Cleo Coyle is the pseudonym for Alice Alfonsi, writing in collaboration with her husband, Marc Cerasini. This interview with the New York Times Bestselling team looks at what’s behind the story of “Cleo Coyle’s” latest Coffeehouse Mystery, “Once Upon a Grind.”
Alfonsi and Cerasini have lived in New York for three decades. They said, “We’ve worked in skyscrapers and behind counters; been crime victims and been arrested; ran the marathon and befriended locals running their own businesses. We’ve also interviewed countless New Yorkers from politicians to criminals; gourmet chefs to street vendors. The characters we create are authentic; the settings are either real or based on real places; and our storylines are almost always inspired by actual New York crimes.”
It’s that history and familiarity with New York crimes and the justice system that inspired the couple to write their latest book. Alfonsi said, “One day Marc and I were discussing the way police and prosecuting attorneys use ‘narrative’ to reconstruct a crime and persuade a jury that a particular suspect is guilty. Of course, if you’re a defense attorney, you’re looking for a story that will prove your client’s innocence. But which is the truth? And which is the ‘fairy tale’?
“The moment we said the words ‘fairy tale,’we began to see New York City in a different light—uptown princesses; wolves on Wall Street; girls in red hoodies; and New York Giants. We cast Central Park as a kind of Black Forest, and it became the setting for our first crime scene when a young model is drugged and left to die.”
The writers said that, at its core, “Once Upon a Grind” is defined by the epigram in the beginning of the book. “If you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave.”
“Story is an incredibly powerful thing,” said the writers. “Not only for our justice system, as we mentioned, but in our own lives. Take our main character, Clare. She has settled herself into a particular narrative, but she’s been playing a role for those around her. Clare wants to leave her story and start another, yet she doesn’t want to let down the people she loves. Clare struggles with this decision throughout the novel.
“Likewise, all of us cast ourselves in our own stories, and many of us are unaware of it. But that’s exactly where the power lies. Because it’s only when we see the truths and falsehoods of the tales we tell ourselves—and others tell about us—that we’re finally able to reshape the thing that shapes our lives.”
We all know that change is inevitable, not only for people, but also for places. “Researching our novels is second nature,” said Alfonsi. “My first job out of college was as a cub reporter for the New York Times. In fact, one of my favorite stories, Pizza Chains’Toughest Turf, was a business piece about the beginning of the NYC pizza wars—the influx of chain pizza shops and their impact on the mom-and-pop pizzerias.”
“Our foodie landscape is a reflection not only of our shifting immigrant populations, but also the ebb and flow of our economy, which is why we’ve gone from high-end gourmet restaurants to burger joints, beer gardens, and street chefs. In the Coffeehouse Mysteries, Marc and I try to chronicle it all.”
Despite all that change on a large scale, some individual things are strong enough to survive. The writers said, “In ‘Once Upon a Grind,’ you’ll hear about New York’s Papaya King, an eighty year-old hot dog stand that began the city’s iconic pairing of tropical fruit drinks with frankfurters. And, yes, with ‘King’ in its title, it seemed an apt culinary reference for a New York story about fairy tale murders.”
The writers said they each lost good friends during the writing process, and they agreed that the pain of those losses was written into the book. However, “Once Upon a Grind” contains a good deal of humor. The couple said, “As usual, we have lots of fun in the writing—with the quirky characters and, at times, crazy-funny situations—but we never treat death lightly.”
Alfonsi and Cerasini have been together for more than twenty years and married for fourteen. They’ve worked not only on books, but also on film and television, and believe that their experience helps them to maintain a professional perspective on storytelling.
Alfonsi said, “When we have creative disagreements—and we do have them—we check our egos at the door and argue things out rationally. In the course of the discussion, one of us can usually persuade the other or we’ll find a middle ground. Neither of us cares whose idea wins, as long as it leads to a good story well told.”
And, speaking of well-told stories, what about that fairy tale? The couple said, “The police quickly make an arrest in the case of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ but our amateur sleuth, Clare Cosi, is certain of his innocence, and sets out to find the true narrative—the real ‘Once upon a time…’—behind who put Beauty to sleep. Clare’s investigation leads her into a much bigger crime story, including a cold case that’s been unsolved since the Cold War.
“Like any good fairy tale, Once Upon a Grind will take you through secret doors; play with your sense of reality; introduce you to an array of colorful characters; and while the ending may be happy, not everyone survives.”
For more information
The Coffeehouse Mysteries are now celebrating ten years in print. Alice Alfonsi and Marc Cerasini are New York Times bestselling authors who are also bestselling media tie-in writers. Learn more about them at their online home: www.CoffeehouseMystery.com
Winners in the December Book & a Latte Contest:
Two copies of “Once Upon a Grind”: Christine A. and Karin
$5.00 Starbucks gift cards: Sally S. & Rita W.
Congratulations to all 4 winners!