In May I saw Tana French being interviewed by Anna Carey in Smock Alley. The event was part of the International Festival of Literature. I am a huge admirer of her writing but I’d never heard her speak about it before so I was really looking forward to the event. She didn’t disappoint.
Tana French is an award-winning, best-selling Irish crime writer. In 2007, her debut novel In The Woods was published to critical acclaim and became an award-winning best seller. I wasn’t aware of her books until 2012 when I was introduced to her writing by an American friend. French’s novels have spent many weeks on The New York Times bestseller lists and is maybe better known in the US than she is here.
The friend who told me about Tana French was a fellow drama student in Galway. At the end of the school year, when she was getting ready to head back to the States, she mentioned that one of her favourite authors had a new book out that she planned to buy for the flight home. She was saving this book and looking forward to enjoying it during the long trip. A few weeks later I moved home and was stuck in that mild post-graduation depression/identity-crisis when you’re not a student anymore but you haven’t figured out what the next stage of your life looks like yet. I remembered my friend’s enthusiasm for an Irish author I’d never heard of and went looking for Tana French in the library. I found her first novel In The Woods and promptly did nothing but read it for the next few days. I loved it. I kept going, working my way through her books and recommending them to anyone who asked.
Tana French’s crime fiction almost always involves a murder that is investigated by the Dublin Murder Squad. Her books are brilliant whodunits but what makes them so captivating are her characters. French was an actress before she was a writer and she has a wonderful skill of inhabiting characters and bringing them to life. Although her books are all based around the Murder Squad, the main character and narrator of each book is different.
In Smock Alley, she talked about her decision not to write a traditional series centred about a single detective because putting a different character at the centre of each book, allowed her to encounter that character at a major turning point in their lives or working on a case that had a special significance to the character. She felt that this would be hard to do if she always had the same protagonist. One person’s life can only sustain so many major turning points. It also makes for a much more interesting and revelatory reading experience. Her characters might not always be the self-reflective sort, but as a writer she skillfully reveals things about the way they see themselves over the course of the book.
Listening to French talk about her work, it’s clear that the characters are always central to the story. She is very articulate and passionate in the way that she talks about her work. One of the most fascinating things I find about her writing process is that she doesn’t plan; she says she doesn’t do any major plotting, she just writes blind. I find this impressive because her books are tightly plotted, as any mystery or crime novel has to be. She says she achieves this by doing lots and lots of rewrites.
Tana French started writing when she got an idea for a story while working part-time at an archaeological dig. She was a jobbing-actor at the time and this was a day-job between acting roles. She realised that she was serious about the book when she started turning down acting work so she could focus on writing her own story instead. That book became In The Woods. Comparing writing to acting, she says that she loves writing because she doesn’t have to wait for someone to give her a job, she can just do it herself. She is very enthusiastic about writing for a living, while still acknowledging that there comes a difficult point in every book when she wants to quit and go back to being a broke actor.
She still has an affinity with actors and the difficulties that they face finding work. This came across when she talked about the upcoming tv adaptation of her first two novels. She seemed genuinely delighted that the show was providing work for Irish actors. The show, Dublin Murders, stars Killian Scott and Sarah Greene, and is written by Sarah Phelps who has a couple of very good Agatha Christie tv adaptations under her belt. (And There Was None and The Witness for the Prosecution.) French said that she decided not to have anything to do with the tv adaptation when it became clear that it was not going to be a straight translation of the books – the 8-part tv series will feature the investigations from In The Woods and The Likeness – and decided to let it be a thing on it’s own.
She also talked about her most recent novel The Wych Elm which is a departure from the previous books because it is not set within the Dublin Murder Squad. Instead it follows Toby, a privileged young man who has been lucky all his life, until one night when he is the victim of a violent crime. Toby is young, male and good looking. He’s charming and intelligent and comes from an upper middle-class background. He’s not a bad guy but he has trouble understanding that not everybody’s life is as charmed or easy as his. He’s a fascinating character. During the Q&A portion of the evening, someone asked a question about a writer’s right to inhabit another gender and to say less than flattering things about that gender. I was very impressed with French’s response as she side-stepped the veiled attack and instead focused on the fact that Toby’s privileges, and by extension his character and short-comings, are only partly about gender, they are much more about class. She said that nobody really wants to talk about that though.
As well as being character-driven, French’s novels also have a very strong sense of place. She talked about her nomadic childhood, that moving around a lot made her feel a bit of an outsider, but was good training for a novelist. She came to Dublin for college in the 1990s and since then it has become her home. She spoke movingly about finding a home in Dublin after moving around so much. Her affection for Dublin and for that feeling of belonging came across strongly in the interview and is also in her fiction. Her characters are very much of the places they’re from. She also creates beautiful buildings in her fiction such as the shared house in The Likeness, the Ivy House in The Wych Elm or the school in The Secret Place. She seems grateful for having a place that feels like home, that she knows so well, and the beautifully created places are almost a thank you to Dublin for giving her that. The books are so rooted in Dublin and Ireland. Despite her international readership her characters tend to speak Hiberno-English. They always feel very Irish and that clear sense of place contributes to the enjoyment I get from her books.
Throughout the interview gives the impression of being a very dedicated, hard-working nerd. She is enthusiastic about her work and clearly enjoys it but it also feels like she knows how lucky she is to get to do it and doesn’t want to mess that up. She does lots of research and lots of rewrites. She wants each book to be different from the last, for her own sake as well as the readers. This dedication to her craft comes across in her writing – as a reader, you feel like you’re in safe hands within her pages.
She plans to continue to challenge herself and wants to write a short book next, something like Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, just to see if she can tell a story in that sort of condensed way. I wish her every success, and I look forward to reading her next book, no matter what size it is!