Extended interview with novelist Tana French

Grisly-murder novelist Tana French has an infectious laugh and an easygoing cadence to her voice, something that might surprise you if you've read her novels. Her stories - set in her native Ireland - are filled with wrenching hairpin twists and turns conveyed in eloquent prose that somehow makes you feel better about being glued to graphic post mortems in bed at 3 am. French comes to Brookline Booksmith with her latest, Broken Harbor (Viking), on July 26. She spoke with me via Skype from Ireland.

REMIND ME HOW YOU CAME INTO WRITING AGAIN? I was in theater at the time, and theater gigs never line up nicely unless you're Judi Dench or something, which I never was. So, I had a few weeks off between jobs, and I had the good fortune to get on an archeological dig outside Dublin. I found myself thinking that the woods we were next to would be a nice place for kids to play, and then, instead of stopping there like a normal person would, I wondered, "What would happen if three kids went in and only one came out?" That of course, became the premise for [first novel] In the Woods.

DID YOU SET OUT TO WRITE A CRIME? I actually didn't realize I was writing crime until my Irish editor gently pointed it out to me. I thought I was just writing literary fiction with a mystery framework. I'm not big into the distinction or the boundaries, you know, the either-or. It's been really breaking down actually, over the last 10 or 20 years, this idea that it's crime, or it's a good book. There have always been brilliant books that happened to center around a crime or a mystery. I always loved reading crime fiction, but I never realized that's where I was headed.

THE TRADITIONAL DETECTIVE BOOK FORMAT NEVER SEEMS TO BE PRESENT IN YOUR BOOKS, WHICH IS WHY I FEEL LIKE THEY HAVE THAT WIDER RANGE TO THEM. Yeah, I'm so glad that comes across, because I do think that's what I wanted from them. I've always been fascinated with mysteries, ever since I was little kid, so I think if I was going to write, it was always going to end up being a mystery. The best books about mysteries aren't just about the concrete mystery, though. I think all of us are intrigues by mystery, but especially-if this doesn't sound too wanky-by the mystery of the human heart.  So the best stories are the ones that take that into consideration, as well as the actual who-killed-whom. Those are the ones I've always loved, and they are the ones that straddle that borderline between "just a good book" and just a "good mystery book." That's what I'm keeping my fingers crossed and hoping I get to.

SINCE PEOPLE TEND TO LUMP YOU IN AS A CRIME WRITER, DO YOU SEE YOURSELF AS A PART OF THAT PD JAMES/AGATHA CHRISTIE CRIME NOVELIST PANTHEON? As a part of it? Definitely not. My acting teacher in drama school always said that it takes ten years to make an actor. He'd always say, "You're not done here. It takes another eight years of training out in the big bad world before you're actually an actor." I think I'm still in my training period here.

HELL OF A TRAINING PERIOD! I do feel enormously lucky in how these have gone, but I'm very much still learning. If I went back to rewrite In the Woods, I know there would be things where I would smack my forehead and say "I cannot believe I missed that!" This much I do think: I do think I've learned. I don't think I'm on the first step of the ladder anymore, I think I'm on the second, but there's a while yet before I've earned my stripes to say I'm a proper writer and I know what I'm doing. I don't know what I'm doing.

WHAT IS THE PROCESS LIKE FOR YOU IN TERMS OF DESIGNING A MURDER? It always comes from just one image or hook, not necessarily with the actual murder. With Broken Harbor, I was already thinking about the characters and all that, but then we had mice in our house. I went into the kitchen one night, and I saw something small go scooting across the counter, doing a legger under the toaster and behind the cooker. My husband heard me yell, and came out to look, and of course there was nothing there. He kind of made noises about, you know, "Sweetie, it's lovely that you have such a good imagination and you get paid for it, but maybe nothing was there?" [Laughs.] He saw the mouse the next week, but something about it stuck with me. We're in a happy relationship, a strong relationship, and there was nothing else bugging me at the time, but what if that feeling, that sense of invasion that mice can give you, happened to somebody whose relationship wasn't happy and was already under pressure?

WHAT'S THE HARDEST PART OF THIS WORLD FOR YOU TO WRITE? Creating a character and creating a world is what I have tons of practice doing through acting, so it makes sense to me. Structure though, that's difficult. I've got absolutely no training for that, whereas I do think that acting is excellent training for writers. Structure doesn't come naturally to me at all, and trying to figure it all out is the hard bit. It's not always fun writing about nasty crimes, especially in Broken Harbor. With the other books, the setting was somewhere I wanted to be. I liked the house in The Likeness, and I like the neighborhoods in Faithful Place and In the Woods, but this, I found the ghost estates devastatingly sad. That in some ways was the hardest part, spending time in that location in my imagination all the time. It's not a cheerful or an easy place to be, because they should never have happened, these places, but there they are and people are stuck on them. Plus, it's all my generation, all the 30-something's who got stuck on these estates and but for a combination of different bits of luck, that could have been us. 

ONE MIGHT ASSUME THAT IN ORDER TO ORGANIZE A COMPLEX MYSTERY AND DROP THE RIGHT HINTS IN THE RIGHT PLACES, ONE WOULD HAVE TO BE A PRETTY METICULOUS PERSON. BUT SINCE YOU SAY YOU HAVE NO CLUE WHERE ANYTHING IS GOING...Oh god, no! I am not organized, and that's putting it nicely, but the thing is that I have the luxury of rewriting as many times as I want. I can go back, and go back, and I do! I am kind of a perfectionist about this stuff though, and the combination of wanting it to be as good as it possibly can be and not being organized to begin with makes for a lot of rewriting. A lot. The bit that makes it easier though, is that your subconscious is working on the book at the same time. So a lot of the time, if I realize in chapter 8 that something needs to be seeded in back in chapter 2, I suddenly notice that it's already there. Before my conscious mind realized, "Oh, we need a red herring here," my subconscious mind already realized that these characters would do this certain thing. The character direction is pointing that way already, if that makes any sense. I get emails from readers pointing things out to me that I hadn't ever seen in my own writing before, and I love it. I'm a big believer in the fact that a book doesn't actually exist as long as it's just me and my computer. It only exists when you're reading it.

I FEEL LIKE THAT'S WHAT MAKES IT MORE OF A SUCCESSFUL READ. EVEN AFTER REWRITES, AS A READER YOU CAN ALMOST FEEL YOU TRYING TO FIGURE IT OUT AT THE SAME TIME WE ARE. I think that's a big part of what it is. With In the Woods, the only reason I was able to write that is because I really wanted to know what happened, and the only way to find out was to write it. It's the same thing with Broken Harbor. It takes me almost two years to write a book, so it needs to be something that I'm interested enough in that I need to want to find out, in order to keep writing for that length of time. I think if I outlined it all, and knew what was going to happen, then I would probably wander off and go to the pub or something. [laughs]

WHAT'S IT LIKE BEING IN YOUR HEAD FOR TWO YEARS? IT SEEMS LIKE A ROB [THE NARRATOR IN IN THE WOODS] TYPE OF THING, WHERE THE ANSWER IS IN HIS HEAD, BUT HE CAN'T QUITE GET AT IT. That's actually a really interesting way of putting it, because it's very much like that! A lot of time, it's like I know that there's something there, the story is there, if I could just pull it out. And it does sometimes feel like I'm not making it up.  Interestingly, it does feel a bit like archeology as well, where you're slowly brushing and chipping away and hoping sooner or later that you'll end up seeing something there. The biggest difficulty for me is that it's not very social. Coming from acting, I'm used to working via collaborative process. If you're having a bad day, and your brain is absolutely coming up with nothing useful, then your scene partner might be having a good day, or the director might be, whereas now, if nothing's happening? All that happens is, I sit there, staring at my computer trying not to goof off on the Internet. That's the difficult bit for me. And of course, in acting, after rehearsal you all go over to the pub together. Now, there's none of that, and it's just sad going to the pub by yourself. [laughs]

THIS BOOK DEALS MORE DIRECTLY WITH HEAVY PSYCHOSIS, WHEREAS THE MOTIVES IN THE OTHER BOOKS WERE MUCH MORE TANGIBLE. WAS THAT A CONSCIOUS CHOICE? Everyone in this book is doing their best, but their minds are fragmenting, slowly. Again, I didn't even notice until someone pointed it out to me that this book is about madness. Every character is struggling to hold it together mentally at some point. Thankfully, mental illness has never played a part in my life, but I get the sense that most mental illnesses, if you pare them back, what is at the core of it, is a dislocation of the inner and outer reality. With Dina [Scorcher's sister], she knows that her reality is rubbing horribly against the outer one but she can't reconcile the two of them. I think all this for me had its origins in what was going on in Ireland at the time with the whole Celtic Tiger boom thing. We were living in this completely artificial property that had been churned up out of corruption and hot air. We were being told that if we believed in it hard enough, it would last forever. If anybody pointed out that this wasn't the reality, he was told that if everything went wrong, it would be his fault for saying it would go wrong. We were led into a national mood, where reality was not only irrelevant but unpatriotic. We were encouraged to disconnect ourselves from the outer reality and push it away as far as you could. I think that's what's led to a certain amount of the devastation, since Ireland came crashing down. People weren't just financially devastated, which is bad enough, they were also psychologically devastated. They had redefined their own reality to fit the standards that were being thrust on them, and now they're being confronted with the fact that the true reality is still there, and it's coming for you. That's terrifying, and that is a form of madness to me. It's almost a deliberately induced mental illness. So I think that seeped into the book on all different levels. With someone like Dina, the madness is coming from within her, but she's aware enough of it that she tries to work around it. With Pat and Jenny Spain [victims of Broken Harbor], they've almost deliberately induced it, and the reality just comes roaring up and hits them like a freight train. That's how I ended up going down that road, because that core facet of it is in the air in Ireland at the moment.

SO, AFTER FOUR BOOKS, DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU'D BE REASONABLY ABLE TO CONDUCT YOUR OWN INVESTIGATION? I'M ALWAYS WONDERING THAT. [laughs] God no! They don't get to decide what they find like I do. The more I communicate with actual police officers and retired police officers, the more I know I could never do their job in a million years. The stakes! Me, I have a bad day at work when I get adjective overload. They have a bad day at work and you've got truth, justice, life and death on the line. I'm just goofing around! People always are asking if Cassie [Maddox, protagonist of The Likeness] is me, and she's definitely not. She's somebody I would like to have a pint with, but no way. She's out there dealing with this heavy stuff, and I'm hanging around wondering where to put the comma.

KIND OF LIKE HOW PEOPLE WOULD ASSUME ACTION STARS WOULDN'T TAKE SHIT FROM A MUGGER. BUT, IF THERE'S NO ONE ON THE OTHER SIDE DOING THE CHOREOGRAPHY, IT'S PROBABLY USELESS. Yes! People always assumed I'd be good at public speaking or being on panels because I was an actor, and I always told them no way. When I was an actor, people gave me a script! But that's the big difference, it's not imaginary. These people are dealing with a level of in-your-face reality. I think technique-wise, I know a fair bit about police investigative technique, but just the amount of reality that smashes you in the face every day...I'm in awe of them.

ALL OF YOUR CHARACTERS HAVE THAT PIVOTAL POINT IN THEIR PAST THAT DEFINES THEIR ACTIONS. IF YOU WERE TO WRITE ABOUT YOURSELF, IS THERE A PIVOTAL MOMENT YOU WOULD BE ABLE TO PICK OUT IN YOUR OWN LIFE? This comes up at the beginning of Faithful Place actually, where Frank [Mackey, protagonist] says that most people don't get to see these moments and recognize them for what they are. Maybe when I'm 80, I'll be able to look back and see it. Now, clearly, one that stands out is the decision to work on that dig for a few weeks. A good call! [Laughs.] You just never feel like you're diving into a big moment at the time.

IS THERE A CHARACTER THAT YOU FIND EASIEST TO WRITE, OR THAT YOU HAVE A NATURAL AFFINITY FOR? The easiest one to write was Frank Mackey [protagonist of Faithful Place]. That kind of hard, fast, very dark sense of humor makes everything easier to write. I'd most like to go for a pint with Cassie [protagonist of The Likeness]. The one I'm fondest of, though, is Rob [Ryan, protagonist of In the Woods], because that was my first. There I was, desperately broke and turning down acting jobs so I could finish In the Woods. I think putting that kind of investment into a book is going to make you feel very fond of that character forevermore. He's where it all started.

DO YOU EVER REVISIT ANY OF THESE CHARACTERS OR THEIR STORIES IN YOUR OFF-HOURS? No, once it's out there, it's done. Plus, after the edits, and the copy edits and all that, you're more than ready to let go. Plus, I'm in the middle of writing a new one, so I have to be fully invested in them so I don't screw them up. I can't even think about the last one, and that's because I write in character so much. I've got to be focused on the one I'm writing, otherwise I completely wander off.

YOU'RE ALREADY ONTO THE NEXT? YOU'RE A MACHINE! Yep! I'm about halfway through, unless it ends up being even longer...[laughs]

WHO'S THE NARRATOR FOR YOUR NEXT BOOK? It's Stephen Moran from Faithful Place, the young sidekick. The whole idea is that Frank's daughter Holly is 16 now, and at her private boarding school they've got a bulletin board where the girls can stick up secrets that they want to reveal anonymously. She has found on this board, and brought to Stephen, a postcard that has a photograph of a teenage boy who was murdered a year ago, and a caption that reads, "I know who killed him." So, Stephen has to team up with the detective and work the case. So, I'm about halfway through, and I think I know whodunit, but that could all change. I had no clue whodunit in [Broken Harbor], to the point where, I was writing the first few chapters, and the whole family was dead, and then after four or five chapters, I realized, "Ah, crap, one of them needs to be left alive." Then I had to go back and rewrite the first three bloody chapters. There's a lot of rewriting in doing it my way, and I really never have a clue.

JUST FOR KICKS: IF YOU HAD TO PARTNER WITH ROB, CASSIE, FRANK, OR SCORCHER, WHO WOULD YOU CHOOSE? Definitely not Scorcher, definitely not Rob. Both Frank and Cassie would be good to have at your back, but overall, you'd probably be safer around Frank, but he would mess you around if he felt like it.

| More

 Friends' Activity   Popular 
All Blogs
Follow the Phoenix
  • newsletter
  • twitter
  • facebook
  • youtube
  • rss
Latest Comments
Search Blogs
PageViews Archives