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Lit Ladies: Interview with Catriona McPherson

Today’s my stop on the Dandy Gilver Blog Tour and to promote the latest installment in the Dandy Gilver series, A Most Misleading Habit, I got the chance to do a brief Q&A with author Catriona McPherson.

Can you tell me about A Most Misleading Habit and what inspired this installment of the Dandy Gilver series?

I’ve wanted to write about nuns for a while: a household full of what were seriously radical women for that time and place and a culture so alien for Dandy that she would be completely out of her depth. And just the glamour of those swishing black habits themselves. It was exactly as much fun as I expected. I fell a little bit in love with all of the Sisters of St Ultan.

Of course there has to be a plot as well. I got a review from . . . I think it was The Independent . . . a while back that called a story “just this side of ludicrous”. What a challenge, eh? I’ve been trying to see if there’s any more room “this side of ludicrous” ever since. So in this book, there’s been an outbreak of arson in the convent chapel, on Christmas Eve no less, and a break out of inmates from a nearby insane asylum, two of whom are still at large. And there’s a third strand of plot, but I can’t talk about it without spoilers. Dandy is engaged by the nuns and Alec has a friend in the asylum, still broken by shell shock after WWI. Add fifty orphans, three posh sisters who carry out good works, long-kept secrets . . . and we’re off.

Did you need to do any specific research for this book regarding the nunneries? If so, did you discover any facts that surprised you? 

Okay, I’ve got to admit I’m a big fan of making stuff up. If you make stuff up in enough detail and with enough gusto you save a lot of research time. But some things have to be right. I did a bit of reading about exactly how an independent order of nuns would function and I kept a print-out of daily devotions at my side while I was writing: from the first Angelus at five in the morning to the end of Compline at getting on for nine at night.

There’s one bit of research I wish I hadn’t done. I wanted to set a scene in the convent laundry and so I needed to know what the laundresses would be washing. Here’s a tip: never google “nuns’ underwear”. I don’t think those women were real nuns.

What inspired you to initially begin writing the Dandy Gilver series?

Ha! Yes, well, I had just written my first novel (after leaving a lecturing post in a university English department) and was at the stage of putting it in a drawer along with its forty rejections. I was sitting on a cold beach in Scotland taking stock of my foolishness (in thinking I could pack in my job and be a writer). My husband, Neil, was in pep-talk mode. “What do you love?” he asked me. “What do you want to read? What did you wish there was more of”  And I came back with Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Michael Innes . . . “Write a golden-age-style story for fun then,” said Neil. “As a palate cleanser, before your next serious project.”

So we started talking about this woman and her house and her dog and her children (in that order, for Dandy) and her first case. And now it’s eleven books later. Palate cleansed.

How did you get into writing? Any tips for aspiring novelists?

I’ve written and deleted three answers to this because I didn’t want to sound bossy. But I do think this needs to be said. I got into writing by putting my bum in a chair and writing the best book I could write. Then putting that book in a drawer and writing another one, trying to make it better.

Nothing else means a thing until the book is written. Networking, taking classes, going to conferences, reading how-to manuals about writing, setting up a blog, buying your name as a website domain, tweeting #amwriting . . . there are so many ways to get a lovely feeling of writeriness without actually writing.

It worries me to hear beginning writers talk as if the actual bum in chair, hands on keyboard slog is some kind of technicality or afterthought. I got an email recently from a new writer saying they had written a synopsis, a covering letter and three chapters and wanted my advice about what to do next. Chapter four!

What are you reading right now?

Ah, good. An easy one. I’m reading Francis Brody‘s Death of An Avid Reader, because I’m chairing a panel at the Harrogate Crime Festival next week. It’s Francis, Ann Granger, Ruth Ware, and . . . who’s the other fellow? . . . oh yes, only Simon Brett OBE. We’re charged with talking about the continuing influence of the Golden Age (but I’m plotting mischief.)

What’s one book to movie adaptation that you really love? Would you ever like to see Dandy on the big screen? 

I think Heidi Thomas did a fantastic job with Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle. And she was responsible for the BBC Ballet Shoes from the Noel Streatfield novel and the BBC Cranford from Mrs Gaskell’s novella, both of which were stellar. But the best ever for me is Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility.

I don’t see Dandy on the big screen, but I live in permanent state of corkscrewiness from keeping everything crossed for her on the small screen, STV has the option and is at work.

What’s one thing people would be surprised to know about you?

Oof. I’m such an unsurprising person. Oh wait – here’s one. Dandy’s Dalmatian, Bunty, has been a staple in the books since the start. Dandy loves her beyond all reason (see above) and readers seem to feel great affection for her too. But I’m a cat person.

If you were, for some reason, stranded on a desert island, what three books would you like to have with you and why? 

Just three, eh? And I’m going to stick with Desert Island Discs rules and assume no collected works. I’ve never read any Charles Dickens. (Maybe that should have been the answer to the last question.) So I’d take his longest one. What’s that? Bleak House? David Copperfield? And I’d take a copy of it in an exotic language too, and try to use the two texts to devise the grammar of the language I didn’t know. That would keep me busy. And Pride and Prejudice.

Dandy Gilver and a Most Misleading Habit hits bookstores tomorrow, July 14th.

To learn more about Catriona visit her website.

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