Nina Simon on Mystery, Murder, and the Unusual Jewish Mother

Unraveling the snarled connections between three generations of women forms the basis of Mother-Daughter Murder Night (William Morrow, $30) and when Jack, the youngest of the three, discovers a dead body while kayaking, familial tensions rise and simmer.  Debut novelist Nina Simon talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how she came to write this sharp, taut tale that starts with a death but morphs into an unexpected celebration of life. 

YZM: After having worked as a NASA engineer, slam poet, game designer, nonprofit CEO and inclusive arts activist, you turned to novel writing—why, and why now? 

NS: I never expected to write a novel. Then, in fall of 2020, my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. I quit my nonprofit CEO job to support her through treatment. We were lucky to be together, but it was a scary, stressful time. We desperately needed a distraction—something that wasn’t cancer—to give us hope.

My mom and I have always loved murder mysteries, and I’ve always loved writing. So, I decided to try to write a story with someone like her—a tough, smart California businesswoman—as the hero. We brainstormed about the story and the characters in chemo clinics and hospital waiting rooms. I wrote, and she read, and we both got stronger through it. 

As the project went on, I discovered it was more than just a source of shared comfort and healing. I found myself captivated by the challenges and puzzles involved in writing a great story, and I decided to embrace writing fiction in the next chapter of my career. 

YZM: Lana is not a typical Jewish mother; can you talk about how she goes against type? 

NS: When I think of the typical Jewish mother, I think of someone who demands others’ attention while denying her own power. Lana certainly wants everyone’s attention, but she’d never present herself as weak. She’s more aggressor than victim—both by nature and as a survival strategy in the male-dominated world of real estate development. 

I grew up around Jewish women a bit like Lana. My mom was a smart, tough LA businesswoman who pushed to be respected as a technology executive in the 90s. She worked long hours to provide for me and my sister. Many of her friends were also divorced career women giving everything to their families. 

Lana Rubicon has a selfishness my mom didn’t exhibit. But I like to imagine a world where my mom and her friends wouldn’t have had to be so selfless. I like to imagine the possibility of a Jewish mother who can be wholly herself, hold others to high standards, and love deeply at the same time. That’s what I see in Lana.

“I like to imagine the possibility of a Jewish mother who can be wholly herself, hold others to high standards, and love deeply at the same time. That’s what I see in Lana.”

YZM: How and why does Lana’s relationship with her daughter change over the course of the novel? 

NS: Lana and her daughter Beth are both strong women in very different ways. Both are hard workers who bust through barriers to build the lives they want. But the life Lana pursues is one of fierce independence, whereas Beth seeks harmony and interdependence. At the beginning of the book, neither of them respects the other’s choices. Lana chafes against the need to rely on her daughter after surgery, feeling useless and invisible. Beth is hurt by her mother’s cruel judgments, unsure if she can trust her mother to fully enter her heart and home. They are forced together by one external crisis—Lana’s cancer—but they come to understand and depend on each other as they face another crisis—the murder next door. By the end of the book, they don’t fully agree. But they do respect each other, and they are moving towards a deeper, more loving relationship.

As I wrote this book, I was processing my own transition from being a Lana—a hard-charging CEO—to being a Beth, caring for my mom through cancer treatment. Writing the relationship between Lana and Bath helped me work out the tension I felt between my long-held identity as an ambitious driver and my emerging identity as a caregiver. Like Lana, I had to learn that needing others isn’t a sign of weakness, and caring for others isn’t a lesser pursuit. These are lessons I’m still learning and grappling with in my own life. 

YZM: Let’s talk about the west coast town that is the main setting for the story—it seems like a place you know and love. 

NS: Mother-Daughter Murder Night takes place in the Monterey Bay, on the shore of a national marine preserve called Elkhorn Slough. As a first-time novelist, it seemed too daunting to set the story in a place I didn’t know. But I also wasn’t comfortable putting it exactly where I live. So I set it in this spooky, beautiful wetland 40 minutes south of my forest home.  

Elkhorn Slough is a special place for both me and my mom. We both love hiking there. When my mom got sick, I often went paddleboarding there to clear my head. It has many “classic” features of coastal central California: ocean, fog, sea lions, and otters. But it’s also a working-class area, with sea animals frolicking between a marina, a power plant, abandoned dairies, and farms. It has a wildness and grittiness that feels perfect for a murder mystery.

YZM: Environmental concerns are a part of the story—is this a cause that’s close to your heart? 

NS: I’m about as eco-hippie as they get: I live off the grid in a small cabin in the woods, compost all my own waste, bike everywhere, and don’t eat meat. While I’m passionate about the environment, I deliberately didn’t put my personal choices directly in the novel. I wanted to write a book that felt fun, not preachy. I especially enjoyed writing characters who don’t share my values. It was a fun challenge to try to empathize with different perspectives on conservation and land politics, while hopefully also showing the deep beauty and value of wilderness.

YZM: Are you planning a sequel so we can keep up with Lana, Beth and Jack? 

NS: Mother-Daughter Murder Night is my first novel, and I wrote it for a very personal reason. While I do have dreams for Lana, Beth, and Jack—including at least one explicitly Jewish mystery—there are other stories I want to write as well. I hope I will have the opportunity to write many books, featuring many strong women, in my future.