Go to Homepage   Alex Matthews: Taking the Analytical Approach to Mystery

 
Alex Matthews and Rorschach, one of her four cats. (photo by Allen Matthews, courtesy Alex Matthews)

Alex Matthews, petite and pretty in purple, brushes aside a wayward curl and smiles warmly as she meets yet another mystery discussion group in yet another bookstore. Her husband Allen carries a bouquet of purple balloons sporting the name of the latest installment in her Cassidy McCabe mystery series and a big, BIG bag of Reese's peanut butter cups®. Purple and peanut butter cups, both Cassidy McCabe trademarks, link Alex and her sleuth, as much as their profession (psychotherapy) and place of residence (Oak Park, Ill.)

Allen Matthews, also a therapist, confesses that he assists his wife in her research. He even admits to stuffing her into a car trunk -- strictly to help her devise realistic details for her books, of course. The happily married couple considers bookstore visits a key part of promoting the latest Cassidy McCabe mystery, Death's Domain -- almost as vital as answering a reporter's long list of questions.

Crescent Blues: You appear to share many similarities with your mystery heroine, Cassidy McCabe. How much did you base your character on your own experiences?

My experience as a therapist has given me great insight into people--how they tick, why they do what they do.

Alex Matthews: In the first book, Cassidy is 37, recently divorced, and struggling to build a psychotherapy practice out of her dilapidated Oak Park house. This closely reflects a period in my own life when I had to start over after a divorce. However, many of Cass's personality traits and experiences -- her fierce independence, her philandering ex, her problem with jealousy, her addiction to peanut butter cups -- are not me at all. (I only eat the leftover Reeses after my husband and I have handed them out at conferences.)

Crescent Blues: How much do you draw on analytical technique in your writing?

Alex Matthews: I'm a clunky left-brained analytical kind of person, which means I have to write in a clunky left-brained analytical sort of way. This requires developing detailed plot outlines and knowing pretty much everything that's going to happen in the book before I can write the first scene. (Right-brained types have no trouble inventing the story as they go.) Every now and then I'm struck with a Great Idea, but these events do not occur nearly as often as I'd like.

Crescent Blues: How does your professional expertise help or hinder your writing?

Book: Alex Matthews, Death's DomainAlex Matthews: My experience as a therapist has given me great insight into people--how they tick, why they do what they do. This is an invaluable resource in character development, the part of writing that interests me the most. The only way my expertise can be considered a drawback is that people who aren't interested in psychology aren't likely to read my books, but non-psychological types were never my target audience anyway.

Crescent Blues: What was the seed of the plot of your latest book, Death's Domain?

Alex Matthews: Several years ago an image popped into my mind of Cass sitting on her front porch reading the local paper and coming across her own obituary. I immediately knew that at some point in time I had to turn that image into a book, even though I had no idea how to begin decoding it. When I finally decided to tackle the obituary book, my husband Allen and I spent several weeks teasing the image out into a plot. Now the book is written, and the only remaining question is why such a weird thing would come into my head in the first place.

Crescent Blues: How much does Cassidy's significant other, Zach Moran, resemble your husband Allen?

Alex Matthews: Zach, like all my characters, is a composite, some parts drawn from Allen, some parts drawn from me, and some parts drawn from pure invention. Zach gets his detached, unflappable temperament and his sense of competence from Allen; his toughness and directness from me; and his predilection for Jack Daniels® from my image of hard-bitten reporters.

Crescent Blues: Do you work together?

When Secret's Shadow came out, I was afraid that my description of crime and racial tension might raise some hackles.

Alex Matthews: Allen and I work together both as therapists and as a writing-promoting team. On the counseling side, we each have our own individual clients, but we also do marital therapy as a couple. On the writing side, I get the initial story idea, Allen helps brainstorm the plot, I write the manuscript and Allen critiques it. Then, after the book is published, Allen takes over as Marketing Meister.

Crescent Blues: What role does he play in your writing career?

Alex Matthews: Allen's primary role is to do promotion. He does a ton of really creative things, and he does it because he has fun with it. I find it amazing that anyone would actually like to do marketing, but my husband does. He makes posters, designs brochures, develops contests, donates books to libraries, tends to the mailing list, and accompanies me to signings. I consider myself to be a very lucky wife.

Crescent Blues: Who does a therapist turn to for analysis? Do you someone in your life similar to Honor, Cassidy's supervisor in Secret's Shadow?

Book: Alex Matthews, Secrets shadowAlex Matthews: Several years ago I had a wonderful supervisor/mentor who helped me gain insight into myself and become a better therapist. Most of my characters are composites, but Honor was drawn directly from this woman who played such an important role in my own life.

Crescent Blues: Please discuss Cassidy's matriarchal family and the absent male figures in Cassidy's and Zach's families.

Alex Matthews: Before you asked that question, I hadn't realized how much Cass's life mirrors my own. Although my father didn't abandon his family and my first husband wasn't a womanizer, men were largely absent from my life, just as they are from Cassidy's and Zach's. Allen was the first male to become an integral part of my life, just as Zach is the first male to play a significant role in Cass's.

Crescent Blues: Cassidy and her grandmother seem truly connected and admirably bridge the generation gap. Please tell us more about Cassidy's grandmother and the relationship you crafted between the two women.

Alex Matthews: Gran is the kind of person we'd all love to be related to. She consistently sees the good in other people and has the capacity to give unconditional love -- something we all long for but few of us are able to provide. Cassidy, a lonely child with a demanding mother who made her feel that she was never good enough, could always count on Gran to tell her she was wonderful just the way she was. As an adult, Cass still benefits from the self-esteem boost she gets from Gran, and Gran is thrilled to have a spunky adventurous granddaughter who will, on occasion, allow her to play assistant detective. The unspoken pact between the two is that-no matter what outlandish thing Cass or Gran intends to do-they always encourage each other.

Crescent Blues: You set your novels in your hometown of Oak Park. How accurately is your hometown portrayed? Is there really an Austin Boulevard? Clancy's? Collette's?

Alex Matthews: I've made every effort to depict Oak Park exactly as it is -- a community with a mission to create diversity that lives under the constant threat of crime, much of which comes from the Chicago ghetto on the other side of Austin Boulevard. Like Cass, we live a block from Austin. We love being Oak Parkers and we love living on a block that includes black families, a German couple, a lesbian family, young children, a man in his late nineties and a few singles. The price we pay is that we've had several incidents of crime. Every Oak Park restaurant in my books is based on a real place.

Crescent Blues: Do you ever get in trouble with neighbors or community leaders over your depiction of the Oak Park setting?

Alex Matthews: When Secret's Shadow came out, I was afraid that my description of crime and racial tension might raise some hackles. But if it did, nobody told me. In a way, it's too bad it didn't, because controversy sells books.

Book: Alex Matthews, Satans SilenceCrescent Blues: How did your fiction writing career get started?

Alex Matthews: When I was a kid I dreamed of writing novels, but my mother said we weren't creative people, and -- left-brained person that I am -- I had to agree with her. So I tucked my dream away and did all the normal things: got married, had children, got divorced, started a new career, got remarried. Eventually I reached a point in my life where everything was in place. My children were grown, my marriage was great, my career was thriving. And I couldn't stand it. I had to stir something up. So I pulled out my childhood dream and decided the time had come to see whether or not I could be creative enough to write fiction. And as it turns out, I could.

Crescent Blues: How have the Cassidy McCabe books evolved over time?

Alex Matthews: After Secret's Shadow came out, I realized it was a little lighter, a little fluffier than I wanted it to be. Since then, I've been moving toward grittier, more serious books. Another way the books have evolved is through the growth of Cassidy and Zach and the relationship between them. When they first meet, Cass is a hyper-independent woman who doesn't trust anyone with a penis between his legs, and Zach is a commitment phobic man who never stays with any woman very long. Cass says to herself, "A man who's a leaver and a woman who's afraid of being left. What a winning combination that is." But then, from book to book, they learn to bring their guard down, to open up to each other, to resolve problems, and eventually they reach a point where they can work as equal partners and live happily together -- no small feat for any two people.

Crescent Blues: What are you trying to accomplish with your series lead?

Book: Alex Matthews, Cat's ClawAlex Matthews: Professional women expect themselves to work long hours, take care of their children, exercise, cook nutritious meals, keep up their house, and always look as if they'd stepped out of a fashion magazine. These expectations are so high that no real women can meet them, yet many of my clients feel that there's something wrong with them because they can't. I wanted Cass to reflect the sense of inadequacy that so many women feel. Cass's clothes are wrinkled, she barely makes enough money to survive, she feels guilty about not spending more time with her mother, and she struggles with bouts of insecurity and self-doubt. And yet -- despite these weakness -- she prevails in the end. The message I want to send is this: you don't have to be perfect -- you don't have to do it all -- in order to be successful and loved.

Crescent Blues: In your fifth book, Cat's Claw, Cassidy worms her way into the home of her reclusive neighbor, the cat lady. Have you had any similar experiences or met anyone like the reclusive Olivia Mallory?

Alex Matthews: The idea for Cat's Claw came from a real life cat lady who, prior to her death, lived across the street from me. This woman had collected a colony of feral cats, had not a single visitor in all the years I observed her (this is not to say I sat and watched her house all day) and never raised her blinds. Unlike Cass, I made no attempt to get to know the woman, although her reclusiveness intrigued me to the extent that I wanted to create a story about a cat lady who never raised her blinds. While I was in the process of writing the book, the real cat lady was found dead (of natural causes) in her house. The coincidence of it creeped me out no end.

Pick your protagonist as carefully as you pick your bed partner. She or he is someone you 'hopefully' will be living with for a lot of years.

Crescent Blues: Please expand on the role the cat, Starshine, plays in the series.

Alex Matthews: When I wrote Secret's Shadow, I gave Cassidy a calico cat because cats have always been a part of my life and I couldn't imagine my protagonist getting along without one. Then, after the book came out, I worried that giving such a prominent role to a cat might make my books too cutesy -- a category I wasn't aiming at all. But later, I came to see that Starshine really is integral to the series. During high suspense-times when Cass and Zach are embroiled in nightmarish events, Starshine affords a sense of playfulness, warmth, and everyday life.

Crescent Blues: You include a postcard with each book that readers can use to send their comments. Have their responses affected any changes in your books, plots or characters?

Alex Matthews: Yes, I have made changes based on postcard feedback. Many readers complained that Cass was too flaky in Secret's Shadow, so in successive books I shaped her up a bit. I also received comments from people who didn't want Cass consorting with anyone as hard-edged and insensitive as Zach. Well, I had plans for their future and didn't want to kill him off, but I was willing to make him a little softer. Another aspect of my books some people have complained about is the inclusion of Cass's thoughts in italics. However, putting the reader inside Cassidy's head was important to me, so I left that part alone. But only a small percent of the comments are negative. The majority say things that put a smile on my face. There's nothing better for brightening my day than a card that says: I loved your book!

Book: Alex Matthews, Vendetta's VictimCrescent Blues: What process do you go through when plotting a novel? What usually serves as a spark that sets you to writing?

Alex Matthews: The spark comes from either an image, as in Death's Domain, or a concept, as in Vendetta's Victim. In Vendetta's Victim, a psychopath abuses women, then refers them to Cass for counseling. I'm currently trying to stay away from images because they're harder to develop than concepts. Once I have the concept, I develop a list of suspects, then create a plot outline -- with much assistance from Allen. This takes care of the murder storyline, but I'm not done yet. Each book also contains a thread concerning the relationship between Cass and Zach and a cat story for Starshine. I seem to have plenty of material relating to murders and relationships, but I'm running a little thin in the cat department. If anyone would like to share a story about their cat, please email me at MsAlexM@aol.com.

Crescent Blues: The cast of characters around Cassidy and Zach seem to perform, then disappear. Will you be reintroducing any of these characters in forthcoming books or premiere any new cast members?

Alex Matthews: Mysteries have to be tightly written and fast-paced, which means most characters have to advance the plot or they don't belong in the book. For example, Secret's Shadow concerns the death of Zach's step-brother, so I introduced a number of Zach's family members, but they have little place in successive books -- although they do make cameo appearances from time to time. If in some future book I have a need for characters from past books, I'll bring them back. And of course I can always introduce new characters, as I did with Zach's son Bryce in Wanton's Web. After Bryce first appeared, I found myself so intrigued by him that I brought him into the next two books, even though he didn't belong there. But the major exception to the no-characters-who-don't-advance-the-plot rule is Gran, who pokes her nose into every book I write whether I need her or not.

Crescent Blues: Please, give us a peek into the two books you're writing now.

Alex Matthews: In book seven, due out next April, Cassidy and Zach attend the wedding of Cass's client, Claire. The event is held in a park in an outlying area, and just as the ceremony begins, the groom is shot by a hitman. Several weeks later, when the police come to a stand still, Claire begs Cass and Zach to investigate. In book eight -- currently sitting in a stack of unfinished rough draft pages -- Zach's son Bryce is arrested for murdering his live-in girlfriend. Cass, relying on instinct, believes that he's innocent. Zach, relying on facts, believes that he's guilty. Neither book has a title. Titles confound me, and are the very last thing I do.

Book: Alex Matthews, Wanton's WebCrescent Blues: Do you have any favorite authors or books, novels that have affected your work?

Alex Matthews: There are several writers whose books have helped teach me my craft. I look to Faye Kellerman for guidance in creating well-developed characters and masterful dialogue; to Charlene Weir for tightness and pacing; to Barbara D'Amato for plotting, suspense and big boom endings.

Crescent Blues: Which writers do you admire most? Who do you read just for fun?

Alex Matthews: The authors I read for fun and the authors I admire are the same people, all of whom write serious, character-driven mysteries. Here are a few of the authors I particularly like: Jan Burke, Aileen Schumacher, Jonnie Jacobs, Sara Hoskinson Frommer.

Crescent Blues: What advice would you give a fledgling writer?

Alex Matthews: Pick your protagonist as carefully as you pick your bed partner. She or he is someone you 'hopefully' will be living with for a lot of years.

Click here to learn more about Alex Matthews.

Click here to read Dawn Goldsmith's review of Death's Domain.

Dawn Goldsmith