Tana French on The Witch Elm and why she loves writing mysteries
Nobody writes mysteries like Tana French.
The best-selling, critically acclaimed author of the Dublin Murder Squad series has at last arrived with her first standalone novel: The Witch Elm, a tale of one man’s good luck running out and one of this fall’s most anticipated new books. Tracking the happy-go-lucky Toby Hennessy, the novel traces the aftermath of a brutal attack on him, when he relocates to his family estate only for a terrifying mystery from his past to get set into motion. The book evolves into a rich family drama, spooky on the edges and with an eye toward tragedy.
The Witch Elm marks French’s seventh novel over an 11-year-period; her debut, In the Woods, won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, along with a host of other prizes. She’s since emerged as one of mystery-fiction’s smartest, most wickedly effective authors, and this book will hardly harm that reputation.
EW caught up with French about the new novel, her attraction to mysteries, and much more. Read our conversation below. The Witch Elm publishes Oct. 9 and is available for pre-order.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is a story about one man’s luck running out. What inspired The Witch Elm?
TANA FRENCH: I’d been thinking a lot about the connection between luck and empathy. If you’re too lucky, it can be very easy to lack the ability to believe that other people’s lived experience is real, when it doesn’t match up with yours. For example, I was lucky enough to have a happy childhood, loving parents, a certain amount of dysfunction, but within normal limits. So when I was younger, before I got a grip, if I’d heard somebody describing a seriously abusive childhood, a part of me would be thinking, “It can’t really have been that bad.” Because it wasn’t within my own frame of reference, it was very easy for me to dismiss it. I started thinking about somebody who had been lucky in every possible way — who had come out on the right end of every coin flip of his life, right down to being good-looking and coming from a well-off family, and what that might do to his sense of empathy, especially while he’s still quite young. And what would happen to somebody like that if his luck broke, and he found himself no longer on the end of the lucky coin flip. What would that do to his sense of himself and reality?
Around the same time, my brother emailed me a link going, “Check this out,” to a long-ago World War II case where a body had been found down a tree at Witch Elm. The two came together. I ended up with a story of a young guy who’s basically led a charmed life: He’s happy-go-lucky, he’s a good guy, he’s got a lovely girlfriend, great job, good friends, everything’s good — until two burglars break into his apartment one night and beat him up pretty badly, and he’s left mentally and physically damaged. That’s how it all came together.
This is your first standalone novel. Why was this the time to do it?
It seemed to have reached a natural point. The last book, The Trespasser, is very much about the squad itself; the squad is very much a character and a presence and the core location of the book. It felt like that had wrapped up that semi-series; I wanted to try something different. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of writing the same book over and over. I wanted to try something completely different. And I’ve always had detectives for narrators. I liked the idea of seeing the story from the other side: from the side of someone who considers detectives to be a terrifying and tricky force.
Did your process change at all? In the effort of differentiating?
To be honest, it wasn’t much of an effort, because I’m really a character-based writer more than plot-based. I start with a character and a very basic premise, and jump in and figure it out from there. The character tends to dictate the structure an awful lot. Once I was dealing with a character who was in no way a detective and who, unlike most of my narrators, did not have a deeply damaged past or demons to confront — he’s just a happy guy, he has no interest in police or mysteries — that seemed to dictate the shape of the book. And when the detectives did make their entrance, it dictated the way they functioned within the book as well. It spined from the character.
Without spoiling anything, the character takes this story in some surprising directions. Given his experience of being so traumatically beaten, did you do any research there about the after-effects?
I did a fair amount of research on post-traumatic stress disorder. After this attack on him, he’s desperately traumatized. With his brain injury, the effects are not actually that severe compared to what many have. But for him, the sense of his identity having been shattered and undermined is so huge, and that is fairly common for PTSD and for brain injury. As I went through the book, that was one of the things that I found myself having to come to grips with, in ways that influence the plot and turned it darker — probably more shocking, almost, than I had intended, was this enormous gap in his perception between who he used to be and who he is now. As I discovered the point to which they converge and diverge, that tended to describe to me the level of impact that traumatic brain injuries can have on somebody’s relationship with himself.
Your books always have a great sense of place. Why is that important for you, as a writer?
Having a core location has always been one of the most important things to me about books. We moved around a lot when I was kid. I’d lived in three continents before I was 12. For me, a relationship with a place is very fundamental. When you’re moving — when you’re leaving your life and the place where you’ve lived on a semi-regular basis — you tend to connect the sense of your entire life to that place that you’ve left. Everything that you’d built up as a life becomes infused with that place; that place becomes infused with everything you’ve connected with the life you’d built up there. I’ve always seen places as being very deeply connected to the experience that people have in those places. I think that probably comes through very much in my books. Each one of them has a two-way relationship with the events. The events seep into the place, but the place is also seeping into the events.
So how do you see that relationship between people and places in The Witch Elm?
This book has these really gorgeous old Georgian houses. These really tall, beautiful rows of gray brick, large houses. I love them because they’ve been there for 150, 200 years — probably near 200 — and they’re marvelous places because they’re proportioned with a sense of serenity and elegance. This house, the ancestral home that Toby goes back to, is partly because his uncle has a terminal illness and needs somebody to be there. But also because he needs that respite; he needs that safe haven to belong to. This has always been the safe haven. To him, that’s what it means — a place of safety and beauty. It’s an old ramshackle house with bits leftover from over different generations, and a huge garden that’s getting overgrown now, but it still has the places where he and his cousins used to play when they came to stay. The strawberry beds where they used to eat wild strawberries. It’s a very idyllic place. And when a body — a skeleton — shows up down the trunk of a tree, that explodes all that illusion that he’d built up in his head. It means he has to reassess not only who he is, he also has to reassess what his past has been. Because clearly, if there’s a skeleton down that tree, then something in that house — that garden — has not been as perfect as he thought for quite a long time.
What is it that you love about writing and reading mysteries?
I just love mysteries! Ever since I was a little kid. I don’t care if they’re real mysteries, fictional, solved, unsolved — I love them. In a lot of ways that’s one of the things that makes us human. Most animals, if they run into something mysterious, they don’t really care. “Can I eat it? Is it dangerous?” If the answer to both of those is no, they’ll wander off. But humans will stay. We can’t go away from the mystery. It’s not just the answer that fascinates us. Because otherwise, people would read the first chapter of a mystery book and then just go to the last chapter — they wouldn’t even bother with the rest. We’re fascinated by the process of solving them, by what goes into solving a mystery both in procedural terms and in psychological terms. [Mysteries] are crucial to our sense of ourselves because humans are, in a way, the biggest mystery around. That’s why I’ve always been fascinated by them. I’m always looking for the potential to see in everything. That’s where most of my ideas come from, some mundane thing where I’m going, “And how could this be mysterious?” I think it was probably inevitable. If I ended up writing, it was always going to be a mystery.
The Witch Elm