Richard Lee talks with Paul Lynch about his debut Red Sky in Morning
PL: I have been a serious film watcher for a long time and that is bound to impact my writing. Way back when DW Griffith was figuring out how to make his first films, he went and read Dickens and learned how to construct a scene. We’ve come full circle and now writers are learning from cinema. Film teaches the writer how to get into a scene late and get out early. Perhaps, too, in no other art form has the value of storytelling been preserved so well — even among arthouse filmmakers.
I’m convinced there is an innate need for storytelling in people. The work of Nobel-prize winning cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman only confirms this is so. And while the modern novel and the postmodern novel abandoned at times that interest in storytelling, and atomized any idea of linear time, I am convinced the post post-modern novel — whatever that is — can learn to reincorporate old-fashioned storytelling again.
This stuff arrives at my door and hangs about menacingly. The only way I can get it to go away is to write it out
A friend of mine pointed out that he could see flavours of Paul Thomas Anderson and Terrence Malick in my writing. Robert Bresson is very much an influence — I love his dispassionate, objective, spiritual style of filmmaking — it engages us to work a little harder.
RL: I described Sebastian Barry’s ‘On Canaan’s Side’ as ‘The Historical Novel as a Paean of Loss‘. Do you think Red Sky in Morning is in the same vein?
PL: Loss is certainly a major theme of Red Sky in Morning. For me, there are two levels at work. There is the testimony of Sarah, the woman left behind, who tells of her search for meaning when there is none to be found, and her need to speak of her loss. She learns that “all you can do in this life is learn to accept loss”. Her testimony in many respects is a paean to all loss, speaking out for the voiceless lost to that abyss. There is also a wider sense of loss at work too, the sense of man’s movement through geological time and an indifferent nature, the continuing of the world after the book’s characters have passed. That our own lives are only a white-hot moment.
RL: I read a review that described your style as ‘lyrical’ and ‘sparse’ and I think I agree with that, by turns. How do you choose when to be lyrical, when to be sparse?
PL: My writing is an intuitive act and any rationalization must come after that fact. I do have a strong sense though of when to intensify and when to draw back. There has to be a tight control of the lyrical mode as it is the route into the heart. A novel cannot be all heart or it will be dead on the page. Sentimentality has to be earned, and if used, used in tincture.
Writing for me is an adventure — I sit to the screen and while I may have some schematic idea of what I need to do, I have no idea how I will get there. I slip into a word trance, follow what comes intuitively — first the ghost of an image, and then the words to describe it — the feel and texture and energy of words are my guiding light. What I look for in each sentence is an inevitability. You must pare and shape each sentence until it contains just that. A book is finished when the sentences run out of inevitability.
RL: You say you wrote the Donegal landscape from memory. How did you feed the imagining of the voyage and the American scenes?
PL: I have been back to Donegal many times but I do prefer to imagine it. When I hold it in my mind, it becomes mythic. I want for my writing to operate on that realm of historical myth rather than historical detail. Then I can go to work, search out broader human truths. I tend to do little research as I find it tedious. This is just how my mind works. Of course, there has to be some research and there were were a couple of essential sources I used for the voyage and American scenes to give me some grounding. But essentially, I made the rest of it up. I am guided by what is essentially human. Follow that and you cannot go wrong.
RL: Did you write the book linearly, knowing as you did its endpoint? The weight of that ending might have crushed the book: how did you guard against that happening?
first the ghost of an image, and then the words to describe it —the feel and texture and energy of words are my guiding light
PL: I do write linearly knowing the endpoint of a book, but you do not have to guard against it. When I write, I am so tight to the line, I am only in that space and time. For me, it is no different than how we live our own lives — there is a cognitive dissonance at work. When I did come to writing the end of Red Sky in Morning, it was a very moving experience. I wrote those last scenes in what felt like a trance, with the whole energy of the book’s lifeforce behind me. I was emotional, sad and felt like I somehow experienced it. The key event was written on a train while travelling from San Sebastian to Madrid, through broad, flat countryside marked out by giant wind turbines. They looked suspiciously to me like Don Quixote’s windmills. I kept thinking of Cervantes, the father of the novel and what I was doing.
RL: I suspect this novel is going to be widely described as in an Irish literary tradition. Would you agree, and if you do, do you ever see yourself writing outside that tradition?
PL: I could not tell you if I am writing or not within a literary tradition. Though, perhaps, I am in tune with an ancient mode — the tragic world view. And any astute reader of Red Sky in Morning will pick up its American Southern Gothic influences. I do feel that many Irish writers have often sounded like other Irish writers. I have never understood this. When I read, my taste is global. Three of the best books I have read in the past year were by Mo Yan, a Chinese writer, Mikhail Shishkin, a Russian, and László Krasznahorkai, a Hungarian. I have no interest in being perceived as an Irish writer, merely a writer. The world is now too small for such a thing. If my themes seem Irish, that is merely an interpretation. What I look for when I write is the universal.
RL: I’m interested in how the book cover changed between the proof and the published version – and how the US cover is so different from the UK edition. Are there stories behind that?
PL: Not really. Essentially, the proof cover was different, I believe, because Quercus wanted to deliver the book with maximum impact. The Quercus cover leaps at you off the shelves. So too, the US cover — though in feel it is very different. With the book coming out at a later date in the US, Little, Brown, I guess, wanted to put their stamp on it. The US cover is gothic and beautiful and more in tune it seems to me with the tradition of American literary covers. I’m privileged to have two stunning pieces of artwork for the book.
RL: I see your next book approaches emigration from a different angle. Did the idea spring from Red Sky? What different challenges does/did Kingdom pose?
PL: In Kingdom, I turn the emigration question inside out and then kick it about within a broader context. I have no idea thematically where it sprang from. The book came from some sort of liminal dream I had while writing Red Sky and I wrote it down very early one morning and forgot about it. I was working on another project that didn’t quite work out. Then Kingdom came back to me with a thump and simply demanded to be written. I had zero interest in taking on emigration issues again, or setting a book in a rustic location. I do not choose my subject material. This stuff arrives at my door and hangs about menacingly. The only way I can get it to go away is to write it out, but when I do, I do it in a way that has to please me, and that usually means smashing apart preconceived ideas.
Every book presents intense new challenges, and for me, this was compounded by what you may call my first act of professional writing. I wrote Red Sky in Morning as an amateur; Kingdom with a big book deal behind me. To be honest, that didn’t weigh on me as heavily as you might think. My own standards are the problem. They are a little ridiculous and sometimes I wish I could lighten up. When I am writing they are the cause of intense anxiety. For me, writing is like some bizarre Platonic ideal where the perfect sentence lies outside the cave and if I stare at the shadows long enough, I just might intuit what it is supposed to be.