Edith, who can tell by the giant piles of snow and the temperature outside she’s not in California anymore.
Catriona, we are so pleased to welcome you to the Wicked Cozy Authors blog. For those who don’t know, Catriona [pronounced like Katrina] McPherson is an Anthony-, Bruce Alexander-, Macavity- and Agatha-award winning bestselling author and the current president of Sisters in Crime National. And she’s a funny, generous, lively person to spend time with. Catriona and I have a couple of unexpected things in common, and I was delighted that she agreed to let me interview her. So let’s get to know her even better. (And she’s promised to give away one of her fabulous books to a commenter, too!)
E: First, tell us why you write mysteries, and how you came to love the genre.
C: I’m circling my brain cell trying to remember the first mystery I ever read. I know I was reading Agatha Christie when I was an under-graduate, because a lofty fellow undergrad (male, need I say?) was withering about her. Not twice. I also adored Georgette Heyer’s detective stories and Ngaio Marsh too, Her Dottiness Dorothy L. Sayers, of course, Michael Innes . . . It was pretty well inevitable that when I started to write, I’d write crime. I love that the stakes are so high in crime fiction and that people reveal themselves in tight jams. A bit of me likes to dig into the worst of humanity and poke around there seeing how it works. But also, there’s the escapism of resolution – what Jill Paton Walsh called “a dream of justice”. Life is so rarely like that, but in our books we can have right prevail.
E: You write the Dandy Gilver books, a long-running historical mystery series that I’m woefully behind on, featuring an upper-class Scottish woman in the early 1900s who has a bent for solving crimes. Tell us how you conceived of her and why you set the series when you did.
C: I set it in the golden-age for British detective fiction rather than in a real historical period. And actually pretty early, starting in 1922, because I wanted time to pass between books and I didn’t want to crash in WWII. It seemed a wee bit conceited at the time but here I am, writing book eleven, set in 1932 – in other words, more than halfway there. I worry, because she’s got two teenage sons and here it comes.
Ha! That last sentence’ll make it hard for me to claim she’s not a real person in my mind, eh?
I started out quite mechanically with a clip-board and a biro [E: um, that’s a ballpoint pen] (on the beach (in Scotland, so well wrapped up)) to work out who my detective was going to be. Female, rich because poor women were so constrained then – not much time to solve crime after a twelve-hour shift in a linoleum factory, married because married rich women were free to do as they chose after they produced the heir and the spare. Hence the sons. I sometimes regret her poshness. I’m not at all posh and not that sympathetic to the concerns of 20th century aristocracy either, but it’s a lot of fun putting her in situations where she has to broaden her ideas. The thing I really regret is giving her a dog. Think about it: she started with a six-year-old Dalmatian and it’s eleven years later . . . the latest book was hard to write.
E: I also write an historical mystery series, set several decades before yours and in New England. Tell us a bit about how you do your research, and what your best sources have been.
C: I’m filled with awe for your research, Edith. Mine is much easier. Well, suddenly moving to California wasn’t a clever step, but generally Scotland now looks a lot like Scotland in the 1920s, and the 1820s . . . and also I spent a wonderful couple of years working in the local history archive at Edinburgh City Library. That was a great training in how to get social history out of documents and photographs. I love to put together an Ordnance Survey map and a Post Office Directory so I know who was living where in some little town and what shops were at the end of the street. Newspapers are my absolute favourite resource. Not the big news stories, but the adverts, personal ads and editorials. And photographs. I spend a lot of staring into the eyes of long-dead strangers.
E: Totally agree about the little bits in the newspapers: the price of shoes, what was playing at the opera house. But you also write these fabulous standalone suspense novels from Midnight Ink. Isn’t it hard to create an entire new world every time you write a standalone? Have you considered spinning one of them, like Jessie Constable in The Day She Died, into a series?
C: Well, thank you! That’s very kind of you. And here’s a secret. I cheat. A lot. The beach in The Day She Died is the same beach where I sat with my clip board dreaming up Dandy Gilver. And the house in As She Left It is my friend Diane’s house. She read the book sitting in the house. I’m very proud that I freaked her out so much she had to lock the doors and check the cupboards.
I know what you mean about letting them all go. I miss Jessie. But her story is told. Maybe, years down the line, she might fall into another patch of trouble but what I love about standalones is that you can thrash your characters to bits and leave them reeling. They don’t need to be functioning for a book every year.
E: Thrashing characters to bits. I like the sound of that! After you so kindly sat at my table at the New Author breakfast at Malice Domestic a couple of years ago (the morning after you’d won the Agatha!), you told me that, like me, you also hold a PhD in linguistics. Why did you leave that world?
C: I remember it – what an energy in that room! I enjoyed doing the PhD and can always win hands-down at any competition to find the most useless-sounding thesis. (I built a possible worlds theory of the interpretation of references to non-existent objects. Beat that.) But I did it in what must have been the warmest, fuzziest university department ever – linguistics at Edinburgh. When I got a job as a professor in a normal university department, with all the back-biting and one-upmanship, I started to wither. My love of semantics couldn’t make up for having colleagues who didn’t say hello when we passed in the hallways. So I packed it in to write stories and make up my own people. It wasn’t a classic career move, but it’s going okay.
E: I should say it IS going okay! And yes, you’ve got my thesis beat (A Study Of Misarticulation from a Linguistic Perspective). You’ve lived in California, my home state, for five years. Davis is dry and hot and, well, California. What’s been your hardest adjustment to leaving Scotland? What’s easier in the Golden State?
C: Gliding around on straight flat roads with no frost in an automatic car is easier than struggling up and down vertiginous lanes over black ice with a stick shift!
Apart from separation from loved ones, the hardest adjustment has been . . . oof, is it the dialect chasm? I got used to the three tiers of shopping failure: A. what words am I saying? B. that’s not what it’s called, and C. they haven’t got it. (Curry paste, riddles, double cream . . .) Which brings me onto the other thing – the unavailability of some foodstuffs I grew up on. Now, California has better oranges and watermelons than Scotland – don’t get me wrong! – but sourcing the ingredients for haggis is an adventure. Never foresaw perfecting the Spanish for sheep’s stomach and kidney caul fat so early on in my learning. (Mexican butchers are the bomb.)
E: Kidney caul fat – never heard the term before, although since I write about a traditional midwife, I know what a caul is. But what are riddles? Okay, I googled it. Still not sure. A sieve? A colander?
C: Ha! See what I mean? It’s a big round sieve for “riddling” weeds out of soil or soil out of gravel.
E: Now, what’s next? What are you working on now, and when are your next books coming out?
C: Boysie-boy, this year is nuts. Right now I’m writing Dandy Gilver No.11, as I said, knocking out the first draft. Next up I’m going to write standalone No.5 and before the end of December I’m planning to write something completely new. (It’ll be fine.) Sorry to be mysterious but I never talk about books until the first draft is done.
However, I can talk about the books coming out this year – another three. (It’ll be fine; it’ll be fine.)
In May, it’s COME TO HARM, a standalone from Midnight Ink. I’m looking over page proofs now. It’s the story of Keiko Nishisato who moves to Edinburgh to study for a PhD (I couldn’t have done it without the help and friendship of Etsuko Oishi, Mariko Kondo and Yuko Kondo who were there with me in the 90s – cheating, see?) and finds herself living above a butcher’s shop in a very friendly little town. Too friendly? We’ll see . . .
In July, DANDY GILVER AND THE UNPLEASANTNESS IN THE BALLROOM is published in the UK. It’s 1931 and Dandy and Alec are in Glasgow at the height of that city’s dance fever, trying to stop a professional ballroom and Latin competition descending into bloody murder. Between traditional Glasgow/Edinburgh rivalry and foxtrot steps, it was a lot of fun to write. I can’t wait to see the cover.
In September comes THE CHILD GARDEN – another standalone from Midnight Ink. This is the extra one. It’s a hardback coming out to help celebrate MI’s tenth anniversary. Cheating again, I’ve set this in my house in Galloway and it was a treat to go back there. In TCG, Gloria Harkness, single parent of a profoundly disabled teenaged son, answers the door one night and finds Stig Tarrant, who sat beside her at school when they were ten and who was her first love. He’s soaked through and terrified and she doesn’t pause for a minute before letting him in . . . how could it go wrong?
And then in November . . . wait a minute! This makes four. (It’ll be fine) but I’m stopping before my ears bleed.
E: I am blown away by your year. Four books? You’re amazing. And you’re right, it’ll be fine. ;^) Anyway, thanks SO much for hanging out at the Wicked Cozy water cooler today, Catriona. Final question: when are you coming to the New England Crime Bake? We’d love to have you.
C: Oh, me too. So much. But you’ll understand if it’s not this year, right?
E: I don’t know. SINC presidents have been making an appearance every year now. No pressure, but…
Readers: Questions for Catriona? Accolades? Admiring comments? All are welcome! Remember, one of you will win a book from Catriona!