56 Days

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All Stories Are About Change: The Millions Interview Catherine Ryan Howard


Catherine Ryan Howard’s latest novel Run Time, out now from Blackstone, follows Adele Rafferty, a struggling actor who is ready to abandon her dreams of stardom when she gets a last-minute offer to star in a horror movie called Final Draft. But she soon realizes not everything is as it seems, as life on the film set starts to mirror the terrifying events in the script. A CrimeReads Most Anticipated Book of Summer 2022, Run Time is a high-concept thriller that blurs the boundary between fact and fiction.

Howard is the author of several thrillers, including The Liar’s Girl and The Nothing Man. We talked with Howard, who lives in Dublin, about Run Time, her career trajectory, and how women writers are pushing the thriller genre forward.

The Millions: Let’s start at the very beginning. Prior to writing full-time, you worked as an administrator for a travel company in the Netherlands and a front desk agent at Disneyworld. How did you decide to make the leap and start your career as an author? What did that journey look like?

Catherine Ryan Howard: I always wanted to be an author, ever since I was old enough to figure that authors existed and books didn’t just appear. But although I talked about it a lot, read all the “how to” books obsessively, stalked published authors (ahem), I never actually did any writing— which, it turned out, is a crucial part of getting published. (Who knew?!) So instead I spent much of my 20s having adventures abroad, and ultimately I ended up working in Disneyworld in Florida. When I got back to Ireland in 2008, I wrote a memoir about the experience and self-published it two years later. An article about a Disney cast member (DisneySpeak for employee) disappearing from a Disney cruise ship led me to researching maritime law— which basically makes a cruise ship the perfect place to get away with murder—and in the summer of 2014 I finally finished a draft of what would become my debut thriller, Distress Signals. I drew up a list of agents, followed their submission guidelines to the absolute letter and, finally, one of them took me and my novel on. It was pre-empted in a two-book deal five days after it went out on submission, and two of those days were Saturday and Sunday—so very, very exciting and totally surreal at the time. It sounds straightforward in hindsight, but I wasted a lot of time not writing, primarily because it was nicer to stay in the place where everything I wanted might yet be mine rather than write something, submit it, and find out it was never going to happen. I had to get past that fear, which took a while.

TM: You’re quite prolific: since 2016, you’ve published six novels—that’s a book a year! How do you maintain this kind of literary output? Do you find the writing process gets easier with each successive novel? 

CRH: My last book, 56 Days, which was set during Ireland’s first lockdown, from March to May 2020, was a really interesting experience for me because when it was published in August 2021, everyone was aghast at how quickly I’d written it and how fast my publishers had got it on the shelf. But I wrote it on the same schedule as I wrote all the others. The real-life events in 56 Days just exposed that. Writing is my full-time job. It’s my only job—I’m childfree and making stuff up is what I love doing more than anything else in the world. If it took me longer than a year to write a novel, that would be weird. A few months back I posted on Instagram that I was starting a new book, and someone commented, “You’re already writing another one?! You’re a machine!” But when your spouse gets up on Monday morning to go into work having just done a full day of it on Friday, you don’t say, “You’re going in again? Today? You were just there!” This is my full-time job; I act accordingly.

The process does get easier in some ways, but writing a book is still bloody hard work. I usually start by letting an idea percolate and take shape in my brain, which looks a lot like re-watching things on Netflix and shopping for stationery. Then I superfluously color-code an Excel spreadsheet and use it to plot out the major twists, turns and reveals. Then I start writing, starting slow but speeding up as I go. I almost always write three drafts, and each draft is like a brand-new book—I say I have to write three books for every one. For the first and second drafts I’ll start with a blank document and start typing from scratch but when it comes to the third I’ll go into the existing document and make changes. Then there’s usually a polish after that, draft 3.5. The whole thing takes approximately 12 months from beginning to end, but I do a lot of my percolating while I’m putting the finishing touches like copyedits or checking page proofs, to the previous book.

TM: Your debut novel, Distress Signals, was a bestseller on both sides of the pond. Were you surprised by its immediate success? Did having a bestselling book right out of the gate create any sort of pressure for you as you began writing your next books? 

CRH: It was technically a bestseller but in a blink-and-you’d-miss-it way, and it was a long (long) way down the list. To be honest, the year my debut novel came out was the worst year of my life. I know that sounds very #firstworldproblems, but I’d desperately wanted this thing since I was 8 years old, finally got it at 33, and it looked absolutely nothing like I’d imagined or planned or dreamed about. And that was devastating. Publishing pushes the narrative that debuts make a splash and then it’s all downhill from there. But my last book, 56 Days, was my most successful by far—and it was my fifth. And some exciting things I can’t talk about yet have just happened, right after I submitted my sixth novel. Now, in hindsight, I’m delighted my career has followed the trajectory it has, each book doing a little better than the one before, because I appreciate every success so much more, and I think—hope—that consistent, organic growth is a much better recipe for career longevity than a splashy debut you can’t possibly top. It didn’t feel that way back in 2016, though.

TM: Just days before Distress Signals was published, you were taking the first of your second-year exams at Trinity College Dublin. What was it like publishing your first book while being a student? How did you manage the competing demands? Did being a student prepare you at all for being a bestselling author, or vice versa?

CRH: I was a mature student, which I think you call non-traditional. I was a 32-year-old freshman. I had dropped out of college first time around, and I’d always regretted missing out on the college experience and also feared that there were serious gaps in my reading. In January 2014, I decided I needed something in my life other than waiting for a “yes” from an agent or an editor, so I applied to study English at Trinity College Dublin, renowned for its beautiful library and educating all of Sally Rooney’s characters—and Sally herself. Knowing then that my free time was going to be seriously squeezed, I finally finished my novel a couple of weeks before orientation. Six weeks later I got an agent and six months after that, I got a book deal. I still had three and a half years of the degree to go and, by then, I’d realized that, really, I hadn’t missed out on anything. I didn’t enjoy the vast majority of the books we studied, and I found it really weird that the whole business of publishing seemed to be invisible to everyone. For instance, we spent hours discussing a certain book as if it were some seminal, groundbreaking text when I knew it was merely a series of newspaper columns that some agent or editor had had the bright idea to collect in a book and slap a price-tag on. It wasn’t canon, it was commerce. But no one wanted to acknowledge that. But I’m glad I went because I might never have finished my novel otherwise, and I really benefited from a couple of modules where I got to write under the supervision of established writers who really made an impact on me and how I work, like Ian Sansom and Carlo Gébler. And anyway I couldn’t have broken my dad’s heart twice by dropping out of college again.

As for managing competing demands, it was simple: I never read anything the whole way through and I wrote all my essays in all-night caffeine-induced fever dreams in the hours before they were due. I also had a memorable exam in post-colonial literature where I was so hungover after a few days of book-launching that I almost skipped it, but then downed two espressos, ate an avocado with a spoon and, in the exam, pretended that I was running out of time by making my writing messier and messier until I switched to bullet points because I didn’t have the energy to do any more than that. But I got a 2:1 in that exam and I got my degree so, hey, it worked. (Sorry, TCD!)

TM: Run Time partly takes place on the film set of a horror movie called Final Draft. What led you to set the novel within the world of movies? What kind of research into the process of filmmaking to bring Adele’s experience on set to life?

CRH: My brother John is an actor and he was in a 2016 independent Irish horror movie called Beyond the Woods, which was shot at an old farmhouse in the seclusion of the Irish countryside in the dead of winter. He told me that one of the first things the crew had to do was visit the local police station to warn them that if someone called to say they’d heard screams coming from the woods in the middle of the night, it wasn’t someone getting murdered, it was just them filming. I immediately thought: but what if it was someone getting murdered, and they were just using the movie as a cover? That’s where the idea for Run Time originated.

As for research I relied mostly on John’s experiences in the industry—particularly for the scene at the beginning where Adele, the narrator, auditions for a painkiller commercial—and on another friend of mine, Caroline, who has been an actor and a screenwriter and on sets for a lot of her adult life. I made things easy for myself though because, without spoiling anything, only a small portion of the action is actually a film being made. When it came to the ins and outs of shooting scenes, set-ups, etc., there is literally nothing anyone does for a living that someone hasn’t made a very helpful instructional YouTube video about, it seems.

TM: Many of the Run Time’s most compelling moments of horror unfold as Adele realizes that her life on set has begun to mirror the sinister events portrayed in the script. The fact that the novel revolves around the filmmaking process creates such fertile ground to explore themes like artifice, performance, duplicity, fantasy. How did you want the novel’s setting and theme to complement—or perhaps bristle against—each other?

CRH: I don’t really consider themes when I sit down to write. They tend to organically emerge and evolve over time. With Run Time I realized early on that what I was really writing about in this novel were the dangers of wanting something too much. When I got the phonecall that someone had offered on my debut novel—at 12:59pm on Monday, March 23, 2015, yes I do know the time down to the minute thanks very much—the overriding emotion I felt was relief. I had finally done the thing that I had been trying to do all my adult life. The next thing I felt was absolutely certainty that I never ever wanted to want something that badly ever again—because what happens if you don’t get it? The #LifeCoachesofInstagram would have us believe that it’s just a case of write it down, make it happen, or dream, believe, achieve, but the reality is most people do not get the things they dream of having. So at what point do you give up? How do you turn off the wanting? And what if what you want is a book deal or an acting role, something that could happen at any moment, without warning, changing everything? How do you truly stop wanting that? What if you can’t? And what if the wanting gets in the way of you making good decisions and, you know, living life? That’s the journey Adele, Run Time’s narrator, is on. Obviously there are parallels with my own experience—I’m very, very lucky I got the thing I wanted, because I just can’t imagine how I’d have coped with not getting it. I still don’t know how not to want it. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else but this.

TM: What did the process of writing Run Time look like? In terms of plot and character, how much did you already have planned out before you took to the page?

CRH: For me, plot is character, and vice-versa. I don’t see how you can separate the two. The plot tends to come to me first, and that naturally generates the people the plot will involve. For example, if you decide to write novel about someone stuck in a cave for a week, and then you decide that that person is one of the world’s most experienced cave divers, you’re really going to have dig for the drama. But what if they’re claustrophobic, can’t swim, and have never done anything more risky than mixing drinks? Now you have a story. And if you do it the other way around, if you start with the risk-averse non-swimming claustrophobe, you’ll be asking yourself, what’s the worst thing that could happen to them? What’s the biggest obstacle I could throw in their way on their journey to becoming version 2.0 (which they must do; all stories are about change)? And back into the cave we go.

In terms of planning, I usually plot out the main beats of the story on an Excel spreadsheet, just so I have some goalposts to aim for along the way, and I always know what the “truth” or the big reveal is and I work backwards from there. Writers who plan in advance (plotters) tend to get a bad wrap from those who don’t (pantsers). There’s always an inference that plotting in advance is somehow less creative than those who just sit down and start typing. But we’re all doing the same thing: at some point, we have to figure out what the story is. Some people do that in a first draft, but I do it in a spreadsheet just before I start writing that. There’s no right way to write a book, only the way that works for you.

Run Time was a bit unusual in that the full screenplay for Final Draft, the movie they’re shooting in the novel, is inside the novel itself. I had a lot of fun writing that, especially because in the world of the novel the screenplay is written by someone without a lot of success or experience so that was my get-out-jail-free card if it turned out to be absolute rubbish.

TM: Many readers might associate the thriller/crime genre with male writers like David Baldacci, John Grisham, Dan Brown, Lee Child, James Patterson—the old guard. But women writers have been major players in the genre for decades, as well as pioneers in reimagining what the genre can be. As a woman writing thriller/crime novels, does gender play any role in your work? Are there any tropes employed by male thriller writers that you are looking to reimagine? Are you ever aware of certain expectations being placed on your work because you’re a woman?

CRH: Yes, those names continue to sell well to their established readerships, but the freshest debut among them is from 1998—Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress, and that’s only his debut if we discount his co-writing 187 Men to Avoid: A Survival Guide for the Romantically Frustrated Woman in 1995, which I don’t. Even though 1998 still sounds recent to me it’s actually a quarter of a century ago, so that group is hardly a barometer of the crime/thriller zeitgeist. They don’t tell us where the genre is now or has been recently, and they cannot tell us where it’s going.

The future is most definitely female—and the last couple of decades have already been that. Today’s bestseller lists are dominated by the likes of Ruth Ware and Lucy Foley, both of whom are just getting started, and the most mega-selling titles in the genre in recent memory, Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train—which each sold approximately 20 million —have been by women too, namely Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins. Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing has been on the bestseller lists for so long it’s grown roots; it’s a murder-mystery, essentially, so I think we can claim it too.

Then there’s the likes of Lisa Jewell, Tana French, Flynn Berry, Laura Lippman and many, many more, consistently hitting lists, getting TV adaptations, winning prestigious awards and elevating our expectations of the genre with their incredible writing. The most exciting, original and, yes, thrilling crime/thriller novels I’ve read in recent years have all been by women—books like True Story by Kate Reed Petty, Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka, and My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. What male writer is pushing at the boundaries of the genre and playing with its forms and conventions in even half as exciting a way? I can’t think of one.

Meanwhile on this side of the Atlantic, women dominate the genre so entirely that a panel of Irish crime/thriller authors is notable if it includes a man and, since its inception in 2009, Crime Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards has been won 11 times by women but only twice by men. To my knowledge the only book to fit firmly in the commercial end of the crime/thriller genre ever to be longlisted for the Booker is British crime writer Belinda Bauer’s Exit, and it was when another female crime-writing star, Val McDermid, was called to the judging panel. As I type this, there are five crime/thriller novels in the Irish top 10 and only one of them is by a man, John Grisham, at number seven. But sitting pretty at number one, having sold double what he did, is Karin Slaughter. And I haven’t even mentioned Patricia Highsmith, Agatha Christie, or Ruth Rendell yet, to name-drop a canonical few. I’d like to retire the claim that men dominate this genre. Because they don’t.

As for expectations, I can only say what I expect from my fellow female crime/thriller writers: authenticity. Men have a very different relationship with fear. For them, it’s a worst-case scenario, an outsized nightmare that almost certainly won’t happen. For us, it’s something we live with on some level all day, every day, and have since we were teenagers. It’s so engrained in our brain stems that we don’t even realize how many everyday decisions we make based on it. We don’t walk lonely paths with our earbuds in. We’re careful with the information we share online. We know to avoid that shortcut home after dark. We pick a quiet carriage on the train, but not the quietest one in case something happens and we need help. We text our friends to let them know we got home okay. Our relationship with fear, therefore, is a much more intimate one. That’s why we have so much so-called domestic noir, where the threat is coming from inside the home, or maybe even from the other side of our bed. Men just don’t experience the world in that way; their fears feel a bit exaggerated to me, unlikely to actually effect the average person. And, increasingly, female writers can be relied upon to foreground the victim’s experience, even in novels that are ostensibly about serial killers, Notes on an Execution and These Women by Ivy Pochoda being great examples. I suppose, as a female crime/thriller writer, that’s always on my mind: that even when you have a male killer and might even include chapters from his POV, these are ultimately his victims’ stories, the women’s stories. They should be told accordingly.

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