Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Cleo Coyle: Brewing up Murder

This Author! Author! essay by Cleo Coyle appears in the Mystery Readers Journal: Hobbies, Crafts & Special Interests (Volume 26:4). To order this issue, go HERE and scroll down. Available as hardcopy or .pdf

Cleo Coyle is the pseudonym of Alice Alfonsi, who collaborates with her husband, Marc Cerasini, to write the Coffeehouse Mysteries and The Haunted Bookshop Mysteries, both of which are national bestselling series for Penguin's Berkley Prime Crime. When not haunting coffeehouses, wrangling stray cats, or hunting ghosts, Alice and Marc are also New York Times bestselling media tie-in writers.

Brewing Up Murder by Cleo Coyle
 
Eight years ago, my husband and I embarked on writing a series of amateur sleuth novels set in and around a landmark coffeehouse in New York's Greenwich Village. I know, I know. Amateur sleuths in traditional mysteries are supposed to knock back loose leaf tea in bone china cups. Maybe so, but here's the rub.

I'm a java geek for good reason.

Growing up in a big, Italian-American family, I found a Moka Express pot on almost every kitchen stove. To me, espresso was never some fashionable Yuppie drink. Whether the demitasse was served with a shot of sambuca on the side, lemon and sugar on the rim, or biscotti on the saucer, that bold, dark elixir was part of my cultural heritage.

My first job, at the age of 12, was serving coffee—just like my fictional coffeehouse manager Clare. I wasn't born and raised in New York. I grew up in a blue collar neighborhood outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Unlike Clare, however, I didn't drop out of art school. I completed my degree at Carnegie Mellon. Thanks to some early writing awards along with a journalism program at American U. in DC, I wound up landing a cub reporter's spot at the New York Times.

I downed a lot of bean juice during that period. I also lived in a tiny apartment in Alphabet City. These days, much of that Manhattan neighborhood is packed with trendy bars and clubs. Back then, it was simply a low income wing of the East Village.

Although my Avenue B apartment was Lilliputian in size and sat across from a park that was (at the time) a haven for crack dealers, it was also located two floors above a small, no-frills bakery called Bread and Roses—a warm ray of home-baked light in a manifestly noir-ish landscape.

The women who ran that bakery served coffee in the mornings, and I took blissful pleasure from the wholesome smells wafting from their shop: cookies, muffins, pies, and freshly brewing java. Their welcoming outlook was equally reassuring as I attempted to stay afloat on Manhattan's crowded, competitive (way crazy) island.

That concept of a Cozy oasis nestled in a land of Noir stayed with me for years and became fundamental in the development of the Coffeehouse Mystery series.

Oh, sure, setting a series in "the Village" of big, bad New York seems a cheeky irony for anything calling itself a cozy mystery, which typically locates its amateur sleuths in small towns. Honestly, though, anyone who's lived in the Big Apple can tell you many aspects of the city—its unique neighborhoods, mom-and-pop businesses, and populace that loves baseball, gossip, and pets—have a lot in common with small town living. The historic, upscale West Village alone is very much like its own little burg.

So maybe my husband and I are writing a hybrid. Or maybe we should call what we write an Urban Cozy. Whatever it is, male-female collaboration is part of it.

Both of us have found the coffeehouse to be a fascinating institution—and a relatively new one in much of America. A generation ago, fern bars and chardonnay were the thing. Now teenagers are ordering lattes and college kids are perfecting their ristretto extractions at part-time jobs.

It's a sociological bonanza, too, the prefect playground for a mystery writer. 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 bloggers getting wired over laptops, and high school kids sucking down after-school coffee frappes.

Coffee as metaphor was also too good a fictional plaything to pass up. Not that making java one of your leitmotifs is anything new. Film director Ridley Scott used coffee as a symbol of justice in "American Gangster," and David Lynch obviously enjoyed playing with coffee in his work, especially "Twin Peaks" and "Mulholland Drive."

Look a little closer at the Coffeehouse Mysteries and you'll see coffee is more than a hot beverage—it's warmth and love; nerve and stimulation. Throughout the series, coffeehouse manager Clare serves up joe to a relentlessly sober NYPD detective who gradually falls for her while she fights her attraction to an ex-husband who survived a near-fatal addiction to cocaine. For her (and me, frankly), coffee is often a calm, head-clearing influence when the world starts spinning off its axis.

And speaking of holding fast to your center...

Many people have asked Marc and I how we write murder mysteries together without killing each other. Our answer (sans punch line)—long experience.

We were both multi-published authors before we met, and we each hit New York Times bestseller lists with solo efforts before we started writing together. Consequently, both of us were more than passing familiar with the highs, lows, twists, turns, and downright hellacious snags that come with penning novel-length fiction.

We've worked in skyscrapers and behind counters; experienced lavish corporate parties and dingy borough bars; befriended actors and artists, nannies and doctors, executives and firefighters. All of it feeds the fiction, continually influencing how we see the banquet of New York and the vibrant offerings of its population. The people around us and their stories are what inspire us to keep writing—and to be gentle with each other as we do.

Many have said that publishing is not a business, it's a casino. Certainly writing as a profession is far from a sure thing, but then Marc and I were wed at The Little Church of the West in Las Vegas. What keeps us going is a fairly simple philosophy, one we hope all writers can share.

Stay at the table. The dice will be nice to you eventually, but only if you keep throwing.
Caffeine doesn't hurt, either.

2 comments:

D.B. deClerq said...

Thank you for sharing how you came to write your Coffee House Mysteries. I'd recognized how important coffee was to David Lynch, especially in "Twin Peaks," but will watch for it now in "American Gangster."

Heather Louise said...

Awesome post! And I love how coffee features so much in your books. And the Village. Such a successful combo. Who would of thought? A talented duo. And now off to my java.