Tana French on The Witch Elm, #MeToo, and the Divisive Ending of In the Woods

Photo: Penguin Random House

Since bursting onto the mystery scene with her genre-bending 2007 debut In the Woods, Tana French has cemented her reputation as a literary novelist who happens to write about murder. A Dubliner who originally trained as a stage actor, her first six books were each narrated by a different detective from the fictional Dublin Murder Squad. In her seventh, The Witch Elm, out this week to rave reviews, she breaks from her own convention by writing from the perspective of the victim of a crime. The protagonist of The Witch Elm is an affluent white Dubliner named Toby who’s always been, in his own words, “basically, a lucky person.” The book is as much about Toby struggling to understand the nature of his own privilege as it is about the mysterious skull that turns up wedged inside the hollow trunk of a witch elm roughly a third of the way through the book.

Recently, I spoke with French about her particularly eerie brand of red herrings. We also talked about her new book, the relationship between privilege and empathy, the unsettling timeliness of her latest subject, and why she didn’t resolve the mystery of In the Woods, even though she knew some fans would hate the ending. Spoilers abound, so if you haven’t finished The Witch Elm yet, proceed with caution.

Why did you decide you wanted to write from the perspective of someone who wasn’t a detective?
I started thinking about how, for the detective, all the procedural elements — the interrogation techniques, the forensic discovery — are really a source of power. But for a witness or a suspect or even the victim, these elements are going to look very intimidating — frightening and esoteric and mysterious. I wanted to try and see a murder mystery from that perspective.

What was the seed of this book?
I had been thinking a lot about the connections between luck and empathy. Everybody has ways in which they’ve been lucky in life, and everybody also has ways in which they’ve definitely rolled snake eyes. But lately I’ve been thinking about, “Okay, what about somebody who’s been lucky in every way, all along, who’s always come out on top of the coin flip?” Someone who is white, straight, male, from a well-off, happy family, loved, mentally healthy, physically healthy, good-looking, intelligent, who’s just been on the right side of all the coin flips? What would that do to his ability to empathize with other people’s experience of life? And what would that do to his ability to take on board the fact that other people’s very different experiences are, in fact, real? And then, what would happen if something happened to him that meant he was no longer on the right side of all the coin flips? How would that affect not only his experience of reality, but his perception of himself within reality?

I was bouncing around that idea when my brother sent me a link to the true case of Bella in the Wych Elm — a woman’s skeleton which was found in 1943 in England, inside the trunk of a wych elm. A few boys were out messing about in the woods and found her skull. And even today, nobody knows who she was or how she got there. And for some reason, the two things clicked — the idea of the skeleton in the tree, the idea of this guy coming to terms with reality being much more complex and intricate and different for every person than he realized — and grew into the idea of this guy who’s always been lucky until he isn’t anymore, and when he’s trying to come to terms with the new reality, a skull turns up down a tree in the family garden.

Do you consider yourself a lucky person?
In a vast number of ways, absolutely. I had a pretty happy, loved childhood. When I was younger, if I was talking to someone who was telling me about a truly awful childhood, a part of my mind would be going, “Well, it can’t have been that bad. They have to be exaggerating.” Not because I didn’t believe them, exactly, but just because what they were describing was so far outside the parameters of my reality that I genuinely couldn’t take it in.

It’s so interesting that the book is coming out this year, when there’s been such a conversation about privilege and toxic masculinity. I think about #MeToo, which is obviously different from what you’re writing about, but I’ve had so many conversations this year with men I know who seem so shocked by all the allegations.
It’s quite hard to realize that other people’s experience of reality might be entirely different from yours, because we automatically think that we’re living in the same reality as everyone else. That’s one reason why I didn’t want to write Toby as a bad guy. I didn’t want to write him as a dick who was horrible to people, because that’s not interesting to me. Those people are out there — there’s a solid minority of people who are just jerks. But the people who are more interesting are the people like the guys you’re talking about, who are genuinely shocked to realize that reality for women on a day-to-day basis is different. That’s how I wanted to write Toby — as a decent guy who has been just living his life completely oblivious to other people’s reality.

Do you still see Toby as a “nice guy,” even by the end of the book?
It’s always more complicated than that, isn’t it? He is definitely somebody who’s doing his best at almost every point in the book. He’s not malicious. He’s not at any point — or at almost any point — trying to do damage. Even at the point when, later in the book, he does in fact do damage, to him, it’s almost self-defense. He’s constantly trying to protect what’s left of his identity from what feels like another assault on it.

I don’t think I would consider him at any point a bad person. He becomes just desperately lost and does damage as he’s stumbling about, flailing for some grasp on himself and on reality. But I can’t really think about any of my narrators as bad people. I don’t really have that option as a writer, because if I’m writing [in the] first person, I have to take the narrator’s side, and almost nobody ever thinks they’re the baddie.

Do you think there’s something in the zeitgeist that called you to write about a man like this — someone who is so privileged, and so oblivious to the pain of others, and yet still feels as though his identity is under attack?
This stuff has been simmering. I don’t know exactly how it seeped into this book. I do think that when you’re writing murder mysteries, in particular, it’s very easy for something that’s in the air to find itself in your book because murder happens in every society, but the way it happens, the reasons it happens, is shaped very much by the time and place where it happens. And because of that, it’s very easy for society’s fears and dark places to come out in a murder mystery book.

One of the most interesting parts of the book, I thought, is when Toby is trying to figure out who killed the person in the tree, and we learn that in some dark way, he hopes to discover that he, himself, was actually the murderer. Why did you think he would go there?
Well, for him, by that point in the story, he’s been physically and mentally damaged, and he’s feeling like he’s basically been cut adrift from himself, from everything he’s always been and from everything he’s always believed he was. And he’s flailing, really, for a place in the world, a place in reality. The idea that he’s a victim is somehow the most horrific to him. He would rather be the murderer, who at least has some form of power within this terrifying new world where he’s found himself, than be the victim who’s completely powerless and sort of buffeted this way and that way, driven by everyone else’s needs and desires.

Did you ever consider the idea that Toby would actually be the murderer?
Definitely I did. But that didn’t seem to fit. He would’ve been a different person throughout the book if that was part of who he was. The attack on him, at the beginning, takes away everything he’s been up until that point, and changes him from this guy who’s lived a charmed life. After the attack, he has to live in a universe that is no longer easy and smooth and adjusted to his needs. And if he had been put in a position at some point before the attack where he felt like he needed to kill somebody, then that would mean that life would not have been this smooth, happy, cheerful place for him, and that would void the whole arc of the book.

You’ve talked about how in all of your books, you write about a person at the moment when their life changes irrevocably. Where do you think Toby ends up at the end of the book? What is his irrevocable change?
[Laughs.] I don’t think it’s a good place Toby goes at the end of the book! He hits that crossroad fairly late in the book, and there’s no coming back from it. By the end of the book, there’s very little left of him. It’s like he almost doesn’t really want to put himself back together and forge a life anymore. He feels that between his own choices and what’s been done to him, he’s lost hold of too much of himself to have the parts left to put together a full life.

Do you think that you’re going to return to the Murder Squad?
I don’t really plan ahead very far. I have never known what I’m doing more than a few pages ahead. So I know that the book I’ve just started work on now is not Murder Squad. But beyond that, I have absolutely no idea. It’s hard to imagine I wouldn’t come back to it. I’m assuming I will.

Of all your narrators, do you have one that you relate to the most?
Not really. To me, the whole point is to have narrators who aren’t like me in any way. But who I’d most like to have a pint with is probably Cassie out of The Likeness. We’re not very much alike on the most fundamental level. She’s picked a job where she’s dealing with reality at its most raw and brutal, and huge issues like life and death and truth and justice, and I picked a job where I’m lucky enough to get paid to make stuff up and daydream.

I think, though, the one I’m fondest of is always going to be Rob from In the Woods. It was my first book. Practically nobody even knew I was writing it. I hadn’t sold it, I had no reason to believe that anybody would ever read it. It was just me and Rob and my computer, and the chance that someday this might be something. I was a desperately broke actor and it was a crazy thing to do. I was turning down work in order to finish this book. Yeah, I’m really attached to Rob.

Speaking of Rob, I wanted to ask you about the ending to In the Woods. Why did you decide to let the mystery of what happened to him and his friends go unanswered?
That’s very love-it-or-hate-it, isn’t it?

Readers are very divided over it.
Some people hate it and I don’t blame them for being annoyed with it, but I think it lies in how the book was positioned. It was positioned as a murder mystery, which was a good call. I don’t have any problems with that. But that means that people are expecting it to fit in with the genre conventions, which do include, if you set up a big mystery, you’re going to give us the answer. And people feel cheated if you don’t. But I think if, for whatever reason, it’d been positioned as literary fiction, people wouldn’t have had the same problem because it doesn’t come with the same contract built in, that you’re going to get the answers to all the questions. Personally, I think it’s quite wrong to depend on the contracts involved in the genre.  To me, with that book, the big question wasn’t “whodunit” but, “is Rob ever going to take the leap to find out what has been lurking inside his mind for the past 20 years? Is he ever going to mend that damage that was done all that time ago?” And of course, that question does get answered, although probably not in the happiest possible way. [Laughs.] But it does get answered. In that sense, it does fulfill the complete arc.

Do you know what happened to him and his friends?
Definitely. Not in every single detail, but yes.

Is there anything you’d be willing to reveal?
No! No. Again, because the whole point of the book is it’s about Rob and it’s through his mind, and it would be cheap and cheesy to break out of that, just to throw in bits of information here and there that he doesn’t have.

Do you still think you’ll ever return to his story?
I don’t know. A part of me would love to. But, as we were talking about earlier, I like writing about these great big turning points, and you only get a certain amount of those in any lifetime. So it would have to be something that was big enough to be worth writing a book about. But I’d love to come up with something like that. Yeah, no, I have no doubts that I’d like to come back to that, find the answer to it, come at it from a different stage in his life where he’s capable of different things and see where it takes me.

Tana French on the Divisive Ending of In the Woods