Dervla McTiernan Expands The Cormac Reilly Series With Both A Sequel And A Prequel
This year the bestselling author of 'The Ruin' added 'The Scholar' and 'The Sisters' for fans ready to immerse themselves in the world of her standout Irish crime fiction series. By Tricia FordAug 30, 2019 12:52 PM
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When author Dervla McTiernan's debut novel The Ruin came out in 2018, it introduced a great new detective to the crime fiction rolls and announced a great new voice in the genre. It's since become a bestseller, shortlisted for many awards, and the Irish-born author who now lives in Australia has found herself with many fans eager to dive deeper into the world of her central character, Cormac Reilly. So she added a sequel earlier this year with The Scholar and now has a prequel with The Sisters.
Listen in as she talks to editor Tricia Ford about how living in Australia helps in writing a series set in her native Ireland, what it meant to find the perfect narrator in Aoife McMohan, and how The Sisters takes a side character from The Ruin and puts her in the center of the action.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Tricia Ford: Hi there, this is Audible editor Tricia Ford, and I'm here with Irish crime novelist Dervla McTiernan. She's the creator of the atmospheric and unpausable Cormac Reilly series set in Galway, Ireland. Welcome, Dervla.
Dervla McTiernan: Thank you, Tricia. I'm really excited to be talking to you today.
TF: Me too, me too. Just to give everyone a little bit of background, your first book, The Ruin, was your debut novel, and the first book in the series. It was narrated by Aoife McMahon. She will also follow up to narrate additional books in the series and she's a perfect match for you. But The Ruin introduces Cormac Reilly, or Detective Sergeant Cormac Reilly, who is a Garda, or a policeman as us Americans call them, in Galway, Ireland. That first book kind of digs up his past case and a cold case in a new way. Kind of brings up ghosts from the past, so to speak.
DM: Yes. Cormac is with the police, like you say; he's a detective sergeant in the Irish police force. In Irish we call that the Garda Síochána. Cormac has been working in Dublin for years, and then he moves back to Galway, really because his partner Emma gets a great job opportunity. They move for her work. Then he is assigned to a bunch of cold cases, and comes across or is assigned to investigate a case from his own past, from 20 years before.
TF: Right, and that begins his story and these wonderful books that come. In The Scholar, he's back, but as you mentioned, his girlfriend Emma is also very much in the center of the story as well.
DM: Yes, The Scholar opens with Emma discovering a body. Emma is a research scientist, and she's super dedicated to her work. Late one evening, one Friday evening, she's going in to the laboratory to check on some test results when she stumbles across the body of a young woman who has been the victim of a hit and run. The scene is really upsetting for Emma. She calls Cormac straightaway, and understandably, as he's her partner, he comes running. He ends up taking this case that otherwise probably wouldn't have been assigned to him. The young woman is identified as Carline Darcy, the granddaughter of this extremely wealthy family. Very, very powerful and politically connected. Cormac takes this case, and obviously it's a high-pressure case as a result. Possibly he shouldn't be taking it, given that it was his girlfriend who found the body, but he manages to rationalize that to himself and ends up running the investigation.
TF: As the listener, I'm always behind Cormac because he is a good guy, clearly. That's one of the biggest appeals of him as a character.
DM: Yeah, he is, for me too, really. I'm a huge fan of crime fiction. I've been a crime fiction reader since I was old enough to read crime fiction. I love all the greats. I'm a huge Michael Connelly fan. I'm a huge Ian Rankin fan. But at a certain point, I kind of got a bit frustrated with these men, where I'm listening to Rebus and he's unhappy because his daughter lives hours away and she never talks to him and they don't have a relationship. Halfway through this story, I find myself putting the book down and saying, "You could call her, you know, John. You can pick up the phone."
TF: Very true, very true.
DM: Modern men, I think, are capable of doing that. When I set out to write Cormac, I wanted someone I could respect and someone I could like. I wanted to be on his side from the beginning. He really is a decent guy. He's a good guy doing his best in a very difficult situation. I think, too, life has been quite kind to Cormac, in a way. He doesn't probably see it, but he's a reasonably good looking guy, he's the kind of guy who was good at sports in school. He does a job that he loves, that he's good at. He doesn't really realize how life has been reasonably straightforward for him, at least up until I get involved, and then I make life harder. I'm kind of interested in seeing what happens.
When you put someone really decent in a really rough situation and you present him with a lot of choices, none of which are wonderful, and he has to choose between shades of gray, and after he's made those difficult choices, how does he see himself and how does he move forward having had to do that?
TF: He's a wonderful character to center the series on, but I also like how you have many side characters who seem to be being set up for possible for more prime roles in later books?
DM: How do you know? [Laughter] You might just be right about that one. It's a big challenge for writers to build a series around one single character, without having a cast of characters that the reader can also feel a great deal for. For me, the books that I love and the ones that I find most rewarding are the ones where there's a broader range of characters. That's kind of always been what I hoped to do. Peter Fisher, who's the young cop in the earlier books, is very important and certainly kind of comes into his own in the third book, which is out next year. Carrie O'Halloran, the vain female cop, she's kind of a key character in pivotal scenes in the books, but I think that she's someone who really deserves her own story a little bit later. Her story is just kind of building at the back of my mind at the moment. It's early days, but I think it might be coming.
TF: Great. She was one that I had my eye on that I was hoping to learn more about. That's super exciting for me. Can't wait to see what happens.
DM: Thank you. I love hearing that, thank you.
What was it, then, about our society that we turned our eyes away and we didn't ask the follow-up question? When we answered that question, then how do we look at ourselves after that?
TF: One thing that I absolutely love about your books, and the first thing that drew me to your books, was the setting, the Galway setting. I had the opportunity as a young college student to spend a year in Galway studying, so it's a place very close to my heart.
DM: No way, so you've been to NYUG? Used to be UCG, back when I was there.
TF: Yeah, me too. UCG.
DM: I can't believe it, that's hilarious. You know all those places, then, that are in the story. You know all the streets and street names and the pubs.
TF: That's right.
DM: And the locations. Wow. That's so funny. The world is such a small place.
TF: It is a small place. Galway is a treasure. I love it. I love the way you portray it. It's not overly nostalgic. It's a realistic view of a modern-day small city with a rich history. Perfect place for mystery, but still not a fairy tale-type city.
DM: That's such a lovely way to put it. I love Galway. Of everywhere I've lived in the world, it's the place I've lived longest and the place I know best. I went to school there and college there. I worked in Dublin, but I came back to Galway to work before we moved to Australia. I love the city and I feel like I know every cobblestone. I know some of its history and buildings, everything. I have great, great affection for it. But it is a real place to me. It's a real place where real people live and raise their kids and go to work every day, and it has its problems and it has its strengths. I feel like I see all of that. I have great affection for it, but I'm glad that you feel I haven't made it into that fairy tale Irish village, because I think that would be doing it a disservice, really.
TF: Yeah. It makes it realistic and hitting home for everyone. I think the book is appealing for its setting, it's a lovely Irish setting, but beyond that, it just strikes some core demons I think people all over the world do carry. Here in the States, in Australia. It's a striking, hot set up.
DM: Yeah, for sure. Unfortunately, the kinds of things that are explored in The Ruin are certainly issues that we've had to struggle with all around the world. People sometimes ask about where those story lines came from, and, really, I suppose they come from inside me and all of us. Those questions we're all asking ourselves about the world. I was lucky. When I grew up in Ireland, I grew up in a very happy home. My parents had seven kids. It was a very busy household. It was a very normal, if slightly chaotic, life. But as I got older, I found out that while I was having this happy childhood, there were many children in Ireland who were having a very, very different experience.
We had these industrial schools in Ireland, which were run by the Catholic Church and paid for by the state. Effectively what happened was, if you were poor, if your parents were poor, or if you were being raised by a single mother, very often the children were simply removed from the home and put in these industrial schools. The intent, or the verbalized intent anyway, was that they'd be better cared for there. The reality, of course, is completely different. They were horrifically neglected. There was death from malnutrition and disease, and they were also terribly abused. That was just one example of the many terrible things that were happening with kids in Ireland. There was this kind of culture of secrecy.
This is what I was trying to really get at with the book. In any instance, a lot of these things were happening, and they were happening with just a little bit of knowledge known. The tip of the iceberg is sort of poking into society at all times. Everybody knew a tiny bit. But when the truth of what was happening came out, people would sort of say, "None of us knew. We didn't know. We didn't know that these things were happening." But I could remember back to my childhood, little comments and things that were said that made me realize that people knew something. They knew a little bit. What was it, then, about our society that we turned our eyes away and we didn't ask the follow-up question? When we answered that question, then how do we look at ourselves after that? How do we build a new society, a new way of understanding ourselves as Irish people? How do we make that better and heal from this? I don't know the answers to those questions, because they're really big ones. But they were the questions that were in my mind when I was writing the book. I think I was trying to find answers for myself.
TF: I think it brings it up in a smart way. It's just a natural part of this story, and it, at least, brings things to light and into conversation that, as you said, were sort of unspoken and known, which is kind of common here, too. It's not something unique to Ireland, for sure.
[The Sisters] is a prequel to The Ruin.... I think [it] also gives us a really cool insight into who Carrie is, the kind of person she is and her relationship with her sister, all of which will be important in the next books.
DM: No, unfortunately.
TF: Speaking of location, I know that you are now based in Australia.
TF: You've been there quite awhile, right?
DM: Yeah, we've been here eight years. I can't quite believe it.
TF: And you're still writing about Ireland. Is it different writing about your home country while you're living abroad?
DM: I never wrote, really, until I came to Australia. Not properly. I was a lawyer for many years, [and had] a very different life in Ireland. We left Ireland after the big economic crash, after the subprime crisis in the States, and then the knockdown effect in Ireland kind of impacted us pretty heavily. We moved for those reasons. Even though it was catastrophic for us in many ways at the time, it was also, looking back now, a great gift, because the life we had then kind of ended. We had to start afresh, and it gave us the chance to start completely anew. The one thing I'd always wanted to do was write. We kind of gave ourselves permission to try new things when we came here. I started writing a couple of years after we arrived and wrote seriously from there, and it all took off. It's been a great dream come true for me.
So I've only ever written about Ireland from Australia, and I think, in many ways, it's helped. I think living in a place, when you know it very well, sometimes it's hard to see the things that make it specifically itself. It's different seeing it from somewhere else. In my writing, I don't want to write very long, wordy descriptions. I want to just find the two or three tiny details that are so pivotal to that one place, that one place at that one period of time, that if you lay them on the page, the whole thing comes to life for the reader. That's what I'm trying to do, anyway.
Being in Perth, in western Australia, where the sky is massively blue and open, the sun beats down every day--in comparison to rainy Galway where you could almost reach up and touch the clouds --it makes those details stand out for me in my memory. It's an easier way to find the story, in a way. Or find the setting.
TF: That's amazing. Those details certainly do come through in the words and in the narration. Back to Aoife, I do have to compliment her again, and compliment you on the selection of Aoife. I don't know if you had the chance to be a part of the selection of the narrator?
DM: I did. I tell you, I'm a huge audiobook fan. I've been an avid listener since my first little girl was born, so that's nine years I've been listening to audiobooks. I love a good narrator. I know what they can bring to a story. You need someone who's a storyteller. Not just someone who has a good accent or can read well, but who can build a story. My publisher in the UK sent me four voices and I listened to them. They were all really good and they were good actors, but I just didn't feel like they were quite storytellers. So, I listened to every Irish reader I could find, of every novel at the time. And I found Aoife. She had just read Marian Keyes's book The Break. I thought, oh my gosh, she was just perfect. She was so perfect. I rang Lucy in London and said, "Lucy, there's this actor, Aoife McMahon, and I think she lives in London. Is there any chance we could have her?" Lucy went off and made a few phone calls, and thankfully, Aoife was available and was willing to read for us. I just feel so lucky we got her because I think she's done an absolutely phenomenal job.
TF: Yeah, I have to agree. She's a fresh voice for me, too. I first experienced her with The Ruin. Now I'm hooked on a narrator and a book series.
DM: We got you, Tricia! We got you! Our work here is done.
TF: Yes, you did. A little back to your background. You mentioned that you were a lawyer for 12 years. That's a long time. I'm assuming that's what you studied in Galway.
DM: That was what I studied. Corporate law in Galway, many years ago.
TF: How does that play out in your genre, crime fiction, and in your writing process? Does it play a part in that at all?
DM: Gosh, I mean, commercial law is about as boring as it gets. No one in their right mind would write a novel about it. I don't think even John Grisham could overcome that challenge. But I had some friends, a couple of colleagues and acquaintances from college, who went on to become defense lawyers. I heard a few backroom stories that would curl your hair, things that would really surprise you when you're not part of the system that really impact the reality of how cases are won or lost, and how people's lives are destroyed sometimes determines the stupidest things. Some of the things trickle into the novel.
In terms of writing process, the only thing that actually does help is the memory training. In commercial law, and I was dealing with a lot of international contracts--the contracts themselves were 200 or 300 pages long, and then there are appendices equally as long. You have to remember, as a lawyer, that if you change clause 1:6B, it's also going to impact 10:AD and whatever else, three or four other clauses in 10 different sections of the contract. You have to hold this map in your head of the whole thing. I always think of these London taxi drivers who have what they call "the knowledge," where they have to pass this massive test with all these very, very complex street diagrams and everything else. I think it's a bit like that. It trains your brain to think a certain way.
DM: When you have to hold the map of a novel in your head, particularly a crime novel where you might have layers and subplots, you have to remember that if a character behaved a certain way in chapter three, he'd better be consistent in chapter 28. If you were paying something off in chapter 22, where did you foreshadow that? Have you mentioned it again since? Just that consistency and making sure the rhythm of the story is coming through and the pace is right. I think it helps with that. You wouldn't think it would, but I think it does.
TF: I can totally see that, because those details are so important. As a listener, I'm not someone who overly examines the details, but when something isn't quite right, it just makes its way into the story; something doesn't feel natural. In your books, it does feel natural. And you have a whole lot of detail in there.
DM: Thank you, that's lovely to hear.
TF: It's not a light story.
DM: [Laughter] I guess it isn't. I want it to always be entertaining, first. I read always for pleasure. I want to disappear into a story and be in another world. That doesn't mean it has to be a light and fluffy world, but I want to truly escape, so it has to feel real to me. Does that kind of make sense?
TF: Yeah, absolutely. I kind of say that same thing. I'm a big fan of fiction; I do like crime fiction and I guess what you would call straight fiction. But I agree, I like being lost in a world, but not necessarily a fantasy world. I think you succeed in that immeasurably.
DM: Thank you, that's so lovely to hear.
TF: You're very welcome. You had mentioned book three is done already, is that right?
DM: Yes, book three is called The Good Turn. I am working on it as we speak. It's finished, but I'm doing the structured edit at the moment. I'm working away. I'm sitting in my study as we speak, and I'm looking up at my notes and my thoughts about what I'm doing with it. I'm really excited about it. That'll be out next year.
TF: Great, great. Do you think we'll get one book a year?
DM: Yep, that's the plan.
TF: Awesome, awesome. I also have to ask you to please get Aoife for your next books, if you can.
DM: Yep, absolutely. We're in touch. We didn't know each other beforehand, but we're in touch now. We send each other Facebook messages every now and again. I know she really enjoys reading the books. We're hoping that we'll get to continue to work together. We'd really like to.
TF: Do you find yourself in Ireland often, or needing to go back to Ireland?
DM: I've gone back for the last two books, for The Ruin and The Scholar, the launches and things, which was enormous fun. My family was very excited. It was any excuse for a party. We had a big launch in Galway, in Kirby's above Busker Brownes, which you might remember from your time in Galway.
TF: Yes, I do. That's great.
DM: My lovely editor, Lucy, came over from London. She was shaking her head looking around the room and she said, "It's like a wedding for books." That's exactly what it was like. It was like a big Irish wedding for books. It was so much fun and so over the top.
TF: That sounds fantastic.
DM: It's great to have that as an excuse to go back. It was really good fun. Other than that, we've gone back a handful of times. It's 24 hours, about, of air travel, and our children are a quite small. They're at the age now where it's getting a bit easier, but in the early years, it was kind of tricky. We didn't go as often as we'd like. We'll probably go a bit more frequently now that they're a little older.
TF: That's great. You do have your Audible Original coming out this coming fall. Can you share a little teaser about that with us?
DM: Sure. I'm so excited about this. I'm really excited that Audible asked me to do it, first of all, and I'm excited about the story. I mentioned Carrie O'Halloran earlier. Carrie is my police detective. She's female, obviously. She's married with young children in The Ruin and The Scholar. I've always been fascinated by Carrie. She's a really tough cookie. She is really good at her job, but she's very human. I was always interested in how she kind of got to be where she is, and her back story. My Audible Original is a story about Carrie, 14 years before the events of The Ruin, when she's a very young Garda, living in Dublin, sharing a studio apartment with her sister, Aifric, who is a newly qualified defense barrister. They are living together, and then Aifric gets a case where a young man has been arrested and charged with the murder of his girlfriend. Aifric decides that he is innocent, and tries to enlist Carrie to help her prove it--even though Carrie, obviously being a member of the police force, is very conflicted about that.
The story is really about that, and them as young women in Dublin trying to build a place for themselves in the world, but also this case that just explodes like a bomb in the middle of their lives and what they're going to do about it, and who they are afterwards.
TF: So it's a kind of prequel to The Ruin, right?
DM: Yes. It's a prequel to The Ruin. The third book in the series of The Ruin and The Scholar, The Good Turn, which we talked about earlier, kind of finishes the three books. They're a complete arc in themselves. They can be read separately; they don't rely on each other. But if you're someone who likes to read a series, then I think doing them in order is good. I feel like they are complete in themselves. The next three books are in the same world, and Cormac Reilly will still be part of them, but the focus will shift a bit more to Carrie. They're going to be more Carrie's story. The prequel, if you like, is certainly before the events of The Ruin, but also gives us a really cool insight into who Carrie is, the kind of person she is and her relationship with her sister, all of which will be important in the next books.
TF: Very, very intriguing. I can't wait to listen to it. I think it's a wonderful introduction for people who have not yet discovered the Cormac Reilly series and for diehard fans, as we eagerly await book three. Yes, we have about a year to wait.
DM: I'm afraid so.
TF: Having something this fall will hold us over for the time being. Thank you for that. I'm looking forward to it. Thank you so much for talking to me today. I'm a fan girl, and I'm thrilled to have you here and to have your books at Audible.
DM: Thank you, Tricia. It's been so lovely to talk to you. Particularly knowing now that you are a former UCG student. We have that in common. Some day we will have to catch up over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and swap stories.
TF: That would be awesome. I have a lot of them. I'm sure you do, too. [Laughter]
DM: I'll have a few. [Laughter]
TF: It's almost bedtime for you, so thanks again for chatting, and I'm sure, with your Original coming, we'll have opportunities to talk again. I look forward to it.