Tana French, Crime Writer by Claire Coughlan

Writing.ie | Magazine | Crime | Interviews
Tana French

By Claire Coughlan

I first met Tana French when I interviewed her for an Irish newspaper after her first novel, In the Woods, came out in 2008. Since then, I’ve read every single one of her seven subsequent Sunday Times and New York Times bestselling books, always looking forward to losing myself in her gorgeously-described settings, characters and on-the-money dialogue.

When we meet on a bright autumn morning earlier this year at a city centre hotel, French is “up to my ears in proofreads,” for her new book, The Hunter, which will be published by Viking in March 2024, and is “somewhat unexpectedly a sequel to The Searcher. I wasn’t planning on writing a sequel,” she explains, sipping tea. “But I thought there might be more sweets in the pinata.”

The Searcher, a departure from her previous Dublin-set novels, is inspired by some of the tropes of old Westerns and is set in the west of Ireland. It introduces Cal Hooper, a retired cop from Chicago, who has moved to Ireland for some peace from his old life, but inevitably he gets involved with more than he bargained for when he investigates the disappearance of the brother of Trey, a local teenager. Because of the pandemic, French says she didn’t write for a year.

“I had two little kids at home doing distance learning. Plus, I think everybody’s subconscious was a smoking wasteland, and everyone was just trying to keep going,” she says. “I realised how much of writing comes out of the subconscious. With writers I know, there were two definite camps… I was talking to [the author] Marlon James and he said he was getting so much done, and I said, ‘I can tell you one thing you do not have.’ And he was like, ‘what’? And I said, ‘you don’t have kids, do you?’ And he said, ‘no’,” she says with a laugh.

The Hunter

The Hunter picks up where The Searcher left off two years later, when Trey’s father comes back.

“From the impression that I built up in the first book, he probably would come home with a get-rich scheme that wasn’t the best idea in the world,” French says. “He’d probably bring trouble with him, and that all fit in with the mystery-software-running-on-a-western-hardware thing of The Searcher.”

So, can we call it a new series? “I wouldn’t call it a series, I’m no good at planning,” she says. “But who knows, there might be one more book in it. There’s a limit to how much dramatic stuff can happen to one set of characters; it can get slightly implausible. We all love series like Murder She Wrote where everywhere she goes there’s a murder…” We then joke about the conspiracy theory that Jessica Fletcher, the unassuming crime writing sleuth, played by the late Angela Lansbury for many years, was actually the murderer all along.

French has lived in Dublin since the early ’90s, when she trained as an actor at Trinity College. Before that she moved around the world because of her Irish-American father’s job as a development economist, living in places like Malawi, the US and Rome (her mother is half Russian, half Italian), though she also spent several summers at the Gaeltacht in Ireland as a teenager. She credits her actor training and working with scripts for honing her dialogue-writing skills.

“If I write a line, and I’m looking at it, going, ‘I would not be comfortable having to say that on stage,’ then it needs to change,” she says. “If you’ve written something that no-one can say, it’s because nobody would say it and you need to change it up.”

She agrees that all the travelling around also played its part in making her the writer she is. “You get very attentive to the codes and nuances [of different cultures]. And that feeds into dialogue: how people put things not just when they’re being direct, but when they’re being indirect, how are they being indirect?”

French is not on social media, deliberately, to protect her writing time, she says. “I am really easily distracted. If I find something shiny, I will chase it!” She describes her daily routine as “writing, daydreaming, doing the school run.” Her deadline each day is 3pm, which is when she has to go collect her kids.

We talk about writing the ‘difficult’ second novel – which is where I’m at right now. French’s second novel was The Likeness, a spin-off of In the Woods, featuring one of its secondary characters, Cassie, as the protagonist.

“It’s a book where much of the plot is within the character relationships, so there was a temptation to let that flow off on its own. And it’s a long book, it was really difficult to structure,” she says.

French admits that her ‘weak’ point is structuring, and that luckily mysteries have a built in structure. She hadn’t intended to write a series, but the idea for The Likeness came when she had an image of a detective turning up at a crime scene to find that the murder victim looked exactly like her, which stemmed from a conversation she’d had with friends in the pub about doppelgangers.

“This is a really weird one,” she says, beginning a doppelganger story.

“I was on a book tour in America for The Likeness, and I went into a bookshop in Bermingham, Alabama. And one of the staff there said, ‘oh, I saw you at the airport yesterday, you were holding a copy of The Likeness. And it looked like you were focused on it, so that’s why I didn’t come up to you.’”

“Except I had only arrived in Alabama that day, not the day before. It couldn’t have been me, because I was in North Carolina the day before. I don’t know if it’s unsettling or fascinating. I wanted to meet her,” she muses.

I suggest she should do a call out on social media, all these years later, to meet said doppelganger.

“Then I’d never get anything done,” she says, with a laugh.

(c) Claire Coughlan

Where they lie

Claire Coughlan worked as a journalist in Ireland for many years. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from UCD and lives in Co Kildare with her husband and daughter. Where They Lie is her first novel.

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Where They Lie – Dubray Books

Where They Lie by Claire Coughlan | Waterstones

About the author

Claire Coughlan worked as a journalist in Ireland for many years. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from UCD and lives in Co Kildare with her husband and daughter. Where They Lie is her first novel.

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