Paul Lynch is bringing the Booker home, the sixth Irish author to win since the prize’s inception in 1969. “When I think of who’s come before me – Anne Enright, John Banville, Roddy Doyle…it’s just pinch yourself stuff,” he says in London the day after winning the prize for Prophet Song, his fifth novel. Dapperly clad in all black, he is visibly moved by the hundreds of congratulatory messages from home that have flooded his phone and email.
Set in a dystopian Dublin, Prophet Song imagines Ireland as a totalitarian state, with a far-right party claiming emergency powers after an unnamed crisis. The government quickly removes civil liberties and forms a Stasi-like secret police. Eilish Stack, a microbiologist and mother of four, is left to fend for her family as the country descends into civil war, after her husband, a trade unionist, is detained during a protest.
The book was praised by the prize panel for capturing “the social and political anxieties of our moment”. Inspired by the Syrian refugee crisis, Lynch set it on home turf in an attempt to cultivate empathy. “If we can understand what’s going on elsewhere,” Lynch says, “maybe we can understand how things could slide somewhere in the West.” Although his work deals with dark topics, you have to guide readers “in the same way that Virgil guides Dante,” he explains. “And there has to be some poetry. There has to be some grace to it. There has to be a feeling of safety that you can look down without falling in.”
Formerly deputy chief subeditor and a film critic at the Sunday Tribune, Lynch says that he went into journalism because “I just wanted to work with language…get my hands grubby with words”. As a subeditor, “you get thousands of hours of shaping material…learning how language should be controlled”. When switching to fiction, at about the age of 30, “I found that I had I had control and I had voice. And also the discipline. Discipline is really important. Sometimes I feel in my writing that I’m sitting down to a subbing shift,” he laughs.
Political speculative fiction is a departure for Lynch, whose previous books have tended towards historical fiction. “I’m not a political novelist, even though [Prophet Song] has a political dimension to it,” he says. “And there are big questions. I don’t know if I have the answer, but I don’t aim to have answers. I think the writer’s job is to hold a magic mirror up to the world. And you create symbols from which we can maybe interpret reality in a different way.”
The rioting in Dublin last week confirms that “the speculative that’s going on in this book actually isn’t speculative at all,” as Lynch had said in a video for the Booker Prize. “Like everybody else, I was astonished by it,” he tells me. “And at the same time, this energy is always there. It’s a question of ‘what do we do with our energy? How do we respond to it?’ People have lots of legitimate concerns.”
While some previous winners have had whimsical plans for the £50,000 prize pot – from drum kits to swimming pools – in light of the rise in the cost of living, Lynch plans to use his on his mortgage. [”I have a tracker mortgage that’s gone up [a lot] in the year and a half since the ECB started hiking up the rates. It used to be affordable and now it’s not. I’m, like a lot of people, just heavily squeezed.”]
Prophet Song’s story of children being left fatherless is all the more poignant in light of Lynch’s own battle with kidney cancer last year, after the book was finished. “Who’s to know what the subconscious knows?” he says, philosophically. I ask him if confronting the possibility of mortality has changed him. “Life’s richer,” he says. “Somebody just turned a dial. You don’t go into a room and stare at the Medusa and come back out of that room the same person. And so I feel that life has been enhanced and I have enormous gratitude now for everything, for my life, for this, you know.”
Lynch describes his writing process in quasi-meditative terms. “Fiction is an act of deep intuition. You’re tuning into an aspect of mind that we all have available to us if you make space for it. We live our lives caught up within the havoc of the moment. There’s just the chaos of the now. It’s just noisy all the time. And we give ourselves no space to think, to hear the whispers that come from deep within. And writers create time for those whispers.”
Thrust into the spotlight by the prize – he mentions 3,000 media pieces out today in a day bookended by BBC and Arena on RTÉ – the circus won’t die down just yet. Prophet Song will be published in the US next week, a week earlier than planned in the wake of the win. The germ of a novel Lynch has in progress – his first to be written in the first person – will just have to wait until he has stillness enough to coax out its whispers.