May book club - The Colour of Bee Larkham's Murder(80 Posts)
Thanks very much to GN for the copy of The Colour of Bee Larkham's Murder which arrived today. Thought it unusual that the title was not on the front cover but I look forward to reading it.
Yes, I saw them Elrel, and remember seeing them in Bushey Park a few years ago.
I was reminded of this book this morning during relaxation at the end of the yoga session - the teacher read out some prose which mentioned sound as 'being the colour blue'.
Watching Springwatch last evening I enjoyed seeing the fledgling parakeets as the pub in Thanet! Reminded me of the book.
At bookclub yesterday the friend I'd lent my copy to said she really loved it. She was going to buy herself own copy so I said she must keep mine. her friend's autistic son has, she said, many things in common with Jasper.
Lovely to read both the questions of others who read the book and Sarah's thoughtful and detailed responses. Huge thanks to Sarah, so interesting and impressive to know of your painstaking and wide ranging research. 💐
Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions so comprehensively. It's been really interesting.
Thank you so much for answering in such detail .It must have taken you ages.I was very interested in Jasper as I have an autistic grandson a few years younger than him and so I could identify with all the autistic traits.I thought you handled the whole topic with great sensitivity and I will look out for your work in the future.
SarahJHarris Many thanks from me too for providing such a detailed and fascinating account of your creative process. I'm another one who's looking forward to your next book. And, as the grandmother of a soon to be teenager, I'll also be looking out for the works of Sarah Sky
SarahJHarris thank you very much for your very detailed responses to the questions. Also thank you for such a thought provoking book.
I look forward to reading your next book.
Thanks again to GN for another book I might not have discovered by myself; and to Sarah J. Harris for an intriguingly different and interesting read . I’d definitely recommend this book.
“Bee Larkham’s murder was ice blue crystals with glittery edges and jagged, silver icicles.” From the very first sentence in this book we see events through the eyes of a severely autistic boy with both synaesthesia and prosopagnosia (face blindness). The boy, thirteen year old Jasper, isn't exactly an unreliable narrator but is most definitely one who is challenging to translate. Jasper cannot ‘see’ faces, he can only recognise people by the most basic clues - blonde hair, blue baseball hat, cherry-red trousers - and the colour of their voices. And it’s the colours that make this novel such a captivating read. Through Jasper’s own quirky and colourful retelling of the events and occurrences that have taken place the truth is slowly revealed, as what he knows is gradually unlocked for the reader – and the police - to decipher. It’s a great premise for a murder mystery.
Jasper paints what he experiences as abstract shapes, smooth or jagged, soft circles or hard rectangles, in the colours which represent what he sees, hears and the emotions he experiences. Jealousy is “a wishy-washy shade of onion”; the cries of his beloved parakeets are “deep cornflower blue with yellow hiccups”; and Rihanna’s music “exploding stars of gold and silver rippling and expanding into seas of flamingo and watermelon pink”... all of which made me wish I could experience what a synaesthete experiences. I’d love to see some illustrative examples of Jasper’s paintings, although I guess that would have pushed up the printing costs? And I’d love to know what my colours are!
I confess that, about half-way through the book, I did begin to find the author’s repeated descriptions of Jasper’s condition a tad monotonous, with no apparent progression of the story. But then it picks up pace and was simply ‘unputdownable’ for the last 130 pages as the plot finally unravelled and the truth was revealed.
I have no personal experience of synaesthesia nor of face blindness and learned a lot from reading this book. It also motivated me to learn more. Even before reading the acknowledgements and list of references, it was clear that the author had done her utmost to capture the uniqueness of Jasper’s voice authentically. All in all, her nuanced, sensitive portrayal of this “most extraordinary boy” is fascinating to read, opening our minds to voices so often unheard.
My questions for Sarah:
Journalist or author, which gives you most satisfaction?
What are the different challenges?
Being an author gives me more satisfaction as I can write whatever I want. With journalism, I’m paid to write a particular story. I definitely enjoy the freedom of being an author. Both have different challenges - journalism can be very stressful as you are constantly on deadline and often have very short amounts of time to research and write an article. Readers’ responses are often short-lived. The same
can’t be said for novel writing - new readers are constantly finding and engaging with your work, here and overseas, over longer periods of time. It feels more permanent and satisfying, but it comes with its own set of pressures - will readers like my book? Will they recommend it to their friends? Will they like my next book?
I’m quite a worrier by nature, so I find things to worry about both as an author and a journalist!
Well, I don’t have the synesthesia, but after a lifetime of apologising to people for not being “good with faces”, I heard about face blindness a few years ago, and recognised then that my dad had it, and that I have it too to (I think!) a lesser extent. Dad would stand smiling away while my mother chatted to one of his aunts in the street, then ask her later who she’d been talking to. I have real trouble remembering faces and don’t recognise people out of context, so make a habit of smiling at everyone I meet, just in case I ignore someone I know and offend them (yet again!). Fortunately I live in Yorkshire, where smiling at strangers is still perfectly acceptable!
Jasper’s face blindness was at an entirely different level though, and it was fascinating to see how bad it can be, and how severely it can affect everyday life. I loved the book in the end – it was a bit of a slow burner at first, and I got a bit tired of hearing about parakeets! But I couldn’t put it down once I got to the last third or so and events came thick and fast. I was rooting for Jasper throughout, and worried about what would happen to him if his dad (another sympathetic and well-drawn character) turned out to be the villain of the piece. Jasper’s colours were so central to the plot and I admire the way the author depicted them so that they really came alive. It can’t have been easy!
I understand that the author is a freelance journalist and that this is the first book she has written for adults. I’d like to ask whether she intends to concentrate on her books now or whether she will continue to write for the media.
Thank you again for a really good read!
At the moment, I’m still balancing freelance education journalism with writing novels. I would like to concentrate on writing books in future, but still dip into journalism now and then.
Would ask the author if she plans to write any more novels about people with autism or more unusual conditions?
Yes, I’m very interested in the different ways that people view the world. There are a number of conditions that I’m fascinated by and currently reading up on, which I think could form the basis of future adult or Young Adult books (I also write in this genre, but under the pen name, Sarah Sky).
When will your next novel be out?
Many thanks again, for a fantastic "most extraordinary
I’m currently researching and writing my second adult novel, but I don’t have a publication date yet. It’s set in the aftermath of a terrible accident involving a child. I’m researching serious head injuries, comas and post-traumatic shock syndrome.
Jasper describes his mother as also seeing colours. Is this a genetic condition?
Yes, studies have shown a strong genetic link for synaesthesia. According to research published in 2005, around 40 per cent of synaesthetes know of at least one other family member who has it. This isn’t always immediate family and it can skip generations. The University of Sussex also points out that synaesthetes often choose not to discuss their synaesthesia with their family in case they are dismissive of it.
“It is possible for a synaesthete to ‘come out’ late in life, only to find that their brother or sister or parents has been privately experiencing something very similar,” its researchers say.
Bee's story is interesting. Where did she get her inspiration from to develop her?
Were Jasper and Bee based on anyone you know Sarah?
Bee definitely isn’t based on anyone I know - thankfully! However, as a freelance education journalist, I’d been struck by the growing number of cases in the news involving teachers striking up relationships with pupils. I’ve written about some of these teachers who are eventually banned from the profession - the cases coming up before conduct panels at the National College for Teaching and Leadership are now depressingly regular. I often wondered what made these men and women do it?Why were they prepared to risk everything to cross the line, to breach their duty of care to pupils and to even break the law? As the mother of two young sons, the whole subject fills me with horror.
I wanted to tackle the sensitive subject by trying to offer an explanation for why someone might decide to cross this line, whilst making it clear that I would never, ever condone this sort of behaviour in a million years.
In terms of developing my character, the name ‘Bee’ came to me very early on. In my study, I have notelets with the words ‘Bee Inspired’ written on the front with the picture of a bee - I see them every day on my bookshelf. I realised that ‘Bee’ was a good name because Jasper would see the colours for the sound of a bee buzzing, but also a different colour for the voice of someone with that name. I thought it would help emphasise the difference between Jasper’s and other people’s perceptions.
Again, the character of Jasper wasn’t based on anyone I know. He was completely made up from my imagination, but based on my knowledge of autism, synaesthesia and face blindness.
As an education journalist I’ve previously written about autism. I carried out research into all three conditions while writing the book and have friends with autistic children. We’ve discussed their difficulties and often quite frustrating experiences at school. I was very much aware that autism is a spectrum and that no two autistic children are alike - which gave me the freedom to develop Jasper as a well-rounded character. For example, many autistic children hate to be touched and loathe loud music - but Jasper doesn’t have a problem with touch and loves music, the louder the better.
One aspect of Jasper probably came from personal experience - the bullying he experiences at school. I was bullied and my early years at school were miserable. I used to run home to try to avoid the bully who waited for me at
the school gate, just like Jasper. As an adult, I’ve learnt to stick up for myself more and taking up martial arts in adulthood has given me more confidence. I’m now a
black belt in karate and currently training to become a Second Dan.
What made her decide to give Jasper such a range of differences? (Autism, face blindness and seeing colours?)
I would ask the author whether she always intended to give Jasper’s character two types of problem or did they develop as the idea for the story progressed?.
Before I started writing my novel, I’d already decided that Jasper would have autism, synaesthesia and face blindness and had read up on all three conditions. I’d been researching synaesthesia and face blindness when I got the idea for my novel in a dream - I saw a young boy running across a surburban road at night, terror etched on his face. When I woke up, I wondered what had scared the boy so much -could he have seen the colour of something terrible? Could he have seen the colour of murder? I knew that the young boy’s terror would also have been magnified that night if he had face blindness as well as synaesthesia. The more I thought about the boy, I imagined him standing at a bedroom window, with binoculars clamped to his face, obsessively watching birds. I realised that my character was also autistic and his attention to detail, such as watching Bee Larkham’s front garden and noting down visitors, would become crucial to my plot.
All three conditions seemed to make the most sense for the character I’d imagined - I felt this was Jasper. 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
I already knew that it was possible for someone to have all three conditions - studies link both synaesthesia and face blindness to autism. I also interviewed an autistic lady in the United States as part of my research who has synaesthesia and face blindness. She too, like my character, uses the colour of people’s voices to help identify them. I was able to check certain plot points with her, which was incredibly helpful.
I found this book very interesting, a highly unusual take on a murder mystery and with many interesting characters. I was very intrigued to read about synaesthesia and particularly how Jasper used painting to help him make sense of the world. I wonder if the author met anyone with synaesthesia who uses art in this way as part of her research?
A thoroughly enjoyable read.
I interviewed lots of synaesthetes as part of my research - but none of them actually painted, despite being able to vividly describe the way colours merged or changed.
However, I’d read up about synaesthete artists, looked at their artwork online and watched YouTube videos about artist Jane Mackay, a synaesthete artist. I understood how the paintings would need to look from a synaesthete’s perspective and had help from a local artist to recreate some of the crucial pictures, such as the colour of murder, to enable me to describe the process of painting it accurately.
After I’d written the book, I recorded podcasts for HarperCollins about synaesthesia (and face blindness), which are free to listen to here: itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-colour-of-bee-larkhams-murder-the-podcast/id1377727179?mt=2
and also here: soundcloud.com/bee-larkham-the-podcast/the-colour-of-bee-larkhams-murder-chapter-1
In episode one, I interviewed an incredibly talented synaesthete artist, Sigourney Young. We went to Covent Garden, where she described the colours of the sounds she experienced, before we went back to the studio and talked some more.
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: synesthesia.art/author/sigyoung/
Just raced through the last few chapters as I had to know whodunnit and what exactly had been done!
Another great choice GN, thank you.
I was guessing the outcome from the start (the title gives a clue) and got it completely wrong. Probably because I have trouble thinking in colour!
I wonder if Sarah had a colour chart when writing as I would have forgotten who was which and run out of colour names.
Yes, absolutely! I kept huge spread sheets detailing the colours for every single sound I mentioned in the book, with page numbers. Each spread sheet was for a particular sound ie people’s voices; the parakeets; other birds; vehicle noises such as car engines revving/motorbikes; footsteps in the street and indoors; doors closing and slamming; water sounds such as a tap dripping and the shower running, and so on. This was the only way I could possibly keep track of the colours.
I knew from the synaesthesia research I’d undertaken that I had to remain consistent ie if Jasper saw dark torpedo shapes from his footsteps in the street one day, they couldn’t be bright liac the next. Doors closing gently or slamming shut would look different, but again, they would be in the same range of colours ie they couldn’t be a dark brown when closed gently and light fuschia when slammed. It took an enormous amount of time to detail and keep track of all the colours, but it was definitely worth it to make my depiction of synaesthesia as genuine as possible.
You covered so many different areas in the story, the parakeets, court procedures, Autism etc., I read in your acknowledgements your thanks for all the help you received, but how did you know where to go to get this help?.
I’m a freelance education journalist and my journalistic background definitely helped with the research - I knew I’d have to interview experts and people with synaesthesia and face blindness. I started off by scouring the Internet for articles about autism, face blindness and synaesthesia - as many as I could find. I watched documentaries and YouTube videos and read articles, research papers and books.
Through this initial groundwork, I was able to identify key experts in the conditions in the UK - and also abroad - who I could approach for help. I also got in touch wwith the National Autistic Society, the UK Synaesthesia Association and Face Blind UK, which I realised would be key to assisting with my research - and putting me in touch with people with the conditions. I made lists of people to talk to, here and overseas, and basically worked my way through the list.
I also found lots of articles about wild ring-necked parakeets on the Internet and knew that the RSPB would be a good port of call for help, as well as Dr Hazel Jackson from the University of Kent’s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE). I found Dr Jackson by trawling through research papers on wild ring-necked parakeets on the Internet. A friend of my husband’s also happens to be an expert in parakeets and was a huge help - I double-checked chapters featuring parakeets with him to make sure that my timelines were correct in terms of the birds nesting, eggs hatching and the young parakeets finally fledging. He didn’t want to be named in my acknowledgements, but ‘The Bird Man’ was absolutely key to my parakeet research.
Friends were also very helpful - particularly a crime journalist I know who assisted with court and police procedures. He also put me in touch with a serving detective to talk to about plot points. In addition, through other friends I found a lawyer and a social worker I could check details with.
My question for the author is:
Have you met people with either or both of Jasper's conditions? Especially is there anyone among your family or close friends?
I'd like to ask the author if she needed to do a lot of research on the subject or does she know someone with synaesthesia and seeing the world through colours?
I am interested to know if the author has first hand experience of the issues in this book because of how well they are presented.
Looking forward to another book by Sarah.
Can I ask Sarah, what prompted her to include these particular conditions into the story, they have such a profound effect on his life, How did she become aware of the condition initially? Many thanks again, for a fantastic "most extraordinary
I’ve been interested in synaesthesia for years, after first coming across the condition during my work as an education journalist. I’d written a feature about childhood
synaesthesia following new research at Edinburgh University, which estimated that the average UK primary school had at least two pupils who experience colour when
they hear or see words. Researchers warned of a lack of awareness in schools - a finding that I’m sure still resonates today. I interviewed a mother for the feature, 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 around 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.
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 found the subject fascinating. I kept cuttings from newspapers and magazines about synaesthesia and also avidly read up on another condition that fascinated me - developmental prosopagnosia or face blindness.
I started to research synaesthesia and face blindness more intensively and both conditions played on my mind a lot. The central idea for the book eventually came to me in a dream: I saw a terrified young boy running across a suburban street at night, terror etched on his face. When I woke up, I realised that 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 well had transformed to a horrific shade as they screamed? What if he had seen the colour of murder? The idea for the book grew from there.
I knew I would have to undertake extensive research into synaesthesia, face blindness and autism because neither myself, nor any of my family members, have the conditions. I didn’t think anyone in my friendship group had synaesthesia either, 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 eg 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.
I was eager to delve into other people’s experiences of synaesthesia and face blindness to ensure my depiction of Jasper was accurate. I started off 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 world famous Synesthesia List. Both put out appeals for potential interviewees. 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, a bird singing, a car engine revving, and voices talking. I realized that everyone saw completely different colours. However, their colours remained within a range ie their footsteps in the street couldn’t be a dark charcoal shade one day and then an attractive, fluorescent flamingo pink the next. They also shared a few familiarities - all described how whispers made voice colours change to whitish/greyish colours and how dramatic changes in voice colours could happen.
The synaesthetes also saw colours that were incredibly difficult to describe - colours that you or I have probably never experienced. In addition, everyone I encountered regarded synaesthesia as something that enhanced their lives and they could not imagine their world without
it. 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 sheetsdetailing the colours for every single sound I mentioned in the book, ordered by headings such as such as vehicle noises, birds singing, doors slamming etc. This forced me to keep track of all the colours I was using and helped to make the colour/sounds consistent throughout.
At the same time, I was also talking 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.
I researched autism and was assisted by The National Autistic Society. In terms of other research, I had to learn how to paint like Jasper. He loves to paint using acrylics, so I visited an artist who teaches my children at a local art workshop and she helped me to mix the colours I wanted to use for different voices, producing the new shades that are created when voices merge together in conversations.
She also helped me to paint the colour of murder using impasto gel to build up textures in the acrylics and different tools such as cardboard strips or knives to create different paint effects.
I wanted to be able to describe the crucial painting - Ice Blue Crystals with Glittery Edges and Jagged, Silver Icicles - as authentically as possible because I knew Jasper must also attempt to recreate the horrifying scene in Bee
Parakeets are a crucial element in my plot and required a further wave of research. I interviewed wildlife experts about the nesting habits of parakeets and plotted my novel on a calendar from the date the parakeets first arrived on Jasper’s street, through to their nesting, the birth of the hatchlings, their development and the departure of the fledglings, which Jasper so dreads.
I also had help from a serving detective with police procedures and checked my social work and legal queries with experts in their fields. The extensive research was
crucial - and I have to say, thoroughly enjoyable.
I remain a member of Sean Day’s Synesthesia List. I’m also a member of the International Association of Synaesthetes, Artists, and Scientists (IASAS).
This is so different to anything else I've read - really enjoyed it. Would have loved to sent in a question but family member in hospital and it just totally slipped my mind. Hopefully one of the questions put forward will cover mine.
Belated thanks GN for sending me a copy of this book. I too had difficulty trying to link to this thread to comment, just like "aspella" and went round in circles from the link in the original article.
I must admit, I didn't find this an easy book to read due to being bombarded with colours (just like Jasper) but was interested enough in the story itself to read it in instalments and I succeeded in finishing it yesterday.
I am pleased I did, however, as it introduced me to a world of which I had no prior knowledge (synaesthesia and face blindness).
You obviously must have had to do an awful lot of time-consuming research into the above Sarah. Did you yourself feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the condition when writing your book? What triggered your initial interest?
Sorry for posting late.
Not sure if it’s just me but I felt terribly sorry for Jaspers dad . What a hard life he must’ve had. I know Jasper had problems and had lost his mum (poor lad ) but I don’t think I could have coped .
I enjoyed the book and really wasn’t sure
“Whodunnit” right until the end .
Thanks GN for the book, which I enjoyed from the first page to the last. As already said by others, it was important to see the story through Jasper's eyes. The descriptions of the colours was brilliant, and as already said a few images of Jasper's paintings would be good.
I also was expecting the murder to be only in Jasper's perceptions, a thoroughly good read.
humptydumpty I agree with you I think it was important to tell the story through Jasper's eyes, I am not too sure how it would work if told through multiple people's eyes. I think part of the challenge was to try and see things through Jasper's eyes and I am not sure that would have been possible if we also had other's viewpoints.