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Simon & Schuster's mystery newsletter

Colin Shields interviewed Erin for the Spring 2003 issue of THE INNER SANCTUM, Simon & Schuster's mystery newsletter for booksellers.

Q: I understand that you sing Irish songs the way Nora does in the novel. Can you tell me a little of your personal history?

A: Singing has always been part of my life, but it was only in college that I started listening seriously to Irish music, and trying to learn some of the repertoire of singers I admired, people like Dolores Keane and Cathal McConnell. I also got involved in the local Irish traditional music scene--going to regular sessions, doing a bit of singing, putting on concerts, and traveling to Ireland for music festivals whenever I could. I actually studied theater production, and had every intention of becoming a theater director, but ended up taking a detour into arts administration that lasted nearly twenty years. So I learned a lot of songs while standing over the copy machine at work. Like Nora, I felt as if the old traditional songs had stories and melodies I'd always been waiting to hear. They're so plain, so sad, and so true. Once you get them inside you, they can't help spilling out somehow. I still sing everywhere: driving in the car, in the shower at the gym—and occasionally out in public.

Q: How much of Nora's story mirrors your own?

A: To tell the truth, very little. She's a pathologist, a lecturer in gross anatomy, and my background is probably the opposite end of the spectrum—theater and journalism. Nora's far cleverer than I am, much more driven and academically inclined. Her parents are from Ireland; mine are from Iowa. Of course, there are bits of me in Nora. We both feel a strong connection to Ireland and its music, particularly traditional unaccompanied singing. For a doctor, I have to say she's a little on the squeamish side around living patients, and that would be a characteristic we share. Like Nora, I used to brush my younger sister's hair before school every day when we were kids—but I'm very glad to say that my three wonderful siblings are all alive and well.

Q: Did you actually visit some Irish bogs and observe excavations?

A: My husband is from County Offaly, which has some of the most extensive boglands in Ireland, so we've always been out in the bogs whenever we visit. The bog in the book is similar to the place my husband's family cut turf by hand; until fairly recently, they used turf for heating and cooking year round. While I was writing HAUNTED GROUND, I visited an archaeological excavation at an early Christian settlement in north County Dublin, a site exactly like the place Cormac and Nora are working in the book. And I recently spent time on a couple of industrial bogs, places where peat is harvested by the ton, and where the next book in the series takes place. The archaeologists I visited were excavating wooden bog roads—probably built about 2,000 years ago. It's fascinating to see wood cut twenty centuries ago still as fresh as if it was cut only yesterday, birch bark turned from pure white to a beautiful metallic silver. One of the archaeologists I met this summer actually discovered the most recent bog body in Ireland—which unfortunately had been almost completely destroyed by heavy machinery. But it was a thrill to talk to her about the find.

Q: I'm told that your husband is a well-known Irish musician. How did you meet him? Does he play the kind of music that Garrett Devaney plays in the novel?

A: Devaney plays the fiddle, and my husband, Paddy O'Brien, plays button accordion, but they both play Irish traditional music—mostly dance tunes like jigs, reels, and hornpipes, but also older harp tunes and clan marches. Paddy's got an incredible memory—not just for the notes in a tune, but for the story behind it as well. He's like a walking encyclopedia of Irish traditional music. And he's got great soul as a player—I'll never tire of listening to him.

The way we met was sort of an interesting twist of fate: a year after graduating from college, I spent a couple of months in Ireland, doing an intensive Irish language course in West Galway and traveling around to music festivals. On the day I arrived home from Ireland, my friends took me to a pub in Saint Paul to see a great traditional band they all loved—a group that included Paddy on the button box, along with fiddler James Kelly and guitarist Bernie McDonald. I'd never met any of the band before, but someone must have mentioned to Paddy that I was a singer. He invited me up onto the stage to sing for the crowd, and that's where we actually met.

Q: You have three principal characters in HAUNTED GROUND. Tell us a little about why you chose them. Will they all appear in the future books in the series?

A: HAUNTED GROUND is based on a true story from an Irish archaeologist, about two brothers working in a bog uncovering the perfectly preserved, severed head of a beautiful red-haired girl. When a body is deemed too old to trigger a police investigation, then the detective work is left to the archaeologists, who have to piece together whatever clues they can about the remains. So it seemed natural to feature an archaeologist as a main character in a story about a body in a bog. After devising Cormac Maguire, I thought he ought to have a foil, possibly an American, and someone who was an expert on bog bodies. That's how Nora Gavin was born. Cormac and Nora will continue as main characters in the series. I didn't intend to create a third principal, but as I was writing, Garrett Devaney, the police detective, sort of edged his way into a starring role. And since the story involves two mysteries—the centuries-old case of the decapitated red-haired girl and another fairly recent disappearance—it helped that Devaney, as a professional investigator, had access to information about the recent case. Devaney isn't in the second book, but I like him so well I'm hoping to include him again a little further along in the series. I'd like to know how he's getting on.

Q: Why did you pick Ireland as your setting, and how often do you visit Ireland?

A: I'm not sure I picked Ireland as a setting; it might be more accurate to say that Ireland picked me. I've been drawn to it more than any other place in the world ever since I was a child. The reasons probably have to do with the complex and contradictory nature of the place, its strange juxtaposition of ancient and modern culture—all those layers of history, one on top of the other, that lend resonance to the stories I want to tell. The Greek ethnographer Poseidonius described the Celts in the first century B.C., saying: "They speak in riddles, hinting at things, leaving much to be understood." It's a characterization that still rings true, and remains so full of possibility for anyone who loves language. I've traveled to Ireland about a dozen times in the past twenty years, and hope to spend even more significant time there in future, finding remains of stories that might be unearthed with a trowel, and using imagination to turn them back into flesh and blood.