Writers’ Passport: Mark Pryor Talks With Tana French

By Mark Pryor

Tana French is absolutely one of my favorite crime writers. Her plots are original, her characters real, but her finest asset is the quality of her writing. She’s the person I refer to when the old genre v. literary fiction argument rouses itself, simply because she does both within the covers of the same book. Her prose is at once beautiful and compelling and I’ve been hooked on her work since the very first, In the WoodsNaturally, I was beyond thrilled when she agreed to answer a few questions for this blog post, so please enjoy!

You were born in the United States and have lived in Italy, Malawi, and now in Dublin. Do you feel like your own writing has been influenced by any of those places, or perhaps by the literature of those countries?

I think my writing’s been influenced less by any of the specific places I’ve lived (except Ireland, obviously) and more by the fact that I grew up moving around. Being an international brat (I think these days it’s called a Third Culture Kid) has a big impact on your sense of the relationship between past and present, and on your sense of your own identity, where it’s rooted, to what extent it is or isn’t within your control, what happens when parts of it are put out of reach. Those themes – past and present, identity and fractures to identity – show up in practically everything I write.

Do you have a hankering to set a novel a novel in Malawi or Italy? Somewhere other than Dublin?

I don’t think I could do a decent job of setting a book anywhere other than Dublin, at least not without moving there for a few years. For me, setting is an intrinsic part of the book – the characters and the plot are rooted in the setting; they wouldn’t be the same anywhere else – and Dublin’s the only place I know intimately enough to give it any kind of reality on the page. To set a book in a place, I need to know the subtle connotations of different accents and slang phrases, what it says about you if you drink in this pub versus that one, how crowded this or that particular street gets at different times of day and what kind of people are walking down it… I don’t know that stuff about any place except Dublin.

At what point did In the Woods, and the Dublin Murder Squad, turn into a series? Was that always your intention, ever since the first book? (Side note: the ending was perfect, and I will fight anyone who disagrees!)

Hee, thanks for the vote of support – I appreciate it 🙂

I don’t plan ahead – when I start a book, I don’t even know how it’s going to end. The chain-linked-series thing sort of evolved step by step. When I started thinking about a second book, I knew I didn’t want to stick with the same narrator again – Rob Ryan had told his crucial story in In the Woods, and he didn’t have another to tell. Then I had the idea of a detective being called to the murdered body of her double, and going undercover into the double’s life to find out what had happened. In the Woods had already set up the idea that Cassie Maddox, the second lead, had a background in undercover work, so she seemed like the obvious choice to narrate this story… And when I finished The Likeness, I had had so much fun writing Frank Mackey that I wanted to write him again. It just went from there.

Your stories are told by different narrators. Do you consciously pick the next one, or do they push themselves forward, hand raised, asking to speak?

With Frank in Faithful Place and Antoinette in The Trespasser, it was mainly because those characters were a lot of fun to write and I wanted to write them some more. The other times, though, I went with the narrator who was the right match, thematically, for the idea I had. When I was bouncing Broken Harbour around in my head, I was originally thinking of Stephen Moran (who had shown up in the previous book) for the narrator. But Broken Harbour is about people who follow the rules, do what they’re supposed to do, and that’s not Stephen. Making him the narrator would have separated the central character from the story, thematically, and that would have weakened the book. Luckily, I had another character from the previous book who was a perfect match, so he became the narrator of Broken Harbour. And when I started thinking about The Secret Place, which is about identity and whom you allow to define it, Stephen – who’s a people-pleaser to the point where he risks losing hold of himself – showed up again.

Some procedural questions here… do you write in a quiet place, or are you a coffee-shop writer? What’s your writing routine?

My ideal writing routine is to work until around three in the morning and not get up until around eleven, but I have small kids so that’s not happening any more. I write whenever they’re out of my hair. And given the choice, I like quiet. For the first couple of books, when my now-husband and I were living in a little granny flat, I wrote with him destroying zombies a few feet away, but now I have a study of my own.

Who are your biggest author influences and, relatedly, can you name the best book you’ve read? I’m particularly interested to know if you have any nonfiction favorites.

For nonfiction, I love Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. I like historical true crime books that use the crime as a window into the time and place where it happened, a way to show us both the differences and the similarities between us and the people of that society.

In fiction, the authors I love are the ones who have a flawless ear for the rhythm of a sentence, and the ones who create characters so real and three-dimensional and vivid that I feel like I know them intimately. Writers like Donna Tartt, Daniel Woodrell, Louise Erdrich, Donal Ryan, T.H. White, and Patrick McCabe do one or both of those so wonderfully that it takes my breath away.

You’re also an actor, which makes me wonder this: when you’re moving from one character’s head to another, do you have to spend time transmogrifying yourself into them? Kind of like method acting?! And is there one character you found particularly hard to dig into?

It’s a whole lot like acting, but the big difference is that in acting, you’ve got a lot of clues to the character right there in the script; you start by digging them out. In writing, you start from nothing and pull the character out of thin air, so the process is a lot more nebulous. I don’t think out every character’s favourite sandwich and favourite pub and taste in house plants, or anything, but I do spend a lot of time going for long walks and bouncing the characters around my head, just getting a sense of who they are.

Scorcher Kennedy in Broken Harbour was the hardest to get into by a long shot. He’d already been a supporting character in Faithful Place, and he’s very much not my kind of guy: he’s all about following the rules no matter what, doing things the way society tells you to, putting the rules above the individual situation and above your own instincts. This is not me, and it’s not anyone I particularly want to hang out with. And yet there he was, the perfect narrator for a book that centred around people who followed the rules and got kicked in the teeth for it.

In Faithful Place, where Scorcher is seen through someone else’s eyes, he’s a pompous, rule-bound prat with a stick up his arse. But when you’re writing a character in the first person, you can’t write him like that. It would be dishonest. No one thinks of himself like that; no one’s just that. As a writer or an actor, you don’t have the luxury of being objective or judgemental about your character; you owe him or her unconditional empathy. So once I started on Broken Harbour and I was writing Scorcher in the first person, I had to figure out who he was to himself, what kind of drives and fears and damage made him the way he was.

Having a novel published, especially a first novel, can be a terrifying time with the draw of publicity/social media, anxiety about sales, and fear of bad reviews. Are you past all those worries? Any advice for those who aren’t (asking for a friend…)?!

Nah, I still find the publication tornado completely overwhelming. (Sorry, I know that’s not very reassuring…) I mostly deal with it by ignoring as much of it as I can. I focus on the fact that the heart of my job – and also the part of my job that I love, the thing that got me into this to begin with – is to write the best books I’m capable of writing. Getting distracted by the ancillary stuff would take focus and energy away from that, and seeing as I write long books and always run right up against my deadline, I can’t afford to do that. So I don’t do social media, because I like chatting to people, I like goofing off, and if I get sucked into that then I’ll never come out. I don’t ask about sales figures. And I don’t read reviews, because if I do, I’m going to start thinking, ‘Hey, that person has a good point, maybe I should’ve…’ and then I’ll be focusing on a past book that I can’t do anything about, rather than on the one I’m supposed to be writing.

I think the only advice I can give is to figure out what degree of involvement works best for you. Some writers would be driven crazy by my head-in-the-sand thing; they’re happier being involved and engaged in as many ways as possible. Also, keep in mind that ‘readers’ and ‘critics’ aren’t one monolithic entity; they’re individual people, and what one likes, another will hate. If you try to take every single comment on board and factor it into the next book, you could very easily get tied in knots. Again, the heart of this job is writing the best books you’re capable of. If any other aspect of the job is getting in the way of that, then maybe rethink your approach.

Can you give us a brief insight into what you’re working on now?

This one’s a little different from what I’ve done before. All my other narrators have been detectives, most of them damaged to some extent, but this one’s just an ordinary guy who’s had a normal, happy life – until one night his apartment is burgled and he’s badly beaten. In the wake of that, when he’s pretty seriously messed up, he finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation, and he has to figure out not only what to do about it but how he ended up there in the first place.

If we were at the bar and doing karaoke, what would you drink and what song would you sing?

I’ll have a weird rum-based cocktail and an Indigo Girls number I can’t pull off, thanks.

To learn more about Tana French’s newest novel, click on the cover below:

Mark Pryor is a former newspaper reporter from England, and now a prosecutor with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, in Austin, Texas. He is the author of the Hugo Marston mystery series, set in Paris, London, and Barcelona. The most recent is THE PARIS LIBRARIAN, which the Toronto Globe & Mail says “has it all… a finely structured plot that’s one of Pryor’s best books yet.”  The first of the series, called THE BOOKSELLER, was a Library Journal Debut of the Month, and called “unputdownable” by Oprah.com, and the series was recently featured in the New York Times. Mark is also the author of the stand-alone psychological thriller, HOLLOW MAN, and created the nationally-recognized true-crime blog ‘D.A. Confidential.’ As a prosecutor, he has appeared on CBS News’s 48 Hours and Discovery Channel’s Discovery ID: Cold Blood.

To learn more about Mark Pryor’s most recent novel, click on the cover below:

Previously in Writers’ Passport:

J.J. Hensley talks with Ian Rankin