Tana French: ‘It’s all Stephen King’s fault’

Tana French: the Irish crime author’s new novel is The Wych Elm. Photograph: Tom Honan
When the Irish crime writer got a rave from the US master, it took her literary journey full circle

A few years ago, the crime writer Tana French was working on a novel when she found herself being interrogated. “I know a retired detective who answers questions for me,” she says. “And I rang him up and I went, ‘What would you do in this situation? How would you go about interviewing a suspect in this set of circumstances?’ And he gave me a very quick demonstration over the phone, using me as a hypothetical suspect.”

What followed, she says, blew her away. “He’s a really lovely man, a genuinely sound guy who’s been so generous with his time and so friendly. And he turned on a dime. Suddenly he was this unstoppable force. I’m not talking mean, I’m not talking aggressive. Just unstoppable. He was coming for some information and nothing was going to stop him. Nothing.”

Having written several novels about the (fictional) Dublin murder squad, French began to think about what it would be like if you found yourself on the other side of the thin blue line. The detective is “a skilled professional. He has years of practice. He knows exactly what he’s doing,” she says. “But you have no idea. You’ve never practised being interviewed by a detective. And suddenly you’re in somebody else’s world and in somebody else’s hands. That’s a very different experience, even just a five-minute-phone-call hypothetical [interrogation]. And that stuck with me, what would that feel like.”

If you’re too lucky in some areas it can be quite easy to forget that that other people are having different experiences, or to dismiss them as not quite real

French examines this question, and many others, in her brilliant new book, The Wych Elm, a standalone novel that focuses not on the detectives trying to uncover the truth behind a mysterious murder in the Dublin suburbs but on the people they’re investigating. The narrator and protagonist is Toby, a young man who tells us, in the opening line, “I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person.” This being a Tana French novel, that luck doesn’t last forever.

“I had been thinking a lot about luck and empathy and the connection between the two, how having too much luck can stunt the development of empathy,” French says. “If you’re too lucky in some areas it can be quite easy to forget that other people are having different experiences, or to dismiss them as not quite real.”

And so she started wondering “about someone who had always been lucky in every way, who had rolled all the sixes, who was playing everything at the easiest difficulty setting. He’s white, male, straight, from an affluent, loving, stable family, he’s physically healthy, mentally healthy, good looking, intelligent: he’s got everything. What would that do to his ability to empathise with other people, to realise that other people are living in a very different world to the one he’s living in? And what would happen if his luck ran out, if something happened to him that meant he wasn’t in that position of absolute ease any more?”

At the start of The Wych Elm Toby is brutally attacked during a domestic burglary and is left with serious physical and mental difficulties, including some long-term memory loss. So when a skeleton is discovered wedged in a hollow elm tree in the garden of his family home he has no idea whether he could be responsible for it.

Memory and how it can betray us has long fascinated French; her award-winning debut, In the Woods, is narrated by Rob Ryan, a Dublin murder detective who has no memory of a horrific incident in his childhood.

“I write mysteries and I like mysteries,” French says. “And human beings are the most amazing, fascinating mystery of all: how we work and how we turn into who we are. That’s got a frightening side as well, because if we become mysterious to ourselves, that can either be almost an adventure – finding out you might be capable of more than you think – but it can also be terrifying.”

Stephen King’s It really freaked me out, its idea that your mind is this vulnerable place that can be changed and transformed and can’t be trusted

The roots of this fascination, she says, may lie in the fact that she read Stephen King’s It in her early teens (“Too young,” she says with a laugh.) It wasn’t the evil clown that traumatised her. It was the fact that the characters who had confronted it as children had no memory of the horror when they grew up. “They know something is there,” she says. “But whatever this memory is, it keeps being eroded out of their minds by an external force. That really freaked me out, the idea that your mind is not inviolable, it’s this vulnerable place that can be changed and transformed and can’t be trusted. That’s what stuck with me. That shows up in my books.” She laughs. “It’s all Stephen King’s fault.”

As a privileged, clueless posh boy, Toby could easily have been an obnoxious caricature. But, as ever with French, things are more complicated. “He’s not a horrible person, and that was very deliberate,” she says. “I don’t think it’s interesting to write about people who are just plain horrible, just villains. What’s interesting is that he is a generous person, a kind person, he cares about the people around him within his own limitations. But he’s so stunted, in terms of empathy, because he can’t really fathom what it would be like to be anything but himself. Because the whole world is geared towards the person who he is.”

Tana French in 2009, early in her writing career. Photograph: Frank Miller
Tana French in 2009, early in her writing career. Photograph: Frank Miller

French wrote and set her first novel during the boom years; Broken Harbour, her 2012 novel, is set in a ghost estate, and Toby’s story takes place during a time of discussion about male privilege. “I never sit down to write a state of the nation book,” she says. “But I think crime fiction is one of the places where it’s going to seep in, because murder happens in every society, but it’s shaped by the society. If you kill for something, it’s clear that it is something that, within your time and place, really, really matters… And so when you start writing about a murder, whether you mean to or not, you’re saying something about that society.”

French’s gift for clear-eyed social observation may partly lie in the fact that she grew up as what she calls “an international kid” whose family spent time in the United States, Malawi and Italy, where French went to an international school. “You have to be very aware of cultural assumptions,” she says. “Someone who’s always been in the same culture is going to take certain things for granted, as just the way things are. Whereas if you move around you have to be aware of these differences; otherwise you can arrive in Ireland from Italy [to go to summer Irish college on Inisheer] and people think you’re flirting a lot.” She laughs. “You become aware of the little nuances, the social cues. It’s a good place to be as a writer. Not quite an insider, ever.”

Her work has also been shaped by her life as an actor. French studied English and drama at Trinity College Dublin before going on to train as an actor there, and worked steadily on the stage before her literary life took over. She says she never plots out her books in advance. “I figure that comes from having been an actor,” she says. “It’s all character based, and plot comes out of character as far as I’m concerned. I have to write [characters] for a while to figure out who they are… So stuff’s constantly popping out at me: ‘Oh, if she’s this kind of person she’d definitely feel like this about that, so maybe she did this to him.’ Gradually it all develops, like a Polaroid. I like to hope that because stuff’s surprising me along the way, maybe it has the same surprise and spontaneity for readers. Or maybe I’m just fooling myself because I’m disorganised. It’s all about following it wherever it may lead.”

I don’t want to be Americanising stuff, having people say sweater for jumper. If what a character would say is, ‘I am in me bollix,’ I want them to say it

Her acting experience feeds into her ability to create compelling, and very different, narrators in each of her books. “It’s very much the same process as playing a character on stage, except you’re doing it for two years instead of a few months,” she says. “You create this character, and your job is to make this person three dimensional and to show the whole story through [them] … and hopefully draw your audience to the point where they feel that they know this person intimately.”

French’s books have earned her an enormous, passionate fan base – one that includes Stephen King, who recently reviewed The Wych Elm in the New York Times (“I still haven’t picked my jaw up from the floor from that one,” she says). Her international readership doesn’t deter French from ensuring her characters express themselves in authentic Hiberno-Irish. “I don’t want to tone it down,” she says. “I don’t want to be Americanising stuff, having people say sweater for jumper. If what a character would say is, ‘I am in me bollix,’ I want them to say it. It’s my responsibility to stick to what the character would say – but it’s also my responsibility to frame it in a way that makes it intelligible to readers in Nebraska.”

The Dublin murder squad will be on television soon, courtesy of a BBC/RTÉ coproduction that will be, French says, a reimagining of the first two books. “I was going to be involved, but I thought, I’m not going to be useful here,” she says. “We’re just going to wind up with everybody stressed. You guys are very good at what you do. Go and do it.”

But will she be returning to the detectives of Dublin Castle? “I don’t have anything as coherent as a plan, but I sort of take for granted that at some stage I will go back to the Dublin murder squad.” It won’t be in her next book. “I’m working on a standalone that’s a bit different, but I’m not far on enough to say much about it. It’s still got a mystery that gets solved, and it’s set in Ireland.”

French is clearly very appreciative of her devoted readers, but she can’t think about them when she’s writing. “There’s a wide of variety of opinions, and if you start writing for all of them you’ll end up with nothing,” she says. “So you just have to go, right, I’ve got this idea, and I’m going to do it as best as I can, and I hope I pull it off well enough, and I hope enough people are on the same general wavelength as me and that they enjoy it. There’s nothing else I can do.”

The Wych Elm is published by Penguin Viking