Susan McCormick is a writer and doctor who lives in Seattle. She graduated from Smith College and George Washington University School of Medicine, with additional medical training in Washington DC and San Francisco, where she lived in an elegant apartment building in Pacific Heights much like the one in the building. Susan served as a doctor in the U.S. Army for nine years before moving to the Pacific Northwest. In addition to the Fog Ladies series, she also wrote Granny Can’t Remember Me, a lighthearted picture book about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. She lives in Seattle with her husband, two sons, and giant Newfoundland dog, Albert.
Why did you choose San Francisco as the setting for your mystery series THE FOG LADIES and THE FOG LADIES: FAMILY MATTERS?
I loved San Francisco from the moment I saw it, the moment I climbed my first hill and saw the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. I loved the fog, I loved the water, I loved Union Square and Marina Green and everything in between. As my story took shape, the beautiful 1920s and 30s apartment buildings, like the one where I lived, became an obvious setting for a cozy murder mystery. Tenants of all ages live together and know each other’s secrets, all in an enclosed cozy-type setting, with a killer afoot and nowhere to hide.
How long did you live in San Francisco?
Three glorious years. I lived in the Marina and then in Pacific Heights. Rents weren’t as high then. It was idyllic. I lived in San Francisco for my medicine residency, I got married there, and I visit often because my brother still lives in Pacific Heights in an apartment he’s rented forever. My husband’s family lives in the Bay Area as well.
Did you get the idea for the book while you were living there, or after? How did the idea come about?
The idea came much later, though it came all at once, fully formed, so it’s possible it had been quietly fomenting for years, this apartment building where tenants start to die and the killer is among them. The name of the group of ladies, the Fog Ladies, popped into my head as I thought about my old lady characters and their special bond of friendship. When I lived in San Francisco, I heard on the radio every day: Early morning fog burning off by midday. So young Sarah in the book says you can count on the ladies just like you can count on the early morning fog.
What are some of the qualities of the city that make it such a fine setting for a mystery novel?
For my particular mystery, San Francisco’s fine old apartment buildings provide the perfect setting for a cozy. Apartment living, where everyone might know everything about everyone else and where tenants may have known each other and each other’s secrets for years, is rife for a who-dun-it. Add fog and foghorns, earthquakes and aftershocks, and you have the perfect city for a mystery.
Your protagonist in THE FOG LADIES, Sarah James, is a medical intern. How did your own experience in medicine shape and inform your creating this character?
Medical training is very hard, yet ultimately it is incredibly special and an honor to serve our patients, and I tried to show that through Sarah. In my current job, I am very involved with teaching our medical interns and residents. I see their struggles and I can easily remember mine. Just like Sarah, I have eaten Cheerios for dinner, been thrown up on, gone without sleep and felt sorry for myself, only to have a patient’s true medical problems put everything into perspective. In the first book, Sarah makes a mistake at the hospital and a man dies. I have never had anything like that happen to me, but I do feel the weight of responsibility knowing that my actions can have grave consequences. In the second book, Sarah grapples with her emotions in the face of patients dealing with unfathomable situations, and I definitely have felt like Sarah.
How does your work as a physician inform and influence your writing? Do you think there are any similarities between writing a novel and practice medicine—and if so, what are the similarities?
For both professions, you have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. And, just like I listen to understand with my patients, I had to listen to my characters, as some of them had different ideas about what was going to happen to them than I did. One of my characters, Enid Carmichael, discovers Starbucks lattes at the ripe old age of eighty. She loves the bitterness, the froth. I wrote that. Then she craved more, and the next thing I knew, she was stealing Starbucks coupons from her neighbor’s newspaper to feed her addiction. I never intended for her to steal. She did that. Not me.
What is your process for writing? Where do you write? When do you write?
My writing schedule is dictated by my life. I feel I can only write when I have a long period of uninterrupted time. With a family, husband, two boys and enormous dog, plus the doctor job, those chunks of time are often in the early morning hours when my family is still asleep. I creep downstairs in the dark and write in the dark and write while the sun comes up and finish when my family wakes up. Our big, slobbery, furry Newfoundland dog, Albert, creeps down with me in the dark and is my constant writing companion.
Did you ever entertain the idea of setting the book in another city? Why or why not?
When you read the first book, you will come to a point when you will realize that the book could not have been set anywhere else besides San Francisco. The city is crucial to the story. In the second book, a vacation to the California coastline around Big Sur plays a role, so, again, San Francisco is key.