Hold Me Down, acclaimed author Clea Simon’s new suspense novel about a hard-driving punk rocker dragged into the trauma of her wild past by a murder in her present, will grab you by the heart even as it makes you grip the edge of your seat.
Life as a successful rock musician has taken its toll on Gal Raver, the protagonist in this intense and compelling read. When she plays a benefit for her close friend and former drummer who succumbed to cancer, she believes all of that is in the rear-view mirror. But a glimpse of a man in the audience who later turns up dead sends her reeling back into a time she can’t escape. Hold Me Down is a mystery and a thriller, but it’s also a novel about grief, the glorious joy of making music, and what it takes to put a broken life back together.
Meg Gardiner, the bestselling author of the UNSUB series, calls Hold Me Down “a darkly suspenseful dive into friendship, fame, murder, and the thrilling power of rock music.”
Lisa Unger, New York Times bestselling author of Last Girl Ghosted, says, “Lyrical, layered, and full of surprises. Simon has penned a raw and emotional thriller with a heartbeat, about lost dreams and missing friends, regrets and buried memories…”
I was thrilled to speak with Clea Simon about why the punk music scene is such a great setting for crime fiction, the kick-ass female rocker at the heart of Hold Me Down, and so much more.
I read that in your twenties you were a rock critic for such publications as The Boston Globe and Rolling Stone, and that you played in rock bands. How did this experience influence Hold Me Down? Was your main character, Gal, inspired by any particular female rockers?
For many years, the music world was my third place (neither home nor work), and I loved it. If I can successfully translate that to readers, maybe even to newcomers who never stepped on those sticky floors or pilled a cocktail napkin to serve as makeshift earplugs and share the joy and community I often found there, I’m happy. Certainly, much of my writing about the music scene is driven by that.
My years as a rock critic and, to a much, much lesser extent, musician also provided me a setting that works really well for crime fiction, the writing I’m doing now. That world of subterranean clubs, claustrophobic practice spaces, and tiny college radio stations, serves really well as my version of a country estate or an English village, the enclosed community with a limited set of characters interacting that makes for a classic mystery.
But this particular story grew organically out of that setting as well, because in part, this book (like my 2017 Massachusetts Book Award “must read” World Enough) is about nostalgia—for a time and place, certainly, but also for lost youth (mine, Gal’s) and how that nostalgia can warp our perception of the past. Also, rock and roll—and particularly punk, with its DIY ethos – cares passionately about authenticity. At its heart, rock is not simply supposed to be entertainment. It is supposed to be about tearing something out of ourselves. Creating something out of nothing and hoping that it sings. That came into play in terms of the plotting and Gal’s growing understanding of her own character.
As to whether Gal was inspired by anyone in particular: Gal is, of course, a fictional creation, channeling some of my own experiences through what I know of the industry. But there is a bit of Chrissie Hynde (of the Pretenders) in her. The following story contains spoilers, so, Reader, if you are going to read Hold Me Down please jump over to the next question.
Ready? OK, a few years ago, I saw Hynde, whom I ADORE, on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” and she was flirting and being very sexual with him and it was embarrassing. He seemed uncomfortable, and it all just seemed very inappropriate. Sometime right around then or soon after, I read an interview with her (in the Guardian?) in which she spoke about being gang raped by a bunch of bikers when she was young—maybe 21—and how it was all her fault for being so stupid. And it all came together, and I was so, so saddened. I’m no Chrissie Hynde, but I too have had to work through how my own PTSD, my own reaction to rape, distorted my understanding of my own sexuality and my expression of it. How, in some ways, I too was at times hypersexual as a way of reclaiming my sexuality. I had to come to grips with the idea that at times it is easier psychologically to take blame than to admit to a lack of control. And so, yeah… there’s some of that dynamic in Gal, the pain behind her swagger.
Before you turned to psychological suspense you wrote five popular mystery series, including the paranormal Witch Cats of Cambridge series. What was it like to shift gears from writing mysteries featuring cats to psychological suspense?
Like going from something warm and cozy to diving deep into the dark.
I’ve done the switch before—I wrote several cozies, as these gentler mysteries are often called, after World Enough, and I’m hoping that my publisher wants more of my witch cat books. I love those characters. They live in a sweeter, gentler world, but they are as real to me as any. It’s just a very different mindset.
It can be hard to write effectively about another artistic medium, like art, dance, or music in fiction. But your sequences where Gal is playing were spectacular. Any tips on how you made them work?
Thank you! I love writing about music and the act of creation (because, of course, writing about music is also writing about writing). Tips? As a former critic and (sometime) performer, I’d say it’s two-pronged: Know your subject, whether that means knowing the blues roots of the rocker you’re reviewing or the smell of a club you’re writing about. Then, strive for emotional clarity: What are you feeling? What details are provoking that response? How can you translate that so your reader understands and can summon an approximation of that experience? To do the latter, you need to be aware of and resist the false short cuts of cliché—pop music criticism in particular tends to promulgate certain phrases to the point where they become meaningless (in my heyday, it was all “post-punk” and “chiming guitars”). Criticism is a specialized art but worth pursuing!
For me as a novelist, Gal’s experience of music, specifically her own songwriting, was also a great tool. The book jumps back and forth in time, and so I had current and former Gal’s voice, her actions and her memories. But because she’s also a writer, I had the songs she wrote, each of which is a product of—or at least is shaped by—who Gal was at the time she composed them. And the songs aren’t static—they’re not time capsules. Once these songs are out there, they take on a life of their own—as creative works will do. People play them, they respond to them. They hear what they want to hear.
Even Gal reacts to her own songs in different ways at different times. When Gal is in her fussy, anxious stage, for example, she is a careful composer, consciously adding a bridge to a song that she worries may be too simple. Later, when she is in a less controlling (or in-control) phase, she dismisses that bridge as a bit of pretentious fussiness. This gave me an opportunity to illustrate not only Gal’s changing state of mind over time, but also her changing take on her own work and, by extension, who she was only a year or so before.
And then, of course, we have other people’s reactions to Gal, her music, and to her songs. The suits at the record label, the fans, and ultimately her bandmates hear what Gal is producing in their own way—and what they hear may be something different than Gal does, or than what she intended to create at all.
Hold Me Down manages to weave together a well-plotted murder mystery with the intense memories of a former rock star suffering from PTSD. That’s not easy to pull off, but you do it. Did you plan this novel ahead or are you more of a panster?
Thank you! I knew certain things about the book from the start. I knew something about Gal’s past and so I knew that I’d have to go back and forth in time for that slow/growing reveal. (I did not realize at the start that the bigger reveal would happen—that just became inevitable as I wrote and thought things true.) So basically I’m a pantser, but a directed pantser. That meant I had to do a ton of revisions! Figuring out the tenses alone almost broke me.
Gal Raver is a tough, in-your-face, outspoken woman, who wrestles with substance abuse and self-control. She makes some questionable decisions in Hold Me Down, but I’m always rooting for her. I haven’t read many novels with a female protagonist like Gal. She breaks new ground a lot like Amy Dunne did in Gone Girl. But unlike Amy, Gal isn’t cold and diabolical; she’s at once ambitious and vulnerable, and she struggles with the consequences of her actions. What can you tell me about creating the strong and talented, Gal Raver?
I’m so glad you like her! Gal just is who she is, you know? She couldn’t be weak and survive, and it helps that I know several women who went through various levels of the music industry, some of whom shared the details of their experiences. At the same time, I have great sympathy and affection for her, because I experienced many similar things, and I’m still standing. Creating her—like creating any three-dimensional, believable character in fiction—meant understanding who she is.
What are you reading now?
I just finished Lauren Groff’s wonderful Matrix, which has its own tough, idiosyncratic female protagonist. The last book I read before that for fun was Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, and that just shattered me. You start it thinking you’re going to read some fun merman erotica and you end up with this existential look into the void. Right now, I’m reading something for review, but I’ve dipped a toe into Lisa Unger’s newest, Last Girl Ghosted, and I already know it has a tough, vulnerable heroine who I’m going to love.
Hold Me Down lifts the veil on the not so glamorous world of female punk rockers and shows the price some of them paid for success in a time before #MeToo. What advice would you give a young woman today who wanted to be a rock and roller?
Don’t take any shit. I mean, yes, you often have to compromise to monetize your art. Do the stupid promotion, for example, to the extent that you can and still live with yourself. But keep control of your image, your body, and your art. Remember why you started playing music in the first place.
What’s next for you?
Good question! I’ve drafted a weird kind of nasty he said/she said that I guess could be called a domestic suspense. It came to me when a dear friend was expressing his anger at his late wife in a posthumous letter, and I realized that there were parallels to my parents’ marriage. So I took that and ran with it, and I like to think it has a kind of Patricia Highsmith creepiness. I’m also banging away at an amateur sleuth mystery, featuring a crime reporter—that’s just pure fun. And I’m hoping that my publisher wants another witch cat book. I could use some cozy right about now!
A former journalist, Clea Simon is the Boston Globe-bestselling author of three nonfiction books and nearly 30 mysteries including the new psychological suspense HOLD ME DOWN. While most of these (like A Cat on the Case) are cat “cozies” or amateur sleuth, she also writes darker crime fiction, like the rock and roll mystery World Enough, named a “must read” by the Massachusetts Book Awards. Her new psychological suspense Hold Me Down (Polis Books) returns to the music world, with themes of PTSD and recovery, as well as love in all its forms. New York Times bestseller Lisa Unger called Hold Me Down “provocative, moving, and suspenseful. Don’t miss it,” while Caroline Leavitt (also a New York Times bestseller) said “Clea Simon’s devastatingly powerful mystery hits you like a punch in the heart.” Clea can be reached at www.cleasimon.com