Saturday, March 13, 2010

Erin Hart Returns with "False Mermaid"

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Everyone who leaves a comment will be entered
in a drawing for a free signed copy!

Erin Hart, one of my favorite writers, is back after much too long an interval with her third mystery featuring American pathologist Nora Gavin and Irish archeologist Cormac Maguire. Like her first two books, Haunted Ground and Lake of Sorrows, False Mermaid has received glowing reviews for its beautiful writing and deep characterizations.

Before turning to writing, Erin worked in theater. She also co-founded Minnesota’s Irish Music and Dance Association. She lives in Saint Paul, MN, with her husband, Irish musician Paddy O’Brien, with whom she frequently visits Ireland to carry out research in bogs, cow pastures, castles, and pubs. Recently she talked with me about False Mermaid and her writing life.

Q. Tell us about False Mermaid. What are Nora and Cormac up to in this book?

A. The story takes up where Lake of Sorrows finished, with Nora on her way home to the States, and with Cormac headed up to see his ailing father in Donegal. Nora is determined to crack her sister’s cold case murder once and for all, even if it means that she has to face up to some unsettling truths about her sister—and about herself. Nora’s worst fear is that her eleven-year-old niece may be reaching an age where she’ll begin to defy her father, putting her on dangerous ground with the man Nora has long suspected as her sister’s killer.


Cormac, trying to come to grips with a strained relationship with his own father, also becomes caught up in the century-old disappearance of a Donegal woman believed to be a selkie, a seal who could shed her skin and became human. Did the woman simply abandon her family to return to the sea, or was there something more sinister about her disappearance? As usual, I have parallel mysteries—one contemporary and one historical—and I hope readers will perceive the connections between them.

Q. What inspired the story? And what does the intriguing title mean?

A. I always knew that I’d have to solve the murder of Nora’s sister; it was just a matter of finding the right way to do it. I wasn’t certain in my own mind what had really happened to TrĂ­ona, even as I revealed details of her murder as part of Nora’s backstory in the first two novels. As a starting point, I had to rely on the few bits of information that Nora had revealed about the murder, and use them as a place to begin this story. Even though Nora suspected her brother-in-law from the start, it obviously wasn’t an open-and-shut case, since he was never charged, never even arrested for the crime. I knew that I had to give Nora’s investigation some unexpected twists and turns.

I also wanted to explore the idea of the Otherworld, which is so present in Irish culture and mythology. So I began pulling in the selkie stories, and finding all kinds of psychological parallels in modern life—there’s a duality in all of our lives
(especially for women, I think) between our rational and emotional lives, between our public and the private selves, between the loyalty we owe to ourselves and to the people we love. The mermaid or selkie is a sort of physical embodiment of that impossible duality, a woman literally divided, unable to exist wholly in either world.

The title, False Mermaid, has multiple meanings, some of which I can explain, and others that I really should leave for readers to discover! Most obviously, the title is a reference to the mermaid and selkie myths that figure in the story. ‘False mermaid’ is also the common name of Floerkea proserpinacoides, an endangered plant that grows along North American floodplains and marshy areas. The seeds of that rare plant actually provide a clue in the murder case. And I must say that I enjoyed playing with the various meanings of ‘true’ and ‘false’—what is reality, and what is myth, how do we know what’s true? True and false lovers come up a lot in old traditional songs, so there’s yet another layer of meaning, all tied up with fidelity and faithfulness. A lot to explore!

Q. Was it a challenge to write parallel plots, with Nora and Cormac in different countries, pursuing different goals?

A. Well, I always have parallel plots, so that in itself wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but I won’t say it’s ever easy. The biggest challenge was figuring out a way to tie the two threads together, so that they complemented and pulled against one another in an interesting way. I’ll leave it up to readers to decide
whether it works or not…

Q. I know you don’t want to give away too much, but can we expect Nora’s life to be changed after she investigates her sister’s death? Will her relationship with Cormac be altered by what happens to both of them during their time apart?

A. You’re right—I don’t want to give anything away! So I’ll just say I know that Cormac and Nora have been going along rather tentatively for a while (frustrating quite a few readers who wish they’d knock it off!). But given their histories, I think they’re both understandably skittish about commitment. And we find out in False Mermaid that Nora may still feel something for Frank Cordova, the Saint Paul police detective who investigated her sister’s death. And the story is about a woman feeling pulled in two directions at once…

Q. The creation of a character is often a mysterious process (no pun intended), even to the writer. Looking back, can you see how Nora and Cormac came into being? Did you flesh them out slowly as you wrote your first book, or were they fully formed before you started writing?

A. I still don’t feel as if I know them all that well! They’ve revealed themselves slowly over time, which is all part of the writing process. For me, writing is like archaeology, digging down, stripping layer upon layer, finding my way to the end of a story. There were certainly things about Nora Gavin that I didn’t find out until I started writing False Mermaid, things that she didn’t seem to know herself. I’m fascinated by how little we know ourselves. All my characters seem to rise up out of my subconscious with rather complicated backstories; they all struggle to know their own minds and hearts. How can I, even as their creator, ever know them completely? I don’t feel finished with these characters; the question is how they will continue to grow.

Q. So much in the book business has changed in a few short years – independent stores failing, chain stores closing, blogs and social networking becoming more important to authors than book tours and other traditional forms of promotion. Has your own approach to promotion changed? Will you be doing anything this time around that you didn’t do for your first two books?

A. It’s been so long since my last book was published that the whole social networking thing is completely new since then. I’m on Facebook and Twitter, and am doing some guest blogging, and none of that was even around in 2004. But otherwise, I’m doing many of the same things: book signings, library events, all-city reads, book clubs. I’m also touring with my husband Paddy O’Brien and his Irish band, Chulrua—we’ve done a bit of this before, but are expanding on it this time around. My background is in theater and communications, so events and promotion come sort of naturally to me. The challenge is in keeping enough creative time to write a new book!

Q. Will we see Nora back in Ireland for the next book? Do you think you’ll use the U.S. as a setting again in the future?

A. I’m working now on a fourth book featuring Cormac and Nora (working title: The Green Martyr), about a ninth-century manuscript that turns up in an Irish bog, slightly damaged, but still readable. This actually happened a couple of years ago—I like to start with some kernel of a real-life story and then ask, ‘what if?’ Of course in this case, I’m thinking, what if they found not just the manuscript, but the ninth-century monk who penned it? I’m still working on what sort of modern mystery would tie in with that story…

Q. Where can readers meet you this year? Will you be doing signings and attending conferences?

A. I have a HUGE list of events on my website, with tour dates at bookstores and libraries in Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, New York, Boston, Texas, Arizona, California, and Oregon. I’m also hoping to get to the San Francisco Bouchercon in October. I’m unfortunately going to miss Left Coast Crime, the Edgars, and Malice Domestic this year, because of other commitments. But I am making a concerted effort this year to hit more Midwest conferences, perhaps Omaha’s Mayhem in the Midlands and Magna Cum Murder in Muncie, Indiana. I’m also doing several Irish festivals around the country, including the Milwaukee Irish Fest, and the Rocky Mountain Irish Festival in Loveland, Colorado, both in August.

Learn more about Erin and her books at www.erinhart.com.

22 comments:

Sheila Connolly said...

I loved your first two books (not only because I'm half-Irish), and can't wait to read the new one.

I actually have a MS (completed a few years ago) with a body in an Irish bog, and when I first heard about yours, I panicked. But they're distinctly different (except for the bog!), and mine ties in a lot of family history (in Co. Cork).

Sandra Parshall said...

Everyone who leaves a comment for Erin will be entered in a drawing for a free signed copy of FALSE MERMAID.

signlady217 said...

These sound really good. I'm sorry I haven't discovered them before now! But they are on the TBR list for sure. Good luck with the new book.

Deb Salisbury said...

This sounds like a cool book! I need to hunt down your earlier novels.

Kay said...

I'm so excited to see this interview. I enjoyed it a lot. I recently bought the first book in this series on my Kindle. I've been reading the archeological mysteries written by Elly Griffiths and a fellow blogger and friend was reading Haunted Ground. We have traded authors now and I'm excited to find another new-to-me series.

Helen Kiker said...

Your books are new to me as well. I love the Irish connection in them so will start with the first book in the series.

Thanks for the interview. It is great to here what the author has to say about their books.

manya said...

Hi! We'd love to have you at Mayhem in the Midlands this year. Keep in mind that the author deadline is March 15th so you'll want to register very soon! Online registration is here: http://omahalibrary.org/events/mayhem

Carol said...

Until I was about 21, I thought I was half Irish and half German. When I was a kid I drove my mother crazy, carrying on how proud I was of being half Irish (so poetic, so rich in laughter, so magical) and what a drag it was to be half German (Nazis, etc.). Turns out my father's real last name was Dum (pronounced "doom"; sounds like dumb). He was so sensitive about it that he changed it to Dunn as a young man, and it was a big secret in our family. When my mother finally told me the truth, I was crushed. I still love everything Irish, so Erin Hart's books allow me to be Irish for a little while. Doesn't hurt that she's such a wonderful writer.

Carol in Maryland said...

I enjoyed Erin's first two books and even led a book club discussion of the first one. I'm so glad a third one is now available and am looking forward to reading it.

pennyt said...

I love finding new authors and I'll add Erin's books to my "to be looked for" list!! They sound like great reads and I thoroughly enjoyed the interview. What did we do before we had the internet?

pennyt@hotmail.com

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

It sounds like a wonderful book. :) I've written a short story about a silkie (that's the spelling I learned when I first heard about them in traditional music) but haven't found a home for it yet. Paranormal mystery shorts, anyone?

janimar said...

Would love to read this book. I have to check the others in this series because it is right up my alley.

Marilynne said...

I've never been Irish. Not even in wishes. I'd love a copy of Erin's book.

Beth Kanell said...

One of the things I love about FALSE MERMAID is the way that Nora searches for her own truth. And this is a great interview -- puts the book in fresh perspective. Thanks!

Kate L. said...

The end of Lake of Sorrows had me waiting impatiently for False Mermaid - I'm glad it's finally here! And I'm almost as excited to hear about The Green Martyr being next; that's something to look forward to!

Now, I really need to visit Ireland and see the bogs for myself ....

Julia Buckley said...

FALSE MERMAID sounds terrific! I'm looking forward to reading it.

Diane said...

Finally - another book by Erin Hart. I loved her first two books. Every time I went to a book store, I would check to see if she had a new one out, but recently I gave up.

First your 3rd one came out, now Erin Hart's 3rd. Life is good!
Thank you Ms Hart for writing more, and thank you, Sandra, for posting the news on Facebook.

Andria said...

I love Ms. Hart's books, love the Irish settings and the mystical qualities. I love and hate the fact that her mysteries are so few and far between. I'd love to have more but respect the time and care she takes with each one

Kari Wainwright said...

Just in time for St. Patrick's Day! Sounds like a terrific read.

Susan D said...

Oh good, another intriguing author with a few earlier books for me to catch up on. And I like the idea of a mystery book with deep characterizations.

Debbie Bogenschutz said...

Erin-- I was so glad to see you had a new book coming out, it had been such a long time since the last one. And I loved it. I was afraid for a while you were wrapping up the series, but there's lots of room for further developments at the end. A nice St. Patrick's day gift!

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