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The Interview

Paul Lynch

Award-winning Author

Credit: Joel Saget

Paul Lynch (credit_ Joel Saget).jpg

The Wise Owl talks to Paul Lynch, an internationally acclaimed, prize-winning author of five novels: Prophet Song, Beyond the Sea, Grace, The Black Snow and Red Sky in Morning. He is the winner of the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2018, among other prizes. His latest book ‘Prophet Song’ has been shortlisted for The Booker Prize 2023.

The Interview : Paul Lynch

The Wise Owl talks to Paul Lynch, an internationally acclaimed, prize-winning author of five novels: Prophet Song, Beyond the Sea, Grace, The Black Snow and Red Sky in Morning. He is the winner of the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2018, among other prizes. His latest book ‘Prophet Song’ has been shortlisted for The Booker Prize 2023.

His debut novel Red Sky in Morning was published to critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic in 2013. It was a finalist for France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger (Best Foreign Book Prize) and was nominated for the Prix du Premier Roman (First Novel Prize). In the US, it was an Amazon.com Book of the Month and was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, where Lynch was hailed as “a lapidary young master”. It was a book of the year in The Irish Times, The Toronto Star, the Irish Independent and the Sunday Business Post. The Black Snow (2014) was an Amazon.com Book of the Month. In France it won the French booksellers’ prize Prix Libr’à Nous for Best Foreign Novel and the inaugural Prix des Lecteurs Privat. It was nominated for the Prix Femina and the Prix du Roman Fnac (Fnac Novel Prize).

Grace was published in 2017 to massive international acclaim. The Washington Post called the book, “a moving work of lyrical and at times hallucinatory beauty… that reads like a hybrid of John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road'”. It won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year and was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize. In France it was shortlisted for the Prix Jean Monnet for European Literature, among other prizes. It was a book of the year in the Guardian, the Irish Independent, Kirkus and Esquire, a Staff Pick at The Paris Review and an Editors’ Choice in the New York Times Book Review

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Beyond the Sea was published in September 2019 to wide critical acclaim in the UK, Ireland, Australia and the US. The Wall Street Journal called the book "mesmerising"; The Guardian called the book “frightening but beautiful”, while The Sunday Times said it had “echoes of Melville, Dostoyevsky and William Golding”. It was chosen as a book of the year in the Irish Independent by Sebastian Barry who called the book "masterly". In 2021, it was published to wide acclaim in France where it won the 2022 Prix Gens de Mers. 

Thank you so much Paul for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl.

 

RS: For the benefit our readers please tell us what attracted you to the novel? Were there any traditional or contemporary novelists that inspired you to write or creative influences that encouraged you to pick up a pen or was it simply the fact that Ireland is full of untold stories that need telling.

 

PL: Before I became a novelist, I spent a good ten years trying hard not to become a novelist. I wrote music and played in a band and worked as a journalist but in the core of my being, I could hear the calling to literature. I had read fiction with great seriousness all my life and sensed for a long time that I would become a novelist. But I did nothing about it. I tried hard not to become a novelist because I was intimidated by the greatness of the writers I loved. (Joyce, Rulfo, Faulkner, McCarthy, Saramago, to name a few). I tried hard not to become a novelist because I was afraid I could never be good enough. When you ignore a fundamental part of who you are, when you do not listen to that inner voice, you begin to feel unwell in yourself. I was thirty years old and I was not happy with my life. I travelled to the island of Lipari in Sicily where I was struck by an epiphany. I saw in that moment how unhappy I was, and how the life I was leading was a lie. I understood that in the core of my being I was a novelist. And I understood for the first time that my fear of failure was a fundamental part of the writer’s journey. Samuel Beckett wrote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” I knew in that moment that even if took me 30 years to write a good novel, I would take that first step now.

 

RS: You have authored five novels, all of which have been critically acclaimed and awarded prestigious literary awards. All the novels belong to different sub-genres — Red Sky in Morning reads like an American western, The Black Snow was a pastoral novel, Grace was a bildungsroman & picaresque novel. I am curious to know whether the choice of the sub-genre (of a novel) was a conscious choice, or the story line and setting decided the genre you wrote in.

 

PL: I write novels with themes and don’t think of them as absorbing genres. But you are right about the range of my work. The book that asks to be written is never a conscious choice, but I’ve noticed over the years that each book seems to adopt a theme of sorts (or a genre if you want to be particular about it) and seeks to make it new, or at least, unique to me. Philip Roth once said, by way of Northrop Frye, that every serious writer must have their own personal mythology. Each book chases something new for me, but they all belong uniquely to my writing world, to my own writing mythology. 

RS: I recollect reading somewhere that you are not particularly fond of this (history) genre. However, two of your novels are set in the early and mid-19th Century. Would you elaborate on this please.

 

PL: In serious fiction, a novel is a novel and yet labels are impossible to escape. If you write a literary novel set in the past, publishers and readers will shunt you into the historical trap and the book will be published as “historical fiction”. It’s a nonsense because it attracts a certain type of reader seeking genre fiction, and it leaves cold an entire cohort who secretly believe that the “historical novel” can’t speak to the times we live in, that this type of novel is making a commentary on the past alone. But any idea that a novelist can simulate an authentic past is illusion — the novel is always a dream, a contemporary dream because it is an inescapable fact that a writer’s consciousness, the deeper currents in the language, and any articulation of a world view, are shaped by the times the writer lives in. The novel itself is formed by unspoken rules that govern what a modern reader will recognise, borne by the history of all the novels written before it. A novelist might claim to be summoning an authentic past but it is an impossibility to write truthfully of any other time than your own. Historical fiction is contemporary fiction and cannot be anything else.

 

RS: All your novels (except Beyond the Sea) are set in Ireland and tap its history and major events, be it the trials faced by the Irish during the Great Famine as in Grace or the tragedy of the emigrant (with reference to the excavation of Duffy’s Cut) as in Red Sky in Morning. What made you delve into Ireland’s past and create protagonists against different periods of its history? 

 

PL: Every novel I write is a vessel of a kind that comes unbidden to me from my subconscious. The story is a container for my authorial obsessions, and sometimes those containers are set in the past and sometimes they are set in the present. I don’t choose consciously, though I do sense that from book to book I have a preference and my subconscious usually allows for that. With my first three novels, I sought in my own way to create new mythologies for old stories, to resurrect exhausted narratives by making them new again for my generation. Red Sky in Morning can be read on one level as a symbol for the spectre of emigration that had beset my generation after the crash of 2008. The Black Snow can be read (one one level) as a metaphor for the Irish economic crash and the wish we had as a nation for a culprit. Grace was my attempt to rewrite the narrative of the Great Irish Famine, to relocate it outside of the perceived and problematic truths of political, sociological and economic interpretations and to return it to lived experience. In that book there was a question I wanted to answer: what is the root cause of the transmission of silence that still passes down through the generations about what happened to the Irish people during the famine? To understand our national trauma, I had to cut right down to the bone.

 

RS: Your book Beyond the sea, was for me reminiscent of Hemingway’s The Old man & the sea and also brought to mind Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. It was also a book where for the first time you stepped out of Ireland to sketch a ‘minimalistic’ narrative, in the sense that it was limited to just two characters who were also its chief protagonists, and the setting was a boat adrift on the Ocean. And yet it had all the characteristics one would associate with a universal tragedy where ‘man’ grapples with the mistakes of his past, the physical & mental calamity of the present and uncertainty of the future. What was the inspiration behind this novel?

 

PL: In 2013, two fishermen left the coast of Mexico and motored out into the Pacific Ocean where they were met with a storm. Their boat took a battering and they were set adrift at the mercy of the ocean's currents, taking them further out into the Pacific and away from rescue. The men found themselves on the boat entirely alone at sea. When one of those fisherman, José Salvador Alvarenga, washed up alone on the shore of the Marshall Islands 14 months later in January 2014, the story seized my imagination. Sooner or later, the unwanted knocks against our door and life is changed utterly. How are we to define our loss or overcoming? This is the material that interests me as a novelist. Dostoevsky posed the question: “How much human being is in a human being?” I spent two years imagining my way into the lives of two fishermen, Bolivar and Hector, cast adrift on a lonely sea, probing their solitude and isolation, seeking to know their hearts. Human beings are hardwired for social connection. What happens to the mind and the heart when we are confined and isolated? The book was my shot at the distilled, philosophical novel.

 

 

RS: Your latest book ‘Prophet Song’, which has been short listed for The Booker Prize 2023, goes back to Ireland with the story of Eilish and explores once again the calamity of Ireland and the themes of alienation, displacement, search for the unattainable. For the benefit of the readers, please tell us what inspired you to write this beautiful but daunting book?

 

PL: In December 2018, when I sat down to write Prophet Song, it was clear to me that we in western Europe were living in dangerous times and that a tectonic shift was occurring in western democracies. I wanted to write a novel that could see into the modern chaos. The Syrian war had led to the biggest outpouring of refugees since World War Two and a lurch to the political right of some European states. There was a feeling of unravelling in the air, a sense that liberal democracy was in peril. I wanted to find a story that could contain all my anxieties. I began to wonder what Ireland would look like with a populist government where our democracy was drifting towards tyranny. I began to wonder how much free will an individual can have within such a system. And that led me to the problem of grief. In other words, Prophet Song is a novel with metaphysical questions but told within a deeply political universe.

 

RS: All your books have a plot that is completely engrossing. But what makes reading your books even more of a pleasure is the language which is almost cinematic. The blaze in The Black Snow, the hair-cutting episode in Grace have stayed with me for a long time because of their visual impact. I was wondering if you consciously make your language visually strong or is it something that comes to you naturally considering you have been a film critic before you became a full-time novelist?

 

PL: Literature will always come first for me as only literature can truly inhabit the spaces that make life so painful and beautiful. But cinema comes a close second. My imagination is intensely visual and I often write as though I am watching a film. In my time as a newspaper film critic — I reviewed over 1,000 films — I absorbed a lot about narrative and storytelling. Even the most enigmatic, elliptical films have a story to tell and that is a discipline I brought to my fiction. In the literary universe there is a corner of writers who believe that in order to be a serious novelist, and to express our true alienation, you must jettison any notion of storytelling. Such notions are bizarre. The truly great novelist — the complete novelist — is the writer who can bring to bear the weight of the universe within the simplicity of an unfolding story. To get a story right, to make it true, requires great labour and skill and I harbour a suspicion that the writers most wary of narrative are those least able to tell a story.  

 

RS: You have been called this ‘one of this generation’s finest novelists.’ How do you react to this? Does it make you happy or does it put pressure on you to write novels as good as the ones you have already penned?

 

PL: Recognition is useful for the writer as it’s a lonely occupation. When you receive validation from other writers especially, it can be gratifying. Recognition is energy that encourages you to stay true to the path you are following. Truthfully, though, I don’t spend much time thinking about such claims. Only our children will know who the truly great writers of today are. In the meantime, I just get busy with job of writing. Ass on seat. It’s all I truly want to do. 

 

Thank you so much Paul, for talking time out to talk to us about your books and your creative journey as a writer. We at The Wise Owl wish you the best in all your creative endeavours and hope you win the Booker prize this year.

Books by Paul Lynch

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