Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
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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 Tríona, 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.