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How I wrote The Black Snow


The Black Snow came to me first in dream, a vision of rural apocalypse. I saw a burning byre. Cattle in flames running into the night. I woke and lay in the grasp of it. Characters began to appear out of their own dark. I felt the tug of a storyline. From dream I had been given the beginning of a novel. I reached for my phone, typed it all in, and went back to sleep. It was 5am.

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

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