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Best-selling author Tana French says her writing career happened by accident. As a child, she dreamed of becoming an archaeologist, but ended up as an actor in Dublin. While working on an archaeological dig between acting jobs, she noticed a nearby woods. French wondered what would happen if three children went in to play, but only one came out. That fleeting thought became “In The Woods,” her award-winning debut novel. Her ensuing mystery series, narrated by Dublin’s fictional murder squad, is more than a string of whodunits. The New York Times calls them, “brilliant and satisfying novels about memory, identity, loss, and what defines us as humans.” Diane talks with Tana French about why she thinks mystery novels and literature need not be mutually exclusive.
- Tana French Award-winning author whose latest book is titled, "Broken Harbor."
Read An Excerpt
From “Broken Harbor” by Tana French. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2012, 2013 by Tana French.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Writer Tana French recently won the L.A. Book Prize for thrillers, a genre often described as gritty, grisly, and suspenseful. But French believes mystery and good literature are not mutually exclusive. Her fourth book, "Broken Harbor," is a psychological thriller that explores a downtrodden Ireland after the fall of the Celtic Tiger. Tana French joins me from a studio at RTE in Dublin to talk about her best-selling novels and how her career as an actress has influenced her writing.
MS. DIANE REHMThroughout the hour, I'll invite you to join us. 800-433-880. Send us an email to email@example.com, follow us Facebook, or send us a Tweet. Welcome to you, Tana French.
MS. TANA FRENCHThank you so much for having me.
REHMSo glad to be able to speak with you. I have been really enjoying your book "In the Woods," and I'm wondering whether you would read for us right off the bat from the prologue.
FRENCHI would love to. Thank you so much. This is the prologue of "In the Woods," my first book. "Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland's subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur's palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain. This is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses.
FRENCH"It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm. It packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing wash lines. It chimes and fountains with birdcalls, bees, leaves and football bounces and skipping-chants, one, two, three. This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend's knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the bats shrilling among the black lace trees.
FRENCH"This is every summer decked in all its best glory. Picture an orderly little maze of houses on a hill, only a few miles from Dublin. Someday, the government declared, this will be a buzzing marvel of suburban vitality, a plan-perfect solution to overcrowding and poverty and every urban ill. For now it is a few handfuls of cloned semi-detached, still new enough to look startled and gauche on their hillside. While the government rhapsodized about McDonald's and multiscreens, a few young families, escaping from the tenements and outdoor toilets that went unmentioned in 1970s Ireland, or dreaming big back gardens and hopscotch roads for their children, or just buying as close to home as a teacher's or bus driver's salary would let them, packed rubbish bags and bumped along a two-track path, grass and daisies growing down the middle, to their mint new start.
FRENCH"That was ten years ago, and the vague strobe-light dazzle of chain stores and community centers conjured up under infrastructure has so far failed to materialize. Minor politicians occasionally bellow in the Dail, unreported, about shady land deals. Farmers still pasture cows across the road, and night flicks on only a sparse constellation of lights on the neighboring hillsides. Behind the estate, where the someday plans show the shopping center and the neat little park, spreads a square mile and who knows how many centuries of wood.
FRENCH"Move closer, follow the three children scrambling over the thin membrane of brick and mortar that holds the wood back from the semi-ds. Their bodies have the perfect economy of latency. They are streamlined and unselfconscious, pared to light flying machines. White tattoos, lightning bolt, star, A, flash where they cut Band-Aids into shapes and let the sun brown around them. A flag of white-blond hair flies out. Toehold, knee on the wall, up and over and gone.
FRENCH"The wood is all flicker and murmur and illusion. Its silence is a pointillist conspiracy of a million tiny noises, rustles, flurries, nameless truncated shrieks. Its emptiness teems with secret life, scurrying just beyond the corner of your eye. Careful, bees zip in and out of cracks in the leaning oak. Stop to turn any stone and strange larvae will wriggle irritably, while an earnest thread of ants twines up your ankle. In the ruined tower, someone’s abandoned stronghold, nettles thick as your wrist seize between the stones, and at dawn rabbits bring their kittens out from the foundations to play on ancient graves.
FRENCH"These three children own the summer. They know the wood as surely as they know the microlandscapes of their own grazed knees. Put them down blindfolded in any dell or clearing and they could find their way out without putting a foot wrong. This is their territory, and they rule it wild and lordly as young animals. They scramble through its trees and hide-and-seek in its hollows all the endless day long, and all night in their dreams. They are running into legend, into sleepover stories and nightmares parents never hear.
FRENCH"Down the faint lost paths you would never find alone, skidding round the tumbled stone walls, they stream calls and shoelaces behind them like comet-trails. And who is it waiting on the riverbank with his hands in the willow branches, whose laughter tumbles swaying from a branch high above, whose is the face in the undergrowth in the corner of your eye, built of light and leaf-shadow, there and gone in a blink? These children will not be coming of age, this or any other summer. This August will not ask them to find hidden reserves of strength and courage as they confront the complexity of the adult world and come away sadder and wiser and bonded for life. This summer has other requirements for them."
REHMI'm so glad you read that for us, Tana French, the prologue to your book "In the Woods," because it combines not only your beautifully descriptive prose, but...
REHM...you're leading us down a garden path to terror. That last paragraph got me in the stomach, and I thought, this is really something different from one's ordinary thriller. This really does combine good literature with thrilling episodes. Did you begin it purposely that way?
FRENCHWell, I began it, to be honest, not thinking that I was capable of writing a book at all. I began it because I had had the idea of three children running into a wood to play and only one ever comes out. And he has no idea of what happened to the other two. He has no memory left. And what would that do to his mind as he grew up, knowing that he's got the solution to this mystery somewhere inside, but he can't put his finger on it. And what if he became a detective and another case drew him back to the wood.
FRENCHI wanted to know what would happen. It was as simple as that. And there was no way to find out how that idea would pan out except to write it myself. So I dove into it kind of thinking, well, I'm pretty sure I can't write a whole book. I've never even tried before, but I can probably write one scene and then maybe another little scene and then gradually it grew. But I've always liked -- I've always loved beautiful writing. I've always loved beautiful prose.
FRENCHOne of my first memories of any kind of engagement with a book is my father reading out loud to me at night when I was -- I must have been under seven. I was probably six, and he was reading to me from "The Wind in the Willows," and I can still remember him reading the sentence, "He had never seen a river before, that sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal." I didn't have a clue what sinuous meant. You know, I was six. But the sound of it really hit something in me, and I realized what words could do, what beauty they were capable of creating, and I fell in love with words, and that, I think, has stayed ever since.
FRENCHSo when I decided to start writing, it was always going to be a mystery, because I've always been fascinated by mysteries, real fictional, solved, unsolved, but I've never seen why that kind of fascination should be incompatible with beautiful writing and depth of characterization. I'm not saying I manage it all, or even some of the time, but I aim to give readers a lot. I don't see why they should be satisfied with one or the other. I aim to give them the gripping plot and the good writing and the depth of characterization. Now, whether I succeed is their call rather than mine, but that's where I'm aiming.
REHMAnd your voice, your voice has that lovely touch of Irish brogue, but you were actually born here in the United States.
FRENCHYes. I'm a Vermont baby, but I only lived there until I was one, so I don't remember it very clearly. Although still when we go back, sometimes that landscape, I think if it's in your blood, you're never going to get it out. I still love it. But for my father's job, we did a lot of moving around. I grew up in Malawi, in Rome, and I'm in Ireland since 1990. So I think it's probably -- Dublin is probably as near to home as I'm going to get.
REHMHow does that international background affect or come into your own image of yourself as you write?
FRENCHI think it's actually in weird ways very useful for a writer. Because if you're not quite an insider, and I know I'm not. Again, I've been here a lot more than half my life. I've been here -- this is the one city I know inside out, where I know kind of where you get a good pint, and what shortcut you shouldn't take after dark, and what bus goes where. So in a way, it is my home, and it's the only place where I could set a story, because it's the only place where I know the little things that will give the world texture, you know, where I wouldn't just be making things up, and where natives wouldn't be going, hang on a second, that's not the right bus to go from A to B.
FRENCHBut yet, at the same time, I'm never going to be an insider in the same way as my husband who is just Dublin for as many generations back as you can count, and I know I don't have the right to call myself a Dubliner in the same way as he does. And in a way, I think that actually gives you a good insight into the place that locals wouldn't have.
REHMAward-winning author, Tana French. Her latest psychological thriller is titled "Broken Harbor." Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We are now fortunate enough to be able to see award-winning author Tana French via Skype. She is at the studios in BT in Ireland. And we will be taking your calls throughout the hour, 800-433-8850. Forgive me, RTE in Dublin. So give us a call and send us an email. I want to know about your training as an actor and once again how that comes into the quality and the manner of your writing.
FRENCHIt's strange, in some ways, I think this is the best training that a writer could have because I trained at Trinity College Dublin and I worked as an actor almost exclusively in theater and a little bit of voiceover for years. And for one thing, you're thinking in terms of language all the time. You're getting a script and you have to mine it, take it to pieces, figure out what it is that it's hiding. What secrets, words and conceal and reveal.
FRENCHBut at the same time, you're constantly thinking in terms of playing someone who's not you, creating a world that isn't your own, a truth that isn't your own, and bringing that, hopefully, bringing that personal light and bringing all your audience into their world so that the audience goes home at the end of an evening in the theater, feeling like they know this person inside out. That they know this person intimately, this person's fears, priorities, hopes, sense of humor.
FRENCHAnd if you write first person, like I do, that's pretty good training. It's very much the same skill. And I think it helps with the creating the world of a mystery and drawing the audience in and remembering also what they know at any given moment, remembering their perspective, remembering the other character's perspective. I think, yeah, being an actor is probably the best training I could have had.
REHMYou know I'm going to step out of my role as your interviewer and ask you for some advice. I'm going to be acting, reading a portion of a play titled, "Surviving Grace" out in San Diego next month. And I play the role of a woman falling into Alzheimer's and it is the lead role and I am that woman. I had done it once before. Carol Burnett will do it in Los Angeles and then I will follow her into San Diego. What advice do you have for me?
FRENCHIf I had a good advice on acting, I'd probably still be doing it. I think that sounds like an amazing role. And that kind of thing, I think, is really a part of acting, any art form is where you're telling somebody else this truth who isn't going to be able, for various reasons, to tell the truth to the audience themselves because your character, you know, you're speaking for people who aren't able to speak their own or to give their lives' voice.
FRENCHAnd I was always a character actor, I was never a lead. And for me, the biggie was always to get out of the way. The less I'm present on the stage, the more room there is for the character. I know there are actors who are basically facets of themselves of the time, in the same way as I think there are probably writers who are facets of themselves in every character. But for me, I was always a character actor.
FRENCHI always felt the more I could get out of the way, the less I was present on the stage, the better.
REHMBut surely that did not translate to your writing. You've got to be reflecting parts of yourself in your writing.
FRENCHNot so much. It definitely reflects things that I'm interested in. Like there's a lot in there about memory and identity and "In The Woods" turns to a large extent around an archeological site that's being destroyed to make for a motorway. So the link between past, present, and future and how destroying one can destroy the others. It's the same in "The Likeness" where -- just a quick recap.
FRENCHA group of college post-graduates are living together in an old house and have decided that they are going to completely excise their past from their own lives and start fresh. So that link between is it possible to link our past, present, and future, it's possible to destroy one, things like that. I'm very interested in stuff like that. And so that comes true in all of the books. But I don't think any of the characters really have much of me in them.
FRENCHLike, I write, what, three of the first four have male narrators, for example. That's the one people always ask me. You like guys. And I also, a guy thing is actually kind of the least of my problems when I started writing a narrative because I've always had a lot of guy friends and I think if you're writing a narrative who's not you anyway, then you're always having to take that leap. It doesn't matter, you know, whether it's a man, a woman, a child.
FRENCHYou're always having to take that leap into somebody else's world. And I like that. I like that as an actor. I like it as a writer. The farther from me, the more interested I am.
REHMI love your strong character Cassie, another of the detectives who initially looks into the question of yet another young woman found deep in the woods and all of that begins to bring back in the male police officer. Some thread, some spark of memory about the fact that he was the only one who came and talk of the wood that day.
FRENCHYes. For him all the boundaries start to breakdown for him as this case progresses. The boundary between his professional life and his personal life. The boundary between his past and his present, which was very strong. I mean, he's changed his names since he was that child. He's got a different accent. He has still no memory. He never thinks about it. For him, that wall has been built up very powerfully and he thought very permanently.
FRENCHBut over the course of this case, it starts to crack, slowly it starts to erode and he's forced to confront the fact that he still is this person and to see if he can take that leap back into the woods to find out what it is that's been hiding in his mind.
REHMThere's a great deal of psychological underpinning in your writing and I wonder where that begins in you.
FRENCHI think anybody who gets into acting or writing is fascinated by people. I mean, like I said earlier, I love mysteries, I'm fascinated by them. And surely the biggest mystery of all is people and why they do what they do. And, you know, one reason I think why people both write and read crime is that for someone who has never either killed anyone or seriously wanted to kill anyone, that's one of the great mysteries.
FRENCHHow can one human being deliberately kill another? How is that possible? And you write or read crime trying to explore that. But it's more than that. I think psychological crime in particular tends to deal as much with the psyche of the detective as the psyche of the killer. It's about a detective like in "In the Woods" coming to terms with the damage that was done to him as child. It's people trying to confront a danger that's within themselves as much as outside.
FRENCHAnd that, I think, is another of the great mysteries. What do you -- how do you understand yourself, your own damage, your own complications? And what do you do with it when you're forced to confront these? That's what fascinates me.
REHMHow do you think your take, your style of mystery writing of thrillers differs from those of other mystery writers you know or read?
FRENCHI think there's been a big wave of psychological crime writers coming up the last decade or so. You know, there's people like the wonderful Gillian Flynn, like Sophie Hannah, there's Laurel Litmen (sp?) who I think really kind of forged that path with her wonderful series. And before that, I think the focus was much more on the detective in physical jeopardy. Like if you look at Patricia Cornwell case, "Scarpetta," usually the killer is after her.
FRENCHThat's the danger that she's in.
FRENCHIn one of the books, she wakes up with a serial killer in her bedroom.
FRENCHWhat danger comes from outside. And I think in the wave of psychological crime that's coming up, the danger comes from within. The danger is, is this detective going to lose his mind? Is he going to jeopardize his career? Is he going to break the only friendship or relationship that means anything to him or is he going to be able to reach some kind of resolution with his own inner attackers? That I think is the big difference?
REHMNow, tell us how you move from "In the Woods" to your second book, "The Likeness," where again Cassie appears?
FRENCHYeah. And this time she's the narrator. That -- I know that's not the standard way to do a series. The more traditional way is to take a detective and stick with the one narrator throughout the series. But I'm interested in books that deal with the crucial turning points in the narrator's life. The moment where the narrator knows, okay, whatever I choose, my life will be defined by it.
FRENCHI will never be able to go back and remake this decision. And the fact is we just don't get a lot of those moments in life. You get maybe, what, two or three of these huge crossroads. So when I was finishing "In the Woods," I figured, okay, I can either stick with this guy and keep dropping the poor guy into huge life-changing moments every year or two and he's going to wind up with a nervous breakdown within three books.
FRENCHOr I can do the more traditional thing where you stick with the detective through the smaller ups and downs of life, like P.D. James' amazing Adam Dalgliesh.
FRENCHWhere you see him through the whole ark of his life. But while I love reading that, I'm not interested in writing that. I want the big, crucial moments. So kind of my only option was to switch narrator. And I also like the idea that that narrator switch, moving a secondary character from one book into the narrator of another. Let's me play with the fact that nobody really knows the truth about another person.
FRENCHYour view of somebody will not be the same as their view of themselves. And what one character, one narrator presents us the truth about another character, in the next book, the other character may present a complete invention or imagination. I like that.
REHMSo these are what you would call chain-linked books.
FRENCHYeah. Yeah, exactly. It also -- it's kind of interesting for me as well, switching character. It's like rather than doing a show as the same character for 10 years, I get to come back and do the same show as a different character every time, keeps it interested.
REHMAnd sort of keeps you operating on parallel, not directly but sort of moving forward both simultaneously and at different times.
FRENCHYes, I like that as well. The fact that there are different styles to be played with as well because the voice of one detective isn't going to the same as the voice of another. And yet they're all spinning around this completely imaginary Dublin Murder Squad. There is no murder squad in Dublin, I just made it up because it's like a good idea.
FRENCHBut because they all move around this one place, you're getting an insight into the squad as it develops over the years. But I also get to play with different voices. Like one will be much more lyrical than the next or much more brusque or much more, you know, fact based or imagination based. And I enjoy that too.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm going to take a phone call and invite our listeners to participate. First to Martha's Vineyard where the president, I gather, is there today. Charles, have you had a sighting yet?
CHARLESYes. Thanks, Diane. I love your show and I've read all of your guest's books and I love them. I haven't had a sighting. He's very quiescent compared to the prior president, who put on quite a show. But my question for Ms. French is about the first book. I was particularly taken by the character, a young girl who was a sociopath. And I wonder if -- and she got it so right about the destructiveness of these kind of people.
CHARLESThat if Ms. French has had any experience with that, with people like that or with what they can do to their victims intended or unintended. I'll take your answer off the phone. Thanks for this show.
REHMThank you so much, Charles.
FRENCHHere's the scary thing. I think everybody has had experience with sociopaths in action because most of them don't do anything criminal. Most of them aren't chopping hitchhikers into a hundred pieces and throwing on the edge of the highway. Most of them create this wave of destruction and pain in their wake but it's done without breaking any laws. It's done within the confines of a normal life.
FRENCHAnd I think everyone has had that experience where suddenly you realize that reality is warping around you. This person is creating deceit where you don't -- nobody knows what's true anymore, nobody in your circle knows what's going on. Everybody is operating at this high pitch of drama, friendships and relationships are being destroyed everywhere. And when you get spat out by this tornado of destruction, you just go oh my god, what hit me? And this is the horrific thing is that everyone has been through it, I think.
REHMBut does that mean you have to have therapy to help get through it and understand not to be drawn into it?
FRENCHI think you get immunized. After the first time, I think you have a very good radar for that kind of sociopath.
FRENCHThat you start to pick up the little signals and you do not play with the crazy. You absolutely don't go there. I think if you were unlucky enough to be married to somebody like that or whatever, then yeah, you will very probably need therapy to reconstruct your sense of reality because that's what they do. They don't just, you know, destroy a relationship. They destroy your entire sense of the coherence of reality.
FRENCHBut if, like most of us, you just, you know, run into the wrong person in some kind of social group and got sucked into the vortex for a while, and then pulled yourself out, I think you just come away with a very healthy immune response to that.
REHMI think you're absolutely right. Tana French, we're talking about her first book, "In the Woods," which the Washington Post Book World called an ambitious and extraordinary first novel. Ranked it very high. There are other books as well. You can join us, send us email, call us on the phone. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd welcome back. Writer Tana French joins us from the studios of RTE in Dublin. I have an email here from Claire in Kill Devil Hills, N.C. Have you ever been to North Carolina, Tana?
FRENCHI have on a book tour a few years ago. It's so beautiful and I have never realized what humidity meant.
REHMIt's so beautiful. Here is Claire's email. She said, "I have read all of your wonderful books. I love the dialogue, contemporary references mixed with complex pros and an Irish accent. Such a pleasure to read. But why do her characters never seem to receive redemption, Rob Ryan, Cassie, Frank Mackie. I grew so attached to them but I feel sad for them somehow. Will you ever create a happy ending?"
FRENCHClaire, thank you so much for reading them and I'm so glad you enjoyed them. I don't know. I kind of think that some of them do receive or create for themselves redemption, I think Cassie and Frank in particular. Cassie starts the likeness in a place where she's really not capable, for whatever reason, of committing not just to her partner but to any kind of life. She's kind of very windblown, very, you know, read to pack and move at a moment's notice. And by the end, through the story of a girl who was even more windblown than she was, she's reached the point where she can in fact choose a life and commit to it, make the sacrifices that involves.
FRENCHAnd I think that is, for her, a happy ending. And Frank the same way in "Faithful Place." When he begins the book, his life is entirely defined by the moment when he was 19 and his first love, who was meant to elope with him, abandoned him, or so he thinks. And as he discovers through the book, that didn't in fact happen. And by the time he's found out what did happen, he's actually reached a point where he's able to have the opportunity of creating a proper relationship with his ex-wife. He's capable of that now. He's no longer shaping every moment in terms of that moment when he was 19. He's free from it in a way.
FRENCHI think -- I know it's a bittersweet ending because he and his family aren't getting on that great, to put it mildly.
REHMThat's from "Faithful Place" you're talking about.
REHMYes. And by the way, we do have all of Tana French's titles on our website drshow.org. Going to go now to Birmingham, Ala. Hi there, Robin. You're on the air.
ROBINHi, Diane. I love your show.
ROBINThanks for having me on.
ROBINTana, I adore this book "In the Woods." I have a question. One interpretation of this book is that Rob Ryan is a sociopath or that he has some sociopathic tendencies, the way he treats Cassie, the fact that he's not always honest. Do you have a comment on that interpretation?
FRENCHHi, Robin. Thank you so much for reading and I'm so glad you like the book. That wasn't the way I pictured him. I'm kind of reluctant to say it's not the case because I'm very much a believer that when I finish a book, when I hand it over to you, you guys are -- it's your possession now. You know what I mean?
FRENCHIf that's what you feel than you're probably right. But I think it's more that the level of damage that has happened to him can show symptoms that are similar to sociopathy. So while he's actually acutely vulnerable in ways that a sociopath really isn't and acutely empathetic in ways that a sociopath isn't, those symptoms, because he's broken straight across inside, they can kind of show up in the same way, if that makes any sense.
REHMYou know, you sort of avoided my earlier question about whether you personally had undergone therapy, because you seem to have such insight into the mind, the way the mind works and how to deal with these various characters.
FRENCHOh no, I've never been in therapy, never anything like that. But again, I think -- from what I know from people who have, a lot of therapy is based on awareness, on understanding your own emotional responses and how they can be out of whack, out of kilter, how to have more insight into them, how to shape them more appropriately, stuff like that.
FRENCHAnd I think that again, acting is really good training for self awareness because that's what you're doing a lot of the time. You're going, okay this is how I react physically and emotionally when I hear bad news. I have to remember that thump under the sternum and that tensing of my fists so that I can recreate it for a character. And so that kind of awareness, I think, can in many ways have the same effect as therapy, that self awareness.
REHMIndeed. You know, I wonder whether you aren't somewhat surprised at yourself. I mean, here's we've been on the air less than an hour. You've had a phone call from North Carolina. You've had another from Birmingham, Ala. Did you ever expect -- when you had that first vision of children going into the woods, three going in or four going in, one coming out, did you ever imagine that this would be your future?
FRENCHOh god, no, not at all. This was completely accidental. I was, you know, in between two shows. I was a jobbing theater actor who did not get as much work as she would like because, you know, that's theater. And that, as far as I knew, was kind of going to keep going and hopefully with more and more work, and that was it. This was just something -- the idea just happened to wander in and there was nothing else I could do. And I still can't believe where it's led. I can't believe it.
REHMHow does it make you feel that this path you've taken has -- how has it affected you?
FRENCHWell, in practical terms I'm no longer sharing a tiny little granny flat that's not even with a boyfriend. Now I get to live in an actual house. And, you know, I'm not -- I was very badly broke for a long time during the writing of "In the Woods" and before, you know. Some weeks it was, hum, bread or toilet paper this week? Interesting decision. Yeah, so on a practical level it's made the kind of difference that you're grateful for every single day.
FRENCHBut on a psychological level, I still haven't caught up. A part of me still occasionally goes, hey, hey, hang on. Wait a second. Someone's publishing that? And I still, yeah, get caught several years back going, whoa, I have not assimilated this. It's strange in a wonderful way.
REHMAnd I must ask you about the New York Times piece you wrote in July talking about cultural issues in Ireland.
FRENCHYeah, the jest of that very briefly was that Ireland's had kind of from roughly 1995 to 2008, a huge boom -- huge economic boom based on a property boom followed by a really terrible crash that has left people psychologically, financially shattered. And in the New York Times I basically wrote that there's a culture in Ireland where there's a very small ruling elite who almost never face any consequences from anything. And I think that lack of a link between action and consequence can lead to a lack of any moral sense because you feel that you're existing in a vacuum, that there's no connection between your actions and any consequence.
FRENCHAnd that I think may have played a role to some extent in this property boom and crash and financial boom and crash. And that the ordinary people who got sucked up and spat out in this almost did the opposite where they had too much faith in action and consequence. They really believed that if you buy this house that you don't want in the middle of nowhere, soon it will be worth five times as much and you will live happily ever after. That's the myth that we were peddled and a lot of people believed it as fact. And they're now picking up the pieces.
REHMAnd of course that's reflected in your latest book, "Broken Harbor?"
FRENCHYes. That's who that's about, very much so, the people who had utter faith and staked everything on this myth. And what really gets me very ranty and very upset -- but what really got to me was that this was my generation. We were, you know, lucky, whatever way you want to put it, we didn't get sucked in. But a huge number of these people, the ones who did get sucked in were the ones who wanted to do it right. They really believed that they were doing the right thing to ensure a good life for themselves and their children.
FRENCHThey were told, you buy this house in the middle of nowhere off plans unbuilt and everything and you will live happily ever after. They thought they were doing it right. And they thought they were following the rules. And then the rules turned around and kicked them in the teeth. And so they're devastated, not just in terms of well, now I'm living in a ghosted stated in the middle of nowhere deep in negative equity, they're also devastated in terms of the fact that their whole idea of reality has been smashed. The whole idea of their ability to have any agency in their lives has been smashed. I'm sorry, I told you I got ranty about this.
REHMBut some of that has certainly occurred in this country as well. So I think the theme is enough to make us all feel exactly as you do. Let's go back to the phone to Denton, Texas. Hi there, Don.
DONI was struck by the comment that your author made that we have all had contact with people who were either capable or have done horrific acts. And I thought to myself, is this really true? And I went back through my own life and I realized that about 65 years ago, I was in a rotary boys camp in Missouri right outside of Kansas City. And one of the boys in this camp with me -- we were about 12 years old at the time, 12 or 13, was this strange young boy. And I'm going to tell you his name because it's so long ago, I'm sure he's dead and gone.
REHMDon't say his name. Don't say his name, Don, just tell us what happened.
DONAll right. Well, anyway he was this very strange boy that I met in the camp library.
DONAnd he was telling me that -- we were talking about World War II and he was quoting the Bible and saying God was with us in this conflict, et cetera. And he just had a very strange way about him. And it gave me the creeps at the time. Several weeks later. a terrible stabbing occurred in a park that was just a few blocks from where I lived. A young girl was stabbed death in this park. And it turned out it was done by this boy.
DONAnd he turned up on a -- he ended up walking along on a street later and a police car came by and stopped him. And he said, I'm the guy you're looking for.
REHMWell, those things to happen. We do get that sense from someone of, you know, in some cases strange behavior. Something inside us does react. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Thanks for calling, Don. Do you think as a novelist, as a writer that you can actually influence what happens outside your novels?
FRENCHI think almost definitely not, no. But I don't think -- I don't know, I think in some ways that's not really my job. I'm not a big believer in the novelists obligation to reflect or catalyze society in some ways. I think -- I don't write books that have messages. None of them have a moral to them. I'm more interested in exploring things that are hard to understand and maybe bringing the readers with me. Again, the idea that somebody like Don mentioned can do something so terrible. That is completely incomprehensible to most of us, and we find it very frightening.
FRENCHSo I think if I can bring people with me along an exploration of some of the possible reasons this could happen, that's more my job than creating social change. It's just giving people a chance to think about things that they want to explore.
REHMAll right. And one last quick call from Grand Rapids, Mich. Doug, you're on the air. Very quickly, please.
DOUGGood morning. I just wanted to share with Ms. French that my wife and I have read all the books and we shared them with her 98-year-old mother. The mother-in-law and her boyfriend have read all four books to each other and loved them.
FRENCHThat's wonderful. Thank you so much. And listen, give them my best and tell them thank you so much for reading.
REHMNow, Tana, have you read the books for recording?
FRENCHNo. I think an actor's the worst person to do that because if there's anything good in these books, your subconscious does half of it. So if another actor does that, she or he is going to pick up on stuff in the books that I didn't even know was there.
FRENCHSomebody had to tell me, oh by the way, "Broken Harbor" is a book about madness. And then I went, oh god, everybody in it is fragile psychologically in some way. I had never noticed before. People find stuff in there that you don't even know is there.
REHMWhat's your writing routine, Tana?
FRENCHAt the moment, it's got a four-month-old involved so it's kind of disorganized. But usually I try to get about six hours a day. Just after that my brain doesn't have anything useful left inside it, you know. But I try to do that. I try to get a solid six hours...
REHMAnd do you edit as you go?
FRENCHYeah. Yeah, I rework things three, four, five times. The good side is that I tend to hand in a fairly clean draft. The downside is that I hate rewriting.
REHMWell, clearly what you've written is so appealing to so many people. I congratulate you. We've talked about some of your books. All four of them are listed at our website, plus a link to your New York Times piece. We have that on our website as well. What a pleasure to talk with you, Tana French.
FRENCHThank you so much for having me, Diane. It's been a real pleasure.
REHMMine. And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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