Q&A: Tana French Talks 'The Secret Place'

Tana French's latest book in her Dublin Murder Squad series, The Secret Place, follows Detectives Stephen Moran and Antoinette Conway as they investigate the unsolved murder of 16-year-old Chris Harper at a posh Dublin boarding school. Action is sparked by the unexpected appearance of Holly Mackey, a student at the neighboring girls' boarding school, in Stephen’s office, where she presents a card with a cryptic, haunting message: “I know who killed him.”

Fans of French’s work will know to be on the lookout for repeat characters, and The Secret Place is no different: Holly Mackey, along with her father, undercover cop Frank Mackey, were the stars of 2010’s Faithful Place, where Stephen Moran had a small role as one of the cops working with Mackey.

The ingenious beauty of a Tana French novel is that while it’s certainly related in some way to its predecessors — and will surely provide jumping off points for books yet to come — it can also stand on its own. Though I’m a rabid stickler for reading series books in order, French’s loosely woven Dublin Murder Squad series is one of the only ones where I wouldn’t freak if someone told me they read The Secret Place first and then went back to the beginning and read Into the Woods. Bottom line: read all five books, and the sooner, the better.

But if you need more convincing, don't just listen to me — listen to French herself, whom I spoke to by phone in Dublin. Here's what she had to tell me about The Secret Place, her Dublin Murder Squad, and the dangerous world of teenage girls.

BUSTLE: What prompted you to write a series that doesn’t follow one main character over the course of several books?

TANA FRENCH: I love reading the traditional series books, where you follow one narrator or main character through life’s ups and downs, like P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh. But while I love reading them, I was never really interested in writing that because I’m interested in writing about the huge turning points — the points where you know that here, no matter what you decide, the rest of your life is going to change. We don’t get that many turning points, especially not every couple of years when an author is on deadline.

When I finished [my first book] In the Woods, I knew I had three options. I could stick with the main character and keeping dropping the poor guy into these life-changing situations every couple of years. Not only is that implausible, he’d end up in a straightjacket by book four. Or else I could do a more conventional series where I just follow the smaller ups and downs, which, again, doesn’t interest me that much. Or I could switch narrators. The big turning points in people’s lives, the things that matter to them, depend on the person. For example, Cassie’s situation in The Likeness would constitute a life-changing moment for her but it’s not at all like what Frank Mackey experiences in Faithful Place.

When you’re writing one book — let’s use The Secret Place as an example — do you already know what the next book will be about and on whom it will focus? Do you set yourself up for that?

No. About halfway through each book is when I tend to have the idea for the next one. You know what it’s like: You get halfway through and your mind starts wanting to do absolutely anything other than what you’re supposed to be doing. I start thinking, I should dust the entire kitchen or clean the cooker or wax the cat! Anything to get away from the idea of what you’re supposed to be doing. One of the things my head does — which is actually great — is start coming up with ideas for the next book.

I’m interested in writing about the huge turning points — the points where you know that here, no matter what you decide, the rest of your life is going to change.

About halfway through Secret Place, I realized that Antoinette Conway is a lot of fun to write. I think it’s the same as being an actor: Everybody likes playing the bitch because it gives you your chance to be the person you shouldn’t be in your real life. Writing somebody who just doesn’t give a damn also gives you the chance to do that without doing any real-life damage. I thought she was so much fun; she’s probably overly aggressive and assertive but I thought she was great. Somebody who kicks ass is always fun. It came out through the writing of Secret Place that she wasn’t getting on well with her own squad and I thought that would be interesting to play with. That started bouncing around my head and I started thinking, What would it be like for her to have a case that starts turning inwards, towards her squad? For her, the squad is the central location. I try to have that in every book. That’s where the embryonic idea for the next book started.

I was struck by the juxtaposition in The Secret Place between the literal “secret place” at the boarding school that’s almost pre-technology and the girls’ reliance on their phones and the importance that texting plays in the novel.

That was really difficult because in reality, huge parts of this book would naturally have taken place on Facebook or Twitter or whatever social medium people were using. And I really didn’t want that. For one thing, it doesn’t have the same kind of immediacy — you don’t have faces, you don’t have voices, you don’t have the three-dimensional quality. But another thing is that it’s so diffuse, it’s not focused in the same way: if you’re having some terrible argument on Facebook, there could be 20 of your friends pitching in. And if you were on Twitter, there could be people you’ve never heard of taking sides and commenting on your argument. I really didn’t want that.

I was thinking a lot about the interior world of teenage girls and how nothing else exists outside your circle of friends — the rest of the world is just white noise that you occasionally have to pay attention to. The only reality is within that circle. I wanted to get that hyper-isolated feel of teenage girl world and I didn’t want to have the Internet interfering in that. So I had to make it clear that the school had a policy of no smart phones, no Internet access, and computers that are locked down tight. The story is happening, technologically speaking, about ten years behind. Texts are flying back and forth but it’s not like everyone is all over Facebook or posting whatever stupid thing you did on YouTube. I had to wind back technology and luckily the environment of the school allowed me to do that. A private boarding school like [St. Kilda’s] is by nature going to want as much control as possible. It’s their job to keep these girls as safe as possible and as controlled as possible. Teenage girls are not just sometimes in danger — they’re also dangerous.

Even though we don’t see a lot of texts between the characters, the ones we do see — along with the “secret” phones that the character of Chris gives out to various girls — are vital to the story, so by limiting the reader’s exposure, you’re heightening the tension and underscoring the importance of the exchanges we do see. And, of course, Chris comes across as a bit of a sleaze.

I was hoping by the end that there could be a bit of a different interpretation of Chris. For me, Chris was trying to figure out who he was and the phones — and the relationships — were his experiments in being different people to different girls in secret. Now, it’s not excusable in any way to mess people about like that but it’s not specific to the girls, this idea of trying to figure out who you are and who you’re going to allow to decide that.

I had this vision of Chris as one of these guy who’s handsome, charismatic, and popular and everyone thinks they know who he is. But he hasn’t had a chance to figure out if that’s him or not and he doesn’t know how to find the space in which to find out who he really is. I thought the world of texts — which is semi real and semi not real — is a place where he would feel more in control, less threatened, and be able to try out different versions of himself. I like the texts, too, because they offered a place to escape from reality.

One of the appeal of texts is that it really can feel like you’re having an actual back-and-forth conversation with someone, as opposed to exchanging emails. But on the other hand, there’s so much dissecting of what a text means.

Right, exactly. What if he includes a kiss in the text? What if it comes in 10 minutes later or three minutes after you texted? What does it all mean? It’s so charged with meaning and there’s room to read so much — or so little — into it.

I was in my 30s when I wrote this book and I did not want to be that woman who’s writing about 2014 using ‘90s slang.

Sometimes it just means I didn’t look at my phone for an hour, not that I spent that time crafting the perfect reply.

Or because I wanted to keep you in suspense for an hour so I could show how much power I have. Or there’s no meaning at all but we’re going to keep finding some.

At least for me, Chris became increasingly likable as the book progressed, which was sad because you know from the outset that he’s dead. It was sad to see him evolve, knowing that evolution would be cut short.

I’m really glad. I was hoping for that! The readers perhaps go through the same process that Selena does of seeing Chris in one way and then realizing that actually he’s a more intricate person and may not be as simple as he seems. Ironically, it’s that process that leads to his death. If he just kept on getting every girl that he could and then wandering off to the next one, presumably he would never have been killed.

All of your books have a past narrative and a present narrative. When you’re in the writing process, do you write sequentially or do you do one full storyline and then the other?

Weirdly enough with this book, I started out writing the investigation chapters with Stephen Moran and Antoinette Conway, which occur almost a year and a half after the other events. I don’t write in order, anyway. I go back and forth and write a bit here and a bit there. Actually, I think I may have started with the scene of [Holly, Julia, Selena, and Becca] lying on the grass leading up to their secret vow, which isn’t in the beginning of either story! But mostly I did the Stephen chapters first and the girls’ chapters afterwards, which made for a ridiculous amount of rewriting when I came across details in one storyline that meant I’d have to go back and change something in another chapter.

Keeping it clear for the reader who was using what secret phone to say what to whom was definitely a challenge. I was less concerned about who knew what about any particular incident because that’s like life: At any given time, you’re keeping track of this massive flowchart about who said what to whom when and what it all means. It’s incredible how much of that stuff you can keep straight when you’re a teenager.

I’m so glad that cell phones and Facebook didn’t exist when I was that age.

God, me too. I did my fair share of idiotic things as a teenager but there’s no video evidence. And teenagers can be incredibly cruel. Adding the anonymity of the Internet and Facebook and texted photos just makes it rougher. At least when I was that age and someone did something cruel, it was out in the open and that person had some accountability because everyone knew who exactly had done or said something mean. I’m sure there were people who were leaving anonymous notes in other people’s lockers but that would have been the minority rather than the majority. And now there’s no accountability: you can be anonymous online and do whatever you want. I also did a lot of looking around on teenagers’ Facebook pages for research because I was in my 30s when I wrote this book and I did not want to be that woman who’s writing about 2014 using ‘90s slang. One thing you forget when you get older is just the pitch that the teenage world is at: All the dials go to 11 and stay there.

Even though there is a murder at the heart of this book, so much of it is about the dangerous lives of adolescent girls. What appealed to you about focusing on this very specific age group?

You know Post Secret, the website? The book came out of that. Someone told me about it and I realized that it’s basically a website where you can reveal your secrets without revealing yourself. And that taps into what I think is a deep core of teenage girls and of all us as human beings: You want to reveal your secrets yet you want to keep some part of yourself private. And I started to think about what a group of teenagers would do with a board like this, if it were physical rather than cyber.

I write crime so you’ve got to throw a dead body in there somewhere so I thought the physical version of this secrets board could be a place where a teen could reveal what she or he knows about a murder. I knew very early on that it was going to be a book about teenagers, as well as a book about secrets and identity. Post Secret and any other website like that is fundamentally about identity: it’s about figuring out who you are and to what extent your secrets define you and to what extent the people who know you define you. It could have ended up being about teenage boys just as easily but it went towards teenage girls because when I started thinking about teenagers in general, I realized that Frank Mackey’s daughter, Holly, from Faithful Place would be just the right age.

Of course this book made me think back to Faithful Place because of the involvement of Frank and Holly Mackey but it also reminded of The Likeness and those intense bonds of friendship people form. The dual nature of friendships — they’re both beneficial and potentially dangerous — comes back around.

It comes back in a lot of my books. I’ve realized that I write a lot less about romance and parent/child relationships than I do about friendships. I think I keep coming back to this idea because in some ways, friendships are even more essential to a human being. You can be a perfectly healthy person without having kids or having a romantic relationship — you can live a full, happy, healthy life. I’m not sure you can do that without friends.

It’s about figuring out who you are and to what extent your secrets define you and to what extent the people who know you define you.

I’ve always been lucky enough to have really good friends. That’s a wonderful thing but it’s also a very powerful thing, something that’s forgotten a lot of the time. I think we’re all very respectful of the power of romantic love and very aware of the power of parent/child relations but we seem much less aware of the huge power of friendships. These are bonds that can last a lifetime. Friendships can outlast marriages. This is serious stuff.

I think we’re all very respectful of the power of romantic love and very aware of the power of parent/child relations but we seem much less aware of the huge power of friendships.

Friendships also seem like they can have very powerful effects on the other relationships in your life. They can break up marriages or damage the bond you have with your parents, for example. But on the other hand, friendships can help shore up both of those relationships. Friendships wield this power you don’t want to mess with.

I hadn’t thought about that dimension, but I like it! Friendships definitely have a ripple effect on the other relationships in your life.

Image: Kyran O’Brien