As some of you may already have seen, I recently read Dandy Gilver and a Spot of Toil and Trouble. This is the latest book in Catriona Mcpherson’s Dandy Gilver series and as you can tell from my review here, I really enjoyed it! When I was very kindly offered the chance to ask Catriona some questions, I immediately said yes, and I am extremely excited to have the opportunity to share these with you today:
1. Dandy Gilver and a Spot of Toil And Trouble is the latest novel in your detective series following the eponymous Dandy Gilver. What was it that originally inspired you to start writing the series?
I came at it as a fan girl. I adored the golden age writers – Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Michael Innes, Josephine Tey, Agatha (of course) and, most of all, Dorothy L Sayers. And so when I put my first novel in a drawer (where many first novels belong) I decided to cheer myself up by trying to write a golden-age-style story of my own. As a palate cleanser. Ha! Here we are at book twelve. My palate is cleansed.
2. Did you always envision Dandy as having her own series, or did this come about naturally through the writing process?
Oh, absolutely. Even then my daydream was of a series. I started it rather early for the golden age – in 1922 – so I could write a good lot of books before crashing into the second world war. It seemed ambitious, if not conceited, back then but it’s 1935 in Gilverworld now.
3. As someone who has yet to read the previous novels in the series, I did not find that this affected my reading experience. Do you aim to make each novel quite self contained to enable the enjoyment for new readers?
Thank you! That’s wonderful to hear. It took me five books to crack this aspect of series-writing. It was lovely, talented, generous Simon Brett – reading DG & The Proper Treatment of Bloodstains – who said I should work on it so each book could stand alone. Simon’s just about to publish his 100th book, so when he talks you listen, right?
4. A Spot of Toil & Trouble is now the 12th book in this series. Have you found it more challenging to write each successive book, or do you think the fact that the series is now so established helps this?
(I’ve just touched wood.) It’s still a joy and I remember the precise moment the joy kicked in. I had an idea for a story set in a circus, but I hesitated. A circus setting just seemed too frivolous. It was the long shadow of academia still clutching at me, I think. (I used to be a linguistics lecturer.) Then the lightbulb came: no idea about an aristocratic lady detective with a butler and a Dalmatian could up the frivolity-quotient from its baseline anyway. Since then I’ve had Dandy play at houses (undercover as a lady’s maid), play at shops, at schools, at doctors and nurses, at nuns . . . I can’t be the only one who used to put a pillow case on her head and play at nuns.
The only time I ever had trouble was when someone suggested I “should” set a book in the West Highlands, because Dandy had never been there. I tried. But it wasn’t coming from inside me – from wherever it is books come from – and I soon packed it in. I sent her to Glasgow to a ballroom-dance-hall instead.
5. Dandy herself is a very capable and intelligent female detective residing in what is traditionally a very male dominated profession. What were your reasons for creating such a character?
Hmmm. I never thought of making her male, although I did give her a male sidekick who could go to places Dandy couldn’t. (Actually to places I wasn’t interested in taking her, if I’m honest.) And I didn’t want her to be radical in any way. I thought it would be a lot of fun watching someone from a very narrow background of snobbery and privilege begin to see different worlds – striking miners, shopgirls, that circus . . . I think she’s become more capable, less shockable, as the books have gone on. And she’s less constrained by decorum now. She used to be much more reluctant to appear nosey. These days she doesn’t care what people think of her.
6. This book takes places in 1934, with the previous novels in the series taking place from the 1920’s onward. What made you decide on this historical period for a detective series?
It really was the golden age that enticed me, not the real 20s and 30s. I write about that mythical world that’s half the historical period and half the rich tradition of British detective stories. If there’s one difference, though, between the writers of that time and me looking back to it, it’s that I know what’s coming, in 1939. I wish I hadn’t given Dandy two sons of fighting age.
7. In this novel we find Dandy at a castle in Scotland where there are many key tropes which follow in the Gothic tradition. How important do you think the setting is for your novels, and how do you go about deciding on each new location?
I do love a castle and I hadn’t written an honest to goodness castle (as opposed to all the other kinds of stately pile) since book two. This one is based on Caerlaverock Castle in southwest Scotland. It’s roughly in the same place and has the same footprint. The real castle is a ruin now and I very much enjoyed putting its roof back on, plastering its walls and peopling it.
Setting is enormously important to me. The theme comes first and then I decide where in Scotland it’s going to take place. I usually pick somewhere I’ve been at least once, to get me started. And I go on at least one further research trip to pin down the details. The day I was at Caerlaverock, it was hammering rain and I had to crawl into a bread oven to make notes without my paper dissolving. (Mespring House is completely fictional, I should say – in case anyone goes searching for it in Dumfriesshire.)
8. Throughout this novel there are both obvious and more subtle parallels which echo that of Macbeth. Are you a fan of Shakespeare, and why did you decide on the use of intertextual themes?
A huge fan, although like Dandy I can be a bit of a Philistine. When I went to see King Lear at the Globe I remember wishing everyone would hurry up and die so I could get off that hard bench and in out of the rain.
So, I wanted to write about the production of a play, in a castle, where impoverished toffs are trying to make a bit of cash. And it had to be a play that most readers would know. That – I reckoned – got it down to The Importance of Being Earnest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Macbeth. I thought Earnest was too similar in tone to the book I was going to build around it. (Eek! That makes it sound as if I think I can write like Oscar Wilde. I don’t think that – just that there’s less scope for humour in a comedy going wrong than in a tragedy going wrong.) I was worried Macbeth had been used too many times already in crime fiction: by Ngaio Marsh, by Simon Brett, then recently and hilariously by a US writer called Cindy Brown in Macdeath. So, for the first time ever, I asked my editor for guidance. Francine Toon, at Hodder, gave me a resounding “Go for it!”. Macbeth is by miles the best play for my kind of schlocky Gothic tastes: blood, witches, ghosts – come on! As for the intertextual themes, that was truly a case of fiction fairydust: I kept surprising myself by finding bits of the play right there where my little story was headed. It was exhilarating.
9. Do you still find the time to read when you are writing? Who are your favorite authors and the biggest influences on your own work?
Absolutely. You do hear writers say they can’t read while they’re writing though, don’t you? I’m always writing and I’d go into a decline if I couldn’t read.
Right then: favourite authors. I read every word Stephen King writes, in hardback, on publication day. And I adore Dorothy Whipple and don’t understand how she was ever forgotten. Anna Quindlen’s wordsmithing is a delight. Kate Atkinson’s voice is a thing of wonder.
I’m not sure which crimewriters influence me, beyond those golden age favourites. I’m usually trying to avoid being influenced – which is why I can’t read P.G.Wodehouse during a first draft. His style is contagious.
But I love it when a writer says something perfectly that I’ve been struggling with. It’s annoying, of course, but it gives me hope that there’s always an ideal phrase there to be reached for. For instance, I was trying to describe that thing when someone in a mixed group drops a bit of a brick and everyone starts thinking about something no one can actually talk about. Do you see what I mean? (Probably not, which is my point.) Then in a novel by Laurie R King about Kate Martinelli, a San Francisco cop, I found the sentence “A memory swept into the room.” Exactly! Curses.
10. What would be your top tips for aspiring writers?
Don’t start a long series with a seven-year-old dog in it. Seriously. But even more seriously – and again for a series – don’t be too quick to pin down all the details in everyone’s lives. Writing a story is a process of slamming shut a lot of doors and it’s a shame to do that if you don’t need to. For instance, I’ve purposely left Dandy’s brother and sister pretty vague so they can take on any shape I need them to somewhere down the line.
And finish what you start. Plough on to the bitter end even if you hate every word of it. At worst, it’ll be your first book in a drawer where first books belong.
I am so thankful to both Catriona and the team over at Hodder for this fantastic opportunity. As you can tell from her answers, Catriona is a wonderful writer and I can’t thank her highly enough for such engaging (and comedic) answers.
This book was released on the 13th July by Hodder and Stoughton and I hope you are all able to get hold of a copy. This Q and A was part of the blog tour for the book. To find out more please see the below image in which further blogs to have taken part are listed. Put your detection skills to the test and you may even find a sneak peak of the first chapter along the way. . .
Author Website: http://catrionamcpherson.com/