Author Q&A: Niall Williams

This is Happiness
(Bloomsbury, hardback £16.99, ebook £14.26, Audible £21.99)

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Now in his seventies, Noel Crowe looks back on life in Faha, a small parish in the west of Ireland unaltered in a thousand years until the coming of electricity and also of Christy, worldly-wise but with secrets to atone for. As they emerge, Crowe’s life unfolds in a tender, detailed portrait of a community and its roots. Themes of faith, love and rural life are familiar but the author, who was longlisted for the Booker for previous book History of the Rain, is on sure – if damp – ground.

How did the idea for This is Happiness come to you?
I never really begin with an idea for a novel. I only begin with a sentence – in this case “It had stopped raining” – and then I follow where that is going. When it stopped raining was the summer the electricity came to the village of Faha in the summer of 1958. Having moved to Clare in the mid-1980s, I was struck by the fact that people here could vividly remember the Day the Electricity Came, so they had a foot in both worlds – the one when life was more or less as it was throughout the nineteenth century and the one we call modern.

The book’s set in Faha, County Clare, as was your previous novel History of the Rain. What’s the significance of the setting and of this continuity?
I too live in a village in the west of County Clare, and have done so now
for more than half of my life, so although Faha is fictional I know it probably better than anywhere else on earth. When I finished the History of the Rain my imagination simply didn’t leave. It may never leave now. I have come to the belief that in a single parish is all of humanity. You just have to look hard enough.

Rain too is a continuity in your work but suddenly it stops in This is Happiness. What does this symbolise for Noel?
Change, really. First the sense only that “something has happened”. And then this leads to the enormity of the threshold moment that arrives when the electricity comes and, in 1958, Faha finally leaves the nineteenth century. I may also have subconsciously been responding to people saying it rains a lot in my fiction. I, of course, believe it rains just the right amount for west Clare, a belief maybe founded on the fact that I write under a glass roof in the mornings and hear every drop, and am outside working in the garden every afternoon. I have found that those who say it doesn’t rain that much tend to spend their days in cities, in offices and cars. I don’t mind the rain at all. It is what connects the sky to the land.

Noel loses his faith at the age of 17. Does he need to do this to really feel life?
He probably doesn’t need to lose his faith exactly, but he needs to question it. He is at that age when he needs to pull at and test life, when he wants more experience, more actual raw contact with the stuff of life, and fortunately that is what he experiences when he comes that summer to Faha. Ultimately, he moves from one set of values to another, one tribe to another – this one musicians.

“Secretly”, you write, “Doady fretted about her vanished children”. With the extent of the Irish diaspora, is that secret fretting part of the national condition and, if so, how has it changed?
Yes, I think it is. Especially in the west of Ireland where people are used to the idea that most likely their children will leave and live elsewhere. Our two children live in New York. A change that is beginning to happen, and hopefully will continue if the government ever manages to finally complete the rollout of the National Broadband Plan, is that younger people in the future will be able to work online from remote places, and so the west of Ireland will become a desirable and viable place to make a life.

The stories we tell, and tell ourselves, are fundamental to the book. But do you have any sympathy with the idea that life is too fragmentary and confusing to be told in stories?
Life and stories are different things. We tell stories, life happens. For a writer, it seems to me, the telling is the important part. It is the way we try and find meaning in the otherwise random series of events that are our everydays.

Everyone from Sara Baume to Donal Ryan has graciously fielded this irritating question from us of late: as Irish writers gain more recognition in literary prizes, is it meaningful to talk of an Irish literary movement or is it just nationality you have in common?
I’m personally not aware of being part of any movement – not aware of being part of anything other than the human condition really. Most writers, I think, work in complete isolation – and like it that way, despite all the hardships that come with that. I am always slow to say anything that seems like a statement on anything other than my own work, aware as I always am that I may know nothing. But if pressed, I would say that Ireland has become a more open and accepting place in my lifetime, and this has meant that a wider range of literary voices is now encouraged, heard and valued. It is a country that now fosters individuality, it seems to me, and this has had a natural positive impact on Irish writing.

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