Updated: Aug 26, 2019
People of Charlotte, meet writer Cathy Pickens! Cathy is well known for her Avery Andrews Southern Fried Mystery series. She has a fascinating, just released (nonfiction) book that will appeal to anybody interested in true crime. In Charlotte True Crime Stories, she takes the reader through some of Charlotte’s most captivating crimes—occurring over the past century. When she’s not writing, Cathy spends time teaching at Charlotte Lit and volunteering with several organizations.
Now let's get to know Cathy's story!
How long have you lived in Charlotte?
I moved to Charlotte from upstate South Carolina in the early 1980s. I was a small-town girl and, frankly, thought this would be a temporary stopover. But the research suggests that living in a city allows for more happy accidents and exchanges that lead to more creativity—and that’s proven true for me here in Charlotte.
What’s your favorite thing about living here?
The relationships, the experiences, the connections over the last 30-plus years are my favorite parts of Charlotte. And the trees.
Can you discuss your long career as a professor at Queens University of Charlotte?
Teaching in the McColl School of Business was one of those magnificent happy accidents for me. I started as an adjunct professor in the adult evening program, served for five years as provost, and, for 30 years, taught mostly MBA and Executive MBA students and adults returning to finish their degrees. I taught law and ethics and, later, an elective on developing your own creative process.
What did you enjoy most about teaching?
Charlotte has an endlessly renewable flow of smart, motivated, creative, public-minded young people calling this place home. Teaching was a wonderful way to meet lots of them and learn from them and watch the difference they would make in Charlotte and elsewhere. A dream job!
Tell us about your path to true crime writing.
From my days reading Nancy Drew, I’d always wanted to be a mystery writer. In learning all I thought was necessary to be the best mystery writer possible (including going to law school), I found myself among law enforcement folks, forensics specialists, prosecutors and defense lawyers, victims and accused people.
Eventually, I had to admit that those were stories I wanted to tell—that real life was compelling and rich and better than what I could make up.
For several years, I’ve written a column for Mystery Readers Journal, an international quarterly that focuses on mystery fiction; I provide the true crime backdrop for each issue’s theme. A few years ago, I also wrote for History Press a quirky little ghost-and-mystery walking tour of Charleston: Charleston Mysteries.
What can you tell us about your newest work?
Most recently, I gathered some of my favorite Charlotte crime stories into a book for History Press: Charlotte True Crime Stories. Some of the stories will be familiar to long-time Charlotteans, but I hope some of the details will be new for them. For newcomers, I don’t want to cover anything lurid or painful, but I do think crime represents an important part of the fabric of any city. Those stories let us see people at their worst, but also at their best. And, for me, it’s interesting to see how past misdeeds have shaped some of what we know about Charlotte today.
Any plans for other true crime books?
Currently, I’m working on a book on Eastern North Carolina crimes with History Press, and we have plans for books on the Triad/Triangle areas and on Western North Carolina. This state just has lots of good crime stories to tell.
You’re involved with Charlotte Lit. What makes it such a great place?
For anyone interested in writing, whether as a beginner or a seasoned pro, Charlotte Lit is a must-know place. Housed in a lovely old school building in Plaza Midwood, Charlotte Lit offers classes, studio space, and community conversations for those who love words.
What upcoming classes will you be teaching at Charlotte Lit?
September 26, 6:00 – 8:30 p.m. Fellow writer Wanda Craig (writing as Raegan Teller) and I will talk about publishing options: New York house, small press, indie publishing.
March 12, 6:00 – 8:30 p.m. CREATE! session on developing your own creative process. [Check out charlottelit.org for registration.]
I also coach in their Authors Lab year-long program, which starts in January each year. And I take lots of classes there—always something new to learn, from both the faculty and the other writers around the table. As you can tell, I’m enthusiastic about what co-directions Kathie Collins and Paul Reali have created there.
You've also been involved with helping people to reframe and reclaim their lives, through writing and other creative work. Can you share a little about that work?
I like how you phrased that: reframe and reclaim. I loved teaching and, quite unexpectedly, found myself working for a time with inmates in the Mecklenburg County Jail in both entrepreneurship and creative writing classes.
As you ask about it, I’m aware how my life does indeed look like a series of rambles, wanderings, and happy accidents. Some of them don’t seem connected, though they are. When I left my long-time endowed professorship at Queens, I didn’t have a road map—certainly not one that would lead me first to jail, then to working friendships with writers in prison and entrepreneurship classes at Goodwill (with Center for Community Transitions) and now with the women at Dove’s Nest. Things just morphed and developed over the last few years.
Again, back to those unexpected connections and happy accidents from living in a city like Charlotte. In each of those places, I’ve met some incredibly smart, creative people from whom I’ve learned a lot. My goal is to create an inviting playground where others can re-discover their own creativity and tell their own stories.
Why do you think that tapping into our creativity can have such a positive effect on so many aspects of our lives?
I believe we’re hardwired to create. My faith tells me we were created in the image of our creator. If that’s true, wouldn’t we all also have the power and desire to create?
Not just for those who have had set-backs and hardships, but for all of us, it’s important to remember what it was like to be a child when imagination was encouraged, to again enjoy risk-taking and openness and exploration and wonder and delight, all things that help us live our lives more fully.
In my first formal foray into exploring the creative process with my business students, I studied everything I could find on the nature and development of creativity. Finding ways to encourage others to remember their creative selves has been the most fun I’ve had, as a writer and a teacher. The book drawn from that decade of work—CREATE!—will be available in a few months from ICSC Press (International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY Buffalo State).