.Murder for a Smile

Author Nina Simon wrote a bestseller to cheer up her ailing mother

Sarina Simon, Nina’s mother, is sitting in the treatment center, receiving a chemotherapy infusion for her Stage 4 lung cancer. She has an inspiration and calls her daughter. “Nina, I figured out a great way to kill this guy, a poisonous frog in Elkhorn Slough.”

Sarina’s voice stops and Nina hears commotion.

“Mom? Are you still there?”

“Still here honey. The nurses got a little concerned by what I was saying.”

If you’re planning to read the New York Times bestseller, Mother-Daughter Murder Night, the murder weapon is not a poison frog. Nina says, “There probably aren’t poison frogs in Elkhorn Slough, but that’s the great thing about writing a novel, you create the world you want.”

secure document shredding

In 2020, Nina Simon, former director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and founder of a global non-profit, stopped working to care for her mother after the cancer diagnosis. Nina’s self-described “type-A personality” had to shift from her juggernaut non-profit career to sleeping in the same bed with her mother, trying to get her to drink a milkshake. They both loved murder mysteries, Sarina had started Nina out on Nancy Drew Mystery Stories in junior-high school. They started re-reading their favorite murder mysteries together to make their lives about more than arguments over protein shakes.

Nina wrote her first draft lying in bed beside her mom and says her mother reviewed every page. The bonding experience would have been enough, but then Nina decided she wanted the book published. It rocketed to the top of the New York Times Best Seller List, became the Reese Witherspoon Book of the Month and is read around the world, translated into Spanish, German, Hebrew, Polish and Japanese. It was recently named Best Mystery of 2023 by the California Independent Booksellers Association.

The Two Arc Tale

Mother-Daughter Murder Night tells the tale of Lana Rubicon, a Los Angeles real-estate mogul who discovers she has cancer and must move to Elkhorn Slough to live with her daughter Beth and 15-year-old granddaughter Jack. Jack discovers the body of a dead man in the slough. When she is accused of the murder, her force-of-nature grandmother, cancer treatments and all, goes on the hunt for the real killer.

Nina says her book is “two stories smushed together.” It is both a murder mystery and a book about the relationships between three women. The heart of the novel is founded in mother-daughter-granddaughter-hood, porous connections for the author’s dive into generational bonding. It’s the heart of the story and we get from the outset that this tale of three generations searching for each other comes from the author’s heart.

Nina gives Lana and Beth plenty of chasm to fill; in the beginning, after the powerful Lana falls and can’t get up, she decides against calling her nurse-daughter Beth, and before dialing 911, she calls her secretary to reschedule a meeting.

The battle between Beth and her mother engulfs all three women. The 15-year-old Jack strains towards her freedom and on a day when her mother’s “familiar warmth of concern felt too hot, too smothering, Jack knew what she had to do.”

Beth muses to Jack about her grandmother, “She uses people, you know, your Prima. When I was little, she would pinch me so I would cry, and we could skip the line at the airport. Everyone is just an employee to her, in service to her goals.”

Jack knows what freedom smells like, saltwater spray and motor oil. As she rides her bike, she dreams of having a boat that she will sail away on.

“It would be magic. Freedom! Her sweatshirt billowed in the wind, and she allowed herself to imagine for a moment that the fabric was a sail.”

NOT SISTERS Her mom Serina Simon has recovered and Nina Simon is a best-selling author. The murder mystery takes place at the Elkhorn Slough. Photo: Bill Skinner

Nina’s Audience

Nina Simon, wearing jeans and a black tee shirt, voice slightly hoarse and looking every bit like she had spent the weekend in the sun playing volleyball, looks over the Santa Cruz High School library filled with her adoring, female fans.

“Like I told my mom, ‘I want to write a story where women are all the good guys and men are all the bad guys and dead people.’”

The all-ages crowd of women erupts into cheers.

I asked the event’s producer, librarian/English-teacher Veronica Zaleha, “Why do you like Mother-Daughter Murder Night?”

“I like this book because it’s got three strong female characters. I really identified with them because at each stage of life they have their own flaws and foibles, you could see their vulnerabilities in the way they interact with one another. It’s a fun, who-dunnit mystery read, but it also deals with land-use issues and… well, with feminism.”

“What feminist issues?”

“The grandmother, Lana, felt she needed to direct her daughter Beth to use her womanly wiles to get information. When Lana heard Jack quote, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick,’ Lana pointed out to her granddaughter that no one gives women a big stick.”

“So, what’s the answer?”

Veronica laughs and throws her head back, “Be loud!” She looks down at her copy of the novel, “These three women, since I finished reading the book, I’ve missed them.”

In the Santa Cruz High School library, Nina starts with why she wrote the book.  

“I never expected to write this novel. In high school I cared about playing water polo and math and science, because that is the only way I could become an engineer for NASA. And after I got my degree, I did get that dream job at NASA. Six months into my job, I hated it. On the weekends I was cleaning exhibits at a museum and making masks for three-year-olds, and I loved it. So, I made the phone call that no Jewish mother from LA wants to hear, ‘Yes mom, I’m going to quit my engineering job and make puppet masks for 3-year-olds.’

I worked in museums for a long time designing exhibits, first in Washington, D.C. and then I moved here to Santa Cruz in 2007, and a few years later, took over running the MAH. I started writing about how we can make museums more interactive, more relevant. I wrote two non-fiction books about museums and cultural classes, self-published.

I decided to leave the MAH a year after Abbott Square opened, to start a global nonprofit to work with organizations around the world, museums, libraries, parks, theaters, that wanted to embrace the community we had created at the MAH. At 39 years old I found what I wanted to do, and it was this non-profit activist work. And then, two years later, in the fall of 2020, I got a phone call that changed everything.”

The call no Jewish daughter wants to hear.

A neurologist told Nina, “Your mother has a brain tumor, and she needs someone to help her. She has lung cancer, and tumors throughout her body.”

Nina says, “This was the fall of 2020. It was the first time in my life that I felt like it was not my choice what I was going to do next in my life, and instead of me driving the future I wanted, I was pulled to leave the thing I thought I wanted to build. I moved in with my mom in Los Angeles, and every day I was afraid my mom was going to die. Every day, my mom and I fought about whether she would eat. All we could talk about was, ‘could she drink more of the milkshake and what time do we have to go to the doctor?’ We were lucky to be together, but we were not doing great. We needed something else to talk about.”

HAPPY ENDING Nina and Sarina Simon celebrate good health and good fortune. Photo: Bill Skinner

Making mom the hero

“We needed a project. My mom and I have always loved murder mysteries. When she got sick, I thought, ‘OK, let’s reread those old books.’ And then one day I turned to her and said, ‘What if I tried writing a murder mystery? What if I made the hero, the lead detective, someone like you?’ And that’s where Mother-Daughter Murder Night was born. All I was thinking was how could I write a scene that would make my mom smile.”

Nina says that her mom is always afraid that people are going to think that she’s a bitch because of how Lana is. “No, no, no. Lana is the super-hero version. While my mom was stuck in bed, Lana was leaping out of bed. While my mom was getting pushed around by the doctors, Lana was pushing the doctors around. I was writing this character as a fantasy of what I wanted to happen. I wanted my mom to be well, I wanted us to be together.”

“Why a murder mystery?”

“I felt I knew murder mysteries, I knew the structural elements, there has got to be a dead body in the first 50 pages, and you gotta resolve it at the end, and then you can figure it out in between. My mom introduced me to the Elkhorn Slough. She came up to visit one time and went for a hike there. I went down there, during the pandemic and got into paddleboarding in Elkhorn Slough. I needed ways to get out in nature. It was natural and industrial; the conflict was great for a murder.”

“When did it become a commercial project?”

“The whole first draft I wrote in six months, sitting by my mom. Writing it for her. Writing it for us. It would have been enough for this to be an intimate project for just her and I. It took us away from the stress and fear. I loved the writing and after the first draft, I said, ‘I’m going to commit to trying to get this published.’ I went to all my favorite books to try to figure it out. I had wonderful friends read it and tell me what worked and what didn’t. Cleaned it up as good as I could. And then I knew I had to get an agent.”

The literary agent pitch

Nina says, “The way you get an agent is to write a 300-word email describing your book. You say, this is like X meets Y. In my case it was the Gilmore Girls meets Only Murders in The Building. I submitted the manuscript to 40 agents. I think about 12 of them made me offers of representation, and I went with Stefanie Lieberman. She said, ‘I love this book, but we need to make it better so we can sell it.’ She put me through three more edits, and eight months later said, ‘It’s done. Now, you need to forget about the book and start writing another one.’”

Publishing houses divided

“I was getting on a plane to go to the woods with my husband when Stefanie called and said publishers want to buy the book. They all wanted to buy it, but they all had a different vision for it.
‘Love the mystery, I feel mixed about the family part. Let’s cut down on the family part to speed it up.’

The next publisher I would talk to would say, ‘Love the family. Not so crazy about the mystery, let’s backseat the mystery and let’s really make this a family drama.’

We went with Liz Stein who said, ‘I have a vision that we can do both, the family side and the mystery side.’ We locked in July. The publisher had to test market the book, send it out to the Reese Witherspoons of the world. I just waited. They needed to get a buzz around the book. Will Good Morning America want it? Will the Book of the Month Club want it? For the first few months of that, no. No, no, pass, pass, pass. We started thinking, ‘Maybe this will be a quiet book. Maybe they paid too much for it. Maybe we’ll be lucky to sell ten thousand copies and then we’ll be done.’

Two months before the book was to come out, I got a call from my editor. I was nervous that they were going to pull the book, that they decided I’m a fraud, that this is no good. My editor said, ‘I just got the call that this has been chosen for the Reese Witherspoon Book Club’s Book of the Month for September.’ Then I knew the book was going to be big.”

PADDLE ON From museum director to author, Nina Simon has reached astonishing success. Photo: Carson Nicodemus

Advice to young writers

“You have to find a question that fires you up. The core arc around my story’s family side is the question, ‘When do you need other people? And when do you do things for yourself?’ The second thing is you have to find a scaffold that you can work with. I chose murder mysteries because I like them, but also, because the outline is laid out for you; dead body in the beginning, solve it in the end.”

“What makes this book so commercially interesting?”

“I got lucky. There is this current micro trend around warm hearted and humorous mysteries. Books were coming out that hit this very unusual, sweet spot that is in this crossover between warmth and coziness and humor and murder. Mother-Daughter Murder Night came at the right time when publishers were looking for more books like that. I think if it was 10 years ago, when everything was about Gone Girl and unreliable narrator twisty thrillers, I do not think a sweet, comforting murder mystery like this would have gotten the same kind of interest that it gets now.”

“How does all this make you feel?”

“The predominant feeling I experienced in the first few weeks after launch was not delight. It was overwhelming. But I feel lucky that it happened, a total gift. This whole story came out of the terror and crisis of my mom getting sick. My mom’s doing terrific now, and so I feel like we have had a dream path with this book. It started out as a nightmare; I’m so, so grateful about it.”

Next

In the final moments of the Q & A at the Santa Cruz High School library, woman after woman would tell Nina how close they felt to the three protagonists and expressed wistful longings for a sequel. But Nina said she is tussling with a new question for her next book.

“Now I’m working on a book about the question of ‘Can you have extraordinary impact in a field of science and be a mom? Or to be a clinical, career person, do you need to strip everything else out of your life?’ These questions are very potent for me, on a scary, deeper level, that fire me up. So, I know I’m not going to get tired of these questions. A new novel is a three-year process, I need to follow my passionate, personal question.”

Nina Simon will be giving a free talk at the Belmont Branch of the San Mateo County Public Library on Sunday, February 25th at 2 pm. Details at ninaksimon.com.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I loved this book and its setting in Elkhorn Slough! It helped me see our local landscape in a new way. Thanks Nina!

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