John Clement is the author of The Dixie Hemingway Mysteries, created by his mother, writer Blaize Clement, and published by St. Martins Press/Minotaur. I included “The Cat Sitter’s Whiskers” by Blaize and John Clement on my list of Best Books for Book Clubs in 2016.
Tell us a little bit about the Dixie Hemingway Mystery series.
There are eleven books in the series so far. The latest, The Cat Sitter & the Canary, just came out, and I’m working on the 12th now. All the books are set in the same place: a little island in the Gulf of Mexico just off the coast of Sarasota, Florida, called Siesta Key. They chronicle the life and times of Dixie Hemingway (no relation to you-know-who). Dixie’s somewhere in her mid thirties. She used to be a sheriff’s deputy, but now she’s a “cat sitter,” although she’ll pretty much take care of any kind of pet—cats, dogs, hamsters, parrots—all God’s creatures, furry, feathered, or otherwise. Except snakes. Not that she has anything against snakes. She just can’t stand the idea of dropping tiny live mice into their mouths. Plus, she’s not so sure it was God that came up with the idea of snakes in the first place.
Give us an insight into your main characters. What is special about them?
My mother always wanted to live in a beach town. Her whole life she felt connected to the ocean, and she always said the sea was calling to her. She was finally able to purchase a house in Sarasota in 1997, and almost immediately the idea of Dixie and the mystery series was born. She wanted Dixie to be a cat sitter because, well, cats are awesome, but also she envisioned a woman who’d been through a terrible time, who’d lost her family in a tragic accident, and by helping others, she would learn to be happy again. That character arc mirrored my mother’s own story in many ways. When she was a young mother, barely twenty years old, she was stricken with polio. It left her completely paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of her life, so she understood suffering from a very personal point of view. That insight is like a spark in the character of Dixie Hemingway.
What really intrigues me about this series, is you think that a Pet Sitter Mystery would be a very light funny cozy mystery. But this series really tackles some very serious issues.
I think my mother’s primary mission was to write books that are entertaining and intriguing, but she also used the character of Dixie to explore issues that were important to her: Animal rights, human rights, the environment, racism, homophobia, sexism. Luckily, these are all issues that are important to me as well, so I’ve done my best to continue that mission. I’m a firm believer in the notion that books can change the world — even cozies!
Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from your most recent book?
I have a few ideas, but I’m not going to tell you! I’ve learned from experience that my image of all the characters in the books doesn’t always jive with how the readers see them, and I hate the idea of interfering with that. I think it’s better to let everyone imagine the characters the way they want to. That’s the beauty of fiction. That being said, the ideal candidate would have to be self-deprecating and full of humor and wit, with just a little touch of hidden darkness to keep everyone guessing.
Share a little bit about your background.
I was born and raised in Texas. I studied classical violin and viola in high school and played with the Rice University Orchestra my senior year. I planned on trying to make a career of it until a spinal issue forced me to stop.
In college, I studied writing, focusing primarily on short fiction, but accidentally became an actor after taking a class in the theater department to fulfill an elective requirement. After graduation, I moved to New York City, where I managed to make a living as an actor professionally for about fifteen years by subsisting on rice, beans and cheap wine. I kept writing that whole time—mostly short stories, magazine features, and plays. One of my stories, Dogs Bark Blue, was made into a movie in 1992. I’d like to say it was a smash hit, but in reality it has five reviews and three stars on IMDB, and Variety called it “deluxe results,” whatever that means.
When did you decide to become a writer and when did you start writing?
I’ve pretty much been writing all my life. My first book was titled Dogs of the World, which I wrote and illustrated when I was six years old. At the time, I planned on it being an exhaustive compendium of every breed of dog known to mankind, past or present. It’s nine pages long. I’m still looking for a publisher.
My serious writing career began in 2011, when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, which of course was such an unexpected blow for everybody. We were making arrangements for hospice care when she asked if I would take over the series. She had big plans going forward—story ideas and character arcs—so thinking about Dixie living on filled her with joy. At first, I didn’t think I could do it. I’d never written a full length novel, and I didn’t know the first thing about crafting a mystery. But after some good soul searching (and some gentle encouragement from my mother), I said yes. That turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.
Which writers inspire you?
There are so many. I love Annie Dillard, Tobias Wolff, Flannery O’Connor, Denis Johnson, Agatha Christie, James Salter, Alice Munro, Eudora Welty, Raymond Chandler, Jonathan Safran Foer… the list goes on and on. And I’d be crazy if I didn’t include my mother as well. Whenever I’m having trouble with a particular chapter or storyline, all I have to do is pull one of her books off the shelf and within minutes I’m back on track. Her work never fails to inspire me. For a writer, that’s a nice thing to have!
What is your favorite book and why?
I’m a huge fan of John Steinbeck—his rich characters and economy of language, the effortless way he weaves such beautiful imagery into his stories. I truly think there are few passages in the English language as beautifully written as the opening paragraphs in Of Mice and Men. I actually keep a very worn paperback copy of it on my bedside table.
What book/s are you reading at present?
I have a very impressionable mind, so I try to stay away from fiction when I’m writing, otherwise the voice of the novel I’m reading forces its way into my own. But that being said, I’m currently re-reading Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which is astoundingly good. I’m also reading Bill Bryson’s At Home, which tells the history of mankind by exploring everything in the modern home and how it got there, from the dining table and the closet, to the doorbell and the toilet, and Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. It hasn’t changed my life yet, but I’m hopeful.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
My main advice is always the same: “Write. Don’t quit. Don’t listen to that voice that says you suck. Write some more.” I think it’s easy for aspiring writers to get bogged down in excuses not to write: “I’m too old” or “I don’t have enough time.” While my mother published non-fiction throughout her life, she didn’t publish her first book of fiction until she was well into her sixties, and I have a friend who published a novel written entirely on his Blackberry during his daughter’s daily ballet class.
What is your favorite social media site?
This is a tricky question. I was super excited about all the various social media platforms when they first rolled out, but they’ve all become so inundated with ads and snarky comments and promotional material that they’ve lost a lot of their charm for me. But I should say I feel forever indebted to Facebook because it put me in touch with a lot of friends I’d lost track of over the years, and Twitter can be fantastic when used in moderation.
How can readers discover more about you and your work?
Macmillan Author Page: http://us.macmillan.com/author/johnclement/
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/gp/bookseries/B00CJB9Z4U/ref=dp_st_0312941927
Thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to take part in this interview.