Paul Lynch: A book begins in the mind as an itch you have to scratch
The author of June’s Book Club choice Grace on how writing a novel is a long and strange inner journey
Paul Lynch: serious fiction is a form of knowledge. The writer seeks to understand the truths that define the human condition. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/ Getty Images
Strange work is the writing of a novel. A book begins in the mind as an itch and the writer discovers a compulsion to scratch. An image arrives and resonates, sometimes for years. The writer thinks: why this image and not another you might like?
Who is this shadowy person that haunts your waking mind? You walk to the shop to buy eggs and a character suddenly quivers like a plucked string. You discover it is a teenage girl. Why is she here? What does she want to say? It’s not as if you want to write another novel set in the 19th century. And yet she is beckoning from 1845. Why this year and not another? (Something forbidding began that year and it would be best to have nothing to do with it.)
The writer is the priest of the deepest self, the self that remains unknowable. You are called to exorcise this feeling and discover its secret meaning. This might be thought of as the beginning of theme.
But how to begin? A novelist before an unwritten book is a speaker without a language yet to exist. The beginning is a baton pass from the unconscious, the part of the mind older than language. The tongue-tied writer awaits, wearing a blindfold. A hand reaches into the dark and something shapeless is placed in your grip. Whatever it is, you’ve got to run with it along terrain that quickly assumes the topography of a mountain.
You stare toward the icy summit and see palls of cloud. The base of the mountain is covered with snow and there is no path. There is no Sherpa, no map for this. (The maps exist for the day-trippers who wander the hills of the national parks where signage shows the gravelled path, the toilets, the cafe and safe exit).
You plunge into the snow and discover you are wearing sandalled slippers. A blizzard tosses east into west. You find yourself in biting hedgerow with thorns that grow out your fingernails as you type.
If you are a writer with experience, you might wonder what supplies you have against hazard. You examine your backpack and see it is empty but for matches. This might be all you need – small flame in the dark to see step by step. (The writer wonders, if you knew the way in the light would you go there?). Fortitude and toughness, you discover, do not come in an Acme pack.
There are times when you step with self-assurance and tumble down a ravine. The snow falls in drifts and days pass caught on your back and soon you grow stiff. Then you think of Xenophon in the Anabasis with his flagging, frost-bitten army on Armenia’s wintered slopes. Under whacking snowfall they give up for dead until Xenophon without a cloak climbs up and starts chopping down a tree. You light a small fire and begin again.
The writer should ask, why am I doing this? You remind yourself that serious fiction is a form of knowledge. That the writer seeks to understand the truths that define the human condition. Isn’t it so that finitude and suffering are our lot?
That victories are short and love is borrowed? That the unwanted likes to knock upon our door? That sometimes the knocker takes the form of chance, and sometimes what darkens our door is malevolence? We stare at life and are bewildered. You have the right to ask, who are we in relation to all this? How do we define our loss or overcoming?
Literary style is a way of knowing how the world is met in its unfolding. Style is also an unknowing and should alert the reader to the mysterious. Czeslaw Milosz had a constant regret that “human experience defies description”. So you write and seek to express life’s infinite, unconquerable strangeness.
“Keep right on to the end of the road,” went the Harry Lauder song. What you practice grows stronger.
Paul Lynch’s Grace is the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2018. It is currently shortlisted for The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.