Tana French - THE HUNTER

Tana French - THE HUNTER

Hailed as the queen of Irish crime fiction, New York Times bestselling author Tana French joins Zibby to discuss THE HUNTER, a spellbinding novel set in the Irish countryside about a retired Chicago detective and a local teenager whose estranged father’s return disrupts their lives. Tana describes the delicate balance of relationships and the looming threat of revenge in her book, weaving in themes of resilience, moral ambiguity, and the allure of buried treasure. Then, she discusses her unexpected journey to becoming a writer, her creative process (and how it is informed by her background in acting), and her eclectic reading habits, from classic Westerns to historical romance.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Tana. Thanks so much for coming on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books" to discuss your latest novel, The Hunter. Congratulations.

Tana French: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. For those of you who are just listening, you will not know that the cover of Tana's book is basically the same exact color as her hair, which is impressive. They are both a beautiful orangey, red, glimmery confection. Tana, tell everybody, what is The Hunter about?

Tana: It is about a small village in the west of Ireland during a summer that's having a heat wave, which we do not have an awful lot. Two men come to the townland. One of them is coming home. He's a guy, kind of ne'er-do-well, who went away a few years ago and is now back. Both of them are coming to get rich, or so they think. One of them is going to die that summer. Meanwhile, there's a guy called Cal. He's a retired Chicago detective. He's built himself a new life there with a girlfriend. The two of them are raising a local teenager from a [indiscernible] kid into a good kid going good places. This is the teenager, Trey's father who has come back. Their relationship starts to get a little bit disrupted. Their delicate balance is under threat. Cal and Lena, his girlfriend, are both ready to do whatever it takes to protect Trey, but she does not want protecting. She wants revenge.

Zibby: Uh, oh. Where did this idea come from? Where did the idea for the book originate?

Tana: My last one, The Searcher, was kind of a linked book. It's got a lot of the same characters. It's set in the same place. Where the whole world of this little Irish village came from was I had suddenly discovered the Western genre with Lonesome Dove and True Grit and The Sisters Brothers and all these great books which I had never discovered before. I realized that a lot of the Western tropes are actually a really good match for Irish settings because in both genres, you've got that sense of a wild, harsh, beautiful place that's going to demand a lot of toughness from the people who want to live there. You've also got that sense of a place that's really distant from the centers of power, both geographically, but also culturally. The people who live there feel like the powermongers don't know or care about their lives. If they want to function in society, they're going to have to construct their own rules and enforce them. I started thinking of bringing some of those Western tropes to a Western Ireland setting. In The Searcher, I was working with the stranger who blows into town. Things change around him whether he likes it or not. He's a catalyst for change. 

Cal, the guy who's taken early retirement from Chicago PD and come there looking for some kind of peace and moral certainty, he's that guy. In this one, I was thinking about other tropes. I was thinking about the gold rush. "There's gold in them thar hills." I was thinking that actually fits surprisingly well in Ireland because we have do have, as one of the characters says in the book, an awful lot of ancient gold artifacts. Clearly, there were people digging up and smithing gold thousands of years ago. There have been teeny, mini gold rushes up through the centuries, even quite recently. I thought that wouldn't do badly. What if Trey's absent father comes home, and he's brought along a British millionaire and schemed to find gold in the townland? Of course, I was also thinking about the revenge trope that shows up in Westerns a lot. What if Trey, rather than wanting gold, wants revenge? How would those two intertwine?

Zibby: How much research did you have to do with the gold rush and the influence in Ireland and all of it? 

Tana: It was a lot of fun, actually, because I hadn’t really thought very much about it. I'd been to the National Museum where there are all these incredible ancient gold artifacts, those [indiscernible], those [indiscernible], beautifully worked, and earrings and brooches and just amazing stuff. I hadn’t really thought about them in that light until I started researching this book and went, okay, is there any sign since? Yes, there is. There was a little mini gold rush in Wicklow in the 1840s. Within the last couple decades, there have been people applying for licenses to dig for gold in the mountains. I was going, geez, I had no idea. We're all sitting on top of gold mines for all we know.

Zibby: Wow. When you started getting into Westerns, was it just reading? Was it TV? How immersed did you get in this whole world?

Tana: It was mostly reading because that's where I naturally gravitate. I love books. That's where I'm going to go. Also, a few films, a few of the older films. My husband, who is very into old movies, Westerns, he was pointing me in the right direction. You have to see this. You have to see this. Just to pick up on, what are those tropes that I wanted to use? Which ones are useful? Mostly, it was stuff like the whole Lonesome Dove quartet, which I think is one of the absolute greats, not just a Western, but of American literature, Lonesome Dove is. I also dipped into more modern stuff like The Sisters Brothers, which is quite modern, but it is, in that sense, a Western. It's got that Western theme of a search, of people going looking for somebody and finding other stuff along the way and realizing that this is actually more core to their journey than whoever the guy is that they were actually looking for. There's some wonderful stuff out there. 

Zibby: Tell me how you got your start originally. When did you know, going back, you were going to be a writer? 

Tana: When I was little kid, that was what I wanted to be, but I sort of got sidetracked as a teenager and ended up doing acting, training as an actor and acting for ten years. The thing about acting is -- I was mostly theater. Unless you're Judi Dench, which I never was, your gigs aren't going to line up neatly. There's always space in between. In one of those spaces, I was working on an archaeological dig, which I loved. There was a wood not far from the dig. I went, god, that would be a great place for kids to play. Then instead of stopping there, I went, what if three kids ran in there and only one came out and he had no memory of what had happened to the other two? What would that do to your mind as you grew up, knowing that the answer to this mystery is hidden somewhere inside your head, but you can't put your finger on it? What if he became a detective and a murder case led him back to that wood? I didn't really think about writing it because I'd never tried to write a book before. I just scribbled the idea down on a piece of paper and went off to do the next show and forgot about it. Then I found the piece of paper a year later and realized I really want to know what happens with that story. Nobody else was going to write it for me. There was only one way to find out, so I started going. I thought, I can't write a book, but I can write one scene, and then another scene and then a chapter. Suddenly, there I was realizing that I was really serious about finishing this book and finding out.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that's amazing. Then what was your journey to publication like? Did you find that to be an easy transition? It's not always easy to say, okay, I'm going to put down the acting gig, and now I'm going to enter the new industry.

Tana: That was a really weird feeling, actually. If you know any actors, you know that except for the absolute top echelons, they don't turn down work. They always want more work. That was the moment that I realized that I had just said no to a really good show because I wanted to finish this book. That was the moment where I went, oh, my god, I think I'm really serious about this. I think I've got myself into something that sucked me in. I was lucky because I happened to know somebody who was in an Irish publishing house, wonderful woman, wonderful editor. I sent her the first few chapters and went, "Tell me straight up. Is this something that I should be finishing, or is this something I should be throwing under the bed and never speaking of again? Just tell me that." She went, "No, no, no. Finish it." Gradually, it went from there step by step. I got lucky. It happened to land on the right desks at the right moments. I was very lucky. There are a lot of really good writers out there for whom it takes a long time for that to happen.

Zibby: Then how about coming up with subsequent ideas? Were they as gripping as your first one? Have you been forever searching for something quite as intoxicating?

Tana: I think one of the things that makes people into mystery writers is that at some level, you're always looking for a potential mystery in even the most mundane things. It's a good wood. Normal people stop at, hey, that would be a great place for kids to play. If you've got a mystery writer head, you're saying, how could that be mysterious? What could underlie it that would be a mystery? Most of the ideas for my other books have come from things that are equally everyday stuff. For Faithful Place, I was walking home, and there was an old blue suitcase in a skip -- I don't know, would you call it a dumpster? -- outside a house that was being cleared out. One of those great big bins. There was an old blue suitcase. I started going, I wonder how long that's been there. I wonder who left it there. I wonder if they were going somewhere. Maybe they never made it there. Suddenly, you've got a book. Broken Harbor was because we had mice in the flat where we were living. It's little stuff and trying to find mysteries all the time. 

Zibby: It's so funny because I don't come from a mystery writer brain at all. When I see a wood, I'm just like, oh, my gosh, I hope there's not some terrible animal that's going to come get me. I better stay away from there. I turn and run. [laughs] I'm too worried to even make any stories up to scare myself.

Tana: Stay far away from them. Somebody else can go deal with the animals. 

Zibby: Exactly. That's amazing. When you piece together your books scene by scene, chapter by chapter, is that still the way you do it as how you started in the beginning where you take little pieces of it, or now do you plot out everything and put things in as you see fit? What is your process?

Tana: No, it's still basically the same as it was back then. I start out with a really clear idea of the main character. I think it might be because of coming from an acting background. I need to be very clear who the character is that I'm working from their perspective. I start with a clear idea of the main setting and with a really basic premise, like that with the woods. Then I just dive in and figure it out as I go. It is a bit scary. I know writers who have it all plotted out. They know chapter by chapter, beat by beat. For them, they know there's a book there. They know all the loose ends are going to tie up. All the threads are going to make sense. I don't know that. I'm always aware that I could dive in there someday, and the equivalent of hitting my head on the bottom going, uh, oh, there's no book there. What do I do now? I think I have to do it the same way I did where I'm writing because I really want to find out what happens.

Zibby: Do you ever miss acting?

Tana: Yeah. I do little bits here and there. I do miss it. Writing is very solitary. It's a big change after acting. It's also -- I'm not sure what the word is I'm looking for. It's a very solitary professionally as well. If you have a bad day as an actor -- you know those days where you're working away, and just nothing works? Your brain is sticky or something. If you're an actor, the director will give you a nudge. Somebody else in the scene with you will throw you something interesting to work off. Suddenly, you're through that barrier, and everything's working again. If you're a writer, there is no director. There is no other actor. There's you and your notebook. You had better find some way to un-sticky your brain. I miss that. I miss the social element as well. I miss, you've done a show, let's all go to the pub and talk about it. We've had a long day's rehearsal. We'll all talk it over. I miss those bits. What I love about writing is I'm free to do it whenever. As an actor, you're dependent on someone else to give you permission to work. As a writer, I can work whenever I want. All I need is a pen and a notebook. It's wonderful. It's really liberating. I still appreciate that.

Zibby: Do you write with a pen and a notebook?

Tana: Back and forth. I'll start scenes with a pen and a notebook and then go put them on the computer and do something else with them and scribble with it. I'm back and forth and messy and disorganized.

Zibby: That's okay. 

Tana: Whatever works.

Zibby: Whatever works. What are you working on for your next book after this?

Tana: This is weird. I thought The Searcher was a standalone. Then I was just enjoying that whole "mystery software on Western hardware" feel so much that I ended up doing The Hunter. Now I'm realizing that whatever arcs I've set up between the two of those books or these linked books within this one village world, those arcs aren't complete, the themes or whatever the characters are doing. It seems to be turning out to be a trilogy, which is not what I expected, but I like those people. I like that setting. I like the chance to spend a little longer there.

Zibby: I love that. It must be nice re-tapping in -- reuniting, that's the word -- reuniting with your characters again. It can be sad saying goodbye.

Tana: Yeah, it kind of can, and especially these. These books, I don't think, are as dark as some of my other ones. Basically, the main characters are all people who care a lot about each other and are trying to do that well. It's not always an easy thing to do well, but they are really doing everything they can to do it right and be good to each other. That's a nice world to be in.

Zibby: That is a nice world to be in. When you're not reading old Westerns, what's on your nightstand right now?

Tana: I got lucky. I got a sneaky early copy of Amor Towles' short fiction collection, Table for Two. I loved Lincoln Highway. I loved Gentleman in Moscow. This was a major treat here. Unsurprisingly, it's great. It is wonderful.

Zibby: Did you read his earlier one, Rules of Civility?

Tana: Yes, loved that too. I felt a special attachment to Gentleman in Moscow because that's where one side of my family comes from, is the whole Russian aristocracy world. My mother gave me the book going, "If you want to understand that side of your family, read this book." She was absolutely convinced that the author had to be from that background. Apparently, no. Nothing at all. He's just really, really good at immersing himself in a world and making it come alive.

Zibby: Wow. How much do you know about your history in the Russian aristocracy? 

Tana: Not an awful lot, really, because it's one of those things where, obviously, if you were Russian aristocracy, then in the last hundred years, you have not been that at all. There's nobody left in Russia, no connections left back there, no places to go back to or anything. I don't even speak Russian, which I feel really guilty about. Not much of a connection left except old photos and bits and pieces. No, not a lot. 

Zibby: Do you ever read totally off genre, like, I'm just in the mood for a rom-com, or something totally unexpected?

Tana: Yeah, I do. I like all kinds of stuff. I don't really stick too hard to mystery, I think partly because I like books that mix genres up anyway. I'm going to be reading a mix of genres. I like historical romance. I like Georgette Heyer, for example. I read a certain amount of kids' books because I've got a certain amount of kids. I like mystery and Western and just a mix of stuff. I'll try anything. Love literary fiction. Joseph O'Connor, for example. Shadowplay was one of my great books of the last year.

Zibby: Have you managed to raise readers and writers?

Tana: Readers, definitely. They're not at the point where you can tell whether they're writers yet. Although, one is absolutely determined that that's where she's headed. No matter how I try to convince her to go get a job, she's, no, writing all the way.

Zibby: My son just came home with this book. He's nine. It's two pages. He wrote it in school. It took this whole year. I was like, "Oh, my gosh, I think you're going to be a writer." He was like, "Great. I want to be a writer like you're a writer." It was the cutest thing. I was like, this is literally better than anything that could ever happen.

Tana: It is wonderful, isn't it? Especially when you're going, "That's lovely. What you wrote is lovely," you're sort of delighted and sort of proud, and then this other part of me is going, child, rebel against your parents. Be an accountant for god's sake. [laughter] 

Zibby: I don't know. I took accounting. I wouldn't wish that on somebody who really wants to be a writer. That was tough. That was the worst class I think I've ever taken. That's not how my brain works. I'll just say that.

Tana: Mine neither. Definitely not. Very much not. 

Zibby: What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Tana: Read a lot, is kind of the clichéd one. The more you read, the more you find things that give you a sense of rhythms of language, rhythms of structure, and that give you a deep sense of character. Also, my big one is -- I'm not sure this is for everybody. Be true to your characters. If your characters wouldn't do X thing, then even if you need X thing to happen for the plot, don't force it that way. You're going to have to find another way around it. The other one is, cut the dream sequence. My husband has a thing about the dream sequence. He's my first reader. He's really good structurally because of being a film guy. He directs films. He's a film guy. He has a demon eye for structure. One of the things he is just obsessive about is, kill the dream sequence. He says it is always either a repeat of something that you already did in the main action or else it's a lazy way of doing something that you should do in the main [indiscernible/crosstalk]. In my books, he has let me get away with one dream sequence. Even that was barely even a couple of paragraphs. Cut the dream sequence. You can find a better way to do that. A small one on a stylistic level, don't be scared of saying "said." You get writers who are scared to say "she said, he said," in case it sounds boring, but it genuinely doesn't because as a reader, my brain just cancels that out. It's a default. If people start throwing in more and more convoluted verbs, I can notice. I remember reading one book where the author was so terrified of using "said" that characters, they were braying. They were hooting. They were bleating. It was like Old MacDonald's farm in there. [laughter] "Said" is fine. You're cool with "said." 

Zibby: Somebody once told me about dialogue, give your readers a little more credit. You don't even always have to spell it out. They follow along. You'll alternate. You don't have to always even say it.

Tana: I end up having to catch myself and cut adverbs from the dialogue thing. If you're writing a line of dialogue clearly enough, it's going to be clear that he said it happily or angrily or whatever it is. You don't have to tell the reader. The reader is smart enough to gather that part.

Zibby: Right, or they should figure it out.

Tana: Or I should write the dialogue better so that [indiscernible/crosstalk].

Zibby: Or you should write the dialogue -- [laughs]. That's so funny. If you had one chance, if there was one part in one play that someone came to you today and said, I'm offering you this, what part would you just never turn down?

Tana: One? One? 

Zibby: One. Just one.

Tana: Can I cheat and go with one that I really wish I'd done when I was younger? Now I've aged.

Zibby: Yes.

Tana: I love Viola from Twelfth Night. I absolutely love her. Here she is, she has to pretend to be someone she's not. She's surrounded by all these people who are wildly deceiving themselves in every way, but she somehow manages to hang onto the truths. Even when she has to deceive, her lines are so carefully structured so that she never outright lies. She's grieving her brother. She's in love with a guy who's not in love with her. Yet she somehow keeps her sense of humor through it all. I really like that combination of integrity and resourcefulness and humor under fire. I would love to give Viola a go. I've been in Twelfth Night, but I was Feste, the clown. I was never Viola. Now I'm kind of thinking I might have aged out.

Zibby: I see a family production in your future. Maybe around the house.

Tana: Grab the kids. Tell them, you're doing this whether you like it or not.

Zibby: Your husband can direct the whole thing. There you go. Tana, thank you so much. Congratulations on The Hunter. I wish you all the best. Very exciting.

Tana: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me on.

Zibby: My pleasure. Take care. Buh-bye.

Tana: Bye. Take care. Have a good one.

Zibby: You too.

Tana French - THE HUNTER

Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

Share, rate, & review the podcast, and follow Zibby on Instagram @zibbyowens