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Tana French

Interview with Tana French: "In literature there’s no such thing as ‘women’ or ‘men’; there are only individuals"

The American-Irish author kindly answered our questions concerning gender dynamic in literature, the upcoming new TV series of BBC based on her novels and many more.
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Tana FrenchTana French is an American-Irish author born in Vermont. She spent her childhood in Ireland, USA, Italy and Malawi. Up to the date, she has published 'In the Woods', 'The Likeness', 'Faithful Place', 'Broken Harbor', 'The Secret Place' and 'The Trespasser'. Her books have won awards including the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, and Barry awards, the Los Angeles Times Award for Best Mystery/Thriller, and the Irish Book Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Dublin with her family. Tana French kindly answered our questions concerning gender dynamic in literature, the upcoming new TV series of BBC based on her novels and many more.

- You have an acting background, but rather chose writing in the long term. What inspired you to become an author? Was it a childish dream?

I used to write as a kid –short stories, mostly, and some truly awful teenage poetry– but I dropped it for years when I started acting. Then I had a few weeks free between acting gigs, and I got a job on an archaeological dig. There was a wood near the dig, and I thought it would be a great place for kids to play. And then one day I thought, ‘What if three kids went in there to play, and only one came out – and he had no memory of what had happened to the other two? And what if he grew up to become a detective, and another case drew him back to that wood?’ I scribbled the idea down on a piece of paper, went off to do the next show and forgot about it for a year – until I was moving flat and found the piece of paper, under a pile of phone bills, covered with coffee stains. I really wanted to know what would happen next – but obviously no one was going to write it for me, so I had to write it myself. I’d never tried to write a book before, and I didn’t really think I could do it; but I figured I could write one scene, and then another, and another…

- Did you like literature at school? Do you remember the first book that you voluntarily chose to read?

I’ve always loved reading. It probably helped that I spent a big chunk of my childhood in Malawi, which didn’t have TV at the time. I was a total-immersion reader – once I had a good book, the outside world didn’t exist till I’d finished the last page. I can’t remember the first book I read, but the first one I fell in love with was Watership Down. I was only seven, and I don’t think I got most of it, but I got enough to fall in love with the beauty of the language and the power of the plot, and the sense of a vivid and utterly different world. I still love that book.

- You had a strong debut with "In the Woods" in 2007 and a solid career since then. What would you advice new authors that are working on their first book and searching for their place?

The problem with trying to give new authors career advice is that a big part of success in the arts, in particular, is just plain luck. I think In the Woods is a good book, and I worked very hard on it, and both of those helped – but neither of them would have been much use if I hadn’t been lucky enough to write it at a moment when the subgenre of psychological mystery was taking off. The one thing I’d say is there’s not a lot of point in trying to write to a trend, because by the time you finish your book, trends will have moved on. Write the kind of book you’d love to read.

When it comes to the actual writing, my four main tips are always the same. Kill the dream sequence; it’s almost definitely either a repeat of something that’s already covered in the action, or a lazy way of doing something that should be done in the action. Don’t be afraid of using ‘said’: readers won’t notice it, but they will notice if your characters start grunting and roaring and cooing and bleating every line and the book turns into a menagerie. There’s no such thing as ‘women’ or ‘men’; there are only individuals, and if you try to write ‘a man’ or ‘a woman’ rather than writing an individual, you’ll end up with a two-dimensional character who’s a collection of stereotypes. And every character needs a motivation, a reason of his or her own for being there; if you have a sidekick who’s only there to make the protagonist look good, or a love interest who’s only there to make the protagonist look sexy or show his or her soft side, then that character will end up ringing false and weakening the whole book.

- What is your worst fear concerning writing? Is it running out of inspiration? Repeating yourself? Not getting recognition?

I don’t want to fall into the trap of writing the same book over and over. I think it’s an easy trap for genre writers, in particular, because you’re writing within the same general framework every time, so it can be very easy to fall back on things that have worked for you before. It’s one reason why I switch narrator every time: a different character is going to have different priorities and fears and biases, a different way of seeing the world, a different way of expressing himself or herself, so I’m less at risk of writing the same book.

- Switching narrator from novel to novel renders the story more personal for the reader and can also be quite refreshing. I am wondering how challenging it is for you.

Writing a first-person narrator is a lot like acting: you’re aiming to create a three-dimensional, vivid character and draw in your audience so they see the world through that character’s priorities and loves and fears and needs, and they come out feeling that they know the character as intimately as a dear friend. And I like playing different characters, I don’t want to keep playing the same one forever! It’s a challenge –especially since I like playing characters who are nothing like me– but it’s one I love. That’s what fascinates me most about acting, writing, and reading: the chance to catch a glimpse of someone else’s reality, see the world through someone else’s eyes.

- Women in crime fiction are commonly decorative, or treated as victims and “potential prey”. You use strong and complex female characters, such as Cassie Maddox and Antoinette Conway, who happen to be the “hunters”. Is this a conscious decision?

There’s no decision involved at all. In real life everyone’s complex, and psychological strength (like every other character trait) is unrelated to genitalia; to me, it’s completely bizarre that this should be any different in fiction. As far as I’m concerned Cassie Maddox and Antoinette Conway aren’t primarily ‘female characters’, any more than my other narrators are primarily ‘male characters’: they’re characters. I didn’t make them strong because they’re women, I made them strong because that felt like the way that individual character would be.

- Your stories are neither silly page-turners, nor boring whodunit. Through your novels emerge significant social issues, such as the ghost estates, school bullying, and gender dynamics. Is it unconscious, a choice, or simply "the way it should be"?

It’s not a choice; they just come out that way. I think the mystery genre naturally taps into social issues, at one level or another. Murder happens in every society, but the ways it happens –the things that drive someone to kill another person– are very strongly shaped by the specific society, its fears and priorities and tensions and dark places. So almost any murder tells you something about the time and place where it’s committed. If you’re writing about a murder, it’s very easy for the social context to seep in, whether you plan on that happening or not.

- Most of the elements and the characters of your stories are fictional. Do you recognize even a smidgen of autobiographical clues in your novels?

I don’t use events or characters from real life. I think it would be limiting: if you base a character on a real person, then you’re stuck with what the real person would do, which may or may not be what the book needs. Obviously my books reflect themes I’m interested in – I moved around a lot as a child, and the themes of home, memory, the relationship between past and present, identity and how it’s constructed, keep showing up in what I write. But when it comes to specifics, I just make things up.

- Later this year we are expecting a new TV series from BBC One entitled "The Dublin Murders" based on your novels. As far as I understood, you are not involved in the production, but still, how exciting can it be?

Very exciting! TV is a very different genre from fiction and has completely different requirements, so I’m not expecting the series to have much in common with the books. But there are amazing people involved, so it should be great.

- Two of your novels have already been translated in Greek: "Faithful Place" in 2015 and "The Secret Place" in 2016. In late November we will also have the chance to enjoy your debut "In the Woods", originally published in 2007. What are your feelings after more than a decade? Does it bring you nostalgia?

In some ways In the Woods will always be my favourite of my books. I don’t think it’s the best one – but when I was writing it I had no clue whether it would ever be published, almost no one even knew I was writing, it was just me and the book. I was completely broke, and yet I was turning down work to finish this book, because I really wanted to take the chance that it would go somewhere. I’ve loved writing most of the other books, too, but that one was different.

- Any new book under preparation? In late 2016 you were working on your first non-detective book. How is the progress?

I’m working on the edits now. My editor described it as ‘a murder mystery turned inside out’, which I like. There’s a murder –I don’t really know how to write a book without throwing a dead body in there to get the action going– but the narrator isn’t a detective this time. He’s just an ordinary, easy-going young guy who’s leading a happy life – until the night two guys break into his apartment and beat him up, leaving him badly damaged, physically and mentally. While he’s struggling to recover, he moves back to the ancestral home to look after his terminally ill uncle. And then a skull turns up down the truck of a tree in the garden,


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