The colour of murder: talking to Sarah J Harris

The colour of murder: talking to Sarah J Harris

The Colour Of Bee Larkham's Murder is a synaesthesia-inspired murder-mystery novel – the first one I (and probably you) have ever read. It follows a 13-year-old boy with synaesthesia, Jasper, grappling with the death of his next-door neighbour, Bee Larkham. It tackles subjects like grief, autism, bullying, abuse, and examines our own perception of people who are 'different'. The book also attracted a six-figure deal for Sarah J Harris, the author – and its own podcast. I caught up with Sarah about her research into synaesthesia... and being a pretty big deal.

carlotta: What came first: your interest in synaesthesia, or the idea for the story?

Sarah: My interest in synaesthesia was sparked years before I wrote The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder. I’m a freelance education journalist and the UK Synaesthesia Association had got in touch about new Edinburgh University research into the prevalence of synaesthesia in children. Researchers estimated that the average UK primary school had at least two pupils who experience colour when they hear or see words. But they warned of a lack of awareness in schools – a finding that I’m sure still resonates today.

I wrote a feature for a national newspaper and interviewed a mother who described how teachers at her daughter’s school initially thought the nine-year-old was making it up when she claimed she was ‘trying to see round the colours’ that were projected in front of her in the classroom. At one stage, her daughter had become distracted in class and spelt a word wrong because the boy sitting behind her was tapping a ruler, which created purple streaks. However, once teachers became more aware of the potential distractions for the little girl, they were more tolerant and understanding.

 

I often wondered what it must be like for a child when people struggle to understand their daily experiences or simply don’t want to know

 

The findings stayed with me long after my feature was published. I often wondered what it must be like for a child when people struggle to understand their daily experiences or simply don’t want to know. I kept cuttings from newspapers and magazines about synaesthesia and also avidly read up on another condition called prosopagnosia or face blindness, which interests me greatly.

CE: Jasper is a super interesting character and young boy (so is Bee). You also touched upon so many big topics in the book, like autism, abuse, bullying, grief. and how did you integrate synaesthesia into the story and its topics?

SH: All the issues I tackled in the book interest my greatly. I do not have autism, synaesthesia or face blindness – and neither do any family members – so I knew I would have to undertake extensive research into all three conditions. I read online material such as academic papers, advice for parents, books and short films on YouTube. I knew from this initial research who I would need to contact for help.

I began by interviewing experts in synaesthesia – Jamie Ward, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Sussex and Dr Mary Jane Spiller, senior lecturer in the school of psychology at the University of East London. Both were tremendously helpful and encouraging throughout the process. I also wanted to talk to synaesthetes themselves and was aided by James Wannerton at the UK Synaesthesia Association and Professor Sean Day, from Trident Technical College, South Carolina, who runs the Synesthesia List. Both put out appeals for potential interviewees.

 

I quizzed synaesthetes about the colours they saw for sounds such as a front door slamming,
a doorbell ringing, birds singing

 

I was overwhelmed with the response and the generosity of the synaesthesia community in terms of their help and advice – people got in touch from the UK, Germany and the US. I quizzed synaesthetes about the colours they saw for sounds such as a front door slamming, a doorbell ringing, birds singing. I decided to construct my own sound/colour schemes to make the palette individual to Jasper and his experience. As a result, I kept large spread sheets detailing the colours for every single sound I mentioned in the book, ordered by headings such as vehicle noises, birds singing, doors slamming etc. This forced me keep track of all the colours I was using and helped to make the colour/sounds consistent throughout

Everyone I encountered regarded synaesthesia as something that enhanced their lives and they could not imagine their world without it. I wanted my book to reflect this essential fact – that everyone sees the world differently and that is a good thing, particularly in the current climate.

 ' Ice blue crystals with glittery edges and jagged, silver icicles.'

'Ice blue crystals with glittery edges and jagged, silver icicles.'

CE: What about your research into prosopagnosia, the inability to recognise anyone's face. Did this come hand-in-hand with Jasper's synaesthesia as an integral part to the story?

SH: I undertook a similar amount of research for prosopagnosia. I talked to people with face blindness to discover how they used ‘markers’ to distinguish between faces and how they coped with everyday life. I interviewed Hazel Plastow from Face Blind UK – she was hugely helpful in discussing the condition and for checking essential plot points as I went along. I was also helped by the National Autistic Society, which put me in touch with Robyn Steward, who also has face blindness.

I considered the face blindness to be as integral to the plot as the synaesthesia. My main character, 13-year-old Jasper Wishart, had come to me in a dream – a harrowing image of a young boy tearing across a suburban street at night, terror etched on his face. When I woke up, I wondered if a particular colour could have traumatised the boy. Perhaps he had face blindness and identified people by the colour of their voices. What if the voice colour of someone he knew had transformed to a horrifying shade as they screamed? What if he had seen the colour of their murder?

The book grew from that single image – a young boy with synaesthesia and face blindness who had seen the colour of his neighbour, Bee Larkham’s death, the night she disappeared from his street. Ice blue crystals with glittery edges and jagged, silver icicles.

CE: I thought it was interesting that Jasper's 'gifts' were often noted as bad things, or problems. Jasper does seem to show some autistic traits too, like not understanding sarcasm well. I wondered why you decided to combine the two? Is Jasper autistic, or is this more his dad's and others perception of him?

SH: I would say that most other people – apart from Jasper’s mum and Bee Larkham – consider Jasper’s ‘gifts’ as bad things. But Jasper certainly doesn’t see his synaesthesia as a bad thing – he loves seeing colours and can’t imagine life without synaesthesia despite being traumatised by the colour of murder.

 

What if the voice colour of someone he knew had transformed to a horrifying shade as they screamed? What if he had seen the colour of their murder?

 

As well as being a synaesthete and having face blindness, Jasper is also autistic. This seemed to make the most sense for the character I’d imagined in my head. He has the repetitive behaviour associated with some autistic children, such as his obsessive note taking and parakeet watching, but in addition, he has difficulty distinguishing between different faces and sees the world through colour.

I knew this was possible – research links both synaesthesia and face blindness to autism. A 2013 study led by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen at the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University found that, whereas synaesthesia only occurred in 7.2%t of typical individuals, it occurred in 18.9% of people with autism.

As part of my research, I also interviewed an autistic lady in the USA who has synaesthesia and face blindness. She too, like my character, uses the colour of people’s voices to help identify them.

CE: There were so many incredible synaesthesia descriptions – for example, Jasper's mum's voice is colbalt blue, and the word 'hope' is tomato ketchup. How easily did these come to you? Did it help your writing to think this way?

SH: I knew the colours had to reflect Jasper’s personal likes and dislikes – he loves beautiful blue colours, particularly cobalt blue, and hates darkish yellowish-browns such as rusty chrome orange and the yellow French fries of David Gilbert’s dog. I imagined these barks to be sharp splinters of an unpleasant yellow shade while DC Chamberlain’s rusty chrome orange voice grates like nails down a blackboard.

 

Wednesday seemed as fresh as ‘toothpaste white’,
‘hope’ was as bright as ‘tomato ketchup’ and ‘sex’
was a sweet ‘bubble-gum pink’

 

I also tried to imagine the colours from a child’s perspective and think of words they would be most likely to use, such as in relation to food and everyday items. Wednesday seemed as fresh as ‘toothpaste white’, ‘hope’ was as bright as ‘tomato ketchup’ and ‘sex’ was a sweet ‘bubble-gum pink’ colour. I knew that Bee Larkham’s voice must be a beautiful shade of blue that was similar to his mum’s cobalt blue. I really enjoyed coming up with the different colours and writing from Jasper’s point of view.

CE: This book attracted a six-figure book deal, which is amazing, especially for a debut! I also adore that you've shone a light on synaesthesia. Did you come across many people who'd never heard of it?

SH: Many readers have got in touch with me on social media and said they enjoyed reading the book and finding out about a condition they had no previous knowledge about. However, the more I talk about my book, the more I also find people with a range of synaesthetic experiences.

I didn’t think anyone in my friendship group had synaesthesia, until I discussed Jasper with one of my closest friends while I was writing the novel. She was very surprised when I explained that Jasper was a synaesthete – not only did he see colours for all sounds, but numbers also had colours and personalities, e.g. number four is carrot orange and sneaky for Jasper. She replied: ‘Of course numbers have personalities, isn’t that the same for everyone?’ I said it wasn’t. Numbers have no colours or personalities for me, or indeed, for most people. Her jaw dropped. She explained that for her, number three was a ‘bit wishy-washy and quite yellow’ while number four was ‘like a dog, it’s sort of loyal’ and number six was ‘like a girl with an open face and freckles who you would like to be friends with.’

My friend is a synaesthete, but had never realised she had the condition until we discussed it.

CE: How did you deal with this kind of pressure and publicity?

SH: I enjoy using social media – Twitter and Instagram – and connecting with my readers. It’s lovely to hear how much they’ve enjoyed my book. As I’m a journalist, I’m used to doing interviews – albeit being on the other side of the table – so I don’t find it stressful. I’m currently hard at work on my next book so I’m trying to balance writing that with the publicity demands of The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder.

CE: The book is also part of HarperCollins' first podcast, and I love that a synaesthesia-focused book is spreading across multimedia platforms! What can you tell us about the podcast?

SH: HarperCollins asked if I’d like to take part in their first ever book podcast, to tie in with the launch of The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder and I jumped at the opportunity. The podcast examines synaesthesia and face blindness and is free to listen to on iTunes and SoundCloud.

In episode one, I interviewed James Wannerton from the UK Synaesthesia Association. I also went on a sensory journey through the colours and sounds of London’s Covent Garden with synaesthete artist, Sigourney Young. She described the colours of the sounds she experienced, before we went back to the studio and talked some more.

 

I also went on a sensory journey through the colours and sounds of London’s Covent Garden with synaesthete artist, Sigourney Young

 

Sigourney’s artwork is based on her synaesthesia experience of a piece of music and she also provides a written description of how the music translates to colour. She gets lots of commissions, such as to create paintings of couple’s favourite songs as wedding and birthday presents, and is very reasonably priced. I’m planning to commission her to paint a piece of music for me too – possibly 'Moon River', which was the piece of music my husband and I had our first dance to at our wedding! You can look at Sigourney’s fabulous synaesthete artwork here.

In episode two, I met Emmeline May to explore what it’s like living with face blindness and how she copes with every day realities from watching action movies to online dating. I also interviewed Dr Rachel Bennetts, a lecturer in psychology at Brunel University London, and expert in face blindness.

CE: What kind of synaesthesia would you like to have?

SH: If I had synaesthesia I’d want chromesthesia, like my character, Jasper. I’d love to see colours when I listen to music. It sounds like an amazing experience!

CE: If this book were a sound or a song, what would it be? What kind of painting?

SH: The song would have to be 'Carnival of the Animals: Royal March of the Lion' as Jasper loves the colours from this particular piece of music. He hears this Camille Saint-Saëns music being played loudly by Bee Larkham on her first night back in Vincent Gardens. The loud music upsets the neighbours – a sign of further troubles to come.

The painting would have to be a bright cobalt blue background – the colour of Jasper’s late mother’s voice – with splashes of Jasper’s cool blue and his dad’s muddy ochre voice blended in. All the colours would complement each other perfectly.

Sarah J Harris 3 credit Philippa Gedge.jpg

Sarah J Harris

Sarah J Harris is an author and freelance education journalist who regularly writes for national British newspapers. She is the author of the young adult series Jessica Cole: Model Spy, written under her pen name, Sarah Sky. She lives in London with her husband and two young children. The Colour of Bee Larkham's Murder is her first adult novel.

Carlotta is co-founding editor of Synaesthesia Magazine.