In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by handpicking which questions (and how many!) they want to answer. Paul Lynch is the author of Red Sky in Morning, a novel about a family man who accidentally kills his landlord, the son of a famous tracker, and his subsequent flight from Ireland to the United States with a killer in hot pursuit. Here is what Paul had to say about reading, writing, and Northern Gothic literature.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
Greetings from Dublin, Ireland and thank you for having me. My name is Paul Lynch and I’m the Irish author of Red Sky In Morning, a novel set in rural Co Donegal in 1832. It is the story of a family man who kills a landowner, is chased across the windswept bogs of Co Donegal to America and to the work camps of the American railroad. Parts of the book are narrated by his wife who is left behind. I guess you could descripe it as Irish country noir. Or perhaps you could call it Northern Gothic, an Irish twist on your own brand of Southern.
The kind of books I like to write are the books that come to me. I have no choice in this matter. I am very interested in exploring language and have a secret ambition to do away with the boundary between prose and poetry. Red Sky In Morning is a book in which language is as strong a character as anybody else.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
For me, meditation is a way of cultivating the liminal dream-state of writing. So I usually meditate for half an hour before I write. By then I am in the flow. I like the quiet of the early morning. I like to write with strong jazz in my headphones. (Right now my writing soundtrack is Phronesis). My first sentence of the day is preceded by an espresso. I don’t believe in spending all day at the work. That sounds to me like you are not doing it right. I write very tight to the line, go into a very deep concentration that lasts for about 90 minutes or so. I am one of those strange-headed writers that edit as they write. I spent years working as a sub-editor so it comes naturally to me. Most days I can write in total for about three hours and then I am exhausted. Sometimes I am too tired afterwards to read for leisure.
What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors? Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?
This minute, Bruce Chatwin’s On The Black Hill, a beautiful timeless novel about life on a Welsh farm sent to me as a gift. Chatwin can teach you a lot about the telling detail. And he cuts his prose like a tailor. I’ve changed my reading habits over the past couple of years so that I only read one book of fiction at a time. (Though I’m always dipping into lots of non-fiction). I almost always finish what I start and rarely throw a book away — it helps to be very choosy about what I read beforehand. At least half the novels I read or re-read are classics.
I have no doubt that becoming a professional novelist changes the way one reads. I used to read for pure pleasure with no ulterior motive. Now I read to be a better writer. Or I read jealously and with resentment. Sometimes I read secretly to feel I’m better than another writer. (Believe me, every writer does this). I read the truly great wrtiers with awe, for this inspires me to reach for better myself. I read with such an awareness of technique I yearn for the days of old when reading was carefree and simiply for pleasure. This is the price one pays for one’s craft.
Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?
I read voraciously while I’m writing. A writer friend refuses to read much while on a project, saying he doesn’t want to let anything from another writer leak in. I see this as a lost opportunity. (Anyhow, I spend a couple of years on each book — I can’t imagine not reading for that length of time.)
You can never learn enough from other writers. If you know who you are as a writer, you will not start to sound like the writer you are reading. But you may be subtly informed on questions of technique — something one can never learn enough of. But what I really enjoy most about reading while writing is not what inspires you directly from another’s work, but what inspires you indirectly — how completely different ideas spring to mind as you are reading something else. Your unconscious is always at work and I find that reading widely helps to set the sparks off. It is important to be attuned to this. Many of my best ideas have happened while reading other people’s work that have had nothing to do with the work I was reading. Reading is another way of being creative.
What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?
I read non-stop as a youngster. I used to read in the dark. I used to read in school with the book held secretly under the desk. I thought nobody knew until my mother told me years later that my teacher let it pass. I always knew deep down I would be writer. But I was terrified at the prospect because I set my standards too high.
I wrote poetry in my teens. I spent my twenties thinking that there was no point writing unless you could write a book as good as Don DeLillo’s Underworld. So I didn’t even bother. I did everything else but be a writer and eventually it made me miserable. I played in a band. I worked for a newspaper. I explored my passion for the movies as a film critic. I look back now and see it as good advice: try not to be a writer. Honestly, give it a go. If you are truly a writer the wellspring will persist. Until then the only way you can live with it is to write. Then you know you are a writer. By the time I hit 30 I was going to explode unless I got started with it. And what I found was that all those years of editing and writing and thinking as a critic had given me the full-range of technical skills to hit the ground running. In many ways, I was honing my craft without even knowing it.
How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?
I write just one book at a time. I don’t write plays or screenplays and I do my damndest not to write poetry but sometimes give in to the urge. I consider myself a novelist only and think it is important to know which form of writing you are best at. When I start a book (and I’m on my third now) I usually know before I start what the book will be, can see it schematically in my head, and know the ending. However, the journey is never how you expect it will be and I like to remain open about how and where it will go. I trust and am guided by the feel of language.