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Nina Simon On How Her Bighearted Mystery Helped Her Redefine Strength

by Brendan Dowling on November 20, 2023

In Nina Simon’s witty and twisty Mother-Daughter Murder Night, three generations of women determined to live life on their own terms team up to solve a murder when one of them chances upon a dead body. Lana, a successful commercial real estate developer in Los Angeles, has been forced to move in with her semi-estranged daughter, Beth, following a recent cancer diagnosis. The decidedly independent Lana bristles at having to accept help from Beth, whose semi-bohemian home in Elkhorn Slough, a coastal town near Monterey Bay, is far from her mother’s more glamorous tastes. When Beth’s daughter Jack discovers a corpse while leading a kayak tour, Lana uses her considerable talents to turn amateur sleuth and solve the mystery. The three women are soon plunged into a complex plot that exposes their neighbors’ most closely guarded secrets and strains their complicated family dynamic. Mother-Daughter Murder Night is the first book by Nina Simon , and it was selected as a Reese’s Book Club pick as well as one of Barnes and Noble’s Best of 2023. Library Journal singled it out as a “dazzling debut [that] delivers everything a mystery fan could crave,” and Publishers Weekly stated, “Simon stocks her layered plot with plausibly motivated suspects and convincing red herrings, but it’s her indomitable female characters and their nuanced relationships that give this mystery its spark.” Simon spoke with us about the origins of her novel, writing strong women, and her plans for future novels. Author photo courtesy of Crystal Birns.

Can you talk about how the how this book came about? How did your relationship with your mother inspire the writing of this book?

Absolutely. I never expected to write a novel and I’ve always been a huge reader, particularly a huge murder mystery reader. It started when I was a little kid going with my mom to the Buena Vista branch of the LA County library. I’ve always loved murder mysteries, but never thought I would be anything other than a fiction reader. And then, three years ago, my mom got really sick. She was diagnosed with stage four cancer spread throughout her body. It was just one of those wake-up call moments where I did not want to do anything but be with her. At the time I was working with libraries and museums and theaters and parks around the world on inclusive and relevant practices. I just had to take a pause and be with her. I rushed to Los Angeles to be with my mom and fortunately was able to work with the board of this nonprofit to transition out and just focus on her. A lot of my friends at the time said to me, “You’ll never regret the time you’re spending with your mom right now,” which was absolutely true, but what they didn’t say is that time—and I don’t know if you’ve experienced this—it’s not always fun or easy or joyful.

I think that for us, we were so lucky to get to be together, but it was really a stressful and scary time. I was desperately seeking some kind of distraction, something that we could escape into, and find some joy in during that hard time. Because we both always loved murder mysteries, I started taking old favorites off the shelf to read with her. Then one day I just turned to my mom and said, “What if I tried writing a murder mystery with someone like you as the lead detective?” And that’s where Mother Daughter Murder Night was born. It really started as this very intimate, personal project and opportunity for my mom and I to sit in the hospital waiting room or in her bed and just brainstorm about these characters.

As you know, because you’ve read the book, the premise starts from something very similar to my own story, a tough LA Jewish businesswoman gets cancer and is forced to move in with her daughter and granddaughter in their ramshackle cottage in the Monterey Bay. I was really rooting in this idea of what if someone not exactly like my mom, but inspired by her, got sick and had to move up to where I live? What if one night when she was bored and stuck in bed, she saw something suspicious outside her window? What if her granddaughter got caught up with a dead body and a murder investigation? How would a woman who is feeling a lack of loss of not just health, but of power and agency, seek a new path to assert herself and to be visible and have power in this new life and in this new set of circumstances she’s dealing with?

It’s such a beautiful tribute to your mom and, I should say, I hope that your mom is in good health now.

She is! I realize I always forget to say that part. We’ve been super lucky and she has just continued to get stronger and stronger. It’s been so beautiful how this book—first the creation of it and now the sharing of it—has been something that she and I can really find joy in and talk about every single day, whether we’re talking about edits and her opinion about certain things that are happening in the story, or whether we’re talking about how readers are responding now. It’s just been such a gift to get to share that with her.

I was wondering if you could share some of the mysteries that you and your mom read, either during her treatment or when you were growing up?

We were always big fans of Janet Evanovich and Sue Grafton and Faye Kellerman, who wrote these Jewish inflected LA-based mysteries. Anything with a strong woman, anything with that traditional mystery element of some comfort—we were not going for the grizzly or the noir—and then also some lightheartedness. I think a lot about Janet Evanovich when I think about where some of the humor energy comes from. It’s funny, because today my mom and I still read a ton of murder mysteries, and there are some series and books we really agree on, and some we just don’t see eye to eye on. For example, I’m a huge Louise Penny fan. I think that her particular brand of weaving comfort and warmth into the world of murder mysteries is so powerful, but my mom thinks they’re kind of boring. (laughs)

Recently we both loved Dial A for Aunties and Thursday Murder Club. I think that Mother-Daughter Murder Night falls into this category that we’re seeing now with authors like Jesse Q. Sutanto or even with authors like Anita Prose in The Maid, where you have a murder mystery, but alongside it you also have this really bighearted family or found family story of people—and in the case of Mother-Daughter Murder Night, women—coming together. I would say this book is as much a family drama as it is a murder mystery, and that was very intentional.

The relationships that Lana, Beth, and Jack have are very complicated and different dynamics emerge depending on the different pairings. Could you talk about what went into creating those different dynamics?

One of the things I’m really trying to explore in this book is just what it means to be a strong woman and what it means to be a strong woman at different ages. As I wrote this book, I was really grappling with my own definitions of strength. At the time that my mom got sick, both she and I were CEOs of organizations. In my case, it was a nonprofit. In her case, it was a business. I felt really proud to be strong in this way that’s very much about being the leader, charging ahead. I really learned from my mom and it was really modeled to me. I definitely wrote that kind of strength into Lana Rubicon, who is the outrageous grandma and kind of the star of the show in this story.

But a lot of this writing was about me grappling with redefining strength as I got in touch with the caregiver inside of me, who is of course Beth, the daughter in this story. She’s in that squeeze generation—she’s both raising a child and caregiving for her parent. Beth’s strength really comes in interdependence and in care, which is something that Lana at first does not respect or fully understand, although she certainly benefits from it. A lot of the writing of this story was about my own journey, from identifying as a Lana, to learning to love and admire what it can mean to be a strong person who’s strong in relation to others. So learning to love the Beth.

Then of course, you have Jack, the teenager, who is strong in a whole other way, which is about being adventurous and being outdoorsy. That’s certainly a component of my life, but also I have a daughter who is much younger than Jack. When I was writing Jack, I was writing the kind of young woman that I hope my daughter will become.

I would also say that I think that there are so many different ways to be strong in this world, and for a woman or for anybody who’s marginalized, there’s the way you define your own strength and there’s also the way that the world identifies your strengths. For all three of these women and also for the police detective, Teresa Ramirez, who they work with, all four women are negotiating and navigating their own strength but also how the world observes them. They all have different opinions based on their circumstances and their generation about how they should be engaging with that. I meet so many women, whether it’s older women like Lana who are starting to feel invisible-alized or whether it’s women of color, like Teresa Ramirez, who are always seen in a very specific light, regardless of their actions. I wanted to really explore that push-pull of the strength you have inside of you and the way you are perceived by others, and how people and how women engage with that.

That’s such a compelling part of the book. So many of the characters have moments when they are reevaluating how they perceive one another or appreciating what the other person has to go through.

I’m proud to be from a family of strong women. I think that often in books and in pop culture, maybe there will be one strong woman, or maybe there’ll be a queen bee and then some followers. I really wanted to portray this idea that you can have many strong women together and when you do, it’s not about them changing or one of them becoming dominant. It’s about them negotiating. How are we going to be a team and how are we going to work together—in this case to solve a murder—to tackle hard things together?

The beginning of the book really focuses on the relationships among the three main characters, and we really don’t meet a lot of the suspects until later on. I was curious about how you approached the structure of the book?

This is something I worked a lot with my editor, Liz Stein at William Morrow, about. One of the reasons I was so excited to work with her is that from the very beginning, she had a vision for this book doing both things. I got a lot of feedback early on that it’s hard to write a book that does two things, in this case, family drama and murder mystery. There were a lot of people encouraging me to go for one lane or the other. One of the things I love about Liz is from the very beginning she said, “No, let’s do both.”

I was so aware, in every revision, how many pages till the dead body? How many pages till there’s a there’s this party at the ranch where you meet a lot of the suspects? I was so nervous about where that happened. But I would say also, this is a book that has two inciting incidents, because it has three main characters. The first inciting incident, which is really for Lana and Beth, is when Lana gets sick. Her life is uprooted and she’s forced back together with the daughter who she’s been largely estranged from for years. Then the second inciting incident is when Jack, the granddaughter, comes upon this dead body. I think that we needed some time in the beginning to sink into that first inciting incident while still getting to the dead body. I’m still proud it happens before the fifty page mark, but boy, I was very mindful of this. I’ve heard from some people who say, “I was in it for the mystery, but I liked the women too,” or vice versa. I’ve heard from people who say, “For me, it was really about these women and their relationships and then the mystery kept me turning pages.” So I hope it is both and I hope that there’s enough to sink into with these characters to really get there.

The other thing that was a change we made in the edits was originally this book was really centered on Lana and on her point of view. In working with my editor, we balanced it out to have all three of the Rubicon women have a strong role, both in the mystery but also in their own lives. I think that helped make it a richer story. To be honest, Lana is so outrageous that I think she’s very fun to read about and watch, but she may not be the easiest for everybody to identify with. I think that doing some of that balancing lets you not just root for these women, but also find yourself among these women as a reader as you’re going along through the mystery with them.

I want to talk about the setting of the book because it seems so crucial for the story. Can you talk about how you settled on Elkhorn Slough?

There were a couple of things that played into the setting for me. It’s my debut novel, and I felt more confident setting it somewhere that I know well, that’s easy for me to visit and do research in, but I didn’t want to put it right in my backyard. I’m here in Santa Cruz, so Elkhorn Slough is about thirty minutes south of where I live. It’s a place that I’m very familiar with. It’s a place I love to go. It’s a place where I know a lot of people who are connected there, but it’s not like I’m talking about my neighborhood where I live. That felt like an appropriate amount of distance while also giving me a lot of access.

I also just love Elkhorn Slough, and it’s a place that actually my mom introduced me to. When we were in those early days of her being sick, I spent a lot of my time in Los Angeles with her, but sometimes I came back up here to the Monterey Bay to be with my family. I found myself really gravitating towards going paddleboarding in Elkhorn Slough. I just felt this calm and this other-worldliness that was very special to me, so when I was writing, I wanted to go there.

I’ll also say that it’s a place that has these really interesting contradictions. It’s both this incredible marine preserve with all kinds of wildlife, but it’s also smashed right up against a lot of industrial activity. There’s a working marina. There’s a highway that goes through it. There’s a railroad with a train that goes through every day. You have this sort of border between the natural and the wild, and the urban and the industrial. In my experience, any place where you’re at a border, there’s going to be conflict. As I’m sure you know, in California today, there probably is no bigger conflict than the conflict over land—who owns it, who controls it? I loved the idea of setting the mystery within this place that is both beautiful and eerie,  both urban and wild, and also that could grapple with some of these real issues around land management and land ownership that we’re facing in California today.

How has the book been received by people there?

It’s been terrific. We’ve had so much local support and just so much enthusiasm about it. I think Elkhorn Slough is a place that’s just a little less visible than some other marine preserves or incredible natural places in the greater Monterey Bay. I’m just so grateful that this is shining a light on this extraordinary natural resource. I hope it means more people will go out and go on a kayak tour, go for a hike, and see the incredible wildlife that’s there.

It is a place that is both very beautiful and very spooky. One of my favorite memories when I was doing research is I would go paddleboarding out there. My daughter, who was about seven or eight at the time, would kneel on the front of my paddleboard. We’d be seeing all these otters and pelicans and then she’d point at some falling down shack on the side of the bank and  be like, “Mom, you should kill somebody right there!” (laughs) It was both like very cute and very creepy.

I’m sure you’ve gotten this question a ton of times, but are there plans for future mysteries with the Rubicon women?

I think at this point, that’s in some ways up to readers. The book has just been out a couple of weeks. It’s been amazing to see all the responses. Personally, I am of two minds of it. On the one hand, I would love to write more adventures with these women. I have more mysteries I would love for them to solve. On the other hand, I wrote this book for a very idiosyncratic and personal reason. I also feel like it’s the first novel I’ve written and I’m so excited to explore other women and other settings and other ways to kill people. (laughs) I’m hopeful that there will be a lot of novels in my future. If these characters are part of some of them, that would be amazing. But at this point, we’re enjoying the connection and getting to finally share this book out in the world.

Oh, I love that. So would you be interested in sticking with the mystery genre?

Definitely. I think that my interest is in the broad world of crime fiction and strong women. I feel confident that there will be some dead bodies and there will be some smart women working together and kicking butt. But beyond that, I think that I’ve really been enjoying exploring a lot of different ideas for what might come next.

Finally, what role the public library has played in your life?

Oh, my gosh, I mean, public libraries have been a huge part of my life, both personally and professionally. I am one of those kids who went to the library and went to the nonfiction section. It started at 000 and I was like, “I’m gonna do all of this.” I don’t know if the Dewey Decimal people were aware of this or not, but it starts with these very thick philosophy books. I was in fourth grade bringing home the collected works of Aristotle. (laughs) It did slow my ardor for that initial impulse, but I’ve always been a huge library user.

I admit that in elementary school, I was that nerdy, weird kid who spent lunch in the school library. Then as an adult, I started working in museums. I was working with museums and public libraries around this question of how can we invite people from all walks of life, all races, all backgrounds, to really feel welcome and to feel that this is a resource for them? When I was a museum director, I would often say to my team that my dream is for us to make museums as open and welcoming and democratic as public libraries are. I really believe in that idea that especially today in the United States, it is a radical, beautiful thing to have this public resource. I do not take it for granted. A lot of the work I’ve done professionally over the last ten years has been with public librarians around this very serious question about how we continue to ensure that these incredible places stay public and can be for everyone. That’s so important to me.

Also just on a personal level, you know how some people, their personal mission is to introduce everybody to their favorite pizza place or whatever? It is my personal mission, especially when I meet friends who are in their twenties, who are new to town, to get them a library card. I cannot tell you how many friends I’ve met who think it costs money or that it’s going to be hard or whatever. And I love, love, love when friends tell me, “Now I’m using Libby” or “Do you know you can reserve books in advance and pick them up?” I’m a huge public library user and honestly, one of my biggest dreams for Mother-Daughter Murder Night is that someday it’ll be on the Lucky Day shelf at my local Santa Cruz Public Library.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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