Article published on October 19, 2016.
Mike Stafford’s admiration of Tana French’s work has steadily grown, to a point where he just had to ask some questions – and fortunately, Tana was willing to reply!
Mike Stafford: As with your previous works, The Trespasser, centres on a criminal investigation, but certainly not in the traditional, method-centric, join-the-dots way. If you’d had to write your own blurb, how would you have described the book?
Tana French: For me, the criminal investigation isn’t as important as the drama that’s taking place inside the characters’ minds. That’s one of the reasons why I switch to a new narrator with every book: I’m interested in writing about the case that has a crucial personal impact on the investigating detective, the case that changes everything for him or her, not just on a professional level but on a psychological one. In The Trespasser, this case changes the way Antoinette Conway sees herself and her relationship with the world. I’d probably describe this as a book about stories: how we come up with narratives for our lives, how we reshape them in response to reality or else try to reshape reality to fit our narratives, and what happens when the stories get out of control.
MS: Even the briefest scan of Goodreads reveals you have fans who await your books like the proverbial kids at Christmas. Does that translate into pressure while you’re writing, or is it purely complimentary?
TF: It’s absolutely wonderful, but yes, it’s pressure – in a good way, though. If people are planning to put their money and their time into reading one of my books, then I need to make sure it’s as good as I can possibly make it. Specially because I write long. When someone reads one of my books, they’re putting a fair few hours into it – and these days no one has enough spare time to go wasting it on something that’s not worthwhile. So if there are people looking forward to my next book, it’s an extra reminder that I have a responsibility never to get sloppy.
MS: You name check Wide Sargasso Sea in ‘The Trespasser, so we know the similarity of the two heroine’s names (Antoinette Cosway/Antoinette Conway) is no coincidence. What would you say the main similarities between the two characters are?
TF: I came up with Antoinette Conway when I was writing The Secret Place, where she appears as the narrator’s temporary partner, and I wasn’t consciously thinking of Wide Sargasso Sea at the time, although it must have been bouncing around somewhere in my subconscious. I’ve always been fascinated by books that rewrite other books from a different angle and by books told from several different perspectives, by the way a story can shift and transform depending on who’s telling it. Wide Sargasso Sea is one of the great examples. And although I’m not comparing myself to Jean Rhys, yes, there are definitely similarities between the narrators. Both of them are outsiders in the places that should be their home territory. They’re both struggling against other people’s attempts to redefine them, rewrite their narratives to suit some outside agenda, push them to the margins of their own lives; and for both of them, that struggle takes its toll on their minds, warping their ability to see their own stories with any clarity.
MS: For much of The Trespasser, Conway seems to be chasing shadows, and the truth seems totally evasive. Do you think crime fiction sometimes fixates too much on objective truth?
TF: For me, one of the main draws of crime fiction is that it provides the perfect opportunity to focus on the non-objectivity of truth. Truth and lies are central to the genre – both the detectives and the reader usually spend most of the book chasing the truth – and the fascinating part, to me, is that especially when it comes to something as highly charged and high-stakes as a murder investigation, there will always be more than one version of the truth. The murderer’s version of what happened is going to be different from the victim’s version, and both of those will probably be different from the other players’. The detectives’ job is to fight their way to something that they can hold up as objective truth, in this environment where everything is nudging them to question what that means. That tension – and what it would do to the detectives – fascinates me. There are crime novels that present a world where the truth is always straightforwardly objective, the central questions are all about verifiable facts (whodunit?), and the answers are all neat, solid, inflexible facts. I’ve never been particularly interested in those; some of them are good reads, but to me, they’re ultimately unsatisfying. Luckily, there are also plenty of crime novels where truth is dark and slippery and double-edged. Those are the ones I love.
MS: There’s a rare authenticity in your writing that comes not from the evident technical research but from a commitment to mirroring reality as it actually is. That’s quite daring – does it feel that way to write?
TF: Thank you very much! I think one of the reasons I write mystery books (and one of the reasons people read mystery books) is as a way of trying to get a handle on things I don’t understand. One of the biggest ones is, obviously, how a person – an ordinary, non-evil, non-psychopathic person – can reach a point where he or she is willing to take someone else’s life. And in order to come as close as I can to understanding that, I have to be as true to reality as possible – not just physical reality, but psychological and emotional reality. So it doesn’t feel daring to aim for that; it feels like the only way to go.
MS: Just to whet our appetites, what can you tell us about the book you’re working on at the moment?
TF: I’m not very far along with it, so I don’t actually know that much about it – I tend to dive in with just a narrator and a very basic premise, and then figure out the rest as I go along, as I get to know the characters by writing them. Most of the time I’m not actually sure whodunit till I’m at least a third of the way through the book. This time I’m working on something a bit different. There’s a murder – I don’t know how to write a book without throwing a dead body in there – but the narrator isn’t a detective; he’s just an ordinary guy who, at the darkest point of his life, finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation and has to figure out not only how to deal with it, but how exactly he fits into it.
MS: And while we eagerly await that next offering, which authors would you point us in the direction of? Who do you feel is drawing from the same well, trying to express something similar to yourself, or who do you just plain admire at the moment?
TF: I don’t have a lot of time for the tired old idea that there’s a boundary between genre fiction and literary – genre has gripping plots, workmanlike writing, two-dimensional stock characters and no particular themes; literature has beautiful writing, intricate characterisation, and thematic depth, but not much plot arc. I love books that have it all: strong, urgent plots, beautiful writing, rich atmosphere, complex three-dimensional characters, thematic depth, the lot. That’s what I aim to write – whether I succeed or not is a whole other question, but there are plenty of amazing writers who do. Some of them get filed under Crime (Kate Atkinson, Stef Penney, Dennis Lehane, Gillian Flynn) while others get filed under Literary Fiction (Donna Tartt, Donal Ryan, Daniel Woodrell, Thomas Keneally), but they’re all writers I admire immensely.