By Jeff Ayers
Catriona McPherson is the author of the Dandy Gilver series, set in Scotland in the 1920s, which has won a Macavity, a Lefty and recently an Agatha. AS SHE LEFT IT is her first standalone. The story focuses on Opal Jones who left home at twelve to escape her mother’s drinking. After her mum dies, when Opal comes home to the little house on the dead end street, it seems as if exactly the same. But under the surface nothing is how it used to be. Ten years ago a child disappeared and everyone knows more than they’re telling. At first, the mystery of the missing boy is a fine distraction from Opal’s own troubles but soon enough the secrets of her past begin to rise and with them a growing fear that Baby Craig never left Mote Street at all.
Catriona McPherson talked to the BIG THRILL about her work.
Who is Dandy Gilver?
Dandy Gilver is one of those figures so familiar from the British Golden Age – the gently born, female, accidental sleuth turned private detective. I don’t suppose there’s ever been one in real life but we’ve met them so often in fiction that the disbelief is fairly pre-suspended. THE GUARDIAN, in one of my favourite ever pull-lines, called her “brisk, baffled, heroic, kindly, scandalized and – above all – very funny.” I’ll take that.
What sparked the idea for As She Left It? And, why a standalone instead of another in the Dandy Gilver series?
(No, no, no, no – not instead of! As well as. Dandy Gilver will be back in November in the US in DG & A BOTHERSOME NUMBER OF CORPSES, in which four people have vanished and five corpses have turned up. Very poor accounting. She’s back in July in the UK with DG & A DEADLY MEASURE OF BRIMSTONE.)
Now – AS SHE LEFT IT. A stand-alone is both a bigger challenge, because every character has to be coaxed into existence from a standing start, and a bit of a relief – you can kill them all in an explosion if the plot gets too tangled. (Kidding.) But there *is* greater freedom in the stand-alone form for me. And, if I’m honest, writing a contemporary story and not having to worry about anachronisms for once was a joy.
This story has been a long time coming. There’s an elderly jazz trumpeter, Fishbo, who was born about 15 years ago when I spent a holiday in rural France with a Louis Armstrong album stuck in the car’s tape deck; there’s a little old lady, Norah Fossett, who’s based on a woman I met wandering around the streets in her slippers about 8 years ago; the setting is Leeds – the city where I worked as a university lecturer between 1995-2000. I wasn’t very good at it and I was so profoundly unhappy that it’s taken me all this time to go back there and use the place for fiction. Mind you, if I hadn’t hated my job so much I would never have packed it in and turned to writing stories instead. So, on reflection, thank you University of Leeds.
As for the rest, I didn’t think Opal Jones was me but an old friend read the ARC and said it was as if I was sitting in her kitchen talking to her. The plot – a missing child, a web of secrets, danger lurking in every corner – is, as ever, completely autobiographical except that nothing in the book ever happened. I’m crossing my fingers and hoping that the writers out there know what I mean.
What appeal do you see writing in the mystery/thriller genre?
I thank the gods of randomness every day that my impulse is to write in this genre instead of poetry or westerns or pretty much anything else. Tough as it is in these “interesting times”, mystery and thriller writers have it better than most, I think. The community is huge, welcoming, voracious, adventurous (African lady with a wee van? Sure. Trilogy by deceased Scandinavian politico? Hell yeah.) and they love to pass on recommendations.
I’ll try not to get on my soapbox, but snootiness about “story” really annoys me. You know when people say “terribly plot driven” and reach for the hand-sanitizer? I think stories are a fundamental part of our humanity. We make meaning out of meaninglessness; we try to make sense out senselessness. The downside is an Internet that spawns another whacked-out conspiracy theory every hour on the hour because “them’s the breaks” doesn’t satisfy us. The upside is that people want to read (and write) mysteries and thrillers.
What prompted your move to the States? Is life majorly different now?
Hah. Just a bit. I moved to California on the 16th of June 2010. There was a shower of rain on the 15th of September. Last “summer”, I spent six weeks in Scotland. There were four days when it didn’t rain. I really do have to keep reminding myself when I’m writing about Britain and the characters go outside, that it’s probably cold and wet. Sometimes when I come up out of the depths of a first draft and look out of the window it’s still a bit of surprise to see hummingbirds in the yucca.
So what am I doing here? The other bit of the resign and write stories instead plan (I can call it a plan because it worked; otherwise, I’d have to call it a melt-down) was that my husband, Neil McRoberts, scientist and patron of the arts, could then apply for jobs wherever looked good. The University of California looked great! It’s a long way from home but when I think of the immigrants in the 19th century who left Leith docks waving a white hanky at their loved ones, knowing they’d never clap eyes on each other again – it’s nothing.
Talk about winning an Agatha Award (Congratulations!)
Right? I was thunderstruck. I didn’t know that the acceptances were being filmed for YouTube – or I would have thanked people who weren’t there and then sent them the link – but my sisters said they’d never seen me so gobsmacked. I had tried to think of something coherent to say, however, because at the Cleveland Bouchercon last year I was up for a Macavity, looked at the shortlist and decided I didn’t need to prepare a thank you. Then I won and made a complete fool of myself. Janet Rudolph of Mystery Readers’ Journal was handing them out and she’s the only person I thanked . . . for having such pretty hair. D’oh. Thankfully the acoustics in the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame weren’t that great and a lot of people were off looking at Jimi Hendrix’s guitars. But ITW peeps: if you’re ever on a shortlist, even if Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, Stephen King and Jane Austen are the other nominees – spend five minutes deciding who you need to thank.
Could you talk about the various blogs you write for?
I know what you’re saying. Luckily, as the youngest of four sisters, I was born talking and blogging is just talking with your fingers. (Someone at a book launch once asked “Is it hard or do the words pour out of your pen?” My sister Audrey and honorary fourth sister Catherine, standing at the back, shouted “The words pour out of her mouth.”)
I was thrilled to bits when Donna Andrews asked me to join the Femmes Fatales blog group. I like posting but the real benefit has been drinking in the wisdom of my fellow femmes: Donna, Hank Phillipi Ryan, Toni Kelner, Dean (Miranda) James, Charlaine Harris, Elaine Viets, Dana Cameron, Kris Neri, Mary Saums and Marcia Talley.
And then Kelli Stanley asked me to be her replacement on Criminal Minds, an online panel where we answer a different reader question every week. With Reese Hirsch, Sue Ann Jaffarian, Chris Holms, Gary Phillips, Hilary Davidson, Vicki Delany, Meredith Cole, Alan Orloff, Tracy Kiely and me, safe to say you get a selection of voices and views. I’ve asked these guys so many truly dumb questions, I think they must have a second, secret yahoo group – everyone except me – where they go to roll their eyes.
I also sometimes blog for Inkspot, Midnight Ink’s own group of authors – some of my favourite people on this ball of mud: Jess Lourey, Jessie Chandler, Linda Joffe Hull, Shannon Baker, Alan Orloff again . . .
And I have my own blog, None Of The Above, for when I can’t find the remotest connection to writing but want to share it anyway. My dad and husband made a table out of a dead eucalyptus that nearly fell on my house. That kind of thing.
Anything you would like to add?
Three things. Another ingredient in AS SHE LEFT IT is the bed with a secret. It’s a gorgeous, over-the-top, antique mahogany bed that Opal Jones buys for 100UKP ($150). She can’t work out why it’s so cheap. I bought the real-life bed for the same low price (for the same reason) in an antique shop in Scotland a few years ago as a birthday present for Neil. I was just as mystified as Opal …
And, my second stand-alone THE DAY SHE DIED will be out next year, with Midnight Ink. Happy reading and writing, everyone!
Catriona McPherson is the author of the Dandy Gilver series, set in Scotland in the 1920s, which has won a Macavity and a Lefty and is currently on the Agathas shortlist. Before she started writing fiction she was a university professor in Leeds in the north of England, where AS SHE LEFT IT takes place. These days Catriona lives in northen California with two black cats and a scientist. She is a member of MWA, SinC, CWA, Soc of Auth and PEN.
To learn more about Catriona, please visit her website.