While on an archaeological dig, former actress Tana French (right) saw some woods nearby and thought they would make the perfect setting for a mystery story. The result is a stunning crime novel debut for the Dublin-based author, says Claire Coughlan
Tana French looks more like the actress she used to be before writing took over – an expressive elfin face, intense hazel eyes and a floaty top, coupled with one of those treacly voices that you’d listen to reading the phone bill, gives more away about her former profession (although she says she’d love to combine acting and writing) than it does about her current one. But then you get the 34-year-old talking about writing – crime writing to be specific – and suddenly the keen interest in psychology and social commentary immediately come to the fore and you can see why it’s no coincidence that she’s sold the rights to her debut novel IN THE WOODS (it came out last year) in 15 territories.
She begins talking about why she thinks there are suddenly a slew of Irish crime novels about post Celtic Tiger Ireland.
“I think the Celtic Tiger happened so fast and hit so hard that it’s taken a while for people to catch up and get a little perspective and write about it, because it’s quite hard to write about something when it first happens – you don’t actually know what just hit you,” she says.
“And I think what I’m mostly write about – and this isn’t deliberate, it’s just the way it happens – both IN THE WOODS and the second book, The Likeness (which is out in August, where Cassie, a detective from the IN THE WOODS is the narrator), and the third book, which I’m just starting – are about what happens when the past meets the present. I think that’s a good thing, in Dublin right now especially, what happens when the past and the present crash into each other at 100 miles an hour? That’s crucial to everything, you know, how do you welcome an influx of immigrants without wrecking the character of the city, or – and this is in the book as well – we need new roads but how do you balance that without wrecking our heritage? I think we’re trying to find a way to balance the past and present without wrecking both.”
French was born to an Irish father and a half-Russian, half-Italian mother and she grew up in America, Malawi, Italy and Ireland, thanks to her father’s job as a development economist, before settling back in Ireland in 1990 and subsequently training as an actress at Trinity College.
“I think it does give you that borderline perspective where you almost belong but not quite. As in, I don’t have friends here that I’ve known since I was five and I think always having that slight outsider perspective – it means that you notice things that someone who’s never been anywhere else would take for granted and you’re analysing stuff that you might take for granted if you didn’t have that slight outsider’s eye,” she says.
And as an ‘outsider’ looking in, is it any coincidence that she chose to write crime fiction in the current climate?
“I think that crime writing deals with whatever society’s frightened of. In Ireland it’s what goes on behind closed doors and the vulnerability of kids – we realise so much more how vulnerable kids are in our society.”
IN THE WOODS tells the story of Rob Ryan, a detective who, when he was a child, went playing in a wood outside Dublin with two friends – the other two never came back. Now Rob is called back to the same wood to solve a murder, that of a child, and he must confront his past while doing so.
French actually got the idea for the story while she was on an archaeology dig.
“There was a wood near a dig and I was thinking, ‘God, that’s a great place for kids to play.’”
But French, being a psychological crime writer couldn’t let it rest there.
“I think any psychological crime writer is someone who’s always looking for the mystery – I’ve loved mysterious stuff ever since I was a kid – true, fictional, whatever. And so because of that, instead of saying, ‘Ah, that’s a lovely place for kids to play,’ I said: ‘What would happen if three kids went in there and only one ever came out with no memory of what happened?’
“I was looking for the biggest mystery I could come up with. And I scribbled the idea down on a bit of paper and went off to do the next show and forgot all about it. And a year later, I was moving flat and I found this bit of paper, under all the old phone bills with jam on it with the idea, and I thought, ‘I’d like to do something with that’. What would that do to the third kid, the one who came back, knowing that he’s got the solution to this mystery somewhere in his mind but he can’t find it?”
And thankfully, for us, French isn’t the ‘Ah, isn’t that a nice place for kids to play’ type of person. Hallelujah for that.
IN THE WOODS is published by Hodder Headline Ireland and is nominated for an Irish Book Award.
This article was first published in the Evening Herald’s HQ magazine
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.