Sunday, April 14, 2024

Q&A with Dervla McTiernan



Dervla McTiernan is the author of the new novel What Happened to Nina?. Her other books include the novel The Murder Rule. She lives in Australia.


Q: What inspired you to write What Happened to Nina?


A: I never start writing a book with an "issue" in my mind. When I was a kid, I thought there was nothing worse than a book that came with a moral. Today, so many kids books are utterly gorgeous, and they manage to be fun and creative and hilarious and charming while still tackling kiddo issues like monsters under the bed. 


Some of the kids’ books I grew up with weren’t quite so beautifully balanced! I remember a complete range of books that might as well have been called "Moral Lessons For Recalcitrant Toddlers," because they were aimed at very small kids, but had no joy at all to them. 


The lessons were worthy, if a bit obvious — don’t tell lies, stick up for your friends, appreciate your parents — but the books were so incredibly boring. In their quest to make us better kids the writer seemed to forgot all about entertaining us. 


I want to write something that might be dark and murderous, but is also, essentially … does it sound twisted to say this? … fun. A book that offers a story to escape into for a few hours, and characters you can live and die with.


I want to write the kind of book I love to read. I’m not sure that I always succeed, but that’s the aim of the game for me.


Q: In an interview with Publishers Weekly about the novel, you said, “Online, everything is a commodity, particularly attention, and certain cases just capture the public imagination.” Why did you choose to include social media as a factor in this case?


A: Writers are encouraged to use social media, by our publishers and by our peers. The idea is that we can use social media to reach our readers, and, of course, to promote our books.


Over the past year I’ve been online more, trying to figure out the back-end of Facebook and Instagram and Threads and so on. Learning about how these systems really work has been eye-opening. The manipulation going on behind the scenes. The focus on metrics.


The competitive, sometimes frantic nature of a culture that is all about chasing likes and engagement — it’s so ugly, and so destructive. I’m not sure it’s a healthy environment for writers, to be honest, but it is fascinating.

As I got further into the book I started looking at how the growing interest in true crime is exploited on social media.


In an attention-based economy, anything that interests us is an opportunity for someone, of course, and we’re all aware of it to some degree, but I’m not sure we really think through what that means.


We know that there are bot-farms and so on, and we know that bot accounts are used to generate tens of thousands of posts that push ads or the agenda of whoever happens to be paying the bills that month.


But I think we forget, or perhaps fail to recognise the impact of the thousands of real individuals who earn their money through engagement. Those human beings, trying to earn a living, who sit at their computers in the morning trying to think of their next hot take on an unfolding situation.


What will get them more clicks and comments — a sympathetic, heart-felt video about a victim’s mom, or a video suggesting that the mom might be hiding something?


When the decision might be the difference between earning nothing or earning a thousand dollars, between paying and not paying rent that month, the decision quickly becomes about dollars and metrics and humanity fades into the background.


I’m interested in the impact social media is having on our culture and our societies. I think we gravely underestimate just how “hackable” the human psyche is. We like outrage but we adjust quickly and we are easily bored.


When you combine that with a super-charged algorithm that has no ethical or moral boundaries, and true crime, which involves real people in moments of terrible crisis, I think something very ugly emerges.


Q: How did you decide on who would be your point of view characters in the novel?


A: That really depends on the novel, to be honest. What is the story that I’m trying to tell? Where is the emotional heart of the tale?


As a reader I’m not always a fan of multi-point of view novels. You run the risk that your reader will love one point of view, and be bored by the other, so that they end up skim-reading one section to get back to the good stuff! So that’s the risk.


But for Nina it was essential to write from the points of view of both families because that was the driving idea behind the book. I wanted to reader to meet both sets of parents, and see the events of the story unfold from both points of view, without slowing the story down in any way.


I think for the story to work the reader needs to see the parents of each child make the decision they make … and then watch the repercussions unfold!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: About three different things!  And trying to decide which should be my next novel!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My last book, The Murder Rule, is in development at FX as a limited series, and I’ve had some very exciting interest in a Nina TV adaptation. Too soon to say more … but watch this space!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Dervla McTiernan.

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