Moody, atmospheric and often downright creepy, Tana French's bestselling novels mine the motives of murderers and the obsessive depths of the flawed Dublin Murder Squad detectives who investigate their crimes. French's latest novel, The Secret Place (Viking), is set in an elite girls' boarding school whose student body may include a killer. There are echoes of Leopold and Loeb and Donna Tartt's The Secret History, but the language and landscape are unmistakably French's, as is the way she excavates the past to illuminate the present. O books editor Leigh Haber spoke with the author, the mother of two young daughters, about her writing process and how she separates her domestic life from her literary penchant for blood and gore.

Q You were a stage actor until your first book, In the Woods, came out, in 2007. Are there similarities between the two professions?

TF: Acting is good preparation for being a writer: You're showing everything to your audience through the filter of one character's needs, desires, priorities. On the other hand, when I was acting, I worked around other people all day and then went with them to the pub at night. When I'm writing, it's all up to me. When I get stuck, I have to unstick myself.

Q Your novels often involve violent crimes against children. Is it hard, now that you're a mother, to write those scenes?

TF: I switch off parent mode when I go into my office. At my computer, it's just about the work. And when I stop writing for the day, I'm fully back home. Maybe it has something to do with my acting background—when you play someone crazy or evil, you have to leave it in the dressing room.

Q In the new novel, some of the clues appear in the form of anonymous postcards left on a school bulletin board. What was your inspiration for that?

TF: There's a popular website called, where people share all kinds of confessions. Someone sent me a link to it, and I remember thinking that it taps into two of our deepest human needs: to reveal our secrets and to keep them hidden. Those contradictory impulses are most urgent when you're a teenager, when your instinct is to tell your best friends everything and at the same time keep your secrets close, inviolate. I started thinking about what a place like the PostSecret board—a physical, not a virtual board—might mean to teenagers. That led me to imagine what would happen if a 16-year-old girl used it to reveal what she knew about a murder.

Q Do you spend time with police officers when researching your books?

TF: There's a retired detective who over the years has answered my crazy questions on every aspect of police procedure and has been kind enough to give me a sense of the environment and dynamics of a murder investigation. Anything I get right is because of him.

Q You write about fear and courage. Are you brave?

TF: Not the way murder detectives are. They're dealing with life and death and right and wrong in concrete terms—not in theory, the way I do. If they screw up, someone could die.


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