Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
Erin Hart has been one of my favorite writers since I read her first mystery, Haunted Ground. Her second book, Lake of Sorrows, is equally powerful. Set in Ireland and rich in local color, Erin’s novels feature Nora Gavin, an American anatomist with a special interest in bog bodies -- human remains perfectly preserved in peat bogs -- and Cormac Maguire, an Irish archeologist. Both books have been published around the world and honored with numerous nominations and awards. Erin and her husband, Irish musician Paddy O’Brien, live in Minnesota.
SP: Let’s get right to the burning question that’s on the minds of your fans: When will we see your third novel?
ER: I’m still in the throes of writing book three (working title, False Mermaid), but my deadline is the end of the year. I suppose that means the book won’t be out until sometime in late 2008 or even 2009. I really appreciate all the people who’ve been holding out so patiently for book three, but I want it to be worth the wait.
SP: Your first two books are set in Ireland, but you’ve said the third will be set in the U.S. Has it been a challenge to move Nora to a new setting? Does writing about the U.S. feel markedly different to you? Will any part of the book be set in Ireland?
ER: False Mermaid starts in the U.S., with Nora Gavin returning to Minnesota to re-open her sister’s unsolved murder, but Cormac is still back in Ireland, so part of the story takes place there. It’s a new Irish setting for me as well, the southwest coast of Donegal—heavy-duty fiddle country!
It has been different, trying to write about the place where I live. One of the things that drew me to writing about Ireland in the first place was that it seemed so foreign—almost other-worldly at times. You see a place quite differently when you actually live there—it’s hard sometimes to appreciate all the nuances of a landscape when you’re just driving through it on the way to the dry cleaners. I’m finding that places I’ve taken for granted simply because they’re within a stone’s throw are just as strange and exotic as a foreign country; it’s all a matter of perspective.
SP: You've said in interviews that you write slowly. Have you felt any pressure to speed up and produce a book a year, as many mystery writers do?
ER: Oh, I feel pressure—it just doesn’t have much practical effect on my progress. For me, writing a novel is a gradual process of discovery—I’m uncovering the mystery along with the characters—and I can’t seem to force that. Fortunately, I’ve got a wonderful agent who is interested in quality over quantity, and I feel very fortunate in that regard.
After years of squeezing creative time into early mornings, evenings and weekends, I am able to write full-time now, for which I’m extremely grateful. Of course there are distractions—exercising and cooking dinner and going to the movies are all distractions from writing.
SP: Does promotion interfere with your writing schedule?
ER: You can always do more in the way of promotion, and staying in touch with individual readers, touring, visiting book clubs and libraries. But isn’t that what life in the 21st century is all about—keeping a staggering number of balls in the air at once?
SP: You came to writing late -- you didn't grow up wanting to be a writer. Why did you settle on mysteries as your genre of choice? What does the mystery form offer you as a writer that you wouldn't have in mainstream or literary fiction?
ER: I’m not sure that crime writing offers any more than mainstream or literary fiction, but the genre certainly offers as much as so-called mainstream or literary fiction, if that makes sense. Crime novels are an ideal place to wrestle with human psychology and behavior, with knotty social problems and philosophical questions. Whenever people ask whether I’d ever consider writing a ‘real book’ (and they do ask!) I always find myself wondering, ‘If no one dies, what will the people actually do?’ I enjoy the life-or-death aspect of crime fiction, the inherent conflict and drama that’s built right in. And I really, really enjoy creating suspense, pulling readers deeper and deeper with each chapter into a complex riddle.
SP: How long did it take you to write Haunted Ground? Did the mystery aspects -- clues, red herrings, motives -- come easily or did you struggle with them?
ER: After hearing the amazing true story of the severed head found in an Irish bog, I spent about ten years thinking about how it would make a great opening for a mystery. When I actually sat down to write, it took six years, start to finish, before it was ready to send out to publishers.
The mystery aspects are difficult for me. I’m not a puzzle-solver by nature, and some days it does feel like I’m not quite clever enough to be a crime novelist. But on a good day, I’m content to work my way through the plot along with the characters, getting to know them, letting them take the lead where they will.
SP: Reviews almost always praise the beauty and lyricism of your writing. Do comments of that sort make you self-conscious as you write? Do you find yourself trying to live up to that assessment in your new work?
ER: What some see as beauty and lyricism, others see as flowery overwriting (I believe ‘ornate romanticism’ was the phrase Marilyn Stasio used in her review of Haunted Ground!), so I actually try hard not to overdo it. I’m not even conscious of having a particular style of writing. It’s just what emerges when trying to capture people or places, and in particular, those fleeting moments in every person’s experience that by their very nature are difficult to describe. It’s important to represent those moments as accurately as possible—to me, that’s what great writing is at its core. I keep telling myself that it can’t all be poetry.
SP: It’s difficult to imagine prose like yours coming from the keyboard of a computer. Do you write in longhand and transfer the pages to your computer, or do you use the computer from the beginning?
ER: For some mysterious reason, I have to begin with pen and paper. I have no firsthand experience of it, but from what I understand, some people can work through sentences and even whole paragraphs in their heads and then write them down; I have to go through that whole process on paper. The physical act of writing becomes part of the process of discovery, and the pen seems to be a conduit to my subconscious. I tend to write and rewrite the same words and paragraphs over and over again, until they’re ready to type. (Then the challenge becomes deciphering all those scribbly notes with cross outs and circles and arrows!) A first draft in longhand ends up being an interesting record of how one’s brain works. To quote the great Jackie Mason, “Oy, it’s busy in there!”
SP: What crime fiction authors do you read? What literary or mainstream authors do you enjoy?
ER: Some of my favorite crime writers are P. D. James, Elizabeth George, Martin Cruz Smith, Ian Rankin, Minette Walters, and Iain Pears, among others. I’ve also been enjoying recent books by Leslie Silbert, Michael Connelly, Denise Hamilton, Mark Billingham, Natsuo Kirino, John Connolly, David Hewson, Janet Gleeson—there are so many others I’ve been meaning to read, too, but haven’t had a chance yet. I seem to have a weakness for historical crime novels, and stories that are grounded in very specific places or cultures.
To me, there’s an element of mystery in all great fiction writing; there may not be a murder or a swindle at the heart of the story, but not knowing what will happen next keeps you turning the pages. My taste in mainstream fiction is pretty eclectic, but I’m extremely fond of A.S. Byatt and Edna O’Brien. The list could go on and on—Roddy Doyle, John Fowles, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Alice Munro, Tim O’Brien, Michael Frayn. For sheer glorious entertainment, you still can’t beat Dickens, Austen, and Tolstoy. And I’m a theater person at heart, so of course you must include Shakespeare, Shaw, and Chekhov, along with contemporary writers like David Hare, Michael Frayn (again), Brian Friel, August Wilson.
SP: What aspects of your writing have you worked hardest to improve? Have you learned from reading the books of other mystery/suspense writers?
ER: Character development and description of place have never been particularly difficult, but I’d have to say that plotting, action, and dialogue have all been a challenge, and the reason I spend such a LOT of time rewriting and editing—probably too much!
SP: How often do you visit Ireland?
ER: My husband is from County Offaly in the Irish midlands, so we go back fairly often to visit family and friends—and for traditional music, of course. But it’s been almost three years since we were over, so I’m looking forward to a trip at the end of this summer, which will include research time for the current book. The Irish countryside always provides unexpected inspiration, whether it’s an interesting detail of light or landscape, a newspaper story, or the atmosphere of a great pub session.
SP: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
ER: Two words: Read. Write. Read everything—good writing, execrable writing, and everything in between. Study stories you love, and stories you hate; pick them apart until you understand what works and what doesn’t, and why. And write, write, write. Then write some more—journal entries, news stories, reviews of other people’s work. Get comfortable with words, learn to use them as tools, play with them. If you have no idea what you think, or how you think, writing is actually a great way to figure that out. Write about what pleases you, what angers you, what fascinates you, what moves you, what makes you laugh.
Don’t be afraid to show your work to other people. Learn how to respond to criticism—it’s a practical skill you’re going to need if you ever want to get published. Be brave. Don’t look before you leap. Figure out whatever you’re most afraid of, and try that next.
Visit the author’s web site at www.erinhart.com.