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Interview with crime thriller writer Katherine Howell

Katherine Howell

Today we have the privilege of bringing you an interview with bestselling crime thriller writer Katherine Howell. Her latest novel, Cold Justice, is out in paperback now. Regular readers of this site might remember that I recently reviewed Cold Justice for Vulpes Libris, and that review can be found here.

Lisa: Welcome, Katherine, and thanks for visiting Vulpes Libris!

So, first question: your experiences as a paramedic are something that I imagine spark much curiosity. From reading two of your novels it would seem that your time on the front lines of medical care has certainly informed your writing. Do you miss this work, and do you think you would still be writing novels had you not had a career as a paramedic?

Katherine: On the whole I don’t miss that work, although now and again I do feel like looking after someone. I did enjoy that part of the job, the one-to-one care that a paramedic can give, even to someone not badly hurt or sick; just helping someone feel reassured and comforted. But the rest of it – the stress, the rushing, the struggles with management, the increasingly-regular threats and violence, the nightshifts – I don’t miss at all. That job certainly informs my writing, as half of every book is written from the viewpoint of one or more paramedics working on the streets of Sydney. I love that a job which I often struggled with emotionally, particularly towards the end of my career, now enables me to have a worklife I adore, staying at home writing books. If I hadn’t done that job I’d still be writing novels but they’d probably be straight police procedurals with no medical angle.

Lisa: It might sound like an odd question to ask, but why are you drawn to writing crime thrillers, as opposed to other genres of fiction? Does the crime thriller form happen to suit the way that you naturally write, or is it more the case that this genre is best suited to the messages and ideas that you want to convey? Or something else altogether?

Katherine: Crime thrillers are what I love to read, and I wanted to try to make my readers feel the same suspense and excitement and involvement in the story that I feel when I read the work of people like George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Tess Gerritsen and James Lee Burke. I’m also interested in the mystery of death, the effect that a traumatic death has on that person’s family and friends and how it affects people in the police and emergency services as well, and crime thrillers give me the perfect vehicle to explore these questions inside a ripping read.

Lisa: When you were starting out as a writer, did you ever dabble in other genres of fiction? Is there, for instance, an unpublished historical pastiche, or a chicklit novel languishing in your desk drawer? (I ask this as a writer who has many such manuscripts languishing in her desk drawer – or rather, in a dim and overlooked part of her laptop’s hard drive). If not, would you ever consider writing something totally different from your previous books?

Katherine: I did once try to write a non-crime novel but I was barely a couple of chapters in when a dead body popped up, followed by a bad guy, and it seemed so pointless to try to fight it. I would consider writing something different if I felt the urge, but so far I’m completely happy doing what I do.

Lisa: Ah, the old problem of dead bodies popping up. So do you have any advice for aspiring writers who might be struggling to get published? And how was your own journey to publication?

Katherine: Be prepared that the manuscript you’re working on now might be a learner novel and never be published, but remember that the work you put into it will make your next manuscript better; pull apart the books you love in your genre and figure out how the authors have constructed them; and don’t give up. Nobody who is published now was certain that they’d make it, but they just kept reading and thinking and writing and rewriting. My journey involved all those things – I have three unpublished and unpublishable novels in the bottom drawer and I consider them my apprenticeship because they taught me so much. I was fortunate to get an agent while working on the third of those, and even though Frantic wasn’t written (or sold) for a few more years after that, she encouraged me and gave me feedback and that helped me keep going. When she said Frantic was ready and sent it out, it sold quickly as part of a two-book deal to Pan Macmillan, and then as I was writing the second book in the series, The Darkest Hour, over the following year, the books sold overseas as well. In one respect it sounds like it happened quickly, but I wrote steadily for sixteen years before landing that deal, so really it wasn’t quick at all.

Lisa: Sixteen years sounds about right to me! Learning to write is a slow old business, and the process of publication arguably even slower again (at least it feels that way to me). Could you tell us a little about the book you’re working on at the moment?

Katherine: I’ve just finished the structural edit on the fifth book in the Ella Marconi series, called Silent Fear. It starts on a stinking hot summer day in Sydney, three weeks before Christmas, when paramedics Holly and Joe are called to a man collapsed while playing touch football. They arrive to find he’s actually been shot, two bystanders are doing CPR, and Holly’s estranged brother is standing nearby. Detective Ella Marconi is suspicious of him too, but the victim’s wife seems to be hiding something, and his boss is acting strangely as well. Then a shocking double homicide makes her realise that the case is more complicated than she could ever have imagined.

Lisa: Thanks for telling us about Silent Fear. I’m a great fan of Ella Marconi so it’s good to know I’ll get to tag along – book in one hand, tea in the other – while she goes about the serious business of solving crimes. Still, your answer did make me wonder what it was like to write a series featuring the same character? Do you feel as if you’re learning more about Ella with every book or did you have a thorough grasp of her history and character from Book 1? And does any part of your writing self wish to start from scratch with a totally new detective?

Katherine: I love writing a series character, because when I start work on a new book it feels like sitting down with a good friend to have a chat. I definitely feel that I learn more about Ella each time. I don’t write out full histories and descriptions of my characters before I have them walking and talking on the page; instead, I know a few pertinent details then get to know them over the course of the stories. Ella feels like a real-life friend I’m growing closer to over time.

I’m writing a stand-alone as part of my PhD in creative writing and it features an emergency room doctor and her partner who’s a detective in the Drug Squad. I’m only a few chapters into it, and it’s going well. I thought it might feel odd to write without Ella there, but so far at least it feels fine.

Lisa: Earlier you advised aspiring authors to “pull apart the books you love in your genre and figure out how the authors have constructed them” and I wondered if you could talk about some of your own literary influences? Which authors do you turn to when you want to read a really great crime thriller?

Katherine: The authors whose work I love most are James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Robert Crais, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Tess Gerritsen and Michael Robotham. I’ve learn so much by analysing their books, stopping at the end of each chapter and thinking about what’s happened and where the story might be going, studying their characters and seeing how they make me feel what I feel. I’ve done this so much that I find it almost impossible to read without doing so now. I still enjoy them though.

Lisa: I always ask writers this next question, so here goes again: what has the reader feedback been like, and how does it feel to have your books reviewed online and in newspapers?

Katherine: The reader feedback has been fantastic, nothing but enthusiastic. I’ve had a number of emails from former and current paramedics, delighted to see their jobs put on paper, and from police too. Most of them contact though is from people not in those jobs, readers who’d seen a review or had the books recommended to them by a friend or picked one up on a whim. It’s wonderfully satisfying to know that not only did the enjoy the book but they took the time to write and tell me so.

It was daunting at first to be reviewed online and in newspapers–I think every author is worried that people won’t like their book, and of course reviewers are in a position to tell their opinion to lots of readers–but it’s part of the job. I still of course hope for good reviews and dread finding poor ones, but I’ve been so fortunate in receiving mostly the former and very few of the latter.

Lisa: And how have your family and friends dealt with your transition from paramedic to author? I ask this as I know it can be daunting to suddenly have an author in one’s acquaintance, and some people worry that the author is continually taking mental notes or scrutinising behaviour.

Katherine: My family and friends have all been great. If they worry about me taking mental notes or watching them they never say so. In fact, to some degree it’s the opposite – sometimes they ask me to put them in the books!

Lisa: Thanks so much for the interview. Before you leave us, however, it’s Vulpes Libris tradition to end our author interviews by asking for five book recommendations.

Which five books should our readers go out and buy tomorrow?

Katherine: Hmm … okay:

The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

The Resurrectionists by Kim Wilkins

Luther: The Calling by Neil Cross

Shatter by Michael Robotham.

To check out Katherine’s rather cool author website, please look here.

5 comments on “Interview with crime thriller writer Katherine Howell

  1. rosyb
    August 31, 2011

    Thanks so much for coming onto the site, Katherine. Thoroughly enjoyed that. The paramedic angle would be really interesting. I was wondering why it is that crime is the topselling genre and also in terms of crime and police procedurals on TV? Is it the natural drama that arises from extreme situations that everyone can relate to or is there something comforting about the idea of the detective or policeman slugging it out for the force of good?

  2. kirstyjane
    August 31, 2011

    I really enjoyed this interview — thank you, Katherine and Lisa. I am too wimpy for most procedurals — Ed McBain is as gritty as it gets for me — and I tend to read gentler crime novels like Ruth Rendell’s Wexford series. Nonetheless, it was fascinating to have this insight into a writer’s life. Thank you so much again.

  3. annebrooke
    August 31, 2011

    Great interview, thanks, both!

    And lovely to see that wonderful Durrell book mentioned in a list – that brought back fond memories for sure 🙂


  4. Moira
    September 2, 2011

    I can’t tell you how pleasing I found the image of a dead body popping up, all uninvited in an attempt at a non-crime genre novel.

    Lovely interview, thank you both very much.

  5. Katherine Howell
    September 3, 2011

    Thanks Lisa, rosyb, kirstyjane, annebrook and Moira!

    Rosyb, I think you are right on both counts – I believe it’s a combination of the natural drama plus the comfort of having the crime solved and the world put somewhat back to rights that makes crime narratives so popular. Plus the challenge of the puzzle: trying to put the story together and work out the answer before the writer reveals it.

    Annebrook, Durrell’s book is really something special, isn’t it? So many lines and scenes are permanently in my head: Roger waiting at the gate, the tortoise hill, the rose-beetle man, the blennies flipping from rock to rock in the water. Must find my copy and read it again.

    Thanks again everyone 🙂

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