Nina Simon, former director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and now author of "Mother-Daughter Murder Night"
Nina Simon, former director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and now author of “Mother-Daughter Murder Night.”
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
City Life

Nina Simon’s new path: A daughter’s story of love, told in the form of a murder mystery

Nina Simon, former director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, put her life and nonprofit leadership on pause in 2020 to care for her mother after a cancer diagnosis. What “started out completely like a fantasy or a distraction” evolved into “Mother-Daughter Murder Night,” a mystery novel she’ll discuss Tuesday at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

It’s a common story, a stage of life that many people have experienced or are now experiencing, and a few years ago, it happened to Nina Simon, too. A beloved parent gets upended by illness or injury, and the loving daughter or son interrupts their life to step up and offer physical, financial, logistical or, most important, emotional support.

Simon’s story, however, has a twist, stemming from an idea so creative, so fun and ultimately so healing that it should be considered by just about anyone who finds suddenly themselves in a caretaker role.

Simon — yes, the same Nina Simon who was a transformational Santa Cruz arts leader as the director of the downtown Museum of Art & History — was thrust into that role when her mom, Sarina Simon, received a serious cancer diagnosis.

“I just had a wake-up moment where I felt like all I wanted to do was to care for her,” said Simon at a table in Abbott Square, a touchstone in downtown Santa Cruz that would probably not exist without her leadership at the MAH.

So in the fall of 2020 — smack-dab in the middle of the pandemic shutdown — she put on hold her job running a fast-growing nonprofit and hustled down to Los Angeles, where her mom lived. And it was there she came up with an idea to help her mother keep her spirits up through a daunting period of treatment. She decided to write a book, a mystery novel, for her mom.

“I started writing the book while she was in treatment, as a way to have something for me to do, and as a way to connect with her, to entertain both of us. She always loved murder mysteries. All I knew was that I wanted to be there for my mom,” Simon said. “And I felt creatively reawakened in some ways. It was something I could work on as hard as I wanted to. But I also close it at any time if she needed me, or if something different was needed.”

The result of that trying period in Simon’s life is “Mother-Daughter Murder Night” (Wm. Morrow), a lively mystery set to be released to bookstores Tuesday, which happens to be the same day that Simon will appear live and in person at Bookshop Santa Cruz, to celebrate the book’s publication. Expected to be there that evening will be her mom, Sarina (not in remission, according to her daughter, but “really stable”).

From 2011 to 2019, Simon sat the white-hot center of Santa Cruz’s arts culture as the director of the MAH, almost completely reengineering the museum’s image, its purpose and its orientation to the public. She also led the effort to create Abbott Square as a downtown gathering place. After leaving the MAH, she founded the nonprofit Of/By/For All, which helps organizations around the world be more inclusive and relevant.

In both roles, Simon was essentially dealing with people constantly — employees, board members, media, clients, artists, donors, people who liked her, people who didn’t. She cited burnout as a primary reason for leaving the MAH. Then, in a dramatic turnaround that mirrors many people’s experience with the pandemic, she is facing only a blank page and the limits of her own imagination.

“I felt like I was at my breaking point as leader, as well,” she said. “So, for me, it was so huge to suddenly have this job where the only people I dealt with were imaginary. There were no emails, no meetings. If someone said something I didn’t like, I could just erase it and put in something else.”

“Mother-Daughter Murder Night” centers on the story of Lana Rubicon, an L.A. real-estate magnate who has to suddenly move north to Elkhorn Slough, where she will live under the roof of her daughter Beth and 15-year-old granddaughter Jack while receiving treatment. Soon after, Jack discovers the body of a dead man in the slough. When the girl is accused of the murder, it’s up to her no-nonsense force-of-nature grandmother to find the real killer.

Simon said she was as interested in writing about female familial relationships as she was in the mystery itself. She said that both she and her mom were students of the mystery genre, both in literature and through TV shows like “Monk” or “Columbo.” When she decided to write her own mystery, she brought in her mom as a kind of collaborator.

Nina Simon, former director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and now author of "Mother-Daughter Murder Night"
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It started out completely like a fantasy or a distraction, like some families in a health crisis might plan a trip around the world or something. For us, it was, let’s imagine a murder mystery. So we would spend hours in her bed, in hotels, in hospital waiting rooms just talking about who these characters were,” she said. “I was actually a little embarrassed that we spent so much time talking about characters before I ever wrote anything. But later that really paid off, because when I felt I really knew who these characters were when I started to write them.”

Sarina was also heavily involved in the architecture of the mystery, laying the groundwork for the whodunit. She would even sometimes call her daughter from chemotherapy treatments with new ideas about the book and its characters.

“She would say, ‘This is the one good thing to come out of cancer,’” said Simon. “I love this idea that the poet Donald Hall talks about, the ‘third thing’ in a marriage or a partnership that you spend most of your time talking about. So for us, cancer had been the topic of every conversation. We could not minimize it or forget about it, but we could turn to this other thing. And so it led to the fact that we’d still talk every day, but now instead of only talking about what she was eating, how was she feeling, or the pills and all this stuff, we could be talking about, ‘Well, what happened next?’ and, ‘I didn’t like when she said this,’ and talking about this story. It was something that was fun and a joy for us to talk about rather than something we felt like had been thrust upon us and that was not fun to talk about.”

Simon, 42, still lives near Santa Cruz with her husband, housing activist Sibley Simon, and their daughter. Writing the novel and caring for her mother has sidelined her career as a nonprofit leader, and has brought her to a reckoning of what she wants to do with her life going forward.

“I have a lot of passions for a lot of different things. And I love going wholeheartedly into something new,” she said.” Do I think I’ll be a novelist forever? Probably not. Do I think that there are a ton of challenges and interesting things I want to explore with writing novels? Absolutely. So I think for the next few years, this is what I’m oriented towards, and we’ll see what happens.”

Nina Simon will appear at Bookshop Santa Cruz to read from and talk about “Mother-Daughter Murder Night” on Tuesday, Sept. 5. The event begins at 7 p.m. It’s free.

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