Read the Booker Prize 2023 shortlist: an extract from Prophet Song by Paul Lynch
A mother faces a terrible choice, in Paul Lynch’s exhilarating, propulsive and confrontational portrait of a society on the brink
With Prophet Song longlisted for the Booker Prize 2023, we spoke to Paul Lynch about writing the ‘wrong’ book and creating a realistic dystopia
Read interviews with all of the longlisted authors here.
How does it feel to be nominated for the Booker Prize, and what would winning the prize mean to you?
A few lines from the Cavafy poem ‘The First Step’ come to mind:
And it is a hard and rare thing
to be written into the roll-books there….
To arrive at that point is no small feat
Every prize, great and small, is a boon to the writer. Lonely is the writer’s room and long is the time it takes to write a novel. And unlike the musician or actress who soaks applause on the nightly stage, or a movie star who sees their name in lights, the writer looks out upon a rainy garden for years at a time. So a nomination, or a prize, is in its own way some loud applause, a pat on the back from the universe. And the Booker, of course, is the biggest stage of them all.
How long did it take to write Prophet Song, and what does your writing process look like? Do you type or write in longhand? Are there multiple drafts, long pauses, or sudden bursts of activity? Is there a significant amount of research and plotting before you begin writing?
Four long years it took to write, through pandemic and normality, through Long Covid and health. My son, Elliot, was born just before I began to write, and by the end, he was riding a bike.
The spewing out of drafts is not for me. I write (mostly) five days a week, a few hundred careful words a day, often researching as I go, in a process whereby I edit as I write. These days, my first drafts come fairly close to the final one.
I had previously spent six months writing the wrong book, and knew it too, but kept hammering through rock in the hope of a breakthrough. Then one Friday, about 3pm, I stopped writing and thought, this is the wrong book – I will return on Monday morning and start a new one. I could sense there was something lurking just out of sight but I didn’t know what it might be.
On Monday morning, I created a new document – Janson font, 1.5” margins, 1.6 spacing, Mac Pages. (I like the page to look like a book.) I closed my eyes and the opening page of Prophet Song arrived pretty much as you read it now. Those sentences came out of the blind and I can honestly say it is one of the miracles of my writing life. How did I know there was another book there? I really don’t know. I didn’t even know the book I was yet to write, and yet so much of the meaning of the book is encoded in those opening sentences. How is that possible? Again, I don’t know. Writers learn to trust their intuition, and there it was, the opening notes of a song that would become the book.
Where exactly do you write? What does your working space look like?
Before I had kids, I used to have a desk downstairs at home. Then I went upstairs and turned a bedroom into an office. That is where I wrote Prophet Song. Recently I was banished from the house to a small studio at the bottom of the garden that was once a mouldy brick shed. It is a serene and ideal space. It has a large picture window looking out onto a (rainy) garden and behind the desk there is a wall of books that I consider a source of energy.
For the first six months of work on this book, I also had an office at Maynooth University as writer-in-residence. The space and time afforded me by the university helped enormously and I remain grateful for that. This year, I returned to Maynooth under a different residency and the university now has an excellent creative writing programme led by the formidable Belinda McKeon.
I was trying to see into the modern chaos. The unrest in Western democracies. The problem of Syria – the implosion of an entire nation, the scale of its refugee crisis and the West’s indifference
There are four Irish authors on this year’s Booker longlist – more than any previous year – and some commentators have argued that there could have been even more. Ireland obviously has a rich literary tradition, but there seems to be a lot of exciting fiction coming out of the country just now – why do you think that might be?
None of this would be possible without the support of the Irish state. I received two Arts Council bursaries during the four years it took to write this book, as well as the residency at Maynooth. And all of us avail of the artists’ exemption from income tax. If you keep your overheads low, which I do, you can dedicate yourself full-time to writing and when you do that day after day, you shape your brain around the novel and produce your best work.
You’re one of several writers on the longlist published by small independent publishers – in your case, a publisher that has won the Booker twice before. What does that mean to you, and how does it affect you as a writer?
Juliet Mabey, my publisher/editor at Oneworld, is something of a legend. Books that she has published have won, or contended for, just about every major prize in the UK this past decade. Oneworld is now a leading literary house yet remains an independent. Annie Dillard once wrote that good writers are like tennis players playing to the edges of the court. ‘That’s where the exhilaration is,’ she said. ‘He hits up the line. He pushes the edges.’ Juliet continues to publish authors who play to the edges, whether or not they deliver commercially. Many imprints at the major publishing houses are more risk averse and this is why Oneworld, along with Fitzcarraldo, and other exciting indie houses, continue to garner acclaim and prizes.
Prophet Song presents a dystopian Ireland, depicting a government descending into tyranny. What inspired you to base the novel in your home country, and was it inspired by any real-world events?
I was trying to see into the modern chaos. The unrest in Western democracies. The problem of Syria – the implosion of an entire nation, the scale of its refugee crisis and the West’s indifference. The invasion of Ukraine had not even begun. I couldn’t write directly about Syria so I brought the problem to Ireland as a simulation. The book began with a problem that Larry Stack is faced with: how do you prove that a democratic act is not an act against the state? The novel grew in complexity and developed its own implacable logic. It began to speak to multiple political realities all at once. There’s a line from Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing that I sought to use as an epigraph that speaks to my intention, but Cormac was unwell and we couldn’t get permission in time for publication: ‘The task of the narrator is not an easy one … He appears to be required to choose his tale from among the many that are possible. But of course that is not the case. The case is rather to make many of the one.’
The Booker judges said the novel captures ‘the social and political anxieties of our moment’. Is it intended to be a cautionary tale, rooted in what’s happening now?
Auden once said, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. Deep down, I think he is right, and I tend to dislike fiction that uses literature solely for political ends – even if, as a citizen, I agree with those values. I thought very carefully while writing Prophet Song about the requirements for a work of art. Grief not grievance. Blindness and complexity at the expense of cant and certitude. I stuck hard by those rules and yet my book, I believe, has moral value. It can be read as a warning. It can also be read as a simulation of events that are occurring somewhere in the world right now.
I was aware while writing this book that I was addressing, in part, a modern problem: why are we in the West so short on empathy for the refugees flooding towards our borders? Prophet Song is partly an attempt at radical empathy. To understand better, we must first experience the problem for ourselves. And so I sought to deepen the dystopian by bringing to it a high degree of realism. I wanted to deepen the reader’s immersion to such a degree that by the end of the book, they would not just know, but feel this problem for themselves.
The novel focuses on Eilish Stack, a woman forced to do whatever it takes to keep her family together after her husband is detained. The narrative remains close to Eilish’s consciousness throughout. Why did you choose to tell the story through the voice of this one mother?
Characters are rarely a choice for me. They step out of the darkness and demand to be written — there tends to be a situation I’m intrigued by. I had initially thought Prophet Song might be a social novel: a sweep of characters with a close focus on a family. But very quickly the novel said no. The book had to be centred around Eilish, paying attention to the hidden life of unrecorded acts, constantly asking the question, how much agency does an individual have when caught within such an enormity of forces? In that regard, I consider the book metaphysical rather than political. We are desensitised daily by seeing events like this on our media and so I wanted to make a claim for fiction, to show the reader what fiction can uniquely do.
Which book or books are you reading at the moment? In particular, are there any authors who you think deserve more recognition?
Samantha Harvey’s Orbital, published in November by Jonathan Cape, is a marvel – a serenely beautiful and intelligent creation. I read it taken aback by its sense of wonder, its knowledge and wisdom, and the almost supernatural beauty of its sentences. Harvey has arrived at a place that is uniquely her own.
Karina Lickorish Quinn’s debut novel The Dust Never Settles (Oneworld) is mesmerising – an ambitious, sprawling South American novel by way of Marquez and du Maurier. Did it get the attention it deserved? No.
Do you have a favourite Booker-winning or Booker-shortlisted novel and, if so, why?
Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way (shortlisted in 2005) astounded me when I read it. My great-grandfather was a lifer in the British army and fought throughout WWI as a Sergeant Major in the Royal Field Artillery. My imagination has always been captivated by WWI but I will never write a novel about it because it could never measure up to Sebastian’s book. A black pall hung over me for a week after finishing it. To write a book like that, I thought. Now that would be something.
What are you working on next?
I had been working on the wrong novel (again) of late, but recently swerved towards the true book. I’m now 8,000 words in. I cannot say very much about it for fear I will ruin its spell. I will say though that it is written in the first person, my first novel to do so.