Catherine Ryan Howard is an Irish-born novelist whose first book – Distress Signals – has recently been published by Corvus.
She has worked as a campsite courier in France, a front desk agent in Walt Disney World, and most recently was a social media marketer for a major publisher.
I caught up with Catherine to find out about her creative process.
Thanks for agreeing to the interview Catherine. So firstly, congratulations on Distress Signals! Where did you get the idea for the story?
My mother has this habit of giving you things to read – newspaper clippings, links to articles, etc. – that she thinks you might be interested in. The problem is, a lot of time you’re not!
But back at the end of 2011 she saved me a copy of the Guardian’s Weekend magazine which had the story of a Disney employee from the UK who’d disappeared from one of the Disney cruise ships, the Wonder. I used to work in Walt Disney World in Orlando so that’s why she thought I’d want to read it.
The article was interesting, but not because of Disney. Half-way through, it mentioned something called the International Cruise Victims organisation. I’d never been on a cruise, but I had what I think are typical ideas about them: sunshine, tropical beaches, cocktails, buffets, relaxation and, well, paradise generally. What was happening on these ships that they were “victims” and why were there so many of them that this group clearly needed to exist? I started researching the topic online and was shocked at what I found.
I started thinking, A cruise ship is the perfect place to get away with a murder. That was the initial seed of the idea for Distress Signals.
I love how that single clipping sparked an entire story.
So I’ve spoken to a lot of people in different areas of creativity and everyone seems to have a different process. What does your creative process look like?
I’m a terrible procrastinator, so I like to do as much delaying – ah, I mean preparation as possible.
Usually when I get a seed of an idea, I let it percolate for a while. I might fill a notebook or the Notes app on my phone with random thoughts or ideas – usually, I can’t remember what half of them are about when I come back to read them months later! Then I get out my Post-Its and my Sharpies and a huge sheet of paper (I find the back of Christmas wrapping paper rolls very handy for this as it’s blank and can be as long as you need it to be) and start plotting, not every little thing but the major milestones along the way.
Only then do I sit down and start to write a first draft, which I mark out in four acts (Act I, first half of Act II, second half of Act II, Act III) and usually, at the end of each one, I go back and do a little more plot-work, because all the best ideas come as you’re writing and things constantly change.
Yes, I definitely agree with that!
You’ve worked in a number of different countries and industries (my favourite being Walt Disney World, I have to say!), and I know you’ve written non-fiction memoirs about some of it. Have these experiences influenced your fiction-writing too? If so, in what way?
I love the advice ‘write what you know’ but I take it to mean ‘use as much as you can from your personal experiences in your book’ not ‘doctors should write medical thrillers’.
For the last six months of my stint in Disney World, I was a housekeeping inspector in a 2,000+ room resort hotel. It’s not a coincidence that Corinne, one of the characters in Distress Signals, is a cabin attendant – because even though I didn’t work on a cruise ship, the principles of running a housekeeping department are the same.
Backpacking in Central America for a couple of months really drove home for me how dependent we are now on mobile phones, and how lost we feel when someone we want to contact doesn’t have theirs or doesn’t have it switched on. (And that was back in 2008 – it’s even worse now!) Sarah not answering her mobile phone is the first alarm bell for Adam, her boyfriend and my narrator, in the book.
Finally, I spent a lot of time in Nice, France and in Villefranche, the little village nearby where cruise ships tend to tender (see what I did there…?) so of course, when it has a port day, that’s where my fictional ship, the Celebrate, stops too.
That’s really interesting – especially regarding how lost we all are without our mobile phones.
So what is the next project you’ll be working on?
I’m currently finishing the first draft of my second thriller, which will be published by Corvus too, only this time next year. It’s another standalone, but this time it takes place on dry land – here in Dublin, to be exact.
Sounds good. What advice would you give to any aspiring authors?
To not worry too much about advice. I spent so much time reading blogs and listening to authors and going to events and workshops and seminars and reading books and all that – but at the end of the day, it was only the book I wrote that mattered. It was ALL that mattered, and I could’ve got it written a lot sooner if I didn’t waste so much time dwelling on manuscript formatting or how exactly to write your synopsis.
All that stuff is great and useful – but only turn your head towards it once the book is finished and polished and ready to go. It’s all about the book, so work on that.
And lastly, I know you’ve always wanted to be an astronaut – any plans on becoming a space tourist? 😉
Actual space is just not very likely in my lifetime, I know, but I have a goal that I think is doable (although very expensive): to go high enough to see the curvature of the earth.
Maybe by the time Virgin Galactic get around to operational flights, I’ll have saved up – because I think we’re talking a very, very long time away yet…
Well good luck with that – and of course with the new book – and thanks again for answering my questions, Catherine. It’s been really interesting.