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Sunday 19 May 2019

'I'm still trying to pick my jaw up off the floor' - Tana French on calling Stephen King a fan, her latest novel, and The Dublin Murders

Tana French's latest novel, The Wych Elm, has earned high praise from her writing hero, Stephen King. But it's her earlier bestsellers that are being turned into a BBC series called The Dublin Murders, and as a former actor herself, she couldn't be happier, writes John Meagher

Writer Tana French. Photo: Frank McGrath
Writer Tana French. Photo: Frank McGrath
Squad goals: Killian Scott and Sarah Greene filming the Dublin Murders

It was the sort of review that writers dream of. Earlier this year, on its US publication, Stephen King offered the highest praise to Tana French's latest book. So rapturous was King in his New York Times review of The Wych Elm that one can imagine thousands of readers buying the novel on Amazon's one-click service there and then. For the US-born Irish author, it was the stuff of fantasy. "I'm still trying to pick my jaw up off the floor," she says. "It's Stephen actual King!"

King made a huge impact on French at a very impressionable age. "I read his book, It, when I was 13, 14 - which is not the sort of age you should be reading a book like that," she says, with a chuckle. But it wasn't the door-stepper's sinister clown character that gave her the creeps. Instead, she was spooked by the idea that people's memories could be tainted and 'stolen'. "That book showed me that our minds can be vulnerable places and we can struggle to process our memories or make sense of them. Stephen King influenced me so much that it's still coming up in what I do."

The tricks that memory plays are there in The Wych Elm. It's French's seventh novel and the first standalone book after the wildly successful Dublin 'Murder Squad' series.

Like all of her work, her latest is the sort that will eat up your waking hours. It's built around an affluent young Dubliner, Toby Hennessy, who's had a gilded existence. But then his luck runs out with a bang and his life is in danger of spiralling out of control.

The title is derived from the fine old tree that stands in the garden of the crumbling mansion, the Ivy House, where Toby goes to both recuperate and spend time with a terminally ill uncle. A skull is found in the trunk's hollow, sending the plot - and the increasingly unlucky Toby - into some very dark territory.

It was her brother who sent her a link to a real-life story about a skeleton being found in a tree with a note suggesting it had all the hallmarks of a Tana French book. "It's all his fault," she says with a laugh. "At that stage, I'd been thinking a lot about luck and empathy and how they're linked and how if you're too lucky in one area of your life - or in all areas - it can be quite difficult to realise that other people aren't operating on the setting."

Toby, she says, was a lot of fun to write. "The challenge is not to make him a complete git because I didn't want him to be a git. Somebody who's just a horrible person really isn't that interesting, but somebody who is basically kind, generous, charming, loving and who has no desire to hurt anybody is much more interesting - especially when they find themselves not in a position of luck any more."

French (45), was born in Vermont and had a nomadic upbringing. Her economist father's work resulted in time spent living in both Italy and Malawi. She went to Trinity College, Dublin after school and has lived in Ireland ever since. Today, there's only a trace of an American twang in her soft Irish accent.

She trained as an actor and tried to make a living on the stage in her 20s and 30s before discovering that writing was her true calling. Her husband, Anthony Breathnach, is an actor and they have two young daughters.

It was on an archaeological dig - work she had taken on to supplement her meagre acting earnings - that she developed an idea for what would be her debut novel, In the Woods, the first in the Dublin 'Murder Squad' series. "Once I started writing it I was so gripped by it that I started turning down acting work - and actors never do that," she recalls. After she had written a chunk of the book she reached out to her friend, the editor Ciara Considine, to ask if, in her professional opinion, it was worth sticking with. "I wanted to know if I should just put it away and get back to work," she says.

Considine clearly liked what she read and the critics loved the resulting book too. In the Woods was published in 2007 and was a New York Times bestseller. It collected four major literary prizes including the coveted Edgar Award given to the year's best mystery novel.

Part of the story is concerned with the disappearance of children in the mid-1980s and French says it is loosely inspired by the case of Philip Cairns, the Dublin schoolboy who went missing in 1986, never to be seen again. "People were suddenly forced to confront the idea that we were not as safe as people might have thought. It was terrifying and a whole generation suddenly stopped feeling safe."

What made In the Woods so remarkable - SPOILER ALERT - is French's decision not to reveal what happened to the missing children. "It sort of broke the contract that readers of mystery books have when they begin reading," she says, "but I felt it would be true to [detective protagonist] Rob's character [who was with the other kids when they disappeared - he survived, but with no memory of what happened]. I didn't want it to have this cheesy ending."

She may write genre fiction - and she hates that categorisation - but her books have a literary sensibility. "I didn't think of my first book as a mystery," she says, "but my editor explained to me very gently the difference in advance size [payment] between a literary book and a mystery and informed me, 'You're writing a mystery.'"

One of the fascinating aspects of French's 'Murder Squad' books is that no book features the same lead character. Every book from second novel The Likeness on has had a protagonist and narrator who was a secondary character in the previous one. As a result, French has created some of the finest Irish fictional detectives of the past decade including Cassie Maddox, Frank Mackey and 'Scorcher' Kennedy. "I didn't get as much pressure to keep the same protagonist as I thought," she says. "There was none of the 'But series work this way' about it. In retrospect, it was a good time because a lot of people were breaking the rules. You'd Kate Atkinson who was doing work that's both literary fiction and genre fiction. And you'd something like Dennis Lehane's Mystic River. It's an amazing book. It's a really good detective novel, but it's also a family saga and a historical story about a community and social saga and a coming-of-age book all rolled into one."

Although French's books are popular in Ireland and Britain, they've really resonated in the US. To her credit, she has never tried to tailor her characters for an American audience or to dilute their Hiberno-English dialogue. "I would never, ever de-Irish those characters," she says. "Faithful Place, which is set in the Liberties, got translated into different languages and I have no idea how you would translate 'G'wan outta that, you auld b***ix'. The Polish translator kept sending me emails like, 'What is a g**bag?'

"I take a certain amount of flak from some American readers that my characters swear, but the fact that some characters swear like troopers and others never eff and blind at all tells you something about them. It's an indicator. I'm not one to change that because that's who the character is."

She has also captured the changing face of Ireland. In the Woods was set in a Dublin clearly in its arrogant Celtic Tiger pomp while the creepy Broken Harbour - centred on a murdered family where only the mother survives - was located in an unfinished housing estate during the toughest recession years.

One senses she is especially proud of the latter book. "I'm that generation where a load of us got kicked in the teeth by the property bubble," she says. "I was lucky because we were so broke during the boom that we couldn't have bought a shed in Offaly. My husband and I were both actors. We hadn't followed the script.

"But I knew so many people who got sucked into it. I found that terrifying both in that deep fear of not having a home, not having a safe place, but it also plagued those people who were trying to do everything right. The people who suffered were the ones who were trying to do right by their families. They were doing everything that they had been told was the proper way to do life and they were the ones who got absolutely betrayed. Go buy that house off the plans in non-existent estates! Get on the property ladder! And it wasn't just financial devastation, but psychological, too."

Several of her books - including The Wych Elm and The Likeness - centre on the importance of home. "I'm fascinated by house and home and the difference that makes. To me, that's the one crucial thing. You can survive on bread and nothing else for any amount of time. What creates the constant low-level panic is home insecurity, and unfortunately that's something that many people are experiencing in Ireland today."

Her first two books will soon be getting the big-budget, small screen treatment thanks to an eight-part BBC dramatisation called The Dublin Murders. Sarah Phelps, who has been acclaimed for reinventing Agatha Christie books for the BBC, has been charged with writing the series.

"I'm completely not involved," French says. "I was going to be involved initially because I thought it would be an adaptation, but it's actually going to be a complete re-imagination. And I thought, 'I'm not going to be useful there.' I'd just be getting in the way and stressing everybody out and saying - [here she adopts a nagging tone] - 'But it's not like that in the book'. And nobody needs that. They're very good at what they do and I think that it's going to be good whatever happens."

Some of the country's finest acting talent have signed up for the series including Sarah Greene and Love/Hate's Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Killian Scott, who were spotted filming scenes around the capital recently. The actor in French is thrilled. "I know from experience how hard it is to get work in this town and for actors and crew to get work because of something I did? Wow. It's amazing. That makes me happy more than anything else."

It takes her an average of two years to write a book and as each of them are densely plotted and weigh in around the 500-page mark, it's no surprise. She's already 40,000 words into a new book and she hopes it will be completely different to any of her others. "The Wych Elm is a massive book and really heavy in introspection," she says. "I really admire writers that do the opposite. Look at Donal Ryan and The Spinning Heart. That is a short book but he's so succinct and packs so much into every sentence that he doesn't need very many sentences because every one of them is doing so much work.

"I hate even saying now that this is going to be a much shorter book because I might turn up with a 150,000-worder again. I'm aiming to have something where things are done more though action rather than introspection. I've got a main character [a retired detective] who's much more about doing rather than thinking."

She says she will return to the Dublin 'Murder Squad' one day - "because that pull is there" - but she says she is enjoying writing very different books for now. "It's what keeps you fresh as a writer," she says. "You want to challenge yourself and do different things, but then an idea might fall in my lap and I'd go, 'That's one for the 'Murder Squad' and I'd be straight back in."

'The Wych Elm', published by Viking, is out now priced €15

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