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Interview: Niall Williams, author, playwright

03 September 2021

‘I can’t measure my books any more than I can say which hand I prefer’

John Kelly

I’d still like to write for the stage. I came to playwriting largely through two avenues: first, the superb plays of Brian Friel and Tom Murphy; then, directing amateur productions with the players in the village. But none of the productions of the three plays I’ve written fulfilled me the way a novel does, and I’ve come to think a successful play is a kind of miracle. I’m still hoping for one.

I grew up in suburban Dublin
— a dull, concrete place, as I experienced it. I now live in the magnificent beauty of the west of Ireland. Christine and I wrote four non-fiction books together in our first ten years in Kiltumper, in west Clare. These I look on as apprentice work, learning how to capture what was in front of you before attempting to write about imagined people and places. They taught me that words on the page can make a world.

In Kiltumper
grew out of a sense of foreboding, really:
a fear of what was happening to the earth, and the powerlessness many of us feel when faced with the overwhelming nature of the climate catastrophe. We decided the only way to deal with the gloom was to take care of the earth that we live on: this portion of ground in Kiltumper, in west Clare. The book follows a year — personal, horticultural, spiritual, and artistic — inside our hedgeline.

I’ve lived for many years with the understanding that nothing lasts,
but, today, all I can say is I hope we will continue to live in Kiltumper.

Wendell Berry is an important writer for me,
with his insight that we must think small. I first knew his poetry, but then read his books about the importance of soil and the land, written very movingly about cultivating his own piece of ground in Kentucky.

We’re maybe looking back more,
now we’re in our sixties and have been married for 40 years, and this is the 20th book or play out of that life, which may come to an end. There are elements of memoir, as much as it is a garden book.

The coming of the wind turbines is the most significant change in the 36 years we’ve been living here,
and I regret the thinking behind the idea that the place to put turbines for generating power for people in cities is in the country. It’s a sorrowing for me, to be sure, even if it’s inevitable. It’s what I mean by a place being under-guarded.

I’ve often thought of the elemental dimension of this narrative as we’ve been living here.
It’s life made out of a place and two people’s natures — a three-way marriage. My own imagination in fiction tends towards the mythic, finding the essential element of a story, placing yourself in that: epic with a small “e”. The intense focusing on just one flowerbed over the course of four seasons sheds immense light on things, because you’re concentrating on it, not the wider world’s dramas. The garden has been magnificent this year, but we’re the only people who’ve seen it.

I hope to be able to stay in the garden as we are,
but the year the book records is 2019, with an epilogue written in 2020. This has been a safe place, a good place in the past two years. Both of our children are in New York now, and I don’t know if they will return. Who knows how the world is going to be? I can only speak of right now.

More and more people are wanting to move to the countryside,
and how they think about the countryside will be different. After staycations and three sunny, warm weeks, people are thinking more openly and generously about the west of Ireland as a place to make their lives. A fiction writer is always aware of plot twists, some of them unexpected.

Since we met, more than 40 years ago, I’ve always been in collaboration with Christine.
Ours has been a joined life, the books and the garden simply expressions of that. In the garden, Chris is the artist, I am under direction — which is wonderful. In fiction, Chris is my first reader, first editor. She is the one who knows best my weaknesses and failings, which is invaluable.

I do as few interviews as possible,
because that’s to stand outside of the work: it’s an inauthentic position. Authors are inside their books, and I’m outside a book only briefly, when it comes in the post. I feel then no vanity or pride. That book’s done, and now I’m on the next one.

The books are a natural expression of myself.
Chestnut trees produce chestnuts. I don’t plot or plan: I’m given a first sentence, and then follow the story’s logic. I’m essentially writing the books I want to read for myself. I imagine that’s how many painters work, responding to colours and shapes.

One day, I found myself wondering:
what was John doing the morning before he wrote the words “In the beginning was the Word” — if, in fact, he wrote them. Innocently, I thought I could just look it up. I found, instead, a gap where the story might have been, and my imagination yearned to fill it.

John was the youngest of the apostles when he met Jesus,
and he lived to know all the others were dead. I also wondered what it would be like if you met the most extraordinary figure in your life when you were a teenager. The story gap was where the book began. A year of reading followed. Then “Do I dare?” took up a further year while I battled with doubt, a constant companion.

I don’t know how I found Ruth Swain’s voice in History of the Rain.
In a strange way, one book creates the next book. John found no readers — but it left me thinking about the peculiar situation of a person trapped inside books; so an idea began to grow for something completely different. I’d been a secondary-school teacher, and I’ve encountered teenagers since; so I could imagine their point of view about a small town in County Clare.

I really only discovered Faha as I finished, and I liked it and wanted to go back there;
so I started This is Happiness in the summer when the electricity came. The last place in the west of Ireland was connected in 1972; so it was quite factual. I’m working on a new book about Christmas 1962 in Faha right now, and I think I’ll stay there for a bit, writing stories that will take place in and around the parish.

Where do we go when we die?
We go into stories, and that’s how we continue to live when we’re dead, the little piece that remains of us. No one can tell you what a character looked like, but they’ll tell a story about him, fragments of his story.

It’s amazing how many people have written to me after This is Happiness,
to say that they’d been in Faha and didn’t want the book to end. India, Australia, America. . . It’s not just nostalgia, I’m sure, but humanity and its eccentricities, and that’s heartening. Perhaps because of Covid, people have more time to read longer narratives.

The best book is always the one you are writing.
In it, you will put right the mistakes of last time. When it’s done, you believe that, for at least one minute. Then, you start again, with the aim of writing one good book before you die. I can’t measure my books any more than I can say which hand I prefer. They are me.

It is true that father-son relationships emerge consistently in the novels.
But I write without any plan or intention other than to follow the sentence and see where it leads.

My father left a long handwritten will with a note: “To Niall, my books.”
So I collected them from Dublin. None I’d have purchased, but they were his books; so this was a way — as it was for Ruth Swain in History of the Rain — to find someone’s inner life.

My father went to work,
read the newspaper, watched the news, and had no connection to literature. But when I was, maybe, ten, he said he was going to the library, and would I like to come? For many years, we went to the library together every second week. We went to different sections and met at the checkout desk, and I would have his books — Second World War, politics — on my lap in the passenger seat.

It was the closest I got to my father.
I gave him a signed copy of Four Letters of Love, and my other books. He said “Thanks very much,” and never read them, but I found out later that he always pointed out my books to visitors. It was typical of fathers in that era, and this extended into the sense of the unknown father out there, in a spiritual sense. I now certainly feel that presence, maybe more than when my father was close.

We all suffer.
It seems inevitable to me. It’s the nature of life. I remember reading that the Latin patior was also the root of patience — and this seemed right, somehow, even natural. Natural, too, that there’s a direct correlation between physical suffering and spiritual growth, at least in the hopeful version.

Characters are like the Michelangelo thing:
figures inside the lump of stone wanting to emerge towards you.

I’ve been doing it so long now
— I trust it’s OK if I only do a couple of sentences in a day. A priest said to me once: “The books that you’re going to write will be written by you”; so I trust that they will happen. I’m just moving towards them.

Faith’s been a lifelong preoccupation for me.
It’s the greatest mystery, and I seem to be unable to look away from it. Again, I don’t set out to write about this, or make a particular point. Fiction is a way of finding out what I feel, and the best expression of what I believe is in the books.

I don’t want to simplify, dictate.
I’m not that kind of a person, and it’s too private, too complex. I’m not certain of anything, but I’m exploring those things that are deepest to me, from my childhood and teenage experience of religion, leaning towards grace as a thing.

I’d still like to write a good book,
make a more beautiful garden.

I don’t get angry any more
— disappointed, yes.

Living is what makes me happiest.

I only learn after, not during; so ask me again about the pandemic in a few years.
And it’s too early to say how it has changed Clare. It takes me about a decade to see anything clearly.

When I pray, it’s for help.

If I was locked in a church with any companion,
I’d choose Christine, obviously.

Niall Williams was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

In Kiltumper: A year in an Irish garden by Niall Williams and Christine Breen is published by Bloomsbury on 16 September at £18.99 (Church Times Bookshop £17.09); 978-1-5266-3265-4.

Read Malcolm Doney’s article about This is Happiness for this month’s Book Club here

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