Big Laughs Come Easy to Catriona McPherson

Candace Robb brings her passion for York to this new page-turning crime thriller. She shared her thoughts about the latest installment in her long-running hit series with Library Journal.

California-based Scottish sleuth Lexy Campbell gets a new case in Scot on the Rocks.

Catriona McPherson’s latest Last Ditch comic detective novel begins with a big bronze toe and a ransom note. Lexy Campbell assembles an unlikely team to track down the missing statue of local legend Mama Cuento. McPherson recently shared her thoughts on truth-telling and her writing process with Library Journal.

You don’t make an outline before you start writing. How does the plot reveal itself to you?

I’ve usually got some little pip of an idea – a scene, a premise, a twist – from somewhere in the book, but it might be quite early on. What I do is plant things with no clue of whether or how they’re ever going to weave in and then dare myself to make them. They usually do in the end and it’s a great feeling.

Your writing is so funny and free-spirited. Does it just pour out that way?

The Last Ditch novels are as close as I ever get to it “pouring out.” The funny stuff does, although sometimes the plotting needs some tweaks in later drafts. One thing I find really difficult is to put more laughs in on later passes. It seems that, when I’m thinking about plot mechanics, I can’t easily capture the playfulness I’m after in the ensemble scenes. I didn’t actually realize that until answering this question right now, but it’s true.

How do you simultaneously manage two popular book series plus your standalone novels?

It’s okay, as long as I never try to multi-task. I do one thing – at the moment it’s the first draft of Last Ditch No. 4 – and if something else comes in, such as page proofs for the historical series, I pack my work-in-progress away and do that one other thing. Then I stop, take a day, and go back. My husband’s an academic, with roughly forty papers, reports, reviews, classes, grants and book chapters spinning at any one time. He says my working life puts him in mind of when the rocks start to move in Labyrinth. Cheeky bugger.

You relocated from Scotland to California in 2010. How was that adjustment?

I thought, after a lifetime of American films and telly, that I’d slot right in. But there’s a lot of everyday life that doesn’t make it into the movies. Also, I was ready for the sunshine in California. But what I wasn’t ready for was seeing the moon wax and wane and wax and wane, night after night. You never get that in Scotland.

Is popular British mystery-writing all downstream from Dame Agatha?

Certainly, women writing mystery is a core British tradition. I believe we’re all the grand-daughters of Agatha, daughters of Ruth and Phyllis and wee sisters of Val. When I heard about Sisters in Crime working for gender equity in the US crime fiction world, it seemed bizarre. Questioning whether women could be crime-writers seemed like questioning whether we could be nurses. Or librarians. Anyway, I served a year as national president of Sisters in Crime, and now the organization looks beyond just gender and addresses BIPOC writers, LGBTQ+ writers and writers with disability.

Your linguistics Ph.D. thesis topic was “truth in spoken discourse.” How do you spot lies in daily life? 

The tell for me is the extreme vigilance it takes to be a habitual liar. They need to run through all the possible repercussions of the latest lie, remember the preceding ones, quickly come up with a fix if two lies touch and one of them cracks. If you’re honest, you don’t need to make everything make sense, because reality does it for you. You can just kick back. Liars tend to be tense and exhausted.

Who will play Lexy in the Netflix series and why? Anyone in mind for Todd and Kathi?

Oh lovely! Right then. Fern Brady isn’t an actor, is she? She’s a comedian. But if she wanted to branch out, she’d absolutely be my Lexy. We’d need to change Lexy’s hometown from Dundee to Bathgate, mind you. But I only made it Dundee because I thought, with the greatest respect and all the love in the deepest part of my heart, it was the funniest and least California-like place I could imagine. But then you’d be looking at Bathgate a while before you thought of Monterey. Frances McDormand would be a fantastic Kathi, because she’d be a fantastic anyone. And Todd? Gael Garcia Bernal, maybe? If you don’t know who that is, Google him. You’re welcome.


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