Ghost Estates: Tana French on Ireland after the Bubble

The first time I interviewed Tana French, two weeks before the U.S. release of her debut novel, In the Woods, she was careful to clarify that, although she did have a background as an actress, she was not to be confused with Tana French, the actress who played a nude model chased by a gorilla in the 1962 B-movie The Wild and the Naked (Tana French, the author, was born in 1973). The other Tana French wasn’t exactly world famous, but back in the spring of 2007, she was the highest-ranked Tana French in U.S. Google results.

Five years later that B-movie actress is likely explaining to someone that she is not the Dublin-based author of four acclaimed, psychologically incisive literary mysteries. (“Who knows?” says French. “Maybe she’s saying, ‘Hang, on. I have more sense than to do that for a living.'”) Although Tana French, the author, spent a decade working as a theater actress before taking a break to write her first novel, the novels have long since won out as her day job and become bestsellers. All four take place among the fictional detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad, and technically they are all police procedurals: As she says, “Somebody gets killed; somebody else finds out who did it; and along the way, they use the tools available.”

But while French writes great murder mysteries (her very first novel won the Edgar Award), her novels hold up equally well as literary fiction and are regularly recognized as such by critics. Part of her strength in constructing believable characters comes, no doubt, from her theatrical training: she has an impeccable and uncanny ear for dialogue; delves deeply into each character’s motivation; and choreographs intricate scenes of psychological tension, personal drama, hilarity, and grief. When it comes to creating an original, authentic narrative voice, she’s easily one of the most accomplished writers working today.

With each novel, those voices get more astonishing. Rob, who narrated In the Woods, and his partner, Cassie, who narrated the second book, The Likeness, may well have fit right in with French and her scraping-by actor friends at the Dublin pubs where she spent her twenties and early thirties. Each, however, spoke in a voice entirely distinct from the others. (French likes to take a secondary character from one novel and make him or her the narrator of the next.) For her third novel, Faithful Place, she created the character of Frank Mackey, a loner undercover divorced detective in his forties who escapes his dead-end working-class block and manipulative family, only to come back when he realizes his first girlfriend was murdered. That novel obsessively depicted the subtlest markers of class and character, from accents to TVs and trainers.

French’s new novel, Broken Harbor, takes an even bigger risk: Her narrator, Scorcher Kennedy, is the guy who spent the entirety of Faithful Place being mocked by Frank Mackey for being uptight, unimaginative, and — worst of all for any character with whom one plans to spend several hundred pages — boring.

But in French’s hands, even the boring guy gets his turn. Says Scorcher: “Only teenagers think boring is bad. Adults, grown men and women who’ve been around the block a few times know that boring is a gift straight from God.” The case he’s on is a family homicide — father and two kids killed; mother barely hanging on — in a suburban estate built during the boom years but now, post mortgage crisis, rapidly sliding into a scary no-man’s-land or “ghost estate,” to use French’s evocative term. Like Scorcher himself, Pat and Jenny Spain were the kind of people who “want what they are supposed to want,” who do things in the right order and the right way. The novel ends up being a timely, empathetic deeply philosophical morality play on wealth, art, conformity, economics, and class; fiction as instructional and probing as any essay. I spoke to Tana French from her home in Dublin. — Amy Benfer

The Barnes & Noble Review: Your narrator is Detective Scorcher Kennedy, who spent all of your last novel, Faithful Place, portrayed through the eyes of undercover cop Frank Mackey as an insufferable prig: He spoke entirely in platitudes, he was loathsome, competitive, and small-minded. When I first heard the book was told from his perspective, I found it entirely perverse of you to choose this guy. But then you managed to pull it off. He is that man, and yet you somehow managed to make him somehow sympathetic.

Tana French: Thank, God. I was terrified. In Faithful Place, he’s this pompous, up-his-own-arse little git, but that’s partly because that’s what Frank needs to see. Frank just found out that his first love was murdered. He’s looking for an enemy to fight against. Until he finds the person who killed her, Scorcher will do just fine.

I had originally planned to make Stephen Moran, the young upcoming sidekick from Faithful Place, the narrator. But then the more I thought about these ghost estates, the more I realized that the people who are stuck on these ghost estates are the people who followed the rules, and the rules let them down. I thought, Well, that doesn’t gel with Stephen. Trying to do your best, to follow the rules, to be what you are supposed to be: That’s Scorcher, not Stephen. Even his language, as you said, is based on platitudes. It’s structured entirely around the way you are supposed to say things. And so obviously this is his book. And I thought, Oh God. I don’t know if I want to spend two years in his head.

BNR: When I used to write on the Nancy Drew mysteries, I would joke about how in those novels, class was often presented as a clue. For example, the poor girl would show up at the fanciest dress shop in town, which Nancy cleverly discerned she couldn’t possibly afford, or the disheveled housekeeper did it, or the villains were swarthy in some vaguely ethnic way. It was this very clumsy — and often bigoted — take on class. But in your last two novels — Faithful Place and now Broken Harbor — the mysteries themselves seem to rely on a very sophisticated understanding of the tics and prejudices and blind spots that go on in every social class.

TF: Ireland is such a young society. The British were the ruling class up until they left about a hundred years ago, and we’ve been trying to work out what our class hierarchy is ever since. There’s a much more secure sense of identity in the working classes. Whereas the middle classes and the upper classes we’ve got — I’m not sure we’ve got any — are struggling for identity, because they didn’t really exist in the same way until relatively recently. People are within a few generations of being broke and working-class, so they still kind of struggle for definition.

I think you see that especially in Broken Harbor. You see people who aren’t coming from that very securely rooted kind of place where they know who they are and everyone in sight knows who you are and has known who you are for generations. During the boom, people suddenly had money, and that was taken as being the definer of class in a very definite, inarguable way. Therefore, because you were in such need of defining yourself, of finding your place within the social hierarchy, you had to buy as many status indicators as you possibly can. OK, I know where I am; you know where I am. I’m driving this particular SUV, therefore I have this particular identity.

BNR: So that brings us straight to the Spains, members of the striver class, who are found murdered with their two children in their pretty suburban home. It’s both funny and tragic that this novel begins in a falling-down subdivision — a place that looks great on the outside but is literally hollow on the inside and will not stand the test of time.

TF: I don’t think you get any more symbolic than these places. I don’t know if it happened the same way in America, these “ghost estates.” During the boom, because of this horrible web of corruption between government and property developers, the developers started building stuff that frankly nobody needed or wanted. Our generation, the thirty-somethings, were the ones who were being told, Look, this is your only chance to get on the property ladder. Property values are skyrocketing. You buy something off the plans, in the middle of nowhere, with absolutely no infrastructure. Well, of course you don’t want it. But within five years, it will have doubled in value, and you’ll be able to sell it off and buy something in town that you do want, and everything will be wonderful forever.

And then the crash came and the property developers just left. A huge chunk of our generation are stranded there and they can’t get out now. How much more symbolic can it get? This thing that was presented as this gateway to a dream is now just disintegrating around them. You get kids joyriding and squatters. They don’t have street lights, they don’t have proper sewage removal, they’re just there in the middle of the chaos that they thought they were avoiding forever.

BNR: Which is ironic, because that’s where people moved to have a “safe family home” away from the perceived danger and lawlessness of the cities.

TF: Exactly. That’s the whole irony. The ones who moved there are the ones who really wanted  to do the right thing. They really wanted to have their nice family life, your picket fence, your 2.4 children, and a Labrador. It’s all turning inside out, basically. And Richie [Scorcher’s partner] ended up being alright, because he’s from an inner-city neighborhood. He actually does know who he is. Whereas the Spains have been uprooted from who and what they are and stripped bare in the middle of nothing, with no rootedness left.

BNR: There’s a certain justice to that. There is an odd sort of inversion between this book and Faithful Place. In that book, when Frank gets out of his working-class neighborhood, he seems to become more confident and more himself. But what you are saying about Richie, then, is nearly the opposite: Richie is coming from the kind of neighborhood that Frank left behind, yet coming from that neighborhood is what makes someone like Richie more substantial than someone like Scorcher and the Spains, strivers who are always afraid that with one wrong move, their identity can be taken away at any time.

TF: Frank, much as he thought that escaping was his only option, is still defined very much by that neighborhood he got away from. As far as you go, you still carry it with you. You can cut yourself off from it, but you still have the shape of it printed on you. That defines him even as he’s fighting against it. But Richie doesn’t have that conflicted thing that Frank has. He’s got no beef with being working-class and being from the neighborhood he is from. And the implication is that he’s from a worse one than Frank: Rather than being from a working-class neighborhood, he’s from a non-working-class neighborhood. Scorcher doesn’t trust his own mind and his own instincts to lead him right. He needs guidance from the outside. He needs the rules, he needs a manual. He believes that his own mind is unreliable. Whereas Richie, again, for better or worse, considers his own mind to be his most reliable guidance.

BNR: One of the things that is so exhilarating to see in Broken Harbor is that the return of the intellectual and emotional interplay between squad partners that we haven’t seen since Cassie and Rob in In the Woods. In this case, Richie and Scorcher have a cross-age and cross-class romance, and there is not the possibility of them literally romancing each other as Cassie and Rob may have done. But there’s many moments when Scorcher gets as swoony as a girl picking out her wedding dress, imagining the two of them, five, ten, fifteen years down the road. It’s very funny, given that this is a guy who doesn’t want to want anything, and when he does, he wants something very specific: Even women are supposed to look exactly like what women are supposed to look like. He doesn’t do quirky. And yet here’s Richie, this guy who is from the wrong neighborhood, the wrong accent, the wrong class, and you just stand back and watch as Scorcher falls in love with him….

TF: That’s exactly what I was thinking about it as. He’s thinking, Well, maybe we can have a future together! He’s somehow gone slightly infatuated on a professional level. I do think there’s something slightly — funny? pathetic? — about him fastening on to this thing. I think that’s what happens when you spend so much time trying to maintain control. You just can’t forever be like that “I am in total control of my life! I am an android! I am a bionic man!” You’re going to need a hand sooner or later. And I think that’s where Scorcher’s head is at with Richie. In some ways, he would be the perfect partner for him. They have very differing takes on things and they balance each other very well.

BNR: You used to hear the phrase “lace curtain Irish.” How would that compare to the new “young professional couple in the subdivisions Irish”? It seems like both are accused of putting on airs, or pretending to be better than others.

TF: Both are defined by the idea that you are what others see. The “lace curtain Irish” would say, It doesn’t matter if inside everyone is drunk and chaotic and throwing stuff and you don’t have a penny to your name, as long as the lace curtains are nice and clean and you go to Sunday Mass and everyone outside the house sees everything in place. That’s been a part of Irish society forever.

But the value system on which it’s based has changed. “Lace curtain Irish” to me implies that they are Catholic. Going to Mass would be a large part of it, and everything being clean and tidy. Whereas the striver generation like the Spains, the value system is less on Catholicism and more on money and status symbols. So it’s not whether you show up for Mass, it’s where you went on holiday for your honeymoon. That’s become the equivalent indicator of virtue. It’s switched from showing up at Mass and having the finest Communion dress on the block to going on holiday and having the right car. But it’s very much the same thing. It’s that reliance on symbol and surface as indicators of moral value.

BNR: In this book, you contrast between the people who define their moral worth by having the right things and doing things in the right order — Scorcher, the Spains — and with characters like Jenny Spain’s sister, Fiona, a photographer, who wants something a little more complicated.  It must make it so much easier to be goal-oriented and thus, to “win,” if you know what the hell the goal is. But as the novel makes it clear, it also makes it so much easier to know when you lose.

TF: These are people who, again, have relied on indicators outside themselves. When those indicators all go haywire, they don’t have an inner map, because they never had to build one. The Spains did everything right. They followed the formula. They stuck to the manual word for word. And all of the sudden, everything has just fallen all around them.

Whereas someone like Fiona has never had the luxury of believing that she is following a path that is simple and clearly illuminated. When a recession turns up, and everything goes upside down for her, and she’s not getting photography work, she has inner touchstones. She can say, OK, I didn’t get that exhibition or I didn’t get that gig, but I know, because I’ve spent ages developing my own eye for this, that my recent work is better than my work from two years ago, therefore I know that I am moving somewhere.

It’s much easier in good times to want what you are supposed to want. I think that’s really what defines life: Whether you want what you’re supposed to want, or whether you want things you are not supposed to want. In good times, it’s much, much easier if you want what you are supposed to want, but in bad times, I really don’t think it is.

BNR: So for people like the Spains, to whom material wealth represents morality, even religion, to be unable to afford their previous lifestyle — say, losing their SUV — represents a moral failure.

TF: Yes. If you can’t maintain your financial lifestyle, then you have somehow become tainted, brought down on the moral ranking. I’ve got this theory that human beings are innately religious; we have a belief system. It doesn’t have to be a theist form, necessarily. But we need a belief system, some framework on which to hang our behavior. The influence of the Catholic Church eroded very quickly in Ireland, which I don’t think is a bad thing. But it left a vacuum. And people filled that vacuum with a money-based belief system. Money and health. It’s not just a health choice: it’s somehow a more morally worthy choice to not smoke, not drink, to eat your organic vegetables.

BNR: It’s not giving much of the plot away to say that when a family is killed at home, the first suspect is often the father. From early on, readers are asked to consider the possibility that Pat Spain couldn’t handle the financial and emotional chaos of being out of work and offed his family. I wrote a piece on these so-called Father Knows Best killings about a decade ago [Note: For readers interested in these kind of killings, Julie Salomon’s Facing the Wind is a fascinating nonfiction look at one such case]. As I remember, people who believe to their core that patriarchy and the traditional family are the only way to live can come to believe that their family is actually better off dead than going on living in reduced circumstances.

TF: I’ve read up on these killings, too, these family annihilator killings. And in these cases, the father is someone who is very used to being in control of everything. When that control goes, he feels like the threat of chaos is so enormous that it’s actually worse than death. Whatever it is — financial, psychological chaos — is so much worse that he just prevents it by killing the whole family.

BNR: In their own head, it’s seen as a mercy killing. Because who would want to live without the security of a traditional, affluent family?

TF: Oh yes. Totally.

BNR: So the family is God?

TF: Yes, it’s very much that. Everything is spiraling toward hell and the best thing you can do is just wipe the slate clean.

BNR: Recently, the American press has been floating the idea that many people with money have less empathy; that money makes people mean. That’s also an idea that you introduce in the book. At one point, Fiona, the artist, talks about how bitchy Jenny and her publicist friends are to each other — the kind of mean girls that will mock each other for going a few days without topping up their fake tans. When things go down for the Spains, they are hunkered down in this house that literally has glass walls where the neighbors can witness their decline. According to their own belief system, their financial decline is also a moral decline, and they expect to be mocked and judged for it. Do you think there’s something to this idea that money makes you mean?

TF: During the boom years, you did get people being very vicious toward each other for not having quite the right status symbols. Again, my friends have always been a whole bunch of broke actors, where you never knew if you would have enough money to pay the phone bill and buy milk. During the boom years, that made us feel a little bit — alienated is probably too strong a word, but marginalized. There would be all these news articles about how everybody is doing so wonderfully, the nation is doing so brilliantly, and here’s all of us going, “We’re not. When you talk about the nation, when you talk about the economy, you clearly don’t mean us. We’re not mentioned. We don’t have any role in the national narrative anymore.” It was a very strange time.

BNR: And yet while your earliest narrators — Rob from Into the Woods and Cassie from The Likeness — seemed like they would have fit right in with you and your broke actor friends, I find it interesting and admirable that you managed to create sympathetic characters out of the kind of people with whom you wouldn’t seem to have much in common.

TF: These people, the equivalent of the Spains, were the kind of people who weren’t particularly nice to me and my friends during the boom. They explicitly and by implication looked down on us and thought that we were worth less than them because we had less money. But I thought, I can’t write these characters with the author’s judgment being implied. I can’t be going, “Who do you think you are?” or “I think this is shallow” or “I think this is superficial” or “You’ve got no morals.” All of that is irrelevant because for these characters, that’s not who they are. No one thinks they are shallow, superficial people with no moral center. They are doing these things for excellent reasons. It’s my job to get to that reason and give that reason with all the power and punch I could.

The same applies to Scorcher. In his own mind, Scorcher is desperately killing himself to do things right. I thought, if I can get that, that he’s not just this pompous git, that he has a reason for being what he is, and he puts passion into it, just as the Spains put passion into being who they are. Even though it may look as if they are just this wad of fake tan and Hugo Boss, they are putting the same passion and determination into that that Fiona is putting into the struggle of living on small wages and desperately trying to get a photography exhibition up and running. It just comes out differently.

If you are going to be on the artist’s side of the fence, your job is to place a bit token in the jar of empathy. You don’t get to abdicate that purely because you are dealing with people who in real life you find completely uninteresting. If I was going to write this book — and the idea was there; it’s not like I had another one — it’s my job to make sure that these characters had the space to make their argument. And I figured, if they did, if I did that with the respect that it deserves, that with any luck — please God and touch wood! — Scorcher would not turn out to be an obnoxious person to spend several hundred pages with and the Spains would not turn out to be unsympathetic victims. I have to say I have no clue if it worked.

BNR: Not unlike Fiona, you spent all your twenties and your early thirties just scraping by working in the theater, then writing your first novel. And yet, you are now the bestselling author of four novels; one does assume that you have had a larger measure of critical and material success than you probably planned for. Do you have any reflection on how it feels to stumble into material success through artistic success, especially having just written a book about people who strive for material success and are more or less ruined by it?

TF: I think it would have been very different if it had happened ten years earlier. I was thirty-three when all this started happening. By then, you have a very clear idea of who you are. It’s not like at twenty-three I had written something that became very successful. I think that would have changed my perception of who I was and where I fit into this world. I think I’m always going to think of myself as the same broke actor bouncing along from week to week and hoping there’s enough for a few pints. Because even though it’s not true anymore, that’s who I was during all the time your identity gets shaped. I’m never going to think of myself as “Bestselling writer Tana French,” because by the time that happened, my sense of  identity was already very much shaped.

BNR: But of course, you once thought acting was your art. Does that transformation feel natural now? Do you miss acting? Are you going to go back to acting in your forties?

TF: I do miss it. It’s so social. I’m so used to the idea that you all work together all day, and then you all go to the pub together. And yes, I really miss the stage. I think if I had been a film actor, it might have been quite easy to go to an agent and say, “Look, I can’t do a big gig, but can you set me up for something that’s maybe five days’ work?” But in the theater, there’s no such thing. There’s maybe four weeks rehearsal, then four weeks on the show. That’s two months out of a writing schedule. My publishers get to poke me with sticks if I do something like that.

I love writing. I feel ridiculously lucky that this is what I get to do all day. I love acting, too, but this is the one that was working out. This is the one that not only pays the mortgage but also lets me work every day. With acting, you have to depend on somebody else to decide if you are allowed to work. You can spend weeks and months when you are not acting at all. With this, not only, my God, do I get paid to work every day, but even when I was not, I could still work every day. No one could stop me. I’ve got a pen, I’ve got a notebook, I’m good to go. That’s a marvelous thing.