How far do you go to protect your children? Dervla McTiernan

For the May Author Spotlight, Natalie Conyer spoke to Perth author and global publishing sensation, Dervla McTiernan, about her latest novel, What Happened to Nina?

She says that Dervla McTiernan bends the conventions of crime fiction as far as they will go, and still produces a powerful, page-turning, thrilling look at murder and its consequences. We know the victim, and the killer, from the start. Our attention is, instead, focused on how the families of both these people react, and on how far parents will go to protect their children.

What Happened to Nina? feels like real life. Yet under that documentary-like surface sits a complex, careful structure. How much planning went into that structure, and how did you do it?

I often work with an outline but I didn’t much for this book. Partly that’s because even though the structure is complicated (because I’m writing chapters from the point of view of each of the four parents), the plot itself is relatively linear and there is a causal link from chapter to chapter. The key thing for this book was that I needed to make sure that I didn’t repeat myself. I didn’t want the reader to read a chapter from Nina’s mother’s point of view, for example, and then read a chapter from Simon’s mother’s point of view and find that they were reading two different points of view but essentially going over the same events. I think that would be boring for the reader.

So my rule was that the story had to move forward in every chapter and any ‘going over’ would be absolutely minimal and had to deliver something new, like giving us new information about that event.  I guess, looking back on it, I had two rules when I wrote the story. The first was what I’ve just described, that the story had to move forward in every chapter. The second rule was that every action taken by a character should prompt a reaction from another character which in turn should prompt the next action and . . . you get the idea!  Those two rules are really very simple, but they held the book together, and, I hope, gave it that kind of propulsive feeling.

You’ve said that The Rúin came to you first in a single image. Where did the idea for Nina come from, and how did it grow?

I think the seeds of the book were sown when I had coffee with a good friend of mind one day. We were talking about our kids. Mine are still pretty young, at fourteen and twelve, but my friend had an older boy who was starting college. He’s a great kid, but my friend was worried about her son. She talked about how social rules have changed and continue to change, and about how what we expect from young men is completely different than it was when she and I were in college.

She wasn’t talking about anything too serious, but more the kind of stupidity or social screw-up that an eighteen-year-old might be guilty of that a twenty-five-year-old, with more experience under his belt, would not. Her point was that the kind of mistake that a few years ago might have given rise to some sharp words and an apology, but from which you could move on, lesson learned, now has the potential to become fodder for the kind of social media nastiness that might follow your kid for years, poisoning his reputation.

I walked away from that conversation thinking about the different worries we have when we’re parents of girls and parents of boys. And that thinking developed into something bigger. You know, what if the mistake your son made wasn’t so small? What if it wasn’t so innocent? What if your son was accused of something truly terrible? I know if it was my son, I wouldn’t believe it was possible. I would just reject the whole notion, because I know my son. I know what he is and isn’t capable of. But then . . . wouldn’t every parent feel that way? And if you do believe your child is innocent, is there anything you wouldn’t do to protect them?

One of the major achievements of this book is the utter realism of the flawed yet sympathetic characters. How did they develop? How was it to live with them?

Thank you. For me, strong characters are key to a good book. If your reader doesn’t care about your character, then your plot doesn’t really matter much. If your reader doesn’t believe in your character, you could literally blow up the entire world on the pages of your book and your reader would just shrug. Whereas the smallest personal drama can be devastating if you do believe in the character, and believe in their feelings, and empathise deeply with them.

It’s hard to explain how I write characters, if I’m honest. I’m not sure I fully understand how it all happens, because so much of it is organic. But there is a point where the characters really do become quite real to me. Not in the sense that I imagine them walking around, or that I talk to them in my head, but more that I know how they would react to something. I might say – Cormac would never, ever take credit for something he didn’t do, or Leanne blames herself because she thinks if she had been warmer, or kinder as a mother, Nina would have talked to her about her problems. And I will know those things as facts. They will feel real and immutable. In the beginning the character is almost completely malleable, but as the story moves forward that changes, and I feel like I know them as real people, with real thoughts, feelings, and opinions of their own. At that point, if begins to feel less like I’m just making stuff up, and more that I’m telling a story that existed before I got there.

Nina is one of the few books to come to grips with, and use, social media as part of its narrative. How do you think modern communication has changed crime writing?

I know I’ve heard some writers complain about the challenge of mobile phones and the internet, that they make plotting a believable crime story harder. But I don’t know that I find it that much of an issue in the stories I’m writing. After all, we’re all navigating real life with all of those conveniences, and they haven’t made all of our day-to-day troubles or stresses disappear!  And I sometimes feel that technology offers as many opportunities to the crime writers as it offers challenges. There are so many ways tech can get us into trouble, which gives me lots of room to play. The biggest challenge for me is that tech changes so quickly, and even with research it isn’t always easy to find out the nuance of what was available or how something functioned in a given month in a given year.

What’s next for you? Are you working on something new, and can you give us a taste?

I’m finishing up a book right now, that I’m due to send to my editor by mid-April. I’m so, so excited about it. Writing it has been an absolute romp for me, so I hope that reading it will deliver a similar experience!  After that, I’m moving straight on to another book while I wait for my editorial notes. The second book will require a bit more development before I dive right in, so I’m planning to get all of that development work done while I’m waiting on notes, and then I can get straight into writing it when the edit of the first book is done. This is going to be a writing-heavy year, and I can’t wait! 

More info here.