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Author Paul Lynch discusses his Booker Prize-winning dystopian novel


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: It's a story mirroring today's headlines, a country dissolving into political chaos, descending into violence, and one woman watching her family fall apart.

Jeffrey Brown talks to Booker prize-winning novelist Paul Lynch for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown : A city full of life, Dublin, Ireland, for example, its citizens enjoying the benefits of an open and vibrant democracy, until, as democratic norms are stripped away, they don't.

The novel "Prophet Song" captures the impact on one woman, Eilish Stack, who wakes up to see that now she is living in another country. The author is Irish writer Paul Lynch.

Paul Lynch, Author, "Prophet Song": We're in an Ireland that seems to be the known Ireland, the Ireland that I would know, that I live in Dublin city.

But at the same time, it's an unknown world. Ireland has elected a populist government. And things are beginning to slide. And there's a tipping point. And nobody sees it.

Jeffrey Brown : Lynch's novel won the Booker Prize, one of the world's most prestigious literary awards. The judges called it harrowing and dystopian, capturing the social and political anxieties of our moment so compellingly.

I have to assume a Booker Prize is kind of life-changing?

Paul Lynch: Well, there's an adjustment required?

Jeffrey Brown : An adjustment?

Paul Lynch: An adjustment.

I mean, so few are selected. So -- and you don't ever believe that you're going to be one of the few, you know?

Jeffrey Brown : Lynch, 46, and author of four previous novels, met us recently at Swift Hibernian Lounge, one of New York's classic pubs.

This is a big story, a big moment in the history of a country. But you tell it through this one family and, in particular, this one woman.

Paul Lynch: I'm interested in this idea of the personal cost of events.

And I think that, if you go back through literature, you go through a great book like "The Iliad," it foregrounds the politics. It foregrounds the heroics and the great characters. But if you take "The Iliad" and you turn it inside out, you arrive at Eilish Stack. You arrive at the individual living the ordinary life and how the individual is caught up within the cogs, the machinations of this enormous thing that's unfolding.

And so I'm really interested in that.

Jeffrey Brown : You don't tell us much about the specific events.

There's an emergency that's happened, but we don't know exactly what's happened. There's a new party that's taken control, but we don't even really know much about their ideology or who they are.

Paul Lynch: If I had identified the politics, then the book would become about the politics. And so it would appear that I'm then messaging, I'm then trying to identify political politics and trying to say something about that.

And this book's not doing that.

Jeffrey Brown : So this is not a political novel? Or we shouldn't read it that way?

Paul Lynch: I think that it has a political dimension that's inescapably true. But I think that the complexity of the novel points the reader to more things.

I'm really interested in the problem of grief, not grievance. I'm interested in the idea of the political of what is lost, how fragile this world that we're in is.

Jeffrey Brown : Also, he says, in how loss is always happening somewhere, whether we choose to pay attention or not. He had Syria in mind when he began writing. Then Ukraine happened, now Israel and Gaza, the rightward shift in Western Europe and this country, the violence that suddenly flares, including the shocking riot by extremists in Dublin in November.

Paul Lynch: People have always said, oh, the far right doesn't exist in Ireland. My attitude would be, that energy is always there. It's just a matter, is it being directed?

And so this kind of -- this sense of unraveling is -- we have watched it and are watching it on a massive scale on the news, but you can feel it, that maybe this thing that we take for granted, this idea of the civilized world, it's a thin veneer. It's so fragile and so easily lost.

Jeffrey Brown : As his character Eilish comes to realize, the end of the world is always a local event.

Paul Lynch: She understands finally that this idea of Armageddon, this biblical idea of the end of the world being this global catastrophe, this sudden thing, that it's nonsense, that actually the end of the world is always happening, it's happening again and again and again. It just comes to your city, it comes to your town and it knocks on your door.

Jeffrey Brown : A knock on the door, in fact, by the newly formed secret police is how the novel begins.

Paul Lynch: "The night has come and she has not heard the knocking, standing at the window looking out onto the garden. How the dark gathers without sound the cherry trees. It gathers the last of the leaves and the leaves do not resist the dark, but accept the dark and whisper."

Jeffrey Brown : And note the writing itself, the density of the pages, the lack of paragraph breaks or quotation marks, words and images piling up.

Paul Lynch: When you sit down around a novel, every choice that you make, everything that goes into the mesh, the form of the novel must be justified, because it must speak back to the meaning of the tale.

Jeffrey Brown : Even how it looks and how it how it...

Paul Lynch: How -- the look and feel, and that is communicating meaning back to the reader, because we are in something that is very claustrophobic

And Eilish is. Eilish imprisoned within this.

Jeffrey Brown : But you want us as readers to be...


Paul Lynch: I want you to feel that too.

Jeffrey Brown : You have written about the role of the novel today and I guess a concern about whether it can still be valued, even important, have a place in our society.

Paul Lynch: Yes.

It goes back to what I call the whisper in the ear. I mean, the novelist can whisper in the reader's ear, and that's a beautiful conversation. There's also whisper in the ear that you have with yourself. But we live in a time where technology has done something to us.

We are no longer, for many of us anyway -- unless you cultivate it and shape it, we are not in tune with ourselves. We're not hearing the voice in the ear. And it's harder to read fiction too. And I think that a culture that cannot hear itself think is a culture that is in serious trouble.

Jeffrey Brown : But that means for a novelist? I mean, a novelist could throw up -- you could say, I'm not going to write these anymore. Or you could say, I'm going to write it even more.

Paul Lynch: I'm going to write it even more. I'm going to push deeper and harder in.

And I like that idea of fiction just being a little bit more dangerous, a little bit more engaging, pushing into -- seeking this hidden charge of things and giving the reader maybe a little bit more electricity, but doing it respectfully.

Jeffrey Brown : All right, the book is "Prophet Song."

Paul Lynch, congratulations. Thanks for talking to us.

Paul Lynch: My pleasure. Thank you.

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