Tana French: The Ferocity of Adolescence

photo: Kyran O'Brien

Tana French grew up in Ireland, the U.S., Italy and Malawi. She trained as an actress at Trinity College Dublin and has worked in theatre, film and voiceover. She is the author of In the Woods (2007), The Likeness (2008) and Faithful Place (2010). Her books have been finalists for the L.A. Times and Strand magazine awards, and won Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, Barry and ICVA Clarion awards. French lives in Dublin with her husband and daughter. Recently, she sat down to talk with us about The Secret Place, adolescence and the transformative power of friendship.

What inspired The Secret Place and the Secret Place--the St. Kilda's bulletin board where the postcard is found?

Both of them came from the same place. Someone told me about a website called PostSecret. It's a great site: people create anonymous postcards revealing their secrets, and send them to the site owner, who puts them up on the website. The postcards are beautiful, sad, disturbing, raw, funny, sometimes all of those at once. What I think makes the site so powerful is that it taps into a two-way pull that's right at the heart of human nature: we want to keep our secrets, but we want to reveal them, too. We want to be deeply known, but we also want to hold our secrets inviolate. That site lets people do both at once.

So I started thinking about adolescence, which I think is when that two-way pull is most intense, and about the complex ways in which teenagers might use a place like that. And then--because I write crime, so my ideas tend to head in the direction of dead bodies--I started to think about what would happen if a teenager used a place like that website to reveal what he or she knew about a murder....

How did you get into the teen girl mindset while writing? Was it difficult to shift from the viewpoint of teens looking out at adults to the viewpoint of adults looking out at teens?

Once you start thinking back to what it was like to be a teenager, it's amazing how easy it is to find your way into that mindset. The bit that gets blurred over the years is the sheer ferocity of teenagerhood, the way every single thing plays out at top intensity and all the dials go to eleven and stay there. Once you get a handhold on that feeling, it's easy to find your way to the rest.

What was difficult was drawing the distinction between the way the girls see adults before Chris's death, when they're 15, and the way they see them a year later. Before Chris's death, as far as the girls are concerned, adults aren't really people; they're just incomprehensible annoyances that you have to negotiate around in order to do all the real, interesting stuff in life. But the events around Chris's death change all of them. By the next year, they're not little girls anymore; they're on their way to adulthood--an adulthood shaped by that experience. And they see adults in that new light. That was the hard part: capturing that subtle shift, and the different ways it would come through in the different girls.

How did you balance creating strong young women with the vulnerability of adolescence?

In adolescence, in particular, I think those two qualities--strength and vulnerability--are inextricably intertwined: every step you take towards an adult form of strength makes you immensely vulnerable, because you're in brand-new territory. And for each of the four main girls, that link is intensified because the moment when she has to woman up and do something that takes a new kind of strength is also the moment when she has to step away from her three best friends. This four-way friendship has become all of their armour against all the dangers of the world--and right at the moment when they want it most, they have to step out of its shelter. That's an essential part of growing up, but it's also very frightening and in some ways an immense loss--because once you've done it, you can never quite go back. The story spins around the moments when, for each of the four girls, that intersection of strength and vulnerability is at its most intense.

Tell us how you developed the different friendships we see in The Secret Place.

Great friendships--like every great love--are transformative. More than that: they're creative; they grow elements of us that we never knew were there, grow us into who we'll be forever after. Generally that's a marvellous thing, but every now and then--as with at least one of the girls in this book--it can tap into something powerful and dark that would probably have been better left untouched.

The friendship between Holly and her gang is the kind of friendship you only really have in adolescence: the kind that makes the rest of the world vanish. As well as creating each other, the four of them are also creating their reality; their own private bubble is far more real to them than the outside world--and that brings its dangers. For adults like Conway and Moran, friendship is a different thing. They don't come to each other expecting the other one to cancel out the rest of the world; they come to friendship expecting that it's something that will face outwards as well as inwards, that will involve dealing with the real world as well as with each other.

But the two sets of friendships have that transformative power in common. Moran and Conway, like the four girls, do end up redefining each other, nudging each other to become something new. Moran, in particular, is very aware of that potential, and it's the main reason he starts out resisting the idea of anything like a friendship with Conway: she's not someone he wants to allow to define him; she doesn't fit with his image of who he wants to become. By the end of the book, though--and at least partly because of what he's seen of the girls' friendships--that's shifted.

What made you decide this story was right for Stephen Moran as a character?

I'd been wanting to use Stephen Moran as a narrator ever since Faithful Place, where he was a supporting character. He wasn't right for the next book, Broken Harbor--it's a book about people who do their best to follow the rules, and what happens when the rules betray them, and that isn't what Stephen's about. The crucial thing about Stephen, in Faithful Place, is that he does what the narrator wants him to, even though he thinks it might well be ethically wrong. He does it partly because he's susceptible to pressure from outside, and partly because he's very ambitious and thinks this will help him get where he's aiming. Even though he's an adult, he's not 100% clear on who he is--and so he's easily swayed by how he wants other people to see him, and by thoughts of who he might become. --Jaclyn Fulwood

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