Blog Outback City Express

The huge glass doors loom like a bird of prey ready to swallow me whole.

Every fibre of my body is screaming for me to turn back - but I have no choice. A shiver washes over me as I gingerly cross the threshold into the vast open space that pretends to be outside but isn't and never can be. The lofty ceilings and shiny walls might as well be dripping blood for all the comfort they convey. The dread in the air is as thick as treacle, the fear rising like a tsunami as I take my final steps to my ultimate fate.

"Hi, I'm Katherine."

Ok, so perhaps she's friendlier than I expected. I had arrived at a bookstore in a shopping centre at Helensvale on the Gold Coast to meet with renowned Australian crime novelist, Katherine Howell. Rather than dragging me off in cuffs and chains and violently interrogating me for an unknowable number of hours, she was happy to instead answer some of my questions.

Katherine is one of those super talented types we get jealous of but are actually glad she's one of our own. Not only an Aussie, but a Queenslander. Well, she is now. Having grown up in Sydney she had that elusive thing that many of us wish we had: not just the desire to go and do something completely different, but to actually follow through and do it.

After a bunch of odd jobs and a year at university studying agriculture she got bored enough with her life to flip it 180 degrees and become a paramedic. Good thing she did as her experience with the ambulance service has informed her fiction ever since.

Having written stories as a child she always knew she wanted to be a writer, but that wasn't going to pay the bills straight out of school. So she sought out a role where she could learn on the job. "Something different each day and interesting and dramatic." She would find what she was seeking and more. Howell admits to a sheltered middle class life and at "a very young" twenty years of age she would be thrown in the south west of Sydney with people living in conditions she never would have imagined.

Despite the obvious drawbacks of witnessing physical trauma, she enjoyed the role. "You got to see amazing things and look after people which I loved doing and being able to care for them on the worst day of their lives and trying to make it a little bit better. I liked the variety. You never knew what was going to happen," Howell explains.

But ultimately, the trauma became too much for her. Somewhat ironically, instead of becoming more detached to the human suffering, her continual writing forced her to look through her characters' eyes which consequently made her more sympathetic. "There was an accident we went to where a young girl was trapped and her family lived just down the road and they all came and I couldn't stop thinking about what it would be like to be them. I'm quite soft-hearted and eventually it just really wore away. I lost my professional distance."

So what do ambos have that the rest of us don't? What is that thing that makes them better able to handle such anguish? According to Howell, there are several aspects. A desire to help got her through the psychological door but proper training prepared her for what she might see beyond it. Also, not every job is shocking. "We did a lot of chest pain and older people's medical problems so it got to a point where most jobs you would go to over the course of a shift, you had seen multiple times before, so it wasn't necessarily a drain," she points out. The role requires good people skills and the ability to problem solve, which she was also drawn to. "They would call and say 'I don't feel well' so you'd try and put the pieces together. What signs are they having? How are we going to treat this?" But she does admit that you can't be too squeamish.

While the pros of helping people in need initially outweighed the cons, the job eventually took its toll both physically and psychologically. "It really changed my world view. I got to the point where I thought that, say because you saw so much cancer you thought it was only a matter of time before you got cancer or someone in your family. You start thinking that whole world is full of bad stuff. Add that to your chronic fatigue from the shift work. I had problems with depression as well in the end." After fifteen years she finally made the difficult decision to leave it behind.

During this time she also managed to pen four manuscripts, the last of which developed into her first novel Frantic. It was initially rejected by her agent due to a lack of suspense so she took herself off to study that very subject for three years as part of her Masters of Philosophy degree. "I researched suspense and worked out where I'd gone wrong and fixed it, basically. The book then sold as part of a two-book deal when I finished my thesis," she explains. Way to solve THAT problem. Frantic was published in Australia in 2007 and has since been released in eleven countries in six languages.

Howell offers some writing tips on her website for the budding novelist but suggests there are two key elements to writing suspense. "The first is that readers have to care about the characters. If they don't care it doesn't matter how many hooks and fancy stuff you put in there, they're not that interested. The second thing is the reader has to be uncertain about what's going to happen." While the latter may seem obvious, it's a tricky balance working out how much detail to reveal. Too much and there's no suspense; not enough and the story doesn't make sense. That's where your editor comes in. "They might go 'look we need a little bit more information here but you revealed a clue too easily there.' It's hard when you're that close to it," Howell reveals.

She's doing something right, garnering several awards and consistently positive reviews. As critic Bernadette Bean puts it, "most ordinary people's lives are not filled with great drama and I think the fact that Howell has managed to create such credible suspense out of the lives of fairly average people shows real skill." Her style has been likened to Karin Slaughter and Patricia Cornwell.

Speaking of slaughter, my fingernails bloody as they scrape the floor in my desperate attempt to escape. Salty sweat drains from my hot skin as my captor giggles maniacally. The limbs designed to carry me have failed as the final semblance of hope dances teasingly in my mind's eye before slipping away completely. Just as hope is replaced by resignation, my legs find a reserve of energy and scramble clumsily upright. As I frantically scamper towards the exit I afford myself a final backward glance. Katherine is smiling and waving me goodbye.

The seventh novel in Katherine Howell's Ella Marconi series Deserving Death has just been released and is available in book stores. More at www.katherinehowell.com.

This article was originally written for the Outback City Express Feb - Apr 2014 edition.

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