French, who is 47 and has dual American and Italian citizenship, traces her comfort with ambiguity to her nomadic upbringing. Born in Vermont, she grew up on several continents, as her family moved around for her father’s job as a developmental economist — to Florence, Italy; then Washington, D.C.; then Lilongwe, Malawi; then Rome.
Relocating so frequently made her a keen observer of cultural subtleties. “Every couple of years you had to start over, trying to decode a new place,” she said. “Reordering yourself was part of my childhood. It shows up a lot in what I do.” She’s lived in Dublin, where she went to Trinity College, since 1990.
French didn’t start writing seriously until she was 30. For years, she worked as an actor, a career that felt natural for someone who was used to instability.
In 2002, when she was between jobs and found work on an archaeological dig near a forest, a dark thought lodged in her brain: She imagined what would happen if a group of children went into the woods to play, and only one came out. She jotted the idea down on a phone bill but didn’t start writing until a year later.
It turned into her first novel, “In the Woods,” which featured Rob Ryan, a detective whose investigation into a girl’s murder takes him back to the same woods where, as a boy, he witnessed a crime so horrific that he blocked it from his memory.
When she submitted the manuscript to publishers, French was so broke that she struggled to pay her electricity bill. A publisher offered her an advance of around £15,000 (about $20,000) for world publication rights, but she held out and got a better offer, according to her agent, Darley Anderson, who sold the book to the British publisher Hodder & Stoughton for 10 times that initial offer in a two-book deal.
“I’m probably the only person who went into writing for the job security,” French said. “This felt so stable and so secure and so lovely.”