point of her life. Basically, where does she go from here? And she really comes alive when she’s back in that era.
They are memory collages. A lot of the smells, the sounds, they’re real. I was a Rat girl. I certainly went to the Channel a lot, but the bouncers there beat up kids and I didn’t like it. I liked Storyville when it was open, but in lieu of anything else, I would go to the Rat. And the Rat had an upstairs, so you could just go and hang without paying a cover. I loved it.
If you were there, it will evoke it for you. But I also think that people who weren’t there can live it vicariously. I mean, I don’t live in Venice, but I read Donna Leon. Boston in those days was this perfect little rough city, a mix of college kids and working class people, and it was affordable.
[World Enough] is a book that I’ve been working on for a long time, and that I put it aside. I started writing about the scene 25 years ago because I loved it, but I was just way too close. And then maybe 10 years ago I had the idea for this, and it just sort of happened because I didn’t have the chops then as a writer to do it. Also, I didn’t have the emotional perspective. I had to write a dozen books first. And the reason I revisited it finally was utterly prosaic—I was having drinks with my publisher, and they said that I should write romantic suspense. I didn’t want to, so I had to come up with something different. I was like, “Oh, I have this.”
I don’t storyboard. It doesn’t work for me. If I plot it all out, there’s no juice. It’s flat. If I can plot it all out, then I have no interest in writing it. In the mystery community, they say you’re either a plotter or a pantser—as in you write by the seat of your pants. Sometimes your characters do things you didn’t know they were going to do, and that makes it fun. It’s the thing you didn’t expect. I’m a very disciplined writer; I write Monday through Friday, and I usually give myself a word count, like 1,500 words a day, and some days that’s like pulling fucking teeth…
There is a twist at the end of World Enough, and I really didn’t expect it. But by the end everything was pointing to something, and it was like, “Oh shit.” That’s what I love. That’s what I live for. That’s why I don’t plot things out.
CLEA SIMON READS FROM WORLD ENOUGH. THU 11.2. HARVARD BOOK STORE, 256 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. 7PM/ALL AGES/FREE. MORE INFO AT CLEASIMON.COM