The next morning, I began to think about what happened during the night. I teased out trajectories, the shape and texture of character. But then doubt crept in. This would have to be a novel set in Ireland in the 1940s. Worse, it was a story set on an Irish farm. I could never do that – I was not going to be another Irish writer who writes a damn farm novel. I allowed myself to forget about it.
Months later, in April 2011, I finished writing Red Sky in Morning. It was the start of a journey to find an agent and eventually a publisher. It would take another two years before that novel would be published. But I never stopped writing. I had an idea for a second book and began immediately. The idea began to drift, shape-shifted into something else. That then expanded, became again something different. I found myself grappling with an enormous sprawl of a novel that I had not yet the technical ability to master. Worse, I had written 40,000 words but couldn’t hear the book hum. The novel had no central nervous system. I couldn’t even find a beginning. I had a crisis on my hands.
Some writers tell you, finish everything you write. I say, know when to stop. It was a major decision to abandon that novel, but deep down I knew I was right. A day of despair followed. For eight months I had a second novel to write and now I had none. My agent was preparing to submit Red Sky in Morning to publishers. I needed to have a second project in hand. I decided to sleep on the problem, rise early and meditate. I knew that a solution would come.
I will never forget the moment it did. What arrived was that vision of the burning byre. But this time it was different – deeper, more fully realized. I saw before me Part One of a book – a moment of rolling action that picks up the reader and puts them down again 30 pages later, staggering and breathless. I thought of McEwan’s hot-air balloon. DeLillo’s ball game. I could hear the hum. Could feel the central nervous system. I could see then the entirely of a novel. And I knew I still did not want to write it.
This became one of the major lessons of my career. You must write the books that you are given – not the ones you want to write. You must write the books that cause within you the deepest anxiety because there lies your best material. I wrote every sentence of The Black Snow in a kind of willing dread. Every day for 14 months, I sat down to write a novel I did not want to write, and so it was written.
I began to realize that, despite my anxiety, my first instinct was right. I did not want to write an Irish farm novel – and so I didn’t. I found myself writing against the Irish farm novel. I wrote an allegory for a post-boom Ireland, an act of creative destruction that tears the Irish pastoral apart. By the end of the book, nothing of that world remains. The reader wakes from the dream to discover the cold reality of morning.
This article was originally written for foyles.co.uk
“The most astonishing first novel of the year. At the point of writing, already among the greatest talents of Irish literature”
— Julien Bisson, Lire (France)
“The art of the storytelling is so impressive, the writing so poetic, painful and beautiful at the same time, that it makes for a unique reading experience”
— Bruno Corty , Le Figaro (France)
“The language is rich, sophisticated, lyrical and violent at the same time… a first novel worthy of Cormac McCarthy, Saul Bellow, John Banville, Colum McCann, Vladimir Nabokov, or authors of such legacy.”
— Emmanuel Romer, La Croix (France)
“The new guard of Irish letters never ceases to fascinate with its visionary power. To these names must immediately be added Paul Lynch, because his first novel is simply masterful
— André Clavel, Le Temps (Switzerland)
Nothing is missing in this transcontinental western, written by a master of landscape and light”
— Véronique Rossignol, Livres Hebdo (France)
“This first novel by an extraordinary writer has received a tremendous reception in the Anglo-Saxon world. The bet is that he will be as successful in France, where such talent will not fail to burst into the open”
— Sophie Royere , Lemagazine.info (France)
“A dark poetry infuses this first novel of sound and fury. A young writer promised to a brilliant future”
— Le Journal du Dimance
“In a few words: the craftsmanship of a great stylist”
— La Quinzaine Littéraire
“The beauty of his writing imbued with lyricism is dazzling”
“Influenced and nourished by a past more mythical than historical, “Red Sky in Morning” is as contemporary a novel as it can be. Its rhythms and its visions, and its suspense, come from our age’s visual and cinematographic culture. With its mixed influences, its shattered geography which opens on the beginnings of America and modernity, this novel blends irreconcilable temporalities”
— Le Monde de Livres
“There is in Paul Lynch’s writing a kind of lyrical and poetic fever which transcends everything, including the most harrowing scenes. Red Sky in Morning takes us on such a journey that when we come to the end, we feel like we have dreamed it all”
— Les Echoes
“An amazing first novel, strikingly beautiful, with a nervous pace that takes the reader on an unforgettable journey”
“Clear and intense as a tragedy, the novel reveals in Paul Lynch an incredibly talented Irish writer”
— Trois Couleurs
Reviews for The Black Snow are starting to appear. The latest is from Theo Dorgan at The Sunday Times who calls the book “masterful” and “a considerable achievement”.
Says Dorgan, “Lynch is masterful. Layer by layer he teases out character and context, alternating action and reflection to get to the essences of Barnabas, Eskra and Billy, the growing horror of their plight, their interlinked tragic destinies…. This is a considerable achievement in itself, and if the story were told plainly and simply we would have a story that John McGahern, say, or Frank O’Connor in one of his colder moments could have written.
“The triumph of this book is the uncanny uses to which Lynch puts language. Prose is more often concerned to reassure us that the world is manageable and intelligible than it is to face up to the cold truth that life beyond our immediate hearth is largely mysterious and beyond our powers of comprehension. Prose writers who can ground us in what we know while opening our minds to the vast unknown are few. In our time the name that springs most readily to mind is Cormac McCarthy… we can add Paul Lynch to a short list. In paragraphs that have the icy precision of prose poems, he opens the world out into halls of space and time that will send shivers through your blood…. I read this book sentence by sentence, sounding the words to myself, savouring the pleasure of the writing. It is the writing itself, not the bare circumstances of the story, that nerves us to face the cold place to which Lynch, with uncanny mastery, conducts us.”
Meanwhile, The Sunday Business Post says, “The Black Snow underlines the extent of Lynch’s dazzling prose gifts”, and calls the book “a terrific contemporary example of the art form”.
“Lynch is a born storyteller, wonderfully conveying textures, atmospheres and smells… He very effectively captures the ravages of a more pastoral scene of devastation, and in the process, manages to reinvent the pastoral novel in a daring and nuanced way. Lynch already shows all the signs of being one of the most exciting new talents in Irish literature.”
In a short review, London’s Metro, said The Black Snow is “hewed from granite-like, starkly poetic prose” and calls the book “a tough and sinewy tragedy”.
In the Guardian, Hugo Hamilton calls the book “raw, savage… tender”. “Lynch has an impressive gift for storytelling. As the separate strings of the novel are tightened and pulled together into an assured ending, this becomes a version of Donegal that has not been written before. The Irish vernacular is here, in all its intonation, but it almost sounds like a distant, musical echo of itself, as though the language in which the story is being told has travelled across the plains of America, through many other time zones, before taking root again in the native soil.”
In The Irish Times, Eilis NoDhuibhne calls the book, “powerful, rich and ornate”, and says Barnabas is “a classic tragic hero”. “The striking talent of its author is his ability to reinvent the English language and use words as no one has before… There is a magic to this kind of writing”.
This article will be updated as reviews come in.
This is what they have to say, in English translation, with more reviews in the days to come…
“Entering the world of Paul Lynch requires some concentration, but the storytelling is so big, the writing so poetic, beautiful and painful at the same time, it is worth the effort” — Bruno Corty , Le Figaro
“The language is rich, sophisticated, lyrical with a pervasive and extreme violence which rests in the details… a first novel worthy of Cormac McCarthy, Saul Bellow, John Banville, Colum McCann, Vladimir Nabokov, or authors of such legacy.” — Emmanuel Romer, La Croix
“The most astonishing first novel of the year. At the point of writing, already among the greatest talents of Irish literature” — Julien Bisson, Lire
“The new guard of Irish letters never ceases to fascinate with its visionary power. To these names must immediately be added Paul Lynch, because his first novel is simply masterful — André Clavel, Le Temps
Nothing is missing in this transcontinental western, filmed by an ace of light” — Véronique Rossignol, Livres Hebdo
“This first novel by an extraordinary writer has received a tremendous reception in the Anglo-Saxon world. The bet is that he will be as successful in France, where such talent will not fail to burst into the open” — Sophie Royere , Lemagazine.info
Everybody is welcome…
The following is from the book’s dust jacket:
In the spring of 1945, farm-worker Matthew Peoples runs into a burning byre and does not come out alive. The farm’s owner, Barnabas Kane, can only look on as his friend dies and all 43 of his cattle are destroyed in the blaze.
Following the disaster, the bull-headed and proudly self-sufficient Barnabas is forced to reach out to the farming community for assistance. But resentment simmers over Matthew Peoples’ death, and Barnabas and his family begin to believe their efforts at recovery are being sabotaged.
Barnabas is determined to hold firm. Yet his son Billy struggles under the weight of a terrible secret, and his wife Eskra is suffocated by the uncertainty surrounding their future. And as Barnabas fights ever harder for what is rightfully his, his loved ones are drawn ever closer to a fate that should never have been theirs.
In The Black Snow, Paul Lynch takes the pastoral novel and – with the calmest of hands – tears it apart. With beautiful, haunting prose, Lynch illuminates what it means to be alive during crisis, and puts to the test our deepest certainties about humankind.
Red Sky in Morning has been chosen as a book of the year on a number of newspapers’ end-of-year best book lists.
The Toronto Star included it in its end of year round-up, saying: “In a recent essay for the New York Review of Books, Tim Parks argues that the globalization of the novel has meant that less stylistically challenging work tends to get rewarded. Embracing Celtic vernacular to spectacular effect in this 19th-century cat-and-mouse tale set between Ireland and Pennsylvania, Lynch may be the exception that proves Parks’ rule.
Meanwhile, in The Irish Times, both Colm Tóibín and Donal Ryan picked RED SKY IN MORNING as one of their books of the year. Says Ryan, “Paul Lynch combines wonderfully inventive use of language and cinematic vision in Red Sky in Morning (Quercus) to create a startlingly original page-turner.”
The book also features in the end-of-year best lists in the Irish Independent and the Sunday Business Post. John Boland in the Irish Independent says of RED SKY IN MORNING, that “the luxuriant language of this debut novel makes its presence felt”.
It is great to be featured in Noah Charney’s excellent How I Write series in the The Daily Beast….
The full text is below, or you can read it at The Daily Beast here.
How I Write: Paul Lynch
The novelist Paul Lynch, whose debut is Red Sky in Morning, talks about Irish writers, advice to aspiring authors, and a funny coincidence at a book event.
I was born in Limerick city but grew up in a small town in County Donegal—remote, windy, lots of rain. That’s how I recall it. As soon as I was of an age, I got the hell out. One of the discoveries of my writing life was that my imagination was in a rush to go back there. At first, this was a source of huge frustration—I wanted to write about cities and modern life. I wrote a few exploratory short stories set in Dublin, but the moment I relocated my writing to Donegal and found for it a mythic register, the magic began to happen on the page. I suspect that distance plays a huge part in this — while we must remain true to life, we must be free to bend reality to our own will. I would find it difficult to write about a place if I am living in it.Where and what did you study?
I dropped out of an English and Philosophy bachelor of arts degree. At the same time as I was studying, I was freelancing as a sub-editor for a national newspaper—the now defunct Sunday Tribune. I was ridiculously young, and the paper was offering me opportunities I could not turn down. It got to a point where I had to choose between study and the excitement of life on a newspaper where I got to run my own small section. The truth is that I was a disaffected student. I had an angry head on me at the time and hated authority and structured education. I fought fiercely with everything. Looking back, it seems I have never done anything the obvious way and I harbor deep suspicion of young writers who court the establishment. Writing by its very nature must be anti-establishment. I sought to find my own path and I’m glad that I did. It has made me a better writer. What I know now is that all those thousands of hours editing and rewriting newspaper stories were shaping the writer’s brain I have today.Where do you live and why?
I live in a quiet, old blue-collar area of Dublin with my fiancée. I am at heart a city person, but crave the space and silence to be creative. I find my writing life is a constant assessment of balance. Am I getting enough quietude to think and read and get the work done? Am I being social enough to make sure I don’t go a little crazy? I suspect the writing life has rewired my brain. When I worked for the newspaper, all I craved was quiet. Now, after a day spent in the company of my own thoughts, I need to step away from my obsessions. I find that Not Writing and Not Thinking are just as important because I need to give time for my unconscious to come up with the goods. Right now, the dream is to live in NYC for a while—to have some place quiet for the day’s writing, but soak up the city’s endless distractions at night.
What did it feel like to be at the center of a bidding war for your very first novel?Do not care for what the establishment wants because the establishment is built of writers who once set out to dismantle it.
It began as a feeling of validation that became increasingly surreal. Beforehand, I had drawn up a list of my five dream publishers, and all five were part of the six publishers bidding for Red Sky in Morning. I wrote this book for myself, for a standard of writing that I would enjoy as a reader. I thought it would be a niche literary book. And I had found it difficult to get an agent—mine is the usual story of rejections, and, in some cases, being patronized by interns. Then, suddenly, six top London publishers wanted my book. After the bidding war, I remember taking down my volume of Avi Sharon’s translations of Cavafy and reading some lines from “The First Step”:
“Just to set foot on this first step
you must already, in your own right,
be a citizen of the republic of ideas.
And it is a hard and rare thing
to be written into the roll-books there.
In the market of that city you will find Lawmakers
that no fortune-hunter can fool.”
There is certainly a perception that Irish English is richer than the English of other nations, and while we have our fair share of masters, I am not sure it is necessarily true. As I see it, a good many of the greatest literary stylists of the past 50 years are American. Saying that, there is certainly something in the water here. I suspect that, because English is not our historical language, we have always sought to make it our own. We were colonized by the English language, and in turn, colonized it. The English language in Ireland went native. The clash of English with the grammatical form of the Irish language gave it new color and shape. Hiberno-English has some very unusual and wonderful constructions.
I think a psychological distancing from England has played a role, too. English writers, it seems to me, are too often terrified of breaking with the standard. But there is no standard in English other than its versatility. All language is protean, a moment-in-time snap-shot of evolution in action. And while Irish writers do enjoy a huge freedom with language, not all Irish writers make use of it. I’m not happy unless I’m bending language, forcing it to go places until it creates for me a feeling of strangeness. If you want your writing to open doors into the intuitive, the liminal, the felt but not expressed, you have to force language into new places, to allow words and sentences bump and spark. Think of how a child sees the world—that is how I want my readers to feel when they read my writing. To inhabit strangeness again. For this to happen fully, language must pulse with the new. Vigor in writing is freshness of phrase.
Knowing I have to write, I rise with dread. It requires great willpower on my part to go to the desk in the dark of a morning. What helps is to stay focused. Most mornings, as soon as I rise, I meditate for half an hour. When a writer talks about being “in the zone,” they are really in the same place as a meditative state, so meditation trains you to get there faster. After I meditate, I shoot a strong espresso and go to the desk. No phone. No internet. No email. No conversation. I need a very deep concentration to mine the good stuff. I like to listen to knotty jazz—years ago, by accident, I discovered that John Coltrane’s Ascension uncorks my creativity. I don’t even hear it as I write. I’ve been listening to hard jazz ever since. I tend to write in very intense 90-minute bursts and I write really tight to the line—I edit my sentences as I go along and can’t move forward too much unless they are sitting more or less the way I want them to. What I look for in each sentence is a certain kind of inevitability. A good day for me is 600 words. On those very rare days when I hit a thousand words, I stop. I start by rereading and editing yesterday’s work, getting reacquainted with its song. By lunch the writing is done. I spend my afternoons reading and exercising or going for walks. Unless life gets in the way, which usually it does.Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?
I’m currently writing my third book so at this point I have a fair idea of how it happens. Each novel starts with a prod—a situation and a problem that rises from the deep and won’t go away. I do my best to forget the idea. This is a test. If it returns again and again, I know I am on to something. This is when other ideas begin to nucleate around the core idea. I take notes as they come—be it on the bus, or eating dinner. After a while, what amasses gets so thick I know it must be written. Most times, by the time I sit down to start the book, I have almost a whole novel’s worth of core material. By this time, I can see it schematically. I know the beginning, middle and end. I have a map in hand but I do not know the topography. Language is my landscape, my sunlight and guiding stars. I follow it blindly and trust in its powers to lead me where I need to go. I write openly, allowing the book to discover and write itself, even though broadly I know where I am going.What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?
I believe very much in Henry James’s maxim that “the house of fiction has… not one window, but a million”. It is up to each writer to find their own compelling way into a story. (Call me old-fashioned, but having a story is probably the best place to start.) As for myself, what I look for is an engaging problem—something so great that it tilts the known universe off its axis. I want to feel that rolling, tumbling momentum, like a barrel sent blind downhill. I want to be inside the barrel, bounced blind over the cliff. I want to feel the freefall in my stomach. The launch over the abyss. That’s when I know I have a book.Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite work space?
My desk is a black and battered Ikea desk that was meant to be temporary but has earned its place in my study. Some day, when I can afford it, I will buy myself a nice Danish modernist desk. Let me see what lies around me. To my left, taped to the windowsill are a few lines from Heaney’s “North” that I think contains one of the best instructions for writing I have read: “Compose in darkness. / Expect aurora borealis / in the long foray / but no cascade of light.” Beside it, printed out in a frame, is “Reflections upon the Path”—the epilogue from [Harold] Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence. I read this to keep me grounded. (“Riding three days and nights he came upon the place, but decided it could not be come upon…”) I write with a Mac laptop that sits in front of a black printer. Beside it is my Collins dictionary and my Roget’s thesaurus and a box for my beloved Waterman pen. There are stacks of books and notebooks all around the place that I keep moving around. On the wall to my left is a corkboard pinned with cards—each one a scene in my latest project. It gives me an instant god’s view of the book as I’m writing it.What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?
I suffer a lot of guilt as a writer. I feel blessed that—for now, at least—I have earned the right to be a full-time novelist. If I skip a day’s writing, which occasionally I do, I get the gnaw. When I’m not writing fiction and am writing Q&As such as this, I get the gnaw. I am grateful for every day of freedom to pursue this. And yet, the truth is, you can’t treat writing like an ordinary day job. Yes, you should be at the desk every day and keep set hours. Yes, it is all about discipline. But what powers writing is intuition, and intuition gets tired. Writing beats the hell out of it. Sometimes, it is mandatory to let intuition go on holiday, even if it is just to sit about the house reading for a week or two. I have had to learn to be kind to myself. On a daily basis, I’m happy when the rewriting has got me to the place where I want it to be. Word counts are useful but not a rule. There are days where I might come away with just one or two sentences, but if they are the right sentences, then I am happy.Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.
I’m just back from a trip to NYC where one reading I did with a few writers took a spectacular turn. One of the writers was a lovely elderly woman who had mentioned during her piece that she was from Pennsylvania. As I began to explain the broader historical background to my own book—that 57 Irish men arrived in Philadelphia in 1832 and were taken to Malvern, Pennsylvania by an Irish man called Duffy, she interrupted and said—that’s where I’m from (while gently correcting my pronunciation of Malvern). I continued the story, that these men began to work on the Pennsylvania Railroad, and she stopped me again—with increasing incredulity—and said, “but my grandfather used to own that rail line.” At the moment, everything began to feel a little strange. I continued, telling her that all 57 men on the rail site were killed, that it suspected they were murdered, and that their story was covered up by the rail company. Her mouth fell open. She had never heard about it. It was one of the strangest coincidents. But what was going through my mind was the joke that I left unsaid: so it was your grandfather who murdered all the characters in my book.What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
That reading is more important than writing. That reading the classics matters. That if reading for you is not narcotic, quit now while you are ahead. (Why would you want to write a book when you don’t read them?) That you should write the novel you want to read, not the one you think you can write. Write the book you think you can’t write—for writing is the act of pushing past yourself. Do not care for what the establishment wants because the establishment is built of writers who once set out to dismantle it. Learn that if your writing sounds establishment, it is already dead. Write dangerously. Write for the deepest part of yourself. Never write looking over your shoulder. Accept failure as the essence of process and rewrite your way through it. Learn discipline. Learn self-reliance. Write past your limits—that every draft is more intelligent than its predecessor. You will be a smarter writer when you finish your first draft. By the time you finish your tenth draft, your writing will be smarter than you. Learn to read your writing objectively. Learn to read your writing aloud, for it allows you to hear your writing as if another wrote it. Learn that tone is everything. Spend however long it takes finding the song for your book. And then keep going back to those perfected early pages to remind yourself how your book is supposed to sound. Learn to get closer to what you are writing about. Learn to get closer to truth. Ask yourself all the time, am I close enough? Can I get it tighter? Learn to cut. Learn to cut what’s left. Learn to get your writing to the point at which you cannot better it. That is the time to show it to somebody else. Learn to trust your opinion and know what you want. But know there is a time for good counsel. Learn to be kind to yourself, because writing is hard and it will bash you up. Learn that you are not in competition with other writers. That your only competition is time, which is the truest judge.What is your next project?
My next book is called The Black Snow—it is the story of Barnabas Kane, a 1940s Donegal farmer whose byre burns down leaving him with nothing. The book explores what he does next and how he attempts to save his family. It is a novel of suspense and secrets, a pastoral novel that slowly tears the pastoral apart. It will be published in the UK and Ireland by Quercus in the summer of 2014, and in America by Little, Brown in the spring/summer of 2015.
RED SKY IN MORNING hits American book stores today, and it’s just been named an Amazon.com book of the month. Yesterday, Alan Cheuse of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered said of the novel that, from the very start, “you find yourself in the hands of a lapidary young master”. You can listen to his full review here.
Yesterday’s The Daily Beast included RED SKY IN MORNING in “This Week’s Hot Reads” and says: “This combination of nightmarish poetry and heart-racing plot is what makes Red Sky in Morning so compelling, like a gorgeous, terrifying ghost story. You’ll want to close your eyes and cover your ears, but find you can’t turn away.”
We’ll be appearing at Brooklyn’s finest, BookCourt on Friday 8 November at 7pm. You can find more information here. On Sunday 10 November, we’ll be reading at the Tres Gatos bookstore in Boston at 2.30pm. (470 Centre St, Jamaica Plain, Boston).
RED SKY IN MORNING will be released in North America on 5 November. Already it has garnered strong praise, receiving a Kirkus Star review, with the book magazine calling it “a novel of great beauty”, while Publishers Weekly has said the book “has the feel of a classic American western”. Barnes and Noble has chosen it for its Discover Great New Writers campaign, which will put the book on display in 700 shops across America.
Freeing ourselves from the yoke of history
By Paul Lynch
I was born near the end of history. As an adult I have seen history disappear. To come of age after the mid-1990s in Ireland was to experience a burden being lifted. Ireland was that dying old man, a Yeatsean figure that had stood for decades, “a tattered coat upon a stick”. We lived in the shadow of a scarecrow nation. We watched our youth scatter into foreign skies. We wondered, too, if we would have to take wing. And then the seismic social shift of the boom: Ireland’s soul clapped its hands and began to sing; and then, louder sing. As the boom took hold, Ireland shook off its old soul.
I have seen great changes. I have witnessed the crushing weight of near-ceaseless recession fall away like sloughed skin. I have seen the lifting of the dark shadows of the cross. The dank and dim of John McGahern’s Ireland disappear like it never existed. The battles our parents fought — against the theocracy of the Catholic church and its lame lackey, the Irish state — were won. The barriers crashed down. Ireland became a country for the young.
We became a generation unshackled, a generation able to step free of the history that had ensnared us. Real freedom for the first time was tasted. No more the language of historical self-pity. The language of historical blame. The language that oppressed the individual. The language of censorship. The language of sexual guilt. The language that fought against self-belief. The language that reinforced the status quo. We had stepped into the day-bright outside of history and we relished every moment of it.
Caught in that sensual music of the boom, we stopped thinking of the past and its old language. That old determinism had been erased. We had discovered ourselves as individuals, and expressed our free will. It was an astonishing era of prosperity and confidence. We partied in bright colours. We lit up the night. We were the first generation to lay claim to this new country and we knew it. We all had jobs. Few of us emigrated and if we did it was by choice. We were free to think of ourselves as Europeans and world citizens. To see ourselves as part of a new and wider story. We had been gifted the happiness our parents sought. None of us needed to be writers.
I was born near the end of history. As an adult I have seen history disappear. I have also seen the return of history to wing down upon us, taking away in its mouth our young.
My consciousness as a writer was startled awake by the seismic reversal of the crash. An entire generation is blighted again by joblessness. Huge numbers have been forced to leave. We have started to speak again of ourselves as victims. We have spent the past five years apportioning blame. The language of self-pity is again all around us. That newly-won self-confidence has largely disappeared.
Ireland, it seems, is trapped again in old narratives. And yet, this time, the story is different. We cannot look to that old historical language to understand ourselves because today we are irreparably changed. Like the generations of Irish emigrants before us, most of us now have become dislocated from that history. The difference is that dislocation occurred while we were living in Ireland. That psychological displacement happened as a result of our new freedom.
We cannot look to that old language because today, our place in the world is different. The misfortune at hand is largely our own making. We are victims of our own success. Victims of our immaturity as a nation. Our unwillingness to take into account our human nature. And Ireland belongs to a different world now. We sought to become a global country and succeeded without thinking that to become such a nation means to accept being thrown about by high winds. Today we are Europeans, though the dominant force is the soft power of the USA. Its cultural, technological, and Emersonian capitalistic spirits are the powers of the age. If so many of today’s Irish writers write in some way about America, it is because America, too, is our culture.
The weight of all this presses down upon the contemporary writer. In my fiction, I have searched for a new way to write about this. While writing my novel Red Sky In Morning, I realized there are valuable human truths to be found in history if only we can find a way of accessing them again. When writing the novel, I wanted to examine these old Irish myths that explored oppression and powerlessness and emigration, and see what they could say for a generation experiencing such things today. But to do this I realized I would have to un-interpret Irish history. It would have to be decontaminated. We cannot use that old language of history because we no longer speak it. And when we do not speak that language we cannot write in it.
For too long we have viewed ourselves through a false prism. Through the refracted light of history the past is bent out of shape. We have only seen ourselves through the yoke of ideology — of a romantic nationalism; as colonial victims. But the past now is not a different country — the past does not exist.
I believe people do not live caught up in history, neither now nor in the past. They live within the ordinary moments of their lives. The essentialness of what it means to be alive — in all times, and all places — has never changed. It is historians who attach ‘meaning’ to those lives later on. Fiction does not deal with the so-called recorded truth of history. Fiction is by its nature untruthful. Yet we can arrive “at the truth by the road of untruth,” as Salmon Rushdie has said. Fiction can allow us to recognize what it means to be a human being and what meaning we hold for our lives. If we can re-imagine history in the simplicity of the moment, we can connect it in a meaningful way to our lives today.
This is what I set out to do in Red Sky in Morning. To root the reader in the startling moment. I realized this would require a new kind of language — a language about language itself. If I could seize the living moment, I could capture imagined history at the moment before it becomes myth. As a writer I want to remove the reader from what they think they know of the past. I want for them to be as unknowing as my characters who are caught up in the mess of their own lives. When we do that, history becomes experienced. History becomes felt.
What can we learn from doing this? Perhaps, that there are essential human truths that have never changed throughout the ages. That what we think is unique is the general. That perhaps history has more to do with these essential truths than we think. In my book, the hunting of family-man Coll Coyle from his smallholding in Co Donegal and his epic journey to greater tragedy on the new American frontier speaks in some way of the forces that shape our world today.
As a writer I believe we must be able to witness ourselves as we have been moved and shaped by such universal forces. In Red Sky in Morning, I wanted for my language to meet this, and to contain within it an “answerable style”, as Milton called it. I wanted my writing to meet the enormity of the world — a world style. My hope was that such language could allow us to see ourselves better. And if we can recognize ourselves, then such language will contain a greater truth.
I was born near the end of history. As an adult I have seen history disappear. I have also seen the return of history to wing down upon us, taking away in its mouth our young. But today we must speak history differently. Only then, perhaps, can we see that past anew and something of our present selves in it. Now, we need again to be writers.
As we get closer to its 5 November US release, RED SKY IN MORNING has been given a Kirkus Star — one of the most prestigious designations in the US book industry. “A novel of great beauty,” says Kirkus, the notoriously tough American book review magazine.
Meanwhile, Booklist, in its forthcoming review, says RED SKY IN MORNING “bears comparison to Colum McCann’s Transatlantic… rendered in startlingly beautiful prose, not unlike the themes and style of Cormac McCarthy. This is strong stuff.”
In the print edition of the The Guardian (Saturday 10 August), Colm Tóibín talks about what he’s reading. And guess what? He’s reading RED SKY IN MORNING. This is what he has to say:
“Paul Lynch’s Red Sky in Morning is set in 19th-century Ireland. It is an adventure story, with a good plot, but it is written in tones that are sumptuous and poetic, so I am savouring the book sentence by sentence. Lynch’s sense of the period, and the huge disruptions in society which affected every single character, is clever and well informed, but he has taken a real and fascinating risk with the style”.
In the same week, the Canadian author Peter Behrens, author of THE LAW OF DREAMS and THE O’BRIENS, has this to say about RED SKY IN MORNING:
“A textured thriller straight from the torment of Ireland’s 19th century. Paul Lynch delivers a raw ancient world that Dickens would have recognized, and Roberto Bolaño too.”
From the Barnes & Noble website: “Founded in 1990, the Discover Great New Writers program highlights books of exceptional literary quality from authors at the start of their careers.
A small group of Barnes & Noble bookseller volunteers convenes year-round to review submissions to the program and handpick titles for our promotion, currently featured at 700+ Barnes & Noble and 100 prominent Barnes & Noble College Bookstores, and on www.bn.com/discover.
Annually, we recognize two of our exceptional writers with the Discover Great New Writers Award (one each for Fiction and Non-fiction). In addition to a $10,000 prize, we promote the winning titles extensively in our stores and online.
Previous recipients of the Discover Award include Monica Ali, Eric Blehm, Tracy Chevalier, Joshua Ferris, Ben Fountain, Chang-rae Lee, Elizabeth McCracken, David Sheff, and Hampton Sides, among others.
TV3′s Bord Gáis Energy book club has selected RED SKY IN MORNING as its August book club choice. You can watch my interview here on TV3′s IrelandAMhttp://www.tv3.ie/ireland_am_article.php?article=110187
Review of Red Sky in Morning from PUBLISHERS WEEKLY:The plot line of this rewarding debut has the feel of a classic American western: in 1832, Coll Coyle kills a powerful local landowner, then flees in fear of frontier justice at the hands of the landlord’s sadistic henchman, John Faller. But Lynch, an Irish writer living in Dublin, has set his story not west of the Mississippi, but in the west of Ireland (a rural area in County Donegal). Coyle leaves his wife and daughter behind and eventually strikes out for America, Faller hot on his heels. Coyle’s sick with fever (pneumonia, or possibly consumption) and endures a frightening, brutal transatlantic passage, but eventually lands in Philadelphia, where he joins other immigrants as laborers on “a new kind of engineering. A locomotive line.” This grim story gets grimmer: his co-workers are dying of cholera, and Faller tracks Coyle down in America as this very literary book moves toward its violent climax. Lynch’s prose is sharply observed, and his themes are elemental and powerful: the violence of existence, the illusion of choice in a fatalistic universe. People, says Faller, “are animals, brutes, blind and stupid.”
Reviewed on: 07/08/2013
Release date: 11/05/2013 Details & Permalink
Hot on the heels of RED SKY IN MORNING’s selection by Publishers Weekly in the US as a 2013 BEA Buzz Book, Barbara Hoffert of the esteemed Library Journal has chosen the book as one of the publishing highlights of November. This is what she has to say about it:“Night sky was black and then there was blood, morning crack of light on the edge of the earth.” That’s the opening line of Lynch’s debut novel, just another substantiation of the adage that the Irish can really, really write. If Dublin-based Lynch’s taut, absorbing, acerbically lyrical prose weren’t enough, there’s the intense and revelatory plot. Having killed a man in 1832 County Donegal whose father is an expert tracker now bent on vengeance, Coll Coyle goes on the run—all the way to the cholera-soaked work camps of the Philadelphia railroad. Lynch draws partly on actual events at a camp where recent evidence suggests that violence rather than illness led to the deaths of 57 Irish workers. Get it for all smart readers.
Here is a piece I wrote as a guest contributor to the Waterstones blog. You can read the article here, or below.
History is tangled in myth
There is a question I get asked by journalists all the time — a question many writers find themselves being asked at some stage. It goes like this: “why did you write an historical novel? Would you not consider writing a contemporary one instead?”
It’s an odd question, but as a former journalist, I think I can understand it. The journalist, caught up in the narrow tumult of rolling news, looks to the novelist to explain more widely the times we are in. The novelist, they believe, is freed to take a look at the bigger picture; they should hold a mirror to the moment.
My answer, of course, to that question is this: I did write a contemporary novel. I’m not even convinced there is such a thing as an historical novel. There are, of course, novels set in the past. But all novels written today are contemporary. They are all mirrors to the moment. They come from minds that have been forged by the heat of the present. They can only speak of the current age.
I have often wondered what it would be like to show Red Sky In Morning to one of my characters. An Irishman hedge-schooled in English or to a second-generation Dutch settler in Pennsylvania in 1832. Some of them would, perhaps, quietly suck on a pipe and give me a squinty-eyed look before turning silently away. Others, more fervent, might have me hounded for preaching the work of the devil. To them, little of what I write would make sense.
Contemporary writers use history in the novel to speak of contemporary things. They may not even mean to but they do. Historical settings are like a stick held in water: they are a refraction — the stick looks crooked but the line is true. It is just a trick of the light. History can be used to allow us see the current moment in a different way. Novels set in the past can speak to us of general human truths — of what it is to be alive. For what is most essential to be alive on earth in 1832 is the same as it is today. It is both myth and fallacy to think that life changes.
When I came across the story of events at Duffy’s Cut near Philadelphia in 1832, I was struck by something powerful. Here was a moment of history that speaks directly to the present. The story behind Duffy’s Cut is this: In 1832, 57 men from Ulster were selected on the quays of Philadelphia by a man called Duffy and taken to work on a railway dig. Not a lot is known after this — they were strange men in a strange country and few cared about them. What we do know is that a few months later, all of them were dead, most likely buried in a mass grave, and their story seems covered-up.
The true story of what happened has over time become a mystery. What we try to understand as history is tangled in myth. What archaeologists working at the site increasingly believe is that the men at Duffy’s Cut were murdered. Cholera was sweeping across America and had struck the camp, though the death rate of cholera reaches to about 60%. Cholera can not explain the deaths of all of them. Some of the remains that have been found show evidence of violent trauma to the head. The theory is this: the men were murdered en masse to stop the disease getting out.
Part of this story features in Red Sky In Morning. It is up to the reader to make of it what they will. What I know is this: when I began writing the novel, I lived in a house with a family on one side and a middle-aged lady on the other, both of them settled in the area a long time. As I look up today from my computer, all of them are gone. The woman sold up and moved to America. The family abandoned their home for Canada. I know I will not see them again. These are the times we live in. Everything and nothing has changed.Paul Lynch, for Waterstones.com/blog
Here’s a wonderful photo of me in the wildlands of Donegal being interviewed by French literary critic François Busnel for his TV show, Les Carnets de route de François Busnel. François has just spent the week travelling around Ireland interviewing Irish writers such as John Banville, Sebastian Barry and Edna O’Brien in the places that are key to their work. Next stop after this was Jennifer Johnston in Derry. Thrilled to be included in the programme.
Read it here
“A cracking debut novel. Paul Lynch’s startling, evocative prose veers closer to poetry…. This novel is a wonderful achievement” — Sunday Times
“A compulsive read that may well become one of the hits of the summer.… a combination of the poetic and the vicious. It unabashedly uses a 21st-century sensibility to subvert the conventions of the ‘historical’ novel” — Irish Times
“A novel of distinction” — Irish Independent
“A literary star is born…. Red Sky in Morning is an epic tale of murder, pursuit, and oppression… vividly drawn, beautifully written, and propulsive from the get-go. It’s a thumping good read — and a real heartbreaker” — Image magazine
“Lynch’s searingly dark lyricism is redolent of Cormac McCarthy at his most gothic… an arresting new voice in Irish fiction” — MetroHerald
“Muscular and opulent… the novel is ripe with spookily vivid writing. A very stylishly written book that takes the Irish novel into quite a different genre” — The Examiner
‘I have to keep pushing at the edges of what I can do’
Many young Irish writers confront the notion of the ridiculous. And why not? We are, after all, up to our necks in the stuff on a daily basis. But to hear a debut novelist admit to a concern with the sublime – well, that’s something of a rarity.
Yet here is Paul Lynch, author of Red Sky in Morning , calmly setting out his literary stall.
“The sublime is something I’m definitely interested in as a writer,” he says. “I like the idea of trying to take the reader to the edge of something. There’s a thing about Moby Dick that I love. Ahab is . . . he’s tilting against the edge of the universe. I’m interested in that. I try to get my writing to rise above a sense of the domestic and create a degree of awe.”
If all this sounds ambitious, even a tad bombastic, fear not: Red Sky in Morning is a compulsive read that may well become one of the hits of the summer. It tells the story of a young husband and father from Donegal who, in the spring of 1832, accidentally murders the son of his landlord and is forced to flee to save his own life. Coll Coyle manages to get on board a ship for the New World, where he and other Irish immigrants sign up for work building a section of railway.
The novel was partly inspired by a TV documentary about the excavation of Duffy’s Cut, a site near Philadelphia where the remains of 57 Irish workers were discovered in an unmarked mass grave. Many had died of cholera but others had clearly been bludgeoned and, in some cases, shot.
“I had been writing short stories and was gearing up to write a novel,” Lynch explains. “And I saw this documentary and it just started to eat at me. I grew up in that part of Ireland and I had a sense of, I know these people. I know who they are. It just began to haunt me.
“Then I started to see major parallels, with emigration becoming a major factor again. My two neighbours on either side have left the country – and this in an area where you’d expect them to be there forever. So I just started to watch what was going on around me.”
As far as literary influences are concerned, Lynch cites Cormac McCarthy, Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, John Banville. No pressure, then? “When you start to write you can hear echoes of other writers, and you have to accept that,” he says. “All writers, when they start, show the influences of certain masters. I actually developed a faith in my own writing as I went along. So I decided, ‘okay, this is the mix – this is what I have to work with’. But I know that at the end of the day what comes out will be mine.”
Having long worked in film – Lynch was the Sunday Tribune ’s film critic for four years, and has written about film for many other publications, including The Irish Times – he acknowledges the centrality of the visual in his literary imagination. “I don’t think I’m alone in that, either. I see the scene first. I’ll see certain key points – but I have no idea how I’m going to get there. Then, when I start to write, language opens everything up for me. Writing, for me, is a little bit of a trance.”Red Sky in Morning will attract attention for its singular language – a combination of the poetic and the vicious – as well as for its shocking subject matter. While the truth of what actually happened at Duffy’s Cut is still being debated, five Irish men and one woman were given a Christian burial in Philadelphia last year. The body of John Ruddy, meanwhile, was returned to Donegal and reburied in Ardara at the beginning of March.
Lynch’s novel, in any case, aims to do more than simply reconstruct the past. It is reminiscent of Andrew Miller’s Costa award-winning Pure in that it unabashedly uses a 21st-century sensibility to subvert the conventions of the “historical” novel. The only overtly historical passage in the book is a depiction of 19th-century Derry that, it turns out, has more to do with the author’s vivid imagination than with actual historical records.
“I don’t do a lot of research,” Lynch confesses. “I’m just not good at it. I find it terribly boring. To me the idea of historical writing is about people first. Once you zone in on that, all you need is a detail here and there. I doubt anybody living in Derry at the time would recognise it.”
He began with the character of Coll. “I had an idea of a character and I started writing. And then I thought, what am I doing writing this? I have no interest in this romantic idea of Irish history. But as I began to write I realised that my interest was in taking those cliched elements – the idea of the landlord’s son, the idea of a boat crossing, the idea of emigrants working – and strip away from them any ideas of romance or ideology or the layers of history through which we normally see them.”
Another major character in the book is the Donegal landscape. “There’s something . . . mythic about Donegal. The landscape feels timeless and epic. When I began to move Coyle into the mountains, I felt something opened up in the writing. The key thing is that if you’re going to write about landscape, it has to reflect the psychological state of your character in some way. But it must also reflect its own timelessness. That’s a big thing for me.”
There are, Lynch says, two kinds of time in Red Sky in Morning . “The metaphysical time at the start of the book and the end of the book are essentially the same. The world continues to be here when we’re gone – and seems to be quite indifferent to how we pass through it. And then the other thing is the sense of time and loss that Sarah talks about.”
Sarah, Coyle’s wife, is left behind in Donegal with two small children. Her brief commentaries, printed in italics, act as a kind of Greek chorus within the narrative. Given that she is wrestling with issues of meaning and context – trying to get to grips with the idea of a random universe in which events cannot necessarily be explained, or rather, that those explanations may be beyond the reach of the human mind – why did Lynch keep her contribution to a minimum?
“I tend to be a ferocious editor,” he says. “I cut and cut and cut. I even cut in my head before I write. With Sarah I felt that her voice was so strong it didn’t need any more elaboration than just those key points. Also, in a novel, you have to be careful about flow and balance – and so more of Sarah would have knocked the book out of sync a little bit.”
No going back
And yet this reader, at least, would have liked more. Having garnered the famous (or infamous) “six-figure sum” from his publisher, Quercus, for a two-book deal, is there any chance Lynch might return to Sarah for his follow-up? He laughs. “I’m not going back,” he says. “It did occur to me that there was perhaps another novel there – but Sebastian Barry is fabulous at that, and you’ve got to be careful if you follow him into that territory.”
The second book is, in fact, already written and will be published in June 2014. “It’s called Kingdom , and it’s set in Donegal in 1945. It has nothing to do with Red Sky at all. I was determined to do something completely different, because I think it’s very dangerous to repeat.
“I have to keep pushing at the edges of what I can do. For me, it’s evolution or die.”
Red Sky in Morning is published by Quercus. Paul Lynch will give a joint reading with Peter Murphy at the Dublin Writers Festival at Smock Alley Theatre on May 23rd at 6pm
Would you look at that: RED SKY IN MORNING at No 1 in Dubray Books on Dublin’s busiest street Grafton Street. Thank you to everybody who came to the launch and bought some books.
To mark International Record Store Day this year, The Irish Writers Centre asked 12 Irish writers to talk about their favourite records. The list includes Kevin Barry, Gavin Corbett, Peter Murphy, Nuala Ní Chonchúir and yours truly. You can read my contribution here.
Delivered by courier just now — the stunning hardback of RED SKY IN MORNING and the just-as-lovely Trade Paperback that comes with flaps. To quote John Mills in Ice Cold in Alex, “Worth waiting for”….
Paul Lynch has been added to a line-up that includes Colum McCann, Aleskandar Hemon, James Salter and Ben Fountain, as part of this year’s Dublin Writers Festival. He’ll be appearing in a double-bill with the redoubtable Irish novelist Peter Murphy. He is photographed here reading from RED SKY IN MORNING, at the launch of the festival.
Taken from the programme:Dublin Writers Festival brings together two emerging Irish novelists whose distinctive prose style and strong sense of place has marked them out as writers to watch…. Film critic Paul Lynch’s debut novel Red Sky in Morning has created quite a stir in the publishing world. Inspired by a horrific incident in Philadelphia in 1832 in which 57 Irish railroad workers were killed, the novel tells the story of Coll Coyle, who flees his home in Inishowen, Donegal after killing a man, and is pursued all the way to America, where a greater tragedy awaits. Written in a taut, lyrical prose reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy and set against the epic backdrops of Donegal and Pennsylvania, Red Sky in Morning marks the emergence of an exciting new talent.
To buy tickets for this event, and for more information, see here.
Fancy a short taster of RED SKY IN MORNING? I’ll be reading from the book at the launch of Dublin Writers Festival in the Workman’s Club. The festival programme will also be announced tomorrow evening, and there will be more news on that front shortly….
Finally it’s here: the launch party for Red Sky in Morning. For more details see below. My editor Jon Riley, editor-in-chief at Quercus, will say a few words and I’ll be giving a reading. I will also be signing books so please do come along and get your copy signed. Many thanks to Dubray Books on Grafton Street for kindly loaning us their shop for the evening.
The artwork for the North American jacket of Red Sky in Morning is just in. Here it is:
Red Sky In Morning has been acquired by editor Francis Geffard at the French publisher Albin Michel in a two-book deal. The French translation will be published in spring 2014. Albin Michel is one of France’s foremost literary publishers and includes among its ranks Stephen King, Irene Nemerovsky and John McGahern.
London style bible Mr Hyde chooses Red Sky in Morning as one of its five titles to read this year.
We’re a while away yet from the 25 April launch date for RED SKY IN MORNING, but the book has already received quite a bit of attention. The book made The Irish Times Preview for 2013 with a paragraph headlined “On the verge”, and it made the Sunday Times (Irl) top books for 2013, slotted in between Julian Barnes and John LeCarre. The book was also previewed in The Sunday Business Post and The Irish Independent.
Irish Tatler has it on its Hotlist for 2013, while Image Magazine choose it as one of six books in its What We’ll Be Reading in 2013. Meanwhile, Declan Burke at the great books blog Crime Always Pays says the book has been creating a buzz. You can read his preview here: http://crimealwayspays.blogspot.ie/2013/01/the-morning-redness-in-west.html
At this year’s Glebe Cultural Summit: (from left): Peter Murphy, author of John the Revelator; Paul Lynch, author of Red Sky in Morning; Mary Costello, author of short story collection The China Factory
Paul Lynch will be giving his first public reading from Red Sky in Morning at the Glebe Cultural Summit and will take part in a panel discussion with two other debut Irish writers.
He will be joining Peter Murphy (author of John the Revelator) and Mary Costello (author of short story collection The China Factory) to discuss the current landscape of Irish writing and how the boom has affected writing.