You’ve heard me say it before and I’m sure to say it again, I am not a “crime reader” – but I do read crime novels when something about them catches my attention. I have been interested to read Irish-born Australian writer Dervla McTiernan since her first book started appearing with positive reviews on the AWW database. As it turned out, this conversation brought out a couple of points that particularly interested me, and further spurred my interest in McTiernan’s novels.
Dervla McTiernan: author of the internationally bestselling Cormac Reilly series (The rúin, The scholar, The good turn), and of three audio novellas The sisters, The roommate and The wrong one. She has won many awards, including an International Thriller Writer Award. Her latest novel is a standalone, The murder rule.
Anna Steele: since retirement has reviewed crime, historical and literary fiction for The Canberra Times and the ACM Press, using her nom-de-plume, Anna Creer. Before that, Anna was Head of English at Canberra Grammar School. I should add that I count Anna as a friend, as for many years we have been active members of our local Jane Austen group, JASACT.
Anna commenced by explaining that the conversation would be structured as a retrospective of Dervla’s career so far, meaning it would not be one of those latest-book focused conversations. She also reassured Dervla and the audience that there would be no spoilers!
On how she started
Anna then mentioned Dervla’s Irish heritage, which is known for story-telling, and yet Dervla has said her writing would not have happened if she’d stayed in Ireland. Why? She followed this up with “why crime?”
Dervla said she’d been a lawyer in Ireland, but the 2007 GFC and its aftermath had been traumatic, with suicides and other serious distress amongst family and clients. By time she and her partner left Ireland in 2011, she never wanted to practise law again. After arriving in Perth and needing to support themselves, she nearly returned to law, but her husband reminded her of their promise to each other to now do it their way, so she got quasi legal work and wrote for two hours every night. The result was a contract with Harper Collins, and The rúin was born.
She said she had not initially intended to write crime, but she had a story she wanted to tell – about two siblings she named Maud and Jack. Up popped a young, uncertain twenty-something cop, Cormac Reilly, whose job it was to save the children. Also, she was a crime fiction reader.
On her detective, Cormac Reilly, and her success
Anna then asked more about Cormac Reilly. He’s not an alcoholic, not tormented, and he arrived on the scene, Anna felt, fully fledged. Dervla has called him, a “man of my generation”. What did this mean, Anna asked. Anna felt that he is one of the reasons for the success of the first novel, but wondered what Dervla thought.
Cormac, said Dervla, was a reaction to the crime fiction she was reading. She enjoys Ian Rankin, and others, but their male heroes tended to not have other responsibilities, which is not true to her generation’s experience of men. She wanted to write about someone she could admire, who could sustain relationships long term, about men who could change nappies, cook meals, and so on. She felt she’d be lying if she wrote an inept man. Love this – though I don’t think it’s only her generation that has “ept” men!
As for the novel’s success, although Anna instructed her not to be modest, Dervla said she really didn’t know. But, she did say that the story has to matter, that writers need to have genuine emotion about what they are writing, otherwise the writing is “dead on the page”.
The next few questions concerned place, about which Dervla feels strongly. Why were her first three novels set in Ireland?
Dervla said that Galway, the setting for The rúin, is the place she knows best. Also, the story of Maud and Jack is an Irish story, and beyond that, she has questions and concerns about various aspects of Irish history.
Developing this, and moving us on to the second novel, The scholar, which is set in a university, Anna quoted Dervla’s statement that “all writers bring their life experience to their books”. Anna wondered what experience she’d brought to this novel. Again, Dervla said that she knows that place, a place that can be both safe and unsafe (particularly for women). The novel involves Cormac’s girlfriend, who is a scientist, which is not Dervla’s experience, but she has dealt with scientific issues in her legal work. Besides these are more subtle things such as how people talk.
Regarding the third Cormac Reilly book, The good turn, Anna, who clearly knows Dervla’s books well, noted that in this novel, policeman Peter Fisher, who had appeared in The scholar, has a much stronger role. She wondered why. She also noted that it is not set in Galway.
Dervla talked a bit about Peter Fisher, whom she clearly enjoyed writing. She was interested in his relationship with his father. Also, Cormac is a good person but is not universally liked, giving Peter a challenge – stick with Cormac or go with the consensus?
She set this novel in a rural area that she also knows well. She has decided to only write about places she wants to spend time in, but she also said that with Irish villages, they may be beautiful but you only have to scratch the surface …
On the trilogy
One of the things I enjoyed learning from this interview was Dervla’s decision to create in Cormac a competent man with outside responsibilities. The other thing I loved was Dervla’s response to Anna’s question regarding whether, given her comment that The good turn “rounds off” the previous two, she always knew Cormac Reilly was going to be a trilogy,
Dervla said that yes, she thinks it’s a trilogy – though she may write about Cormac again later. She didn’t want to write a long procedural series, as they tend to be episodic without overall narrative arcs. She wanted to challenge Cormac, to have a narrative arc which would see him changed by the end. I don’t like series, so I enjoyed hearing her perspective.
More on characters
Anna asked her about the female detective she’d started but not finished, and about the unlikeable Hannah Rokeby in The murder rule. Dervla said that she’d been waylaid from her female detective by the idea that became The murder rule. She was interested in the Innocence Project, which many Irish students get involved in, but felt she didn’t have a story. Then, she had the idea of flipping it: from having the traditional idealistic young woman to an angry, bitter one. She likes Hannah Rokeby. Hannah is “wish fulfilment” for her because Hannah represents the younger generation of women who don’t feel they have to be “the nice girl”, who, when they think something, “they own it”! Hannah’s problems are separate from her competence.
On police abuse of power in her books
Anna asked whether the police abuse of power that threads through the books was conscious or just part of the stories. Dervla felt it was the latter, but commented that in any community where there’s power there’s corruption. She said that teams like the police work very closely together and when something even a little untoward happens the tendency is to support the team rather than remember their true role!
On coming books, adaptations and the pandemic
The interview wrapped up with a number of questions about Dervla’s plans. Dervla explained that due to The murder rule she’d been given a three-book contract by Harper Collins’ American arm for books set in America. Her new book, now completed, is set in Vermont, which she visited. It’s about a young couple, in love and beloved in their community. They go away. He comes back, without her. Her parents want the truth, while his parents want to protect him.
Regarding when she will write an Australian-set novel, Dervla said she is currently working on a novella set in Perth and Margaret River.
Anna also asked her about the screen optioning of two of her novels. She’s not heard about The Rúin, but a miniseries for The murder rule is moving into full script.
Anna then asked whether the pandemic affected her writing, given she’d been writing a book a year until then. Dervla said it had been a weird artificial environment, and was a time of needing to focus more on family. She is usually always thinking of her characters when she is not doing other things, but the pandemic broke that pattern. It’s coming back though!
There was a brief Q&A, which I’ll summarise:
- On staying motivated when starting out: the two hours a night was her present to herself; she gave herself permission to have those two hours. This kept her going.
- On support, like a writing group or mentor: she’s a solitary person, and so decided to put all her focus on writing, on doing the best writing she could. (It is a lonely profession, she had earlier admitted to Anna, so it is good for writers to make opportunities to engage with each other.)
- On knowing how a police station works: research and common sense, she said. The Irish police produce useful annual reports.
- On writing to deadlines: it is important if you are going to be a good publishing partner, but she also wants to write the best story she can, so deadlines are important but sometimes you need to take space.
- On whether she feels the need to make female characters (like the tough Hannah Rokeby) likeable: no, she’s not driven to make her as likeable as Cormac.
- On whether there’s a difference writing for audio versus print: can use fewer attributions (he said, she said, etc) and don’t need to describe responses (like “she gasped”) though she might provide a stage-type direction to person doing the reading.
- On literary critics being scornful of crime: There are two writing worlds “commercial fiction” which is “story and character driven” and “literary fiction” which is not so. Some literary fiction can lift off the page, but not all. There is good and bad in both types, but for some, literary fiction is seen as the “real” writing. However, it is commercial fiction which supports publishing and bookshops. She’d like critics to recognise what people like to read. Anna commented that John Banville who has started writing crime, said that he “found freedom” in writing it.
- On writing about murky psychological and social issues: she needs to start with character and let the story go from there. She doesn’t like to start with the theme. She doesn’t want to write issues-based books, but she will often write about something she’s angry about.
Another excellent conversation – well-prepared and generously answered.
Meet the author: Dervla McTiernan (with Anna Steele)
Webinar via Zoom, organised by the Friends of the National Library of Australia
Wednesday, 15 February 2023, 6-7pm