Tana French in conversation

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.

TFrench

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!

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I will miss Terry Prachett but there still lots of great books to read

TerryPrachettSince the sad news of his death came last Friday, I have read some lovely tributes to Terry Prachett, and often had a little weep. (I really like these two on the Standard Issue website – AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER and DON’T THINK OF IT AS DYING. JUST THINK OF IT AS LEAVING EARLY TO AVOID THE RUSH, and this one by Frank Cottrell Boyce in the Guardian.) I started reading Prachett’s Discworld books the summer I did my Leaving Cert and fell in love with them immediately. They were recommended by a friend – we’d bonded over a shared love of Red Dwarf and then I sent her off to read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and she sent me off to read the Discworld novels. I am very grateful to her for that – what a gift! All those wonderful stories, all those jokes, all those terrific characters. And now, there’s no more. No more Sam Vimes fighting everyone in sight so he can get home to read his son a bedtime story. No more stories about Tiffiany Aching and the Nac Mac Feegleys (after the final one). The news of his death was very sad, even if it was not unexpected. (That’s a lie – I didn’t expect it, I was hoping for a miracle cure. Surely it was a one in a million chance.) As well as reading other peoples tributes to him, it makes me want to watch The Hogfather and wonder what’s happening with The Watch tv series. But I also feel lucky to have those books in my life, and lucky that despite being a fan for 15 years, I still haven’t read everything he’s written. And even those I have read, I know I will read and enjoy again. They are so crammed full of jokes and clever parodies and wonderful minor characters, along side the great plots, that I know they are worth reading again.

Celebrating all the great books he gave us feels more useful than being sad about his passing. And in the spirit of celebration, I started thinking about other writers that are still with us and still writing wonderful books that make me glad I’m alive to read them!

1. Jilly Cooper is still writing and is working on a new horsey book! I love this article about how Riders is 30 years old and the best erotic fiction of all time! I started Riders the morning after my granny died. I was 15 and instantly hooked on Jilly Cooper. For a long time, her books were my literary drug of choice – the ones I went for when I needed to escape from my own boring life. I’ve probably read Riders, Rivals and Polo at least 5 times. And yes, her books are not as saucy as they used to be, either because I’m not 15 any more or because she’s almost 80, but I am still looking forward to her next one.

2. Caitlin Moran has to included on a celebratory list because she is just a pusher of joy. She’s an enthusiast and somehow manages to be infectiously enthusiastic about the simplest things like fluffy towels. She makes the world brighter and more bearable. I don’t know know if she’s working on a new book but I am looking forward to watching Raised by Wolves over the next few weeks and liked this profile in the Guardian at the weekend.

3. Marian Keyes. I’ve been reading Marian’s books longer than I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett’s and I still look forward to every single one. I read her most recent book – The Woman Who Stole My Life – just before Christmas and really loved it. I bought it a gift but had to read it first! She’s also an absolute tonic on twitter, another person who is just out to find the joy in things. I really think the people who decry twitter as a rage-filled cesspool are just following the wrong people.

4. Tana French is an Irish crime writer that I heard about from an American classmate a couple of years ago. For some reason she is much better known in the States than in Ireland, though all her books are set in Dublin. And they are wonderful. I don’t read a lot of crime novels but I really really enjoy these. I love getting hold of a new Tana French novel, looking forward diving into that world and knowing that I’m going to be completely obsessed with it for the next few days.

5. Louise O’Neill, another Irish woman, who published her first novel the very creepy Only Ever Yours last year. It’s set in a future world where girls are trained and rated for the sole-purpose of male pleasure. It’s terrifying and heart-breaking, and one that stays with you for days. Her next novel is about rape culture and I’m really interested to see how she dissects that messy minefield.

I’ve also heard great things about The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan. And Kate Atkinson has a new book out this year, and so does Judy Blume and Ali Smith and Harper Lee! So many great books that I can’t wait to get my hands on. Not to mention all the writers that I haven’t yet become acquainted with. Yes, I’ve listed loads of women writers, mainly because these are the books I’ve excited about right now. I’ve never had trouble #ReadingWomen but I do read male authors too. I read Funny Girl by Nick Hornby earlier this year and absolutely loved it, I’m looking forward to David Nichols’ Us and I’ve just started This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz.

These are the people I’m looking forward to reading, the books that make me happy.. Any gems that I’ve missed?