Tana French: There isn’t one objective truth about what the murder squad is like or what the friendship between Rob and Cassie is like. It has different realities, equally valid from different points of view and to me, this kind of cuts to the heart of what the arts are for. They give us a glimpse. A great play or symphony or painting or book gives us a glimpse into what it’s like to experience the world through someone else’s eyes and that’s a huge transformative vitally important thing that feeds into empathy and all the things that make us human and I think that cuts to the heart of what we do, both as writers and as readers
Jo Reed: People who think the term ‘Genre Writer” is reductive often use Tana French as an example. She’s reigns over Irish crime fiction—but she pushes the genre with descriptive language in novels that are character-driven and densely atmospheric. Her first six books center on the Dublin Murder Squad—but defying convention—each book is narrated by a different member of the squad—so a supporting player in Book 1 might be the narrator of book 4. These first-person narrations by detectives whose issues color their observations give readers a deeply personal and extremely partial perspective of colleagues, suspects and the crimes. Then in her seventh book—a stand-alone The Witch Elm, Tana French turned this model upside down. Here, the narrator is a character who is the victim of one crime and a suspect in another. Not surprisingly—the detectives and their actions look different from this perspective...manipulative and bullying rather than truth-seekers. In her latest book another stand-alone The Searcher, Tana moves to new territory entirely: she takes the framework of the American western and shifts it to a remote rural area of Ireland….where an ex Chicago cop Cal Hooper settles by himself in a ramshackle cottage ready to begin a new life. It’s a familiar trope but Tana French molds it into a story of her own. Tana talked to me about this change of territory from her home in Dublin beginning with a short summary of The Searcher.
Tana French: Cal is an American detective who’s taken early retirement. He is feeling pretty beaten up, both in terms of his career and in terms of his recent divorce and he buys a dilapidated old cottage in the west of Ireland, planning to have a nice peaceful life where nothing much happens and he has a few pints now and then and that’s it. But instead, a local kid starts demanding that Cal investigate what happened to his missing older brother and Cal doesn’t find himself with much choice except to go and do exactly that.
Jo Reed: Thank you. “The Searcher” is a change for you in a number of ways. First, it has an American protagonist, then it’s set in the Irish countryside as opposed to Dublin, and it’s also told in the third person. So, I want to know what inspired this sea change.
Tana French: What changed? The three things were very much linked up, actually. I had been reading a lot of westerns and I found myself loving the genre and a lot of its elements and thinking it’s got a lot of resonances with the west of Ireland in the western settings. You’ve got like this beautiful harsh countryside that demands serious physical and mental toughness from anyone who wants to make a living off it and you’ve also got that western sense of place that’s both geographically and culturally quite distant from the centers of power, to the extent that people feel like the power brokers have no clue about their lives and if they want a cohesive society, they have to make and enforce their own rules and those apply well both in the traditional western setting and also in the west of Ireland. So, I like the idea of taking some of the western tropes and seeing how they fitted into the west of Ireland. I wanted to do something different anyway because I’m always wary of the idea of the trap of writing the same book over and over again and I think especially when you write genre, where the basic story arc is fairly fixed-- A kills B and C finds out whodunnit. It’s an easy trap to fall into, finding out what works for you and doing it again and again. So, I wanted to do something a bit different. So, this idea of putting a western-tinged mystery novel in the west of Ireland kind of fit the bill and one of the tropes I liked was the stranger in town. You know how he shows up in all the westerns and he strolls into the saloon and he’s probably got a past that he’s not about to reveal and you know he’s going to be a catalyst. Things are going to change around him. It’s not clear how, but he’s going to upset the established order and reveal buried things within the town in one way or another.
Jo Reed: And why an American protagonist?
Tana French: What led to the American protagonist is that in order to fulfill that role of the stranger in town, he had to be a proper outsider, which meant there was no way he could be Irish because if he was Irish, even if he was from right across the country and he had never been to this little town land before, he would have gone out with a girl from there or his mom would have worked with someone from there or his dad would play poker with a guy whose uncle was-- like spot the connection is the national sport, honestly, and within an hour, Noreen, who’s the local shopkeeper and information bank, she would have found that connection and that would have been used to place him within the framework of the townlands and I didn’t want him to be placeable. I needed him to be the outsider that comes in. So, he had to be from another country. I couldn’t even make him from New York or Boston because he would know some Irish cop whose uncle had come from this little townland. He had to be from somewhere else and that’s what made him into the American detective.
Jo Reed: And why the third-person narrative…you’re queen of first-person narration!
Tana French: I had just come off writing “The Wych Elm,” which is a very introspective, internal book. I mean, the protagonist has suffered an acquired brain injury and that shapes the entire plot of the book and his entire experience. It’s all about what is happening in his injured mind and how does he deal with that? How does he deal with the changes within himself? So, it’s a very interior internalized book. It’s very much about the inner workings of his mind and I wanted to do something different. The western is focused around people who define their lives in terms of action and that’s very much Cal. He doesn’t think that what matters most about people is what they think or what they feel. These things aren’t particularly important to him. For him, what defines you is what you do, is your actions and so, that kind of fit the third-person narrative better because in his viewpoint, if he had a viewpoint on this book, it would be that the reader doesn’t need to be inside his head, doesn’t need to see what’s going on inside his head because that’s not what’s important. What’s important is his actions and so, the third-person narrative, which is more about action and less about inner thought process seem to fit in there best.
Jo Reed: Well, Cal is the prototypical western hero, the ex-law man trying to make his way in a new territory and he lives by a code and in fact, he’s an ex-cop because of that code, because he was losing that certainty that he had and that’s quite topical and I’m not suggesting you set out to write about social issues, but crime fiction is by its nature about society and what society values and you don’t write and we don’t read in a vacuum. All of this seeps in. So, I’m curious what thought you gave to that to making him an ex-cop who really is quite trouble by what he actually is seeing on the police force.
Tana French: Yeah, and what he’s beginning to become. I think you’re absolutely right. I think crime is one of the genres that automatically, whether you want it to or not, picks up social issues because, like you say, you’re dealing with society’s priorities and its fears and its dark places and so, whatever is going on around you will seep in and I’ve been thinking a lot about morality when I was starting to write this book and I think a lot of people are these days. I think that’s a good thing and one of the things I liked about westerns is that they’re deeply engaged with the idea of morality always, of right and wrong, but they deal very often very matter-of-factly with the complexity of morality, with the fact that people who are mostly good can sometimes do really terrible things and vice versa and with the fact that all of us find it really hard to cope with this and westerns don’t try to gloss over any of that complexity. They don’t try to deny it. They don’t even try to explain it. They just lay it out and let us see it and so, if I was going to write a book that had tinges of western, it had to be underpinned by that focus on the intractable complexity of right and wrong and so, that’s where Cal’s at. He’s somehow between the ending of his career, between the ending of his marriage, he’s been left feeling that somehow, he’s lost hold of his moral code and that matters to him. It matters to him that he is a good man and he no longer feels like he counts as one and he’s also always believed that the distinction between right and wrong is a straightforward one. You treat people right, you get stuff done, you’re basically a good guy, and somehow along the way, it’s become more complicated than that and it’s become more complicated than he feels that he’s able to deal with. So, he figures if he gets thousands of miles away from any of these complications, he finds a peaceful little small town where he isn’t a cop anymore. He isn’t a husband anymore. He isn’t a father anymore, maybe right and wrong will be simpler, but it’s a western. He’s a retired gunslinger. He’s going to get dragged out of retirement for one last mission and he ends up having to deal with these things that he’d hoped he left behind.
Jo Reed: Well, one of the most memorable scenes of the book, I think, takes place at the pub, where Cal is drinking poteen with the local lads and on one hand, it’s this singing, warm, friendly Irish bar storytelling scene and Cal is also reading the subtext, which is really quite different.
Tana French: Oh, yeah. Look, it’s Ireland. Some of the most crucial things always take place in the pub and also, one of the things that for whatever reasons, which I think may be rooted in a colonial past, the Irish are very good at subtext. It’s one of the national talents. Things are often expressed very indirectly and especially in small towns, the things people say to you and the things that are going on underneath may be very, very different and you have to learn how to read the codes and how to crack the cyphers in order to understand what’s being said to you and of course, Cal is brand new here. He doesn’t know any of the codes, any of the cyphers. He’s feeling his way in the dark trying to pick them up as he goes along and in this scene in the pub, where they are all off their faces on poteen that somebody made somewhere up in the mountains in his own illegal still, he’s trying-- he’s aware that something very crucial is being said to him, that he’s being warned in some way, but he’s not fluent enough in this language of code and subtext to pick up on the nuances of what exactly is he being warned against and he’s trying to figure out what it is and trying to not put a foot wrong and all he can really work out is that it is on the one hand a warning, but it’s on the other hand, an offer. You can be accepted here. You can be welcome here, but you need to follow the rules, but we’re not necessarily going to tell you what they are.
Jo Reed: Does writing about the countryside differ for you than setting a story in Dublin?
Tana French: Oh, yeah. It’s hugely different. I’ve always loved the west of Ireland. Like, since I was a teenager, I spent summers there and it is very, very different and one of the things that’s most different that I only discovered, actually, along the way I was writing this book is when you’re writing about somebody within a society, a city is completely different from the countryside. In the city, if you want to be detached from your community and not to have any effect on anyone around you, you can kind of do that, like just don’t get a barking dog and don’t play your music loud and you’re basically set. You can detach yourself from the community. But when you’re in a rural place, it’s not that simple and there’s a scene where Lena, who’s a woman from the locale explains to Cal that things like when women began to be able to get better jobs, the young women of the area started taking off for the cities, which left the young men with no one to marry and now, you’ve got all these old bachelors up on their farms feeling a little bit like the world is changing fast enough to be a threat, even though they’re not sure quite how and they don’t have young people going in and out to show them that the world is actually pretty close to what it’s always been and so, what seems like an individual decision, like going off to the city to get a job that you want, that’s actually not just your decision. It’s a decision that has a huge ripple effect throughout the community because you’re in a small town, it’s deeply, deeply interwoven, and it’s small enough that one person’s decisions can have an impact on everyone else. I think that’s the biggest difference that I realized, that every character is affected by every other character’s choices.
Jo Reed: You were born in the United States, but you grew up in Italy, in Malawi, and in Ireland, if I’m correct.
Tana French: Yeah, a bit of everywhere.
Jo Reed: Why and when did you decide to settle in Ireland?
Tana French: It’s funny. When you’re a third culture kid or whatever, you finish school and for a lot of us, there isn’t really one obvious choice of where to go, because my mom is half-Russian/half-Italian, my dad is American with Irish thrown in. I’d grown up all over the place. There didn’t really seem to be a home in particular to go back to for college and to settle in, but we’ve been coming to Ireland for summers for ages. So, I knew people there. I had friends and I liked it here. I really loved both the countryside and the people and so, it just kind of seemed like the natural place to go and I just gravitated here.
Jo Reed: I wonder how an international childhood in traveling living in different countries and cultures sort of added to your arsenal as a writer.
Tana French: It’s great. It’s a really great thing to have, I think, up your sleeve. It’s problematic in some ways because you don’t necessarily have the level of in-depth knowledge of tiny cultural nuances that somebody who’s deeply rooted in one culture would have, but at the same time, it can be a plus because you notice things that someone who’s from a very monocultural environment probably wouldn’t notice. You have to. If you’re moving around all the time, you’ve got to be pretty good at picking up just little cultural stuff, like “Okay, hang on. Here in Ireland, people sound a little bit further apart than they do in Rome and they don’t talk as loudly and they’re not as tactile.” You have to pick this stuff up so that you’ll be able to communicate what you intend to communicate and that’s a great thing for a writer. You’re noticing things that someone who’s from there wouldn’t necessarily notice because they’re taking it for granted as the natural way things are. This is just the default mode. But because you don’t have a default mode as an international brat, you notice more things and that’s useful. It means you can use it both as a writer and as an actor.
Jo Reed: You were an actor for quite some time. Why did you turn to writing?
Tana French: It was kind of accidental, actually. I used to write when I was a kid and a teenager and then it sort of went by the wayside with the acting. I was in theater and unless you’re Judi Dench, the gigs don’t line up neatly. You’ve always got a few weeks if you’re lucky, a few months if you’re not, in between shows and on one of those breaks, I went off to do an archeological dig and there was a wood near the dig and I was looking at the wood thinking “That would be a great place for kids to play,” and because I suppose even back then I kind of felt like a mystery writer and I was looking for potential mysteries in everything, I thought “Well, what if three kids ran in there to play and only one ever came out and he had no memory of what had happened to the other two?” What would that do to his mind as he grew up knowing that the solution to this mystery is in there but he can’t find it and then what if he became a detective and a murder case drew him back to this wood? What would that do to him? I kind of scribbled it down on a piece of paper, forgot about it for a while, found the piece of paper and realized that I really wanted to know how this story ended and that no one else was going to write it for me. So, I didn’t think I could write a book because I never tried before, but I reckoned I could probably write a scene and then another scene and then I had a chapter and then suddenly, it was what would turn into “In the Woods” and I realized that I was serious enough about this about this that I was turning down acting work and if you know a lot of actors, you know that they do not turn down work easily and that’s kind of the moment when I realized that the writing had become a really serious thing and from there on, it took off and I got lucky and found a publisher and I’m probably one of the few people that had gone into writing because it provided so much more stability and security.
Jo Reed: I think you probably are the only one I have ever spoken to who can say that. But I’m curious how your experiences as an actor influenced the way you write.
Tana French: Oh, I definitely write like an actor, definitely. It’s had a huge influence. It’s kind of the same skill, very much, in that if you write first person, which is what I did up until this book, you’re trying to create a character who is three-dimensional and bring your audience so intimately into that character’s mind that they know every little nuance of this character. They’re seeing the whole world of the story through this person’s biases and fears and needs and they come away feeling like this is someone who is as close to them as their best friend and that’s the same as acting, basically. That’s your job in acting. So, it was something I kind of had practice in, something I had been training for for a while and that’s still where I start a book. I don’t know the plot when I start out. I have a really strong sense of the main character. I have probably a core location and a really basic premise and I dive in there and just start writing, which is sort of scary because I have no idea if there’s a book in there or not, if all the loose ends are going to tie up. But because I’m starting with the character, it’s the only way I can do it. I have to write the character for a while in order to get to know them before I could actually figure out who would do what to whom and why.
Jo Reed: Acting is so social. Writing is so solitary. Was that an adjustment for you?
Tana French: Oh, god. Yes. It was a huge adjustment and partly on the work level. I mean, partly on the social level obviously because you’re acting. You finish up a rehearsal. You finish up the show and you get to go off to the pub together and have the postmortem and a laugh and come down off the adrenaline buzz or discuss what you did today and when you’re a writer, you finish working and you put your notebook away or it’s just a computer and you’re done, but also on a work level, I was very used to the fact that as an actor, if you have one of those days where you’re just crap, nothing works, you cannot get anywhere, then either the director or another actor will throw something at you that helps you come unstuck and helps you find a new angle on it or a new take that gets you through that stuck point, whereas if you’re a writer and you’re having one of those days where nothing works, it’s just you. There’s nobody else there to unstick and you have to figure out a way to do it yourself and I did find that part a big adjustment, but on the other hand, the great part of it is when you’re an actor, you need someone else’s permission to work, unless you’re the kind of person who can get an entire show up and running off your own bat and I’m not. I’m not one of these people who can spearhead a project like that and when you’re a writer, it was an amazing sense of liberation when I was working on “In the Woods” to realize that I didn’t need to audition for anybody. I didn’t need a director or decide that I was allowed to act. All I needed was a notebook and a pen and I was good to go and no one could stop me. That was amazing.
Jo Reed: You’ve written six books that are centered around the Dublin murder squad and each was narrated by a different detective-- Cassie, who had a supporting role in your first book “In the Woods” is the narrator for “The Likeness.” Frank appeared in the “The Likeness” and is narrator of “Faithful Place.” Why did you choose to tell stories that way?
Tana French: That was an accident. That wasn’t a plan-- like, I never have a plan. I was finishing up “In the Woods” and I was thinking if by some chance and alignment of the stars someone buys this and they actually want a second one, I should probably have an idea here and I was thinking the traditional thing to do with mysteries is to stick with one detective throughout, one detective narrator and follow them through the ups and downs of their life and while I love reading series’ like that, I wasn’t sure I was interested in writing one because when I like writing about is the huge turning points in the main character’s life, the moment where you know that whichever they decide at this point, that’s going to define them from now on for the rest of their lives and that’s a limit to how many moments like that one person has in their life. You know what I mean? So, I reckoned “Okay, if I keep doing that to the same main character, he’s going to be in a straight jacket by book three. I can keep giving him these huge dramatic moments, but that’s not going to fly.” Or I can write the traditional series, where you follow the character through the more minor ups and downs, like P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh series, stuff like that. Or else I thought I can switch narrator and I had this idea of a detective coming to a crime scene and finding that they look exactly like the murder victim. I like themes of identity and what makes it up and who are you and how is that defined and just that idea, that image of the detective and the victim looking alike, I was interested in it and I started to realize that would actually fit quite well with Cassie, who had been kind of the second lead in “In the Woods” because she has a slightly fragmented past, where her parents died when she was very young. She was brought up by an aunt and uncle and her sense of herself is a little bit deracinated because of that and she’s done undercover work. So, she’s spent time being someone else before and I just realized “Actually, hang on. This would be a good story for Cassie,” and I realized also that I really like the idea of presenting the world of these books and the relationships in these books through different perspectives because, of course, a relationship is a different thing from different perspectives and the world is a different thing from different perspectives. There isn’t one objective truth about what the murder squad is like or what the friendship between Rob and Cassie is like. It has different realities, equally valid from different points of view and to me, this kind of cuts to the heart of what the arts are for. They give us a glimpse. A great play or symphony or painting or book gives us a glimpse into what it’s like to experience the world through someone else’s eyes and that’s a huge transformative vitally important thing that feeds into empathy and all the things that make us human and I think that cuts to the heart of what we do, both as writers and as readers and I felt that in a small way, this idea of moving from narrator to narrator and letting the world exist through each narrator’s eyes cut very much to the core of what I think I’m doing here.
Jo Reed: While your books aren’t procedurals as much as they’re character-driven books, they still are very much concerned with the ins and outs of policing and I’m curious how you learned that.
Tana French: Oh, I got lucky. We had a friend-- my husband and I had a friend, whose brother is a retired detective on the Irish Police Force and he is also a lovely guy. So, luckily, I would ring him up or I’d take him out for coffee and I would ask him a ton of questions about the wildest variety of things, but he’s also a great storyteller. So, he’ll not only answer my questions, but he’ll just tell me stories with the serial numbers filed off. So, I don’t actually know what case he’s talking about, but that’s the only way to get answers to the questions that you don’t even know you need to ask. Like, I wouldn’t know how to ask “What does it feel like when a case isn’t working? What’s the feel in the room? How do you...” But once he starts talking and telling stories and you realize how the pace of an investigation can change around this or what happens when you disagree with somebody who you’re working with, things like that that I wouldn’t know how to ask for, but his stories fill those gaps in for me. He’s been amazing. He really has. I owe him a lot.
Jo Reed: Partnerships and friendships and their complexities and their centrality is a theme that goes straight through your work.
Tana French: Yeah. I love writing about friendship. It is. It’s one of the things I come back to and I don’t think it gets quite enough space in the arts a lot of the time. A lot of books, you see so many focused around romantic relationships, so many focused around family relationships, and friendships come in, but I find that an awful lot of the time, they’re peripheral to the main action. The main character will have a friend who they bounce things off or who’s an important part of their life, but that relationship is seldom essential and I’ve found that in my life, there have been many times when friendships were in fact very much the central relationships and that they mattered a lot and I think-- I think you can probably have a perfectly complete and healthy life without having a romantic relationship, without having kids, but I’m not sure it’s possible to do it without friendships. They seem to me to be the thing, the constant that can take you through almost everything else and I like writing about them and I like putting them at the center of a mystery because mystery novels are by definition about high stakes relationships, unless you’re writing a serial killer novel where the villain kills somebody because they feel like it. Otherwise, a relationship has to be very high stakes to end in murder, one way or another. There has to be something very important there and so, mystery novels, a lot of the time, they will center around romantic relationships or family relationships and I like to prioritize friendships, partly because it’s a way of making it clear no, these are high stakes enough. These do matter enough. They include enough really important and intense feeling that the stakes can be that high.
Jo Reed: Well, memory is a recurring theme, from “In the Woods” to “The Wych Elm,” your standalone, and it’s unreliability, which goes back to the detectives telling us these stories are damaged. So, truth can be elusive at times.
Tana French: Oh, yeah. It’s a fractured colored tinted thing and I think again, this is one of the core things about the arts for me is the unreliable narrator because we are all unreliable narrators. We’re all seeing the world through our own biases and our own experiences and we’re interpreting it through that and we’re framing our own narratives through that. So, when you read a book that has an unreliable narrator and you get close to that unreliable narrator, in some ways, that is the closest you can come to really seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, getting that glimpse of someone else’s world that I was talking about earlier is via ironically an unreliable narrator and so, I like them. I like reading them. I like writing them. I think they’re really important and I think also, yeah, I like the idea of the truth and memory being malleable and being-- I wouldn’t say I like it, exactly. I find it a little bit scary. I blame this-- I blame actually my entire career on Stephen King and “It,” right? I read that when I was too young, probably, like 13, 14, and I read it and it scared the living bejesus out of me and it wasn’t the scary clown. I mean, the scary clown is spooky enough, but it was the bit where you know the characters, they’re adults now and they’re trying to hold on to the memory of this thing that happened when they were about 12 and they can’t hold on to it and I think one of them keeps writing it down in a diary and the diary keeps vanishing. I can’t remember the exact mechanisms because I haven’t read it since because it terrified me too badly. But that’s what I came away with most strongly is the terrifying idea that our minds are not these inviolate untouchable places over which we have complete control. They’re fragile. They can be invaded and changed and that was what I found most terrifying, that our own memories are not in fact fixed and immutable. They can shift and they can be made to shift and that shows up over and over again in “In the Woods” and in “The Wych Elm” most of all, but I think there are probably flashes of it in the other books as well. Who are we if our memories shift? Who are we and what are we made of?
Jo Reed: Well, “The Wych Elm,” your first standalone after the six Dublin Squad books, is also the first not narrated by a detective and our narrator, Toby, is first a victim and then a suspect. So, it really is this big shift.
Tana French: Oh, yeah. That was deliberate because I was realizing that I had written six books from the point of view of a detective all about investigations and I started thinking there are so many other perspectives on a murder investigation. You’ve got the perpetrators, witnesses, suspect, victims, and to them, this entire murder investigation is a completely different thing. For the detective, it’s a source of power and control. They know how an investigation works. They know how to drive it. They are the ones managing it, directing it. They’re the ones in control. It’s a means of kind of restoring order on to chaos. But if you’re in any of those other roles, it’s the opposite. You have no control at all. It’s completely ripped out from under you. This thing, this murder investigation just comes barreling into your life like a freight train. It knocks everything over and you have no way of knowing where it’s going, when it’s going to stop, or what it’s going to do to you and I wanted to give those other viewpoints a voice too and so, Toby is at various points in the book, he’s all of those. He’s the witness, he’s the victim, he’s the perpetrator. He’s the suspect, and he does try, bless his heart, to be the detective for a while and it doesn’t work out. But I wanted to try and see the investigation from other viewpoints and to give a voice to those.
Jo Reed: Well, talk about your unreliable narrator. I mean, Toby was fairly clueless before his memory issues and you really play with the idea of luck in that book.
Tana French: Yeah. That’s what I was thinking about so much when I was writing that book is not just luck, but how too much luck can stunt empathy to an extent if you’ve been too lucky in one area of your life, you can be less well able to really understand at a gut level that other people may not be having the same experience of the world as you are. I thought with Toby, okay, what if you’ve been lucky always in every way. You’ve always flipped the right side of the coin. He’s white, he’s male, he’s straight, he’s good looking, he’s intelligent. He comes, which is very important, from a well-off, educated family. He’s charming. He’s basically everything that means the world is set up to be Toby-friendly and while he’s a nice guy-- he’s kind, he’s generous-- he has basically no understanding of the fact that not everybody is living in this same world. He just can’t take it in that somebody else’s experience of something as simple as walking home late at night might not be quite the same as his. It just doesn’t go into his brain and then one of the aspects, the very important aspects in which he’s always been lucky, is that he’s always been both physically and mentally healthy and then he’s attacked and ends up with an acquired brain injury and all of a sudden, that’s not true of him anymore. He isn’t on the lucky side of every coin and to him, that’s devastating because that luck has been built into his identity. He’s always considered it to be a part of him, not something that just happened to come to him, but part of who he is and so, he’s forced to reexamine not just who he is now with this brain injury, who he’s going to be able to be in the future, but also, was he ever what he thought and was his past ever what he thought it was? Was the world he was living in ever what he thought it was? So, he gets pretty existential all up in there once his luck is taken away.
Jo Reed: Yes, he does. And speaking of existential, how has this past year been for you?
Tana French: I mean, we’ve had it easier than most, but it’s really tough in terms of doing a job like writing in which your subconscious is so deeply involved and I hadn’t even realized to what extent I was relying on my subconscious to be doing some work there in the background until I realized that my subconscious like everybody else’s right now is basically a smoking crater. I mean, when like the toaster blows up and all that’s left is this faint threat of smoke and a smell of burning, yeah, that’s all of our heads right now, I think, and so, I didn’t get very much writing done until quite recently because yeah, my brain was just-- my bandwidth was completely used up with figuring out all this stuff that we’ve all been figuring out, doing algorithms-- how high is the case rate? Is it safe to see this person if I saw this person this recently and do the kids need-- how badly do they need to see another human being? Can I find another human being who’s had the same-- just all this constant math that we’re doing in our heads, it takes up a lot of bandwidth and there wasn’t really anything left to do much writing until fairly recently.
Jo Reed: Finally, what are you looking forward to?
Tana French: I’m trying to take it day-by-day because if I look further ahead than “Okay, are we all happy and okay today? Is everyone happy getting what they need right now?” If I look further ahead than that, it starts getting a little scary out there because Ireland isn’t doing too well on the vaccination front. It’s looking increasingly unlikely that I’ll be vaccinated this year as a healthy 40-something. So, I could be wrong. I could get lucky but as that hope kind of recedes over the horizon, it gets less and less fun trying to look forward to anything. I’m looking forward to not having to bloody think about this anymore. That’s what I’m looking forward to most, having a day where I don’t say a word about COVID, I don’t think about COVID, nobody else says anything about COVID, that’s what I want to do.
Jo Reed: I hear that, Tana, and I think that is a good place to leave it. Thank you so much and thank you for helping me get through this lockdown because your books most certainly did. So, thank you.
Tana French: Thank you. I’m so glad. I reckoned early on that the only two useful things I can do are stay home and hopefully keep people from getting bored. So, if I managed to do that, I am so happy. Thank you very much and thank you for having me.
Tana French reigns over Irish crime fiction. She pushes the genre with descriptive lyrical language in novels that are character-driven and densely atmospheric. Her first six books center on the Dublin Murder Squad, an imaginary branch of the Dublin police force. But French defies convention—instead of a single narrator for the series, each book is narrated by a different member of the squad. So, a supporting player in one book might be the narrator of another. These first-person narrations by various detectives, whose own issues color their observations, give readers a deeply personal and extremely partial perspective of colleagues, suspects, and the crimes. All of which results in the understanding that truth is elusive. Then in her seventh book, the stand-alone novel The Witch Elm, French turns this model upside down. Here, the narrator is a character who is the victim of one crime and a suspect in another. Not surprisingly, the detectives and their actions look very different from this perspective—manipulative and bullying rather than cops just trying to get the job done the best way they can. In her latest book The Searcher, another stand-alone, French moves to new territory entirely: she takes the framework of the American western and shifts it to a remote rural area of Ireland where a former Chicago cop settles by himself in a ramshackle cottage ready to begin a new life. It’s a familiar trope but French molds it into a story of her own. In this episode of the podcast, she joins us to talk about that new novel and her other books, as well as her determination not to keep writing the same book over and over, how her time as an actor informs her writing, and why she blames her entire career on Stephen King.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month this March, the National Endowment for the Arts will shine the light on some phenomenal women, past and present, through the agency’s blog, podcast, and social media channels. While the stats may continue to be disappointing in terms of equity, we believe that as we work to address those disparities it’s also important to celebrate the impact women have made and continue to make in the arts. From Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved woman who was also one of the best-known poets in pre-19th-century America to dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, whose work lives on not only through her dancers but through the company’s venture into mixing dance with technology, we’re celebrating women who, to borrow from Maya Angelou’s famous poem “Phenomenal Woman” have fire in their eyes and joy in their feet.