In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by handpicking which questions (and how many!) they want to answer. Paul Lynch is the author of Red Sky in Morning, a novel about a family man who accidentally kills his landlord, the son of a famous tracker, and his subsequent flight from Ireland to the United States with a killer in hot pursuit. Here is what Paul had to say about reading, writing, and Northern Gothic literature.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
Greetings from Dublin, Ireland and thank you for having me. My name is Paul Lynch and I’m the Irish author of Red Sky In Morning, a novel set in rural Co Donegal in 1832. It is the story of a family man who kills a landowner, is chased across the windswept bogs of Co Donegal to America and to the work camps of the American railroad. Parts of the book are narrated by his wife who is left behind. I guess you could descripe it as Irish country noir. Or perhaps you could call it Northern Gothic, an Irish twist on your own brand of Southern.
The kind of books I like to write are the books that come to me. I have no choice in this matter. I am very interested in exploring language and have a secret ambition to do away with the boundary between prose and poetry. Red Sky In Morning is a book in which language is as strong a character as anybody else.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
For me, meditation is a way of cultivating the liminal dream-state of writing. So I usually meditate for half an hour before I write. By then I am in the flow. I like the quiet of the early morning. I like to write with strong jazz in my headphones. (Right now my writing soundtrack is Phronesis). My first sentence of the day is preceded by an espresso. I don’t believe in spending all day at the work. That sounds to me like you are not doing it right. I write very tight to the line, go into a very deep concentration that lasts for about 90 minutes or so. I am one of those strange-headed writers that edit as they write. I spent years working as a sub-editor so it comes naturally to me. Most days I can write in total for about three hours and then I am exhausted. Sometimes I am too tired afterwards to read for leisure.
What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors? Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?
This minute, Bruce Chatwin’s On The Black Hill, a beautiful timeless novel about life on a Welsh farm sent to me as a gift. Chatwin can teach you a lot about the telling detail. And he cuts his prose like a tailor. I’ve changed my reading habits over the past couple of years so that I only read one book of fiction at a time. (Though I’m always dipping into lots of non-fiction). I almost always finish what I start and rarely throw a book away — it helps to be very choosy about what I read beforehand. At least half the novels I read or re-read are classics.
I have no doubt that becoming a professional novelist changes the way one reads. I used to read for pure pleasure with no ulterior motive. Now I read to be a better writer. Or I read jealously and with resentment. Sometimes I read secretly to feel I’m better than another writer. (Believe me, every writer does this). I read the truly great wrtiers with awe, for this inspires me to reach for better myself. I read with such an awareness of technique I yearn for the days of old when reading was carefree and simiply for pleasure. This is the price one pays for one’s craft.
Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?
I read voraciously while I’m writing. A writer friend refuses to read much while on a project, saying he doesn’t want to let anything from another writer leak in. I see this as a lost opportunity. (Anyhow, I spend a couple of years on each book — I can’t imagine not reading for that length of time.)
You can never learn enough from other writers. If you know who you are as a writer, you will not start to sound like the writer you are reading. But you may be subtly informed on questions of technique — something one can never learn enough of. But what I really enjoy most about reading while writing is not what inspires you directly from another’s work, but what inspires you indirectly — how completely different ideas spring to mind as you are reading something else. Your unconscious is always at work and I find that reading widely helps to set the sparks off. It is important to be attuned to this. Many of my best ideas have happened while reading other people’s work that have had nothing to do with the work I was reading. Reading is another way of being creative.
What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?
I read non-stop as a youngster. I used to read in the dark. I used to read in school with the book held secretly under the desk. I thought nobody knew until my mother told me years later that my teacher let it pass. I always knew deep down I would be writer. But I was terrified at the prospect because I set my standards too high.
I wrote poetry in my teens. I spent my twenties thinking that there was no point writing unless you could write a book as good as Don DeLillo’s Underworld. So I didn’t even bother. I did everything else but be a writer and eventually it made me miserable. I played in a band. I worked for a newspaper. I explored my passion for the movies as a film critic. I look back now and see it as good advice: try not to be a writer. Honestly, give it a go. If you are truly a writer the wellspring will persist. Until then the only way you can live with it is to write. Then you know you are a writer. By the time I hit 30 I was going to explode unless I got started with it. And what I found was that all those years of editing and writing and thinking as a critic had given me the full-range of technical skills to hit the ground running. In many ways, I was honing my craft without even knowing it.
How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?
I write just one book at a time. I don’t write plays or screenplays and I do my damndest not to write poetry but sometimes give in to the urge. I consider myself a novelist only and think it is important to know which form of writing you are best at. When I start a book (and I’m on my third now) I usually know before I start what the book will be, can see it schematically in my head, and know the ending. However, the journey is never how you expect it will be and I like to remain open about how and where it will go. I trust and am guided by the feel of language.
Usually a novel begins with a spark of an idea that then begins bubbling quietly in my unconscious. Red Sky In Morning was stewing for perhaps a good year before I sat down to write it. The opening of my second novel The Black Snow came to me in a dream — I had to get out of bed to record it. There is always something archetypcal built into the essential idea. And then other ideas begin to nucleate around the core until it becomes as complex as it needs to be. I spend a long time writing and rewriting the start of the book until it finds its unique tone. The tone of a novel is everything. And maintaining that tone throughout is essential. Too much debut fiction begins with great tonal control for the first twenty pages or so and then falls away.
As a published author, what’s been the biggest surprise about life after the publication of your first book?
I was at a literary festival recently where I was asked what it was like being in ‘the literary stratosphere’. I was very amused to hear it. I spend my days in my house, in a quiet Dublin area, writing and reading. Nobody stops me on the street. I have never seen anybody read my book on the bus. My life, more or less, is exactly the same as it was before I was published. I consider this a good thing. I’m like every other writer — I enjoy the small bit of adulation when it comes, but ultimately I know it’s just noise. It has to be about the work. If you are writing for any other reason, I would suggest quit now to avoid disappointment.
Are there other books you love or writers you admire that are from your local area?
In Ireland this past year or so, there has been an explosion of young, first-rate literary novelists. Many are calling it a New Wave. We are the post-boomers forged in the fires of the economic collapse. This year alone has seen the publication of award-winning novels from Gavin Corbett and Donal Ryan among many others. Check them out.
Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?
I find research tiring. My itch to write is so great I make it up first and check it after. I am often dispirited when I hear of the amount of research some writers do. It’s much more fun and time-sparing to use your imagination. A lot of what I do is elemental — it puts focus on the essential behaviours and needs of my characters. So I write first, make up a few necessary details, and research some facts after. Google has changed everything for the writer. If you put me in a library I am an awful researcher. But give me Google and I’m able to find precisely what I want in seconds. There were a couple of key texts that helped me root Red Sky In Morning in its 19th century setting — especially for the voyage that takes place. But if people knew how little research I’d read of the period, they’d be shocked.
Where do you most love to write? Are there places where it comes to you easier than others?
I can write more or less anywhere and have done. I have a desk that I use most of the time. Some days when I feel like a change I move to the kitchen table. I like writing on trains but find it hard to write on buses. Coffee shops don’t work for me either because I am an inveterate people watcher.
My second novel is finished and will be published in the UK next June. It’s called The Black Snow and is set in rural Donegal in 1945. It is a pastoral novel that begins with a fire, simmers down into secrets and suspense, and comes again to the boil. I wanted to write an allegory about what I saw happen in Ireland after the economic collapse. I had no interest in writing about it in a direct way. As I wrote it, I began to realize I wanted to make a statement about the Irish pastoral novel. It was also important for me this time to write a novel with a strong female character and what I’ve found since is that many female readers who’ve read it really connect with her.
I’m currently at work on book three — sliding slowly into the deep of it. It’s an epic picaresque and its central character is a young woman. It’s important for me that each work be more ambitious than what came before. I want to wake up with dread knowing that I have to go to the desk and write. Only then can it teach me anything. I suspect this third book will be an epic in terms of size and scope and I realize now it is very much related to Red Sky In Morning. It’s much more technically challenging than what I have written before for a number of reasons. I want to push past myself. But I’ve also learned to take it as slow as it needs to go and not fret. I’m not in a rush to write a first draft but am editing it as I write it so that the first draft will be close to final draft. It will be ready when it is ready.
About: Paul was born in Limerick in 1977, grew up in Donegal, and is now living in Dublin. He was the chief film critic of Ireland’s Sunday Tribune newspaper from 2007 to 2011 and has written regularly for The Sunday Times on film.