Paul Lynch is from the small town of Carndonough on the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal, Ireland. Inishowen is mountain and bogland surrounded by the sea, remote from the rest of the country. The wild landscape serves as the starting point for Lynch’s debut novel, Red Sky in Morning, due out in November from Little, Brown. Nature and scale figure prominently in Lynch’s writing. So much of modern fiction, he says, is “psychological and solipsistic.” These “displace a wider sense of who and what we are in the universe.”
Lynch wants to reinvigorate the novel form, particularly through his use of language. The “feel” of words, he says, can tell us as much about the world as their meaning. He took Toland’s pass where the world thickened in green and he came to a river spanning the length of him. He forded across a spine of stones and pushed up the hill in big strides through rushes parting and he found the track, walking with the power of a man of single determination, and when the sky opened up he did not stop, the track weak to the rain and his boots soiling in the softening beneath him. The novel opens in1832. Coll Coyle, a new father and small farmer, has incurred the wrath of the owner of the land that he works. Events escalate. He goes on the run, pursued by the landowner’s manager, John Faller. Lynch describes Faller as the “incarnation of rational evil.” There can be no emotional engagement with him. He is a clever and deeply logical man. As the book unfolds, we see how he will utilize any circumstance to advance his cause.
Lynch says there is nothing of him in the book, though he relates to Faller’s fatalism. Lynch is “fascinated” by the lack of control we have in our lives, how our plans can easily be upended by weather, disease, desire. One such moment in Lynch’s life was the closure of the Irish Sunday Tribune, where he had worked for 10 years—seven of them on staff. This was a consequence of the recession that has felled Ireland; another is that Lynch sees his friends and neighbors from Donegal emigrating just as his characters do in his book, set nearly 200 years before.
For Lynch, Red Sky in Morning is not a historical novel, but it has historical roots. Several years ago he saw a documentary about Duffy’s Cut, a site in Philadelphia where the remains of 57 Irish workers were found. These men were all from Ulster and had been selected for work on a railway dig by a man called Duffy. Some died of cholera but many were murdered. Further details are scarce; there appears to have been a cover up.
Lynch was unable to stop thinking about the men and their fate. Red Sky in Morning arose from some of these imaginings. The story is notable also for the character of Sarah, Coll’s wife, left behind with two babies after her husband runs. Her appearances are brief but potent, as she pines for Coll and struggles to understand what has happened. I asked about afterwards and nobody could tell me anything. Nobody wanted to talk and those that did said nobody knew. We owed nothing so we did and the land was useless to him. And I gotten then to wonder that it must have been something that Coll went and done.
Lynch made a conscious decision to write when, after losing his job, he had the time to do so. “I had spent my 20s trying not to write fiction,” he says, noting, “I was crippled by my own high standards and didn’t want to write anything that couldn’t meet them.” But then he had an epiphany during a trip to the Mediterranean island of Lipani, when he was 30 years old (he’s now 36) and still working at the Tribune: “It seems obvious now but the realization came that I had to start now, and that it was okay to fail, that failing was what it was all about, and that if it took 10 years or 20 years to be any good, then it didn’t matter—the point was to start.” Lynch immediately returned to his hotel room and began writing his first short story, based on an idea he’d been rolling around in his head for months.
Six months after that, Lynch began Red Sky. He likens the early process to “pushing a boulder up a hill”; however, the final stages of writing, he notes, were a trancelike experience.
This tension between control and acquiescence is key to Lynch’s work. He calls himself an intuitive writer who “rewrites each sentence up to 50 times.” He says he is in “an arena” with himself. Before writing, he meditates for half an hour each morning as a means of “training myself to open that magic doorway into writing quickly and effortlessly.”
Lynch struck a two-book deal with London-based Quercus Books, which attracted some notice. Red Sky went for six figures at the U.K. auction, a substantial sum for a first-time literary writer. Six publishers bid for the book, and after it was acquired by Little, Brown in the U.S., it went on to become a Buzz book at this year’s BEA and has also been selected for Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program. These validations have won Lynch some security, which is something he believes “every writer craves.”
He also thinks writers can often be “bipolar” and believes it’s a good thing that his fiancée is not a writer. “The cliché is true,” he says. “One minute you are riding high on your work, the next you are in despair because you never really do think it’s good enough. Someday I will craft the perfect sentence—but it hasn’t happened yet.”
Lynch describes himself as “keen to break away” from the type of Irish writing that is influenced primarily by other Irish writing; it’s American writers who have always had the greatest impact on his imagination. For him, Donegal replicates the scale of the American novel: “The boglands are vast, ageless, and mythic; John Ford would have been happy to shoot a film there.”
There was always an expectation at home in Inishowen that Lynch might end up writing fiction (he lives now in Drimnagh, a suburb of Dublin). As a child, he read extensively. He feels that writers read differently than others because they have such a strong sense of being alone. For Lynch, reading and writing are like “being in a conversation with someone extraordinary.” When he’s writing, he says, “something deep inside me has been answered.”