Where did you grow up?
I was born in Limerick city but grew up in a small town in County Donegal—remote, windy, lots of rain. That’s how I recall it. As soon as I was of an age, I got the hell out. One of the discoveries of my writing life was that my imagination was in a rush to go back there. At first, this was a source of huge frustration—I wanted to write about cities and modern life. I wrote a few exploratory short stories set in Dublin, but the moment I relocated my writing to Donegal and found for it a mythic register, the magic began to happen on the page. I suspect that distance plays a huge part in this — while we must remain true to life, we must be free to bend reality to our own will. I would find it difficult to write about a place if I am living in it.
Where and what did you study?
I dropped out of an English and Philosophy bachelor of arts degree. At the same time as I was studying, I was freelancing as a sub-editor for a national newspaper—the now defunct Sunday Tribune. I was ridiculously young, and the paper was offering me opportunities I could not turn down. It got to a point where I had to choose between study and the excitement of life on a newspaper where I got to run my own small section. The truth is that I was a disaffected student. I had an angry head on me at the time and hated authority and structured education. I fought fiercely with everything. Looking back, it seems I have never done anything the obvious way and I harbor deep suspicion of young writers who court the establishment. Writing by its very nature must be anti-establishment. I sought to find my own path and I’m glad that I did. It has made me a better writer. What I know now is that all those thousands of hours editing and rewriting newspaper stories were shaping the writer’s brain I have today.
Where do you live and why?
I live in a quiet, old blue-collar area of Dublin with my fiancée. I am at heart a city person, but crave the space and silence to be creative. I find my writing life is a constant assessment of balance. Am I getting enough quietude to think and read and get the work done? Am I being social enough to make sure I don’t go a little crazy? I suspect the writing life has rewired my brain. When I worked for the newspaper, all I craved was quiet. Now, after a day spent in the company of my own thoughts, I need to step away from my obsessions. I find that Not Writing and Not Thinking are just as important because I need to give time for my unconscious to come up with the goods. Right now, the dream is to live in NYC for a while—to have some place quiet for the day’s writing, but soak up the city’s endless distractions at night.
What did it feel like to be at the center of a bidding war for your very first novel?
It began as a feeling of validation that became increasingly surreal. Beforehand, I had drawn up a list of my five dream publishers, and all five were part of the six publishers bidding for Red Sky in Morning. I wrote this book for myself, for a standard of writing that I would enjoy as a reader. I thought it would be a niche literary book. And I had found it difficult to get an agent—mine is the usual story of rejections, and, in some cases, being patronized by interns. Then, suddenly, six top London publishers wanted my book. After the bidding war, I remember taking down my volume of Avi Sharon’s translations of Cavafy and reading some lines from “The First Step”:
“Just to set foot on this first step you must already, in your own right, be a citizen of the republic of ideas. And it is a hard and rare thing to be written into the roll-books there. In the market of that city you will find Lawmakersthat no fortune-hunter can fool.”
The Germans have the lead in producing wonderful composers, the Italians wonderful painters, and the Irish, it seems, wonderful novelists who make fireworks out of the English language. What’s with Ireland producing so many great novelists? And why is Irish English so much richer than the English of other nations?
There is certainly a perception that Irish English is richer than the English of other nations, and while we have our fair share of masters, I am not sure it is necessarily true. As I see it, a good many of the greatest literary stylists of the past 50 years are American. Saying that, there is certainly something in the water here. I suspect that, because English is not our historical language, we have always sought to make it our own. We were colonized by the English language, and in turn, colonized it. The English language in Ireland went native. The clash of English with the grammatical form of the Irish language gave it new color and shape. Hiberno-English has some very unusual and wonderful constructions.
I think a psychological distancing from England has played a role, too. English writers, it seems to me, are too often terrified of breaking with the standard. But there is no standard in English other than its versatility. All language is protean, a moment-in-time snap-shot of evolution in action. And while Irish writers do enjoy a huge freedom with language, not all Irish writers make use of it. I’m not happy unless I’m bending language, forcing it to go places until it creates for me a feeling of strangeness. If you want your writing to open doors into the intuitive, the liminal, the felt but not expressed, you have to force language into new places, to allow words and sentences bump and spark. Think of how a child sees the world—that is how I want my readers to feel when they read my writing. To inhabit strangeness again. For this to happen fully, language must pulse with the new. Vigor in writing is freshness of phrase.
Describe your morning routine.
Knowing I have to write, I rise with dread. It requires great willpower on my part to go to the desk in the dark of a morning. What helps is to stay focused. Most mornings, as soon as I rise, I meditate for half an hour. When a writer talks about being “in the zone,” they are really in the same place as a meditative state, so meditation trains you to get there faster. After I meditate, I shoot a strong espresso and go to the desk. No phone. No internet. No email. No conversation. I need a very deep concentration to mine the good stuff. I like to listen to knotty jazz—years ago, by accident, I discovered that John Coltrane’s Ascension uncorks my creativity. I don’t even hear it as I write. I’ve been listening to hard jazz ever since. I tend to write in very intense 90-minute bursts and I write really tight to the line—I edit my sentences as I go along and can’t move forward too much unless they are sitting more or less the way I want them to. What I look for in each sentence is a certain kind of inevitability. A good day for me is 600 words. On those very rare days when I hit a thousand words, I stop. I start by rereading and editing yesterday’s work, getting reacquainted with its song. By lunch the writing is done. I spend my afternoons reading and exercising or going for walks. Unless life gets in the way, which usually it does.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?
I’m currently writing my third book so at this point I have a fair idea of how it happens. Each novel starts with a prod—a situation and a problem that rises from the deep and won’t go away. I do my best to forget the idea. This is a test. If it returns again and again, I know I am on to something. This is when other ideas begin to nucleate around the core idea. I take notes as they come—be it on the bus, or eating dinner. After a while, what amasses gets so thick I know it must be written. Most times, by the time I sit down to start the book, I have almost a whole novel’s worth of core material. By this time, I can see it schematically. I know the beginning, middle and end. I have a map in hand but I do not know the topography. Language is my landscape, my sunlight and guiding stars. I follow it blindly and trust in its powers to lead me where I need to go. I write openly, allowing the book to discover and write itself, even though broadly I know where I am going.
What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?
I believe very much in Henry James’s maxim that “the house of fiction has… not one window, but a million”. It is up to each writer to find their own compelling way into a story. (Call me old-fashioned, but having a story is probably the best place to start.) As for myself, what I look for is an engaging problem—something so great that it tilts the known universe off its axis. I want to feel that rolling, tumbling momentum, like a barrel sent blind downhill. I want to be inside the barrel, bounced blind over the cliff. I want to feel the freefall in my stomach. The launch over the abyss. That’s when I know I have a book.
Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite work space?
My desk is a black and battered Ikea desk that was meant to be temporary but has earned its place in my study. Some day, when I can afford it, I will buy myself a nice Danish modernist desk. Let me see what lies around me. To my left, taped to the windowsill are a few lines from Heaney’s “North” that I think contains one of the best instructions for writing I have read: “Compose in darkness. / Expect aurora borealis / in the long foray / but no cascade of light.” Beside it, printed out in a frame, is “Reflections upon the Path”—the epilogue from [Harold] Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence. I read this to keep me grounded. (“Riding three days and nights he came upon the place, but decided it could not be come upon…”) I write with a Mac laptop that sits in front of a black printer. Beside it is my Collins dictionary and my Roget’s thesaurus and a box for my beloved Waterman pen. There are stacks of books and notebooks all around the place that I keep moving around. On the wall to my left is a corkboard pinned with cards—each one a scene in my latest project. It gives me an instant god’s view of the book as I’m writing it.
What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?
I suffer a lot of guilt as a writer. I feel blessed that—for now, at least—I have earned the right to be a full-time novelist. If I skip a day’s writing, which occasionally I do, I get the gnaw. When I’m not writing fiction and am writing Q&As such as this, I get the gnaw. I am grateful for every day of freedom to pursue this. And yet, the truth is, you can’t treat writing like an ordinary day job. Yes, you should be at the desk every day and keep set hours. Yes, it is all about discipline. But what powers writing is intuition, and intuition gets tired. Writing beats the hell out of it. Sometimes, it is mandatory to let intuition go on holiday, even if it is just to sit about the house reading for a week or two. I have had to learn to be kind to myself. On a daily basis, I’m happy when the rewriting has got me to the place where I want it to be. Word counts are useful but not a rule. There are days where I might come away with just one or two sentences, but if they are the right sentences, then I am happy.
Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.
I’m just back from a trip to NYC where one reading I did with a few writers took a spectacular turn. One of the writers was a lovely elderly woman who had mentioned during her piece that she was from Pennsylvania. As I began to explain the broader historical background to my own book—that 57 Irish men arrived in Philadelphia in 1832 and were taken to Malvern, Pennsylvania by an Irish man called Duffy, she interrupted and said—that’s where I’m from (while gently correcting my pronunciation of Malvern). I continued the story, that these men began to work on the Pennsylvania Railroad, and she stopped me again—with increasing incredulity—and said, “but my grandfather used to own that rail line.” At the moment, everything began to feel a little strange. I continued, telling her that all 57 men on the rail site were killed, that it suspected they were murdered, and that their story was covered up by the rail company. Her mouth fell open. She had never heard about it. It was one of the strangest coincidents. But what was going through my mind was the joke that I left unsaid: so it was your grandfather who murdered all the characters in my book.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
That reading is more important than writing. That reading the classics matters. That if reading for you is not narcotic, quit now while you are ahead. (Why would you want to write a book when you don’t read them?) That you should write the novel you want to read, not the one you think you can write. Write the book you think you can’t write—for writing is the act of pushing past yourself. Do not care for what the establishment wants because the establishment is built of writers who once set out to dismantle it. Learn that if your writing sounds establishment, it is already dead. Write dangerously. Write for the deepest part of yourself. Never write looking over your shoulder. Accept failure as the essence of process and rewrite your way through it. Learn discipline. Learn self-reliance. Write past your limits—that every draft is more intelligent than its predecessor. You will be a smarter writer when you finish your first draft. By the time you finish your tenth draft, your writing will be smarter than you. Learn to read your writing objectively. Learn to read your writing aloud, for it allows you to hear your writing as if another wrote it. Learn that tone is everything. Spend however long it takes finding the song for your book. And then keep going back to those perfected early pages to remind yourself how your book is supposed to sound. Learn to get closer to what you are writing about. Learn to get closer to truth. Ask yourself all the time, am I close enough? Can I get it tighter? Learn to cut. Learn to cut what’s left. Learn to get your writing to the point at which you cannot better it. That is the time to show it to somebody else. Learn to trust your opinion and know what you want. But know there is a time for good counsel. Learn to be kind to yourself, because writing is hard and it will bash you up. Learn that you are not in competition with other writers. That your only competition is time, which is the truest judge.
What is your next project?
My next book is called The Black Snow—it is the story of Barnabas Kane, a 1940s Donegal farmer whose byre burns down leaving him with nothing. The book explores what he does next and how he attempts to save his family. It is a novel of suspense and secrets, a pastoral novel that slowly tears the pastoral apart. It will be published in the UK and Ireland by Quercus in the summer of 2014, and in America by Little, Brown in the spring/summer of 2015.