October 24, 2019

Catriona McPherson

Slow-burning terror in a small town

We spoke with Catriona McPherson about secrets and lies, her writing process and the dramatic landscape that serves as a spooky backdrop for her newest book.

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Catriona McPherson’s Strangers at the Gate is a twisty-turny, darkly atmospheric novel that begins with Finn and Paddy Lamb embarking on a promising new chapter of their lives: Husband Paddy has just landed a partnership at a law firm in a small town, a rent-free cottage on his employer’s property and a deacon job for wife Finn at the parish church. But their optimism turns to horror when they stumble upon a bloody-murder tableaux—and decide to pretend they didn’t. As the days pass and they wait for someone, anyone, to find the bodies and report the crime, their paranoia grows. Did someone see them? Was it a murder-suicide, or just plain murder? Are the neighbors eccentric, or something worse?

We spoke with McPherson about secrets and lies, her writing process and the dramatic landscape that serves as a spooky backdrop for her newest book.

What an exciting, creepy, suspenseful book you’ve written! I ended up reading Strangers at the Gate in one sitting (and putting off other things in the meantime—oops). Do you find yourself getting swept up in your stories and writing wherever and whenever the muse takes you, or are you a more methodical sort who uses outlines, set hours or words per day, that sort of thing?
Well, thank you! That’s just about the best thing any author can hear. Sorry not sorry about your derailed day.

I’m a mixture between the two types of writer. I don’t outline or make any kind of plans before I start. I just write the first draft out of my system—no reading, no editing—then see what I’ve got afterwards. However, that process goes on at two thousand words a day, five days a week. Ideally. Life gets in the way, of course, and I miss days, work weekends, etc. Always at the end I find myself, crab-handed and lunching on peanut butter a la spoon, hunched over my desk trying to get to the end. But then I print it out and dance around—“Uptown Funk,” “Cake by the Ocean” (it’s no time to be cool)—truly feeling like a room without a roof. (That’s another good one.)

You’ve written some 25 books and often publish more than one a year. Is it challenging for you to toggle between your Dandy Gilver and Lexy Campbell series and your standalone work? Or is it perhaps more fun to change things up on a regular basis?
Honestly? If every year had about 13 and a half months, I could do it comfortably. As it stands, I’m a quarter-turn too tightly wound, but I do a lot of yoga, and I take two weeks off in the summer and two weeks for Christmas. Ha! I’ve just realized as I write that—I don’t need a 13-month year; I just need to give up my 11-month one. Well, I’m not going to. Those weeks are probably helping, eh?

I do think that writing completely different books in succession helps. I’m drawing on different bits of my brain and writing in very different tones. But the main thing for me is that I was bewildered, unhappy and unsuccessful doing what I trained to do—academic linguistics—and even after nearly 20 years of writing fiction full-time, I still feel relieved and lucky that I’m doing something I understand now. I think that’s what keeps me going.

“I can spot a lie, a half-truth, a quarter truth or an eighth truth and draw you a diagram of where the element of falsehood is lurking.”

Finn and Paddy are offered, all at once, some wonderful things: a law partnership for Paddy, a church deacon job for Finn and a rent-free cottage on Paddy’s employer’s land. Finn does, of course, think it might be too good to be true—and it certainly turns out to be! Is the havoc that can occur when we ignore our instincts something you like to explore in your work in general, as well as specifically in this book? It seems to be something we’re often told, to follow our instincts, but it seems to be easier said than done, yes?
I went off and made tea to ponder this one, and I think you’re right. I do often write about people trying to believe something and slowly becoming unable to ignore the truth they don’t want to see. And you’re right, too, that we know we should follow our instincts, but we talk ourselves out of it all the time. I certainly did that a couple of times in a professional setting, signing up to work with people I knew weren’t a good fit and didn’t get me or my books. No one I’m working with now, I hasten to add—this was years and years ago.

#MeToo made us all think more clearly about the perils of ignoring instincts as well, didn’t it? A few short years ago, when creepers were being creepy, I’d still wonder if I was misreading the situation, and I’d hesitate to speak up. Not actual flashers and gropers, you understand—I’m talking about the really skillful ones who do the deniability dance and react with authentic-looking shock when you call them on their crummy behavior. That’s been scraped up and double-bagged now, thank God.

The landscape of Strangers at the Gate feels darkly beautiful and quite eerie. You do an excellent job of conveying Finn’s uncertainty and unease amid the looming trees and deep valleys of small-town Simmerton versus the city streets that she’s used to. Are you more of a country or city mouse? Did you go back to Scotland to immerse yourself in the landscape in preparation for the book, or does it stay fresh in your mind?
I’m absolutely a country mouse. I gave Finnie similar experiences to some of mine when I first moved to the country and learned what a vixen scream sounds like (it sounds like a woman being murdered) and why you should never shine a light up at an owl (it’ll dive bomb the light). But the same silent blackness that freaks Finnie out felt like being snuggled up in a velvety blanket to me. It’s all still there in my memory, but I do go back pretty much every year to top up.

It’s fascinating (and frightening) to think about how we can be married to, or be friends with or live next to people for years and never really know them. Is that a theme that resonates with you as a writer—the differences between people’s public and private faces, and the surprising things that are revealed?
I’ve not been aware of it, but now you mention it and as I cast my mind back over my books . . . you’ve got me bang to rights. It’s not the first time someone else has revealed what I write about. A few years ago, as I handed a book over to my agent she said, in a throwaway remark: “Where’s the missing child in this one then?” I was taken aback, but she was dead right. There is always a lost or missing child somewhere in my books, including this one. Paging Dr. Freud!

Secrets and lies play a central role in this book from start to finish, and the various revelations are delightfully shocking—not least because your characters are so good at being personable even as they hide important truths. Gaslighting virtuosos! Are you good at telling when that’s happening in real life? Are there any skilled fibbers you know, in real life or in literature, movies, etc., who inspired you?
I’m a trained BS detector. Seriously—for my linguistics Ph.D. my thesis topic was truth in spoken discourse. I can spot a lie, a half-truth, a quarter truth or an eighth truth and draw you a diagram of where the element of falsehood is lurking. Mostly that translates into shouting at the radio as if the interviewer can hear me telling them what question they need to ask the politician who’s dishing it out. My favorite liars in fiction are the sneaky gaslighters in Joy Fielding’s books. Kiss Mommy Goodbye and See Jane Run are master classes.

Finn’s stress builds and builds over the course of a week; it was such fun to experience things as they happened, so to speak, right along with her and the other characters. Do you like to read stories or watch movies or plays like this? Is it easier or more difficult, do you think, for you to build tension within a defined timeframe?
I love books and movies like that! Dog Day Afternoon, Clockwise, Independence Day, Jurassic Park, The Da Vinci Code. They’re so propulsive. As for writing them—this takes me back to one of the earlier questions. I know I couldn’t write more than one book a year if the books I wrote took place over generations. Somehow, if the duration of the events in the novel is short, it’s easier to write quickly. Even when I recently wrote a book that covered a year, it was a year consisting of four weekends, one in each season.

You’ve been shortlisted for and won numerous awards—Agatha, Edgar, Mary Higgins Clark, among others. Congratulations! How has this recognition changed (or not) your writing life?
Thank you! It is lovely to be recognized, whether by judges (as in the Edgars) or peers (as in the Anthonys). If I needed more evidence that I’m in the right job now, that would do it. But it doesn’t change the main bit of the work. I still need to make sure the next book is as good as I can possibly make it, and I still feel sick with nerves while I’m waiting to hear if the publisher wants to buy it. In fact, I think the awards make that worse. They raise expectations, and they would make the career-ending humiliation and scorching failure that could be waiting round the next corner that bit more painful.

Oh, God. I wish I hadn’t let that thought bubble to the surface. I’m glad there’s another question. Hurrying on then . . .

What’s coming up next for you? Eager readers will want to know!
I’ve got a book in the historical series coming out in the U.S. next month, A Step So Grave—it’s the one with the four seasons. And there’s another two written and on my editor’s desk in London at various stages. Then the third in the Last Ditch series, working title Scot on the Rocks, comes out in the U.S. and U.K. next summer. August, I think. The next standalone is still being polished before I hand it over (gulp—see above!). I’m hoping it’ll be called A Gingerbread House, but who knows—I was thrilled when the Minotaur editor came up with Strangers at the Gate as a title for this book. I gave up on my working title without a backward glance. When something’s right, it’s right. Right?


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Strangers at the Gate.

Get the Book

Strangers at the Gate

Strangers at the Gate

By Catriona McPherson
ISBN 9781250070012

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