The day Catherine Ryan Howard signed her first ever book deal started well. Rising at four, she flew to London, and celebrated with her new publishers over several glasses of champagne. She was in seventh heaven. Then her editor mentioned that they weren’t too happy with the synopsis she’d sent in for her proposed second book.
“She said, ‘Have you any other ideas?’ I hadn’t, and thought I’d better come up with something quick. A month earlier I’d seen an article in GQ about a supposedly prolific serial killer. Convicted of eight horrific crimes he confessed to over 30. But after ten years, it turned out he had left out the worst bit.
“I said, ‘I want to write a book with a blurb on the back, ‘he confessed to all these crimes, but the truth was so much worse.’ They said that was brilliant. Everyone was happy. Then, a few hours later when I sobered up, I thought, hang on a sec, all I have is a blurb; I have no plot, no characters, and no idea what I’m going to do. That’s when second novel syndrome kicked in.”
That hiccup is one of the reasons that The Liar’s Girl took two years in the making rather than the contracted one. Another, is that at the time of that signing, Catherine was just six weeks in to a four-year English Degree at Trinity College Dublin. Yet another, was the huge success of her first novel.
“Distress Signals was so well received; there was a review by Declan Hughes that I will never forget. He used the phrase Impeccably sustained. When you’re sitting in front of a blank screen and you have a whole book to write and can’t remember how you wrote the first one, you’re thinking, impeccably sustained? I can’t even write a coherent paragraph. You forget how crap the first draft is going to be, you forget that you have to write through it.”
Catherine has certainly done that. If Distress Signals showed her immense capabilities as a crime writer, The Liar’s Girl proves that she can, not only sustain that talent, but build on it. She has produced a sublime character-based tale with immense pace, depth and style.
At college in Dublin, country girl Alison Smith falls for fellow student Will. When he’s arrested, and then confesses to killing 5 girls, she flees Ireland for Amsterdam, and lives a half-life, terrified someone will learn of her past. Ten years on, another student is found, murdered and dumped in the canal. Is this a copycat murder, or had Will an accomplice? He tells the police he has information, but he will only give it to Alison.
She, reluctantly, agrees to speak to him, and he tells her the confession was false, and forced out of him. Can she believe him? As the body count rises, she starts to do some investigation of her own.
The novel flits backwards and forwards, showing the action from Alison’s student days, as well as the present garda enquiry. Catherine sets the book in a fictitious Dublin University, but the authenticity of the action – college life – dingy student apartments – are dawn from her own experience.
We’re chatting over coffee in Dublin’s Brook’s Hotel, and this turns into an hour or so of laughter. Wonderful company, Catherine is a fabulous raconteur who constantly makes fun of herself.
In penning this tale, she was interested in the effect of the student years on the rest of someone’s life.
“The things that happen to you between 18 and 22 have this lifelong influence on you; it’s when you create parts of your personality.”
In Catherine’s case, those were lost years. Wanting to be a virologist, she applied to Lancaster University, but she only lasted three weeks.
“I went home to Cork and drifted. I did silly jobs working in greetings card stores and antique auctioneers. I was in a long-term relationship and was drifting further and further away from the path I wanted to be on.”
When the relationship broke down, Catherine realised she wanted adventure. After a happy spell working in Holland as a travel administrator, she moved to Disney World, working there for eighteen months before backpacking. By the time she moved back to Cork, in 2008, she had decided that she should start a career in writing.
First came an account of her time in Disney.
“A series of events happened there, and I was thinking, if I write it all down, the people coming after me will know what it’s like. I sent the manuscript to agents, but they said there wasn’t a market for it, and they were right. I self-published so I could reach those pockets of readers all round the world. Then I wrote about backpacking, and afterwards a book on how to self-publish.”
She became ‘the’ go to person for anyone interested in self-publishing, but, being ambitious, she was still desperate to see her work in bookshops. She wrote a woman’s commercial fiction novel, thinking that was the way to get published.
“It was corporate satire meets chick-lit, based on the evil slimming business which I have lots of experience of. It was mad! Penguin rejected it. They said, ‘it’s crazy but we love your writing.’
“Over 18 months I was going in to Penguin, chatting about the things I was writing, and then they asked me to do the social media for a title, The Pleasures of Winter. Then they gave me lots more titles.”
At around this time, Catherine got the idea for Distress Signals, and, feeling passionate about the subject – the high incidence of murder on cruise ships, wrote the debut that made her name. It was turned down by a few agents before Catherine found the nerve to send it to her hero, agent Jane Gregory.
“She signed me in 2014. Jane is famous for doing editorial work with her authors. On average the process takes two years, but mine only took six months, thank God! We did another draft together and tightened it all up.
“Jane sent it out on a Thursday. The following Monday I was in my tiny little Dublin apartment, running out for a lecture at two o’clock, when Jane rang. She said, ‘We have an offer.’ Then she said the figure.” Katherine rolls her eyes. “I said ‘What?’ It was significant! It was the fastest deal Jane has done in her thirty-year career.”
Shortlisted for a prestigious Dagger Award, and for an Irish Book Award, the novel sold to America, and has been optioned for TV. The Liar’s Girl, I predict, is set to do even better. It’s much more than just a crime book, and explores issues like the dangers of social media, and the complexities of toxic friendship. But it’s the cleverness of the structure that keeps us reading.
“That was easier than I thought it would be. I’m my first reader, and I have to keep myself entertained. If I’m not, there is no way the reader will be. So, I do a few chapters in one voice, then feel a need to go and chat to the killer, to produce a sense of foreboding.
Catherine has signed another two-book deal for UK and America, and The Liar’s Girl has also sold to Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Japan and Turkey. Just started on her third book, she’s hoping the process will be easier this time.
“I’m at the stage that I don’t like, but I’m hugely excited about the idea,” she says. “It’s an unusual structure – and is told in an unfamiliar way. I missed several deadlines on The Liar’s Girl, and friends could be forgiven for thinking the book was titled, ‘Don’t ask!’ But I’ve learned a huge amount of what works best for me, and hopefully the third book will be delivered on time.”
The Liar’s Girl by Catherine Ryan Howard is published by Corvus: €14.66 Kindle: €5.40
Published in The Irish Examiner on 28th April.
© Sue Leonard. 2018.