Author Tana French: ‘I like the feeling that I’m just getting started’

Subscriber OnlyBooks

She may have written nine acclaimed novels and count Stephen King as one of her fans, but the writer hopes the best is yet to come

If Tana French weren’t an author, she would be an archaeologist.

“That’s what I was going to be when I was six,” she says. “I was going to be an archaeologist and discover Troy. And then somebody told me that someone had already done that.”

The now 50-year-old is sitting across from me in the Merrion Hotel, Dublin, on a mild February morning, drinking tea. Slight yet striking, with an actor’s posture and searching green eyes, she’s easily recognisable with her bright copper pixie cut. An internationally bestselling author who counts Stephen King among her many admirers, she’s about to publish her ninth novel, The Hunter. But at the beginning of her career, it was neither writing nor archaeology that called to her.

“I sidetracked into acting for a while,” she says.


In the early 1990s, having completed a degree in English literature and drama from Trinity College Dublin, French joined theatre company PurpleHeart. She spent her 20s carving out a life as a performer, supplementing her income from time to time with a variety of other work. This included voiceovers for an e-learning company (“Please click on the icon below for more information,” she says, in a smooth corporate tone), and a stint in her six-year-old-self’s dream job: working on an archaeological dig.

“I’m fascinated by [archaeology],” she says. “It’s not that different from being an actor, because in both you’re presented with these clues, and you have to dig down into what could explain them. You know: what could explain this character’s actions? Or what could explain the things we’re finding?”

It was on this dig that she began to imagine a scenario that would form the premise of her first novel. What if some children were to run off into the nearby woods, she wondered. What if one of them were to return but the other two did not? And what if the one who returned had no memory of what had happened?

French’s book In the Woods, a mystery in which a detective attempts to get to the bottom of such a case, 20 years on, was acquired in a six-figure deal, and published in 2007. It would go on to sell more than one million copies, and win a handful of awards, including an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. It would also spawn a six-book series, Dublin Murder Squad, and become the basis for 2019 TV drama Dublin Murders, starring Killian Scott and Sarah Greene. But when she first put pen to paper, French was dubious about her ability to pull it off.

“I had never tried to write a book, so I was going: I probably can’t do this,” she says. “But I went: I can probably write one scene, and then another scene. Then they started adding up into a chapter, and another one. And then I realised that I was actually turning down acting work to finish this thing.”

Soon French had established herself in the vanguard of Irish crime writing. Since that first novel, she’s maintained a steady output of roughly a book every two years, exploring everything from Ireland’s boom and bust years (In the Woods was set during the Celtic Tiger, while 2012′s Broken Harbour took place in a ghost estate during the recession), to doppelgangers (The Likeness, 2008), to elite boarding schools (The Secret Place, 2014), and more. She developed a style that merges the lyrical sensibilities of literary fiction with the robust and pacy nature of genre fiction. But the distinction between these two modes is not one she necessarily endorses.

“I think we’re past the old cliches about literary fiction [having] great characterisation and dramatic depth, but not much of a plot, and genre fiction [having] workmanlike writing and not much characterisation, but gripping plot,” she says.

For her, the conventions of genre have helped to give her writing focus.

“Structure doesn’t come easily to me. I’m not one of those people who will naturally see the arc, and how the subplots need to intertwine in the most satisfying and solid way. Which is the reason, I think, why I write mysteries. Because they come with a structure built in, then you can play with it if you want. You can stretch it. You can turn it inside out.”

She invokes Donna Tartt’s The Secret History as an example of a text that does this well.

“It’s a mystery. It’s also a wonderful literary novel. And the first thing she does, on the first page, is tell you who was killed and by whom. So, it’s a mystery novel turned inside out.”

My parents have had something like four passports. I’m not really from anywhere. There isn’t really anywhere that I would consider home

In French’s latest novel, The Hunter, she makes much of genre and its conventions. A sequel to her 2020 novel, The Searcher, it has “mystery software running on western hardware”, she says.

Both books are set in the fictional town of Ardnakelty, an isolated outpost in (vaguely) the northwest of Ireland. Using genre tropes, French turns this into a sort of Wild Wild West. Think: a remote and somewhat lawless town, harsh countryside, taciturn men, circling vultures (which manifest physically as rooks, and metaphorically as townspeople).

When it came to writing The Hunter, she began thinking of tropes she hadn’t yet introduced, and landed on the idea of the Gold Rush.

“You know in Westerns: ‘thar’s gold in them thar hills’,” she says, with her best western twang. “And actually, that fits better in Ireland than you’d think. Because, like it says in the book, we do have a huge amount of gold artefacts. I think more per square mile than anywhere in Europe.”

As research, she found herself doing strange things, such as learning how to salt a river with gold.

“It turns out that people used to do it during the American Gold Rushes. You have to find a place where the current isn’t going to be too strong, so right below a bend is a good place, because the river is not going to be sweeping as fast. I never thought about any of this, but now, if I ever need to salt a river with gold, I can do it.”

In the book, two men roll into town claiming there’s gold to be found at the bottom of Ardnakelty’s mountains. One of them – Johnny Reddy – is a local, returned from London. The other is an Englishman who claims to have familial ties to the place.

French says she was drawn to the “stranger comes to town” story structure, which seemed to bridge a link between westerns and Irish drama.

“[In a western] there’s a stranger who blows into the saloon and he might or might not have secrets, but either way, he’s going to act as a catalyst,” she says. “And that’s very much a thread that’s running through dramas like Playboy of the Western World, The Field, Translations – these are all plays where the stranger comes into town and, whether he wants to or not, changes things.”

In The Searcher, “the stranger” took the form of Cal Hooper, an ex-Chicago PD detective, who arrived in Ardnakelty in search of escape. But by the opening of The Hunter, Cal has become assimilated in the town and two new “stranger” figures are upsetting the peace.

“The Searcher was very much about the outsider coming to a small town,” says French. “But in this one I was thinking about that odd liminal zone between outside and inside. Because Cal’s no longer a full outsider. He’s entwined. But he’s never going to be an insider. This is a place where relationships go back centuries.”

I know writers who have every chapter plotted out beat for beat before they start the book. And I’m extremely jealous

All three leading men are “on the borderline between inside and outside”, French says.

“I was thinking about what it means to be in that borderlands of [outsiderdom]. It comes with a kind of power, that position. Because none of these guys are really bound by the rules of town, in the way that an insider would be, where you need to do what you’re supposed to do within this framework, otherwise you’re going to face consequences from society. But they still have a certain amount of influence. And in the course of the book, they’re all using that power in a really different way.”

This insider-outsider figure might also describe French herself. Born in Vermont, French had something of a nomadic childhood owing to her father’s job. She has lived in the US, Malawi, Italy and Ireland. Her name, Tana (rhymes with Anna), is the name of a lake in Ethiopia, near where her half-Russian, half-Italian mother grew up.

“My parents have had something like four passports,” she says. “I’m not really from anywhere. There isn’t really anywhere that I would consider home.”

Nonetheless, she has spent 33 years in Ireland, and as a teenager, she would leave her base in Rome to spend summers learning Irish in the Gaeltacht.

“When you’re a teenager, the idea of learning a whole new language in order to get a few weeks away makes a lot more sense than it would when you’re older,” she laughs.

French lives in Dublin and until recently, her books were all set in the Irish capital. The Searcher and The Hunter are new territory: rural Ireland.

“It was kind of inevitable with the fact that it’s western-based – you can’t really write that in Dublin,” she says. “But I was also fascinated by the fact that your relationship with the community is very different in a small village from in a big city. In a big city, if you want to isolate yourself, you can do it. Just don’t play your music loud, don’t let your dog bark, and you can basically have no impact on your neighbours at all. And in a small community, that’s not possible. The decisions you make have an impact, whether you want them to or not.”

French manages to write her rural community in such a way that everyone seems to operate as part of a singular consciousness. A decision is made, and it ripples through the town.

French points out that in rural communities, the way people live is contingent on the way those around them live.

“When so many of the young women go off to the city for more interesting jobs, wider social circles and so on, that seems like a very personal decision. But it actually has huge ramifications throughout the whole place. Because with the men needing to stay on the farms and the women gone, they don’t have anyone to marry. There aren’t any kids coming up. The men, as they get older, start to feel more isolated and so what seems like an individual decision ends up being one that has ripples.”

She was careful not to put forward a cliched vision of rural Ireland, even as she leant into genre tropes.

“I did not want to go for the ‘oh begorrah’ or ‘pigs in the parlour’ type thing. These are people living in the 21st century.”

The action takes place over one hot summer, which feeds into the western theme, but also speaks to climate change and the challenges it poses to rural communities. French’s farmers, far from the straw-chewing fools of some Westerns, are always well ahead of the game when it comes to issues such as these. (“Them telly lads give me the sick,” says one local. “Going on about the climate change as if it’s news […] They coulda asked any farmer any time these last twenty year: the summers aren’t the same as what they were.”)

As French points out, “farmers have to be quite politically aware, because decisions made up in Dublin have a very concrete impact on them.

“But there’s also a feeling, I think, that the awareness goes one way. They’re quite aware of what’s going on in Dublin and Europe, or whatever, but they are off the radar, to an extent, to the people in the centres of power. They’re not a priority. They’re just considered to be distant and far off and not all that important.”

When French first dreamt up Ardnakelty, she thought she was writing a stand-alone novel. Then along came The Hunter, and having started to write a new book, she thinks she might be on course for a trilogy.

“I would say The Searcher is a book about the outsider. The Hunter is a book about people on that periphery between outside and inside, and it felt like it needed the end of that arc.”

One of the brilliant things about being a writer – one of my favourite things – is that writers tend to peak late

With a book about an insider?

“Maybe. I’m still figuring it out. I know writers who have every chapter plotted out beat for beat before they start the book. And I’m extremely jealous, because they know there’s a book there. I don’t have that certainty.”

Coming from the author of nine books, this feels refreshing.

But how does it feel, I wonder, to have come this far in a career that’s notoriously difficult. French turned 50 last year. She was in her 30s when she wrote her first book. She’s steadily built up fans and accolades. What is success on this level like? Does she feel famous?

At this, she laughs.

“It’s a bit different from being an actor who’s had success,” she says. “Because one of the brilliant things about being a writer – one of my favourite things – is that writers tend to peak late. Like, there’s so many writers who do their best work in their 50s and 60s, into their 70s. Look at Cormac McCarthy, writing The Road at 73.”

Will she ever go back to Dublin Murder Squad?

“I’d never say never, because I don’t have a plan,” she says.

But she’s wary, firstly of getting too comfortable, and secondly of over-reliance on the detective’s point of view.

“I’ve written six books from the point of view of the detective – that is the classic POV for mystery novels – but I think it’s very limited and warrants questioning. There are a lot of other viewpoints within the murder investigation for whom this is a very different experience. I thought all of those voices should have equal space within the genre.”

Does it get any easier the more books you write?

“Yeah, I certainly hope so. Because you’re practising. Somebody said you need to write a million words before you can count yourself a proper writer who knows what they’re doing.”

A quick calculation reveals that with nine novels, each around 150,000 words, French has easily surpassed this figure. But she insists she’s barely out of the blocks.

“I really like the feeling that, hopefully, I’m just getting started.”

The Hunter by Tana French will be published on March 5th

Niamh Donnelly

Niamh Donnelly, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and critic