IT was a typical Cork upbringing. The three Howard children and their parents John and Kathleen lived in Grange. John was a horticultural sales rep, and Kathleen a stay at home mother.
Now, the red carpet beckons for two of the three Howard siblings: Catherine Ryan Howard has been nominated for a highly prestigious Edgar Award for her second book, crime thriller The Liar’s Girl, and it was revealed this week that she had signed a ‘major six-figure deal’ with US publisher Blackstone.
And her younger brother John Ryan Howard starred in Beyond The Woods, a Cork-filmed horror movie which was nominated for Best Thriller in the UK’s National Film Awards.
Catherine and John settle down for a chat, with some of the usual playful squabbles that so many adult siblings who are close affectionately indulge in.
“First of all, a confession,” Catherine, the elder sibling, starts. “We’re not Ryan Howards: we’re just Howards. But John Howard was the Prime Minister of Australia and Catherine Howard was the fifth wife of Henry the Eighth, so for Google purposes, I adopted my mother’s maiden name and then John copied me.”
“She suggested it,” John cuts in.
“No, I think you stole it.” Catherine smiles at him.
Catherine, John and their younger sister Claire shared, it seems, quite an ordinary childhood. By all accounts, theirs was not a family known for excelling in the arts: they weren’t surrounded by novelist and actor relatives growing up. So where did all of this creative talent come from?
“I’ve been thinking about this,” Catherine says. “When we were young, we lived near a video rental shop and saw literally everything. I genuinely think that had a huge influence on me because I was watching all these true crime movies. We watched them together as a family and I think that had something to do with it.”
This was in the era before the ‘video nasties’ panic, where many parents let their children watch horror movies, and the Howards were no different: John remembers going to one video shop with a note from his mother saying that they had carte blanche to take out any film they wanted, regardless of age certification.
The result was that the brother and sister shared a love of the macabre that has been a clear influence right up until the present day. While Catherine invested her energies into writing, John started shooting home-made horror movies with friends, “with ketchup for blood and everything,” in his early teens.
Poor youngest sister Claire sometimes bore the brunt of John’s love of jump-scares: he remembers hiding under her bed and dragging his nails across the floorboards to frighten her.
“He was a very annoying child,” Catherine says. “When I was a bit older, our parents took the lease on Leeview Stores in Ballinlough and on a Saturday morning they’d do the cash and carry run. I’d be left to look after John and Claire and they used to drive me crazy. They’d gang up on me.”
In the meantime, middle child John recalls Catherine as a typical bossy older sister. But these jokey jibes are all part of the luxury of being in a family whose relationships are built on a bedrock of support and affection.
Eking out a living as a writer or an actor is notoriously precarious. Catherine, whose debut novel Distress Signals made the Irish Times and USA Today Bestsellers lists and was nominated for several crime fiction awards, may seem to have become an “overnight success,” but in reality, it’s taken her a decade of hard graft, self-publishing and combining her writing with part-time day-jobs to reach the point she’s at today.
After school, she enrolled in a Science degree in Lancaster University and “broke dad’s heart” when she dropped out after three weeks. Now in her mid-thirties, Catherine has just completed her degree in English from Trinity College; it was weeks into her first semester that she got a book deal with publishers Corvus.
“When I went into career guidance in Transition Year, the options were all the usual: nurse, bank, that kind of thing,” Catherine says. “There was no-one to say, ‘This is what you do’. The first time I went to college I did science, which was totally wrong for me, because I didn’t even know I could work in publishing.”
The Liar’s Girl is the second novel to emerge from her six-book deal. And Catherine is very excited to be nominated for an Edgar Award for her work. Named after Edgar Allen Poe, the Edgar Awards are held in New York each year and previous winners have included Steven King and Michael Creighton.
Her next novel, Rewind, is due out in September.
All that hard graft is finally paying off, then? “I wrote for years, and John was getting roles here and there, but it’s really hard to explain to people that those things are progress, because they’re waiting for that big book deal or paid gig.”
“People have your best intentions at heart when they say things like ‘wouldn’t you go and get a proper job?’” Catherine says. “They’re not saying it because they don’t want you to achieve your dreams, but I just never listened to anyone. I was just always convinced that this was going to happen. I don’t know if we’re deluded or confident. But it’s easier when someone else is equally deluded.”
“Catherine was the first person I told I was going to be an actor,” John says. “I was expecting a negative response from everyone, but I’ll never forget it because she just said, ‘Well, if you’re going to do it, you’re really going to have to go for it properly’.”
If writing is a precarious profession, then acting is even more so. John, like Catherine, enrolled in college following school but dropped out, having lasted a year on a business degree in CIT. Then he found the Drama course in Kinsale College of Further Education and, he says, never looked back.
John played the role of Ger, one of the main characters in Beyond The Woods, a feature-length supernatural horror by Cork-based director Seán Breathnach.
He’s looking forward to the release of Gateway, another Irish horror movie in which he starred, later in 2019. But first, he’s off to London for the UK’s National Film Awards, for which Beyond The Woods has been nominated for Best Thriller.
“There are eight nominated films in the best Thriller Category, but most of them are big Hollywood or Netflix films,” John says. “So for a small, independent Irish film, shot in Cork, this is massive. It feels quite surreal.”
While Catherine moved out of home when she moved to Dublin almost five years ago, John still has the security of a place to live in the family home, for now, a buffer against the vagaries of acting work.
But John, like Catherine, has a strong streak of determination. And he has the path his older sister has forged to help him chart his own course too: for the Howards, their ability to support each other through the uncertain times has been vital to both of them.
“Her success started before mine, so that felt like validation for me,” John says, looking at his sister.
“I was aware of her struggle before she had success, and I always knew she could do it and that she’s a great writer.”
Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Liars Girl is available now in all good booksellers. See www.catherineryanhoward.com
Beyond The Woods is nominated for Best Thriller in the UK’s National Film Awards on March 27. The public can vote for their film of choice at: https://www.nationalfilmawards.org/voting/