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Photo: © Jessica Ryan
Tana French is the author of In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place, Broken Harbor, The Secret Place, The Trespasser and The Witch Elm. Her books have won awards including the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, and Barry awards, the Los Angeles Times Award for Best Mystery/Thriller, and the Irish Book Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Dublin with her family.
How has your background in theater helped you create your characters?
When you get right down to it, writing – or at least writing in the first person, which is what I do – is basically the same skill as acting. For years, my job as an actor was to create a character – hopefully a full, three-dimensional character – and spend hours a day operating completely from her perspective, bringing an audience into her world. Writing is just an extension of that process. These days, my job is to create a narrator and see everything through her eyes, filter it through her perceptions and describe it in her voice, so I can draw readers into her world. I play my narrator on paper, rather than on stage, but the mental process is the same. Writing scenes with a lot of characters gets complicated – I have to ‘play’ all of them at once, juggle all their perspectives and motivations in my head – but it’s still that same skill. I keep meaning to e-mail my old acting teacher and thank him!
Are any of the characters in The Likeness based on anyone you know?
No, I don’t base characters on real people. As soon as you do that, you’re limited by what you know about the real person, what he or she would actually do or say. The character’s no longer free to develop in tandem with the needs of the plot, the themes or the other characters, so he or she comes across as out of place and, weirdly, more artificial than a made-up character would. I do steal little tiny snippets – an odd turn of phrase here, a quirky gesture there – but only from people I don’t know, people I pass on the street or sit next to on the bus. For me, anyway, creating characters from scratch makes for a more cohesive book.
How much of Cassie is based on you?
How did you get the idea to have Cassie and Lexie be identical in appearance?
To give a sensible answer to that, I’d have to back-engineer the whole process. Probably, in retrospect, it has something to do with the fact that The Likeness is linked to In The Woods and spins around some of the same themes – identity, the things that threaten or define identity, the moments when we have to choose to accept or reject something that transforms our perception of reality… Probably it also has to do with the fact that those issues were built into Cassie’s character in In The Woods – with the references to her previous undercover career and her lack of family, for example – so when I started to think abut giving her a book of her own, it was inevitable that identity and disguise would play a major role. In practice, though, I’m nowhere near organised enough to think all that stuff out. At the time, basically, I was batting a wild variety of mental images around in my head to see if one would stick, and I just really liked the image of a detective showing up at a murder scene and seeing that the victim’s face was identical to her own.
How did your knowledge of archeology and experiences at digs help you as a mystery writer?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be an archaeologist and discover Troy, till I found out someone else had already done that. I’ve worked on a couple of digs, though, and loved every second of it. I actually found the sixteenth-century coin that shows up in In The Woods.
This is going to sound weird, but the archaeologist’s job is an awful lot like the detective’s. Both of them are presented with a final result – a dead body, a set of walls – and they have to work painstakingly backwards, connecting up every piece of evidence and keeping a sharp eye out for any links or contradictions, to figure out how that result got there. The main difference is that archaeologists can afford to be open to the possibility that they don’t have all the evidence at their disposal, so their theories might change in the future, while the detective needs to build a theory that he can prove beyond a reasonable doubt; he only gets one shot.
How did you become so expert on police procedures?
I was lucky enough to have the help of an amazing detective on the Irish police force. He’s spent hours talking to me, he’s answered an incredible variety of weird questions, and he’s responsible for basically everything in the books that’s police-related and accurate.
I do take massive liberties, where the story requires it. To take the most obvious example, there’s no Murder squad in Ireland any more – but a small, tight, elite squad creates an intense atmosphere that a big cooperative force doesn’t have, so I added one in. To take another example, actual detectives spend a huge percentage of their time doing paperwork – but, since that’s just as boring in fiction as it is in real life, I skip happily over it and let my detectives spend all their time doing interesting stuff. Apart from those necessary liberties, though, I try to be as accurate as possible.
Which authors do you admire and how did they influence you?
When I think about it, the book that had the biggest impact was probably Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. My father read it to me when I was six, and I can still remember being dazzled by the sheer beauty of the language – the description of a river as ‘that sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal’. I think if you’re introduced to a book like that at an impressionable age, you can’t help falling in love with words.
When it comes to crime writing, the authors I’m in awe of are the ones who push the boundaries of the genre. One of the things I love about crime writing is that the parameters are so clearly defined: someone gets killed, someone else finds out who did it.
My favourite detective writers are the ones who use those parameters not as a foregone conclusion but as a starting point, the ones who experiment with them. In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, for example, you find out on the first page who killed whom, and yet it’s one of the most breathtakingly suspenseful murder mysteries I’ve ever read. Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair is a deeply scary portrait of the damage a psychopath can inflict, but you know who the villain is from very early on, and the most serious crime in the book is wasting police time. Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River is part mystery, part social history, part family saga, and all the more powerful for blurring those boundaries.
I think all of those writers have influenced me – maybe not in direct ways, but in their willingness to bend the formulae and walk those fine lines at the edge of the conventions. These books are set on the jagged edge where conventions meet reality – a reality in which people are flawed and complicated, and the search for answers doesn’t always have a happy ending. They’re not as comforting as the tidier, more unequivocal books in which good triumphs and evil is punished, but they’re the ones that stay in my mind.
What advice would you give to a first novelist?
Read good things. I think writing a book is almost like running a marathon: you need the best nourishment you can get. The more you expose yourself to first-rate writing, the more you develop your instincts, and the more you’ll push yourself towards that high standard. When I’m writing, I read the best stuff I can find. It doesn’t matter what genre it is – thriller, literary fiction, chick lit, anything – as long as it’s first-rate.
And don’t be scared of doing it wrong. One of the joys of writing is that we’re allowed to get it wrong as many times as we need to, and no harm done. You can rewrite that section a dozen times, and then scrap the whole thing and start again, if that’s what you need to do to get it right. This is especially true for first-time writers: there are no deadlines and no pressure, so you can afford to take all the time and all the drafts you need.
What can we look forward to in your next novel?
I want to keep writing about the same general clump of main characters for a while. In The Likeness, there’s a character called Frank Mackey, who’s Cassie’s boss when she works undercover. He’s very good at his job, very ruthless and very morally ambiguous, the kind of guy who sees everything as potential ammunition, and he’s the narrator of Book 3. He hasn’t spoken to his family in more than twenty years, since the day his first love dumped him and (supposedly) emigrated to England – but then her suitcase shows up behind the fireplace of a derelict house on his old street…
I haven’t ruled out coming back to Cassie, though, or to Rob Ryan from In The Woods. I’m not done with either of them yet!
In 2007, Tana French burst onto the book scene with the chilling, fascinating psychological thriller In the Woods. The Secret Place, the fifth book in her acclaimed Dublin Murder Squad series, is now available. Penguin Random House caught up with Tana to talk series, POV, and more.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE: The way that you structure the series – with every main character a peripheral character in a previous book – is a great way to link the novels. Longtime readers will recognize previous characters and settings and it’s very rewarding, and it doesn’t prevent new readers from jumping in mid-series. How far in advance do you usually know which character is going to show up in the next book?
TANA FRENCH: That varies. Usually I have an idea for the next book about halfway through the one I’m working on; your mind always wants to do what you’re not supposed to be doing. So about halfway through one book, my brain starts going, “Oh, you know what would be fun, I could clean the oven!” or “Maybe I’ll think about the next book for awhile.” And so I end up coming up with an idea for the one I’m not supposed to be working on for another year.
Usually the premise links into one of the characters in the book I’m working on. For example, when I was halfway through Faithful Place, I had the idea for Broken Harbor, and I wanted to use Stephen Moran, who shows up in Faithful Place, as the narrator. But Broken Harbor is all about people who follow the rules, who stick to doing the right thing, and what happens when the rules turn around and kick them in the teeth. And that just wasn’t Stephen, that’s not what he’s about. But it was very much another peripheral character, Scorcher Kennedy; he’s very much into sticking to the rules and believing that will guarantee you the right outcome, so he was the obvious narrator for that book.
About halfway through writing Broken Harbor I was just bouncing around the idea that turned into The Secret Place. Because it was about teenagers and about secrets and about trying to work out who you are and who you allow to define you, Stephen from Faithful Place popped up. I realized that he’s very much a people pleaser – he does exactly what Frank wants him to do, partly out of ambition and partly because he’s not completely sure who he is, so he allows other people to make that decision for him. And in a book about teenagers trying to work out identity issues, he just seemed like the obvious narrator.
PRH: So this book, The Secret Place, is heavily female, more so than your others. Really everyone with the exception of Stephen Moran, Frank Mackey, and the dead boy, Chris Harper, are female characters. How did you come to the decision to write such a female-centric novel from the perspective of an adult male protagonist?
TF: I’m slightly dodgy about the idea of seeing this as a “female-centric” book, because I think that a book about a bunch of male teenagers wouldn’t be seen as a male-centric book; it would be seen as a book about the universal human experience. I don’t think this really is a book about experiences that are specific to girls or women – it’s meant to be about that whole process of deciding not only who you are but who gets to decide that, who gets to define you. Is it your friends, is it peer pressure, is it authority, is it media, is it your own instincts? And trying to find a balance between all of these factors. And if you don’t balance them right, as some of the characters don’t, you can either end up losing yourself entirely in this cluster of media images of what you should be, or you can end up without enough feedback from outside sources – you can end up, as one of the characters does, losing hold of reality, and things can go very badly wrong there.
And that’s not specific to girls, it’s not specific to teenagers – it’s heightened in teenagers, but it goes across the board. Chris [Harper, the murder victim] is dealing with that in the flashback sections just as much as the girls are. Because he’s handsome and charismatic and good at sports, people project what they want to see on him, try to define him, and he’s fighting for ways to try to define himself just as much as the girls are. And Stephen as well is trying to decide who is going to be allowed to define him. Is he going to do it? Is he going to let the higher echelons of the police force, the people who could give him more of a career, is he going to let them and his ambitions define him? Is Frank going to define who he is and how he acts in crucial situations? And I don’t think that this issue is female-centric at all. The characters happen to be girls, but I’m dodgy about the idea that we can define books with male characters as books about the human experience while defining books about girls as female-centric.
I worry about the fact that anything with female characters, it’s assumed that there’s no reason guys would be interested or it’s not relevant to them. No! For the most part, people deal with all the same things. And I think it’s quite patronizing to guys to say, oh, they’re not capable of seeing things from this slightly different viewpoint. Guys are perfectly capable of imagination and empathy just as much as women. It overrates the differences between the sexes while it underrates the differences between individuals. I have more in common with some men than with some women. I’ve got more in common with my best guy friend than with Paris Hilton. As long as we’re considering gender to be the basic divide of humanity, it completely underrates what individuals are.
PRH: One of the things I like talking to people about after they’ve read your books is that throughout the series, with the exception of Faithful Place, there are glimmers of something not quite supernatural but slightly more than normal. Without spoiling anything, it’s more pronounced in The Secret Place. What goes into incorporating those elements and how do you want people to perceive them?
TF: I love mysteries, and I always have – they can be solved, unsolved, real, fictional. I’m just fascinated by them. To me the mystery doesn’t stop at the ones with a straightforward answer (“Who killed this person?”). These mysteries may have answers, but they take place in a world that is always going to be mysterious to us and is always going to be full of that sense of the unanswered.
Because I love that and am fascinated by that, it tends to sneak into the books. The extent to which it does depends very much on the character. Different narrators invite different levels of the blurring of that borderline between standard reality and whatever else might be out there. You mentioned Faithful Place as the exception – there’s no tinge of the supernatural in there – and that’s because Frank Mackey is the kind of guy for whom that would not be a factor, not be a presence within his life. It plays different roles in some of the other narrators’ lives – Scorcher Kennedy in Broken Harbor feels that any tinge of the inexplicable is an encroachment on his well-controlled life. It’s dangerous, it’s an attack on him, it’s a sign that his world is crumbling. Cassie in The Likeness doesn’t feel the doppelganger situation in the same way – she recognizes it’s not quite within the parameters of normal life, but she’s willing to deal with it on its own terms rather than feeling threatened by it.
For The Secret Place, your sense of reality when you’re a teenager is already much more fluid than an adult’s, because you haven’t defined what constitutes reality for yourself yet, and so you’re willing to accept so much more as being present and part of reality. For the girls, things that most adults would consider not possible – they’re absolutely open to the possibility that these could be real. And in this book, because there are two narrative strands – one from the detectives’ perspective and the other from the perspective of the girls – there are events that have one interpretation from the girls’ perspective and a totally different one from the detectives’ perspective. Either interpretation could be the right one and each interpretation is in fact the correct one in that narrative strand, but I’ve made very sure there’s an explanation from each perspective. It’s defined by the characters, to a large extent, which explanation is the correct one from which angle.
If you know anything about ancient Greek mythology and belief, you know that the belief back then was that there’s not just one kind of real; there were two, logos and mythos. Logos is everyday reality, your shoe, the pizza you had for dinner, the bus route to get from here across town. Mythos is the reality of the gods and goddesses and the world existing just behind this one, which is not real in the same way as your socks are real, and shouldn’t be expected to be, but that doesn’t detract from its own reality. I’ve always been fascinated by that take on it and I think that probably comes through in the books – that just because something demonstrably is not real in the same way as everyday life doesn’t necessarily mean it has no existence at all.
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