‘There’s no doubt that having children makes you vulnerable’
Paul Lynch on seafaring, writing, the all-consuming publishing machine, and his new novel, Beyond the Sea
Paul Lynch: The Black Snow got dream reviews, and it sold nothing. Photograph: Sophie Bassouls/Sygma via Getty Images
George Orwell wrote that a man without food is no more than a belly and a few accessory organs. Paul Lynch’s fourth novel, Beyond the Sea, can be regarded as a sort of nightmarish mindful-eating programme.
The story of two Mexican fishermen, Bolivar and Hector, who are stranded at sea after a sudden storm, is a survival tale in which all existence is pared back to the bare essentials. Every mouthful of food or water is precious, everything gets reduced to the level of moment-by-moment consciousness. It may come as no surprise to the reader that Lynch is a long-time practitioner of daily meditation.
“Meditation for sure has played a large role in what I do,” he considers, sipping water in a Dublin hotel bar. “I meditate every day, and have been doing so for 15 years. There’s always been something at work within the writing which perhaps accounts for what certain people think of as a certain kind of intensity. I’m always trying to alert the reader to the passing moment.”
But for all the novel’s internalised imaginative landscape, its Beckett-on-a-boat sense of claustrophobia and agoraphobia, the writing has its origins in fact.
“I was reading a newspaper article a couple of years ago about a real-life incident in which two Mexican fishermen got washed out into the Pacific. And I was struck with a vision of it as a novel, not the logistics of that tale, but using it to provide a framework to explore my preoccupations. I could see these two men on a boat in a world that had been stripped out of the contemporary moment, the sea as the absolute, the inexpressible, the silence that’s all around us.
“It does begin in the contemprary, but it moves out into a mythic space where time falls away, and I suppose that is something my meditation practice has helped me with. The characters are confronted with who they truly are, their deepest natures begin to emerge. Bolivar is an ironic man, he takes nothing seriously until the book forces him to.”
I wanted to take an unthinking man and make him confront himself
And what Bolivar is forced to confront is his own past: an abandoned wife and daughter who become increasingly more phantom-like in his mind the longer he’s marooned. Lynch himself is a husband and father to two young children. Could he have written this book if he didn’t have a daughter?
“It’s funny, my mother-in-law asked me that question when she read it. There’s no doubt that having children makes you vulnerable in a way that only a parent can understand. I wanted to take an unthinking man and make him confront himself. I re-read Robinson Crusoe a few months ago, and there’s a line, I wrote it down, something to the effect of, ‘falling early into the sea-faring life, which of all the lives is the most destitute of the fear of God, though His terrors are always before them.’
“I grew up in a fishing community. There were plenty of boys who left school to become fishermen. One of the young men who died on the Carrickatine in 1995, I went to school with him, his brother was in my class, I knew his father to see. My father was in the merchant navy, sailing the Pacific on supertankers and freighters as a radio officer.”
No surprise then that Beyond the Sea is dedicated to Lynch’s father Pat.
“I grew up with the imagery and the tales, stories of being on one of these massive freighters limping back to port in Tokyo with all its pumps burned out after coming through a typhoon. That’s the kind of stuff that fills your imagination as a kid. My father retired from the merchant navy in his late twenties when I was born and we moved to Malin Head, he was ship-to-shore coastguard, he spent his days saving sailors, organising rescue missions, receiving mayday calls. That was the job. And he would come home and speak to us about these things, telling us about how they airlifted somebody off a trawler.
“When something like the Carrickatine happens, that’s a heavy pressure, that affects everybody. There’s a thing that I’m trying to get at here... If I grew up with the image of the father as the safe hand reaching out from the coast to pull the sailors back in, the moment when these two go to sea and that hand is no longer there, that feeling for me is very powerful. These men are truly on their own. I knew that the character Bolivar would have to go through hell. I think that he achieves a state of grace in the book. He’s earned our respect.”
For Lynch, the new book is the culmination of more than a decade of relentless work. His prose is obsessively honed and chiselled, and yet he’s published four novels in the last six years.
You look back on the books and you don’t recognise who wrote them, it’s some other version of you
“The publishing dates are completely misleading,” he counters. “Grace took nearly four years. I started writing Red Sky In Morning 12 years ago now. You look back on the books and you don’t recognise who wrote them, it’s some other version of you. It’s written out of you and the palimpsest is clean and you have to figure out who you are again.”
But Lynch, while mindful of his privileged position as a published author, will, if pushed, admit that he has been tested. He received a low six-figure advance for his first two novels, Red Sky In Morning and The Black Snow, but those payments were spaced out over several years. Grace and Beyond the Sea were written under intense financial pressure, despite media focus on his early earnings.
“Very few people come through that in a good way,” he concedes. “Those kind of advances cannot be earned out unless you win a major British book prize, simple as. It used to be the case that readers would follow a writer along their career book by book, and that seems to have gone now, more or less. A writer can win a big UK prize and have a couple of hundred thousand sales, and then on the next book a thousand sales.”
What was his lowest point, professionally?
“I knew I was in trouble after The Black Snow. The book had gotten dream reviews, the kind of reviews you hope to read at some point in your life before you die, and it sold nothing. Which is typical, because you’re new once, the machine has consumed you and spat you out and is looking around now for the next young writer to consume. It is an industry, but it’s problematic, because the truth is that most writers get better and better book by book.”
How did he navigate that period?
'There was the realisation that this is the only thing I can do now, I’m not able to do anything else, so it has to work'
“I just knew I had to write a really good book. And that book was Grace. And then nobody would publish it. Grace was actually sold in America and France, but there was a period of time when it was not picked up in Ireland and the UK, and I was at sea. I was writing the first draft of this book at that time, feeling that sense of being cast out, adrift, generating my own sense of self-belief and hope that my career would continue.
“I had a young family. And also, there was the realisation that this is the only thing I can do now, I’m not able to do anything else, so it has to work. That’s a lot of pressure. So I started writing this book under those conditions. Intolerable conditions! [Laughs]
“But it’s not a sob story, it came good. When the American reviews came in, some of the stuff there was amazing. When Edna O’Brien blurbed it, that was a moment. Grace was eventually picked up by Oneworld, which has made its reputation on publishing literary fiction that takes risks, and has won a lot of prizes in the last few years, including two Bookers, Marlon James and Paul Beatty. The highest point was winning the Kerry Group, standing on the stage and realising that right in front of me, in the front row, were Colm Tóibín and Edna O’Brien. Stars from the sky.”
Beyond the Sea is published by Oneworld