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Interview about The Colour of Death

How did you get the idea for The Colour of Death?

The inspiration behind The Colour of Death comes from combining two ideas.  The first is a phenomenon called archaeosonics, in which a building is said to acquire an ‘atmosphere’ from whatever has happened, good or evil, within its walls, as if these past events are somehow imprinted, like memories, into its bricks and mortar.  As a storyteller, I wondered how one might play back these residual memories, these echoes of the dead.

I then remembered a harmless but fascinating neurological condition I had heard of years ago called synaesthesia, in which people experience the world through a blending of their senses.  Some synaesthetes see individual letters, numbers and even musical notes as distinct colours.  Others can taste the sound of words and names on their tongue.  Some can even feel the pain and touch of those they see being hurt or touched.  It made me wonder what might happen if all the senses were combined.  Would a ‘sixth sense’ be born?

When did you first become interested in synaesthetic experiences?

I had heard of synaesthesia some years ago and being naturally curious found it interesting.  However, it was only while researching The Colour of Death and learning of synaesthesia’s various forms (over sixty variations have been documented and more are being discovered), that I became fascinated with the condition.


Jane Doe is a very special character. She has a rare form of synaesthesia and a total loss of memory.  How did you go about creating her?

To me, Jane Doe felt less like a creation, and more of a discovery.   It’s fascinating developing a character who can experience the memories of others but has no memories of her own.   When we meet her she has no sense of herself, so I try to help readers identify with her by first feeling her fear and disorientation, and then sharing her journey of self-discovery, learning about her strange past and special gifts as she learns about them herself. 

You have an obvious curiosity for strange phenomena - some of which border on the supernatural.  But do you believe in any of them?

I’ve always been fascinated by the tension between empirical science and faith – the drive to believe in something bigger than us that can’t be explained or proven.  I’ve explored this in past books, particularly the tension between science and religion.  Whenever I include strange phenomena in my stories, I always try to suggest scientific explanations.  Do I believe?  I like to think I’m sceptical but open-minded.


In this novel readers are introduced to the closed world of a religious sect. What are the main characteristic of the Indigo Family? Is it inspired by a true cult?

I researched cults to understand how they work - particularly Charles Manson’s The Family, Jim Jones’s People’s Temple and the Jonestown Massacre - but the Indigo Family is based on no cult that I’m aware of.  However, after I made up their religion, based on colours and synaesthesia, I found that various New Age groups had already invented similar religions.  Somewhere in the world, real life believers are following much of what the Indigo Family believe  – including the more bizarre stuff.


Jane Doe is assigned to a psychiatrist, Nathan Fox. He hates sects and has good reasons to think so. Is Nathan the spokesman of your ideas about this matter?

Nathan Fox is the compassionate voice of reason who helps Jane Doe navigate her way back to her forgotten self.  He shares a troubled past and a form of synaesthesia with his patient, which allows him to empathize with her.  His hatred of cults comes from his personal experience.  My personal feelings about cults are more ambivalent: people can believe whatever they like so long as they don’t hurt or impose their beliefs on others.  Sadly, many cults do cause harm.  I find myself agreeing with the cult leader, Regan Delaney, when he repeats the old saying:  “if you believe in it, it’s a religion; if you don’t, it’s a sect; and if you fear it, it’s a cult.”


One of your characters, at one point, refers to an odd word: "mothú". I was unable to find it in my research. Does it really exist? Could you tell readers what do you mean by "mothú"?

The word ‘mothú’ is an old Celtic Irish word meaning ‘sense’ or ‘feeling’.  It’s the family word that the Delaneys, who go back many centuries, have always used to describe their hereditary synaesthesia.  

One last curiosity. The Colour of Death is not part of a series. You seem to prefer (please correct me if I'm wrong!) stand alone novels. Why?

Interesting question.  I’ve always written stand- alone novels in the past because its often easier to explore new ideas if you tell your story with fresh heroes and settings, unconstrained by what’s gone before.  Having said this, I’ve found that the rational Nathan Fox and the otherworldly Jane Doe fit so well into the story I’m writing now that I’ve decided to use them again.   Who knows?  If it goes well I might write a series after all.

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