Tana French: ‘I love the Eureka! moment when I realise that what she’s suggesting is perfect’

Authors & Editors: – ‘It is only in completing a work that a fiction writer can know if it really is a work’ – Ciara Considine

Tana French grew up in Ireland, the US, Italy and Malawi. She trained as an actress at Trinity College Dublin and has worked in theatre, film and voiceover. She is the author of In the Woods (2007), The Likeness (2008) and Faithful Place (2010). Her latest novel, The Secret Place, has just been published in paperback. Tana’s books have won Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, Barry and ICVA Clarion awards and have been finalists for LA Times and Strand Magazine awards. She lives in Dublin.

Ciara Considine has worked in Irish publishing for over two decades, formerly as editorial manager at New Island Books, then publisher at Hodder Headline Ireland, now Hachette Books Ireland. She is also an accomplished singer and songwriter, under the name Ciara Sidine. She lives in Dublin.

Sarah Bannan is the author of Weightless (Bloomsbury Circus).

Ciara, what made you want to be an editor? And what keeps you there?


CC: I’m not exactly sure but I guess lots of things: a love of writing, an ache to understand how stories work. Stories are how we make sense of the world, I suppose. Perhaps it was in the blood, too. When I was a kid I sat on stacks of books in my granddad’s front room in Finglas, from my uncle Dermot’s publishing venture, Raven Arts Press. Books were literally part of the furniture.

Publishing in Ireland is interesting because of our small size. As an editor, you can work on a range of books, fiction and non-fiction. I love the diversity of the work, and the people I get to work with. You never know from one year to the next what new road you’ll be taken down, what fires of the imagination will be lit, what true-life stories will reinforce the happy cliche that truth is stranger than fiction.

Tana, so much of the power of your work comes from the specificity of place. Was it important for you to have an Irish editor? What made you want to work with Ciara specifically?

TF: I knew Ciara long before I started writing, and I had huge amounts of respect for her passion for books and for the searchlight power with which she could illuminate exactly how to make them better. So, when I was a few chapters into In the Woods and wanted to know whether this was something I should actually keep working on, or whether it belonged under my bed in a box marked LITERARY BIOHAZARD, she was the natural person for me to turn to. I feel ridiculously lucky that she ended up actually being my editor.

And yes, having an Irish editor is important. I actually have three editors – one at Viking in the US, one at Hodder & Stoughton in the UK, and Ciara at Hachette – but these are very much Dublin books, the location is always a character in itself, and it’s important to have someone who knows all the nuances and subtle codes of that location.

And, Ciara, what attracted to you to Tana’s work?

CC: Tana is an outstanding writer. I was on maternity leave with my first child when Tana tentatively asked me if I would read some chapters from a book she was working on. I was happy to, but could not have guessed at what was in store. It was once of those moments in an editor’s life when there is absolute clarity. The work was so fine – considered, dynamic, immediate – work which reignites your faith in the power of words. And it was dark, expectant, so contained. I felt excited. Plus it was an awakening, because right then, after months of sleeplessness and brain-fog, I didn’t know if I’d ever think a coherent thought again, let alone sustain the concentration needed to read a whole book. I could say that Tana led me back into the world of adult thinking!

Tana, you’ve such huge success with your writing, both here and abroad. Each novel seems to get better and better, and richer and richer. And because so much of the work is interconnected, it always makes me want to go back and read your earlier novels again. Do you discuss your ideas with Ciara in advance? Or do you just wait until the entire manuscript is done and then send it her way?

TF: No, I don’t discuss my ideas with anyone (except my husband) in advance. I think that’s partly because of how I work: I start a book with only a few vague elements in place, and figure out the rest as I go. I have a sense of what the book should feel like – general shape, atmosphere, pace, mood – but very few specifics. So it would be almost impossible for me to give anyone a coherent idea of what I’m trying to do. And I’m not sure it would be useful if I tried. The editor’s job is to make the book better, bring it closer to what the author is aiming for – but it’s hard for the editor to know what that is, until the book’s actually written and as close to that aim as the author can get it by herself or himself.

Ciara, how do you prefer to work with writers? Do most things come into you as complete manuscripts? Or as an idea? Or in dribs and drabs?

CC: There is no one way. Every script is individual and calls for its own type of interaction. Fiction and non-fiction can be very different too (though in many ways what’s needed from writer and editor is the same: an understanding of narrative). But in non-fiction, you often initiate the idea, or hone it with the author, and then work together as the writing progresses. In fiction, the author initiates the idea, and though you might discuss aspects early on, the honing generally comes later, when a draft has been submitted. Generally I take on fiction from complete manuscripts, as even very promising early chapters have to be realised in the fullness of a work, and it is better for an author of fiction to have completed a work before submitting – anything else is cutting corners. It is only in completing a work that a fiction writer can know if it really is a work.

Tana, I know you worked in theatre previously and I read in an interview that “with writing, it all counts as rehearsal until you actually hand the manuscript over to someone else. There’s nothing wrong with making a mess on your way to getting it right.” How does it feel when you hand something over? Do you breathe a sigh of relief or go into massive fits of self-doubt?

TF: Sigh of relief. The fit of self-doubt comes about three-quarters of the way into the book, when I suddenly go, “Oh God, what was I thinking? What if this is total crap?” At that point it’s too late to scrap the whole thing and start over, so I just have to keep going and hope it turns out OK in the end. By the time I actually hand the book over, I’ve reached the limit of how good I can make it by myself; I’ve been working on it for so long that I can’t see it straight any more. I can’t even see what problems it’s got, never mind how to fix them. So it’s a huge relief to know that it’s in good hands, and that, whatever problems are in there, the editors will find them and guide me through fixing them.

Ciara, what’s the part of editing you feel most confident about? For example, are you happier to fix plot or would you rather concentrate on the sentence? Maybe you’re happy doing both, of course!

CC: In my working life as an editor I’ve done it all, from the nitty gritty of copy-editing, which is an undervalued skill, to the substantive and structural editing that can be called for. I’m confident about what makes a narrative work, and that I can spot the holes, whether it be relating to character, plot, language or something essential but harder to pin down – an authenticity, or trueness of intention, perhaps – that can be drawn out in dialogue with the author. One of my greatest joys is talking with an author, I love finding out where they are coming from, and from that point working out what solution is needed. People sometimes ask me if authors are sensitive about their work, and take criticism badly. I have rarely ever come across this - generally they are delighted to have someone who wants to engage with their work in depth, and help them bring out its potential. That’s very rewarding for me. Authors are the hardest working breed I have come across – they are committed to what they do.

Tana, what was the most challenging part of The Secret Place for you?

TF: The structure. It’s not my strong point to begin with – character comes more easily to me; structure has always taken ferociously hard work. And with The Secret Place, I somehow got myself into writing a book that needed a double narrative. One strand is first-person, following two detectives who’ve come to a girls’ school to track a fresh clue that might help them solve a cold case; it tracks their investigation over the course of one day. The other strand is third-person, following a group of four girls over the 18 months around the murder. The two strands needed to be intercut just right, so that information was revealed to the reader at the right moment and from the right perspective – sometimes the reader needed to know something before the detectives did, sometimes they needed to learn something at the same time, sometimes various layers of information needed to be exposed in a certain order… That made the structure a serious challenge.

Same question for you, Ciara…

CC: There were no big challenges with The Secret Place – Tana is an author whose work comes in at a high level of polish, so anything that doesn’t ring true or rhyme is rare and tends to jump out by virtue of that. Perhaps even moreso than previous novels, this one takes a certain level of concentration to make sure you stay on top of the plot, but therein lies the reward: Tana’s character dynamics are second to none and, for her, plot and character always hug each other tightly. I think we worked together a little on ensuring plot points could be followed given the high number of teenage girl characters, all agents of action.

Tana, can you talk a little bit about your writing process? What comes first? A character or a voice or the story? Is every novel carefully planned before you sit down to the first draft?

TF: Oh God no. I know writers who work like that, and I’m deeply envious of them, because at least they know there’s a book there before they even start writing it. I go in with a narrator, a very basic premise, and a core setting, and just hope there’s a book in there somewhere. Mostly I don’t even know whodunit till I’m part-way through the book. I think it’s because I come from acting, so I’m very character-based: I have to get to know the characters in depth, by writing them for a while, before I can tell who would do what. It makes for a lot of rewriting, but it’s the only way that works for me.

Ciara, in what way do you make your edits? Is it a series of questions? A red pen? Face to face? Skype, because Tana is so busy?

CC: Again, it entirely depends on the book. In Tana’s case we’ll always meet face to face and go through the manuscript, and I provide notes where necessary. We’ve never Skyped – happily we are both based in Dublin. Tana is in the rare position of dealing with a number of editors due to the international nature of her publishing career, but we’ve worked out over the years how to tailor our approach to editing. And she is very patient!

Tana, do the two of you ever argue? Have you stuck to your guns about something and later regretted it (and maybe even changed your mind)? Or vice versa?

TF: No, Ciara’s practically always right! For a writer, the dream is to have an editor who’s on the same wavelength as you, but with a level of perspective that you can’t hope for; who gets exactly what you’re aiming at and wants to bring the book closer to that, rather than make it into something else. If you’re lucky enough to have that editor – and in Ciara, I do – then the odds are very good that she’s right. There have been times when Ciara’s said, “The book’s got problem A at point B. What about doing X to fix it?” and I’ve felt that X wasn’t right for the book – but she’s always been absolutely right that the book did in fact have problem A at point B. So I came up with a solution Y that worked for both of us.

Ciara, what’s the best part of working with Tana?

CC: Apart from the fact that I get to work with a writer of world calibre whose writing never fails to thrill me, I consider her my friend. We could shoot the breeze all night, and when we get together, we generally do.

Same question for you, Tana?

TF: It’s all good parts. Ciara’s especially insightful on the large-scale stuff, pinpointing the handful of changes that would do most to give the book greater coherence or depth – I love the Eureka! moment when I realise that what she’s suggesting is perfect and I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself. And on top of everything she’s a friend, so the whole process is fun as well as productive.

And, finally, Tana – can you tell us a little about what you’re working on next?

TF: I’m working on my sixth book. Detective Antoinette Conway, who shows up in The Secret Place, is the narrator this time. She and Stephen Moran (the narrator of The Secret Place) are partners on the murder squad now, but Antoinette doesn’t play well with others, and the squad is closing ranks and trying to force her out. She and Stephen get a case that at first sight looks like a routine lovers’ tiff – but gradually they realise that someone on their own squad is trying to steer the investigation. They have to figure out whether that’s an escalation in the campaign to get rid of Antoinette, or whether there’s something deeper going on.

And same for you, Ciara – aside from Tana, is there anything in the pipeline that you’re particularly excited about?

CC: I’m pleased to be publishing Susan Stairs’ second novel in August, The Boy Between. Susan is a writer of great skill who mixes suspense with coming of age in a unique way. I’m also finishing my second album of songs by Ciara Sidine – my own creative outlet where I get to work with producer and musician Conor Brady, and take a taste of my own medicine!

Next week: poet Vona Groarke and Gallery Press founder Peter Fallon