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An Interview with Catriona McPherson

How did you begin your writing career?

I wrote a book. I’m not being flippant; sometimes people can get so immersed in branding and platform-raising that the actual bum in seat, fingers on keyboard, months of solitary slog gets shoved off the top spot. So I wrote a book—the whole thing, not a submission and synopsis—and when it had been rejected 40 times I put it in a drawer. I think it’s important to be able to leave a flogged-to-death piece of work behind and move on. The 40 rejecters were right; the book stank (because I was writing academia out of my system) and I got more long-term benefit from learning to toughen up and writing another one than I would have from getting that bad book out, by hook or by crook.

Are you with the same agent you started out with?

No. I got an agent with my second try and she and I worked on one book together. Then I showed her a new story and she advised me to forget it. But this time I went the other way. I kept the story and changed agents. There’s a massive difference between 40 people saying “this stinks” and one person saying “this isn’t my cup of tea.” We need to make sure we’re working with people who appreciate what it is we write but while never pandering to our vanities. My current agent—Lisa Moylett of Coombs Moylett MacLean—is someone I trust absolutely. She likes my writing, but she’s a straight-talker of the highest order. If I didn’t have an agent I could say anything to, some bits of this business would regularly flatten me.

Catriona McPherson

What’s the one biggest fallacy about being a writer/the publishing industry you wish would go away?

You do hear quite a lot of cynicism: that writers churn out—God, I hate that phrase!—units of product; that publishers don’t care about literary quality; that reviewers are on the skim; that blurbers are in the back-scratching business…it’s a load of guff, in my experience. We all—writers, agents, editors, reviewers, readers—love books.

But if I had to pick just one fallacy that makes me seethe, it’s “e-books should be cheap.” It drives me nuts. The unit cost of a traditionally published e-book is (roughly) the rent and taxes on a building; the salaries and benefits for everyone who works in that building—editorial, sales, marketing, publicity, legal, HR, janitorial, catering; the utilities, equipment, and communications charges incurred; the parties (hey, it’s publishing); the cost of outside contractors, etc., divided by the number of books in all formats the publisher brings out in the year. The notion that a book without printing and shipping costs should be exempt from that calculation is crazy.

What’s your next book?

I can’t answer this. I’m out of contract on both my historical series and my modern standalones so, while I know what I’ve written, I don’t know if the publishers will buy it. And that’s as it should be—if I’ve written a(nother) stinker it belongs in a drawer. I suppose that’s something to bear in mind when you’re contemplating a writing career: there’s no such thing as tenure. UPDATE: Hodder and Stoughton UK accepted the historical and so did Mobius US. I’m still waiting to hear about the standalone (but I’m no longer waiting for the day when I feel secure about a future as a writer because I know it’ll never come).


Catriona McPherson was born in the village of Queensferry in southeast Scotland in 1965 and educated at Edinburgh University. She left with a PhD in linguistics and spent a few years as a university lecturer before beginning to write fiction. The first Dandy Gilver novel was shortlisted for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger 2005 and the second was longlisted for the Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year Award 2007. In 2012 Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains was nominated for a Historical Macavity Award. Catriona writes full-time and divides her time between southern Scotland and Northern California.

To learn more about the author and her work, please visit her website.


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