Niall Williams writes heartfelt, quietly beautiful novels about love and loss, most set in modern-day rural Ireland. His lyrical prose and lush imagery have earned him international acclaim. His first novel, Four Letters of Love, was selected as one of the “Most Notable Books of the Year” by The New York Times and went on to become an international bestseller. His second novel, As It Is In Heaven, was short listed for the Irish Times Literature Prize. His third novel, The Fall of Light, was published in Britain and Ireland, France, Italy and America.
Niall’s most recent and seventh novel, John, focuses on the last surviving apostle. It is a powerful look at faith and how it lives and dies in the hearts of men. At present he is at work on another novel, a screenplay under the working title Grace, and a book of short stories. Of his writing, The Kirkus Review said, “Irish novelist Williams takes spiritual issues seriously – and continues to write compellingly about them.”
I was introduced to Niall’s writing many years ago in his first non-fiction book, O Come Ye Back to Ireland: Our First Year in County Clare and fell in love with his poetic prose and masterful storytelling. In 1998, I also had the pleasure of visiting Kiltumper Cottage, the home of Niall and his wife, Christine. Although I didn’t have the opportunity to meet Niall, I left Four Letters of Love at the cottage and he graciously autographed it and later mailed it to me. It is our privilege and honor to feature this conversation with Niall.
MARIELENA ZUNIGA: For those who aren’t familiar with your background, could you tell us a little about yourself?
NIALL WILLIAMS: I was born in Dublin, went to university there to study English and French, and afterwards did a Master’s degree in American Literature. It was while I was in University College Dublin that I met Chris [Breen], who was a New Yorker who had come to Ireland to do a Master’s in Irish Literature. We met over books, and books have become our life. We married the following year and moved to New York, lived there for five years before deciding in 1985 to move to the cottage in the west of Ireland that her grandfather had left to go to America many years before.
Although we both had jobs in publishing in New York, we felt that we wanted to write and have more control over our lives. I wanted to find out: If I had the time, could I actually write? In New York, the pressure of life was such that I was never going to find out the answer to that question. In the immense quiet of the cottage here in West Clare, we both began. Our first book together was a non-fiction account of our first year here, O Come Ye Back to Ireland, and was published in New York in 1987.
ZUNIGA: Why did you become a writer?
WILLIAMS: I don’t think anyone can ever truly answer this. We cannot know “why,” only sometimes “how.” For me, the “how” started with my father taking me to the library one evening every two weeks, he, going off into History to get his books, and me, into Fiction, a little nod of acknowledgment to me when we met up at the check-out desk after. It continued with a teacher having us read, Great Expectations, when I was 15. And then, my somehow stumbling into trying to write stories to recreate for myself the pleasure of escape I had discovered in books. I wrote many, for myself, before I ever thought about trying to show them to anyone else.
ZUNIGA: Could you elaborate more on the themes of your novels – love, loss and redemption?
WILLIAMS: Perhaps this is a question more suited to an academic or a critic. I can’t really analyze my own work. I don’t write out of any planned sense of treating a theme. I just try to tell the story. But no matter how I try to make each one different they do seem to come back around to these same themes.
ZUNIGA: How do you go about the writing process? I read somewhere that you don’t plot your stories. Writers are often told structure is critical. Could you comment on how this works for you?
WILLIAMS: Each writer finds their own way of writing. I believe there is no one way. For me it always begins with a single sentence that I have likened to being the tip of a thread. The thread is there, and belongs I believe to an invisible garment just before me. Each day I tease the thread a little further, trying not to snap it. I add a few sentences. Only gradually do I get any sense of what the garment actually looks like. And I never really know until I write the last sentence. At any time I could force it with my will and intelligence, but I believe this would snap the thread. I realize this may sound fanciful and far-fetched. But for me, this is how it is.
I wish I could structure everything in advance sometimes, it would be easier I suppose, but I lose the thrill. For me it is an act of faith that the book is out there, and that I will write it. I often lose the faith. I often have serious doubt that any of it is any good. I go away and come back. I try to do better. Each time I set out I tell myself, I will write a better book this time. Each time I fail, and then I start again.
ZUNIGA: You also read your stories out loud. Could you talk more about that process and why it’s important?
WILLIAMS: Again, this is only my way. I like the sound of words. I say them aloud as I type them as if I am telling the story to myself first.
ZUNIGA: What do you believe your Irish heritage brings to your writing?
WILLIAMS: A sense of story, and the role of the storyteller. A sense of the music of language, the importance of cadence. Also, aspects of the spiritual and the spiritual in the landscape. A sense of the nearness of the afterlife.
ZUNIGA: How is your own personal faith reflected in your novels?
WILLIAMS: Because of the way I work, I suppose my work to be a reflection of all aspects of my life. It follows that my faith, and my struggles with it, will be reflected there, too. I do not set out to do this. But it seems inevitable. Because I write for myself first, I am trying in some ways to understand mystery, which is at the heart of all faith.
ZUNIGA: Tell me more about your Kiltumper Writing Workshops and what draws writers there. What do they discover about themselves?
WILLIAMS: The workshops take place here at the cottage over three days, and the writers stay at various B&Bs or rented houses nearby. They have usually sent work on ahead. Chris and I keep the numbers very small so that besides the group sessions, I can sit with each writer individually at some stage over the workshop. I have several years’ experience working with writers and I enjoy it, and so far, those writers who have come, from America, Canada, England, Scotland, Italy, Norway, United Arab Emirates and Ireland, seem to have enjoyed the experience and found it valuable. There are further details on the website: www.niallwilliams.com
ZUNIGA: How do writers keep going forward, despite doubts and rejections?
WILLIAMS: It is a deep instinct, I believe. All writers of any use doubt their work is good. Doubt is vital. I have come to believe that. As I believe, too, that many things that are published and praised are of little lasting worth. We go on. We have brief epiphanies, brief moments of rapture when we think, yes, this is terrific. And then, the following day there is the coolness of the after-rapture. Those who are writers say: Today I can do better. That’s it.
ZUNIGA: Four Letters of Love has been optioned by Uncas Productions. Could you tell us more about that?
WILLIAMS: Four letters of Love has been optioned and is currently in development. I can’t really say any more than that. As soon as I know more I will post it on the website.
ZUNIGA: Given that spiritually – in its deepest and broadest sense – permeates your work, could you give us a succinct prayer for writers?
WILLIAMS: That’s a tricky one. “I am going to keep showing up. Book, I am coming towards you.”
ZUNIGA: What’s the next writing project for you?
WILLIAMS: I am very gingerly pulling on the thread of a new Irish novel about storytelling.
ZUNIGA: Anything else you might like to add?