You know a Tana French book: The vivid settings. The tightly coiled plot. The rich, haunting atmosphere. They're the hallmarks of the award-winning, New York Times-best-selling author's oeuvre, including the (recently adapted) Dublin Murder Squad series and the 2018 standalone The Witch Elm. But if there's one challenge the author is giving herself, it's to challenge that perception, both for readers and herself.
Indeed, the slow-burning Witch Elm found the Dublin-residing French operating in an evocative new mode, switching perspectives from the cops to the victim (or perpetrator?) and focusing deeply on interiority. It's a book that found French some new fans and thrilled her old ones. Now, she's shaking things up again.
French's next novel, publishing in the fall, is The Searcher. It's another standalone, and she describes it as her take on a Western. It's centered on Cal, a 25-five year divorcee and veteran of the Chicago PD force and a bruising divorce who decides to retire in a bucolic West Ireland village. He's pulled back into his own line of work, though, when a local kid alerts him to his brother's disappearance, uncovering dark secrets and complicating his perception of the place he's newly called home.
EW can debut the cover for The Searcher, and caught up with French in a wide-ranging interview. We touched on reception to The Witch Elm, the next act of French's writing career, and the experience of life in quarantine. Indeed, our conversation began there, with French quipping, "At least this one isn't as depressing as the last one! [Laughs] I don't think I need anything depressing right now."
Read our conversation and see the exclusive cover below. The Searcher publishes Oct. 6, and is available for pre-order.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So why is The Searcher less depressing than the last one?
TANA FRENCH: [Laughs] I was coming to the end of the last one, and realized that The Witch Elm was so introspective. So much of it was about what was going on inside the narrator's head. While that's a lot of fun to write and can be a lot of fun to read, I got to the point where I was like, "Oh my God, I need to write someone who does not have his head stuck up his bum. [Laughs] I need to write somebody who thinks more in terms of action, who thinks more in terms of action rather than about his own thinking all the time. So that's where it came from: Somebody who thinks through doing, who's much more action-based. That's where the fact of the book being very different came from. It's shorter, because there's very little introspection. And it's less depressing. Because my God, that was a really depressing book! The character in The Witch Elm just goes through this arc from being the golden boy to being a wreck. I didn't want to write that again.
So what did you write instead?
This is a guy who's a little bit bruised and battered, to start with, and goes for what he thinks is going to be a nice, peaceful early retirement in the West of Ireland, and ends up finding that even small towns and small places can be a lot more complicated than they seem. But his arc is much more about putting things back together, rather than falling apart.
Did that feel, for you, like a return to something you were more comfortable or familiar with? The Witch Elm definitely felt like a departure for you.
[Laughs] Well so is this!
Yeah, it's third-person, which I don't normally write. But because it was so action-based and not about being inside his head, it felt like it required that. And Cal, the main character, is an American! He's a retired detective from Chicago PD who, at 48, had decided that he just wanted to leave behind everything and everyone he knows, and wants somewhere simple and peaceful. That's a departure. And then it's not Dublin-set. It's the west of Ireland. It is very different. It's got, I guess, slightly a flavor of a Western, almost, in that it's the retired gunslinger being dragged out of his retirement for one last job.
That's so interesting. Did you find getting into that structure a challenge?
I did. But I've read a lot of Westerns, and I like a challenge. I'm realizing, over this and The Witch Elm, that I don't like being in my comfort zone. I don't want to end up writing the same book over and over again. I think when you write genre, in particular — when there's a certain matrix that's set for you, where A kills B and C, then finds out whodunit — I think it's quite easy to slide into writing the same book over and over again. You know what you're comfortable with, you know what you do well, it's quite easy to fall back on those. I really don't want to do that. I want to keep stepping out of my comfort zone and doing something slightly different. This was very scary! I kept going, "Man, I don't know if I'm the right person to write this book. I know I'm enjoying it, but I don't know how to do this!" But I think you have to do that. You have to keep jumping into the deep end and seeing if you swim.
So coming off The Witch Elm, was there something you learned about yourself as a writer, in that process — beyond the fact that you could churn out something so particularly depressing?
Well, in fairness, Broken Harbor was depressing enough that I knew I could come up with the depressing goods. [Laughs] But The Witch Elm was scary as well because it was a standalone. You don't have any of the preset structures in place. Writing the Dublin Murder Squad books, I've got the shape of the squad in place, I know who the state pathologist is — there are certain structures in place. With Witch Elm, not only did I have none of those structures in place, but I as looking at the murder investigation from the reverse angle; instead of from the detective's point-of-view, it's the point-of-view of somebody who is ultimately a victim, suspect, witness, perpetrator. That was a big switch for me. Looking at the whole procedure from the reverse angle. And I love doing that! I'm coming to this from acting. I like getting into different mindsets. I like getting a glimpse of the world through a very different pair of eyes. Witch Elm made me a bit happier with the idea of looking at things differently. I'm more at ease with that.
And also knowing you're reaching a very firm endpoint, I imagine, was new.
Yes. It's kind of a pressure in some ways, because you go, "Okay, anything I have to say about this world needs to be between these covers. There's not going to be an opportunity to examine it from another angle." That's what I had set up accidentally along the way with The Dublin Murder Squad; if a subplot looked interesting, or another character, I could give myself the opportunity to go back and look at it from that other angle later on. With Witch Elm, it's done. This is what counts, then it's over. And it's the same with this one.
One element on The Witch Elm that I and many others really glommed onto was how suited it felt to its moment, really at the height of #MeToo, of this man's rather dramatic fall. Did you pick up on that in the reception? What did you make of it?
It was weird. The reception of it was very much shaped by the moment when it came out. As #MeToo was peaking, as you say, and Brett Kavanaugh was just being appointed, people responded very much to the idea of male privilege. There's an element of that in the book. Toby is the guy who's had it golden, the world is set up to suit him, he has every quality that makes life a little bit easier on him: He's white, he's male, he's straight, he's from a well-off family, he's good-looking. He's got all the things that make life easier. But I think everyone glommed onto the fact that he was male, whereas for me, when I was writing it, the thing that I thought was the most important element — picked out several times in the book, too, that shapes his experience and his luck and how easy his life is — is social class. It's not gender at all; it's the fact that he comes from a wealthy family where he knows that they always have the money, the education, and the pull. The fact of him having the aura of wealth that he has, that makes him everyone give him a confidence. That got sidelined because the atmosphere of the time made everyone focus on the gender element of it. I was a bit sad about that. It's something that doesn't get brought out very much, doesn't get discussed as much as, say, gender does: the huge role that social class plays in how we're received by the world.
You put the book out in the world and suddenly the narrative is not yours alone anymore.
Do you think about that, then, going into the next one?
You kind of can't think about that because you have no idea what the world is going to be when this book lands. This book is going to land, hopefully, the aftermath, or possibly still in the throes of a pandemic. I did not see that coming! [Laughs] There's no way to plan ahead. You can't see what's going to rise to the surface in society at any given moment. I think you just have to write the book, and write it with whatever you've got in mind, and then hand it over, basically. If people find something in it, that's great, that's fine. It may not be what you put in there, but at least they're finding something. That's all you can hope for. You can't try and control that. Otherwise I'd be second-guessing the whole time: Hang on, am I spelling this out enough? I don't like books that spell things out too hard. I'd rather let people find what they find in my books, than try to make sure that what they get is what I was saying. Find what you find. It's all good.
That said, did you have anything, particularly, on the mind while writing this, beyond the mechanics of it and the action-forward nature of the character?
This is kind of vague because I haven't really talked about it very much, so bear with me if I'm a little bit incoherent. [Laughs] I was thinking a lot about how complicated it's become to try and navigate your way through right and wrong. It used to be, I get the sense, quite easy. You were told, in Ireland by the Catholic Church, but you were told wherever it was by a religion what was right and what was wrong, and for most people, that was the end of the story and you knew. It was a very solid thing. Nowadays it's much more complex. I don't think that's a bad thing at all. It's a good thing we're being forced to work to figure out for ourselves what constitutes right and wrong. But it's also constantly shifting. There's huge social media pressure to be on whatever might happen to be the right side of the debate. There's huge redefinition, constantly, of what constitutes something that's moral or amoral; who's a bad person and who's a good person. This stuff feels very complicated and very slippery right now. I was thinking a lot about that and what it would do to somebody, like Cal, who's always thought of morality as a fairly straightforward and simple thing. You try to do right by everybody, you try to take responsibility for the people around you and for yourself, and that's it, you're done. What the complexity of morality would do to him. I was thinking about that a lot: How somebody who doesn't like morality being complicated navigates a world where it's getting more and more complicated. And how that defines his right and wrong in the midst of all that.
Not incoherent at all! For a first explanation, that's pretty good.
Really? [Laughs] Well I think after this long in lockdown — six and a half weeks, something like that? — I'm surprised I can form full sentences. I'm in lockdown with my husband and two small kids. I'm just gibbering.
Creatively, how have you found this period? A lot of authors I've spoken to just aren't writing right now.
I got lucky. I handed in my manuscript on Feb. 28. This is just before everything went boom. Mid-March is when we went into full lockdown. But I'd handed it in and already started on the edits by the time everything went crazy. The edits are fine; you can do them in bits and pieces and they don't require the same degree of six, seven hours of concentration. I don't know how I'd be doing if I was trying to come up with actual writing in the midst of all this. When you're writing a book, a lot of it depends on your subconscious working away in there. I don't think I have a subconscious at the moment. I just have a smoking crater that smells vaguely of burning at this stage. I think we all do.