WA author Katherine Herbert has reason to celebrate. Her debut novel, murder mystery The River Mouth has hit the shelves.
Katherine chats to The Starfish.
How long did it take you to write The River Mouth?
I wrote The River Mouth over a six month period in 2019/20, then I spent about three months working with my editor, Georgia Richter at Fremantle Press.
Did you enjoy writing it?
I absolutely loved it. I could see, feel, hear and smell the setting, which was very familiar to me. I also felt the characters very closely, especially Sandra, who is my sisters, my work colleagues, my friends, and all the women of my generation.
In a nutshell, what’s it about?
The River Mouth is about the shooting death of a teenage boy by the banks of a river in rural Western Australia. The murder remains unsolved for ten years until Barbara, a close friend of the boy’s family, dies at a remote Pilbara campsite. Barbara’s DNA matches the DNA found under Darren’s fingernails when he died. When the investigation into Darren’s death is re-opened, Darren’s mother questions what she knew about Barbara. She discovers that there are secrets in her community and that her dead son had secrets too.
How did the idea for the story come to you?
The book started with a scene that became chapter four. I wrote about three boys doing bombies off a rope swing at a river where my sisters and I roamed as kids. The riverbank was unsupervised and mostly unseen, so it was a place where we could hang out away from adults. There was an element of wildness and danger there too – submerged rocks, people lingering, hairy caterpillars, snakes – and I wondered about the boys and what happened to them. Were they safe? What were their homes like? How did their lives turn out? I suspected not everything went well and I wanted to know what happened to them.
Why did you decide to set in it an imaginary town?
The setting for The River Mouth is drawn from my life growing up in Geraldton on the mid-west coast of Australia. It isn’t Geraldton, though, it is a fictional place, so I gave it a fictional name. I didn’t quite appreciate the impact of that until I started talking with readers and realised that the fictional setting gave them permission to bring their own imagination to the setting. I have had readers tell me how similar the river is to places they grew up or visited and how this made the story extra special for them. I love that. It gives the story a whole new layer of meaning and connection for readers that I didn’t anticipate.
Prior to writing The River Mouth, you did a writers’ course at Fremantle Art Centre; how much did that experience assist you when you sat down to write the novel?
It was invaluable and continues to be a big part of my writing life. The six week course run by Marlish Glorie re-introduced me to all of the tools of writing. Plot, setting, character, point of view, structure. It also introduced me to other writers and showed me how to listen to other writing voices, and how to give and receive feedback. The people from that course are now all members of the same writing group and we write along side each other.
You have written the chapters from two different character’s perspectives, one in the past tense and one in the present tense. Did that technique post particular challenges?
Using two different narrators opened up the story by giving me access to events and perspectives that only one narrator might not have been able to provide. Sandra’s story allowed me to explore how Darren’s death was investigated, the impact on his parents and their relationship, the local community and its secrets. Colin’s story reveals what Colin, Darren and Tim were up to in the weeks before Darren died. We get to see the things their parents didn’t see, how they were learning about their environment, their community, and each other. I had to let the two different narratives unfold ways that made sense to a reader and that took a bit of work.
Tell us about your background: when did you decide you wanted to become a writer?
I started writing in 2019, the day after I was made redundant from my job in aged care. Until then, I harboured occasional thoughts of writing, but probably no more or less than anyone else does. When I found time to write when I was younger, I didn’t much like what I put down on paper. In 2019 though, I wrote every day until I found a part time job. I liked what I’d written and enjoyed the challenge of persevering with a full length manuscript. I am very fortunate that Fremantle Press also liked what I’d written enough to publish it!
Who would this book appeal to, do you think?
I think The River Mouth appeals to readers who enjoy a twisty crime story without the visceral description of what happened. I have kept the gory details out of this story. I have found that people who enjoy rural and Australian crime also enjoy the book for its recognisable setting and characters.
The River Mouth (Fremantle Press) is out now.