Irish novelist Tana French
may write about detectives, but she's anything but hard-boiled. She uses an emotional approach to craft psychological murder mysteries. All of her Dublin Murder Squad books are lightly connected, but each title stands firmly on its own and uses a different narrator. Her first book, In the Woods
, won the 2008 Edgar
Award for Best First Novel and introduced troubled detective Rob Ryan. She next turned to Ryan's sharp-minded partner, Cassie Maddox, in
. Now she leaves her star-crossed detectives behind for a new central character in
. Frank Mackey is hardened
by years of undercover work and will blithely use lies, coercion, or trespassing to get his man. French chatted with Goodreads about what gives her the courage to write.
Goodreads: So far, each of your books has used a different narrator. After Rob Ryan in In the Woods and Cassie Maddox in The Likeness, many readers expected you to use another detective on the murder squad, Sam O'Neill, for your third book. Instead you turned to Cassie's undercover mentor, Frank Mackey. What inspired you to write about Frank?Tana French
: I actually thought about [using Sam] a lot! It was going to be him for a while, but it didn't work out that way.
When I get halfway through [writing] a book, my brain starts trying to do anything else, anything in the universe. "I know, let's clean the oven!" or "Let's cut the cat's fur into interesting patterns!" I was about halfway through writing The Likeness
, and I started thinking over what I would write for book three. Frank I found interesting because his moral sense is not like most people's. Cassie and Rob have moral senses that are more acceptable in that they don't always do everything right, but they accept when they've done something wrong. Frank would do absolutely anything to anyone else or to himself in order to get the person he's after. The end absolutely justifies the means. Mystery, especially psychological mystery, is a genre very much based on morality. GR: Your characters often come to intense psychological crossroads. Rob Ryan confronts a childhood trauma; his partner, Cassie Maddox, struggles to find where she belongs. What is Frank Mackey's psychological obstacle in Faithful Place?TF
: That is actually what I'm interested in writing about—those enormous turning points that you only get a couple times in your life. When you're crossing some borderline into a different country, and you'll never be able to be who you would have been if you'd chosen the other way. These moments strip people down to their essentials: You get to find out what you're really made of and what is really important to you.
For each of the books, the basic premise hits at the character's core. With Frank, the idea came while I was walking home one day. In front of a house being gutted I saw a huge dumpster. Among all of these horrible broken lamps and rolls of ripped up, moldy wallpaper there was a battered old blue suitcase. I started thinking, "I wonder how that got there and how long it'd been in that old house and what's inside it?" That tied in with how I'd been thinking about Frank. What would be so crucially important to him that he would be backed into a corner? I thought the discovery of a suitcase [could reveal] that his first love, Rosie—who he thought had run away on him—may not have left him after all. Frank thought he had left home and family behind. Then he starts to be drawn back by this discovery.
GR: Frank returns to his familial roots on the street, Faithful Place, in a historically working-class Dublin neighborhood, the Liberties. What did you want to capture about that unique setting? TF
: Faithful Place, by the way, isn't actually a real street. A hundred years ago there was a place called Faithful Place, but it was on the other side of the river, and it's long gone. It would be really cheeky of me to put this fake story on top of some real street that has its own history. But it's too interesting a street name for it to go to waste.
I'm not actually from the Liberties, but my husband is, so I have a slight insight into how it works. It's an inner-city Dublin neighborhood that has a reputation that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. This tiny neighborhood used to have its own charter; it had separate laws from the rest of the city. That's where it gets its name, the Liberties. It went its own way and made its own rules. It's been changing, but there is a very strong sense of the old community. There are people living there who have been there for more generations than they can trace back, and they know everything about each other. It's a very tightly packed neighborhood—it was mostly tenements up until quite recently when people stopped wanting to live in two rooms for an entire family. Because of that it was extremely tight-knit and everyone knows everything, not just about each other but everything about each other's great aunts. I've always been fascinated by that kind of neighborhood because I grew up moving around an awful lot, so the idea of somebody from a deeply rooted background I find incredibly powerful. That is what I wanted to write about. What happens if you leave it all behind the way Frank does? GR: A tension between old-fashioned culture and modern progress is a motif in your books. The "Move the Motorway" campaign in In the Woods tries to preserve an archaeological site. The residents of the Liberties in Faithful Place are mistrustful of outsiders who might threaten their way of life. Is this a tension that's playing out in Ireland today? TF
: Hugely! Ireland is a really young country as a nation. It's under 100 years old, and because we come from a past with a lot of oppression and hideous poverty, I think with the economic boom of the last 15 years (well dead now, but there was one) there was a tendency to want to bury the past. Get rid of it and pretend it never happened. Our past is considered quite embarrassing. Now we're modern, we're hip, we're happening. We've got triple-foam Frappuccinos now; we're not living on potatoes and cabbage. I think that led to a really dangerous idea that the past and the future are somehow incompatible. If you want the future, you have to completely ignore the past. There is very little acknowledgment that the two can and should be valued. It's not a choice. They're not mutually exclusive. This shows up in all of my books.
We went from being a pretty broke country in a recession in the '80s to boom!—all of a sudden we were this incredibly successful, booming economy, and there was money everywhere. I don't think people coped very well with that. And here we are now, broke again. That tension between past and future and how to assimilate all the changes is playing itself out every day. GR: Goodreads member Melinda says, "You carry many of your characters through each story, shifting them into the primary role. Do you ever find after you've spent time in each one's head that you wish you had written them a little differently in a prior book—or have you written each with no regrets?"TF
: That's a fascinating question! For the most part, no regrets, but there are several places where when I start writing from a character's perspective, I realize that some of the stuff I wrote about that character in a previous book was actually inaccurate.
At the moment I'm writing book four from the perspective of Scorcher Kennedy, who is Frank's semi-friend, semi-rival. I'm realizing that a lot of what Frank says about him in Faithful Place
is either inaccurate, biased, or doesn't match Scorcher's perception of himself. Frank is missing a lot of information about him. That doesn't make me regret how I wrote him in Faithful Place
because that was accurate to Frank's perception of him. It was informed by Frank's own prejudices and the way he needs to see Scorcher in order to justify some of his own actions. There are some points where I've gone, "Damn, I wish I would have done that differently in a previous book," but there are also points where I've gone, "Oh God, the previous narrator really didn't have a clue." GR: That would be especially true of Rob's perception of Cassie, considering the intensity of both their professional relationship as partners and personal relationship as best friends. TF
: Exactly, and I think that's interesting. Switching from Rob to Cassie was difficult because Rob has such strong feelings about Cassie, so it was interesting working out how much of that was the actual truth and how much was purely Rob's own needs projected onto her. Switching from Rob to Cassie was really strange. Really strange.
One of the things that has struck me while switching narrators is that the more highly charged the feelings that one character has for another, the less objective they become and the more things they could miss. Frank wasn't a big switch, because Cassie didn't have particularly strong feelings for him in The Likeness
, so her take on him wasn't particularly strongly biased and he was accurately portrayed in her eyes. Whereas switching from Frank to Scorcher is a very big leap, because Frank's feelings for Scorcher are fairly charged up.GR: Many Goodreads members wrote in to ask if you are planning to return to the characters of Rob and Cassie. And whether you would ever resolve the notoriously unsolved mystery at the end of In the Woods.TF
: [mock angry voice
] "What is this woman doing with the ending of In the Woods
] I know. All three of the narrators I've written so far I would love to go back to. I'm hoping that if people want to keep reading, I'll keep writing about the same general batch of main characters for quite a while. I'm not sure exactly from what perspective or in what way, but I'm very much hoping that I'm not done with either Rob or Cassie. Again, I'm not sure. It all depends on how things go. I got interested in them. I'd like to find out what comes next. GR: Goodreads member Edwin says, "The pacing of your novels is so well done that after only a few pages, they achieve 'can't put down' status. The inability to stop reading until completion has led my friends and I to refer to your books as 'paper crack.'" TF
: That's brilliant! I think that's one of the best compliments ever! GR: Edwin asks, "How do you balance this breakneck, thrilling pace with such vivid detail?" TF
: I listen to my editors, a lot. [laughs
] I think the genre is absolutely crucial to being able to balance pace, writing, character, and depth. Writing mystery gives you a basic framework: You can mess with it, you can bend it, stretch it any way you want to, but basically someone gets killed and someone else finds out whodunit. So everything you do, every scene you write, whether it's on one level or four, has to in some way feed into that plot arc. It's one of the reasons why I stick to mystery. It demands utility; it demands that every scene has a use and a purpose. If I weren't writing this genre, I'd be writing books that go on for 4,000 pages and never get anywhere, so I have no intention of switching genres. One of my worries is, "Is it too long?" So it's wonderful to hear that someone is saying, "Nope, I'm still reading!"GR: Goodreads member Lori says, "I am especially taken with the psychological suspense and uncertainty in Tana's characters and plot lines. There are some fascinating and chilling mind games at work in her stories, and the characters seem very realistically flawed. Does Tana have any background in psychology?"TF
: No, not at all. I did one course in social psychology in college. I think my theater background was the training there. If you are serious about acting, you spend a lot of time observing the way people work. There are some actors that have a great career of playing themselves, but if you're not one of those—and I never was—if you're a character actor, then it's all about understanding people who aren't you and understanding how they work and how different factors come together to make this incredibly complex thing that is human behavior. GR: Describe a typical day spent writing and any unusual writing habits.TF
: It used to be that my main essentials for writing were a lot of coffee and long walks with a spaced-out look on my face. Other people have a muse; I have coffee. Although not anymore, because when you have a small baby, the long walks become a small luxury and the caffeine is out as well. I was pregnant for most of Faithful Place
. But for the first two-and-a-half books, my now-husband and I were living in a small flat, so I got used to him slaughtering zombies on the Xbox six feet away. You do what you got to do. I just sit down with a notebook or a computer and refuse to let myself go goof off until I've got something done. Coming from a social thing like acting, where you all go to rehearsal together and then go to the pub after, it's a hard switch, because with writing it's basically you and a pen. GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you? TF
: Josephine Tey
, who wrote very strange mysteries. She broke a lot of what we would consider the genre rules. One of her books, The Franchise Affair
, has no murder. The worst crime in there is either perjury or wasting police time. You know from very early on in the book who the villain is, and yet it's this gripping, chilling book and a horrific portrait of a young sociopath in action.
Books like that where all of the rules get broken—those are the books that fascinate me. The books that blur the genre borderlines. Possibly the best thing I've ever read is To Kill A Mockingbird
. Some parts of it can be seen as courtroom drama, and some parts can be seen as coming-of-age, but it's so much more than that, and all the lines blur. I think those books are probably the ones that have influenced me. God knows I'm not in any way putting what I do in the same category, but just saying that these books give me the courage to go write. Maybe you don't have to write the formula unless you want to. Maybe you can use the formula as the question rather than the answer. GR: What are you reading now? TF
: Unfortunately, I'm not getting a chance to do very much reading right now. I tend not to read mystery when I'm writing because I don't want it getting into my head and influencing me too much. Your mind is a magpie, and it picks up little shiny things, and I don't want to go picking up little shiny things. When I'm writing the first half of a book, weirdly enough, I also tend to avoid anything with too strong a narrative voice, because I'm still working on finding it. The last thing I want is someone else's sliding in there and getting into my ear. Up until a couple days ago, I was rereading Barbara Kingsolver
's The Poisonwood Bible
, which I think is an amazing book. Now there is an example of strong narrative.
Usually I'll read any genre as long as it's really, really good. I think when you are writing something as big as a novel, it's kind of like running a marathon. You want good nourishment, so I tend to read good stuff. GR: Scorcher Kennedy will narrate your next book. What can you reveal about the plot?TF
: It's Scorcher Kennedy this time, and it's set on a ghost estate. During the housing boom, developers were given permission to build huge estates with sometimes hundreds of apartments and houses in areas where there was absolutely no demand. Now that no one can afford to buy anything, they are basically abandoned. You'll have four or five families living in a development of 40 homes, and the rest is just left to go to seed. These poor families are now stuck with absolutely no facilities or infrastructure. They're lucky if they have working sewage systems and streetlights. They usually don't. The book is set on one of those estates. GR: It was lovely talking with you. Thank you.