An enduring, yet under-the-radar, popularity
Niall Williams talks to Mary McCarthy
Born in Dublin in 1958 the writer Niall Williams has been quietly prolific since the success of his first novel, Four Letters of Love, in 1997. His eighth book, History of the Rain, was long-listed for the Booker Prize in 2014, and his latest novel, This is Happiness, just got nominated for best novel in the Irish Book Awards. Williams met his wife, American writer Christine Breen, at UCD while studying for a Masters in Modern American Literature. They moved to New York, where both their grown-up children now live. He spent five years working there for a publishing company before they set up home in Christine’s grandfather’s cottage in Kiltumper in west County Clare.
Here, Niall and Christine wrote four non-fiction books about how they managed to make a life, and a fine garden, for themselves in this 200-year-old farmhouse. These books were very much for the American audience, and their success allowed them to continue living in their remote magical home. Niall then moved on to writing novels and from the start managed to occupy that coveted common ground in the readers’ Venn diagram of taste between literary and popular fiction.
Like much of his work, This is Happiness is set in a small village in the west of Ireland. It is the 1950s and narrator Noe has abandoned his priest training to stay with his grandparents. Although not much happens, you are drawn fully into life in this small community that is waiting for electrification. It’s entertaining to read but there are universal truths waiting to strike hard. It is only when Noe is an old man reflecting back on meeting the Troy family, with their three daughters, that he realises how much of a lasting effect this family had on him. When you are living your life you have no idea who is going to leave that imprint. Williams manages to weave realities like this into the back end of the story and they quietly grip the reader.
Those readers late to Williams have a solid selection to choose from. And with a recent spate of glowing reviews in places such as the FT, Washington Post and New York Times, Niall Williams’s storytelling stock is rightly on the rise.
You have written nine novels, three stage plays, four non-fiction books with your wife Christine, and several screenplays. How are you so productive?
There is no secret to being a full-time writer—you sit there and begin each day. I have lived in the same quiet place for 35 years. Productivity is the wrong way to think about it. It is more of a vocational thing; it is what I do. I think of it like the garden—some years are good, others not great. It was a life choice I made when I was eighteen; I knew it was what I had to do.
When did you know you had the ability to write?
When David Marcus printed a short story of mine in The Irish Press when I was eighteen. That moment, that nod of approval, was a signpost to me that I had talent. It was the first thing I had ever typed. I remember getting a cheque for £25 in the post and I didn’t even have a bank account. Every writer needs that moment when the outside world echoes you back. You cannot continue saint-like sending out work and getting nothing back—eventually, you need outside confirmation.
Is it easier to get published today?
Easier to be self-published, but otherwise, no, I don’t think so. In many ways there is much more competition and it is harder. There is now so much data on sales; it is so calculated, algorithms and the rest, and rare enough now for a publisher to take on a writer in their twenties and publish them throughout their career. Editors need to justify their choices to sales and marketing, which have become greater forces in my time in publishing.
Why did you start out writing non-fiction?
When I was living in New York with Christine I never had the time to write. I was holding down a day job, and just living consumed everything. We both wanted to write and Christine to paint as well. Chris’s grandfather had left west Clare 80 years previously and the old farmhouse was still sitting there empty, so we decided we were young enough to take a leap, and so we did. To see if we could make a different kind of life, and to see if we had any talent, I suppose. We had $2000 to our name. The actual day-to-day experience of that time after we arrived was so intense, so full of things noticed and felt that it seemed more appropriate for us to write non-fiction first—there was some element of learning how to write what was in front of you before you tried to write about what you only imagined. So those books, written by both of us and with Christine’s line drawings, were a kind of apprenticeship, and because there turned out to be a market for them in the States, they enabled us to achieve the primary most important goal, which was to support ourselves through writing and keep on living there.
Do you plot out your novel before you start writing it?
Not at all. The story is coming to me the same way as it is coming to the reader. I trust how the story will emerge, follow its prompts, hints and suggestions—it winds a path and the writing follows. When I start a novel I write the first sentence and then I sit and the story emerges organically.
You teach creative writing. What are your tips?
We do two fiction workshops a year here in Kiltumper. We have around twelve writers come, mostly from a range of countries, and they stay locally in the village and come to the house or nearby school every day for the workshops and for meals. For Christine and I, it is pretty intense but wonderful. We have done twelve workshops now over the years, over a hundred writers have come to Kiltumper, and many are published. I don’t have any real tip except to sit down and start. All writing is an act of faith; and like all aspects of faith, loss of faith is part of it, if that makes sense. I think part of what happens over the workshops is a sharing of that struggle, which in turn helps deal with it. The truth is, writing is hard for everyone, and often lonely. You only do it because you have to.
Did you grow up in a house full of books?
No, my house was not bookish but my parents wanted me to be educated beyond themselves. My father used to bring me to Pembroke Library every two weeks and here I was surrounded by choice. The library is a place where the mind can be free. There is no censorship; you pick up whatever book you want. I did read a lot and remember being excited about a new Seamus Heaney coming into the Paperback Centre in Stillorgan and reading the poems in the aisle there. So, not a house full of books but, importantly, access and encouragement.
Writing is quite a precarious life. Does this bother you?
As you grow older you do become aware of the fragility of human life; it is a kind of tightrope, life as an artist. If you get sick, you have no income. You are so aware your creativity is linked to your wellness and if you are working at an extreme edge you are in danger of tipping over that creativity. I do feel I have no choice about my writing; this is who I am and I have devoted my life to it. There is no regular salary. We have two children, now all grown up, but I remember constantly thinking—would it be better for my family if I got a steady job with more security? There is that battle in accepting this is what you are. You do have thoughts such as ‘What gives you the right to have this life?’ No writer sits down and thinks ‘This is grand. I’ll just write another book.’ It is always difficult.
It must be difficult to get your work weighed up in such a public way. Do you read reviews?
I have not read a single review for twenty years. This is tricky for me; I might have the opening two lines read to me by somebody who calls and wants to share their excitement but I can’t hear any more. It is wonderful for me to hear from readers but reviews are painful for me, as the book is gone. It is finished and I can’t make it any better; it is an object that is now separate from me. I am grateful for good reviews, as I know my publishers are happy, and writers want to be read. I do as little publicity as possible, as I find it draws you out of what you are supposed to be doing. I want to be at home writing.
What are the good bits?
The pleasure you get from putting down good sentences; the thrill of it is intoxicating. Where we live, it is both idyllic and hard. Today the sun is shining on the Japanese anemones and Michaelmas daisies and it is beautiful, but that wet, bleak, isolating Tuesday afternoon is just around the corner. Writing is like that—sometimes you are surfing that wave and sometimes it’s a struggle. But when you feel that you have got a sentence just right—when you raise your head and then look back and it is still good, still as true an expression of what you are trying to say—there is nothing to compare to that.
Mary McCarthy is a freelance journalist writing for a number of publications. She is an avid reader and an iron-willed book club administrator. @maryknowsbees