Dervla McTiernan's novel, The Rúin (2018), was a critically acclaimed international bestseller. In Australia, The Rúin won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction, the Davitt Award for Best Adult Fiction. In America, it won the Barry Award for Best Original Paperback, and was on the Amazon US Best Book of the Year list.
Dervla continued the crime trilogy with The Scholar (2019) and The Good Turn (2020, both of which are also best sellers around the world. The screen rights have been snapped up by Hopscotch Features.
ASTRID: Dervla, welcome to The Garret and thank you for letting me virtually into your home.
DERVLA: Well thank you very much for having me Astrid. This is a really nice thing to do on a Wednesday afternoon and it gives me the excuse to hand the kids over to Kenny, which is excellent, and to talk about books as opposed to their books.
ASTRID: (Laughs) Now you burst onto the literary and the publishing scene in 2018 with The Ruin, which is the first book in the Cormac Reilly crime series. It received the Davitt Award for best novel, the Ned Kelly Award for best first novel and a bunch of other awards and nominations. You followed that up very, very quickly, I have to say, with The Scholar in 2019 and The Good Turn just recently in 2020. That is a whirlwind three years—congratulations.
DERVLA: Thank you very much.
ASTRID: When you look back, why do you think this trilogy which let me remind you is your first trilogy…
ASTRID: …has done so well and your main character of Cormac Reilly been received so well?
DERVLA: I don’t know. I should really know how to answer that question shouldn’t I? But I don’t know. I was trying to write the kind of story that I want to read, and I think I had a very strong view of what I like. And that might be partly because when I was growing up as a kid no one cared what I was reading. No one had any idea what I was reading. I read what my brothers left behind, some of it highly unsuitable for the age I was, and I just followed my own pleasure in reading all my life. No one was trying to educate me or hand me something that was worthy, and so I read what I liked. And then when it came to writing, I wanted to write what I liked. And for me it’s about a story where there are characters that I can really, really think about and that was always what I was aiming for with my own writing. When I see my own books all I see are the flaws, all I see are the things I could be and should be doing better so it’s very hard for me to understand why people like them (laughs). I know that sounds terrible but that’s the truth and when people do respond to them, I’m always surprised. I mean I’m always delighted, but I’m always surprised because I just want to get better as a writer you know?
ASTRID: You sound very honest. I wanted to take a step back. As you said you read above your age, you read not for any education or any appropriate script—you read what you found and where your reading habits took you. I think that is the most beautiful thing for any young reader to do. I am very thrilled that I had that experience as a child and a young teenager as well. But you said you followed your own reading habits, so what were they and what made you fall in love with a story or a book or an author at that young age?
DERVLA: Anything that made me feel something intensely. I had three brothers and three sisters; it was a very busy household, so having quiet space for myself where I could escape into a story was everything. I shared a room with my older sister and those afternoons where I could sneak in there when no one was around, they were all outside playing and the sun would be coming in through the window—a very gentle sun, remember because this is Ireland—and I could lie in the bed and just get lost in a book for hours. And I would weep, I would laugh, I was just so fully in those stories. And then I would wake up blinking, almost kicked out of this world as I came to the end of the story. So, for me I was looking for stories for these very vivid worlds where there were generally high stakes, they tended to be quite plotted, these books I read—I read a lot of fantasy—where it felt like things mattered and the books [had] great drama. That’s what I loved and it’s still what I love really.
ASTRID: I also read fantasy. What was your favourite as a child?
DERVLA: Oh my god. This is a bit obscure; do you remember the Dragonlance books? Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman? Did you ever come across those?
DERVLA: Oh my god! That’s amazing (laughs).
ASTRID: I believe that reading fantasy as a young adult is completely underrated and I think it’s fantastic for vocabulary, ability to plot structure, read a lot, write a lot and enter your own world and to amuse yourself as a young adult. It’s fantastic. It makes me excited that you read fantasy. Did you read crime as a teenager as well?
DERVLA: Not as a teenager. I think I really came to crime in my twenties. I was still reading fantasy at that stage but not finding writers as frequently that I could fall in love with—still occasionally, but not as often. And I was a voracious reader, so I needed more material. And I found what I was coming home with from the bookshops was crime fiction. And when I came to write then, I didn’t set out and say, ‘I’m going to write a police procedural series and it’s going to have this very traditional structure.’ I had a story in mind to write and it became that over time for various reasons. But it certainly wasn’t intentional, I think it was organic because I was reading so much crime.
ASTRID: One of the things that is similar between the crime and fantasy genres is the propensity of sequels and series and following a character for many, many books.
DERVLA: (Chuckles) Yep.
ASTRID: Is it too much of a leap for me to suggest that that’s one of the reasons that you fell in love with crime? Because a voracious reader needs a continual supply of character and plot.
DERVLA: I think so, I think that’s absolutely true. I think the joy of finding a writer that you can have confidence in, and then you find they have a backlist and it’s like, oh my god this is amazing! So many books to read. And then being able to follow the characters. I mean, some of the books I’ve really enjoyed most over the last few years have been the J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith books because she does that so brilliantly with characters over a series. And her two main characters Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, I just adore them. And the last book which was Lethal White was the best in my mind. And now she’s got another one coming out this year and I am waiting with bated breath because I get to go back into the same world and be with those same characters again.
ASTRID: That is the hallmark of great fiction regardless of what genre it comes from.
ASTRID: Now, as I said before you have launched three full books. You’ve just launched your third The Good Turn. This is the first time you have launched a book anywhere near a global pandemic and I wanted to ask you a very obvious, but also a very serious question—what is different for you this time and what are you noticing in the writing and publishing community?
DERVLA: Well I was very lucky Astrid, because my book came out just before everything hit. I mean, I was on tour when our concerns were getting higher and higher and I got to do all of my tour except for my Perth events which were scheduled when I came back. Alice and I were due to go to Hobart and we did spend 24 hours where we almost didn’t go, because it was getting a bit shaky. Those were our last events; we did those, and I flew home on the 6th of March. Then I think I had a week or a few days off and I did one event and then we ended up cancelling. So, it hasn’t impacted me to the degree it has other people—I got to get my book out in the world. If I was launching a book now right in the midst of this, it would be devastating. You really put years into a book and it’s not just you, it’s your publisher and your campaign manager and everybody who is trying so hard to bring this book and you all want to sing about it to the world. And then it’s silence. And yes, you can go online, and you can do your online events and I think we’re all getting so much better at that. Part of me is very excited because I get to go online and watch events that are happening in the States or the UK that I wouldn’t have access to otherwise and more and more people are doing interesting things with writers I’m really interested in. But I wouldn’t choose to launch a book in this environment, I really wouldn’t. So, I’m very sorry for people who have no option right now.
ASTRID: And what have you noticed from your readers? You obviously have a dedicated fanbase and I assume that they are quite vocal and in contact with you on social media etc… But have their reading habits changed? Or has the way the reading public, that obviously supports our industry, interact changed?
DERVLA: Well you know what actually, honestly, I think people are reading an awful lot more. I really do. The level of excitement about books is different. It just feels like people are really realising, oh hang on I used to love this! Why aren’t we doing this more often? That is the upside and I’ve heard stuff back from colleagues in publishing who are saying, wow sales have been like Christmas for the last few weekends. Books are just flying out the door. So, I definitely hear a little bit more. I mean, readers mostly get in touch with me over Facebook, less so over Twitter. And over Facebook, if anything, people are more vocal, sharing books more, joining more online book clubs. And the other thing that’s happened is we’ve done a couple of online events and the take-up has been enormous. One local bookshop did one with virtually no notice and it was our first time doing it and we used a bit of technology that didn’t work too well—we couldn’t even really see each other. We still had thirty or forty people who thoroughly enjoyed it. And the next one we had 120 and for book events those are pretty respectable numbers.
DERVLA: I just think people are at home, they’re having a quieter moment and they’re looking to engage with people who share interests. So maybe some of this will continue post-corona.
ASTRID: That would be a lovely silver lining wouldn’t it? Now you always write at home, don’t you?
DERVLA: Mostly, yeah.
ASTRID: So, what has changed for you in terms of your daily setup, your writing setup, your creative process given that we are all at home? And I know that you also have children so you may very well be home-schooling.
DERVLA: I am home-schooling. Yeah, that’s the biggest thing that has changed I suppose. I’m a full-time writer now, so I had gotten to the point in my writing life really where I could bring the children to school in the morning and come home and I would have five hours where I had silence. Now when I was working, I used to dream about a life like that and think, oh my god the indulgence of it, the absolute indulgence of it. What has happened, as your writing career expands more non-writing tasks creep in: your email starts to increase, and various obligations that you wouldn’t think have anything to do with writing do suddenly present themselves. So, some of my time would get lost in that. But still, I had all that time.
That’s time’s all gone now because I’m home-schooling, so we’re trying to kind of stick to the same timeline as school. We’re not doing academics from 9 o’clock to 2:30 because that would be bananas. There’s no way my two would be able to handle that, they’re only ten and eight. But we do a couple of hours of English and maths to spread over the time and we do other kinds of activities then. And my husband and I feel like keeping to a Monday to Friday, 9-2:30’ish schedule helps them with separation of one thing from another. So, from a writing point of view what that means is my writing has gone back to the way I used to write when I was working, which is I write at night mostly. You know, I try to get a little bit done in the late afternoon, early evening but usually it’s bedtime so 7-10 I get back to writing again. And I wrote like that for years—I wrote The Ruin like that, I wrote The Scholar like that, I wrote most of The Good Turn like that—so it’s not that unusual and part of me actually feels quite comfortable with it. I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of everything else is done, this is my time, I’m guilt free, I get to just relax into my own time and my own story and you know it doesn’t feel like I’m being indulgent which it does feel some of the rest of the time, which I know isn’t logical but there you go.
ASTRID: That is not logical, you are a full-time writer. It’s not guilt, it’s work. I alluded to it before, but you are quite prolific. I mean, three books and two audiobook originals in just a couple of years is phenomenal. How do you do that?
DERVLA: I think I’m very disciplined. I think that my old job probably helped me with that a little bit—I was a lawyer for a long time, and I worked for myself for a long time. And clients aren’t interested in how you get them to where you get them, they only care about the end result and as a lawyer I kind of took responsibility for getting there and it didn’t matter what needed to be done. We started at a, we needed to get to c, this is the amount of time we had available, that was it. And some of that mentality has crept into writing, so I tend to be quite organised. But I don’t know, it’s a lot of different things. I think I try to work out methods that allow me to get to where I need to be. Nowadays because I have had some health issues, I can’t do what I used to do which is just push through problems and work harder rather than smarter. Now I need to just be more organised. So, I try to look at where I need to end up and say, ‘well I want to have a first draft by then, what do I need to do to get to a first draft by then? How much time will I need after that to revise it to the point where I’m going to feel comfortable sending it on to the next level?’ and I work backwards. And then literally I know what I need to hit every single day to get there.
ASTRID: And by hit you mean word count?
DERVLA: Word count to some degree, maybe a little bit less now in that it used to be I could only produce x number of words a day regardless, because I just wasn’t able to write any faster than that. Now if the work is going well, I can write a lot in a given period of time. So, I don’t worry about word counts as much as story progression. Like if I say to myself, okay I’m going to have three hours a day this week then as long as I’m doing focused work for those three hours every day that week, I’m not going to worry so much about word count. But I do find word count useful as sort of a general—where am I? Am I messing around or am I actually making progress, you know?
ASTRID: So, let’s dive into your series. Forgive me if this is a strange question Dervla, but why did you choose to have a main male character?
DERVLA: I think it’s a great question. It’s such a funny one, because someone asked me this once before and I was totally stumped, and I had to go back and think why did I make that decision? And it’s a really stupid reason, actually Astrid. It’s because in The Ruin there is a scene at the very beginning, in the prologue, with these two young children Maude and Jack and they are in this crumbling country house in the middle of nowhere. Maude is fifteen and Jack is five and they’re in desperate circumstances, and I needed a young cop to find them. And when I was thinking about the writing of that scene, I said I wanted this cop to be young, inexperienced and out of their depth and I mostly wanted them to feel really inadequate. I wanted them to think ‘I am the wrong person for this. I am going to let these children down. I’m going to do everything wrong, oh god, oh god. I’m messing this up.’ And this is so sexist and patronising, but I just thought a twenty-one-year-old guy is more likely to feel that way than a twenty-one-year-old woman certainly at that point in Ireland. And I felt that way because when I was growing up, I babysat—that was my day job—and most of my friends did that and my brothers never did. They would be less likely to have changed the nappies and less likely to have minded children. So even though it’s very sexist of me, that was certainly in my head. And this young cop Cormac was the character who resulted from that and he was this very, very decent guy who desperately wanted to do the right thing and was so worried that he was going to mess up. And so that’s where he came from, and then when the story action moved forward twenty years, it was very natural that he would be the cop that came back. And then he became… The Ruin wasn’t intended to be the first book in a series, it was just the story I was writing, and it was only when I went to agents that they said, ‘oh a series would be good,’ and I said, ‘oh, okay. I guess I’m writing a series then!’ (Laughs)
ASTRID: I get it, it’s a very honest answer and I do love that that’s where he came from. I realise that that was a little bit of a leading question—there is no reason why you shouldn’t write a male character. But I guess I wanted to ask you also, how did you ensure that Cormac breaks the mould? I have to admit, I don’t read crime fiction as much as I read other genres—I haven’t gone far from fantasy, I have to admit—but that typical emotionally stunted, older police detective who maybe has never had a functional relationship. Cormac is not that.
DERVLA: No. It couldn’t be because I wanted to like him (laughs).
DERVLA: I wanted to like him, and I love crime fiction, I’ve read it for years and I’m a massive fan of Ian Rankin for example and Michael Connelly and all of these guys. And I’ve told this a few times, but as much as I love Rebus who is Ian Rankin’s character, there was a point where I was reading one of the later books. And Rebus’ daughter has grown up and he’s kind of having a quiet moment to himself about how he hasn’t seen her in two years and it’s so sad, they have no relationship at all. I was thinking you could bloody phone her, you know? There’s no excuse for that, you need to actually make an effort. And I thought about the men I know—not to sound painfully smug, but my husband and my friend’s husbands—and I think they’re bringing their kids to school, they’re making the dinners, they’re going out to work just like we are, you know? All my female friends work as well as their husbands and we’re all just constantly juggling and trying to find the right way to make things work for our families and those things change all the time. And the guys are not incapable of communicating and caring for their kids, they are grown-ups like us. And I respect them as a result and I wanted to respect Cormac, so he had to be someone who is capable of some form of communication, you know. And in fairness, Ian Rankin is not Rebus, he’s not his character—he’s very aware of Rebus’ limitations and that’s part of Rebus’ charm. And Rebus is a man from a different generation. So, Cormac is a man from my generation, and he needed to reflect that I think.
ASTRID: And he does indeed. Now, obviously the crime genre is very popular. But what are readers of crime fiction getting when they choose to dip into the genre that you don’t get as a reader from general fiction, or literary fiction, or romance fiction? And to follow up with that, how do you as an author deliver that for your readers?
DERVLA: I suppose it’s a hard one to answer, because I always say crime fiction has such a wide breadth, you know? Virtually anything is labelled crime fiction if there’s some form of violence or criminality in it, even if the style and tone of the books are completely different and they’re dealing with very, very different issues. I think one thing that is consistent though across most crime fiction is this very strong sense of place and time. The stories are not written against a backdrop that is anonymous, they’re written against a backdrop of social context which tends to lend something more to them. If you’re thinking about a Rebus book or you’re thinking about a Michael Connelly book, there’s one in Scotland and one in LA. With Michael Connelly’s books you’re very conscious of the LA homelessness problem, for example as you’re reading them. And that’s not why you’re going to those books—you’re not reading them to learn about the homelessness issue in LA—but the fact of that being there lends a richness and a reality and the context for what’s happening to the characters that makes them a more rewarding read, I think. Same if you look at some of the Irish writers. If you read Liz Nugent, she’s a very particular kind of writer. She’s phenomenal but her characters are dark, oh my god they’re dark! But they’re very Irish—those are Irish books in an Irish context, you get to go there and experience that as part of the read. So, I think that’s part of it.
But that’s not the main reason you go there. For me, anyway, I’m still going to books for the same thing I went to as a child—I’m a child still looking for the same high (laughs) the same fantasy high you know? I want those incredibly exciting characters, I want those almost unrealistic settings, I want huge stakes and a resolution. I think I got this from a TED talk, so I’m not going to sound wildly intellectual while I acknowledge that, but I think it was originally from Aristotle who said, the structure of a story was essentially made up of pity, fear and catharsis. So, as a writer you want your reader to have empathy for the character first. Then you want to put the character in terrible jeopardy, so that they are fearful for them. And then you want to deliver an outcome that is satisfying in some sense and gives a resolution to the reader. So, I always have that in mind—first I want a character that you are going to feel, and then I want what happens to that character to matter, and then I want to give you a resolution.
ASTRID: I’m going to steal your phrase ‘the fantasy high’.
ASTRID: That is an excellent explanation of what a reader gets when they really do pick up a piece of fiction and go into that world. Now, you just mentioned place, and obviously place and setting is very important in crime. You have very clearly placed your writing in Ireland. You are Irish, but you have written when you’ve been living in Australia, in Perth. And I wanted to ask what was that experience like for you?
DERVLA: It was very natural for me to set the book in Galway, particularly the first book. We had left Ireland a few years before and we’d been living in Perth a few years by the time I started writing, but Galway was still the place I knew better than anywhere else. We moved there when I was about thirteen, I went to school and university there, I came back to work there, I got engaged there, I did all my early adult socialising there, I know every cobblestone, every twist and turn, and every pub. It felt like a natural place to set a story and of course Maude and Jack they were Irish children, their story was an Irish story, so it all came about that way. I think there is something to be said about looking at a place from the outside in—I think you see things that make it very specific to itself that you wouldn’t necessarily notice when you’ve only lived there. So, I think it was helpful to a degree that I was in Australia and writing about Ireland. But I think I wouldn’t like to feel as a writer restricted to only writing those books now. I want to be able to follow the stories where they take me, you know? And they will take me to other places, I think.
ASTRID: That’s exciting. You are obviously a woman who is exceptionally skilled with words. You spent more than a decade as a solicitor and lawyer, and you know how to handle huge volumes of information. But how did you retrain yourself, if I can phrase it like that, to write fiction? Fiction has got nothing to do with legal language and the professional complexity that comes with it. Did you study? Did you just lock yourself at home in a room? How did you go about it?
DERVLA: I just kept plugging away (laughs). I mean I really just started, and it was absolutely awful. I mean my early efforts were so bad Astrid, just honestly. I think that probably puts a lot of writers off, because if you’re a reader you kind of know the difference between good and awful and your early efforts will almost certainly be awful. I kept trying because something was pulling me back and it was just the joy of the storytelling—even if what I was producing in terms of words was not good, the creating part of it was always really rewarding. And so, I kept trying to get better and occasionally I would see little glimmers of hope—some little paragraph would start to feel like it maybe had something.
In order to learn, I mean there’s a writer in Perth, Natasha Lester who used to teach and I went to one of her night courses. And that was really helpful because she was a working writer, and so the practicality and the reality of what she was teaching really stuck with me. I bought every book on the craft of writing I could get my hands on. A lot of it was really helpful, some of it really isn’t—the really analytical story-mapping stuff I think is largely rubbish, but the other can be really helpful. I think anything that helps you think about the mechanics of storytelling and the craft behind it can be helpful.
And then I would get my favourite books—I would take a Tana French book; I would read it for pleasure and then I would say what did I love about that? These things and I would go back in it and literally with a highlighter and post-it notes I would try to trace how she had done something in the book. So, I would say, how did she make me feel that way when I got to the end of that chapter? Why do I feel that way about the relationship between these two characters? How has that been drawn? And I’ve done that with the Robert Galbraith books too—with that relationship between Cormoran and Robin which I adore. And it blows me away the skill of these writers, because if you go back over what Robert Galbraith does in those books, she paints the relationship between those characters with the lightest of brushstrokes. Like, two sentences here and nothing for a hundred pages. And yet, you feel every look that they don’t give each other you know? It’s just the extraordinary skill of those writers. So, I think just writing and writing and writing, reading and reading and reading, and then starting to read as a writer—try to see how people are doing what they’re doing, you know?
ASTRID: As I’ve said before, I think that you’ve done this incredibly quickly—writing can often take a lifetime and getting published what feels like a second lifetime. In that time when you were practising and you started off and felt that you were terrible and obviously it got better over time, obviously you were teaching yourself. But my question is how did you work out what you could start sharing with other people, you know? What might be good enough when you’re not known in the industry in Australia to send off and start trying to get attention?
DERVLA: I didn’t show anybody, and I didn’t talk about it really with anybody because that didn’t feel helpful. And I thought about joining writing groups and stuff and I nearly did, but then I had so little time. With two young children—they were very small at that stage—my job and writing I didn’t have time. I was like, well I can spend those two hours at a writing group or those two hours could be spent writing, so I always chose the writing first. I don’t know, I asked Natasha that question at one point. I said, ‘how do you know when you’re ready to send something off to an agent?’ And she really thought about it and she said, ‘do you know what? I’ve got two answers to that question.’ Firstly, she said, ‘every writer I know will tell you they sent it too soon,’ which I now agree with. But she said, ‘okay, you have to make the decision at some point, and I think it’s when you cannot think of a single thing you can do to improve it. You have gone over it and gone over it and gone over it and there’s literally nothing else you can think of.’ That’s a very depressing answer to a starting writer because by the time you’re on draft three you never want to look it again, but you know you could improve it. You know you could, right? It’s only at draft ten that you really run out of go. So, I was like oh okay. But she was right.
And I was obsessive—I didn’t know anybody in publishing—but I was obsessive in terms of going online and reading what are other people doing? And I came across Janet Reed—she’s this New York literary agent and she wrote an anonymous blog for a long time; I think it was called Query Shark or maybe the original was called something else. But basically, she would publish people’s query letters and absolutely shred them. And eventually this became a non-anonymous thing where people would voluntarily put their letters up to be shredded. And there are hundreds of these things on this website, so you can really see the practicality of how not to pitch your story and how to pitch your story. So, in the last year I was probably working on my query letter as well as working on the book and that was helpful when I was really struggling with the slog of the work, to be like someday I will be sending this thing off and it’s going to get to that point, you know?
ASTRID: Absolutely. In addition to the trilogy you have also written two audiobooks—they’re not published in written format, is that correct?
DERVLA: Yes, that’s correct.
ASTRID: Yes, I have to admit I have read your trilogy, but I haven’t listened to the two audiobooks, The Sisters and The Roommate.
DERVLA: Thank you for reading them.
ASTRID: As a writer, was it different for you when you realised that no one was going to be seeing and reading your words, they were going to be listening to them? Did that change how you approached structure and story?
DERVLA: Ooh, it was fun actually. I should say The Roommate was the very first short story I ever wrote for a writer’s competition way back and it was only 5000 words at the time, and I rewrote it to be recorded. It hasn’t actually been formally published yet, although I think it will be soon. It was something I wrote for my website subscribers and you can’t listen to it anywhere anymore. So, I think it will be published.
But The Sisters was different. Audible came to me and asked me if I was interested in writing an exclusive short for Audible. So, I was aware that I was writing it in that context. At the time I was planning, I thought the next book I was going to write would be a Carrie O’Halloran book who’s this female detective in the books. And I thought it would be fun to write a short story that was set in her past. So, this is the short about Carrie who is a young cop starting out in her life and her sister Aifric who is a young barrister, and they’re on the opposite sides of the fence because Aifric’s a defence barrister and what happens when this case crosses both their paths. And it was really interesting because when I was talking to my editor at Audible about it, I was kind of excited to push the boundaries a little bit. I was thinking, well it’s not a radio play, I’m not writing a radio play. But I am writing something that is going to be performed and I’m aware of that. So, I can change things like dialogue attributions—I can have way fewer of them. And other things I would usually build into the writing to try to give colour to how a character is feeling or expressing themselves—I can put those in parentheses for the narrator rather than just writing it. And then as I wrote it, I thought hang on if you were a screenwriter you don’t put in parentheses after every piece of dialogue that this is how you should be acting something. I mean, that would be ridiculous! Can you imagine? The actress would throw it at you. You have to as a writer, without overly explaining things, it still has to be inherent to the text how people are feeling and acting. So I kind of pulled back from that a little bit and I found that it kind of changed my writing a little bit in that I was more conscious of the degree to which I was using attributions or description that really, if my writing was stronger, shouldn’t be necessary. So, I learned something from the writing of it and it was very fun in that sense.
ASTRID: Would you do it again?
DERVLA: Yeah, I’d do it again. I think so. It’s funny because (whispers) I don’t think I’m the best short writer in the world, don’t tell anybody.
DERVLA: (Laughs) Because I prefer to write long, and I like really layered stories and layered stories take time to expand. But I think if I could have between 30,000-50,000 words to play with, I think I would like to do it again, yeah.
ASTRID: You don’t have to answer this question, but I’m very much interested in the business of being a writer. And obviously your books sell well, but is it an attractive proposition for you when you’re thinking about your next creative projects to think about audio projects? Or is your first love just the novel?
DERVLA: It’s nice to have the balance. I like to be honest with writers when people ask this question (laughs) but it’s like what am I allowed to say? It’s definitely worth your time—writing shorts for audio, let me just put it that way and leave it at that. But in terms of the creativity part of it, a novel is a two-year project and it’s a long time to be with one story. You don’t have that amount of time for an audio short and sometimes that’s good. Sometimes that’s good. You know what you’re writing when you set out to write it, you have a finite number of words, a finite amount of time, you’re creating the project in a different way and it’s a refresher—you’re doing something completely new and that’s very nice. So I’m probably going to do another and I’m looking forward to it.
ASTRID: That was well answered.
DERVLA: Thank you (laughs).
ASTRID: (Laughs) What are you writing next? And are you going to stay in the same broad world that Cormac Reilly is from?
DERVLA: I just delivered my next book to my agent and it is an American story.
ASTRID: An American story!
DERVLA: So, it’s completely different, yeah. It is still crime and the tone and the feel and voice I think are similar, but it’s a very different story. It’s funny because I was about 10,000 words into writing the Carrie stories, but I had this other idea in my head for so long and it was driving me nuts because I really wanted to write it but it felt very straight down the line—just too simple. And then I was talking to my agent about something and something he said kind of stuck with me and after I hung up the phone, I realised that I could just completely flip the idea over. And then suddenly it had layers and layers for days. So then, once I thought of that it was the only thing I wanted to write, and I just loved writing it. And weirdly—because I’ve written three drafts of it now to get it to that point, and it’s been gone from my desk for a little while—I’m actually looking forward to getting back into it. Like, I want to get to the structuring stage which is not usually how I feel I’d like to point out.
ASTRID: I would like to point out to you Dervla, that your facial expression—because we’re obviously watching each other on Zoom—has changed. You’re more animated in your chair…
DERVLA: Really? (Laughs)
ASTRID: You really are looking forward to getting this manuscript back (laughs).
DERVLA: I am, I’m excited about it because I really like where it is but I feel like ooh I could do that, and maybe I need some more of that character and I need to think about how that’s balanced, maybe pull this back. And I’m just excited to get back into it because I think it could be good and I’m looking forward to writing it. But in the meantime, because there will be time between now and the structural edits stage, I’m probably going to write a short, I think. And it’s funny because I have a pitch that I wrote a few months ago that’s kind of ready to go—it’s a full detailed synopsis, and I could be writing that right now. But then this other idea came along and now I think that’s what I’m going to write even though I don’t know where that one’s going to go, all I have is a seed. It’s just got a nice feel to it, so I think that’s what I’ll do next.
ASTRID: That is very exciting. One quick question: earlier in this interview you spoke about the importance of place and setting in a crime novel and talked about the benefits of being able to write a story set in Ireland from afar. If you’re setting this book in America, I mean, have you spent lots of time in America? Did you research? How did that go?
DERVLA: Yeah, there are two main locations in this particular book. One of them is in a place called Bar Harbor in Maine which is a place I worked when I was—in Ireland it’s very typical for young college students to go and spend the summer in the States and we earn our college fees and go home and socialise far too much—so I was a chambermaid and a waitress in this very exclusive town, where very wealthy Americans go to summer. And so, I definitely saw it from the inside out. So, part of the book is set there and definitely mirrors some of my experiences. And part of the book is set in Virginia, which is a place I had never been to, but I was over in the US for Bouchercon last year and I had a little side trip to Virginia. Which was hilarious because I was so monumentally jetlagged, I mean never in my life have I had so little sleep. I was probably wandering around like a drunk person, but it was very interesting. I took in a lot and I enjoyed it. I’d have loved to have had more time but with small children everything’s just borrowed time.
ASTRID: Now, I do have to ask—The Ruin, your first full-length novel is being adapted for the silver screen. Now, first off congratulations that is I think every writer’s dream, particularly if maybe they all end up on the screen which is extremely exciting. But how does that sit with you, as in how much control do you have of how it’s represented or how it’s adapted to be performed?
DERVLA: I don’t have a whole lot, or I wouldn’t think I would. I mean, I guess it depends how it progresses. But I think there’d be some degree of collaboration or consultation or discussion, you know? I mean, I don’t feel a sense of ownership over it as a project in any sense because the way I see it is it’s going to be a different thing at the end. My thing is there between the covers and it’s finished. The thing that will be on the screen will be something very different and other people will have brought their creativity and their vision, if you like to it. I just watched Tana French’s series on SBS and I love her books and they took her first two books to make that series, they took In the Woods and The Likeness. I was like, why do they always do this? Why can’t they just give the book the space? Because the books are so good. But I absolutely loved the series, I thought it was genius and my husband thought it was genius. And I think the writer of that series was Sarah Phelps and she did a phenomenal job. And that’s her thing, you know? That’s her thing. And whatever the writer will be of The Ruin, that will be their thing along with the director, along with the actors, along with all the other creative people who bring their vision to it. And whether I love it or don’t love it (laughs) it’s still theirs to create. So, of course I would love to have some degree of input, but I accept if I don’t and I’ll be interested to see what they make of it.
ASTRID: That is the most mature answer to that question I have ever heard. In my mind I am thinking of the dramatic fight that Stephen King had with Stanley Kubrick when he hated the adaptation of The Shining and all sorts of other examples that we could think of over the last couple of decades. That is a really beautiful way of looking at your creative work.
DERVLA: Well, you see Astrid it hasn’t been made yet, so it’s very easy for me to sit back and say all those things right now. I guess we’ll see when it’s on the screen if I’m still so mature (laughs).
ASTRID: We absolutely will. Thank you so much for your time at home today, Dervla.
DERVLA: I loved it; it was lovely to talk to you. Thank you for giving me some time off kids (laughs).