Katherine Howell: Thriller author

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Katherine HowellAfter 15 years working as a paramedic in Sydney, during which she completed her Bachelor and Masters degrees in creative writing, Katherine Howell decided it was high time she pursued her love of writing full time.

Dusting off the last of the four manuscripts she’d written over that time, the last of which became her first novel Frantic (published by Pan Macmillan in 2007), she drew on her time in the emergency services to craft what The Sydney Morning Herald dubbed “an adrenaline rush of a thriller”.

Her debut novel went on to win the 2008 Davitt Award for best crime fiction, and was followed by The Darkest Hour, Cold Justice (which won the 2011 Davitt Award making Katherine the only author to have won it twice), Violent Exposure and Silent Fear.

Her latest novel, Web of Deceit, sees the return of the very popular police detective Ella Marconi and the paramedics she regularly works with, and we sat down with her recently to discuss the book, the writing lessons she has learnt and what it takes to be a great writer.

Click play to listen. Running time: 24.54

webofdeceit

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Andrew
Thank you very much for joining us today, Katherine.

Katherine
Thank you for having me.

Andrew
We very much appreciate it. Now, one thing I noticed when I was doing a lot of my research was that you joked at one point that you’re an overnight success. And, it took you what? 15? 20 years?

Katherine
17 years.

Andrew
How do you go with that sort of long lead up to getting somewhere? I mean obviously writing is a joy in itself, but if you’ve got a goal, how do you stick to something like that when there’s this tantalising possible goal down the road?

Katherine
Well, it’s really interesting, because I think when you’re in that 17 years you don’t know that it’s 17 years, and I might have been discouraged if I knew at the start that was how long it was going to be. So, I think I found that with each manuscript I thought, “Oh, maybe this one…” “Maybe this one…” And I can look back now and see that no way in the world – they were just – they were so poor. But, I can also see that with each manuscript I got a little bit better, and a little bit better. So, I guess I must have felt along the way that I was slowly progressing.

And, also I’m just very stubborn. I thought, “Well, I’m just going to keep writing.” And even actually when the manuscript to Frantic went of Pan Mcmillian, one of my agents sent it off, I thought, “Well, if they don’t like I’ll just write something else.” So, I was just that determined to just keep going until I got published.

Andrew
That’s really a very good approach, and I suppose a very realistic one when you’ve just got to stick out something. But, I’d noticed you had said at another point too, that because Frantic was so successful, then – so, you’ve got your publishing deal Frantic does very nicely, you get a Davitt Award. So, that’s a very successful first novel, so then, obviously, the next novel, which is The Darkest Hour must have sort of been a little bit scary to write, did you have sophomore novel writing–

Katherine
Yes, I did. I did.

The other thing was, because I had spent five or so years writing Frantic, because it was a two-book deal, so even though I had started The Darkest Hour, I only had about 10,000 words written, so suddenly you’ve got this contract, “We want the next book in a year.” You’ve only just started it and you know you’re thinking, “Well, can I do it in – can I do it in a year? Can I do it again, was this a one-book wonder and that’s it for me?”

And, plus there’s all the promo for that first book, which is so thrilling and exciting, as it is for any book. But, it really distracted me much more than I thought it would, so I lost a fair bit of time of the year to that. And then add that to the nerves about, “Can I do it again?”

Andrew
Yeah. No, I can imagine it would be quite scary in a sense, because there’s a lot of pressure on you.

Katherine
But you also have the thing of… I mean as much as you want that contract in the first place, once you have it your desire to keep a hold of it is even stronger. So, you’re thinking, “If this book is no good, then that might be over.” So, yeah. You put all sorts of pressure on yourself.

Andrew
Oh, I can imagine it would. Did you console yourself by thinking, “Well, at least I’ve got that publishing deal,” or it is it really that desire to hang on to it and build on that, that almost takes over?

Katherine
Yeah, I found it did, because I thought, “Well, I know I want to do a series, I want to keep publishing.” So, you know, I just have to do the best job that I can and hope that it turns out OK.

Andrew
It’s actually interesting that you touched on the whole promo thing, because with a lot of the research that we do for the Writers’ Centre we’re finding that a lot of authors are finding that tension between the act of writing the book, and keeping in touch with their readers, whether it’s Twitter or Facebook. How have you found that sort of tension, or how have you accommodated that – the two tugs on your time?

Katherine
Pretty well. I have a Facebook page and I have Twitter account, but I don’t Tweet all that often. But, Facebook – I mean I’m on Facebook everyday anyway on my personal page. So, it’s a nice way to keep in contact with readers, I find. They will ask me questions on Facebook and I’ll reply, which feels really nice. They’ve said that it feels nice for them, but for me as well, because you’re bit of a hermit, really, you stay at home all day, just yourself and the cat and the dog. So, to have some contact with somebody out there is really nice.

Andrew
Yes. Well, I can imagine it would do, because, yes, I’ve done some writing myself, so you do tend to get in your little ivory castle.

Do you get a lot of responses from readers via those channels, because I mean people are saying that they feel a lot more connected to the person writing the book now. Do you get that from your readers, that they feel a lot more connected and a lot more free, I guess, to ask questions that possibly they may not have previously, or interact with you on levels they didn’t or might not have traditionally done?

Katherine
Well, I don’t know, because I mean I’ve had a website since I’ve started, so I’ve always had emails from readers. I guess through Facebook maybe it feels like a bit more immediate. Sometimes I might go online when a question comes in, so we’ll have a little chat about it, there and then.

Yes, I’m not really sure – I guess anything is good, so long as you don’t let it take over, and you still remember that the most important thing is the book. It doesn’t matter how many readers you have on Twitter, if you don’t write a good book – a book that they like – well, you know, they don’t do you any good if the book is no good.

Andrew
Right. No, exactly.

Now, I guess that brings us to the new book, Web of Deceit. Obviously, your books are very much Australian-centred. Now, I’ve been reading recently about what they’re calling, I think, the “homogenisation of culture and books” where they say a lot of authors are tending to write books that are very non-geographically or culturally specific, obviously to appeal to a wider international audience. Obviously, in reading Web of Deceit that’s very, very much a Sydney novel and obviously by extension an Australian novel. Have you come across that as a trend, or do you just simply write what you felt and you thought you’d let the cards fall where they may?

Katherine
I know what you mean because I have read crime novels that are set in no distinction place, so you could say to yourself, “Well, this is London…” “This is in Sydney…” “This is in New York…”  You don’t really know. So, I guess they’re thinking – either their focus is just on a story, or they are thinking about appealing to a wider audience.

Other people say to me, “Why didn’t you set it in the States? You could have a wider readership.” I know nothing about the States, I couldn’t do it realistically, and I would have had to go down that path of being so bland and non-specific that it could have been set anywhere.

But, for me, this is setting is just about where – this is where these characters are. As paramedics and policeman you’re out on the roads and on the streets, all the time, and you’re affected by the weather and that sort of thing. That, for me, is where setting comes in too. So, there was never a question of where I would set them, because Sydney is a place that I had worked as a paramedic. So, it made sense to me that here’s a city where you can have a lot of murders happening, as opposed to some other small rural areas were I’ve worked, you couldn’t sort of pulled it off there. Then the city also gives you scope to use over different areas, so you’ve got the inner-city and the harbour side, and then the suburbs as well.

Andrew
Yeah, well, it’s quite interesting the way the novel ranged across quite a broad geographic swathe of Sydney. But, it was interesting too watching it, almost being the third character. I mean you got Ella, obviously, doing her thing, and the paramedics coming in as well. But, then Sydney was almost another character. Did that just happen organically? I mean obviously the focus is on Ella, obviously, but did you have a sense that the city is as much apart of making this come alive as anything else, or –?

Katherine
As I said, only in the way that it affects the characters’ lives, their day to day of dealing with traffic and dealing with weather. And when you are a paramedic and you’re working out in the heat and the rain, and that sort of stuff, and how does that make you feel, and add to the problems that you’re already dealing with, really.

So, I’ve never been – I mean I love reading books where setting feels really large, like James Lee Burke’s American south and that sort of thing. But for me, I don’t like to – I enjoy his description, but I don’t like to put too much description in my books. I just keep it sort of as the minimum, like, “Here’s the back drop… this is where it is… but this is how it makes the characters feel as well…” that for me is the most important thing.

Andrew
OK. Now, Ella, obviously is the thread running through all six of the books, a lot of authors will speak about their characters as if they’re real people, have conversations with them when nobody is watching. Have you found that will Ella, is simply a character you write, or do you feel over six novels she’s become this flesh and blood creation that almost writes herself?

Katherine
She does feel real to me, so every time I start a new book it’s like sitting down with an old friend, “What have you been up to?” that sort of thing and hearing the stories that she has to tell.

I don’t feel really that she’s taken over, although when I am writing I – because I write by feel, so I think, “OK, what’s happening in this scene… oh, that doesn’t feel quite right.” So, I’ll rewrite it until it feels right, so I guess there is something there that’s guiding me, whether you can say it’s Ella herself…

But, it does feel funny that we all have these conversations about somebody that doesn’t actually exist, and sometimes it does hit me like, “Oh, she’s not really real…” Well, I guess she’s me, really, I suppose.

Andrew
Well, yes.

Katherine
It does feel strange.

Andrew
Exactly, but she must feel real, because I mean six books is a reasonably big investment of time. So, the characters must, at that point, come alive to some extent. So…

Katherine
Yeah.

Andrew
You’re not quite so bad after all. Now it’s interesting, I noticed too that you tend to have – a lot of authors will tend to have their protagonist as the main deal. Now obviously Ella is very much front and centre, but I noticed in reading Web of Deceit that the paramedics got quite a bit of time as well. That seemed to me unusual – unusual good, but unusual, because usually the focus is on the protagonist. Did you settle on that sort of split view early on, or was that just something that came naturally because you obviously were going to have the two wings of the paramedics and the police?

Katherine
Yeah. Well, the earliest drafts of my first book, Frantic, didn’t have Ella in it at all. It just had Sophie, who’s the paramedic in that story. And after much rewriting and reconsideration I realize that I did really need a police point of view in the books. So that was when I thought, “Maybe I can have two main characters there,” so you’d see the story from one point of view, from the paramedic who’s involved in it, who’s suffering in it, and one from the police, you know, looking at the procedural aspect of it. In that first book I think they’re about half and half, and since then – sometimes it wavers a bit more to Ella’s side, sometimes it’s a bit more to the paramedic.

Actually, I did read a review once where the review said, “I can’t tell who’s the main character here, and they didn’t seem very happy about it,” but I think really it does work, because you know that Ella is there, and she’s in every book, but the paramedics sort of come and go a little bit, and you see aspects of some of the paramedics that were in previous stories, you see them in the background, you get to find out what’s happened to them since their story was there.

But, I guess for me it’s just been a thing that has worked. Plus, it lets me give an insight into what these people’s lives are like – what it’s like to be a paramedic and how you fit that around your domestic life and what it feels like to go out and do those jobs.

Andrew
Well, it adds certainly a layer, I guess, to the police investigation, I mean I found Ella is obviously quite engaging, but it was good having that extra dimension coming in, obviously your readers seem to like that as well.

Katherine
Yeah.

Andrew
But, I guess touching on the elements of the crime thriller what are for you the three things you really focus on in putting together your thrillers? What do you think are the top three things that either you think are important or the people really respond to in these sorts of books?

Katherine
Well, I think the first two are the basic elements of suspense, generally, which I learned about when I was doing my suspense research. So, first of all I have to pick characters that are ideally likeable, or that reader cares about them, or is at least compelled to find out what’s going to happen. So, you know, you think about somebody like Hannibal Lector, who’s not really likable, but he’s certainly compelling, we can’t wait to read on and find out what he’s going to do next. But, for me, the characters are likable, you can sort of identify with them, and want to see what’s going to happen to them, and see them hopefully achieve their goals.

And the second thing is that there is uncertainty, so not just the big question about who did it in the story, but little questions on every page. So, at the start of Web of Deceit you have the paramedics over here doing their job, which sounds awful, they can hear patients screaming in the background. And, so you’re in the point of view of paramedic Alex, who does not want to go to that scene, which then begs the question of why doesn’t he want to go? Why is his reaction so severe? So there’s one little question that you hope gets the reader to turn the page. So, all of the way through I’m asking and answering questions over different lengths of time, but hopefully build up that – you know, keep the reader absorbed there in wanting to read on.

The third thing that I think is important in a crime thriller is that the plot works. So, you know somebody is murder and it happens for a decent reason, I mean in real life people get murdered for – for 20 cents, or because they looked at someone strangely, which is not going to work in a novel. So, it has to be a reason that makes sense to the reader and makes them go, “Oh, yeah. I see why that’s happened.” And, of course, I guess shooting off that is having enough red herrings to keep the plot going, so that your bad guy’s hated enough so the reader is going, “OK, is it him? I think it might be him, but I don’t really know…there’s all of these other possibilities here as well,” to keep them engaged again.

Andrew
Yeah. I think that’s just a really good approach, I mean obviously you want to make sure that people are going to keep turning the page, and I certainly was.

But, I was reading too, you’re very much a ‘pantser,’ to use the vernacular. Now, given how complicated every thing you’ve just described is, how do you keep all of that all in your head? I mean obviously I read that you’ve got a beginning and an end, which a lot of pantsers tend to do, but you can probably get away with doing a fantasy novel, perhaps. I write my fantasies like that, but this is a fairly intricate book. How do you keep all of your ducks in a row when you’re writing?

Katherine
It’s really having a starting situation. OK, so here’s – “How am I going to keep these paramedics involved in the story?” And that’s one of the tricky things, because in real life we would, as a paramedic, you turn up – maybe the person’s dead, or you try to save them, or whatever, and that’s the end of your involvement. You might give a statement to police, you might go to court later, and that’s it. So, finding a way to keep them tied into the story all the way through is often one of the biggest challenges at the start.

But once I worked that out and I go, “OK, this is how it will all fit together,” and then I’ll know a couple of turning points through the story, you know, maybe think, “OK, at 1/3 this will have to happen, and then at 2/3 that will have to happen.” And the ending will be – I know the bad guy has to die, something like that, but then it’s just a matter of kind of feeling my way, like writing a scene until it feels right and seeing what happens in that scene – “Well, what can happen as a result of that too?” Which doesn’t explain it very well, I know that.

But, also I have a big whiteboard where I draw links between characters. So, in this book I’m working out which, I won’t give it away, but I’m working out where a particular character has a role in both main plots, which was a way for me to tie those two plots together, so I’m really trying to make it feel tight, and all tying it into a nice, knotted ball, instead of strands going everywhere. I don’t know if that explains it at all, really.

Andrew
No, actually, really it does quite well, because I guess it makes sense that you’re going to have those markers, so at least you can almost look back and, “OK, yes, it’s all coming together. Yes, these characters… yes.” Because, I thought, without giving too much away, that was quite clever when you bring the two together, because I mean that’s very difficult to do, because you took two connected somewhat, but disseparate worlds in a sense as well. So…

Katherine
Well, I have to – my editor, Nicola Ashay, that was her idea. So, I have to give her a hat-tip for that one.

Andrew
Hat-tipping to you, Nicola.

Now, as far as crime thrillers generally go, do you read them yourself? Is that something you love reading?

Katherine
I do. I love reading crime. I think when I write – the crime novels that read and I love, and I think, “What’s going to happen next?” Like, Michael Robotham’s crime novels – I find I like that. I love his characters, they feel so real, but also when I reading I think, “I don’t know where this is going.” Some crime novels when it I read I think, “Oh, yeah, I can see where we’re headed here.” But, with his he just keeps you on edge, you never know what’s coming next. So that feeling is what I try to give to readers when I write as well, I’m thinking, “What can I have happen here?” I want to keep them sort of going, “Well, what’s coming next?” “After that happens what can happen now?” So, that’s – yeah. I read a lot of crime.

Andrew
Right. OK, so obviously it’s a passion as much as anything else.

Katherine
Yes, it is.

Andrew
Now do you read anything else though, as well? Because obviously if you’re writing it day-to-day you might want to have a holiday in a sense. Or is it something that you go back to anyway, regardless of your day job? Like, reading crime thrillers.

Katherine
No, I do read a lot, regardless of the day job.

But, I do read over stuff as well. And for me it’s about a voice. So, I like Kate Grenville’s work. You know, she’s got a very clear voice there. Marion Halligan’s Valley of Grace, I really enjoyed that one.

My partner has a book shop and I was in there the other day and I picked up a book called In Falling Snow, by Mary-Rose MacColl, and I started it and the voice – I mean like it gives me goose bumps now thinking about it, but she took – my partner took it off me, because I’m on deadline now and I can’t take time out to read a book, even though the voice just – I can’t wait to get back to it, because it’s such a personality there, and the character on the page.

Andrew
Yeah. I think that’s obviously what brings people in as much is the suspense, isn’t it? That sense of a voice, of somebody having a sense of themselves as an author coming through as much as the characters, and that’s often why you go and read as well.

I was actually intrigued though. I noticed that on a list in one of your interviews you listed Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals.

Katherine
Yes!

Andrew
Now, I’m a huge Gerald Durrell fan, I have been since I was a kid. What about – because a lot of your other books sort of fell into roughly true crime, or crime thrillers. That one seemed to be a bit of a divergence. I’m intrigued about that particular one.

Katherine
When I was a kid I was very into animals, I still am, but I read a lot of books about animals. And that book, which is the story of him growing up from about 10-14 or so, when his family left England just before the second World War, went to live in Corfu and he was obsessed with animals. And living on this island that was so full of different, you know, animal life and insects, and fish and everything like that. So, it’s his voice, I think, and his hilarious family – I mean they’re all nuts. And the descriptions too of the animals. I got a copy of that book, I guess at the age of 12 or so, and I’ve read it so many times since, because it’s so funny and it’s always entertaining, and it never grows old for me.

Andrew
No. I would say much the same thing. He’s a very, very talented man.

Now, I’m interested, I guess as far as writing schedules go, because obviously a lot of authors have their own little rituals or their patterns, or even their superstitions, what’s a typical writing day for you? I mean obviously keeping in mind that no day is typical, but roughly speaking what’s a day look like for you? I guess when you’re on deadline, or when you’re writing, what do you do?

Katherine
Well, when I’m far from deadline, which is – this is the challenging, having a yearly deadline is a good thing, because you have to produce a book in a year, but at the start you go, “Oh, I’ve got a year, you know? I can have today off.” And before you know it the weeks are flying by.

So, it depends on the closer that I get to deadline really, but – so I can go into the office in the morning, because I write full time, I go into the office in the morning, but I usually just seem to spend all my morning doing emails and little bits and pieces, because afternoon is the time that I feel best towards writing, but maybe that’s just me because I need five hours’ warm up, I’m not sure.

But, then I’ll aim for, say, 2000 words a day, or maybe 3,000, and getting started is always the hardest bit. So, I play these little games, you know, “Just write 500 words, it’s just a big paragraph and anybody can write 500 words, and then you can go and have a break, or read, you know, go outside for a bit or something.” But often once I get my 500, then I’m on a bit of a roll and I can keep going, so it’s playing games to get myself started, really.

And, it’s funny, you’d think after – I mean this is now the… I’m writing my tenth book, including the ones that I didn’t have published, so you think it would get easier, and it really doesn’t.

Andrew
No, I’ve actually heard that.

Katherine
It’s always this mental thing, “I don’t want to!” But, you have to, so…

Andrew
I think you referred to it in an interview, about climbing a mountain. You know the mountain is there, and you know how to climb the mountain – but it’s still tough to get up the mountain.

Katherine
It is!

I can’t remember which painter this was, a famous painter once said every time he painted an apple I thought, “Right, and now I know how to paint apples.” And then he found at the next step, “Well, it’s a whole new apple.” So, it was always a challenge, and I think it’s like that with a book.

Yeah, like you said, you’ve done it before, you know you’ll come out the other side alive, but you still have to go through it.

Andrew
Exactly. Now we get, obviously, a lot of aspiring writers here. So, one of the questions we always ask at the end is what are your top three tips for people aspiring to be writers? Obviously, probably published, because that’s obviously a goal for a lot of people.

Katherine
Yeah.

Andrew
But, even on just the art of writing itself. What would you say if somebody walked up to you, which I’m sure they do all the time and said to you, “What do I need to do?” What would you say would be your top three things?

Katherine
Read a lot, it’s really important to be familiar with your genre. But, also read outside it, because then you see things, like how authors use voice and build their characters and that sort of thing, how they’re keeping you absorbed. So, it’s active reading, I guess. Because when I read a crime novel I think, “OK, where is this going? How are they making me feel this for the characters? How are they putting in their clues and building the whole thing?” Which kind of changes the experience of reading forever, but that’s just how it is, because I can’t turn that off now when I read, I’m always pulling it to bits.

And the second thing is just write, but also rewrite. Rewriting is where you’re polishing up the mess, basically. I mean lots of people can get a first draft down, but whether it’s any good or not is going to be determined by the work that you do after that.

Never give up. You know? Like, I said I wrote for 17 years, and I didn’t know if I was ever going to get there. You just have to keep going. It’s not overnight. You don’t get – you may go out and play one game of tennis and think you’re going to be at Wimbledon next week, and it’s the same with writing.

And, novels are huge things and it’s got so many elements that you have to get the balance just right to make it work well. So never give up, because you never know where you can get to.

Andrew
OK, thank you very much Katherine, a perfect point to end on there.

Katherine
Thank you.

Andrew
Thank you very much for joining us today.

Katherine
Thank you for having me.

Andrew
I appreciate it. Thank you.


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