Interview with Cleo Coyle

With more than one million books sold under their CLEO COYLE pseudonym, Alice Alfonsi and her husband, Marc Cerasini, have been writing together for more than two decades. Before collaborating, Alice and Marc were already New York Times bestselling authors. Alice worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C., and New York, before penning popular fiction for adults and children. A former magazine editor, Marc authored espionage thrillers as well as nonfiction for adults and children. Alice and Marc are also accomplished media tie-in writers who have created bestselling works for Lucasfilm, NBC, Fox, Disney, Imagine, Toho, and MGM. They live in New York City, where they haunt coffeehouses, hunt ghosts, wrangle rescue cats, and write independently and together.

Could you please tell us about your latest novel?

Alice and Marc: Raymond Chandler once wrote that a dead man is the best fall guy in the world because he never talks back. Our amateur sleuth, Penelope, begs to differ. In The Ghost and the Haunted Portrait, she is haunted by the ghost of a hard-boiled detective named Jack Shepard, who was gunned down in her bookshop in 1949—and won’t shut up. With the PI spirit alive in her head, Pen sets out to solve a series of murders that unfold around the striking self-portrait of a dead woman, who locals believe went mad. As Pen investigates these present-day crimes, her gumshoe ghost pulls her into vivid dreams from his PI past. These time-travel-like trips reveal a second, shocking murder mystery that may hold the key to cracking Pen’s own “haunting” case.

Although this is the 7th entry in our Haunted Bookshop series, we included enough background information for new readers to enjoy as a standalone novel.

When did you begin writing together and how did that come about?

Alice and Marc: Before working together, we wrote as individuals for years, everything from articles and reviews to novels, nonfiction, and tie-in works for adults and children.

At one point, Marc’s nonfiction book, O. J. Simpson: American Hero, American Tragedy, spent four weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list (selling 700,000+ copies). Meanwhile, Alice was hired to ghostwrite Hidden Passions, an original novel based on an offbeat, paranormal daytime drama. That quirky book spent eight weeks on the New York Times hardcover fiction list and was named media tie-in book of the year by Entertainment Weekly.

Alice’s Harper editor on her ghostwritten novel, who also knew Marc’s work, asked if we would like to team up on a new project, and we said yes. It was our first official collaboration and the first tie-in fiction attached to the Emmy-award winning television drama 24. We enjoyed writing together so much that we decided to develop our own series of novels.

Our literary agent told us that Berkley was looking for new authors. We wrote a proposal for the Coffeehouse Mysteries, inspired by Alice’s experiences living in an East Village walk-up, above a women-run café. The first book, On What Grounds, was an instant hit. A year later, we drafted a second proposal, this one for a series of Haunted Bookshop Mysteries, inspired by one of Alice’s favorite ghost stories, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and our shared love of the hard-boiled detective genre. Both series became successful enough for us to quit our day jobs. And here we are.

How do you start your writing process? Where do your ideas come from?

Alice and Marc: Our sparking ideas often come from actual crimes, historic events, and societal trends. For instance, the plot of our first Coffeehouse Mystery, On What Grounds, began with our discussion about the tragic death of a dancer here in New York City. Our 16th, Dead Cold Brew, grew from a few seeds: the murder of a beloved Greenwich Village jewelry designer; the tragic sinking of the SS Andrea Doria; and the challenges police officers (and those who love them) face when public sentiment turns against them.

Shot in the Dark was fueled by our fascination with stories of actual swipe-to-meet dates that went horribly wrong while Brewed Awakening began with a more personal question: “If our memories of each other were suddenly wiped, and we met today, would we still fall for each other?” After researching some astounding true accounts of memory loss, we developed a plot that became our amateur sleuth’s most personally challenging mystery of the series.

Where do you go from there? How do you write as a team?

Alice and Marc: Once we latch onto an interesting premise, we build the narrative together through brainstorming sessions. We like to challenge our casts, dropping them into difficult situations to see how they cope.

We believe in keeping the creative process flexible (and magical), open enough for new ideas to turn our stories in unexpected directions. Consequently, our outlines are never rigid, only general roadmaps to get the story started.

After composing the broad ideas together, we write the specific separately. And we mean separately. We go to separate rooms, write on separate computers, even listen to separate soundtracks. When pages are finished, we swap and fine tune each other’s work.

Our favorite words to hear during this process: “Wow, I never would have thought of that.” Certainly, all authors strive to bring their own unique insights and experiences to the writing. The way we see it, we bring twice as much of both. And if we can engage, entertain, and surprise each other, we’re more likely to do the same for our readers.

Do you have any advice for authors considering writing with a partner?

Alice and Marc: Writing together is an intimate experience. And a brutal one when a story isn’t crystalizing, or pages aren’t singing. For that reason, you need a strong relationship with your partner. Strong enough to weather criticizing each other’s work. Strong enough to concede that what you are creating together is more important than your individual egos. As more than one team has learned, writing with a partner is often twice the work for half the pay. But it can be rewarding, too.

We came to the collaborative process as seasoned novelists, and highly recommend that groundwork for any pair of writers attempting to work together. Having confidence in yourself as an author and being completely comfortable with the start-to-finish process of composing long-form fiction will allow you and your partner to enjoy the collaboration, not as work, but as elaborate playtime with your best friend.

What are your goals as writers?

Alice and Marc: Our goals have changed over the years. At first, we hoped for a publishing contract. Then we aimed for a multi-book series contract. We hoped our books would be well received and that our characters would be remembered after the last page was turned. We had a goal of making a living writing fiction. All of these were met, and we are grateful to every reader, reviewer, librarian, and bookseller who supported our work over these past two decades.

Now our readers have set a new goal for us. “Write faster” they plead. We will do our best. Mostly, though, we want to continue to write well. Ultimately, our goal is to evolve as writers—an ongoing aim. For those who dedicate their lives to an art, such horizons should continually recede.

Who is your favorite character of the ones you have created and why?

Alice and Marc: In our Coffeehouse series, the elderly owner of our landmark Greenwich Village coffee shop is a favorite with readers and with us. Madame Dreyfus Allegro Dubois is no sweet little old lady. She is an elegant warhorse who has triumphed over everything from Nazi occupation to widowhood (twice) to the maddening bureaucracy of New York City business ownership. “Survive everything,” she says. “And do it with style.” We could not agree more.

In our Haunted Bookshop series, our favorite character is PI Jack Shepard, our hard-boiled ghost with a heart of gold. Jack’s vintage views on modern life (“Shelling out greenbacks for water in a bottle? Are you feedin’ me baloney?”) keep our “haunted” bookseller Penelope sharp—and us, as well.

Aside from writing, you have a food blog. How do you blend your love of cooking and writing?

Alice and Marc: We grew up in food-loving families, and we now live in Queens, New York, where you will find one of the most diverse populations on the planet. Many of us celebrate our cultural heritage in the dining room, and that includes our wildly diverse neighbors. To quote our amateur sleuth, master roaster Clare, “Eat with tolerance, I say.” We certainly do. And we enjoy layering our foodie experiences into our fiction, primarily through the lives of our Coffeehouse cast: what they cook, what they eat, the dishes they remember from childhood and holidays. Food not only serves as a gateway to heritage, setting, and history, it often becomes a key to solving our mysteries.

Our blogging has been a lovely way to connect with readers who enjoy the culinary aspect of our Coffeehouse world. Many fans tell us they cannot wait to try the dishes and drinks they learn about in our novels. And that’s gratifying, because what readers are also doing when they make one of our recipes is sharing a sensory experience with our characters. With one bite or sip, they bring a part of our fictional world into their real ones. Providing that delicious bridge has been a joy.

What are some of your favorite recipes?

Alice and Marc: Some we have published in our Coffeehouse series. Others we’ve shared on our blog. We invite you to nosh with us at:

Here at The Strand, we are big Sherlock Holmes fans. Sherlock classically wears a deerstalker hat. What would be your defining detective accessory?

Alice and Marc: We’ll give you three. A fedora. A New York MetroCard. And a bottomless cup of coffee.

What are you working on now, and can you give us a teaser?

Alice and Marc: We are developing the story for our eighth (Jack and Pen) Haunted Bookshop novel. And we are finishing our 19th Coffeehouse Mystery, Honey Roasted, where once again, we return our readers to the charming landmark coffee shop in New York’s Greenwich Village. As for a teaser…

One chilly autumn night, a swarm of bees blankets the exhaust chimney of the Village Blend’s roasting room. For help, shop manager and master roaster Clare Cosi calls the NYPD Bee Unit (yes, there really is one). She learns a bee swarm at this time of year is rare, suggesting the colony’s hive was disrupted or destroyed. Soon after, she gets a clue where the bees may have come from.

Clare follows her lead to a magnificent rooftop greenhouse, where she discovers the body of an elderly friend and former owner of a chain of florist shops. In her retirement, Mrs. Hastings became an expert beekeeper and known in the culinary world for her exceptional, small-batch floral honey. The police find evidence the woman’s fall from her roof to a balcony below was attempted suicide, but Clare doesn’t believe their theory, and so begins her investigation—and our latest Coffeehouse Mystery.