I’ve been following Cork author Catherine Ryan Howard’s blog on writing for a few years. As someone who self-published several non-fiction books, she knew what she was talking about and shared it in a very entertaining way.
Today (May 5) sees the launch of her first traditionally published thriller. In Distress Signals, a young man finds out that his girlfriend has gone missing from a cruise liner. But has she disappeared of her own accord or is there something more sinister afoot? In an impressive vote of confidence, the book has already been optioned by the team behind BBC2’s Line of Duty.
Although she has understandably been chasing her tail in the run-up to the launch, Catherine took time to speak to me about traditional versus self-publishing, crime writing versus comic non-fiction, and the merits of latte versus espresso.
Firstly, congratulations on the release of Distress Signals. You started out writing comic non-fiction. What brought about this departure into thrillers? And can we expect any humorous touches in Distress Signals, or are you wearing a completely different hat?
It was actually the mildly (?) humorous non-fiction that was the departure. Crime/thrillers are what I love to read, what I’ve been devouring since I discovered Patricia Cornwell when I was 12 or 13. (And before that, I was reading Point Horror and Christopher Pike, which in fairness, had a lot of murder in them as well!). But for some reason, I didn’t think I’d be able to write one of my own. It was always something I thought I’d do in the future, when I was older. Then I realised, hey, I am older! And also, I got what I thought was a good idea for one. There are definitely some ‘wry observations’ (my editor’s term for my jokes) in Distress Signals, but not too many because, as my editor said, “Catherine, people could be dead.”
Did your characters behave and do what you’d planned for them?
Yes. Otherwise we’d be in trouble, because I made them up. Plots may change as you write the book, but I always say if your characters genuinely surprise you, then you might want to seek professional help.
You’re shipping off to a desert island for ever more and can only take three books with you – what will they be?
Hmm. I’d take Jurassic Park, because I just love it – it’s pure escapist adventure – and I re-read it every year. Then I’d take Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, because it’s an utterly fantastic novel that makes me feel good about life, and I might need a little pick-me-up if I’m marooned on a desert island. Finally, I’d pack something I haven’t read that I doubt I’d ever get through if there was any alternative activity to amuse myself, so probably Ulysses or War and Peace or Bleak House, or something like that. Fun fact: I have exams coming up [Catherine is currently studying for a BA in English at Trinity College Dublin] that feature 2 of those 3 titles, so maybe I should book a trip to this island now…?
I understand you’re currently working on the first draft of your next book. Is it connected to Distress Signals or a stand-alone?
It’s another stand-alone. All I can say about it at this stage is that (a) it’ll be published by Corvus/Atlantic this time next year, and (b) it’s set on dry land.
Some time ago, you wrote a very entertaining (and reassuring) blog post about procrastination in writing what I presume was Distress Signals. Do you think this was because of a lack of confidence, or did it just take time for the plot to come together? And has the process been any easier with your current one?
I think procrastination is usually 90% fear and 10% laziness. I always say if I was to write a guide to productivity, it would be called Don’t Start Until It’s Already Too Late. Because a thriller was always what I’d wanted to write and what I loved. It was the first time something was really at stake. Like, if Mousetrapped [Catherine’s account of her time working in Walt Disney World, Florida] hadn’t worked out it would’ve been no big deal, because I’d wanted to write non-fiction for about 5 minutes. But if this hadn’t worked out, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. And that’s a lot of pressure.
Writing the current one has been no easier. It might be worse, because now there’s a legal contract involved and people waiting to read the book, and there’s this crushing weight of expectation: can I do it a second time? Pass the gin.
You successfully self-published your first three books. How different has the process been this time around with the backing of a publisher?
It’s totally different. You have a whole team working for you and your book, and you all want the same thing: to make the book as good as it possibly can be and to sell as many copies of it as possible. And you have access to all sorts of opportunities you just don’t have when you self-publish your book. Honestly, I thought I knew what went into publishing a book, but I only knew like 10% of it. You simply cannot recreate all this with a self-published book.
What’s the one thing you would advise an aspiring writer NOT to do?
Give up! Rejection doesn’t mean no, not in this business. Keep going. You only need one person to say yes.
Finally, as a world-famous coffeeista (think I’ve just invented that word) – latte or espresso as writing fuel?
My drug of choice is an extra hot venti wet (no foam) latte from Starbucks.
Catherine Ryan Howard was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1982. Prior to writing full-time, she worked as a campsite courier in France and a front desk agent in Walt Disney World, Florida, and most recently was a social media marketer for a major publisher.
Distress Signals is published on May 5 by Corvus/Atlantic in Ireland and the UK, June 2 in Australia and New Zealand. Details of North American publication later in 2016 coming soon.
You can read the first three chapters exclusively here