Tana French on "The Witch Elm," Donna Tartt, and a Different Point of View

Seira Wilson on November 01, 2018

WitchElm200.jpgI recently made my first phone call to Ireland in order to have a chat with one of my favorite authors, Tana French.  I've been a fan of French's books and their Dublin Murder Squad detectives since the first one, In the Big Woods, but her latest adds a new twist--it's French's first standalone mystery. In The Witch Elm French takes on a new point of view, and the protagonist is not a detective but a likable and lucky young man named Toby who becomes both victim and investigator in a crime against him and in a murder that took place in his youth.

It was really fun to talk with French about her books, where her acting background has helped her (and where it hasn't), and to discuss the book she named right away when I asked about her favorite mysteries. You'll find all this and more in our conversation below:

*The Witch Elm was an editor's pick for the best books of October

Seira Wilson:  What made you decide to write your first standalone mystery?

Tana French: It's a temptation is to fall into writing the same book over and over and I didn't want to do that. Also, I realized I had looked at this process of criminal investigation from the detective's point of view half a dozen times and I kept thinking about all those other perspectives that are out there: there’s witnesses, suspects, perpetrators, and victims; and it's going to look very different from their point of view. So, the detectives--all the procedural stuff, it's a source of power.  They're right at home in it. It gives them control, it restores order, but for all those other perspectives, it's going to be the exact opposite.  It's a strange, alien, terrifying thing that basically comes into your life and overturns everything, it takes away control and agency rather than bringing them, and I wanted to give a voice to all of those perspectives.  Toby, the narrator in this book, is at various points each one of them.

Something I, and other fans of yours, love about your books is how well you write dialogue. Where do you draw inspiration for your dialogue or style?

You know, a lot of my sense of dialogue I think comes from having been an actor. So if I write a line of dialogue and then I go: ew, I could not get up on stage and say that, then it needs to change.

And when you say, where do you draw inspiration for dialogue, the people I'm thinking of are playwrights--the greats, people like Chekov or Miller.  When they write dialogue it’s not necessarily what’s being said, it’s what’s between the lines. So the lines may be easy to say, they fall off your tongue easily, but there's also the fact that they’re informed by everything else that's going on in the scene and giving the line it’s charge. I'm not by any means comparing myself to Chekov or Miller but they're the ones I want to learn from. How they make every line come out of this huge source of emotions and previous plot lines and themes.

Besides the element of surprise what do you think is key to writing a really fantastic literary mystery?

The ones I love, and what I try to write, is where the real mystery isn’t the whodunit. It’s the books where the true mystery is the protagonist. This mystery, for whatever reason, has hit the person to the core. It's a turning point where how they deal with this is going to affect the rest of their life, will shape the rest of their life, and that's interesting when you're writing a detective novel because you're writing about people who have a very good barrier between the personal and the professional--they have to, otherwise they lose their minds. So you're writing about the case that, for whatever reason, breaks down that barrier so that it's not just the detective’s solve rate at stake, it’s the shape of their entire life…

Do you have a favorite mystery/mysteries? Books you keep or re-read?

I would call it a literary mystery, though I don't know where it would fall officially, but Donna Tartt's The Secret History.  For me it’s both one of the great literary novels and it’s one of the great mysteries.

YES! I totally agree with you!

What she does with the genre! She tells you on the first page who killed whom and yet you cannot put it down because again, whodunit isn't the mystery, and she gets rid of that in no time flat. And yet the mystery is so huge and so gripping…The first time I read that book, when I got to the big reveal scene the house could have burned them around me and I wouldn't have noticed. That is, for me, one of the ultimate game changers and literary mystery greats.

Do you know what you're going to write next?

At the moment I think I'm going to take a slightly longer break from the Dublin Murder Squad. I kind of like the idea of maybe taking another book off and maybe coming back to it with fresh eyes. So the next one’s a standalone. I’m not at the point where I even have anything coherent to say about it, I’m still bouncing ideas around my head, but the one thing I know is that I’d like it to be short.  Now, I don't know if I can do that because I've got a tendency to just keep writing, the versions you see have had a huge percentage chopped out of them already, but I'd like to try...

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