Where do you get your ideas?
The dreaded question asked of writers the world over. Now while personally I’ve been stalking authors – ahem, I mean, going to author events for years and have only ever heard it in the context of authors saying they’ve been asked it, I don’t doubt its popularity. Because that’s what everyone wants to know. It’s what I want to know whenever I read a book with an intriguing premise and/or a huge twist. How did he come up with this? Where did she get the idea for that?
I can tell you exactly where I got the idea for Distress Signals: the 12 November 2011 issue of the Guardian Weekend magazine. Specifically its cover story, ‘Lost at Sea’ by Jon Ronson.
Someone left their copy of it behind them in a cafe in Cork, and my mother picked it up and brought it home for me to read. This is something she does all the time: she saves magazines and newspapers, or just clippings from them, or nowadays she’s more likely to email a link to a thing she’s read that she thinks you might be interested in. Thinks. And that’s the problem, because more often than not the link between the article and an area of interest to you is tenuous at best.
For instance, back when I was self-publishing, she thought that all I wanted was to read local community newsletter stories about the latest Tom, Dick or Harry who’d written a 400,000-word opus about every single thing that had ever happened to him, ordered a box of them from CreateSpace and was now flogging it to family and friends while wondering aloud where you send submissions for the Booker.
(I didn’t, for the record.)
Even here, on this occasion, the link was weak. Once upon a time, I worked in Walt Disney World. Not directly for Disney, but for the global hotel brand that operated one of the resorts next to Epcot – and decidedly on dry land. Three and a half years after I returned home, Mum sees a story about a Cast Member (employee in DisneySpeak) who’d disappeared from the Wonder, a Disney cruise ship (run by an entirely separate branch of Mouse Ears Inc), and thinks Oh, Catherine worked for Disney too, she’ll be interested in that.
Me in Magic Kingdom in 2006
Turns out though I actually was, although not because of the Disney link.
I’d never been on a cruise ship or been even mildly tempted to get on one – the biggest ship I’d ever been on was an overnight passenger ferry to France. Still, I had what I would assume are typical ideas about it for someone who’d never been: suntanned pensioners, buffets and cocktails, cabaret shows. Bad stuff that could happen to you on a cruise were, in my head, mostly limited to: (a) claustrophobia because you didn’t book a cabin with a balcony, (b) getting stuck with annoying people at dinner and (c) Norovirus. (The Costa Concordia would add another possibility to that list – sinking – in a couple of months’ time.) As for the rest… Well, terrible things happen in hotels too, on occasion. I knew that from experience. Many suicides, for instance, happen in hotels. A cruise ship is primarily a floating hotel. What’s the difference?
The difference is that if something happens to you in a hotel in New York, the NYPD will come running. If something happens to you in a hotel here in Dublin, the Gardai will quickly arrive on the scene. But what happens when you’re on a ship that’s sailing in international waters? What happens when you’re in no country at all?
Rebecca Coriam was a British citizen working on a ship that was based out of L.A. – a ship owned by a company headquartered in the UK – who disappeared somewhere between the U.S. and Mexico. But yet her disappearance – potentially a crime with a witness list of 3,000 passengers and crew – was investigated by one man, a police officer from the Bahamas, who couldn’t start his investigation until he’d flown over a thousand miles to meet the ship. Why? Because maritime law governs cruise ships when they’re in international waters, and it states that the authority on board is that of the country where the ship is registered. Cruise ships tend to be registered in ‘flags of convenience’ for tax purposes, e.g. Bahamas, Panama, Libya. And no authority is on board, ordinarily – they have to be invited on, which only happens after the fact.
Would you go on holiday to a country that had no police?
Moreover, on a ship with thousands of passengers and crew, a disappearance might not be noticed immediately. And what if it wasn’t a disappearance? The ship might continue to sail away from the location where it happened, the crime scene could be a cabin that’s getting professionally cleaned once a day and potential witnesses – crew and other passengers – could leave the ship and go home. It’s also surrounded by the perfect place to dispose of evidence: three hundred and sixty degrees of open sea.
I was horrified. But at the same time, I was reasonable. This was a horrendous tragedy, yes, but surely it was an isolated incident…? Then I read something that stopped me in my tracks, so much so that I actually took out a pen and highlighted it.
International Cruise Victims. International Cruise Victims. What was happening out there that a group like this existed – and clearly needed to? I started researching the answer online, reading the stories I found with my jaw on my desk.
I came away with three clear ideas in my head. There are no police at sea was the first. The second was the horrific challenge of looking for a missing loved one, searching for them all by yourself, when you had the whole world to check and no one to help you. What would you do? Would you – could you – ever stop, give up? How far would you go if you just had to know what had happened? And the third, which came later, when the wheels in my crime-writer-brain really started whirring, was this: A cruise ship is the perfect place to get away with murder.
I once watched an interview with Edna O’Brien where she talked about writing being her way of grieving for what she read in the headlines. I think of Distress Signals a bit like that, a way of working out for myself the question that I kept asking when, after reading Ronson’s article, I started researching the laws, circumstances and attitudes that seemingly enable cruise ship crimes to happen so frighteningly often: how can this be?
That’s where I got my idea.
You can now read a preview of the first three chapters of Distress Signals here. If you’re on Facebook, you can enter the giveaway currently running on my Facebook page. The prize is a signed copy and a gift. (Ends Friday 8th.)
The original article by Jon Ronson is online here and it’s also included in his collection of journalism, Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries, which is available here. Rebecca Coriam’s parents have established a website here, and also had a hand in founding the Maritime Victims International Helpline initiative. You can visit the International Cruise Victims website here. Cruise Junkie keeps a running tally of how many people have gone overboard from cruise ships going back to 1995. It’s currently at 270.