It’s twelve years since I interviewed Tana French for her first crime book, the multi-prize winning, Into The Woods, and we’ve not met since. This, in itself, is unusual, since the publishing scene in Dublin is so active, and so social.
“It’s not deliberate,” says Tana, when I catch up with her, to discuss her seventh novel, the Wych Elm. “It’s just that my friends, in the main, don’t happen to be writers. They’re mostly from college, from the acting world, and from around the neighbourhood.”
When I tell her she’s changed very little, except for her hair colour – which is now red – she demurs, insisting that running around after her children, aged nine and five has surely aged her. But we agree on how life has changed in Ireland, since those heady days before the crash of 2009.
In the time since, Tana’s novels have all featured the Dublin Murder Squad, but this new book is a standalone. Toby Hennessy has led a charmed life. But that all changes when he’s attacked during a burglary and left both damaged and traumatised. Struggling to come to terms with his new reality, he’s devastated to learn that his Uncle Hugo hasn’t long to live. He’s close to his uncle. He and his cousins spent idyllic summers in his benign, if neglectful, care – and Toby moves into his uncle’s large Dublin house to care for him. Then a skull is found inside the Wych Elm in the garden.
It’s an extraordinary novel; a compelling literary psychological thriller, with a massive kick at the end; it’s no surprise that Stephen King gave it a rave review in the New York Times – writing, ‘Thomas Hardy could have written this in his prime.’
“Man, I’m still getting over that,” says Tana, with shocked delight. “I mean, Stephen bloody King!”
The novel begins, ‘I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person,’
and luck was Tana’s central idea.
“What does being too lucky do to your ability to empathise?” she asks. “The world is set up to be on Toby’s side. He’s from an affluent, supportive family. He’s upper-middle class, he’s white, he’s male, straight, good looking, and charming.
“He’s no malice in him. He’s not deliberately cruel – he’s kind and generous; like a great big, happy, Labrador of a guy, oblivious to the fact that other people are experiencing a different world.”
She was mulling over Toby’s character; reading up on traumatic brain injury; and thinking over the concept of what it would do to him when, after the attack, he lost all sense of himself, when her brother sent her a link to the story of Bella and the Wych Elm.
“In 1943, four kids were playing in a wood in England. And one of them found a skull down a tree, which turned out to have the rest of the skeleton attached. It was a woman who had been there about a year and a half and nobody knew if she had been killed. Graffiti started to appear, ‘Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm’ My brother said, ‘this sounds like a Tana French novel.’
“I thought that was interesting! What if a skull surfaces in Toby’s old family home so its not just his self which is under attack, but his sense of his own past too. What if it starts to become unravelled, and isn’t what he thought it was anymore.” She laughs, and says that perhaps her brother will demand a percentage.
She’s already paid off her daughter, who at two, complained there were ‘Snabbits’ in her drink – a made up word that Tana borrowed and lent to Toby’s young niece.
“What are snabbits?” She laughs. “I bought her a god-awful plastic thing called a numnom in payment for her intellectual copyright.”
The Wych Elm is, without doubt, the best novel Tana has produced to date. Her depiction of the characters, and particularly the highly wrought relationship between Toby, and his cousins Susanna and Leon is quite beautifully sustained. And her lyrical descriptions of those idyllic, long ago summers, has echoes of writers like Rosamunde Lehmann and Elizabeth Bowen.
Success, clearly, hasn’t gone to Tana’s head. She says that’s partly because her books do best outside Ireland. But what was it like when, in those months after our first meeting, Into The Woods became a prizewinning international sensation?
“It took me a long time to realise what had happened. It was a huge change. Suddenly I wasn’t a broke actor living in a teeny flat.” She was just getting used to that, when in 2008, within six weeks she got married, (to actor Anthony Breatnach,) signed on the line for a house and got pregnant. “It was Booomph!”
Of Russian, Italian, American and Irish descent, Tana travelled the world as a child, before studying English and Drama at Trinity College Dublin. And although acting had taken over her life, she had always written.
“It’s just that I didn’t have an idea for a book. I didn’t have anything to write.”
That all changed when Tana, between acting gigs, was on an archaeology dig.
“There was a wood near the dig and I thought, that would be a great place for children to play. And I think the difference between a normal person and a mystery writer is that whilst the normal person stops there, the mystery writer looks for the potential mystery in everything. I thought, what if three kids went in there to play and only one came out? And he had no memory of what happened to the other two. What would that do to you, growing up, knowing you had the solution to this mystery?
“And what if you became a murder detective, which seemed like a logical thing for someone in that position to do, and a case came up in that wood?” Enter Rob Ryan, hero of Into the Woods.
Had Tana’s mind, then, always worked that way?
“I suppose it had, without me really knowing. I always loved mystery, and not just for the solution, but for the process of finding the solution. I think, if I was going to be a writer, it was inevitable that it was going to be mystery.”
Tana doesn’t plan her books.
“It’s a lot of fun when something occurs to you and the lightbulb goes off, and you think, he’s going to do this! Oh my God, this is going to happen! While I do envy the writers who have an outline and know that the pieces will come together, in some ways I don’t envy them. I have that sense of transformation, and I hope that comes over to the reader.”
Tana plans another standalone book next. And though she thinks she will return to the Dublin Murder Squad someday, she will always tell the story from a different detective’s point of view.
“I don’t want to get stuck writing the same book over and over. I love reading PD James and Lee Child, but I don’t want to write about one detective, because then his crises are too small. You can’t give a detective a big turning point in every book, or he will end up in a straitjacket by book three.”
What’s been the best moment of her success?
“When we got the keys to our house. I didn’t think I was ever going to be able to afford a house. I had travelled around so much, and I craved a house the way some people crave children. When we got it, in 2008, it was Oh My God! This has really happened!
“I figure if I can keep doing this; if I can pay the mortgage and go on holiday, and not have a day job, that is my definition of pure success!”
The Wych Elm by Tana French. Viking. €15.99.
Published in The Irish Examiner on 2nd March
© Sue Leonard. 2019