Conjuring the Abyss

An interview with the novelist Paul Lynch

Darran Anderson

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Darran Anderson: Your first book Red Sky in Morning was inspired by the real-life Duffy’s Cut tragedy. What attracted you to it as a story?

Paul Lynch: The moment I came across what happened at Duffy’s Cut I knew I would have to write about it — I sensed that it contained the sort of dimensionality you want for a novel. As I was writing it I began to see in it a story of power, corruption and our atavistic natures — that deep tribal racism that is always at work. I could see in it a tale of our basic need to make good of ourselves, and the flipside that emigrants do not always make good. That sometimes they disappear off the face of the earth, and so the story conjures the abyss. I also see in it an allegory for where we are today.

And then there was the simple fact I grew up in the area where a lot of these men came from. I went to school, no doubt, with their distant relatives. I could see their faces. Hear them speak. See the way they carried themselves. You do not choose what you write about - an idea crawls under your skin and nucleates until there is nothing left to do but write it out.

DA: You’ve said that Red Sky in Morning began to reflect aspects of the current economic situation in Ireland and the ensuing emigration epidemic, to what extent was that a conscious decision?

PL: When I set out to write, there are always ideas playing out, but first and foremost what I am interested in is character. If I had set out to write consciously of the present it would have read like a tract. I did follow very closely what was happening on the Irish and world stage during the economic crash. I used to wait for the postman just so I could John Lanchester’s extraordinary articles in the LRB. I was an angry and concerned citizen. Looking back, I have no doubt that anger poured itself into the work. How could it not? Though anything I’ve said about it is more a rationalization after the fact. I am deeply concerned with ideas, but I work first from the gut.

DA: The descriptions of landscape in the book are striking as a dark and evocative poetry in prose form. How important was the initial setting of Donegal to your book? Did you approach it as a character in itself?

PL: Landscape is another character. And it can be a wonderful way to evoke psychology without having to crawl into a character’s head. If you write close to your characters, the landscape can tell you what they are thinking.

I had no idea how potent Donegal would be until I started to write about it. I hadn’t been living there for a long time. As soon as I located it in a mythic register it really opened up — its timelessness, its emptiness, its grand indifference. I began to sense off it something really cinematic — I could imagine a filmmaker such as Ford sending men on horseback through it. Ireland is such a small country, and yet, if you conceive of it mythically, the landscape can open up for you as if it were as vast as America.

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DA: You’ve written extensively as a film critic. There are moments Red Sky in Morning has a cinematic feel with elements of the Western, the gothic thriller even the combination of the panoramic with the claustrophobic of late Soviet cinema. How far, if at all, did cinema inform your novel?

PL: Cinema is there in the mix as much as literature. Though music and paintings figure too. I’ve been a cinephile for a long time and have reviewed for the national newspapers over 1,000 films. That is some melting pot when added to a lifetime of reading and the back catalogue of classic movies I’ve watched for myself.

I did set out to try and make my writing cinematic in the sense that it has the immediacy of film. I have this idea of the startling moment. Something I learned very much from cinema is that storytelling is important. When the Soviets discovered montage — how our minds create a story when two completely different images are put together — they intuited something we now know to be true, and that has been demonstrated by the great cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman: our minds are narrative machines. We cannot stop seeing causality where there is none. It seems we are hardwired for it. So I believe story is important and I’m interested in moving away from the kind of fiction that has sought to atomize storytelling. Humans have an innate need for stories. Why be so joyless and renounce it?

I think that literature has to work a little harder now because of cinema. We have been spoiled by the moving image. I don’t think it’s possible anymore to write that 19th century, 10,000-word chapter without a break. Writing in short scenes makes more sense to the modern grammar of our minds. Jump in late and get out early. Do it right and it can have the potency of poetry. It will teach you to be more disciplined as a writer.

DA: There’s a very unsettling idea at the centre of the book that life can spiral out of control from a mere moment of madness, that terrible forces can be set in motion and it doesn’t matter if your motives were honourable or accidental or how much regret you feel, they are irrevocably set in motion. The villain of the book Faller seems a remarkable and utterly chilling one, not because he is some avenging angel or even devil but because he seems an agent of the terrible nihilistic causality of the universe (“every fate, every life, every story swallowed by forces greater”). Was it a dark process putting yourself in the mind of such a character?

PL: I’m pretty dark anyway, so Faller was fun to write. Everybody has an inner Schopenhauer — you just have to let it out. Saying that, I was keen to explore a few ideas. For me, Coyle is no different than any of us. We all suffer from the illusion of control, but the reality is that our lives are thrown about by high winds — nothing teleological, but the kind of forces that are beyond us and yet dominate. There are soft powers and hard powers everywhere at work, constantly changing the context of our lives. The economic collapse is a perfect example of this. I’ve always been in awe of how major war can disrupt so many lives and how lucky I’ve been in my life to escape this. And I am in awe of the moment that can open up in the quiet day of our lives, too — say, a punch to the head — and how it can alter not just your own life, but your entire family, and even the people who come after you for justice. That speech by Faller is a telling moment — there is always a power greater than the one you possess. Even Faller finds himself subsumed.

DA: There’s some wonderful examples of the poetry and ambiguities of dialect in the book - “I will not so I will”, “nothing from her but the full length of a look”, “I’ll have to learn him”, “I done nothing so I did” and so on. Given you grew up in Donegal and were presumably immersed in the local language, does living in Dublin give you the distance necessary to hear and see the place afresh, the outside looking in so to speak?

PL: I guess it does. I’ve tried writing about Dublin before and find it very difficult while living here. I guess I’ll just have to pull a Beckett or a Joyce and get the hell out if I want to write about this city. The interesting thing about Ulster Scots and Hiberno English is that when you start listening out for it, you hear it everywhere. Yesterday in the Post Office a young woman was looking for stamps and asked, “You don’t have any stamps do you?” Isn’t that wonderful? And last week I overheard a conversation on the street where a young woman was taking the piss out of a man who had something of a tan. She said, “Were ya lashing the sunbeds out of it?” When you really think about that sentence, it is so wonderfully managled — like so much of our language —and I guess that is what makes Irish writing sound so rich to foreign readers.

DA: We’re often told ‘the past is another country’ but reading Red Sky in Morning this seems not to be the case. You include many humanising details of people sleeping, working, eating, the feel of the weather, tiredness, the sounds and smells and so on (that a surprising amount of books forget to include), which creates a deep sense of empathy towards the central character Coll and his family especially. Coll seems a real definable person rather than simply a cog in the plot. How much research did you have to do to place yourself realistically in his life and surroundings?

PL: I get asked this all the time, and I have a simple answer. Writing anything that is set in the past is easy if you remember this: people are always people. I guess I take an evolutionary view, that beneath custom and culture, we are made up of fundamental drives — the need to eat, to be warm, to look after our children, the need to have sex, the need for security and power. The same goes for any and every historical period. Too many writers who work in the historical are overly obsessed with research and details. Think first of the human face and what the body wants, and then stitch in the telling detail.

As to research, I don’t like doing it much, but will do enough till I find the thing that gives me that telling detail. The attention to detail, the sounds and smells that you talk about, are a part of the technique that I use to try and create that cinematic immediacy. Or perhaps it’s just heightened literary realism — the idea as you are reading it that you are almost there yourself. 

DA: There’s a fairly tragic realisation that occurs when the main character flees to America, a country built on the premise of baptism, that the slate is wiped clean and you can become anything you want. The problem being the new world is made up of people who are not new, people who talk of ‘sending for’ loved ones like a doomed prayer and whose demons accompany them across the ocean. There’s no escaping either your past or your fate it seems. Are you sceptical of the promise of redemption?

PL: I’d like to think Coyle makes good in the story, that how he behaves towards his dying friend and the situation at the camp shows a growth in his character, that he has evolved from his basic state of fear and survival, that he would be happy with himself. I don’t subscribe to any religious idea of redemption, but I do believe on the personal level that it is possible to make the swerve that takes a life into a better place.

DA: It’s poignant and quite eerie that the bodies of some of the victims of Duffy’s Cut have been unearthed in the past couple of months and returned home to Donegal for burial, at a time when presumably your book was already written and in pre-production. How did you feel when you heard about that?

PL: Yes, it was eerie timing and poignant. The timing led me to believe that my instinct was right, that this story matters.

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DA: You’ve recently released your second novel The Black Snow, how has the experience differed from the first?

PL: Everybody talks about the sophomore slump, but I would describe The Black Snow as the sophomore slaughter. Every day was such a struggle — my first act as a professional novelist — and all the while you wonder if it can be done again. I wasn’t right for about two months after I finished and submitted it.

The Black Snow is set in rural Donegal in 1945 and opens with the burning of a byre. That opening is the kind of set-piece that I’ve been keen for a long time to write, the kind of book opening that carries you along for 7,000 words and then sets you down again elated. I’ve no idea if I’ve achieved that but it was certainly the intention. What follows after the fire, and the death of a man, is a simmering cauldron of suspense, suspicion and resentment. The main people in the book are a family that have returned to Ireland after living in New York. One of the things I’m examining is the reality of living the dream once you’ve attained it, and what happens once the mythology has been ripped apart. I realized when I was finished with this book that some might see in it a systematic dismantling of the Irish pastoral. What I do know is that it is a very claustrophobic book — a mystery story, a thriller, an existentialist fable, and quite different to Red Sky in Morning.

DA: The search for the unattainable seems to be a recurring theme of, for want of a better word, Irish-American culture from Fitzgerald's Gatsby to John Ford's The Searchers. In both of those examples, there's the added warning of 'be careful, you just might attain whatever it is you're after'. The Black Snow would seem to suggest the trouble only begins when you've found this elusive home or community?

PL: Red Sky in Morning took a hard look at the myth of America. The Black Snow does the same for Ireland. I wanted to examine the myth of the Irish pastoral, the myth of romantic Ireland. The myth of community. The myth of continuity. The myth of knowledge and certainty. I liked the idea of taking an emigrant with a dream of Ireland and giving him what he wanted — and then putting it to the test. Does it stand up? The trouble begins during a time when Barnabas Kane, the novel’s central character, takes everything in life for granted. He is not future-proofed. I am very interested in this — how people’s innate optimism blinds us to great and sudden changes. And how we are incapable of dealing with such change. Haven’t we all just lived through such a moment?

I went into this book wanting to do two things — to write a more characterful novel, and to explore the idea of philosophical blindness. It seems to me that however bullheaded Barnabas is, Billy and Eskra play as much a role in the tragedy. It was very tricky to write a story where little is explained and yet each character fully believes their own interpretation of events, and then acts upon it, each one pulling a string that leads inevitably to the tragic conclusion.


DA: The book is set in Donegal, which is also where Red Sky in Morning begins. It's always struck me as the most intriguing county in Ireland, wild and rugged, perched at the edge of Europe, north but not Northern, part of the South but reaching further north than anywhere else in Ulster. It reflects the absurdity of our divisions here and yet it's uniquely distinct from it all as well. It seems curious that it hasn't been featured more in literature beyond great individual writers like Peadar O'Donnell and Frank McGuinness. What interests you about it as a setting physically or psychologically?

PL: Miles Davis has as great line — “I’ll play it and tell you what it is after”. I don’t choose the settings for my books. They are given to me, out of the dark of my own imagination. I left Donegal when I was 18 and it was the last place I ever expected to write about. Somehow, through the workings of  memory and imagination, it has been given back to me, reconfigured as a place of mythic power. What goes into the mix? Perhaps, it is the forlorn remoteness. The epic backdrop of mountains and bogland. Its distance from the rest of Ireland.

Such a setting allows me to create two types of time in my novels. There is the present time of the characters who live caught up in the white-hot moment of their lives. And there is a sense of deep, geological time that creates a sense of the ineffable, the tragic world view, the abyss. I think my writing is powered by an enormous tension I feel between the humanist and the post-humanist view. Between the subjectivity of living and and the objectivity of death. I want to put on the page a sense of the absolute centredness that is each life — how important each one of us feels our lives to be. And I want to rest against that a sense of the absolute uncenteredness — the greater objectivity of the universe, that sense of the vast ineffable, the abyss that every life falls into.

DA: The mix of simmering paranoid neighbourly claustrophobia with the agoraphobia of wild nature permeates the book, both in a sense fuelling the same emotions. Is it a case of as the old saying goes, "If God invented the countryside and man the city, then the devil invented the townland", not in any diabolical way of course but in the sense of being an environment fertile for feuds and envies as well as potential solidarity in the face of hardship? Is that letting cities off the hook?

PL: Human behaviour is human behaviour. As far as I am concerned, it does not change very much. Perhaps, though, it is easier to unmask it in a rural setting. What I like so much about the setting of Carnarvan in The Black Snow is its isolation and spareness. Such a playground allows me to drill down to the more essential stuff — I want to mine for human and philosophical truths as best I can. I’m not sure I could get this kind of material out of a book set in a city. I would find it more difficult. I would be distracted by all that noise and glitter and its surface politics. A lot of writing set in cities is about mapping the moment. Right now, I am not that kind of writer. I want to map what is timeless and unchanging.

DA: In the event of some terrible apocalyptic event, which books would you hang on to or bury in a time capsule for future generations?

PL: If I was trying to leave a mark for future generations, it would have to be the completed works of Shakespeare, the King James Bible and probably Ulysses. All of life is contained in those works. But if it were just for my own pure reading pleasure, if somehow I had weathered that apocalypse, I’d bring Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Roberto Bolano’s 2666, cellotaped onto WG Sebald’s Austerlitz, just so that it would look like one book.