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Interview: Cleo Coyle (Alice Alfonsi & Marc Cerasini) by Gayle Surrette
Interview  
Date: April 2008

Links: Coffeehouse Mysteries Website / French Pressed Review / Show Official Info /

I've been a fan of the Coffeehouse Mysteries since the beginning. So, I thought it was about time to find out a bit more about the author and the books. Imagine my surprise to find that Cleo Coyle is actually a wife and husband writing team -- Alice Alfonsi and Marc Cerasini. Guess I was so caught up in the stories and the characters that I didn't look beyond to the writers. Luckily Alice was kind enough to answer our questions for this month.

Gumshoe: Why coffee house mysteries as opposed to, say, restaurant mysteries, or any of the places that people gather to give you victims and criminals to choose from? I've check the website, was it the coffee?

Alice/Cleo: I'm a coffee geek, that's true, but there's a lot more to it than that. In the 1970s and '80s, fern bars and chardonnay were the thing. Not anymore. Now teenagers are ordering lattes and college kids are perfecting their ristretto extractions at part-time jobs. Sure the idea of a coffeehouse has been with us for over 400 years, and Italians have been bellying up to espresso bars for almost a century, but for much of the United States the coffeehouse culture has emerged only in the last ten to fifteen years. As a relatively new American social phenomenon, the modern coffeehouse seemed like a great setting to explore in a series of mysteries.

I also thought mystery fans, many of whom are armchair sociologists and psychologists, would enjoy reading about the layers of society attached to an urban coffeehouse business. You have mostly Third World farmers delivering beans to First World roasters and bohemian baristas handling them like brown gold for upscale customers. You have beat cops downing the stuff by the gallon, busy moms rushing in for take-out, wisecracking day traders getting wired over laptops, and high school kids sucking down after-school coffee frappes. It's a fascinating social sandbox.

Coffee as a metaphor for a sobering influence was too good an idea to pass up, too. Not that this is anything new. Film director Ridley Scott used coffee as a symbol of justice in American Gangster and David Lynch obviously enjoys using coffee as a metaphor in his work, especially Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive. Look a little closer at the Coffeehouse Mysteries and you'll see that coffee is often a lot more than a hot beverage—it's warmth and love; it's nerve and stimulation. The scenes and plotlines of the books inspire a number of variations on the theme.

Setting the fictional Village Blend coffeehouse in the middle of Greenwich Village was just as important in shaping the series as making the amateur sleuth a barista. New York mysteries are usually hard edged, serious, gritty, police procedural stuff. Presenting a New York mystery as a light, culinary cozy seemed like a fresh approach for readers to experience.

Making the series setting "the Village" of big, bad New York City was an intentionally cheeky irony for the cozy, too, which traditionally locates its amateur sleuths in small towns. But, honestly, anyone who's lived in NYC for a substantial period of time can tell you that many aspects of the Big Apple, from its unique neighborhoods to its mom-and-pop businesses, have a lot in common with small town living. And the historic, upscale Village is very much like its own small town compared with many other parts of NYC.

Gumshoe: How do you write a book with your husband? I guess I'm wonder, as I'm sure our readers do, how do you coordinate?

Alice/Cleo: My husband and I have a very close relationship. We were multi-published writers before we met, and we each hit the NY Times bestseller lists with solo efforts before we started writing together. FYI: Our first collaboration was also the first book published based on the television drama 24: The House Special Subcommittee's Findings at CTU—a fictionalized Congressional hearing in which rogue CIA counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer must defend the actions he took during the series' Emmy Award-winning first season.

The process of how we collaborate changes from book to book. We've each written so much individually that we're comfortable with every aspect of the novel-writing process. Mostly, we enjoy throwing ideas back and forth like pieces of dough, shaping and stretching, forming and reforming the story. What's primary for both of us is entertaining you, the reader. It's a night at the theater, and we want you to come back again and again and enjoy yourself.

One last important aspect of our collaboration is our shared outlook. Creating cohesive universes of characters and plotlines is one thing, but a satisfying novel should include the expression of a personal world view. Some people believe this can be done only on a solitary journey. As a happily married couple with similar backgrounds, values, and work ethics, our world views are closely aligned and we've been able to write like one person because of this.

And what is our world view exactly? Even though we met and fell in love in NYC, we each grew up in different blue-collar neighborhoods outside of Pittsburgh, PA. So we're both basically small-town, working class kids who were demented enough to think we could come to one of the most expensive, competitive, crowded cities on the planet and actually make a living as professional writers. We've been down some rough roads already, had plenty of failures and heartbreaks (personal and professional) and, honestly, the verdict's still out on whether ours is a success story. But we're survivors. We have each other—and, hell, there's always that part-time gig at Starbucks!

Gumshoe: Are you both coffee drinkers? I find the coffee facts and recipes throughout to be fascinating and tasty (applied to both facts and recipes). How much research do you do to fill in all the coffee details?

Alice/Cleo: Marc and I were both big coffee drinkers before we started writing the series and now, of course, we're total addicts. (Don't worry—no need for caffeine rehab yet.)

Our Web site (www.CoffeehouseMystery.com) has been a great place to share our coffee and culinary discoveries with readers. It's also an interesting experiment in extending a fictional world. The site's a "virtual" version of our Village Blend coffeehouse. Read it, drink it. (Like those experimental theaters, you know? The ones that pass thematic objects into the audience? LOL.)

No kidding, though. If you think a coffee in our book would be interesting to try, check the Web site for more info—if we can recommend a good roaster or vendor who sells it, we will. Our recommendations are based on our own good experiences or suggestions from our readers, who post on the site's message board.

As for the pro research: Joe the Art of Coffee in Greenwich Village and Café Grumpy in Chelsea have both been great sources of information (not to mention great cups o' java). We also speak with professionals in the culinary field when we're looking for specific expertise (and a nice snack).

In French Pressed , for instance, amateur sleuth Clare Cosi is challenged by murder suspect Chef Tommy Keitel into pairing his favorite cheeses with her favorite coffees. The culinary research for that scene came right out of a class Marc and I took on pairing various coffees of the world with different cheeses. (No, I am not kidding!) The class was held in Greenwich Village and jointly conducted by Murray's Cheese and Joe the Art of Coffee.

While neither of us have formal degrees in the culinary arts (my bachelors is in professional and creative writing from Carnegie-Mellon University and Marc's is in English literature from Ohio University), both of us worked in food service jobs before and during our college years—we know what its like to work in a busy professional kitchen and serve people at retail counters.

These days, Marc and I do a lot of cooking and baking. I attend culinary lectures and classes when I can. As a former journalist, I also find that striking up a conversation with any New York professional (from a waiter to a taxi driver to the NYPD detective canvassing the neighborhood after a local burglary) will get you some great background and stories, too.

Gumshoe: You also write the Haunted Bookstore Mysteries? How do you manage the two series -- by alternating or just as the ideas and plots occur?

Alice/Cleo: Ah, the multi-tasking question! The Haunted Bookshop series is great fun to write. Really, what mystery writer wouldn't want to put words in the mouth of a dead hard-boiled private detective from the 1940s who spends his afterlife needling a prim New England widow? We don't have any problem finishing a Coffeehouse and starting a Haunted Bookshop mystery. Writing fiction is a joy for us, so it's just a matter of switching role playing games.

A good suggestion for aspiring writers out there who are nervous about writing two different series is to keep a good filing system. Focus on one book at a time but realize that ideas can come at you for another book or series. When those ideas occur, don't put them off, write them up and file them under a folder that you can refer to after you've finished your current project. Our books are always the result of multiple layers of ideas coming at us over time.

Gumshoe: Why mysteries? Any particular books or movies that inspired you to write in the field?

Alice/Cleo: LOTS. First off, there's The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett, as well as the series of films based on his wisecracking characters, Nick and Nora Charles (another married couple!). Then there's my twenty-year-old paperback copy of Susan Isaacs' Compromising Positions. Ms. Isaacs was writing arch suburban-mom cozy mystery before many of today's writers (me included) graduated high school. Her novel Shining Through, which has many mystery elements, remains one of my favorites.

The great Agatha Christie should be a supreme inspiration to any woman who writes—and she is to me, as well, especially her Miss Marple stories. And then there's Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe, also penned by married collaborators, Nan and Ivan Lyons. (The movie Who's Killing the Great Chefs of Europe was based on their comic mystery novel.) And Nora Ephron's Heartburn, while not a mystery, is practically a seminal work when it comes to writing a female narrative voice steeped in a culinary viewpoint. And, yes, her highly regarded roman a clef actually includes recipes.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir remains an inspiration for the ghost mysteries, which should be no surprise to the series' readers since a quote from the novel is always used in an opening epigram as a respectful tribute to author R.A. Dick, a pen name for Josephine Aimée Campbell Leslie.

On the hard-boiled end, screenwriter Leigh Brackett is a super-hero to me. I would have given anything to be her protégé—or to join her at the bar with Chandler, Hammett, and Spillane buying. (But that's what heaven's for, I guess.) And since we're speaking about inspiration, I should probably mention my DNA for police work comes from my father's father who was a mounted policeman in Italy.

Marc's also a fan of the Black Mask School of detective fiction, so Chandler and Hammett are on his short list, too. As for modern mystery, James Ellroy has always been a great favorite of his. (Marc is also a Robert E. Howard scholar and a protégé of Tom Clancy's, but we'll be here all day if we start discussing everyone we admire or worked with.)

Since our latest Haunted Bookshop Mystery, The Ghost and the Femme Fatale, is a tribute to the film noir genre, we're happy to give you our favorite film noir movies: Double Indemnity, Detour, The Big Sleep, Lady in the Lake, Laura, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and LA Confidential (based on the excellent Ellroy novel).

Gumshoe: What does the future hold? New projects that you can tell us about?

Alice/Cleo: We're looking forward to the September '08 publication of Espresso Shot. It's Cleo Coyle's 7th Coffeehouse Mystery, but in many ways the series is just getting started.

Bookseller Penelope and her PI ghost Jack have more stories to tell, as well. The Ghost and the Femme Fatale is hitting the stores in May. And in January '09, look for the 5th book in the Haunted Bookshop series: The Ghost and the Haunted Mansion.

Do we have more ideas for novels and series cooking in our kitchen? Indeed we do. But they aren't quit ready to serve up. When they are, you can be sure we'll let you and your readers know.

Gumshoe: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.


Our Readers Respond

From Phyllis Kitts:
I have just finished reading all of the Haunted Bookshop series & can't wait for the next one. The Ghost & Mrs Muir is a big favorite of mine also. I love the intermingling of the 40's cases with the current day cases & of course the love story that is developing.

I am going to start on the Coffeehouse series also. I love the cozy mysteries. I love having my nose in a book all the time. It sure is nice to have people like you with the talent to give pleasure to people like me & so many others.

Thank you & keep up the good work.

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