By Sue Staats
I confess I haven’t been much of a reader of mystery novels, a grievous omission that’s about to change, especially after reading this month’s stories—Shelley Blanton-Stroud’s Tom Boy, and Catriona McPherson’s Scot Mist. They’re both lushly historic: Tom Boy in the 1930s: Scot Mist in the more immediate 2020, at the very beginning of the Covid shutdown. They’re both clever, they’re both complicated. Both feature heroines you do not mess with. So I was looking forward to lunch and a chat with Catriona, who makes her home in Davis at least part of the year, but instead, we spoke via Zoom, Catriona from her parents’ home in Edinburgh, me from my book-strewn desk in Sacramento. We chatted mostly about her humorous mystery novel Scot Mist, her prodigious writing output, how she’s fictionalized the town of Davis, and, of course, her favorite American slang word. But first, that amazing productivity!
Sue. I have to admit that Scot Mist was my very first Catriona McPherson novel, and I loved it, it was so delightful and fun. And then, of course, I had to dive into your website to find out more about you, and was astonished to find that you’ve only been writing since 2001 and, by my count, you have published thirty books. So, Catriona, for those of us who are on year three or four of our “novel in progress,” how do you do it? How do you manage this rate of production and such high quality?
Catriona. Well, I'll take your word for it about the thirty published books. Because, there's also many in the pipeline, and ones that I've written that aren't out yet.
Here’s the story: I resigned from a tenure track position as an academic at a decent University. To be a writer was so scary, it was such a reckless thing to do, that for the first few years, it was just panic. I thought, Oh, I've got to make this work, because I've given up my job, right? So I've always done it full time. I don't do anything else, my house is a mess, and I don't have children. So there's all that, which really helps. Also, I love it. And I really hated being an academic, I was miserable, and I was rubbish at it. So even the worst bits of this job still feel like a happy miracle.
And on a more practical level, I write. When I'm writing a first draft, I write 2000 words a day, every day, no matter how difficult it is, and I don't read what I've written, I just keep going and keep going like a juggernaut to the end. And then, you know, even if it's a horrible mess, which it always is, it's just so long, I print it out, and it’s this big block of paper, and it looks like a real thing. And then it feels worthwhile to polish and edit, and all that.
Sue. You mentioned a pipeline. Do you have a whole lot of outlines you're working with? Do you have a lot of ideas lined up, that you’re getting ready to write about?
Catriona. Well, several are finished but they’re not out yet. One I've got the jacket for, and I've done the page proofs (for the follow-up to Scot Mist.) I'm finished with it, though the publishers are busy with it. And another one I'm finished with, but my agent’s got it. So there's another two that I'm done with. So no, no pipeline, not really. At the moment. I'm in Edinburgh, trying to load up, deciding on where the next couple of weeks are going to be so I can go there and sit and sniff the air and look at the sky and things like that, but I have no idea what's going to happen.
Sue. So the next book will be set in Edinburgh?
Catriona. Well in Scotland.
Sue. And half the year you live in Davis?
Catriona. Way more than half the year. I'm usually here for a few, like two or three months at the most and the rest of the time. I'm in California.
Sue. How in the world did you end up in Davis, California?
Catriona. Well, the usual story, boy trouble. My husband got a job at the University of California Davis. At the time, we were both academics. He was good at it. I was bad at it. He loved it. I hated it. And, I wanted to pack it in and write stories. And so what we said was, Okay, I'll do that. And that makes us more mobile. Because, you know, academics tend to marry each other, and they're always looking for jobs in the same place. So he said, Well, then I can move, right? And I said, Yeah, you can move, within reason.. So moving to Davis was the second half of this deal that we struck.
I jokingly imagine that when he went from his interview, someone said, Is your wife an academic also? And when he said, No, they went, whew, you're in, come on, then. They didn’t need to find a job for me.
I mean, it’s the same reason everyone who's not from Davis is in Davis, one of us is working at the university, you know.
I mean, it's a long way, but it's lovely. It's a lovely place to live.
Sue. Well, in exploring your website I learned that the town of Cueto, which is where Scot Mist and the rest of the Last Ditch mysteries are set, is actually Davis in disguise. Further, the setting is a motel, and the main protagonist, Lexy Campbell, lives on a houseboat in the adjoining slough. Which of course immediately sent me to Google Maps to try and find the actual location, in Davis. And, frustratingly, I couldn’t find it!
Catriona. Well, when I say Cueto is Davis, it's actually just half of Davis, everything above the railway line. South Davis doesn't exist in Cueto. So what there is there is the Self Storage, the drive-thru coffee, the police station, the motel and the tomato fields. And the university, UC Cueto, is there. On the other side of the tracks, it’s fictional, and that's where the motel is. There’s no slough, no water. That's why I've given it a fictional name so that I can get away with that. That’s the magic of fiction!
Sue. Dang. Because I’ve had this plan to drive to the location and take a picture of it, and post it with this interview. That’s how far down the rabbit hole I went!
Catriona. You wouldn’t be the first! But that’s what I do as well. I go looking for the locations. I always want to know the locations. At the end of a book I usually write a page of facts and fictions, to show what I’ve deliberately changed, so that people don’t tell me I’ve made mistakes!
Sue. Yes, I see you’ve done that at the end of Scot Mist, and also, on your website, there’s a list of Easter Eggs in the books which Davis residents might have some fun with. It’s best if you’ve read the book and even better if you’ve read the entire series!
Catriona. Oh, right. Yeah, those are fun.
Sue. Fun was one of the things I really loved about this book, which is odd to say about a story that contains a murder, but Lexy and her friends are really funny. I know that you’ve won awards in the “humorous detective fiction” category from Left Coast Crime.
Catriona. I think all of them were actually nominated. And two of them have won, which is lovely.
Sue. I can’t help wondering if you crack yourself up when you’re writing some of the dialogue, and some of the scrapes that Lexy’s oddball companions get into.
Catriona. I would say all of my books have got humor in them. But these (the Last Ditch series) are comedies These set out to be funny, which is really intimidating. You know, if you've got a book with a few laughs, it doesn't really matter if no one laughs. But if the book is supposed to be funny, then you've nailed your colours to the mast. And yes, I do make myself laugh. I make myself laugh when Lexy is talking to anyone else in her friendship circle, especially Kathi. And Noreen. Todd makes me laugh all the time. So yes, I do. And I sometimes make myself cry as well. Maybe not in this book! But I can make myself cry typing in an empty room.
Sue. You write mysteries. That’s your niche and your genre. I’m wondering, what is it about mysteries that you like? What drove you to write them, instead of another type of fiction?
Catriona. Well, the first novel I wrote wasn't a mystery. Nobody wanted it. I got 40 rejections and put it in a drawer. But you know, lots of people do that. And then I wrote the first historical mystery as a palate cleanser and to cheer myself up, because I loved reading them. And I've always loved reading them. Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers are like gold. I enjoy reading it, I enjoy writing it. And also, I think it’s partly the puzzle, to drop the clues and to see, the sleight of hand and to see if you can hoodwink everyone, slightly.
Another part of it is seeing someone on their worst day, when something awful has happened to them, and they're thrown into extraordinary circumstances. It's such a strong light on character. I admire someone who can write a novel in which not many dramatic things happen. I love Ann Tyler’s novels, where tiny incidents spark the story, but I like to see what happens to someone when they're really pressed. I think that's what it is.
And, it's irresistible to me to have resolution, and justice. You're so short of it in real life and in the real world. And, I mean, it's a really basic bit of storytelling, isn't it? You know, Oscar Wilde says the good end happily and the bad end happily. I find that endlessly fulfilling to keep getting to the end of the story. And detective fiction always does that.
Sue. Do you hear from your readers? What do they want to talk to you about?
Catriona. I do, which is lovely. I love it. Well, 90% of the time, I love it. I find it odd when people get in touch to say I didn't like your book and I didn't finish it. I think, okay, okay. It's like crossing the road to say to someone I don't like your shirt. It's just weird.
But that’s very seldom. A lot of the time it’s because they’ve visited the place where a book is set, or they have a question about the language or something about Scottish history, or to share their memories about what I’ve written about.
There was one gentleman who got in touch before I lived in the US. He had read a novel set in the 30s, by me, and he'd seen written down one word that he thought was his mother's own idiolect, just his mother's own word that she'd made up, about cleaning up after a meal. Let's get this road up. And he said that never heard it from anywhere else. Thank you for bringing my mother back, he said. And at the same time, my editor was trying to make me take dialect out of the next book, because she thought there was too much dialect. And I showed her this email and said, Do you really want to take out the dialect? Fine, she said. Have it your way!
People are very kind. And I’ve starting doing it, too. Before I started writing I had never got in touch with an author just to say I liked your book. I didn't know, it seemed silly. But now I know how lovely it feels. And it quite often happens when I'm really struggling and feeling like ooh, the well’s dry. And I can't do this anymore. And I don't understand these people. And then there'll be an email saying, I loved this. Or, this book got me through a rough winter. Or I read this book to someone who was very ill. Such a great idea, to just leave a book by a person's bedside. So whoever comes can read a passage or read the next chapter. And the person who doesn't really feel like talking gets some entertainment. That's genius.
Sue. That’s true. No matter the circumstances, we all like to disappear into a story, both reading it and hearing it. That's one of that's one of the lovely things about Stories on Stage is that people get to sit in the semi dark, and listen to somebody read a story. It's like being a child and having a bedtime story read to you. Have you ever had your work read to you, like it will be at Stories on Stage?
Catriona. Well, audiobooks. But that's different, because there's that huge distance. And it's all done by the time you're finished. I have had a dramatic reading of, I think it was, a short story. And I remember feeling quite anxious and slightly on edge, because it wasn't a professional actor who was doing it. So I cannot tell you how much I'm looking forward to Stories on Stage Sacramento, knowing that it's a professional actor, that's going to do it.
Sue. I love your use of Scottish slang in this in this book, and how the others can’t understand it or pronounce it, and how Lexy is teased about it. Does that happen to you?
Catriona. Yeah. Oh, yeah. All the time. Less now, because it’s been twelve years. But when I first moved over here, I would say something and I'd get this kind of head tilt and squeezed-up eyes and I haven't got a clue. Sometimes it was three stages. And even once you understand the word, you know, if I was in a shop, it would be something that wasn’t in the shop anyway, so there was kind of three levels of misunderstanding, and I was in exactly the same position. People saying, I don't know what that is, I can't even draw a picture of that. No idea what you're talking about.
But now, you know, some of my friends have taken on some Scottish words that they now think they couldn't do without, because they're really handy. Pretty much every Scottish adjective means drunk, and every Scottish verb means assault, and every Scottish noun more or less means idiot. Pretty safe if you just think that that's what everything means.
But there's some great American words that I couldn't be without. I think, how did I struggle on without that word all this time? My favorite one is cattycorner. I love that. We have to say diagonally opposite instead, which is useless. Cumbersome.
Sue. So I’m wondering, how much is the character of Lexy based on you?
Catriona. A lot. When I started thinking about this series, my then editor said we want comedies, straight comedies with a corpse. And she said it would be good if they were set in America. And I said well, I want to write the Scottish voice character. I don't want an American character because I don't think I could do that. And I gave her a different profession from mine. And I don’t think I’m quite as brusque as Lexy is. But yes, there's no point in denying that she is like me, because people who know me say it is just as if you are sitting in my kitchen, telling me a funny story that happened. I've got a much better relationship with my parents. I mean, I’m at my mom and dad's house right now, and I've been here for seven weeks, and I’m very happy. And I've got got three sisters. So that's the difference, but it just means there's a lot of comedy to be had out of bad family dynamics. I just made her relationship with her birth family very bad, so it would be funny.
Sue. In Scot Mist there’s very little mention of her parents, but she has a sort of family in the crowd at the motel, which you bring together during the pandemic.
Catriona. Well, the core people have been together a while by this group, but then the pandemic means that more people come in, and then they lock the chain link fence—not a very fancy motel. it's like Armistead Maupin's “logical family,” you know, that wonderful phrase. And I think that was a reaction to me leaving my family thousands of miles away that I wrote myself a found family in this in this motel in California. They’re nothing like my actual family. Except Todd: Todd is a version of a real person.
Sue. Has your friend read the book with his character? And does he make suggestions to you?
Catriona. Yes. Oh, yes. He knows. And he doesn’t have to make suggestions: I just watch him!
Sue. It sounds like life, and your surroundings, inspire and delight you. We are really looking forward to having you at the event – and just so you know, after the reading, we invite the writer up to the stage for some conversation and to answer questions from the audience.
Catriona. I'm so looking forward to that. I was a little worried at first that people would see this as a lockdown comedy. But it’s not about the pandemic, not a comedy about the virus. It’s a comedy about the first few days of the lockdown.
Sue. And one of the characters, Kathi, is pretty obsessive about cleaning.
Catriona. You know, a writer friend of mine said that she read the first couple of books thinking, well, Kathi needs help, but then she read this book again and said: That's a good idea.
Catriona McPherson website http://catrionamcpherson.com/
The “Easter Eggs” quiz. It helps to have read the entire Last Ditch series!
It's no secret that fictional Cuento, CA, is loosely based on actual Davis, CA. Davis Author, Eileen Rendahl notes that there are a fair few of what she dubbed "Schmavis novels" around. Each of the SCOT books has a few wee Easter eggs that might mean something to readers who know Davis (and won't be any trouble to readers who don't). Just for fun, I've gathered them together here in . . .
THE SCHMAVIS QUIZ
1. (Example). The diner in Cuento is The Red Racoon. The diner in Davis is The Black Bear.
2. The drive-thru coffee shop in Cuento is ...
3. The newspaper in Cuento is ...
4. The county where you'll find Cuento is ...
5. The county town of that county is ...
6. The Szechuan restaurant in Cuento is ...
7. The posh supermarket in Cuento is ...
8. Some students at UCC live in the ...
10. The Cuento pub quiz is held at the ...
11. The little town directly south of Cuento is called ...
12. Lexy's favourite pizze joint is called ...
13. The ironmonger's in Cuento is called ...