by Lorie Lewis Ham
Mystery authors Catriona McPherson and Simon Wood will be speaking at the Fresno Chapter of Sisters In Crime on February 7, so we thought it would be fun to introduce you to Catriona through an interview. You can also check out a review of one of Simon’s books we did in 2012, along with a fun video interview with Simon, here in KRL.
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Catriona: I started on January 1, 2001, writing part one of chapter one of book one. Huh – I’ve never actually realized that before.
KRL: When did your first novel come out? What was it called, and can you tell us a little about it?
Catriona:In 2005. It was After the Armistice Ball, the first Dandy Gilver detective story, set in 1922, in Scotland. It was about a jewel theft—the case of the Duffy diamonds—in a spirit of humble tribute to Dorothy L Sayers (because Lord Peter Wimsey’s first case was the Attenbury emeralds).
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
Catriona:I wrote two novels outside the genre, one a time-travel caper (that I called Save Elvis but the publisher called Growing Up Again) and another a sort of crimey caper about a pathological liar called Straight Up. Know what, though? Fond as I am of those books, this genre is my home. You are my tribe.
KRL: Can you tell us about your latest book?
Catriona:The latest Dandy Gilver to come out in the US was A Deadly Measure of Brimstone. It’s 1929 now and Dandy is investigating a death in a posh hydropathic spa. I channeled the Turkish Baths in Harrogate (where I’ve spent a lot of sweaty, pruney time).
The latest standalone is The Day She Died, set in contemporary Galloway, where I lived for 15 years. It’s about a troubled young woman with an unusual phobia who gets drawn into the life of a family when their mother commits suicide.
KRL: Can you share a bit about both of your series–settings, characters, how you came up with them?
Catriona:The Dandy Gilver series is set in different places all over Scotland, wherever there’s a case, although she does start and end most books at home in Perthshire with her dull husband. The place comes first and the case follows. I’ve just written one set in a Glasgow ballroom at the height of the 1930s dance fever. As for Dandy’s character . . . I decided her name and then she walked into my mind fully-formed. She’s not me.
The standalones tend to come from characters first. Again, I get the name, and I go about my daily chores saying it over and over again until the character coalesces around it like a pearl round a bit of grit. (NB: I’m not saying my books are necessarily pearls!) In The Child Garden, (out in September) the main character was called Tash (Natasha) Harkness and her story just wouldn’t come. Then I realized I had it wrong: she was actually called Gloria Harkness and she was much older than I’d thought, with a different life. (Can I just say, three cheers to you for asking me a question I’ve never been asked before?! I know I haven’t because I’ve never said this. I’ve never even thought this out loud before. Thank you.)
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Catriona:Um, neither, really. I write to get the story out myself, to find out what happened. But I know what you mean. Sometimes I get hung up on something—the plight of the miners during the 1926 General Strike, for instance—and I bung it all in. But then I take it all out again. Mind you, I think the stories that interest us are a window into what we find important, so inevitably there’s a take-away. And I think all crime writers are interested in good and evil, justice, human failings . . .
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Catriona:I write when I can’t as well as when I can. Sometimes sobbing and cursing. But when I look at the writing later I can’t tell which bits were tear-stained and which bits felt easy.
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Catriona:Ha! No, I’m a big old pantser. And I keep track by writing fast enough so I don’t forget. I do make a lot of notes, just in case, but I never read them. I call it the Benny Hill method: into the bathtub at the top of the hills, brakes off, and wheeeee! Writing the second draft is like clearing up after a great party, but it’s the only way I know.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Catriona:I used to write first and do everything else afterward, but these days for two reasons, I’ve switched it round. First, my agent and one of my editors are in London and I need to deal with whatever they’ve got for me before they go home for the day (at my 9 a.m.). Also, afternoons are so stinking hot in the Sacramento valley in the summer, it would be crazy to write in the morning and then do things that take you outside into the furnace. So these days I do all business, admin, social media and post office runs first, then shut the blinds, crank up the AC, and write.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Catriona:It felt difficult at the time, but now I see it wasn’t really. I got forty rejections for my first novel and put it in a drawer. But while I was badgering agents with it I was writing the second one (After the Armistice Ball). One of the rejections had a note scribbled on the bottom “I didn’t like this but I liked the sound of you; let me see the crime story when it’s done.” So I did and that agent took me on and got me a modest deal with Constable & Robinson in the UK. However, she didn’t like the time-travel caper, so I switched agents before the first book was out. I’ve been with my agent, Lisa Moylett, for ten years now and Dandy has had a home at Hodder & Stoughton since book three. It was very different back then. Blimey, 2002 was prehistory when you think about what’s happened since! These days, I could have stuck with that rejected book and published it myself. I’m glad I didn’t. Those forty agents were right: I was writing academia out of my system and it wasn’t a good book.
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Catriona: My favorite rejection story is from After the Armistice Ball. I really wanted it not to seem like a historical novel—a story written now about back then—but to be like a golden-age novel written back then about then. When my agent passed on this from a publisher—”it’s like a tattered paperback you find at the end of a wet week in a Norfolk holiday cottage”—I knew I had cracked it!
KRL: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Catriona:Simon Wood is the one to ask about “interesting” signings. But my second book The Burry Man’s Day is set in the village where I was born and where my parents still live. The view from their bedroom window is on the jacket. And we had the launch party in a venue with the same view. At one point in the signing, a woman walked up and said “Hello, Catriona. I had to come to say I’m so proud of you.” I looked blank. She said “Marion McVeigh.” I looked blanker. She looked upset. Then, just in time, I got it. “Oh!” I said. “Thank you! And thank you for everything you did.” It was my primary-six (in American terms, fifth-grade) English teacher. “You threw me with ‘Marion’,” I explained. ‘To me, your first name is ‘Mrs’.”
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Catriona:Again, this has changed over time. If I had moved to California in 2003 and tried to keep writing about Scotland, I’d have been in trouble, Ordnance Survey maps notwithstanding. But Google maps is brilliant. I’ve walked a lot of miles with that little orange man. It’s great for refreshing your memory or checking details. I don’t write about a place unless I’ve physically been there, though. So “research” often means tramping around, usually in the rain, staring into space, listening to silence.
KRL: Writing heroes?
Catriona:Jane Austen, of course. Also Stephen King. There’s nothing like opening a new Stephen King novel, knowing you’re in the safe hands of a writer with a heart the size of a planet along with that twisted mind. Inside our genre, I admire what Charlaine Harris does with characters and I call inhaling her oeuvre “studying.” I love the way Ann Cleeves writes so beautifully but so sparely you kind of can’t catch her at it. Oh, so many! Mary Higgins Clark’s plotting; Margery Allingham’s playfulness. And Agatha, almost as of course as Jane.
KRL: What do you read?
Catriona:See above! Also, I’ve recently been blown away by James Ziskin’s Ellie Stone novels; latest is Stone Cold Dead. And Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. There’s a debut historical mystery called Bhalla Strand by Sarah Main, set in the Hebrides, that grabbed me by the throat. And I’m on a mission to nag Jess Lourey into writing the March and April entries in her Murder-by-the-Month series, which starts with May Day and has ten so far. She has mentioned the possibility of stopping, but it might be an elaborate tease
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Catriona:I watch telly purely for escapism: currently Castle, The Big Band Theory, Downton, and The Great British Baking Show. All-time favorite movies are MOONSTRUCK, CALAMITY JANE (wincing a bit at the depiction of America’s first people), The Station Agent, early Die Hards. I’m looking for a pattern and I’m not seeing one.
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers
Catriona:Finish the book! Write when you’re stuck—you might unstick it. Don’t start something else until you’ve finished this one: that one’ll probably stick too. Don’t edit the first draft as you go. Don’t tall about the first draft or get critiques. Get that story chipped out of the ground (King’s phrase) and see what you’re looking at.
KRL: How do you feel about the growing popularity of e-books and do you read e-books yourself?
Catriona: I don’t read e-books myself—don’t own a device—but I feel neutral about other people’s choice to read them. (It’s mystifying when people care what format others read in.) I was never going to be a big e-book fan, because I don’t like gadgets. (I don’t own a clothes-drier, coffee-maker, microwave, or food-processor.) I’ve tried but I’m not interested in trying again. People like them for traveling but I love choosing books for a trip: a dead-cert for the plane, a big one to get lost in, a wee one to devour, a new author to try, an old favorite to plump into like an armchair.
As a writer, the one problem I have with e-books is that people think they should be dirt cheap, as if the unit cost of an e-book is close to zero, since there’s no printing and distribution. In fact, the unit cost of an e-book is the yearly cost of the publisher’s premises, the salaries, pensions and (in the US) health plans of editors, proofreaders, scouts, designers, marketers, publicists, accountants, lawyers, admin assistants, printers, formatters, that glass of wine they gave you at Bouchercon . . . divided by the number of hardbacks, trade paperbacks, mass-market paperbacks and e-books produced in the same year.
KRL: what is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Catriona:Um, you know … I think I’m an open book.
KRL: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
KRL: How do you compete in an overcrowded market?
Catriona:Ha! Imagine how I felt when I moved to California and found out that I was the fourth blonde Brit writing British golden-age novels on the west coast, joining Jacqueline Winspear, Rhys Bowen, and Carola Dunn. To be serious, though, I don’t think of it as competing. At fullest stretch, you can write three books a year. Mystery fans read maybe forty books a year. So thank God for all those other writers keeping people excited about books until your next one comes along. Our competition, I think, is Netflix, X-box, YouTube and Wii.
KRL: What are your duties as Sisters In Crime President?
Catriona:I could copy it out of the by-laws but I wouldn’t do that to you. Day to day, I chair the board meetings, keep on top of email discussion threads, call for votes, bring up new ideas, phone the splendid Beth Wasson every Friday to ask a million questions. As far as big stuff goes, the president . . . presides! At meetings, cons and expos, the president is the face of SinC. But when it comes to actual work, the board is stuffed with talent and knowledge and truly the president just looks on while great people do great things. Later on, I’ll be in charge of the 2015/16 publishing summit and even, later on, SinC Into Great Writing but for now, there’s a lot of saying “Wow! Great idea! You rock!” and meaning it.
KRL: What will you be speaking about at the Fresno Sisters In Crime event & at the Book Barn?
Catriona:How to set up a series: world-building, characters, early decisions, dos and don’ts, fixes (Bobby in the shower, anyone?) . . .
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
Catriona:Just that I’m really looking forward to seeing you all in February—thanks for asking me!
You can learn more about Catriona and Simon’s talk at the Fresno Chapter of Sisters in Crime on February 7 on their KRL event page. Reservations for this event need to be in by February 4.
While they are in the area, Catriona McPherson and Simon Wood will also be speaking at 2 p.m. at A Book Barn in Clovis. To attend, please make a reservation with A Book Barn directly. You may reserve a place on their website or call them at 297-9052.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.
Click on this link to purchase Catriona’s latest book.