Catriona McPherson is the author of the new suspense novel House. Tree. Person. Her many other books include Quiet Neighbors, The Child Garden, and the Dandy Gilver series. She lived in Scotland until 2010, and now lives in California.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new novel, House. Tree. Person., and your character Ali?
A: I can half-answer this. I went to the Writers Police Academy in Wisconsin in 2015 and, in a workshop on sociopaths (presented by the wonderful Dr. Katherine Ramsland), the subject came up of the "house-tree-person test" for personality disorder. It's diagnostically discredited and not much used in clinical settings these days, although I believe it's still applied to children in Waldorf education.
Anyway, as I sat there, the idea came to me of a silent individual who only ever drew a tiny square with a cross through it, a symbol none of her carers could interpret. And a big chunk of the plot of this book just slotted into my head. It was wonderful.
As to Ali: Much more typically, I started with a little pip of an impression - I think it was her Juicy velour sweatsuit - and just wrote and wrote until she came into focus. By the end of the first draft, she seemed like herself. Then I went back to the start and changed everything in the early chapters that was now out of character. Does that make sense? I hope so.
Q: Do you prefer writing historical novels or ones set closer to the present day?
A: I like shifting from one to the other - a change is as good as a rest. In the historicals, I have to do more research and be wary of anachronisms, but the recurring characters are familiar and the voice is already there. For the modern standalones, I need to dream up all the characters from scratch but I don't need to worry that I'm making mistakes in the background (because it's all around me).
Q: How important is setting to you in your novels?
A: Oh massively, yes. I quite often start a book by deciding where it's set and then going to the place and wandering around trying work out what might happen there.
The Dandy Gilver novels' settings - at a wedding in the Highlands, during a production of a play in a castle near the English border - are getting on for half the meat of the books, I think. For the standalones, I find myself drawn back again and again to Galloway. It's remote, untapped, slightly unworldly - perfect.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I've got the first draft of the next standalone printed out and waiting for me to plunge into with as many different colours of Post-It notes as Staples sells. I know it'll be an unholy mess. My first drafts always are. But I've fixed 20 of them now, and I do believe I'll be able to fix this one too. I'm a bit worried that this book has no title yet, but I'm hoping one comes to me.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The next book to be published (May 2018) is a departure. It's the first of a trilogy set in California, with a Scottish immigrant heroine. The cover says it all: this one is for laughs.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Catriona McPherson.