A conversation with author Erin Hart ’80

Portrait of Erin Hart
Erin Hart ’80

Erin Hart’s lifelong love affair with Ireland — which took hold in childhood — truly ignited when she traveled to London for St. Olaf College’s famously intense (26 plays in 28 days) Theater in London Interim. When a short break presented itself, the theater major, who had transferred to St. Olaf after being stymied in her attempts to work in any capacity on plays at the University of Minnesota, wedged in a weekend trip to Ireland.

And so, one of the most important relationships of her life was born. Today, nearly 40 years later, Hart is the author of four briskly selling mysteries set in that island nation, featuring Irish-American archaeologist Nora Gavin and pathologist Cormac Maguire. The first mystery, Haunted Ground, was an Agatha Award finalist and an ALA Booklist Top Ten Crime Novel of 2003. It was followed by Lake of Sorrows, False Mermaid, and The Book of Killowen.

Hart, who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her Irish musician husband, Paddy O’Brien, returns to Ireland several times a year for family visits and book research, and regularly guides tours of the country she has come to know and love. She is now hard at work on her fifth mystery, this one set during the early 1930s in the desolate Burren region of western Ireland, a limestone landscape full of caves and underground rivers. The first draft is complete, she says, meaning the book, tentatively titled The Spirit Pool, is likely to be published in 2019.

How did you move from theater major to mystery writer?

It was hard to break into theater in the early ’80s, so for years my day job was in administration for the Minnesota State Arts Board. Then I talked myself into a theater critic job at Minnesota Public Radio, which led to writing theater reviews for the Pioneer Press, Star Tribune, Minnesota Monthly, and other outlets. I was all over the place. Meanwhile, I’d been working on a master’s degree in creative nonfiction at the University of Minnesota. To graduate, though, we had to take at least one fiction course, so I signed up for short story writing. When the class was over I thought, “I have to get this story published or I’ve just wasted eight years of my life.” And much to my surprise, that story, “Waterborne,” was in 1996 the first-place winner in Glimmer Train magazine’s Short Story Award for New Writers. That prize brought me to the attention of the book agent I still have today.

Tell me about your first novel, Haunted Ground.

When I was visiting the west of Ireland in 1986, I heard a story that inspired that novel. Two farmers cutting peat in a bog had found the perfectly preserved head of a beautiful red-headed girl who had been buried there hundreds of years earlier. When I heard that story, I knew I had to write about it someday. It took six years from the time my agent first contacted me until Haunted Ground was published in 2003.

Your third book, False Mermaid, is set largely in St. Paul. Was it tough to switch settings like that?

It was a bit. Ireland seems so otherworldly and that quality wasn’t immediately apparent in St. Paul, so I had to really dig to find places that seemed magical. Hidden Falls is one of those places. I would go down there at five in the morning and it was really creepy.

You’re a writer/theater person, not a scientist. How do you research your books?

When I was about three-fourths done with Haunted Ground, I won a Jerome Travel and Study Grant that allowed me to visit the locations in Ireland that I was writing about. That gave the book a much better sense of place. It also meant I could meet with archaeologists, bog body experts, people at the National Museum, an anatomy professor at Trinity College, and the head of University College Dublin’s Archaeology Department. This particular man described the red-haired girl bog body in detail from memory and also sent me out on excavations with his colleagues and students in the field. To be able to talk to the real people who do those jobs made a huge difference in the accuracy and mood of what I was able to create.

You’re a musician as well as a writer. What can you say about that?

I was a member of the Chapel Choir at St. Olaf, but it was after college that I got interested in traditional Irish singing. I learned the songs from records, just as my character Nora Gavin does. I checked out albums — you can tell how long ago this was! — from the Minneapolis Public Library. And I still sing, although I only do so unaccompanied. I met my husband, who plays button accordion, when he pulled me up on stage to sing at [the now-closed] McCafferty’s Pub in St. Paul, shortly after I had returned from a two-month trip to Ireland.

What is your favorite part of the book writing process?

I love the research; I can’t stop myself from doing it. I always turned in my St. Olaf papers at the very last minute because I couldn’t stop researching. And I’m much happier rewriting than writing. I hate doing the first draft! They’re always horrible and I think, Who would ever read this? But my very favorite thing is that moment when the characters take on three-dimensionality — when they plump out and become real people I care about. That moment is magic.