Interview with Tana French

Posted by Goodreads on September 10, 2018
Dublin crime novelist Tana French has the kind of critical reviews that other writers would…well, die for. Her debut murder mystery, In the Woods, won rave reviews and multiple literary prizes upon its release in 2007. Since then, her books have tended to haunt the bestseller lists, on both sides of the pond, and for months at a time. British newspaper The Independent has dubbed French "The First Lady of Irish Crime," and The Washington Post says she is the most important crime novelist to emerge in the past ten years.

Like her literary hero Patricia Highsmith, French writes psychological thrillers that plunge fearlessly into the darkest depths of the human psyche. Her Dublin Murder Squad series includes the novels In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place, Broken Harbour, The Secret Place, and The Trespasser. Where some writers aim for labyrinthine story lines, French specializes in labyrinthine character studies. In her stories, murder and motive emerge not from circumstance and opportunity, but from dark places of the heart and mind.

Her new novel, The Witch Elm, invites readers along on yet another ambitious expedition into the remote wilds of human psychology. Marketing specialist Toby, happily employed at a hipster art gallery, has lived a charmed life. He's one of those people we've all come across—the guy who gets all the breaks. But on one fateful night, Toby's luck runs out. Beaten to the brink of death by a pair of mysterious burglars, Toby retreats to his family's ancestral home to recuperate. Brain damage is causing Toby's memories to flicker and fade, but things really get weird when a human skull is discovered in the garden elm tree…

Speaking from her home in Dublin, French talked with Goodreads contributor Glenn McDonald about happy childhoods, fuzzy memories, and the good, clean fun of blunt-force head trauma.

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Goodreads: The psychological elements in this story run so deep, within the characterizations, and they play out all the way to the end. Without revealing too much, can you talk about how this story first started taking shape?

Tana French: I had been thinking about the link between luck and empathy, and how if you've been lucky in certain areas of your life, it can be hard to develop empathy toward those who haven't had that luck. Because their experience is just outside your frame of reference.

For me, the easiest example was myself. I was lucky to have a pretty happy and loving childhood. And early on in life I found it hard to take in the experience of those who had really and truly terrible childhoods. I would think—oh, they must be exaggerating. It wasn't that I didn't believe them; it was that it was so outside my frame of reference that I couldn't take it in.

Eventually, I grew up and realized that my experience was just different than some others'. I got to thinking: What about someone who had been lucky in every sense, all the way through life? Someone who was, you know, white, straight, male, intelligent, good-looking, and from a comfortable background. Someone who had gotten all the right coin flips in life. And what would that do to their sense of empathy?

And I'm not talking about a bad guy. I mean someone who is basically good, kind, and generous. But he just never develops that sense that other people may have had a different experience than what he had. And then what would happen if that guy's luck changed?

GR: That's what happens to Toby.

TF: Right, he finds himself in a situation where his experience of life is no longer the same. And so his sense of self is no longer the same. And then everything gets rocky and dangerous.

Then around the same time, my brother sent me a link to the story of Bella and the Witch Elm, about a body that was found in a tree in the 1940s. Somehow the two things clicked together in my mind. I ended up with this story about a good guy who has lived a charmed life, up until the moment when two burglars break into his flat and attack him. He's left physically and psychologically pretty badly damaged. And while he's struggling to cope with this, a skeleton is found in a tree in the backyard of the family home.

GR: Those elements about luck and privilege, they seem to resonate with these larger ideas that are flaring in the culture right now, like with the #MeToo movement or Black Lives Matter. I think a lot of middle-class straight white guys have only just recently started to open our eyes about the built-in privileges we enjoy, just by the color of our skin, or money, or who we like to sleep with.

TF: Well, in a lot of ways I've had the white person experience as well, you know? And it's just so easy to take for granted that other people's experiences—of just going through their day—are the same as mine. And it's so often not the case at all. People's day-to-day reality can be very different.

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GR: Speaking of happy childhoods, the new book details the relationship among three cousins—Toby, Susanna, and Leon—who grew up very close to one another as childhood friends. There are such carefully observed specifics about these three and how they relate. Can you expand a little on that, the dynamic among the cousins?

TF: Well yes, it's quite deliberate that they're cousins and not brothers and sisters. I think that siblings tend to define each other to a large extent. You know, one is the creative one, or the technical one, or the loud one, or the quiet one.

With cousins, you don't quite play off one another like that, but you still have that intimate knowledge that comes with family. You know each other from a time before you were even capable of knowing who you were. Before you're able to put on good manners or a company face.

That's a very special relationship, childhood cousins. And in the story, Toby comes to rely on his cousins to connect the dots of these events he can't quite remember. It turns out that their view of him, back then, was quite different than his own view of himself. But because he can't remember, he's forced to consider their point of view, even though he really doesn't want to.

GR: Okay, let's switch gears for a second. I'd like to ask you about your descriptive passages, which are just brilliant. I found myself going back to reread them and just admire the clockwork precision of it all. Do you have any particular strategies for description? Do you draw from memories or photographs? I'm thinking specifically about Uncle Hugo's office, which is so detailed and specific.

TF: Hugo's office has different levels of places I've been, definitely, and there's an element of memory there. But it also grows out of character. We're looking through Toby's eyes, so the question becomes, What is Toby looking at, or looking for? What is it that he desperately needs to find? Or, from a more practical point of view, what is it that I, as the writer, need him to find?

So, with Hugo's office, that kind of really old, very rich, very individual atmosphere is there because Toby is dealing with issues about identity. I needed him to go to a place that was very safe and warm, a place where he could look around and find a safe haven again.

GR: When you're writing those passages, you're putting yourself behind the eyes of your character, trying to notice the things he'd notice, the things he needs?

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TF: Absolutely. And that's why I love writing first person. It's kind of the point of the art, you know? To have a moment when you've moved into someone else's world and are seeing things through their eyes. For me, that's the point of reading and the point of writing. What I see in another character or in a place isn't necessarily what my character sees. Somebody who I might find totally fascinating, Toby finds really boring. Those are my favorite moments of writing, when a character sees something that is not at all what I would see in the same situation. I like that.

GR: How do you keep track of the "whodunit" elements in a story like this? How do you manage the clues and disclosures so that you stay a step ahead of the reader? Do you outline?

TF: I don't outline at all, actually. In fact, I can't really figure out what's going on myself until I've been writing the characters for a while. I don't even know "whodunit" until I've been writing long enough to know who might kill someone, and for what reasons.

So, it's not outlining, it's more like reverse retrospective outlining. I write my way along until I have a revelation about what must have happened. Then I have to go back and bloody rewrite it all, because so-and-so had actually done this and had an agenda that I hadn't caught at the time. But I think that kind of helps with keeping the audience in the dark, when I want them to be. Because, frankly, I'm in the dark as well. [Laughs]

GR: That solves the problem nicely!

TF: Right! But then, of course, the hard part is going back and reseeding everything, making sure all the proper essentials are in place. I can't just spring some murder and motive out of nowhere. Once I realize what's happened, I have to go back and make sure all of that is deeply seeded in the story itself.

GR: Do you get help from readers or editors in that regard? People who will tell you if you're missing a plot element, or if you've given away too much?

TF: Yes, and my first reader is my husband. He's an old movie buff, and he loves the structure of things. He's good at seeing how a narrative is constructed. He'll say, you dropped these characters for several chapters now, and I need to see them again so that they don't fall out of my head. He's got a really sharp eye.

And I also have editors who are just amazing. I don't know how anyone gets by without good editors.

GR: In this realm of psychological crime stories and murder mysteries, who are some of your own favorite authors?

TF: I love Patricia Highsmith. She is the great master of the psychological thriller. If you think about Agatha Christie, the plot is primary. She's interested in characters only so far as they fit into the plot. But with Patricia Highsmith, the whole book is about the characters, and the plot itself rises out of the characters.

It's incredible how powerful that can be. Look at The Talented Mr. Ripley. You find yourself rooting for the murderer! You're on the edge of your seat hoping he won't get caught. She's spun it around. The same with Strangers on a Train. You can see exactly how this person can disintegrate, how this person can shift from being just basically a good guy.

And I'm fascinated by that because I think that's at the heart of what the murder mystery is for. I think we read murder mysteries trying to understand how one person can do this terrible thing to another. When you get someone like Highsmith digging into that, into the psychology behind it, that's why I'm reading the genre. It's not whodunit. It's why-done-it—and what happened to them when they done it.

Before Highsmith, there was Josephine Tey. I'm thinking of The Franchise Affair, which isn't actually a murder mystery at all. It's this really chilling portrait of a young psychopath in action and the damage those actions can cause. She was one of the first writers to really get in and explore that kind of psychological depth.

GR: When you read for pleasure, do you always read just one book at a time, or do you ever have several going at once? I keep getting told that several-at-once is insane, but in my informal polling it's actually running about 50-50.

TF: Well, I'm a one-at-a-time person. What I used to do, before I had kids, I was a total immersion reader. I would just get a book and vanish into it—the rest of the world didn't exist until I finished the last page. These days I don't really have that opportunity, but it's still one book at a time. I want to get in and stay in that one story for as long as possible.

GR: Is there anything else you'd like to highlight or discuss about the new book?

TF: Well, I'd just like to say that I really appreciate readers' time. I write long books, and I realize that no one anymore has a lot of time. I take that seriously when I write a long book like this.

Comments Showing 1-44 of 44 (44 new)

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message 1: by Diana (new)

Diana Manley Great article on one of my favorite authors.
Thanks, Glen and Good Reads!
Diana Manley

message 2: by Elaine (new)

Elaine Love this interview. Great questions and fabulous, thought-provoking answers! Thank you!

message 3: by Joan (new)

Joan Hughes As an avid fan having read all her previous books I have been waiting impatiently for next.
This interview is my first glimpse into how she gets her ideas and then turns them into such fascinating reading.
Thank you, goodreads.

message 4: by Lindsay (new)

Lindsay Wonderful interview. Not a mystery reader in the past, however, I really want to read this book with strong psychological/character elements!

message 5: by Christine (new)

Christine Ricci What thoughtful responses! French's writing process is quite striking to me because it seems like a longer way to go about it. However, I think this might be why she is so good at delving into characters because she takes the time to do so. Thank you so much for sharing this with us readers!

message 6: by Michael (last edited Oct 02, 2018 11:01AM) (new)

Michael Davis Great insight into the writer and her writing. I hang on every word in her novels, and reread her descriptions just to feel the language on my tongue and in my head, so it’s always interesting to hear how she goes about her craft. Counting down to her new ones is always a struggle, and of course then I ruin it all by reading the story entirely too quickly, thus starting the Great Wait all over again. Thanks for the continued whetting of the appetite!

message 7: by Aspasia (new)

Aspasia Merari Makes me want to go back and read the Josephine Tey and Mary Robert's Rinehart books I still have, from the '40's and 50's.

message 8: by Donna (new)

Donna Lewis I have loved all the earlier books and am ordering this book ASAP!

message 9: by Jo (new)

Jo My all time favorite author

message 10: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Sometimes I read just to escape, but Tana French's books pull me in & I want to understand all the characters' personalities & motivations.

message 11: by Mary Kate (new)

Mary Kate Thanks for the interview. Tana French is my hero and I can't WAIT for this book to arrive!

message 12: by Susana (new)

Susana Puggioli She's tops, as Highsmith and Tey were in their time

message 13: by Mahayla (new)

Mahayla I am so happy to have an arc of this book! I fell in love with the Murder Squad series and cannot wait to see what this book has in store! Thank you for this interview!

message 14: by SandyC (new)

SandyC I can't wait to read this! Love this author so much!

message 15: by Bill (new)

Bill Kupersmith Why is it Witch Elm in America and Wych Elm in Britain? Isn’t the latter correct?

message 16: by Christine (new)

Christine Tana French is totally amazng. I have read and loved all of her books!

message 17: by Linda (new)

Linda Delighted to receive this link - thank you.

message 18: by Martina (new)

Martina Reilly Delighted it's a long book. I can't wait!

message 19: by Jeanne (new)

Jeanne With Tana French it doesn't feel so much like reading a book as having a rich, detailed, colorful dream. And in that dream the language is so beautiful it almost hurts. I am 75 and have been a pathological reader all my life; I've never come across a writer of any kind who can write like Tana French. Okay, maybe Shakespeare.

message 20: by Jeanne (new)

Jeanne Michael wrote: "Great insight into the writer and her writing. I hang on every word in her novels, and reread her descriptions just to feel the language on my tongue and in my head, so it’s always interesting to h..."

Guess what? I read them again. And again. Just as good or even better than the first time.

message 21: by Jeanne (new)

Jeanne Buy your books from your local bookstore if possible. You know why.

message 22: by Lexine (new)

Lexine Thank you for this interview. Tana French is one of my favorite authors, and I read a lot! She has the ability to take away whole chunks of my weekends and evenings. Broken Harbor was one of the most terrifying books I've ever read. French is a powerful storyteller. Can't wait to read this one.

message 23: by Prairie (new)

Prairie Thybony I can’t wait to read her next book. I’m rereading her previous books. I love The Likness, it is one of my favorite books of all time, it so moody and beautiful.
I was just thinking that the “who done it” almost doesn’t matter with her books because the stories and characters are enough.

message 24: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer Mcgown Tara French, you are one of my favorite authors. I look forward to your books because of your complex characters, wonderful plots and vivid descriptions. This interview is great in that it provides insight into your writing process. Thank you

message 25: by Lana (new)

Lana It struck a chord when Tana mentioned how reading habits change when you have kids. I love her work but it's going to be a long time before I get to read this one. Sleep takes place of hobbies, leisure, eating, bathing, and pretty much everything else with an infant. Maybe the baby won't notice if I read to her The Witch Elm instead of Good Night Moon?

message 26: by Angel (new)

Angel Godinez Very informal interview and looking forward to reading the Witch Elm. Tana French, you (in the words of Frank Mackey) are a babe and I wish you and your family a long life. Please continue marveling us with your splendid work and babeness.

message 27: by Mary (new)

Mary Thanks for these insights. I’m a fervent fan from your first book, so please, keep doing what you’re doing!

message 28: by JoAnn (new)

JoAnn Garvin Knowing there’s a new Tana French book in the near future makes my whole week! Love the characters, love the settings, really love the skill in the writing.

message 29: by Rose (new)

Rose Wonderful interview, I too, want to step back into the old books she talked about. I'm so happy fall/winter is starting and I can read all the books all the season long.

Irene S. Remoaldo great interview and i'm looking forward in reading her new book. Great author!

message 31: by Patricia (new)

Patricia Shook This was a great interview. It touched on a lot of features that are important to me as a reader, author, and psychologist. The idea of why-done-it instead of who-done-it. Not working from an outline but letting the story evolve. Getting totally involved in a book was something I did more when I was child as a way to enter another world; now I do it as stress relief. I have really enjoyed Tana French's books because the settings, the characters allow me to escape into another world and in this case long is much better than short.

message 32: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Tana had me hooked with "In the Woods". I absolutely HAVE to read everything she's written since then. All of the "Dublin Murder Squad" novels. This new standalone. Her laundry lists, excuse notes to school ...

message 33: by Catherine (new)

Catherine My favorite part and so insightful which will keep me a loyal fan:

"Eventually, I grew up and realized that my experience was just different than some others'. I got to thinking: What about someone who had been lucky in every sense, all the way through life? Someone who was, you know, white, straight, male, intelligent, good-looking, and from a comfortable background. Someone who had gotten all the right coin flips in life. And what would that do to their sense of empathy?"

And I love long books!!

message 34: by M.Majlesy (new)

M.Majlesy Thanks

message 35: by Podenca (new)

Podenca Great interview from one of my favourite authors - each book published has been a major event for me and I am so looking forward to this one as sounds so intriguing but it will be very hard to beat Broken Harbour which was so atmospheric, clever and skilfully written - it sucked me in and just kept me guessing right to the very end.

message 36: by MadProfessah (new)

MadProfessah Excited to read this book!

message 37: by Jess (new)

Jess Super excited to read this book. I feel lucky that I won a copy on Goodreads and now I am checking the mailbox everyday for my copy.

Oh and long books are the best when they are well written.

message 38: by Sophie (new)

Sophie The fact that she apparently doesn't outline baffles me beyond comprehension! I always thought of her as somebody who meticulously plans her novels in advance. The going-back-and-rewriting must be so challenging! But it makes for amazing books apparently. I loved the interview overall, so thanks!

message 39: by Robin (new)

Robin Wonderful interview. The question of how the story comes to an author has always fascinated me. While I know that Tana’s method is not every authors method, I find the concept of the story having its own life separate from thr writer so completely mind blowing. Thanks so much for the peek behind the curtain.

message 40: by Bob (new)

Bob Smith Great interview. Thank you. The Witch Elm, itself, was a fascinating wonderful book. The insight from this interview simply added to the experience.

message 41: by Bob (new)

Bob I love Tana French's books, and really enjoyed and appreciate this interview. Thank you.

message 42: by John (new)

John Interesting interview. Ms. French, in my opinion, has improved with every book she has written. The Witch Elm is the best so far. I really liked the way she dealt with the that theme of luck and empathy.

message 43: by Dayna (new)

Dayna I never made the Patricia Highsmith connection. But now it all makes sense. Murder mysteries aren't a genre I seek out or read on a regular basis, except when I discovered Highsmith (read all of her books in a short period of time) and now French (read all of them and eagerly await the next).

message 44: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Muscare Thanks for that article. I have already read this book and now that I know how she writes things make sense to me now. Huge fan.

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