Nine things I want to tell you about Paul Lynch
Peter Murphy on the author of ‘Grace’, this month’s Irish Times Book of the Month pick
Paul Lynch is prolific: three hefty novels in four years. The secret? He gets up early every day, meditates for a bit, then writes for three or four hours, while the rest of us are dicking around on Facebook Photograph: Ulf Anderson
Paul Lynch doesn’t look like the kind of guy who writes novels set in Donegal (or at least, a historical-fictional version of Donegal). He looks more like an Italian actor or an off-duty musician. Mike McCormack pointed this out at the launch of Grace last September: someone who writes prose like Paul’s should appear as rough-hewn, ruddy, a weather-worn salt, a Healy or Heaney or McGahern, not some sallow-skinned, besuited dude with long hair. It just goes to show: all writers are liars, tricksters, illusionists. Paul Lynch is no exception. I once asked him, shortly after the publication of The Black Snow, where he’d gleaned such deep insight into the practical workings of a farm. He told me, without a shred of sheepishness, that he made it all up.
Paul Lynch has somehow ended up writing three novels in genres he’s not particularly crazy about: historical drama, pastoral gothic, and the picaresque. Sometimes you get the impression he’d rather be writing stories set in sweltering Central American villages, or Russian gulags, or American frontier towns, but somehow, almost by accident, his area of expertise (his “project”, to use the terminology), has been recasting the rural Irish novel in a highly stylised prose style informed by McCarthy, Faulkner, Melville and dozens of obscure Latin American literary masters you’ve never heard of but he’ll tell you all about over a glass of vino. Maybe because of this, his books contain an innate tension, a sort of chafing of content against form, that makes them edgier and more challenging than your standard period yarn.
Paul Lynch is ambitious. I don’t mean that he’s arrogant, or that he doesn’t get insecure about his own abilities, but he does possess a sort of aversion to triviality, to fucking around, that is unusual even in post-boom Ireland, where self-deprecation is the Vaseline that lubes social intercourse. This means that in interviews and essays Paul sometimes comes across as a Very Serious Man, whereas in person he’s impish and irreverent. I think this might be down to a sort of over-compensation for much of the early press his first novel Red Sky In Morning received, which was of the frothy young-author-scores-huge-advance (a six-figure deal with Quercus) variety.
Paul’s second novel The Black Snow remains somewhat under-rated here in Ireland, not least because the media machine loves debutantes. Sometimes the most difficult thing about that difficult second book is getting people to read the damn thing. Set in Donegal in the spring of 1945, The Black Snow is almost Dostoevsky-ish in tone. Its protagonist, the black-browed, stubborn Barnabas Kane, is a tragic Shakespearean figure in his isolation, somewhere between the Bull McCabe and a young Captain Ahab. The book’s opening section alone is a virtuoso piece of writing, describing a catastrophic farmhouse fire: “He came upon the pasture field and what he saw was a helix of black smoke that hid the house, spread like squid ink in water. The west end of the byre’s roof was blazing. Smoke sidled from its windows like water streaming backwards over rocks, curled towards the roof where it made with darker smoke a sickening union.”
Paul Lynch is prolific: three hefty novels in four years. The secret? He gets up early every day, meditates for a bit, then writes for three or four hours, while the rest of us are dicking around on Facebook.
Paul Lynch has a thing for red wine and red meat. When I was brought low by an unforeseen mid-life crisis last summer, he arrived down to my gaff with two steaks and a bottle of vino. Since then, I’ve been unable to think of Paul’s work as anything other than the literary equivalent of same. Your teeth need to be in good nick before going in. It takes ages to digest. But by god, when you’re done, you’re full.
Some fundamental differentials between myself and Paul Lynch, some of which I learned when we embarked on a self-financed (and selectively attended) mini-tour of New York and Boston in 2013.
(i) Paul likes the finer things in life – good food, good suits, good shoes, good films, good books – whereas I will quite happily forage from skips and sleep on the floor.
(ii) Paul thinks my stuff is too modernist and fragmented and that I’m at my best when writing in the scuffed first person; I think he should get out of the paddock and write an urban novel.
(iii) Paul likes highly technical prog rock, math-metal and free jazz. I like free jazz too, but I also like cretin-headed punk and hip-hop.
(iv) Paul’s a stereo fetishist and a collector of rare vinyl pressings. I like obnoxious noise at high volume and if the speakers are broken so much the better.
Vive la différence.
Grace is probably Paul’s best novel, and, despite what you’ve heard, his most accessible, mainly because it lands squarely between high concept and raw emotion, between language and character. Its sense of movement and historical scope remind me of Stevenson’s Kidnapped, with a classic steely tomboy protagonist akin to Mattie Ross from True Grit. There’s no doubt this book puts you through the mill, but you damn well won’t forget it in a hurry.
Grace won the 2018 Kerry Group Fiction Prize. It’s the first time the author has been awarded a literary prize in his home country. This publishing racket is a long game, but it’s starting to pay off.
Peter Murphy is the author of the novels John the Revelator and Shall We Gather at the River