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Interview: July 11, 2008

July 11, 2008

Tana French’s award-winning debut novel, IN THE WOODS, has just been released in paperback to coincide with the July 17th publication of its sequel, THE LIKENESS.

In this interview with’s Joe Hartlaub, French recalls the experience that inspired the plot of this literary mystery and discusses how her background in acting has helped her develop the voices of her characters. She also weighs the pros and cons of her unconventional writing process, explains why she chose different narrators for her second and third follow-up books, and reveals why her works may never stray from Dublin settings. IN THE WOODS is told through the voice of Rob Ryan, a police detective on the Dublin Murder Squad. The story involves Ryan’s investigation into the brutal killing of a 12-year-old, a case that eerily echoes a significant incident in Ryan’s own past and that continues to have an immediate and profound effect upon nearly every facet of his life. How did you go about creating and constructing Ryan’s psychological makeup? Did you have a fairly good idea about where you were going before you started writing IN THE WOODS, or did it develop and evolve over the course of your work?

Tana French: Here’s the main fact about the way I write: I have no clue what I’m doing.

When I start on a book, I don’t know where it’s going to end up; I have a narrator, the kernel of a premise, an awful lot of coffee, and that’s it. Then I dive in and figure out the rest as I go along.

I think it’s because I’m coming from an acting background. I’m used to taking characters as my starting point, so I can only find out what happens in the plot by getting to know the characters and learning what they would do. When I started IN THE WOODS, I didn’t know the characters well enough to be sure of where they were coming from and where they were headed. As I got to know them better, the shape of the book developed gradually, like a Polaroid. I didn’t even know whodunit till I was about a third of the way through!

It makes for an awful lot of rewriting. I’m deeply envious of writers who have full outlines in place before they start on the actual book.

BRC: I was strongly impressed by the manner in which you “channeled” Rob Ryan’s psyche during IN THE WOODS. Did you have any difficulty with creating and describing a male character on such a deeply personal level?

TF: When I had the basic idea for IN THE WOODS, the character of the narrator came with it: intelligent, proud, secretive, too badly damaged to be honest either with himself or with his readers --- and male. It wasn’t a conscious choice; that’s just the way he showed up.

I never really thought much about it. I’ve always had a lot of good male friends, so I think that helped. Maybe because of them, I’ve always taken for granted that there are no such entities as “men” or “women”; there are individuals --- some of them male and some of them female and all of them different. I never thought of Rob as “a male character”; I just thought of him as a specific individual, and I wrote for that individual. The biggest difference between him and me, and the hardest thing to write, wasn’t the fact that he’s male, it was the fact that he’s phenomenally messed up.

And, after all, as soon as you create any character, male or female, you’re necessarily writing from the perspective of someone who’s not you. Because of the acting background, creating and inhabiting characters was what I’d been doing for a long time. Writing from the perspective of someone of the opposite sex didn’t seem like a particularly huge leap --- not nearly as huge as, for example, writing dialogue for a killer.

BRC: IN THE WOODS involves a contemporary mystery that has echoes of the past. How were you able to capture the Dublin of the 1980s so accurately? Was this based on child memories, research, a bit of both, or something else? And was IN THE WOODS based, at least in part, upon real-world events?

TF: I spent a lot of summers in Ireland during the ’80s, so I had a certain amount of memories to draw on for atmosphere and detail, but I topped up by doing research and by talking to people who were living here full-time. When you’re trying to create a period atmosphere, factual research can only take you so far; you need to know what it felt like to live in a certain place at a certain time.

I stay away from real-world events as much as possible. For me, basing stuff on real events, or real people, is limiting. You’re stuck with what really happened, or what the real person would do, so events and characters aren’t free to develop organically in tandem with the needs of the book. I just make stuff up.

That said, though, the fictional events around Knocknaree --- priceless Irish heritage being destroyed to make way for a motorway, when the two could perfectly well coexist if it weren’t for deeply dodgy deals involving politicians and developers…those, unfortunately, happen every day of the week. Knocknaree isn’t based on any specific place; it’s based on dozens of crucial parts of Ireland’s heritage, many of them now buried under tons of concrete, many more in imminent danger, and all for no good reason.

BRC: Your biography indicates that you grew up in Italy, the United States, Malawi, and of course, Ireland, where IN THE WOODS is set. What set of circumstances resulted in your frequent moves throughout your childhood?

TF: That was my father’s job. He’s an economist, working with developing countries to help them with resource management.

In a lot of ways, it was a wonderful way to live --- and I think it helped me both with acting and with writing. When you move around, you become very attuned to the small differences --- the things that people within each culture take for granted as normal and natural, but that actually vary widely from culture to culture. As an international brat, you need to spot those things quickly, and adapt to them, in order to communicate in a new place. They’re little things --- the etiquette of cheek-kissing, for example --- but get them wrong and you can get yourself into a huge tangle of misunderstandings. I think the fact that I grew up needing to notice those subtle codes made it much easier to bring them to stage characters and to books.

BRC: One of the central themes of both IN THE WOODS and THE LIKENESS is friendships. Given that you moved so much as a child, friendships might have been a tangential thing for you while growing up. Your frequent moves almost certainly would have involved painful partings with friends, though somewhat less traumatic than the ones that Ryan experienced in IN THE WOODS. Did you think about your own partings as you wrote?

TF: Weirdly enough, no, not at all. I’m not a Method writer; I don’t bring my own experiences to bear on my characters’ --- possibly because my characters aren’t very much like me, so their reactions to any given situation wouldn’t be much like mine.

That said, though, friends have always been hugely important to me, and that shows in the books; like you said, friendship is a central theme in both of them, and that might well have something to do with the way I grew up. Every few months, either I moved or one of my friends did --- and there was no email then, so keeping in touch was a complicated process involving letters that took six weeks to arrive. That can make you very aware, very early, of just how precious real friends are.

BRC: Ireland has arguably produced the world’s greatest contemporary novelists. Even in the United States, many of our best are of Irish-American descent. What do you think accounts for this?

TF: I’ve wondered about that for a long time --- the Irish attraction to writing. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that for a long time, under British rule, the Irish language was a forbidden thing. I think that might make a society very intensely aware of the weight of language --- how precious it is, how powerful, how charged and how dangerous. Being creative with the oppressor’s language, bending it to your own needs, can be an act of rebellion in itself.

Even in everyday speech, here in Ireland, it’s obvious how much language is valued. This is being eroded now, as TV smoothes out dialects and everyone starts talking like they’re in an episode of “The OC”, but up until very recently, creative language was one of the main social currencies here: sharp banter, wordplay, original insults. If you grow up hearing language being used in wildly creative ways all around you, I think getting creative with it on the page is a natural step.

BRC: If you would, compare and contrast the two very different disciplines of acting and writing. Having done both, which do you prefer? And why?

TF: At the core, they’re both facets of the same thing: you’re working to create a fully developed, three-dimensional character and draw the audience into that character’s world, mind and heart.

I’ve found two main differences between the two jobs, though. One is the social aspect. In acting, you work as part of a team all day --- if you’re having trouble, there’s always someone there to bounce off --- and then you all go to the pub together. In writing, it’s me and my notebook.

The other big difference is that, in acting, other people decide when you’re allowed to work. If a director doesn’t cast you, you’re not in the show, and there’s not an awful lot you can do about it. But I can write whenever I want, without anyone’s permission --- and that’s an incredibly liberating feeling.

I can’t prefer one or the other --- they’re apples and oranges. In a dream world I’d find a way to do both and keep a balance between the two, but in the real world there are only 24 hours in a day!

BRC: Your primary work prior to IN THE WOODS was in theater and film. What impetus led you to write a novel, particularly a mystery/thriller?

TF: I’ve always been fascinated by mysteries --- real-life ones, fictional ones, all kinds. So it was probably inevitable that, if I ended up writing, it was going to involve a mystery. I think that’s the quality that makes a mystery writer: that tendency to look for the potential mystery in everything.

The book happened almost by accident. When I had the idea for IN THE WOODS I was working on an archaeological dig, between shows. There was a wood near the dig, and one day I thought, That would be a great place for kids to play… And instead of stopping there, I thought --- and this is what I mean about always looking for the mystery --- What if three kids ran in there, and only one came out? I scribbled the idea down on a piece of paper, went off to do the next show and forgot all about it. But a year later I found it again, under a heap of phone bills, and I decided that I really wanted to do something with this idea. I never thought I could write a whole book, but I figured I could probably write one little section, and then another…

BRC: It is said that one has all of their life to write their first book and six months to write their second. How long did it take you to write IN THE WOODS, from concept to final draft? What did you learn from writing IN THE WOODS that helped you while writing THE LIKENESS, your second novel? Is there anything you would have done differently?

TF: Well, I had the idea more than a year before I actually did anything about it! Once I started writing IN THE WOODS, it was a little under two years before I had it in semi-decent shape and it was ready to send out.

The main thing I learned is not to be scared of getting it wrong. One of the joys of writing is that you can redo it as many times as you need to, and no harm done. If you write a paragraph and it’s full-on five-star horrific, that’s not the end of the world; you can just delete it and start over.

I don’t think there’s anything I’d have done differently. If I’d had the first clue what I was doing, back when I started this whole thing, I’d probably have been too petrified to get anywhere at all. As it was, I didn’t have the sense to be scared. A little cluelessness can be a wonderful thing.

BRC: THE LIKENESS features the return of Cassie Maddox, who co-starred, if you will, in IN THE WOODS. Did you write IN THE WOODS with the intent of bringing Cassie back for another go in a subsequent book? Or was Cassie a character you could not let go of, at least as yet? Do you plan to bring her, or other characters, back in future books?

TF: You’re massively overestimating my organisational skills! When I started IN THE WOODS, I didn’t even know how (or if) I was going to finish that book, never mind write another one. But when I did finish it, I started thinking about a second book, and I realised that I’m interested in writing about the crucial turning points in life --- those moments when you know that, whichever way you choose, your life will never be the same place again. IN THE WOODS was about that crucial moment in Rob Ryan’s life. The thing is that any given lifetime just doesn’t contain all that many of those moments. So when I started thinking about a second book, I had three choices: keep dumping the poor guy into huge life-defining situations; lower the stakes and write about less important moments in his life; or switch to a new narrator. I thought last one was the most interesting, so I moved on to Cassie. I figured she deserved a book of her own anyway.

Now I’m working on my third book, and this time the narrator is Frank Mackey, Cassie’s old undercover boss, who shows up in THE LIKENESS. I’m hoping to keep writing about the same general bunch of main characters for a while. I’ve gotten interested in them.

BRC: What authors --- in any genre --- have most influenced your work? Who do you read for pleasure? And what novel have you read in the past six months that you would recommend to our readers?

TF: I’ve always loved authors who write on the borderlines, pushing at genre boundaries rather than staying within them. In Donna Tartt’s incredible 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, as well as being a stunning literary novel. Dennis Lehane’s MYSTIC RIVER is part mystery, part social history, part family saga, and all the more powerful for those layers. Mary Renault and T.H. White move effortlessly between myth, historical fiction and epic drama. I think all of those writers have influenced me --- maybe not in concrete ways, but in their willingness to bend the formulae and walk those fine lines at the edge of the conventions.

I’ll read just about anything, and if I love a book, I’ll re-read it every year or two till my copy falls to pieces. Recently I’ve been creeping myself out by reading Sophie Hannah’s wonderful psychological crime novels --- LITTLE FACE, HURTING DISTANCE and POINT OF RESCUE. She creates a terrifying kaleidoscope of a world where reality is constantly shifting; not only the criminal, but the crime, may not be at all what you think it is.

BRC: Do you have any plans to set a future novel in one of the other locales where you have resided, such as Malawi or the United States?

TF: I’ve lived in Dublin more than half my life, and it’s the only city that I know in intimate detail. I know the connotations of every neighbourhood and every accent, the slang, the shortcuts, where to get a good pint, where not to walk after dark… If you don’t know a place at that level, I don’t think there’s any way you can write about it with texture and atmosphere; you’re bound to make mistakes, gloss over details, miss out on layers. Plus, I love Dublin passionately, it’s my home, and its stories are the ones I want to tell.