Cathy Pickens — Biographical Information
SOUTHERN FRIED won St. Martin’s Press Malice Domestic Award for Best Traditional Mystery. Set in a small South Carolina hill country town, it was called an “assured debut, a cozy with some sharp edges” by Publishers’ Weekly and was one of five finalists for RT BookClub’s 2004 best new mysteries award. In DONE GONE WRONG, Cathy uses her own courtroom experiences when Avery Andrews
deals with a suicidal spree killer and a dynamite-toting paramour against the backdrop of a high-profile trial of a deadly drug. Poison pen letters and a run-away pig welcome Avery home again in HOG WILD. HUSH MY MOUTH is the latest in the series.
In her other life, Cathy is a lawyer and business professor at Queens University of Charlotte.
What is your current project?
I’m in that in-between phase, having finished Book #5 in the Southern Fried Mystery series and now planning what comes next. The problem isn’t having no ideas but having too many, trying to winnow the list down to the manageable. This is the time of year when I try to catch up with all the rest of my life, which falls into disarray during the months I’m immersed in a book. At the same time, the next project is percolating.
Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head?
I’ve been writing and submitting since I was in junior high school, so I’m one of those over-night successes decades in the making. My first real sale was a short story, to the Sisters in Crime/PWA anthology Deadly Allies II. Sue Dunlap called to tell me she’d selected my story – which introduced the characters in my series.
That’s when I learned good news comes by phone. That was confirmed ten years later, when editor Ruth Cavin called to tell me I’d won the St. Martin’s Malice Domestic contest. Just as exciting as that first call.
I also learned in those earlier years that persistence trumps talent every time. I know writers who are much more talented than I’ll ever be, but they’ll never be published. Why am I so certain? Because they aren’t writing, or they aren’t submitting their work for critique, looking for advice about how to grow and improve. It’s important to learn your craft – and writing requires a long apprenticeship. The real driver is persistence.
Getting published is, in some ways, the easy part. Then there’s luck and timing and
the will to continue the hard work of improving.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst-driven head-banging?
All artists have self-doubt. It’s akin to stage fright. That’s what keeps our adrenaline pumping, keeps us always studying and working and improving.
Every project is different; every book starts with a usually unspoken quaver: “Can I write this? Will it be any good?” The secret is in the process, in the work itself. You work at your craft; you put your butt in the chair, bow your head, grasp your pen and set to work. That’s it.
What mistakes have you made?
Sending work out too soon, thinking it was ready long before it was. Thinking I was ready when I wasn’t.
A wise writer once told me the question isn’t, “How long did it take you to get published?” but “How long did it take you to get publishable?” Two very different questions.
I haven’t met anyone yet who hasn’t worked to get publishable. For me – and, I suspect, for most writers – the book that was accepted was far different from the book that was first shopped around. John D. MacDonald once said a writer’s apprenticeship was one million words. You keep working and improving. No short-cuts.
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
Reading and listening to people and observing life. Ideas distilled from books or movies are never as rich as distilled life itself; that’s the writer’s job: to distill and offer us the essence of life.
Small-town newspapers are great sources for me. A small piece in my hometown newspaper about some psychics visiting town tipped over my laugh box one day.
What if …? I began picturing the absurd lengths that guys with too much time on their hands could go to, setting up stunts for the psychics. The psychics became ghost hunters, and a parallel plot in “Hush My Mouth” was born.
Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments where you got “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to disembowel a six-foot man.
I try not to do things that are too weird. Writers work best when they are observers, not performers.
I know I should have a humorous response to this, but I cringe a bit a the question because I recently talked to a new writer who was surprised when someone who answered the phone at the regional FBI office wouldn’t answer her question about the best way to destroy a body or some such question. Writers should strive to be professional.
Not that I haven’t asked questions like, “How much dynamite does it take to blow up a building?” but only of someone with whom I’ve taken the time to develop a professional relationship.
If I wanted to know about disemboweling a man, I would first study “Gray’s Anatomy” (please, the textbook, not the TV show) and comb through medico-legal books to see if I could find examples. (You’d be surprised what’s out there.) I would then ask a medical doctor, a medical examiner, or even a hunter for specifics. (Around here, I could find an ME who is also a hunter.) Let’s face it, some clerk in a knife store isn’t likely to know what you need to know.
Is there a particularly difficult set-back that you’ve gone through in your writing career? Or have you ever been at the point where you considered quitting writing altogether?
What I thought was my worst set-back came when I accepted a demanding (non-writing, bill-paying) job that meant I had to stop writing for five years. I thought I’d missed the window of opportunity, that I’d never get a mystery published.
Now, though, reading back through my journals during that time, I realize how much I was still thinking about writing, studying writing, learning the market. And I was changing as a person.
I left that very intense five years knowing what was valuable to me, what I wanted to do. I’d gained even more discipline and focus. I became even more grateful for the opportunity to do what I’d dreamed of doing, with an intensity that I hadn’t had before. The very thing I thought was a loss of opportunity gave me the tools I needed to succeed.
On March 16, weeks before my time in that dreaded job was to end in May, I got the call that Southern Fried had been accepted. I’d polished it up, re-written it once again and submitted it to the contest the previous October, part of the process of looking forward to the next stage in my life. What a next stage it’s been!
I think about quitting writing every other day. Then I realize I can’t. I really can’t.
What are a few of your favorite books?
Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare. Those are the absolute best. I love To Kill A Mockingbird. I don’t have room to list my contemporary mystery favorites: to name a few, Margaret Maron (Bootlegger’s Daughter), Nancy Pickard (The Virgin of Small Plains), John Mortimer’s Rumpole series, Michael Connolly, James Lee Burke … too many more.
Dean Koontz recently shared his take on the concept on “the writer’s sacred duty.” What comes to your mind at the mention of “the writer’s sacred duty”?
Madeleine L’Engle repeatedly talks about how we’re called to be co-creators with God. I agree with her, and other writers talk about this in the context of their spiritual beliefs.
Writers have a duty to tell the truth. That doesn’t mean we tell what really happened; it means we’re here to distill life to its essence, we’re to give readers a look at how things should and could be, to offer explanations, to offer hope, to give resolution.
Life is messy and doesn’t offer much resolution and truth is difficult to see. Writers help us see.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
That too many writers, readers, and others don’t realize that it IS a business.
Do you have a dream for the future of your writing?
To be allowed to keep writing and publishing.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?
Both the writing itself and the promotion. Both of those are the best of times, the worst of times.
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?
Finding the time. I finally just gave up everything else. If writing was as important as I said it was, why was I watching TV, having dinner with friends, shopping, cleaning closets, and whatever else it was that I was doing?
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
Go through my journals and “incubator” files, gathering the tidbits that look most interesting to me. Then I start talking to myself on paper. It’s messy … and magical.
In researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on “flow,” he said, in essence, we need to have work that matches our particular skills but that we also find challenging; then we just need to show up at the same time, same place every day and get busy.
I eat breakfast, then go into my lovely study with a cup of tea, sit in my chair, pick up my pen (currently one I found in Germany, always blue ink), with a Notabilia notebook from Levenger’s. (I write fiction long-hand, though I do non-fiction on the keyboard.)
I have a goal of a certain number of pages a day. If I get done quickly, great. For the lengthy editing or “re-visioning” phase, the number of pages per day changes, but not the routine.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
I now refer to it as “planning.” I’m too obsessive not to have things worked out in advance, but I also let things change. Writers are endlessly fascinated with this question because we hope someone has found a magic solution. I haven’t met anyone yet who does.
I decided, on one book, that I’d spend lots more time “outlining” or planning the book, then it wouldn’t take so much time in the rewrite phase. Ha! It still takes time. It’s a long and messy process. Do what works for you. I have Post-It note cards, scads of notes filling notebooks, swirling, brightly colored and wildly scribbled large charts on art paper, time lines … and a plan that I’m willing to change.
What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book?
Letting go of it and sending it to my editor.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response?
The emails and letter (yes, that’s singular) of concern over main character Avery’s eating habits. As one reader said, “She doesn’t eat many salads.” The reader was being nice – Avery hasn’t eaten a salad in five books. But she’s fond of fried chicken, banana Moon Pies, cobbler, macaroni and cheese (which, in the South, is considered a vegetable), and as many of the food groups in a fried condition as she can get.
How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?
I once clung to the lovely myth that, as a writer, I could withdraw to a mountain cabin and write. That is nothing more than a shimmering mirage. Shrinking numbers of booksellers, people buying fewer books, and more competition for leisure time and dollars means the book business is incredibly competitive.
I easily spend half my “writing” time on promotional activities. And I’ve heard the same estimate from lots of other writers. Being a successful writer today means being a successful small business owner, complete with book-keeping, website design, speaking engagements, travel arrangements, responses to readers, building relationships with booksellers and librarians … the list is long. A writer doesn’t have to do everything possible to promote, but every writer has to decide what plays to his or her strengths and do that. Not promoting is not an option.
Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?
If I had the perfect answer to anything, I’d still tinker too long with it … Thanks for inviting me. Feel free to contact me. Happy writing!