Interview: Tana French, Author of Faithful Place

7 years ago

I've been enchanted with Tana French's Dublin-set police novels since I read the first word of The Likeness, her second novel. Upon reading the last word I instantly downloaded and devoured her first, In The Woods -- and preordered her latest, Faithful Place. I love her focus on a different protagonist in each book -- each character an exploration of identity and the things that change a life for good. The plots are gripping, but they also serve to evoke character; and the beautifully written prose begs to be read out loud. Tana's thoughtful, provocative answers to my questions made me wish I were in Dublin with her, extending the conversation over a pint of Guinness at the pub (where, in fact, she came up with the idea for The Likeness).

I recently read an essay in which you said you always get asked how you manage to write from the male point of view, but no one’s ever asked you how you managed to write someone so badly damaged. First: Thank you for that excellent piece. And second: How do you manage to write characters whose lives are so damaged?

Like I said in that essay, I don’t have a clue! I just cross my fingers, dive in and hope it works…

Seriously, though: I think we’re all damaged to one degree or another -- it’s the very lucky few who make it to, say, twenty without being hurt in some lasting way. So we’re drawn to reading about damaged characters, because that helps us understand the nature of damage, the ripples it can send out, how people find ways to live with it. All my narrators have been seriously damaged: Rob Ryan’s mind was cracked straight down the middle by the disappearance of his best friends when they were twelve, Cassie Maddox in The Likeness is deeply traumatised by the events of In the Woods, Frank Mackey in Faithful Place has constructed his whole identity around the wounds he got when he was young.

For a writer, to a small extent, it’s about understanding how your own forms of damage have affected you, and then transposing and extrapolating. But that can only take me so far: the characters aren’t me, their wounds aren’t the same as mine, and they don’t respond to them the same way I would. So I need to ditch my own experiences and emotions.

Image Credit: David Pearse

Which sort of ties in with your other question about being an actor. I’ve always liked playing characters as different from me as possible -- and a character actor’s job is to get out of the way. Ideally, you want to take up practically no space on stage; all the space should be for the character. (This doesn’t fit with the tired old cliché of actors as egomaniacs, but it’s the reality.) So I’ve spent a lot of time working on how to see through the lens of someone else’s mind, a lens where the flaws and the clarities are very different from mine. That’s what I rely on, when I’m working on a badly broken narrator.

In the end, I guess much of it comes down to the old basics: imagination and empathy. Also huge amounts of rewriting and coffee.

Dublin is nearly as forceful a character as Frank Mackay himself in Faithful Place. I found this quite different from the almost-ghostly central locations (the woods and Whitethorn House) in your previous novels. What brought you away from those fictional settings and into a real place? Was it harder to write about The Liberties?

I’m a mix of various nationalities and I grew up as an international brat, moving country every few years, so I’ve always felt like I can’t really claim any place as home. I think this is one reason why I wanted to write about Dublin, and specifically about an old and deep-rooted neighbourhood like the Liberties. We’re all fascinated by what’s foreign to us, and to me this is one of the most exotic things around: a life where you have the same friends when you’re fifty that you had when you were five, where you live in the same street and maybe even in the same house where your parents grew up, where your relationships are shaped by generations of history.

There’s also the fact that I love Dublin. I’ve lived here since I was a teenager, and it’s the nearest I’ve got to a place I can call home. I complain about it, I get angry at it, I roll my eyes at its quirks, but I still love it fiercely. In a lot of ways, Faithful Place is a love song to Dublin -- its bad bits as well as its good ones.

You’re right, writing about a place that actually exists was a different experience -- one that needed more delicacy and care than writing about someplace I’d made up from scratch. It was especially hard to write about the Liberties because I’m not from there, I’ve never even lived there -- and I was very aware of trying to do justice to a real place with centuries of history, with a very specific sense of community and a personality all its own. That’s why I didn’t use the name of an actual Liberties street: it would have felt presumptuous, like I was shoving its history out of the way to make room for my story. Luckily for me, my husband’s from the Liberties, so he vetted the book and made sure I didn’t do anything stupid when it came to slang, atmosphere and so on!

When I learned you are also an actress, it made a lot of sense to me, because I often find myself reading your work out loud to hear how it will sound. Do you think your training had an impact on your writing?

A huge impact. I definitely write like an actor. I figure that’s where I got my writing training: I’ve never done any kind of creative writing course, but two years of drama school and eight of theatre were a pretty good substitute. For one thing, acting is all about creating a vivid, three-dimensional character and drawing the audience into that character’s world, and that’s pretty crucial to writing, too (the best compliment I get is from readers who e-mail to say that they feel like the characters have become intimate friends of theirs). For another, acting teaches you to pay attention to the small things that carry hidden meaning -- the tiny shifts in movement or speech that tell you how one person feels about another, or when someone’s hiding something. It also helps with dialogue: if I write a line that I couldn’t pull off as an actor, then I know it needs work.

One of the biggest things I took from acting to writing, though, is the fact that it’s not about me. A book, like a performance, doesn’t take shape until it’s got an audience; that interaction is where it becomes real. So, as the actor or writer, you need to remember that you’re not the only person involved in this process of creation: the audience are right at the heart of it, too. In acting, if you feel all your character’s emotions and have a great time emoting all over the stage, but the audience can’t hear you because you’re too choked up on your tears, then your performance is a failure. It’s the same in writing: if I love every precious word of a scene, but nothing that I meant comes across to the reader, then that scene is a failure.

Though I admire your choices in shifting character focus in each of your novels, I still miss the characters and relationships from your earlier books. Do you plan to revisit any of your previous characters in depth -- or will you continue to get to the core drama of one character in each book and move on?

I honestly don’t know. I switch narrators because I’m most interested in writing about the big turning points in characters’ lives -- the moment when, for each of these detectives, the wall between personal and professional breaks down, the stakes on each side skyrocket, and life is never going to be the same again -- and I’m not sure any character can realistically have too many of those moments. Plus, on the practical side, switching narrator stops me from getting into a rut where I write the same book over and over, or where I feel a need to up the stakes by making each book grislier or more far-fetched than the last. The majority of series writers don’t fall into either of those traps, but I don’t know if it would work for me.

I’ve been thinking about this recently, actually -- the fact that in genre fiction it’s standard to stick with the same main character, while in, say, literary fiction it’s much more standard to write one core book about a character and then move on. I wonder if it’s because genre has traditionally focused more on plot than on character: one character can be at the core of multiple stories, but only one story can be at the core of a character’s life. These days, more and more mystery writers are putting character at the top of the priority list, and I wonder if that’s going to lead to a swing away from series and towards stand-alone novels, or linked chains of novels like mine.

I sort of miss those earlier characters too, though. I’d like to go back and find out what they did next.

Your fourth Dublin Murder Squad book, Broken Harbour, comes out in the U.S. next year. Will it have a protagonist we've already met? If so, who, and can you give us some details?

The protagonist this time is Scorcher Kennedy, who showed up in Faithful Place as Frank’s old friend/rival/annoyance. Scorcher and his rookie partner, Richie, are sent to a murder scene at Broken Harbour, on one of the half-built, half-abandoned ‘ghost estates’ that litter Ireland these days. Pat Spain and his two small children are dead; Pat’s wife Jenny is in intensive care. At first the case looks straightforward, but too many little things don’t add up: the cameras pointing at holes in the Spains’ walls, the files wiped from their computer, the mysterious intruder who was coming and going through locked doors. And Scorcher’s got his own links to Broken Harbour. He thinks he’s got them tightly under control, but when the news of the case sends his sister Dina off the rails again, all his careful compartments start to break down.

One of the things I like about using a supporting character from one book as the narrator for the next is that I get to explore the gap between how people see themselves and how others see them -- the ways that truth, especially the truth about a person, is seldom objective. From Frank’s perspective in Faithful Place, Scorcher is a rule-bound, self-important, annoying git. From Scorcher’s perspective, though, it’s a lot more complex than that. He’s worked incredibly hard for the things he’s proud of, he believes that rules are crucially important to society and to individuals, and when the rules stop holding firm, he crumbles.

What are you reading right now? Who are your favorite writers?

I’m years late on this one, but I’ve just discovered Stef Penney’s wonderful The Tenderness of Wolves, and I’m still in ‘Why did no one TELL me about this?!’ mode. In crime, I love Josephine Tey, Laura Lippmann, Dennis Lehane, Sophie Hannah, Megan Abbott and In Cold Blood; in general, I love William Golding, Donna Tartt, Paul Murray, Shakespeare, Richard Adams, Dylan Thomas, Barbara Kingsolver, Patrick McCabe…

Our thanks to Tana French for answering our questions! Read what our reviewers thought about Faithful Place in BlogHer Book Club.

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