An Indies Introduce Q&A With Dervla McTiernan

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The Ruin by Dervla McTiernanDervla McTiernan is the author of The Ruin (Penguin Books), a Summer/Fall 2018 Indies Introduce  selection and a July 2018 Indie Next List pick.

“This solid debut from Irish author McTiernan provides a compelling story that spans two decades and multiple mysteries and examines the ways that public servants can provide resources for those in need or fail them utterly — or worse,” said Maryelizabeth Yturralde of Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, California, who served on the bookseller panel that chose McTiernan’s debut for the Indies Introduce program. “But the core element that won my praise was McTiernan’s constant reminder of the fact that characters’ deaths leave holes in the other characters’ lives — they are not just plot devices to drive a whodunnit, but individuals who are mourned.”

McTiernan, a native of Cork County, Ireland, practiced corporate law for 12 years, until the global financial crisis. She now lives with her family in Western Australia. In 2015, one of McTiernan’s stories was shortlisted for the Sisters in Crime Scarlet Stiletto award.

Here, McTiernan and Yturralde discuss the crime genre and the process of writing about the author’s homeland from halfway across the world.

Maryelizabeth Yturralde: The Ruin is set in Galway, where you grew up, although you’re now a resident of Australia. How did your distance from Ireland influence your perspective?

The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan

Dervla McTiernan: I think it helped. When you have lived somewhere for most of your life and you know it intimately, it can be hard to notice those very particular characteristics that make that place what it is. You take them for granted; they are part of the wallpaper. We live in Perth, Western Australia, which is about as different from Galway as it is possible to get — the weather, the flora, the architecture, the way of life. Living here, experiencing that way of life, opened my eyes to what makes Galway the place that it is. When I think about Galway from Australia, I think now about the weather — those heavy skies, the muted light. I think about a warm and welcoming pub with a fire in the grate. And I think about the people, of course.

MY: You studied and practiced corporate law. Did that prepare you for writing about crime?

DM: Not at all! I have to admit that my knowledge of criminal procedure is sadly lacking. Actually, when I think about it, it may have helped in two ways. Firstly, I had some friends and acquaintances who practiced criminal defense law, so I heard a few stories along the way that might have given me a bit more insight into how the system really works, or fails to work, as the case may be. The other thing that helped me, perhaps a bit more directly, is my contract work. I worked quite a bit with complex international contracts, great big 300-pagers. When you’re negotiating something like that you have to remember all of it, every clause, and understand how each clause relates to the other because if you agree to change something at clause 26.3(b) you had better understand how that impacts every other clause in the contract. You need to be able to build logic maps in your head, and that ability serves you well when you are writing a novel, particularly when you are trying to weave a plot and multiple sub-plots together.

MY: In crime novels, the question of why is a critical element in determining whodunnit. Without spoilers, what else did you hope to accomplish when creating your characters’ motivations?

DM: More than anything else, I want my characters to feel utterly real. I put as much as I can into building characters who come to life on the page so that they start to lead the story, instead of feeling like puppets pushed around a stage. With Maude, that was easy — she came to me very naturally. I knew who she was from the first page. I knew that she had loved her little brother Jack, had cared for him, protected him from the moment of his birth. I saw them at a point in their lives, sitting on the stairs in a crumbling Georgian house in the countryside, holding hands as it got dark outside. I knew that they were afraid and that things had reached a crisis point. So, Maude’s motivation came from who she is as a person, from her entire life history up to that point. Sometimes characters come quickly and easily, sometimes it takes more work over a period of time, but I think you know when you really have it, when the character begins to feel real in your hands.

MY: Female crime writers have been enjoying a strong showing on bestseller and award lists for the past few years. Who are some writers you’re glad to be in the company of?

DM: Oh, wow, where to start and where to finish! There are so many incredible crime writers working today. I love Tana French. Her books are just a joy, something to sink into. I get excited, too, when I see a new Sophie Hannah coming out. Jane Casey is fabulous, as are Liz Nugent, Sinéad Crowley, Candice Fox, Jane Harper, Jo Spain, Sara Foster…in all honesty, I could go on forever. I’m excited, too, that J.K. Rowling is writing crime as Robert Galbraith; I’ve so enjoyed those books and I’m looking forward to the next one. It’s interesting to see these blockbuster writers writing books that are more crime-oriented — I’ve absolutely loved Stephen King’s recent books in the genre, The Outsider in particular.

MY: How has the support of the Australian writing community, such as the recognition of being shortlisted for the Scarlet Stiletto award, played a part in launching your debut novel?

DM: I was shortlisted for the Scarlett Stiletto back in November 2015 for a short story I submitted to the competition. That short story was the first piece of writing I ever finished — I entered because I felt I needed a deadline, more than that I had any hope of winning! I didn’t win, or even come close, but the short-listing gave me a boost in confidence that I really needed at the time. It was that little bit of validation that gave me the push to go back and finish my novel.

More generally, the support of the Australian writing community — and the Irish, British, and American writing communities, for that matter — has been incredibly generous. I have been blown away by the writers who have taken the time to read my book, to reach out and share their thoughts. And booksellers, too — as a reader you’re not aware of the enormous impact of bookseller support, but I can see it now as a writer. The support I’ve had for The Ruin has been nothing short of fantastic, and I’m so grateful to all the booksellers who have gotten behind the book. To have the book chosen for Indies Introduce was a fabulous bonus! The time commitment from the booksellers involved in choosing the list must have been immense, so thank you to everyone involved!

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The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan (Penguin Books, 9780143133124, Paperback Fiction, $16) On Sale Date: 7/3/2018.

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