As a writer, Niall Williams doesn’t conform to the norm. Where most write several drafts, getting the words written, then getting them right, Niall completes his novels in one draft alone. He doesn’t have a special writing place- but sits anywhere in the house. There can be talking around him, the radio can be on. He sits there, murmuring to himself and says he is often hoarse at the end of a morning’s work.
He avoids social media and doesn’t consider himself part of the community of writers; he neither reads his own reviews, nor writes other people’s.
“I don’t partake in any of that because I don’t believe my opinion as a writer should matter,” he says, as we chat over coffee, in Dublin. “It’s just another person’s opinion and I could be wrong.”
He does, occasionally attend literary festivals, but says he avoids them all he can. As for meeting readers, it’s not something he gives much thought to.
“When I was 12, and my father was bringing me to Pembroke library in Ballsbridge, and he was going to his section, and I was going to mine; you chose a book, let’s say it was Great Expectations, and you never thought, I would love to meet Charles Dickens. What you loved was the word of the book.”
Niall first sprung to prominence with the publication of his first novel, Four Letters of Love, and, in the days before the internet it became a best seller through word of mouth.
“It was a success with no publicity,” says Niall.
Living in rural County Clare, writing the only books he can write, Niall feels outside the literary sphere.
“Therefore, the books come to me with all my nature, the good and the bad. My excesses are in the book; my sentimentality; my romanticism; my lyricism, they are all there.”
There is one thing, however, that Niall shares with other writers. He has constant, and severe moments of doubt.
“I lose faith and try to regain faith. I think, who’s going to want to read this? I go through agonies of doubt, but you have to believe that there are still readers who will want to enter the novel and stay there like a storytelling spell.”
Niall has enjoyed both commercial and literary success for some of his nine previous novels. He has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and the IMPAC Award, and shortlisted for the Irish Times Literature Prize. Four Letter of Love is to be a major motion picture, but his latest novel, for me, shines brighter than any of his previous work.
Not a lot happens in This is Happiness. A man, Christie, arrives in the County Clare village of Faha as part of a team to provide electricity. It transpires that he has an ulterior motive. He wants to apologise to a woman who, years ago, he left at the altar. He lodges with a long-married couple, and befriends their grandson Noel, a young man who has recently left the seminary and is soon to fall in love.
That’s pretty much it, yet it kept this reader enthralled. Lovingly written, the text is brimming with humanity, truth and humour – and then there’s the pitch perfect language, with not a word out of place. I keep rereading passages, marvelling at the author’s virtuosity whilst laughing out loud. I can’t remember when a book satisfied me as much. Just how does he do it?
“When I start a book I only have one sentence,” he says. “In this case, it’s, ‘It had stopped raining.’ In that sentence I have the tip of a thread of an invisible coat that is there, and every day I tease that thread out a little without yanking it, and at the end I have the coat. In this case, I knew it had stopped raining and I knew the book would take place between that drop of rain and the next drop and is therefore outside time. I wanted that fable sense of timelessness, this magical period, and I think we all have our moments in childhood, or in this case, when we first fall in love which exist outside of time.”
He wanted to set the book at the time of electrification because his father worked in the industry, and he later spoke to people who remembered that time. This was when he, and his American wife, the writer and painter Christine Breen, moved from New York to County Clare, to a house Christine’s grandfather had been born in. It was April Fool’s Day in 1985.
“These were the days of the wind-up telephone. And one of the remarkable things, to me, about West Clare was how dark it was at night-time. The valley was enormously dark. The nearest village was four miles away, there was just a tiny light from a house in the distance. I remember the enormity of the stars with no light pollution, and there were people around who remembered coming home and switching a light on for the first time. That was startling to me.”
Christie was born out of the character Christie Mahon in Synge’s play, The Playboy of the Western World.
“I often wondered if, at the end of play, when Christie leaves Pegeen and goes off for a life of adventure, did he regret it? Did he want to come back and find her?”
A beautifully drawn character, Christy is the glue holding this magnificent novel together. He forms an alliance with the young Noel – and under his influence Noel finds a new ‘faith’ in traditional music. The scenes, where the two set off, by bicycle, seeking out music, and in particular Junior Crehan are laced with the most glorious humour.
I don’t think I have ever encountered such a lyrical yet accurate account of drunkenness as we see from Noel, after he has consumed bottle after bottle of beer.
“It sounds ridiculous, when you say I want to write about the generosity of the human spirit, but I want to write about that richness. I want to write from a place of love; love of the world, love of these people with all their foibles, strangeness, oddities, kindnesses, generosities and chivalries. And just warmth. Christie is an embodiment of that.”
He explores the intricacies of a long marriage through Noel’s grandparents, Ganga and Doady.
“I wanted to celebrate a marriage like theirs and the kind of unshowy but actual love of living with somebody and allowing them to be each other. Even though she will still be saying, ‘you should be doing this, and will you get a job she knows that he won’t because she knows him so well.”
Niall isn’t sure what he will pen next; but he’s fairly certain that everything he writes from now on will take place in everything in the village of Faha.
“I know it so well I could set it in any period in history. All of humanity is there.”
Writing, Niall believes, is the only profession that doesn’t get easier with experience.
“You know a little more, but the bar keeps rising. The next book starts with this white page, and all I know is that is has to be better than the last one because you’re older and have lived, smelled, tasted touched, all of that, call it wisdom, actually it’s life. You’re more alive in the world than you were the last time. Firsts books are easier because you’re just burning to get them out. Now it’s trickier.”
This is Happiness by Niall Williams. Bloomsbury: €15.99 Kindle: €9.63.
Published in The Irish Examiner, on 28th December.
© Sue J Leonard, 2019