Welcome, Catherine! What prompted you to first start writing? What was the first thing you wrote?
As a child I was constantly embarking upon grand writing projects – novels, epic poems, screenplays – which always fizzled out. I have always loved writing; crafting student essays, writing policy papers at work, even funny emails to friends; but somehow I buried my love of creative writing deep for a long time. It only re-emerged four years ago – at the age of thirty-six. I was a stay-at-home mum volunteering as a breastfeeding counsellor, and was asked to write a review of breastfeeding apps for a magazine. It was only a 2-page thing but I enjoyed the writing process so much that I decided to start a blog. I wasn’t sure what to write about so I combined my two (rather incongruous) specialist subjects: parenting and heavy metal. It was not only an incredibly cathartic process but it led to me getting work as a freelance music journalist. It also gave me the confidence to try creative writing. I joined a local writers’ group and had a short story published in a magazine. Not long after that the inspiration for my first novel hit, and I was very lucky to secure a publishing deal pretty quickly. I haven’t looked back since!
Can you summarise your latest work in just a few words?
Sound is the third in my Liverpool crime thriller series. The mysterious death of a professor of psychoacoustics leads D.I. Darren Swift and his unlikely team into the world of satanic black metal.
What was the inspiration for this book?
Sound is very much a sequel to Consuming Fire, which ended on something of a cliffhanger. So it continues Darren Swift’s journey and answers a lot of questions. But it is also a self-contained story in its own right. When I’m not writing novels I’m a heavy metal journalist and guitarist, so there is always a lot of music in my books. And of course Liverpool is a very musical city. When I was researching this book I read a lot about psychoacoustics; how our brains process sound, and the effects of sound on our psyche. In particular, how sounds can induce paranoia – and what could be more important to a crime thriller than paranoia!
The book’s title may seem very simple, but it has a dual meaning, because ‘Sound’ is a commonly-used expression in Liverpool, used to indicate agreement or contentment.
Did you do any research for the book?
Yes, I always do a lot of research; it’s a process I enjoy very much. This time, I read a lot of academic books about different aspects of acoustics. It was fascinating and I found myself down a lot of deep rabbit holes – it was very hard to stop researching and start writing! I also interviewed sound engineers and metal musicians, which is always a pleasure.
Another theme in this book is chaos magick, so I read a lot about that as well, not all of it convincing I have to say, but very useful for the story.
Location research is one of my favourite parts of the writing process, and I did a lot of wandering around the streets of Liverpool taking photographs and thinking. I got some of funny looks from office workers and builders when I was hanging around the Kingsway Tunnel Vent on the Liverpool Dock Road with my camera and notebook!
Sound features excerpts from a (fictional) seventeenth century grimoire, as well as song lyrics from a (fictional) black metal band, so I read a lot of real-life grimoires and song lyrics in order to grasp the styles and techniques.
As usual I consulted police officers and barristers about the police and court procedural aspects. And as usual I didn’t always follow their advice! This time I used a bit more artistic licence, since Darren Swift is now gradually heading off the rails as a police officer and playing by his own rules. But even though my books have a supernatural aspect, it’s important to me that readers are also able to read them as convincing straight police procedurals, should they choose to.
What does a typical writing day involve for you?
There’s no typical writing day. I have four young children, so my day revolves around their school and activity schedule. If I’m lucky, after I’ve dropped them off at school I might have a stretch between 9am and 3pm to write. But more often than not I’m in school for a bake sale, PTA meeting or sports event. And after school is a write-off as far as writing is concerned – it’s chaos until bedtime!
Fortunately I’m very good at picking up where I left off, and snatching writing moments whenever and wherever I can. I keep a notebook and pen in my handbag so I’m always ready, and I’ve even been known to type paragraphs into my phone in the supermarket queue. I transcribe everything into my computer at the end of the day and it all adds up.
If I do have some quality writing time to myself, I prefer to be out of the house so I’m not distracted by domestic tasks or the internet. I wander from coffee shop to coffee shop, but I have to admit I always get my best work done in McDonalds.
How do you decide on the names for your characters?
It can be really tricky! I try to assign names as early as possible, because the characters seem to come to life for me once they have a name. With my first book, Reprobation, I couldn’t think so I just assigned people the names of my old classmates and schoolteachers, and had to remind myself to go back and change them later.
I try to be as authentic as possible with names, but at a certain point you have to be a bit arbitrary. It just has to feel right. And of course you have to check that you’re not offending or slandering anyone, especially with the names of the bad guys!
There’s no such thing as the perfect name, and after all, in real life nobody gets to choose their own name!
Do you plot your novels in advance, or allow them to develop as you write?
I have the general plot worked out in advance. Otherwise I would be writing into the dark which would be a bit stressful, plus it would waste so much time going down dead ends.
But you have to be very flexible. As you go on the various characters’ journeys with them, almost everything changes along the way, even the ending.
There’s a lot of debate about whether writers are ‘plotters or pantsers’, but I think most of us do a bit of both.
Which writers have influenced your own writing?
I write crime thrillers and I have read a lot of crime writers, both classic and contemporary, so some of them must surely have influenced my style. I would highlight PD James, who was in fact the first crime writer I devoured as a child, and whose gentle, understated style I have perhaps unconsciously adopted. I would also mention those crime writers who evoke a strong sense of place, such as Dennis Lehane (Boston) and Ian Rankin (Edinburgh).
Having said that, I don’t think my writing is typical of the crime thriller genre. I have quite a clipped, sparse tone, a result of my professional background as a financial risk analyst; and a fairly literary style – I like big words!
There’s a lot of gothic horror in my books, perhaps because I have read a lot of Victorian gothic. I also love high-concept novels that play with structure – for example Stephen King, Michael Crichton and Alexandre Dumas, and in my books I like to trace grand themes onto a small canvas.
What has been the best part of the writing process…and the worst?
The best part is when you’ve just had the idea for a new book and the whole project is laid out ahead of you, it’s so exciting! I couldn’t wait to get started with Sound. Although I have to say it’s a very different feeling when you already have a publishing deal. The first time it’s terrifying and you question your very existence, never mind your ability to write a book. But now, with a publisher to support me, it’s an absolute joy.
The worst part is when you hit the 40,000 word mark and you don’t know if you’re going to make it or throw the whole thing in the bin. It’s a huge and painful slog between 40,000 and 65,000 words, at which point the end is in sight.
Do you have any advice for new writers?
1. Read everything, in different genres and different styles.
2. Take a notebook everywhere, and try writing longhand – you’ll be surprised at how different and effective it is.
3. Join a writer’s group and/or take a course – if there isn’t one locally, find one online.
4. Learn your craft – self-belief is great but there is so much to learn. The best writers keep a beginner’s mind at all times.
5. Beta readers are crucial – and they shouldn’t all be your friends!
6. Develop a thick skin – you will need it!
Can you hear it?
A professor of psychoacoustics is found dead in his office. It appears to be a heart attack, until a second acoustician dies a few days later in similar circumstances.
Meanwhile, there's an outbreak of mysterious illnesses on a council estate, and outbursts of unexplained violence in a city centre nightclub. Not to mention strange noises coming from the tunnels underneath Liverpool. Can it really be coincidence that death metal band Total Depravity are back in the city, waging their own form of sonic warfare?
Detective Inspector Darren Swift is convinced there are connections. Still grieving his fiancé's death and sworn to revenge, he is thrown back into action on the trail of a murderer with a terrifying and undetectable weapon.
But this case cannot be solved using conventional detective work, and DI Swift will need to put the rulebook aside and seek the occult expertise of Dr Helen Hope and her unlikely sidekick, guitarist Mikko Kristensen.
Purchase link: mybook.to/sound
Here's an exclusive extract:
In this scene, Norwegian death metal guitarist Mikko Kristensen has been recalled to Liverpool as a witness for the prosecution. He goes to Merseyside Police HQ to review his statement, and DI Darren Swift spots an unorthodox opportunity to get Mikko’s help with another case.
Darren couldn’t help but smile as he stood up and signalled to the skeletal figure who was traipsing his way across the office. Mikko Kristensen, lead guitarist in Norwegian death metal band Total Depravity, walked with a half-swagger, half-slope; looking furtively from side to side from under his trilby hat with an expression that was an odd combination of sleaze and earnestness. His clothes were varying shades of black, and tattoos escaped from his clothes up his neck and onto his fingers, like thorns on a bush, poison ivy on a tree. A confusing beard straggled in blond wisps from his chin. The only clue that he had in fact studied this look in detail was the freshly applied eye make-up. This was the ridiculous person who had solved a murder case quicker than Darren and his team, and probably saved Helen Hope’s life. They shook hands, and as Mikko struggled to meet his eye, Darren remembered that despite this man’s terrifying appearance and presence when he was on stage, he was actually very shy.
They went through his statements, in which Mikko explained how he had been contacted by the police in October of the previous year in connection with a murder investigation. The inverted axe carved into the forehead of a murder victim was an exact match with the logo of his death metal band, Total Depravity. It was a strange coincidence that his band happened to be touring the UK at the time, and had been in Liverpool on the night of the murder. Mikko had also been contacted by Sister Helen Hope, who had made the inverted axe connection herself, independently of the police. Fearing themselves suspects, he and Helen had conducted their own parallel investigation, and in many ways had got further than the police.
As they wrapped things up, Darren remembered his USB, and decided to take a chance.
‘Can I ask you something? If I play you a recording, can you tell me what type of heavy metal it is?’
This was a little unorthodox, Darren knew, but how long might he have to wait for the audio team? He felt that he and Mikko had a unique shared history that had created trust between them and made it somehow acceptable. He handed Mikko some earphones and pressed play. Mikko listened intently, and after a few seconds began nodding in recognition. Surely he doesn’t actually like that terrible noise? Darren thought. After about thirty seconds Mikko took out the earphones and said, ‘Ok.’ He gave Darren a knowing look.
‘Ok what? Don’t tell me, it’s top of the heavy metal charts. It’s from your new album.’
‘No way. That isn’t even music, dude. It’s noise. But it is backmasked as fuck. And backmasking is like super-metal.’
‘You know. It’s recorded backwards. I can tell from the sound. It probably has like a hidden message or something.’
‘Hidden message? But why is that… metal?’
Mikko waved his hand in dismissal. ‘Oh, it was this whole thing in the 1980s. They accused metal bands of hiding satanic messages in their songs, telling people to kill themselves, or whatever. They even put Judas Priest on trial for it, there was this whole court case when a kid committed suicide after listening to heavy metal in his bedroom.’
Darren raised his eyebrows sardonically. ‘The music must have been really terrible then.’ Mikko put up his hands in protest.
‘Hey, you can’t blame it on metal, dude. It was the Beatles who did it first.’
‘Yeah, on their Revolver album. Not one of their best, I have to fucking say. I think it was Yoko Ono’s idea.’
‘Anyway. So you’re telling me that if I play this in reverse, I might be able to decipher something.’
‘Exactly, dude. Fucking cool. Or, maybe not so cool. Maybe the person who made this was really scared of something.’
Catherine Fearns is a writer from Liverpool. Her novels Reprobation (2018) and Consuming Fire (2019) are published by Crooked Cat and are both Amazon bestsellers. As a music journalist Catherine has written for Pure Grain Audio, Broken Amp and Noisey. Her short fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Toasted Cheese, Succubus, Here Comes Everyone, Offshoots and Metal Music Studies. She lives in Geneva with her husband and four children, and when she’s not writing or parenting, she plays guitar in a heavy metal band.
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