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Author Interviews

Author Interview: Erin Hart

Sweet Poison by Ellen Hart

Erin Hart’s third book, False Mermaid, was my favorite read of 2010, and I was so captivated by it I asked Erin if she would answer some questions as the book is due to come out in paperback.  Her central character is Nora Gavin, a forensic anthropologist who has been working in Ireland but who comes home to Minnesota in the third book to try and find out who killed her sister.

Q: What kind of research did/do you have to do first of all, for the forensic/archaeology parts of the books?

A: Well, the story that got me started writing was the tale of a red-haired girl whose severed head was found in a bog, so I started with the source, a man called Barry Raftery, who was involved in the recovery of the red-haired girl. He was only a child at the time that the girl’s head was found; his father was a famous archaeologist, and also happened to be the director of Ireland’s National Museum. Barry also grew up to be a famous archaeologist, so I was very fortunate to have his assistance, and his blessing, in writing a story based on his memory of the red-haired girl. When I wrote asking for details, he wrote back, “The head was of a woman. I can still see it. She had flaming red hair. Her eyes were still there, staring out at the world, it seemed, in terror. The neck had a clean cut so she must have been beheaded… Forty years later, she is still with me.” His description was so vivid, so full of details, that it gave me the starting point and impetus I needed to write the red-haired girl’s story. As Iworked on the book, I also traveled to Ireland to interview Barry, and he sent me on to his colleagues, starting with Dr. Máire Delaney at Trinity College, who became a sort of model for my pathologist character, Nora Gavin. Máire Delaney was a medical doctor who taught anatomy at the medical school, but also had a great interest in archaeology and bog preservation. She was kind enough to describe in detail how to excavate human remains from a bog, and helped me with important DNA questions. I visited the Keeper of Antiquities and the Keeper of Conservation at the National Museum, the people in charge of any human remains found in bogs, as well as the laboratory where any specimens are examined. I trotted around the country to wetland and dryland excavations, to interview the archaeologists in charge, in addition to observing (and participating in) their excavation work. I spent time interviewing a couple of wonderful Garda detectives, so that I could get a grasp of Irish police procedure. I also visited with John Harbison, State Pathologist for Ireland at the time; he’d been involved in the recovery of several bog people… Can you tell I love research?

Q:  Again, what kind of research goes into the Irish parts of the story? You make the country come alive, from music to folklore - there's an obvious love there.  Did you plan from the start to set the books there?

A: During the course of writing,I have to do an awful lot of research about life in Ireland as well—I visited castles and pubs, tower houses and apiaries, cow pastures, police stations, industrial bogs, and ruined 12th-century abbeys. I walked the bogs with my husband, and grilled him about how exactly a person goes about cutting turf by hand. I did always plan to set the series in Ireland; it seemed to me that the story was quintessentially Irish—the bogs, the red-haired girl, not to mention the fact that she was likely beheaded during Cromwell’s resettlement of Ireland during the 17th century. It never occurred to me to set the novel anywhere else. (I heard from my agent that a well-known television producer actually looked at Haunted Ground, but decided not to make an offer because he couldn’t figure out how to turn it intoan American story. I’ll admit I was relieved!) There’s something about Ireland that has always attracted me. Even when I was a child, I was so interested in Irish music and culture. I can’t really explain it—maybe it’s something to do with being named after my Irish-American grandmother. And something about the complex and contradictory nature of the place has a lot to do with the stories I feel compelled to tell.

Q: When you are planning your books, what element jump starts a book?  Character, setting or plot?  I enjoy books myself with very strong characters, which Nora certainly is, but your books seem to be a good blend of all three.

A: I usually begin with a striking scene: two brothers cutting turf discovering a girl’s severed head; a man’s life flashing before his eyes as he drowns in a chilly boghole; a Cambodian fisherman on the banks of the Mississippi unearthing a grinning skull. Those are the opening scenes of my three books so far.  I like someone or something from the past intruding into the present, and setting the wheels in motion. So the setting is vitally important from the start. After setting Haunted Ground in and around a big country house, I wanted to go in the opposite direction with the next book, and that’s why Lake of Sorrows is set out on a barren-looking industrial bog. It’s a side of Ireland not many tourists have seen. Once the story is set in motion, it’s the characters who drive the plot. I don’t know what’s going to happen, so I just have to follow them around and find out what they’re going to do. Most of the time, the process of writing feels very much like an investigation. I’m finding clues along with the detectives in the story.

Q: What do you feel you're learning as a writer as you go forward?  While I liked the first two books very much, I really felt the third book was another step ahead.  I am a sucker for metaphor and symbolism, however, and I loved those parts of False Mermaid.  I thought the Selkie myth that you tied through the book was a very evocative one, and a very effective one.

A: Thanks for the kind words. I’m a sucker for metaphor and symbolism, too! I always try to have a strong theme threading its way through the story. In Haunted Ground it was the notion that the past is not dead; on the contrary (to paraphrase William Faulkner) it’s not even past. In Lake of Sorrows, everything revolved around the theme of sacrifice. False Mermaid is so different from the first two books in the series that I was actually a little apprehensive about how it might be received. It just seemed that the selkie’s dilemma and all its associated metaphor suited the story of Nora’s sister. I wanted to explore ideas about identity, and shape-shifting. Nora has to contend with lies told about her sister, to determine what is true and what is false. I wanted to play with the multiple meanings in those words. In traditional songs, when people are described as ‘true’ or ‘false,’ it refers to loyalty and faithfulness, rather than anything to do with facts. I’m not sure what I’ve been learning as a writer—first drafts are still my idea of hell—except perhaps that you have to try to deliver the story that’s in your head and heart, as difficult and strange and convoluted as it may seem at times. I’ve learned to trust that the most interesting ideas will keep coming back, and keep beating at the door, until I’ve found a way to express them. And I hope I’ve learned a little about how to trust readers; for me, the ideal reader is willing and able to dig for and unpack all the different connections and meanings behind the words and images in my novels. (P.S. I guess that means you’re my ideal reader, Robin!)

Q: What's ahead for Nora?  It seems like she's tied up one loose end but she has another in terms of her love life.  I think you need to have her slightly out of balance to keep her interesting. What are your thoughts?

Some people have asked if the series was planned as a trilogy. To be honest, it wasn’t planned as a series at all. When I sent the first fifty pages of Haunted Ground to my agent, she said, “This is a series, right?” and although gobsmacked by the question, I said yes, even though I had no idea what the second book would be about. So no, it wasn’t planned as a trilogy. And I’m actually working on the fourth in the series as we speak. Nora may have solved her sister’s murder, but that doesn’t mean that the case is completely finished, or that her sister’s death won’t continue to haunt her. And Nora’s relationship with her niece is unresolved at the end of False Mermaid—Elizabeth wants nothing to do with her, which was a heartbreaking development. So Nora may have different crosses to bear going forward, but she is still very much carrying the past with her. I’m also working out where her relationship with Cormac will go in the next book. I don’t actually believe that characters getting together means they’re doomed to a somehow less interesting happily-ever-after. I don’t know how many books there will be in the series. There’s always something new turning up in the bogs, and something new to explore between the characters as their relationships change. I might even return to some of the secondary characters and see what they’re up to down the line. I feel as if there are lots of opportunities for discovery left.

Q: Will all future books be set in Ireland, or will you have a cross back to Minnesota now and then?

A: The current work-in-progress (working title, The Serpent’s Egg) is set entirely in Ireland, but there will at least be some communication between Nora and her parents in the States. I’m not sure where future stories may go. I find that the setting really helps to find the themes I want to explore, so I have to follow wherever that leads.

Q: What brought you writing?  Did you always want to write a mystery?  If so, are there any authors who have been especially influential for you?

A: It was the story of the red-haired girl (one of the two central mysteries in Haunted Ground) that compelled me to become a writer. Before hearingthat story, it had never occurred to me to write a novel, mystery or otherwise. I was always an avid mystery reader, but it didn’t really seem necessary to try my hand until I heard a story that I was pretty sure no one else was going to write. In terms of influence, I actually diagramed P.D. James’s novel, A Taste for Death, as I was preparing to write Haunted Ground. I have to say, picking that story apart felt like a graduate course in the mystery genre. I once confessed to an Irish journalist what I had done, and he asked if I wasn’t worried that some of James’s style would rub off on me. All I could think (inside my head, of course!) was, “Oh, please God.” I devoured everything by Phyllis A. Whitney as an adolescent, so I think some of her love of exotic locales and her gothic vibe still lives in me. I always read a lot of non-mystery writing as well, everything from Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, to all of Shakespeare’s plays, to Arthur Conan Doyle, and Dickens, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. I remember going through a serious John Fowles phase. And my favorite novel of the last twenty years is Possession, by A.S. Byatt. I tend to like thick, sprawling novels with lots of characters and eventful plots. Contemporary crime writers I like very much would include Martin Cruz Smith, Elizabeth George, John LeCarre, Minette Walters, David Hewson, Mark Billingham, Stuart Neville, Declan Burke—and many more, I’m sure, had I more time to read!

Q: Minnesota seems to produce a large number of gifted writers, but especially mystery writers.  Can you talk a bit about the writing community there?

A: It’s difficult to say exactly why we have so many writers in general and crime writers in particular—except perhaps for our extra-long winters! But seriously, I think it has more to do with the outstanding libraries across Minnesota, and a rather unusual awareness and appreciation of all the arts. Corporate and state support of the arts has always been a strong tradition here, and a significant majority of Minnesota voters recently approved an increase in the state sales tax to benefit arts and culture. (Can you tell I used to work in communications at the state arts council?) The mystery writing community here is a eclectic, but pretty amazingly supportive. Two years ago, with the help of fellow writers, I organized a “Killer Cocktails” kickoff to the Midwest Booksellers Association trade show, and I’m hoping to keep that momentum going. There are so many ways we could be helping each other out. I was recently elected president of our local chapter of Sisters in Crime, so we’re working on lots of ideas about how to raise the profile of Minnesota crime writers, and women writers in particular.

Q: Finally, can you talk about the music in the books a bit?  I know your husband is a musician—are you one yourself?

A: My husband, Paddy O’Brien (yes, that is his real name), has been playing Irish music since he was a child—traditional dance tunes like jigs, reels, hornpipes. He doesn’t actually read music, so he relies on his phenomenal memory, and carries many thousands of tunes around in his head. He’s known as a sort of walking encyclopedia of Irish music. The reason there’s so much music in my books is that most people we know in Ireland, even if they hold other jobs—as teachers, policemen, scientists, farmers—most are musicians as well. It’s just so much a part of the life and culture. There’s a saying in Donegal: “Abhair amhrán, inis scéal, déan rinnce, ná gabh amach,” which means, “Sing a song, tell a story, do a dance, or go away.” It’s just expected that you’ll be able to do something to entertain and amuse your friends and neighbors. I think that comes from the ancient days of the oral culture, which is still alive and well in Ireland.  As I was writing Haunted Ground, I had already made several characters musicians (the archaeologist, Cormac Maguire, plays the flute, and police detective Garrett Devaney plays the fiddle) and I was toying with the idea of making pathologist Nora Gavin a traditional singer, as I am—it would be a way to add another facet to her character. But I talked myself out of it—thinking perhaps it would stretch credibility to have so many people involved in the music. So I gave up on the idea. But then I interviewed the bog body expert, Máire Delaney, and it turned out she was a traditional singer. So Nora Gavin bloody well sings! When something like that is handed to you on a platter, you take it, and say ‘thank you.’ Would this be the appropriate place for a plug? Paddy just released a new CD called “The Sailor’s Cravat,” and I’m singing three unaccompanied songs on it, including “The Generous Lover,” a song that Nora Gavin sings in Haunted Ground.

Q: Last question: what's next - what can we look forward to in the next book?

A: I find that all my stories get their spark from things that have happened in real life. So The Serpent’s Egg takes its inspiration from a discovery, about four years ago, of a 9th-century book of psalms, found buried in a bog, and still legible after  more than a thousand years. Of course, I am an evil mystery writer, so it’s not just the book that turns up in my story. In the opening chapter, a man with a digger comes across a car buried in a bog, and when the boot pops open, he finds the body of a man from the 9th century. Of course everyone asks, “How did a 9th-century man get into the trunk of a car?” To which I can only reply: “I don’t know—I have to write the book to find out!” Writing novels really feels like an investigation, because I truly don’t know where they’re going to end up—and figuring it all out is the best part of my job.

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