You’re Booked speaks to Catherine Ryan Howard, author of The Liar’s Girl…
What is your writing process? What does your typical day, when writing, look like?
I am a terrible procrastinator – or, rather, a very, very good one – so most of my writing gets done in a caffeine-induced fever dream in the days and weeks before my deadline. I always joke that if I were to write a productivity guide, it’d have to be called Don’t Start Until It’s Already Too Late. This approach means that when I’m writing, I’m only writing, because I have to pull out all the stops and cancel all excursions into the Outside World in order to get the thing in on time (or, um, shortly thereafter). So I fall out of bed, turn on the coffee machine and go straight to my desk, and then I stay there for as long as I can.
Was there a particular incident or person that provided the inspiration for The Liar’s Girl? Where did the idea come from?
The idea came from a 2013 article in GQ about Thomas Quick who, at one time, was believed to be Sweden’s most prolific serial killer (‘The Serial Killer Has Second Thoughts’ by Chris Heath). It wasn’t even the article itself that struck me, but the little introductory paragraph in bold at the top. It said: ‘In a remote psychiatric hospital in Sweden, there is a man known as Thomas Quick who has been convicted of unspeakable crimes. Over the course of multiple trials, he would tell his brutal stories—of stabbings, stranglings, rape, incest, cannibalism—to almost anyone who would listen. Then, after his eighth and final murder conviction, he went silent for nearly a decade. In the last few years, though, he has been thinking about all he has said and done, and now he has something new to confess: He left out the worst part of all.’ The last line gave me chills and I thought, if I picked up a book in a bookshop and that was the blurb, I would run to the till with it, because I would simple have to know what the worst part was. Two and a bit years later, when I met my editor at Corvus for the first time and she asked me about Book 2, I told her this. The Liar’s Girl is a very different story to that of Thomas Quick, but that’s where it all began.
Have you always been a writer? Was novel-writing something you’d always known you would do?
Yes, absolutely. I was making up stories before I could spell the words I needed to write them and I was always the girl who relished getting set English essays for homework but completely ignored the rest of it. I keep a picture on my desk of 8-year-old me, one pigtail on either side, taken one Christmas morning, where I’m enthralled by the typewriter Santa has brought me while Barbie’s Big Magic Van sits off to one side.
How do your characters develop? Do you find that your characters take on a life of their own when you are writing? Or are you always completely in control of what they say and do?
Characterisation for me comes second, after plot. My first draft is all about getting the story down, checking everything plot-wise works, etc. and then my second draft is examining or exploring the people the plot is happening to. When other writers say their characters surprise them, take on a life of their own, take control, etc. etc. I smile and nod like I know what they’re talking about but inside I’m thinking, ‘You should maybe see someone about that…’ The characters do exactly what I tell them to do when I tell them to do it, no more and no less – I’m the typist!
Where do you draw inspiration from for your settings and characters?
I think the writing advice ‘write what you know’ should actually be ‘use what you know’. I try to re-purpose as much as I can from my own knowledge, experience, etc. and would always opt for that over, say, researching something completely unknown to me. For instance, in my debut, Distress Signals, one of my characters was a cabin attendant on a cruise ship – because I was once a housekeeping supervisor in a hotel in Walt Disney World, charged with double-checking 100 rooms per day, which in principle isn’t that different. The Liar’s Girl takes place in a fictional Dublin university; I was a (mature) student at Trinity College Dublin at the time I was writing it. And all the action takes place in and along the Grand Canal, which is close to where I live.
When you are not writing, what do you do to relax? What types of books do you read for pleasure?
I travel as much as I can and watch far more TV (and movies) than a person should but, hey, I love stories and story-telling and some of the best story-telling is happening on screen right now. Crime fiction is my passion so I do read mostly that, although I try to avoid it when I’m writing my own in case of transference (or despair, if they’re really, really good!). I also read a lot of non-fiction. If I read a book about something interesting, I tend to go and read all the other books I can find about it too. Hence my Doping In Professional Cycling, Climbing Mount Everest and The Early Days of Microsoft phases… I also read a lot of true crime and I’m mildly obsessed with NASA’s Apollo missions and have a whole library of reads about that. The more you read about the Apollo missions, the more awestruck and inspired you become. Gene Cernan of Apollo 17 says we should take ‘impossible’ out of the dictionary because he lived and worked on the moon for 3 days (and drove around its surface in a car, and did it nearly fifty years ago) so how can anything be?
Now The Liar’s Girl has been published, what will the following year have in store for you?
I’ve just finished a draft of Rewind, my next book, which hopefully will be out in Autumn 2019. It was inspired by an image I saw on PostSecret.com of a hotel room, on which someone had written their secret: ‘I trade hidden sex-cam footage with other Air B&B hosts.’ Instantly I thought, what if you were doing that, not because you were a terrible person but because you were a desperate one who needed the money, and one night, you captured a murder? The book has an unusual structure and I’ve really enjoyed writing it, so I’m very much looking forward to seeing that hit the shelves.