This Irish author has developed a St. Patrick's Day Parade worth of fans in the US. We first talked to her in 2007 with her breakout debut, In the Woods published in the 2008 Fall Issue #106.
Photo: Kyran O'Brien
As a stage actor, trained at Trinity College in Dublin, Tana French knows that success starts small. “You work very hard for every gig and, when you get it, it’s really hard work,” she says. “You can work for ten years in theater and still be slowly, painstakingly building your reputation.”
Unlike most performers, French didn’t spend the downtime between shows waiting tables. Her temporary gigs were digs—volunteering at archaeological sites around Ireland. During one such day shoveling dirt, she noticed a tranquil forest nearby.
“My first thought was ‘Oh, that would be a great place for kids to play.’” French laughs, “Instead of stopping there, like a normal human being, I go on thinking: ‘What if three kids ran into that woods to play and only one came out and he had no memory of what had happened to the other two? What would that do to his mind? Then what if he became a detective and, 20 years later, another murder case brought him back to this wood?’ So I scribbled this idea down on a piece of paper. Then I went off to do the next show and forgot all about it.”
A year later, while moving to a new apartment, French came upon that paper, stained with jam and coffee, under a heap of phone bills. Just to find out what happened next in the story, she started to write—a page, a section, a chapter at a time when she could. “I’d written short stories when I was a teenager and the inevitable awful teenage poetry—blackmail material today,” she says. “But when I went into acting professionally, the writing went out the window. They use the same bit of your brain.”
Soon she found herself drawn more to the page than the stage. “Actors always want more work, and can’t afford to turn anything down, because you’ll never know ’til it’s too late if it’s going to be a surprise hit or your big break,” says French. “So the moment I got offered a part in a show and I said, ‘No, sorry, I can’t take that much time out,’ I realized, ‘Wow! Maybe I’m serious about this.’ That was the big, scary leap.”
Still she had no illusions that her first attempt at a mystery novel would launch her to literary stardom. “It was just an idea that bounced into my head one day and I didn’t expect anything to come of it,” French says. “Because of my acting background, I figured writing down one book probably is not going to get you very much of anywhere.”
Instead, In the Woods (published in 2007 by Hodder Headline in Ireland and the UK, and Viking in the US) got her everywhere: With foreign rights sold to 22 territories, the novel made the New York Times and The Sunday Times bestseller lists, was nominated for Anthony, Macavity and Los Angeles Times book awards, and copped this year’s Edgar for Best First Novel. French was gobsmacked. “I’m still picking my jaw up off the floor.”
The luck of the Irish? No. For one thing, French’s pedigree is mixed: Irish, American, Russian, Italian. Born in Vermont, she’s named after a lake in Ethiopia where her mother lived. French grew up in Washington, DC, Italy, Ireland and Malawi, thanks to her father’s work with the World Bank, the UN’s World Food Program and other international agencies.
The other thing: French’s flair for the dramatic is no fluke. As in her first novel, her follow-up, The Likeness, released in July, starts with another attention-grabbing premise and builds up the same finely wrought psychological tension among fully realized characters. She does it not with gotcha revelations or rat-a-tat-tat prose, but with almost hypnotic visual descriptions and insightful inner and outer dialogue that draws the reader into the narrator’s insular world. Both focus on Dublin’s Murder Squad (though no such unit exits in the Irish Garda Síochána), so think poetic police procedural.
“I start with a premise, a narrator, a whole lot of coffee and just take it from there,” says French. In the Woods takes the viewpoint of Rob Ryan, the young detective with a shielded past, who tells us right away that he craves truth—and that he lies. Writing in the first person was French’s only option. “Just like in a stage show, my aim is to create a full three-dimensional character whom the audience will go away feeling they know intimately—but through the filter of that character’s deception, emotions, and agendas,” she says. “It never occurred to me to write third person because then you have to be detached. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
As Rob Ryan and his partner, Cassie Maddox, get closer to the killer of a 12-year-old girl in the same woods where this two childhood friends disappeared, his fractured memories surface and contort his thoughts and actions. Is there a link? Do readers get two mysteries solved for the price of one? Hold your breath ’til the last page…and if you’re not satisfied—“Okay, I’ve got a very specific narrator who has been damaged and admits his thinking is unreliable,” explains French. “I figured the only organic, unforced ending is this one. If I had wanted a different ending, I should have written a different book.”
Picking up six months after the traumatic action in the first novel, The Likeness employs many of the same actors, but the storyteller this time is Cassie Maddox, who is pulled back into Undercover on an unusual assignment. French came up with the premise while procrastinating in wrapping up the first book.
“So there I was in the pub with a bunch of mates—in Dublin, every story begins that way—and we’re having a conversation about the theory that everybody has got his double out there somewhere,” she recalls. “All of us had been told at some time, ‘I saw somebody who looks exactly like you,’ but none of us had ever actually come face to face with the double. I started thinking how it might be a very strange challenge to your sense of identity to come face to face with someone who’s sharing the face that you always thought was yours alone. And what if you ran into your double when it was too late and she was already dead? Would you take this personally?”
Cassie does, especially as the murdered woman is going by the name Lexie Madison—a pseudonym Cassie herself used as an Undercover years before. So to see if she can root out the killer, she takes the place of “Lexie” in the isolated country house the victim has been sharing with four graduate students. “The preparation that Cassie does to re-create the fake Lexie, who is herself a fake, is very much a preparation that you do for a part when you’re playing a character,” notes French. “It’s things like: What angle does this person hold her head at?” She laughs. “This sounds bizarre but I really hadn’t caught on that she is doing the same thing that I’ve always done as an actor, until somebody pointed it out at one of my book readings.”
The conceit carries French—and her readers—in intriguing directions. “If you take the reflection of a reflection, then do you actually see yourself as you really appear to others?” she ask. “I was thinking a lot about the borderline between fake and real—especially with this victim, who has no fixed identity and has no fixed past to re-create. What counts as reality after a certain point? What counts as truth?”
These issues force Cassie to grapple with what she really wants in the next stage of her career and in her relationship with a fellow officer. Says French, “I like writing about the big turning point in someone’s life—the huge, sort of crucial crossroads where you know that no matter what you decide, your life is never going to be in the same place again.”
French’s books also show a modern Ireland that is itself at a crossroads. “The economic boom of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ changed things so hugely that the past and the present kind of collided going 100 miles an hour,” she explains. “Ireland was so desperately poor for so long and then, Bam! In the last decade there’s this massive influx of money and we have no healthy mechanisms for coping.”
In In the Woods, local residents, archeologists, developers and politicians clash over a historical site slated to be churned up, then buried under a new motorway—mirroring the real-life conflict surrounding the Hill of Tara, home to Ireland’s ancestral kings. The Likeness highlights the hostility of townsfolk to the residents of an old manor, whose sale could bring prosperity to a dying village. French says there are strong arguments on both sides, with no easy answers. “How far do you go to try to preserve what has always been Irish heritage, Irish character, Irish values…and when do you say that there are benefits, too, to letting some of that go?”
For her third as-yet-untitled outing, French is letting Frank Mackey, Cassie’s boss in the Undercover unit, take center stage. “The whole heart of his job is lying, being dishonest, and deceiving people,” says French. “And Frank is ideally suited to it by personality—he really believes that the ends justify the means and he is prepared to do absolutely anything to himself or to anyone else in order to get where he is going. He’s very interesting—and fun to write!”
For now that’s enough to keep French off stage. “In a dream world, I would be balancing the two. But in acting you’re dependent on someone else to decide whether you’re allowed to work or not. Whereas, if I’ve got a pen and notebook, I can write whatever I want and there’s nobody who can stop me.”
With her strong characters and compelling plots, French may have found that long-running show.
Tana French Reading List
In the Woods (2007)
The Likeness (2008)
Faithful Place (2010)
Broken Harbor (2012)
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #106.