Niall Williams’ poetic new novel, History of the Rain, is set in rural Ireland beside the River Shannon. A family history with a difference, this is partly about four generations of the Swain family seen through the eyes of the narrator Ruth Swain, a young woman of about 20.
It is also about the power of literature and in particular, poetry. Ruth believes that reading poetry aloud helps “human beings become better, more complex, loving, more expressive and profound, altogether more fine”.
Niall Williams was born in Dublin in 1958. He studied English and French Literature at University College Dublin and graduated with a MA in Modern American Literature. He moved to New York in 1980 where he married Christine Breen, whom he had met while she was also a student at UCD.
His first job in New York was opening boxes of books in Fox and Sutherland’s Bookshop in Mount Kisco. He later worked as a copywriter for Avon Books in New York City before leaving America with Chris in 1985 to attempt to make a life as a writer in Ireland.
They moved on April 1st to the cottage in west Clare that Chris’s grandfather had left eighty years before to find his life in America. Niall Williams’ first four books were co-written with his wife and they tell of their life together in Co Clare.
Niall’s first novel was Four Letters of Love. Published in 1997, it went on to become an international bestseller and has been published in over twenty countries. His second novel, As it is in Heaven was published in 1999 and short-listed for the Irish Times Literature Prize.
Six more novels followed…The Fall of Light, Only Say the Word, Boy in the World, Boy and Man, The Unrequited and John.
When asked about his writing process, Williams said,
“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.”