Dervla McTiernan on crime fiction and people who look down on genre

Dervla McTiernan is a wildly successful crime writer. Her debut novel, The Ruin, was a critically acclaimed international bestseller which won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction, the Davitt Award for Best Adult Fiction and the Barry Award for Best Original Paperback. The second and third installments in the series, The Scholar andThe Good Turn, garnered similar praise. In 2022 she released her first stand alone crime novel, The Murder Rule.

Born in County Cork, Ireland, Dervla practised as a corporate lawyer for twelve years. After the GFC she moved with her family to Western Australia, where she now writes full time.

Dervla first appeared on The Garret in 2020, and you can listen to that interview here.

Dervla McTiernan on crime fiction and people who look down on genre


ASTRID: Dervla McTiernan welcome back to The Garret.

DERVLA: Thank you for having me, Astrid. It's lovely to be here.

ASTRID: Now we first spoke way back in 2020 after you had finished your Cormac Reilly crime trilogy, The Ruin, The Good Turn and The Scholar. It is now 2022 and you have just finished your book tour for your latest novel, The Murder Rule. And that's a standalone one. Congratulations.

DERVLA: Thank you very much. Yeah, my first standalone, my first American tour, my first tour at this level of craziness. It's been pretty intense.

ASTRID: Okay. When you say at this level of craziness is. I mean, America or overseas sounds very crazy at this point in time, but what is different about this book to it than the others you've done?

DERVLA: Oh my gosh, a lot of things. The length of it for starters, it was a full three and a half weeks, which is a long time to be away from kids. The sizes of the events certainly in Australia were like nothing I've ever experienced before. I mean, our first event in Perth was 230 people. We had another event that was not far off that, in Sydney, but we also had lots of 100 person plus events. Which is very rare for books. Certainly not something I've been used to, lots of fun, but definitely different. Then the other thing was just the pace of the travel. I think I flew every day for about two weeks with the, well, okay. Over a period of about two and a half weeks, I flew almost every day. I think there were only two or three days that I wasn't on a plane. So particularly in the U.S, if you talk to any writers who've done American tours, it's like, get in a plane, get off a plane, do your event, get in a plane, get off the plane. It's just, boom, boom, boom. That's just the way it works.

ASTRID: Okay. Look, that sounds exhausting, but it also sounds thrilling. In Australia and let's just focused there for a moment to get 100, 200 more people turn up consistently for book events is rare. Not to put too fine a point on it, that means that you have a really large audience, a readership, a following. Really basic question, but how do you feel? I mean, your first book was published in 2018. That's what like four years, five years.

DERVLA: I don't know. It's a really hard question to answer, honestly, Astrid. You can give a kind of a meaningless answer, but to actually give a real one is tough because I don't know how to feel about it. I feel very lucky, that's genuinely the truth. I feel very lucky, very fortunate because I love writing and I love doing this. The other reason I feel lucky is because I do enjoy that side of things. There are a lot of writers who just hate it. It's just terrifying and scary and uncomfortable. And there are parts of it that I feel that way about, but I really like meeting people. I genuinely enjoy that part of it. I'm lucky in that sense. I don't know. I feel like it's like a lightning strike, isn't it? For something like that to happen it's like a lightning strike. And when you're in the middle of that, what can you do except enjoy the ride as best you can, you know.

ASTRID: Your first trilogy, the main character was Cormac Reilly and he is obviously, that character has become famous, beloved, well known. I'm not quite sure what adjectives to use, but that character Cormac Reilly essentially changed your writing career. How do you feel about him and his story?

DERVLA: Gosh, I have great affection for him as a character. There's a part of me that will always love Cormac, but he's a character in his story. I told that story and I loved telling it, but I want to tell a lot of other stories. I want to tell so many stories and I want to be open and free to tell those stories and feel inspired to tell whatever and don't want to feel like there's only one story I can tell.

ASTRID: Well, that is a perfect segue into The Murder Rule. Now The Murder Rule is completely different world. It is designed to be a standalone crime novel and you have a female protagonist, Hannah Rokeby. When we first spoke, I asked you where you found a male protagonist and all these years later, Dervla, I get to ask you, what's it like for you as the creator, as the writer to find a female voice and write a female character?

DERVLA: Oh man, it was fun. It was fun. And it's interesting talking about Hannah because people don't always warm to her, particularly in the early parts of the book. She's a complicated character, she's quite ruthless. But she is very definitely wishful fulfilment for me. I was a young lawyer in my 20s in Ireland. I was 22 when I qualified and I'd been... You work in practice, and you get practical experience for two years before that. From the time I was 20 years old, I was going into meetings where virtually every other person around the table was a man. They were all nearly 20 to 30 years older than me.

And that's a weird experience as a young woman. And certainly, as a young woman growing up in Ireland in that time, there was a code of behaviour you were expected to adopt. There's a certain way you're supposed to dress, a certain way you're supposed to speak, carry yourself, interact with other professionals. And you're very conscious of sort of trying to get that right. So you waste a lot of your mental space kind of thinking, did I do that right? Did I do that right? Was that well received? Should I have behaved differently? Should I... Instead of just focusing on doing a good job. I've spoken to other women my age and we all had a very similar experience. Speaking to two American lawyers recently who are still practising and they said, 'geez, it hasn't changed that much'. Which really surprised me.

But what I think has changed is young women, I don't think young women today are like that at all. I don't don't think they have the same hangups. I don't think they think like that. They seem to have an innate confidence in their own abilities. And I just love that, I really love that.

And writing Hannah, I enjoyed that element of her. She is definitely a flawed character. I mean, she is so convinced she's right in the beginning and she's a complete inability to see other people's point of view in the beginning, which is ironic, because that's what she criticises other people for most. But that is her kind of main flaw. But what I like, and I don't think is a flaw at all, is the fact that she knows what she can do. And so, she just does it. And that was fun to write.

ASTRID: It was also fun to read. Now a few minutes ago you said, not everybody warms to her. She isn't very likeable at the beginning, but she's very compelling and she grows and changes through the course of the novel. And when I think about writing and books and capturing your audience. In a way that's a little bit dangerous, the main character is not that likeable necessarily at the beginning. So kind of technical question for the writers who listen, how do you make her so engaging even though the reader might not want to meet her in real life?

DERVLA: I think I'm not a writer who says likability is totally irrelevant. There's a sort of a backlash against likeability. A lot of writers would say, oh, likability is totally relevant. You don't need to be likeable. I don't think that's true, actually. I think it can be a lot to ask a reader, to sit with a character that is just genuinely completely unlikable on any level for a whole novel. I know writers who write those books and they're fascinating, they're really interesting. And there can be a lot of other things that would bring you along, but they need to have a lot of other things to overcome the fact that you're spending so much time with such an awful person. I don't think Hannah is entirely unlikable. I absolutely agree that she has complex elements to her personality.

She's not a nice person, but we don't always like... We like people who aren't nice. We like people because they're interesting because they're funny because they're... We all have this friend who's deeply bitchy and has an amazing sense of humour and is sharp and smart. And we like them because they're funny and clever and they make us see the world differently. I just think we mix up those two things, nice and likeable. Hannah's not nice, no she's not. But is she likeable? I think so because I think smart people who are really competent and who have a lot of agency tend to be, as you say, compelling, they draw us in. We want to see what they're going to do next. We want to spend time around them. Maybe they're not the person we want to wake up aside in the morning but they make life interesting.

ASTRID: I feel very schooled by you Dervla at the moment.

DERVLA: Sorry.

ASTRID: I've never... Do not apologise. I am going to be very careful and not mix up likability and niceness in the future.

DERVLA: I don't think you do Astrid. I was just having a rant.

ASTRID: Ranting is good on this podcast. Now this is obviously crime fiction. But as someone who dips into crime fiction a lot, but is not a devoted crime fiction reader. I found this very different and in a lovely way. I just sat down and tried to read the whole book because I was just interested and engaged and wanted to know what happened as a page turner. But it's not that kind of detective, murder solving, mystery solving thing that is so often the structure of a crime story. This is very much about the law and about how it's going to work and about what might stand up in a court of law and what should stand up in a court of law. I mean, you obviously you've already mentioned you were a lawyer. But I'm interested in terms of when you sat down to write the story, were you conscious of trying something very different or was it just a story?

DERVLA: It's a good question. And it's one I've sort of been asking myself a little bit lately. It's very difficult to, if you're not going to follow something like a police procedural, which has a sort of a baked in structure and that you're following the detective as he asks questions and answers questions and raises more questions, so on. Then you don't have as a fine, a defined structure to lean on.

Now you could go to the two body plot structure and use one of those. And I'm not saying that's a bad idea. Anything that gives you something, a foundation to hang your story off can be useful. But sometimes you just have to let the story build itself kind of organically. I knew I was going to have this, these interlocking diary entries. I knew that was going to be a part of it. Otherwise, it was very much sort of instinctive decisions. They come, the question occurs to me and I have to answer it and I move on from there. I didn't plan it and I didn't have a fixed structure, is the answer. Can you tell, I've been on tour for three weeks.

ASTRID: I totally can.

DERVLA: I'm sorry Astrid.

ASTRID: Do not apologise. You are supposed to know this inside out. There is a lot of legal stuff in your book. Now this book is set in the U.S, you were trained in island. Different legal systems, et cetera, et cetera. But how conscious were you of getting it right, in terms of the explorations of the legal arguments that someone might raise in court or what someone could get off in a court of law from or not. And the murder rule, which is a point of law that is, you've named your book after.

DERVLA: Yeah, I was very conscious about getting it right up to a point. I sort of have a rule of thumb for myself, which is that it must be possible. It must sit within the law as it is written. You cannot have anything happen that could not happen. Does it have to be extremely probable? No. In certain circumstances there will be a confluence of coincidence or a judge who's particularly lenient or you cut out a lot of the formalities because nobody wants to read a novel that is written about how these things work because it is stultifying boring. ‘My trainee went to the courts clerk's office and filed form HJ but it turned out they've updated it to form HJA. So, she had to come back and reprint form HJA and no, it's not Internet based yet.’

I mean, Jesus, no one wants to listen to that. So, you have to cut out the boring bits and you have to, you do dial up the dial a little bit, but it must be possible. And that's for a lot of reasons. First of all, I think it makes the story better. If you have constraints... I think constraints help with your creativity and make the story better. Secondly, there's nothing worse for someone who has experience and knowledge in the area to read a book and go, what is this total nonsense? Okay, if a practising criminal defence attorney reads my novel, they will roll their eyes at a number of points. But I hope they will see what I was doing. And they'll say, 'oh, okay, I'll let you off'. It's certain things happen that are highly unlikely, but they are falling within the law. I'm particularly thinking about the courtroom scene at the end, couple of things there that you'd really have to have everything going your way for it to work out, but it is possible. And therefore, I'm comfortable with that.

ASTRID: A moment ago. You said constraints make a story better. Can we explore that a little bit?

DERVLA: Yeah. I think there's nothing more terrifying to a writer than a completely blank page with absolutely no rules, no limits, no anything, no ideas, no feelings, no thoughts. I think when you start to put anything, the first sentence down the piece of paper. I think this story is going to be about a young woman. Well, you've got the beginnings of something and the more sentences you put in that paper, the more constraints you've sort of created for yourself in a way. I find the constraint of a deadline useful. I find the constraint of, 'well, I know my, my book is likely to land somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 words', that's a useful constraint. But I will create constraints for myself as well, because it's helpful. The tighter the box I'm in, the harder my imagination is working.

ASTRID: Do you feel that you have put yourself in a box by saying this is a standalone novel? And the reason why I ask is crime, like almost all genres is so often associated with sequels.

DERVLA: Do I feel like I've put myself in a box? Not really. I wrote the Cormac Reilly series and I really enjoyed it. And those books were very successful. But nobody said to me, ‘Dervla you have to keep writing that series’. Everybody was very open to me going first standalone. I think if I went back to my publishers now and said, I really want to write a sequel to the Hannah Rokeby book. I think they would be very open to exploring that with me. But I want to write, I'm writing a standalone and they're very happy with that too. I'm just lucky in that sense right now, in that I have been given that sort of freedom. I know not everybody has that, but I also think you have to reach out and grab it.

Like I've said this a couple of times in the tour, but I absolutely mean it. Whenever I open the Stephen King book and I see his list of books that he's written over the years. I just find that so inspiring. And I would love to have a list like that someday. And I think the reason he's still writing like that, with that sort of creativity is because he does it from a place of total lack of constraint. There's no reason for that man to write other than pure joy and love of it. Imagine that, that he's still writing with that kind of love and depth of creativity at his stage of his life. I would love to do that. And I think that's what enables people to write the stories they want to write.

ASTRID: Dervla, a personal question. You moved from Ireland after the GFC to Australia. And over the last couple of years, there has been another very clear kind of global spasm of trauma, shall we say. And you started writing after the GFC, after the move, I'm interested in how the pandemic may have influenced your creativity or not. If you are one of the lucky authors?

DERVLA: It did actually, I didn't think it would or should because I mean, I'm a full-time writer. I live in Western Australia. So other than our lockdown at the very beginning and one small, short lockdown, my life was largely on impact if my kids went to school. Other than about eight weeks at the very beginning.

I have no excuses is what I'm saying, but it did impact me. And the reason it did, I finally figured out why I was so much slower is because usually when I'm writing, and right now this is what I'm experiencing, when I'm writing the story, I'm in the story. And when I'm not writing the story, I'm in the story. If I'm cleaning the dishes or I'm hanging out laundry, I've gone for a walk or I'm driving the car. I'm thinking about the story. So when I come back to it, I'm ready to go, I've got stuff to put in. Whereas in the height, through the first year or so of COVID, when I wasn't writing the story, I was thinking about COVID or something. I was scrolling the Internet, I was talking to friends. It was just, my mind was occupied with other things, worries and thoughts and concerns. And so, I was much slower as a writer because I was coming cool to the page.

ASTRID: You were not alone in that. I think there's been two writers that I have spoken to in 2022, who managed to be as productive or even more productive than they had pre pandemic. They are the rare ones.


ASTRID: Most people...

DERVLA: I wish I was one them. I was not one of them.

ASTRID: I've clearly been researching what is happening with some of your books. And I know that a very famous Irish Hollywood star is about to take Cormac Reilly to the screen. And that also The Murder Rule, your standalone novel has also been optioned for TV. You must get these questions all the time. And if there's anything you can tell us about it, please do. But from the point of view of writers who listen to this podcast, that sounds like the pinnacle of writerly achievement. To take a story to such a large audience. As a writer what will your involvement be in those projects?

DERVLA: I don't know that I'd have much involvement in the run really. We sort of made that deal when I was starting out. And I don't know where that is sitting right now. It's in development and it was stalled during COVID. It was moving along and it stall a little bit. So I haven't heard anything lately. With FX and The Murder Rule, which is going to be a limited series on a massive cable TV company in the U.S. I've had a little bit more involvement, in that I had an opportunity to send in my additional work, all the extra work I had done on the characters and background to the story. And my thoughts about what I felt were the kind of key elements of the story. And I also got notes from writers meeting, where I was able to see what their take was on and what they felt had dramatic value and how they felt about the ending and stuff.

And that was just fascinating to me. I mean, just fascinating to see a different writer's take on my characters. I really loved seeing that. I think that sort of level of involvement might continue as we move forward, but I am okay if it doesn't. The writerly part of me is curious. Here's a whole area of writing that I don't know a whole lot about. I'd love to learn more, I'd love to become someone who had more experience in this area. So that's really fascinating. The other part of me is very conscious that I have novels to write and that I'm not a screenwriter. I haven't written a screen play before, would I like to try someday? Absolutely. Right now, I have deadlines coming out of my ears for actual novels. And they're fabulous screenwriters out there who are interested in this project. I am more than happy for them to run with it. If that makes sense.

ASTRID: It does. And I have to say, you are more humble than many writers I have spoken to. Before I ask you what you're working on next, I would like to ask your opinion as a really respected and very well selling genre writer in Australia. Some parts of the literary industry, however you care to define it, look down on genre. Now I'm a big genre reader and I'm aware that sometimes people don't understand that because they also really love literary fiction. From your point of view in the industry, do you have a perspective on that? And is it changing?

DERVLA: I don't think it's changing. I think that there is segment of publishing industry, the critical industry that is focused on literary fiction. And that sees that as the only legitimate form of anything of literary value. I mean, and that's fine. I honestly, Astrid if you want my honest opinion, I don't care. I don't care, I see it as totally irrelevant to me. They're focused on a very different reading experience and writing experience to mine. I'm a Philistine, I'd be first admit it. I grew up, I read what I wanted to read. What I love is good story, that's what I care about. I care about characters and story and my experience in reading the book. And yes, I can see when people sometimes use the term, this is a literary crime novel, but they really mean is it's a quality crime novel.

I mean, I just feel like saying guys, there's a hell... There are an awful lot of those out there, read a bit more widely. There's no limit to what can be experienced in crime fiction or fantasy. You just have to have an open mind. Unfortunately, some people don't, but I just see them as sort of irrelevant. They want to only review those kinds of books, they only want to talk about those kinds of books. Most literary festivals focus on those kinds of books. And I say have about it, guys. You do you and we'll do us. And it's all good.

ASTRID: I love your opinion. You are not a Philistine. And that was very well said.

DERVLA: Thank you.

ASTRID: Dervla, what can you tell us about the books that you are working to deadline for?

DERVLA: Ah, okay. I am writing a novel right now and I'm having so much fun with it. It just sounds terrible when I say that, then I start explaining the book. I'm like, 'oh God, you're such a dark person that you're having fun with this kind of topic'. But I am, I really am. The story's about a young couple. I would tell you their names, but I might change them between now and publication so better not. Who live in a very small community, a town of 2,169 people. And they are in love. They're 18 years old and they are in love and they have been really since they were about 16, but they've lived through COVID and they have had their first year at university, which didn't work particularly well because, you know, COVID. Their parents are also very much embedded in the community and very beloved and sort of just all form part of the small world.

Anyway, this couple go away on a trip together and only he comes back. She has gone, she's disappeared. And he has some sort of story that kind of like a really, really weak explanation for what has happened. His parents bizarrely don't really ask any questions. I mean, straight away in the community, people are sort of thinking 'what, why that doesn't really make sense'. His parents don't ask any questions, they just close ranks around him in this very protective way. Her parents are desperate to find out the truth and they start pushing. Police get involved, not very successfully. Parents start doing some fairly extreme things to try to get the bottom of it. So it's this clash of these two different things. And as the story unfolds and the community starts taking sides and secrets start to become exposed, we start to learn some interesting truths. I'm having a lot of fun with that. That's a terrible pitch, it'll get better between now and when the book comes out.

ASTRID: You have a very large smile on your face and that is all that is needed. I have to say two things really pick my interest there. Firstly, the idea of a book that is literally set in this kind of post COVID world and also I teach at university and I know how difficult universities and the student experience has been. And I cannot wait to see someone put this into Australian literature.

DERVLA: Yay. No, I'm scared that I don't get it right.

ASTRID: Oh no. As long as it's spared, you'll be depicting the right thing. Dervla, thank you so much.

DERVLA: Thank you for having me Astrid. It's lovely to talk to you.