The Total Strangeness That Is Life: An Interview With Paul Lynch, Author Of The Black Snow
by Will Chancellor
Paul Lynch’s second novel, The Black Snow (Little, Brown and Company, 2015), deserves every writer’s attention for its masterful use of language. Lynch’s prose aligns perfectly with the minds of the protagonists, Barnabas and Eskra Kane: swirling in ever more eccentric loops like Yeats’s lost falcon when we follow the husband; initially ticking and determined then streaming out like an angered hive of bees when we follow the wife.
Nature, and the language which describes it, is elemental in The Black Snow. The craggy lyricism reminds me most of Ted Hughes, where a tree can be “A priest from a different land,” who “Fulminated / Against heather, black stones, blown water. // Excommunicated the clouds / Damned the wind / Cast the bog pools into outer darkness / Smote the horizons / With the jawbones of emptiness // Till he ran out of breath — ”
Here’s the opening incident of Lynch’s novel, when a farmhand first sees then rushes into a fire.
“A thin cat’s tail curling grey into the sky, some kind of smoke that mingled easy with the cloud’s pewter. Evening was pressing down gentle and in the way the light fell he could have missed it, a yellowing that shook upon the fading day…Barnabas bent and grabbed a rock shaped like the tooth of some old animal that had fallen there to die under the wheel of an ancient sun…the dull sound of Matthew Peoples’ boots thudding up the field…the way he moved with his limbs all thickly, like he was set to stumble…his hands balled like stones…Fire…A skim of starlings in the sky above Carnavan seemed to mirror the rising wreathe of drift smoke. The murmuration swung in unison like minds entwined, weaved the sky with giant breathing until the dusk pulsed like a lung. The group inverted and swirled, caught the light and bent it, swung again into a strip of infinite looping, nature’s way of mocking perhaps what was playing out below…”
Lynch’s prose is so vital and so rich, capturing the ineffable meaning of the fire in a way that bare syntax could not. It makes more sense to me to juxtapose his writing with lyric poems than it does to compare it to grit lit or Irish noir.
Critic Alan Cheuse was an outspoken advocate of Paul Lynch. Of The Black Snow he wrote, “As Lynch presents the story, it becomes an out of the ordinary creation, a novel in which sentence after sentence comes so beautifully alive in all the fullness of its diction and meaning that most other contemporary Irish fiction looks sheepish by comparison.”
In 2013, I was fortunate enough to meet Paul Lynch on the red carpeted floors of the Long Hall pub in Dublin. We’ve remained friends since.
Will Chancellor: To date, and I don’t imagine this ever really changing, you’ve written novels with a slow literary speed limit — readers should proceed at maybe twenty pages an hour? This strikes me as a little insane in our scan-centric culture, not dissimilar to a cyclist on the side of a freeway. Do you fear for your life?
Paul Lynch: I do think you must always write for the ideal reader. But it would be folly to worry too much about who exactly that is. Nor do I worry much about the reading speed of a sentence. I think instead about what the sentence is asking for, its texture and feel, the inevitability within it that pulls the reader on.
I ask myself if I have got close enough to what I am writing about. Often, I find the closer you get, the more texture you are going to end up with. That for sure will slow a reader down. And great if it does. Literature is about contemplation not speed-reading for plot or fact. I try to give the reader what I call the startling moment — to take them down to the heartbeat of a character. To open the moment out in all its richness.
There will always be people born wired for books. Every age has its contemplatives.
I certainly do not fear for the life of literature. There will always be people born wired for books. Every age has its contemplatives. But for the writer now, as much as the reader, the internet is the great challenge, isn’t it? Sooner or later, every serious writer will face the question of how much they need to disengage from the noise and unwire their brain from distraction. I’ve got an iPhone in my pocket after I’m finished writing but I might as well be attached to a dopamine drip. The internet generates a constant fear of missing out. It is the tyranny of the new. But what the writer seeks is human truth and that is as old as the ages.
WC: Were you ever serious about photography? Have you ever had a creative impulse that you thought needed a medium other than that of prose?
PL: That is interesting because my writing imagination is intensely visual. A book often begins with a vision, something half-seen that needs to be explored. But it took me some time to figure out my imagination needs to be written. There was a period in my twenties when I thought I might be a photographer. I pored over masters such as Cartier-Bresson and took to the streets. I have an OK eye but I know I don’t have what it takes to be a visual artist. Though I did learn from it. How to see a face. The internal geometry of a scene. How to capture feeling in a place. Whatever it was that I unconsciously sought from photography unlocked when I began to write.
WC: Cartier-Bresson believed in, and tried to capture, that one decisive moment in any scene — not dissimilar to Flaubert’s search for le mot juste. Can you describe the process of finding the decisive moment, which I imagine happens in your head rather than an actual street, and then expanding that moment into a broader scene?
PL: I don’t believe there is any decisive moment as such for the fictional writer — writing is rewriting and though there are many passages in my books that are essentially a first take, everything else can take many, many attempts before it finds the ideal shape. And what makes it ideal? I know it when I read it.
But I do identify with how Cartier-Bresson likened the decisive moment to zen archery, that one must be egoless, alert and present fully in the moment. Meditation forms a part of my daily life and it guides my mind into the necessary space for writing. It seems that I enter some kind of alertful trance when I work. I become the moment in which I am writing. And yet I am there, the author, standing in the river and meddling with the flow.
Being open always to what is given to you is so important. The Black Snow was born entirely from a dream and the moment I woke I began taking notes. I saw the opening of the book as if seen from the sky, watching below as a byre stood burning and cattle ran flaming into the night. I did not know what it was other than that I had been gifted something that resonated deeply.
WC: My favorite scene in Black Snow is when Barnabas breaks the taboo of leaving historical ruins undisturbed and, instead, starts removing the stones of a famine cottage, one wagon load at a time, to build something new for his family. I read this as the work of the writer — particularly the Irish writer: to hell with the solemnity of the past if I need those stones to build out the vision in my head.
PL: King Lear and Job stood in the shadows while I was writing this novel — two men pushed hard by the fates. Barnabas gets pushed hard too and I admire how he rails against what is thrown at him. He is the kind of man who will do whatever it takes to survive, to rebuild his byre and regain a livelihood for his family. Ultimately, he crosses the line and starts to destroy a famine cottage for its stonework. And, of course, this is laden with symbolism. But I’ll leave that for the reader to unpack.
At a glance it might seem that The Black Snow is that certain type of Irish novel — a pastoral story set on a farm. But it seems to me this book is very different, that the writing became an act of creative destruction. That it dismantles the idea of the farm, the dream of the pastoral, the dream of Ireland, slowly, inevitably, piece by piece, until nothing of it is left.
WC: The Black Snow reads like a ghost story without ghosts — the environment and the characters seem like they’re made of smoke. How do you view the supernatural in this book?
PL: I am very intrigued by this question because this book is haunted — but not by ghosts. It seems to me what hides in plain sight is the inexplicable. It is an absence that is always present. It is the fourth main character in the book. How do you write about what can’t be written about? I try to bend language until it can suggest the ineffable, the great gap between what we think we know, and what we don’t know. The felt but not expressed. The intuited but not understood, what Wordsworth called “recognitions, dim and faint.” I wanted for the language to come up against the void. A difficult thing, really, and one has to force language into the strangest of places to accommodate this.
I’m interested in how blame rushes to fill an absence…What moves in that gap between knowing and unknowing I think of as ghosts.
Daniel Kahneman has a line: “our predilection for causal thinking exposes us to serious mistakes in evaluating the randomness of truly random events.” How do we respond when tragedy strikes and there is no answer for what caused it? In the book, Barnabas, Billy and Eskra each follow their own private convictions about how the fire started. There are no answers in The Black Snow and yet everybody believes they know who is to blame and thus act upon it, pulling the strings of the book’s ending together. I’m interested in how blame rushes to fill an absence. I wanted to explore how we live our lives in certainty, only to discover that we really know nothing, that the truth is we are philosophically blind. And yet the human mind cannot help but tell itself narratives to explain the world. What moves in that gap between knowing and unknowing I think of as ghosts.
WC: And yet the process of writing is one of intuitive flashes, things that lack causes.
PL: Writing is following the sky of your mind. Who knows from where the winds blow. Or perhaps we are diviners. You cannot see the spring beneath but suddenly there is a twitch in the stick. What do you think?
WC: Diviners? There is something of the medieval serf in a writer — miserable or too dense to be miserable, toothless, holding up a chicken bone from the mud and swearing that it’s a fossil, indisputable proof in the existence of elves.
How far removed are the Kanes from the miseries of medieval peasantry? You’ve set both of your novels to date in a rural world governed by the most universal needs: food, shelter, safety. It’s the world familiar to the speaker’s father in “Digging,” by Heaney:
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Can you talk about the decision to strip away everything — electricity, politics, global interdependence — and focus on primal and immediate concerns?
PL: What I’m interested in discovering is human truth. What does it mean to be alive within the dream of life? It seems to me there are essential human truths that have never changed throughout the ages, and that what we think of as unique to our own time is, in fact, the general. I am convinced, as a writer, that we must be able to witness ourselves as we have been moved and shaped by such universal forces. And so the writing must be shaped a certain way to meet this challenge. Being mythic certainly helps as it implies distance in order to see things better.
WC: Are these questions that have real, discoverable answers? Do you think you will find them in writing and say, whew, that was tough. Now on to my sci-fi book?
Fiction is necessary because it seems to me that only fiction can accommodate the total strangeness that is life.
PL: I believe it is worth writing to remind ourselves of what we can’t know. To remind ourselves that certainty is dangerous. That factual knowledge of the world casts only a small light. Fiction is necessary because it seems to me that only fiction can accommodate the total strangeness that is life. To remind us that truth is actually impossible. And as the writer grows, so changes their perception of the world and with it more things to write about. And so I can’t ever imagine getting tired.