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Paul Lynch discusses his Booker Prize-winning dystopian novel 'Prophet Song'


Paul Lynch's novel "Prophet Song" has just won the 2023 Booker Prize a few weeks ago. It's set in modern Dublin, and there is an unnamed pandemic, an unspecified national emergency when one night Eilish, a biologist for a biotech company and mother of four, answers a knock at the door. Two police officers are looking for her husband, Larry, a leader in the teacher's union. They say it's nothing to worry about. But soon, Eilish finds herself in a world in which loved ones go missing. Co-workers are led away. People turn on water taps to avoid being overheard. And church bells ring out, but there seems to be no mercy. Paul Lynch joins us from Dublin. Thank you so much for being with us. And certainly, congratulations on winning the Booker.

PAUL LYNCH: Thank you, Scott. It's a great pleasure to be here with you.

SIMON: Did you set out to write a story set in Syria?

LYNCH: It's funny. My editor, Juliet Mabey at Oneworld has given out to me for having - says, you've produced at least three origin stories for this book. And I've laughed because the truth is you just don't know - like, there's so many things that nucleate around sort of core ideas in your subconscious. But the modern world was leaking in. And, you know, the book is set in Dublin, though. It's a dream of a modern Ireland. It's a sort of - maybe it's a counterfactual Ireland. Perhaps it's set in the future. I don't specify that.

And there's a reason why I don't specify - is I'm allowing a space for the reader to sort of occupy, where I'm not identifying the background politics. That's completely besides the point. I'm paying attention to the sort of - the beating heart of the moment, the sort of personal cost of events. I'm watching Eilish. I'm seeing how she responds to something that I don't think has been properly articulated before in fiction - or at least not in the way that I'm interested in.

I think of a great work like "The Iliad" and where the foreground's the politics. The foreground's the heroics. And I wondered if - what if you turn that inside out? You'd be left with people like Eilish Stack in "Prophet Song," the stories that aren't told, that only the novelist can truly reach and take hold of. And that's what I wanted to do in this book when I'm following the exploits of a family trying to stay together, a mother who's trying to navigate a labyrinth because that's what, effectively, this is.

SIMON: I found myself - and not just because the similarity in names - I found myself fascinated by Simon, Eilish's father. Suffers from memory loss but clear-eyed about the future?

LYNCH: Yeah. Simon is interesting because what he's losing because he's sliding into dementia is also a memory of the past that we might all know now, you know, life in a liberal democracy that's beginning to unravel. And Simon has these moments where he's sliding out of reality, and then there are these extraordinarily lucid insights where he tells Eilish, you need to leave. And this is one of the big questions of the book - is, how do you know when to leave? And the problem that Eilish encounters is, well, leaving is the hardest thing in the world when you are completely entangled in life.

And this is what the book is exploring - how truly enmeshed we are. And I suppose I learned in writing this book that what we are our entanglements. Our identities are our career, our children, our relatives, the place in which we grow up and that to be forced to leave those things - they have to be unplugged one by one by one by one until you've got nothing left. And then you will be shunted out.

SIMON: You have written that you worry, you wonder about if novels can be important anymore, if they can capture our attention the way so many other media - I hate to use the word platform, but there you go...

LYNCH: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Can be. What do you feel about the power of a novel now?

LYNCH: I think that we all know, all of us, that our attention has been atomized by the times that we live in, by the sort of the tyranny of the now, the sense of bombardment of social media, of our bleeping phones. And then, of course, there's just the spectacle of modern life. There's the television. We watch the news. And I think we've become completely inured to it, and we have to be inured to it because, otherwise, we wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning. And yet what we're watching has great import. And it's very difficult to connect with what we're seeing.

And so I wondered about that. I wondered about, how can fiction work its way around our defenses so that not sympathy but empathy becomes possible? And I say this with a caveat that I'm not interested as a novelist in bringing a message to the world. I'm not interested in being a writer who has a political message because I just think that would be so limited. I think true complexity requires a myriad number of lenses.

I say all that, and at the same time, I think this book carries moral weight. It arrives at a place of moral weight. And I do seek to bypass the self-defenses. And the novel used to have this whisper in the ear. It was at the center of the culture, and it didn't have to fight so hard to be heard. This is just my own small way. I'm just a guy in Dublin. I'm just a guy working in his house in Dublin.

SIMON: Well, but a guy who's just won the Booker, which immediately makes you, I don't have to tell you, one of the most significant novelists in the world, doesn't it?

LYNCH: It does. Yeah. I'm finding myself sort of plucked and placed onto the world stage. You're probably approaching the 60th interview since I've won this prize, and I'm burning out, Scott. Just so little left of me at this point, and it's only the start of it, from what I gather. And it's an interesting thing for - to happen. You know, in Irish literature, it's a tremendous thing. I'm the sixth Irish writer to win this prize. And so there comes with it a role, I suppose, within the culture here. And that's a role I'm willing to meet because it's an honor to win such an extraordinary prize.

SIMON: How many of us among the 60 who've interviewed you have asked, what do we do now?

LYNCH: Nobody. What do we do now?

SIMON: (Laughter). Well...

LYNCH: Can I recommend silence? We just sit in silence. I think silence is the solution to the moment we're in. I'm trying to grab as many moments of silence as I can at the moment. I'm a meditator. I think the solution to the problem is to actually go inside and to get that - not the whisper in the ear but the whisper of your own oracle. And it's such a challenge to hear it, and it gets drowned out by the modern world. Go for a hike. Sit down in a chair and turn your phone off. Read a book. Listen to your thoughts. That's what we need to do.

SIMON: Paul Lynch - his new novel, winner of this year's Booker Prize, "Prophet Song." Thank you so much for being with us.

LYNCH: My pleasure, Scott. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.