Catherine Ryan Howard was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1982. Prior to writing full-time, Catherine worked as a campsite courier in France and a front desk agent in Walt Disney World, Florida, and most recently was a social media marketer for a major publisher. She is currently studying for a BA in English at Trinity College Dublin.
Can you tell us a little bit about your debut novel Distress Signals?
When Adam’s girlfriend of ten years, Sarah, fails to return home from a Barcelona business trip, it uncovers some difficult truths about their relationship. Days later, her passport arrives at the home they share in Cork with a note stuck inside that reads ‘I’m sorry – S.’ The note helps Adam trace Sarah to a cruise ship called the Celebrate, and to a man whose wife disappeared from the same ship in eerily similar circumstances almost exactly a year before. The two team up to try to find out what really happened to the women they loved, a search which pits them against a predator who seems to have found the perfect hunting ground because – they’re about to discover – they are, effectively, no police at sea.
Distress Signals is an interesting title, how did it come about?
I’m glad you think so, because it took us a lot of brainstorming to get there! When I was writing the book, I was calling it alternatively Lost at Sea and Dark Waters. Lost at Sea wasn’t great, because I don’t think it in any way conveys what the book is about, and Dark Waters was too generic. When it went out on submission, my agent and I decided on Adrift, which I really liked (I love a one-word title!) but there’s actually lots of books and a Hollywood movie called that already. After I signed the deal with Corvus we all put our heads together to come up with something that was (a) a killer title, (b) conveyed everything the book was about, not just one element of it and (c) had some element of anxiety, disruption and despair. Distress Signals was the perfect choice – I think!
What inspired you to link Sarah's disappearance to a cruise ship?
Back in late 2011 I read an article by Jon Ronson in the Guardian’s Weekend magazine (‘Lost at Sea’) which detailed a number of mysterious or unexplained disappearances from large cruise ships. He mentioned the International Cruise Victims organisation, which really struck me because I thought cruise ships were sunny, idyllic places where people went to have relax and have fun. So I thought, victims of what? And why are there so many of them that this organisation, clearly, needs to exist? I started doing research online and I was really quite shocked at what I found. A little voice said, A cruise ship is the perfect place to get away with a murder. You should write a novel about that.
What made you choose Sarah as the one who disappears and not Adam? Would writing from a female lead perspective have been easier or were both characters a challenge?
Yes, it would’ve been a lot easier! The answer is one word: reality. It would just not have been realistic to have Adam be the one who disappears. I can’t say much more than that without going into spoilers… But basically I couldn’t have told this particular story any other way. My second novel, which I’m working on now, is from a female perspective.
Describe Adam's journey in three words
Shocking, challenging, unexpected. (I hope!)
What can we expect from you next?
My second novel is also a standalone thriller, although this one is set on dry land. It will be published by Corvus this time next year.
What attracted you to writing for the crime/thriller market as opposed to another genre?
It’s my favourite! I read quite widely but that’s what I love and read the most. My favourite writers, e.g. Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Tara French, all write in that genre. For a long time I was trying to write something else, something that I thought would get me published, and nothing worked until I realised that I should be writing what I love to read. Distress Signals is the book I wanted to read but couldn’t find on the shelf.
You have previously self-published a couple of travel memoirs, so was the writing/editing process easier this time round as you've already had some experience of doing it for your other books?
I don’t think so - the non-fiction was much easier, because it was based on real events. I had to make all this up from scratch!
How do you manage to combine your writing alongside your freelance work & studying for your degree?
I don’t really… I’ll let you know how my exams go. They start the day before the book comes out, annoyingly!
Did you treat yourself to something special to celebrate your publishing deal with Corvus?
I spent some time in Nice, in the south of France, when I was writing the book that would become Distress Signals. I was on an incredibly tight budget while I was there, walking everywhere so I wouldn’t spend money on bus or tram tickets, and living on a diet of croissants and baguettes (so, just as well I was walking everywhere!). There’s a fabulous shop in the Old Town in Nice called Transparence which sells all sorts of miniature models of things encased in acrylic. (I’m not doing a very good job of describing their stuff but trust me, they’re fab!) The symbol of Nice is the blue chair – they’re all along its famous promenade – and they had a beautiful paperweight featuring one of these. It was only €35 but I couldn’t afford to spend that on something so superfluous when that money would keep me in pastries and bread for a week. So I made a promise to myself that if the book sold, I’d go back and buy it – and I did!
Finally have you anything exciting planned for publication day?
I’m actually having the launch on the day the book comes out – so that’ll be very exciting!
Did she leave, or was she taken?
The day Adam Dunne's girlfriend, Sarah, fails to return from a Barcelona business trip, his perfect life begins to fall apart. Days later, the arrival of her passport and a note that reads 'I'm sorry - S' sets off real alarm bells. He vows to do whatever it takes to find her.
Adam is puzzled when he connects Sarah to a cruise ship called the Celebrate - and to a woman, Estelle, who disappeared from the same ship in eerily similar circumstances almost exactly a year before. To get the answers, Adam must confront some difficult truths about his relationship with Sarah. He must do things of which he never thought himself capable. And he must try to outwit a predator who seems to have found the perfect hunting ground...
Read a preview of the first three chapters here: