Catriona McPherson was born in Scotland and lived there until 2010, before she immigrated to California where she lives on Patwin ancestral land. A former academic linguist, she now writes full-time. Her multi-award-winning and national best-selling work includes: the DANDY GILVER historical detective stories, the LAST DITCH mysteries, set in California, and a strand of contemporary standalone novels including Edgar-finalist THE DAY SHE DIED and Mary Higgins Clark finalist STRANGERS AT THE GATE. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, The Crime Writers’ Association, The Society of Authors and Sisters in Crime, of which she is a former national president. You can find out more about her at www.catrionamcpherson.com.
Shelley Blanton-Stroud interviewed Catriona when Scot Mist was performed at Stories on Stage Sacramento (https://www.storiesonstagesacramento.org)
Shelley: Scott Mist is like a combo of And Then There Were None, Tales of the City, and Only Murders in the Building. Did you intend this mashup or does it just emerge?
Catriona: There’s always humor in my books, even one that’s set in a psychiatric hospital beside an army fighter range. But my editor said, Could you write a comedy? And I thought, Well, I’ll try, but it’s terrifying because if you write on the jacket, It’s a comedy, it really matters if people laugh… But then I got interested and thought, Well, can you write a comic murder?
Can you write a comedy with a dead body, you know, with one of the keenest transgressive crimes that that we know in our somewhat civilized society? I thought, Well, I’ll give it a go.
And then it was coming around to, late 2020. I thought I’ve always wanted to write a closed circle mystery, like And Then There Were None, where people are bound up together. And I thought, Oh, I wonder if a lockdown comedy is genius or the worst guaranteed disaster ever. And I thought, well, it’s almost 2021. The pandemic will be over by the time the book’s out.
Shelley: You clearly are naturally funny but is that what it takes to write humor or is there some kind of science to it or does it just pop right out of you?
Catriona: I’m not the funny one in my family. My mom at her mother’s funeral made my entire family laugh so hard in the front row of the crematorium that we really hoped everyone else thought we were crying. It seems so wrong. That’s part of it, to find the humor in a situation that wouldn’t naturally strike you as funny. If you can crack up your entire family at your own mother’s funeral, you’re a funny person.
Shelley: You are incredibly prolific. How do you do that? How do you write so much so well?
Catriona: Yeah. There is a trick. So writers in the room who are the people who like a plan and an outline and research, are plotters. The other kind of writer is a pantser, someone who flies by the seat of their pants. So my method will work for Panthers. I dunno if it would work for planners. I also don’t do the research until after I’ve written the book, which really cuts down the amount of time researching. Because you know what you need to know.
So what to do is sit down and start to write. Don’t stop until it’s 80 to a hundred thousand words long and don’t edit it and don’t read. I don’t even read it. I just write 2000 words every day, sometimes weeping and feeling like an imposter and thinking, This is the one, this is all over. My husband calls it the big early wobble. I’ll come blatting out of my study and say, There’s no story here. I don’t understand what this is about. I don’t know these people. It’s thin. There’s no color. He’ll say, You said this last time, 30 odd times now. And I made you write it down and sign it last time. But he couldn’t find that because he’s a man.
So anyway you just sit down and produce like Anne Lamott says, the shitty first draft. It doesn’t matter because once it’s out of you and printed out, you’ve got this big warm block of printed paper and it’s a real thing and it’s worth messing about with and trying to make it good. So Charlie Harris, put it best. She said, Anyone can start 12 novels. It takes a writer to finish one. That’s the trick. Just keep going, keep going
Shelley: Is Edinburgh the main character of this series?
Catriona: The Dandy Gilver series is a love letter to Edinburgh. And Edinburgh is a city of lawyers and bankers and very respectable types. But underneath… The only place in America that I’ve ever seen that’s anything like it is Savannah, where there’s the front side of the street with the Georgian homes and then around the back at the river level, down a bit, it’s very, very different. And that’s what Edinburgh is like. It’s got vertical, social stratification, as well as in horizontal topographical stratification, and lots and lots of secrets. The person that Jekyll and Hyde was based on is from Edinburgh. He was a deacon, but not that night.
Audience: Talk about making fun of Americans in your LAST DITCH series.
Catriona: Our cultures clashed when I first moved here.
Things like the fact that there are no walls in American houses, you know. Modern American houses are all openly planned. Where do you put your pictures? Remember that sitcom, Friends, where they they’d say, Come into the kitchen and I’d go, It’s the same room. That probably explains the divorce statistics. You can’t get away from each other. British people can’t stand each other either, but you never see each other with little boxy rooms. So things like that.
And then the things that I think are absolutely wonderful, like water fountains. I hope they come back. I think drinking fountains will come back. Love them. Going right on red. I love right on red. Wonderful. And I thought gas station coffee was wonderful as well until I tasted it. Shocking.
I think the contempt and the admiration go both ways in the novels, from Lexi to her American friends and from the American friends to Lexi. They go, Oh, she’s Scottish and that’s different from English. It’s a tiny little island. Who cares? The readers in Britain who read the books, see it the other way. They get, you know, quite ruffled and say, why does she take all that crap from them?
Audience: Why did you choose crime and mystery as your primary genre?
Catriona: I was a professor of linguistics. When I left that job to write, the first thing I wrote wasn’t a mystery. It was a big mess and was rejected a lot of times and I put it in a drawer and moved on. And I wrote a mystery as a palette cleanser because I love to read them. What I’ve always loved reading is the golden age detective fiction. So I thought I’ll just cheer myself up by writing a story I’ll enjoy.
And that was the one that sold and I’ve just written the 15th in that series. So sometimes things work out. But I like the imposed structure of a mystery novel, that there will be a transgression and then there’ll be a resolution. And also that you you’re playing a game with the reader. How blatantly can I put all this right on the page and still hope that people don’t understand. It’s just fun. So that’s half of it. And the other half is that you see a distillation of people’s characters when they’re at their worst moments, when their lives have been struck by tragedy so it’s always the most interesting. I want to write about the most interesting day someone’s ever had, which certainly works for the person who’s killed.
It’s just a great deal of fun and a good magnifying glass to shine on character. And it’s a great community as well. They’re voracious readers. It was a great business decision. The only people who read more are readers of romance. And I can’t write romance. My skills are just embarrassing.
For the full experience, watch the recording.
I grew up in California’s Central Valley, the daughter of Dust Bowl immigrants who made good on their ambition to get out of the field. I recently retired from teaching writing at Sacramento State University and still consult with writers in the energy industry. I co-direct Stories on Stage Sacramento, where actors perform the stories of established and emerging authors, and serve on the advisory board of 916 Ink, an arts-based creative writing nonprofit for children. I’ve also served on the Writers’ Advisory Board for the Belize Writers’ Conference. Copy Boy is my first Jane Benjamin Novel. Tomboy (She Writes Press 2022) will be my second. The third, Working Girl, will come out in November 2023. My writing has been a finalist in the Sarton Book Awards, IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards, Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Award, the American Fiction Awards, and the National Indie Excellence Awards. I and my husband live in Sacramento with an aging beagle, Ernie, and many photos of our out-of-town sons and their wonderful partners.
To find out more about Shelley Blanton-Stroud and her books, and to sign up for her newsletter, go here. https://shelleyblantonstroud.com