Many young Irish writers confront the notion of the ridiculous. And why not? We are, after all, up to our necks in the stuff on a daily basis. But to hear a debut novelist admit to a concern with the sublime – well, that’s something of a rarity.
Yet here is Paul Lynch, author of Red Sky in Morning , calmly setting out his literary stall.
“The sublime is something I’m definitely interested in as a writer,” he says. “I like the idea of trying to take the reader to the edge of something. There’s a thing about Moby Dick that I love. Ahab is . . . he’s tilting against the edge of the universe. I’m interested in that. I try to get my writing to rise above a sense of the domestic and create a degree of awe.”
If all this sounds ambitious, even a tad bombastic, fear not: Red Sky in Morning is a compulsive read that may well become one of the hits of the summer. It tells the story of a young husband and father from Donegal who, in the spring of 1832, accidentally murders the son of his landlord and is forced to flee to save his own life. Coll Coyle manages to get on board a ship for the New World, where he and other Irish immigrants sign up for work building a section of railway.
The novel was partly inspired by a TV documentary about the excavation of Duffy’s Cut, a site near Philadelphia where the remains of 57 Irish workers were discovered in an unmarked mass grave. Many had died of cholera but others had clearly been bludgeoned and, in some cases, shot.
“I had been writing short stories and was gearing up to write a novel,” Lynch explains. “And I saw this documentary and it just started to eat at me. I grew up in that part of Ireland and I had a sense of, I know these people. I know who they are. It just began to haunt me.
“Then I started to see major parallels, with emigration becoming a major factor again. My two neighbours on either side have left the country – and this in an area where you’d expect them to be there forever. So I just started to watch what was going on around me.”
As far as literary influences are concerned, Lynch cites Cormac McCarthy, Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, John Banville. No pressure, then? “When you start to write you can hear echoes of other writers, and you have to accept that,” he says. “All writers, when they start, show the influences of certain masters. I actually developed a faith in my own writing as I went along. So I decided, ‘okay, this is the mix – this is what I have to work with’. But I know that at the end of the day what comes out will be mine.”
Having long worked in film – Lynch was the Sunday Tribune ’s film critic for four years, and has written about film for many other publications, including The Irish Times – he acknowledges the centrality of the visual in his literary imagination. “I don’t think I’m alone in that, either. I see the scene first. I’ll see certain key points – but I have no idea how I’m going to get there. Then, when I start to write, language opens everything up for me. Writing, for me, is a little bit of a trance.”
Red Sky in Morning will attract attention for its singular language – a combination of the poetic and the vicious – as well as for its shocking subject matter. While the truth of what actually happened at Duffy’s Cut is still being debated, five Irish men and one woman were given a Christian burial in Philadelphia last year. The body of John Ruddy, meanwhile, was returned to Donegal and reburied in Ardara at the beginning of March.
Lynch’s novel, in any case, aims to do more than simply reconstruct the past. It is reminiscent of Andrew Miller’s Costa award-winning Pure in that it unabashedly uses a 21st-century sensibility to subvert the conventions of the “historical” novel. The only overtly historical passage in the book is a depiction of 19th-century Derry that, it turns out, has more to do with the author’s vivid imagination than with actual historical records.
“I don’t do a lot of research,” Lynch confesses. “I’m just not good at it. I find it terribly boring. To me the idea of historical writing is about people first. Once you zone in on that, all you need is a detail here and there. I doubt anybody living in Derry at the time would recognise it.”
He began with the character of Coll. “I had an idea of a character and I started writing. And then I thought, what am I doing writing this? I have no interest in this romantic idea of Irish history. But as I began to write I realised that my interest was in taking those cliched elements – the idea of the landlord’s son, the idea of a boat crossing, the idea of emigrants working – and strip away from them any ideas of romance or ideology or the layers of history through which we normally see them.”
Another major character in the book is the Donegal landscape. “There’s something . . . mythic about Donegal. The landscape feels timeless and epic. When I began to move Coyle into the mountains, I felt something opened up in the writing. The key thing is that if you’re going to write about landscape, it has to reflect the psychological state of your character in some way. But it must also reflect its own timelessness. That’s a big thing for me.”
There are, Lynch says, two kinds of time in Red Sky in Morning . “The metaphysical time at the start of the book and the end of the book are essentially the same. The world continues to be here when we’re gone – and seems to be quite indifferent to how we pass through it. And then the other thing is the sense of time and loss that Sarah talks about.”
Sarah, Coyle’s wife, is left behind in Donegal with two small children. Her brief commentaries, printed in italics, act as a kind of Greek chorus within the narrative. Given that she is wrestling with issues of meaning and context – trying to get to grips with the idea of a random universe in which events cannot necessarily be explained, or rather, that those explanations may be beyond the reach of the human mind – why did Lynch keep her contribution to a minimum?
“I tend to be a ferocious editor,” he says. “I cut and cut and cut. I even cut in my head before I write. With Sarah I felt that her voice was so strong it didn’t need any more elaboration than just those key points. Also, in a novel, you have to be careful about flow and balance – and so more of Sarah would have knocked the book out of sync a little bit.”
No going back
And yet this reader, at least, would have liked more. Having garnered the famous (or infamous) “six-figure sum” from his publisher, Quercus, for a two-book deal, is there any chance Lynch might return to Sarah for his follow-up? He laughs. “I’m not going back,” he says. “It did occur to me that there was perhaps another novel there – but Sebastian Barry is fabulous at that, and you’ve got to be careful if you follow him into that territory.”
The second book is, in fact, already written and will be published in June 2014. “It’s called Kingdom , and it’s set in Donegal in 1945. It has nothing to do with Red Sky at all. I was determined to do something completely different, because I think it’s very dangerous to repeat.
“I have to keep pushing at the edges of what I can do. For me, it’s evolution or die.”
Red Sky in Morning is published by Quercus. Paul Lynch will give a joint reading with Peter Murphy at the Dublin Writers Festival at Smock Alley Theatre on May 23rd at 6pm