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.
Full interview here: http://www.humag.co/features/conjuring-the-abyss