External Interviews

Meet Cathy Pickens: A Question & Answer

Cathy Pickens has been, under different names, a lawyer, a business professor, a university provost, a clog-dancing coach, a church organist/choir director, and a typist.

The most profound influences on her life have been her family, her faith, Nancy Drew, and Perry Mason. She grew up in a small town and, forced to move to “big cities” to support herself, first as a lawyer and then as a professor, she found the only way to return to the comfortable familiarity of her childhood was by moving Avery Andrews back home and chronicling her exploits.

What in technical aspects of your background show up in your writing?

I’ve been a partner in a law firm that specialized in complex civil litigation, representing folks who’d been seriously injured. So I know the inside of a courtroom and what goes into assessing a case. I’m a member of the South Carolina Bar, and I’ve taught law to business students for twenty years. I figure it’s better to show folks how to avoid trouble rather than fish them out of it after the fact.

I also served on the Board of Directors for the Forensic Medicine Program, an innovative collaboration of agencies in Charlotte-Mecklenburg: police, fire, medic, crime lab, medical examiner, educational facilities, hospital emergency and surgical facilities, and district attorney’s office. One goal of the program is to train and standardize evidence collection procedures for first responders. I’ve also created and taught in a business program to help jail inmates learn how to start their own (legitimate) businesses.

Why do you write mysteries?

I’ve read mysteries since Santa Clause first delivered Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden to my house. We didn’t have a bookstore in the town where I lived, but we had a fantastic library—right at the bottom of my driveway! Mysteries have always been the staples in my reading diet.

I enjoy writing mysteries for the same reasons I enjoy reading them: they are intellectual puzzles, requiring that my mind be engaged. They take me to other locales, both strange and familiar. I can revisit characters who’ve become like friends and watch them grow and change over time.

Murder mysteries are the classic battle between good and evil—and they reassure us that good can triumph. They are the hero’s journey into an unknown realm, where she then re-emerges with the solution or potion or secret, bringing with her new insights, new understandings. The best modern mysteries have become increasingly complex: they engage the moral ambiguities of our society and help us sort those out. We sometimes need help believing that good triumphs—and that we know what good is.

What do you hope readers will find in your writing?

First, I hope readers enjoy the welcome embrace of people they’ll enjoy seeing again and a puzzle that intrigues and satisfies. I’d also like to introduce them to my part of the country, which has often been awkwardly stereotyped by movies and television—and even news reports. And I’d like to leave them with something intellectually satisfying, something that makes them look, for instance, at lawyers or criminals or themselves in ways they haven’t before.

What do you like in the books you read?

I like both humor and substance in the books I read; I aim for the same in what I write. Mysteries should first entertain. But mystery readers are also intelligent and curious, so they demand well-drawn backdrops and knotty problems. I like solid research, a sense the writer knows whereof she writes. Like many Southerners, I grew up in a storytelling family, full of laughter.

You have a strong Southern accent. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the northwest corner of South Carolina, near the borders with Georgia and North Carolina. This locale, which is itself a character in my stories, is where my family has lived for 300 years (not in Charlotte, North Carolina, as one book jacket mistakenly says). It’s unlike the rest of the state of South Carolina—more hilly, more like western North Carolina than it is like the “flatlands” in the lower part of the state. When people ask, “Where did you grow up?” I usually answer “Near where they filmed the movie Deliverance” (on the Chattooga River, pictured on the website banner). People don’t usually ask any more questions after that.

Why the switch to writing about true crime?

In researching the technical details for my mystery fiction, I found myself drawn in by the power of real-life crime stories. Every case has at least two sides, the science is real—when it isn’t faked or misinterpreted, and the life-and-death stakes are unalterable for everyone involved. Those are stories that deserve to be told.