Niall Williams

LifeWorksCriticismCommentaryQuotationsReferencesNotes

Life
1958- ; b. Dublin; son of chief exec. of ESB; ed. UCD (English & French); MA in American Lit., UCD; lived in France, and worked as copywriter for Avon Books in NY, having moved there in 1980; settled in Kiltumper, West Clare, with his American wife Christine Breen (b.1954), 1985, occupying the cottage of her grandfather before his departure to America; worked as teacher for 15 years, up to 2004; jointly published non-fiction on Ireland with his wife; wrote a first play, The Murphy Initiative (Abbey Th. 1991); another play, A Little Like Paradise (Abbey 1995), takes an affectionally satirical look at Caherconn, a town depleted by emigration in which the local bar becomes a centre for religious devotion when a local farmer ‘dies’ and is ‘resurrected’ there; first novel, Four Letters of Love (1997), a tale of Celtic spirituality concerning the children of an island school-teacher and the son of an obsessed painter; As it is in Heaven (1999), short-listed for The Irish Times Literature Prize.
 
issued The Fall of Light (2001), a novel concerning the resilient Foley family, trekking westward in Ireland; the Williams took their children out of school and set on 9-month world voyage in Spring 2002, ultimately visiting New York where they attended the anniversary mass in commemoration of 9/11 on Long Island, Sept. 2002; Only Say the Word (2004), dealing with the experience of loss over two generations; issued Boy in the World (2007), in which a 12-year old boy leaves rural Ireland to find his father, supposed dead, and finds himself caught up with global terrorism, ending in Ethiopia; Boy in the World (2008), a novel for young adults in which Jay sets out for London to discover his father, and a sequel Boy and Man (2009), in which Jay volunteers for humanitarian work in Ethiopa; also John (2008), a historical novel about the Evangelist;
 
appt. writer in residence in Sligo, 2008-09; lives in Kiltumper, Co. Clare; the Williams have adopted two children, Deirdre and Joseph - respectively born 1988 and 1992.

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Works
Plays, A Little Like Paradise, incl. in Christopher Fitz-simon & Sanford Sternlicht, eds., New Plays from the Abbey Theatre 1993-1995 (Syracuse UP 1997).

Novels, Four Letters of Love (London: Picador 1997), 342pp.; As It Is in Heaven (London: Picador 1999), 310pp.; The Fall of Light (London: Picador 2001), 435pp.; Only Say the Word (London: Picador 2004, 2005), 345pp.; Boy in the World (London: HarperCollins 2007), 348pp.; Boy and Man (London: HarperCollins 2008), 303pp.

Miscellaneous, with Christine Breen, O Come Ye Back to Ireland: our First Year in County Clare (NY: Soho [1987]), 233pp., ill.; with Breen, When Summer’s in the Meadow (NY: Soho 1989), 224pp. Also, Christine Breen, So Many Miles from Clare to Here (Townhouse 2005), 317pp.

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Commentary
Molly McCloskey reviews The Fall of Light, in The Irish Times ([1 Sept.] 2001): ‘[…] the Foley men are not so much islands of passion and recklessness as an archipelago of ne’er do wells, addressing one another in a stage Irish that, with its hyper-sincerity and baseless optimism, again and again jars with the bleakness of their circumstances.’

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Sue Leonard, review of Only Say the Word, in Books Ireland (Feb. 2005): ‘writer and father to Hannah and Jack, Jim is writing a “love letter” to his dead wife’; ‘[…] I adored this novel, and loved the way Williams interweaves the past with the present.’ (p.13.)

Rosita Boland (Irish Times, 11 June 2005, Weekend) offers stern criticism of Christine Breen, So Many Miles from Clare to Here, questioning whom it is written for, being neither a travel book nor a literary book (‘unforgivable clichés peppered throughout’). Remarks that ‘the Breen-Williams brood fly around on their pre-arranged Oneworld Alliance route, and visit mostly popular destinations, such as Sydney and Bali, where we find out more about the posh hotels they stayed in than the places themselves. / Nor is it a record of a journey from which the author emerges from the experience profoundly changed.’ Finally calls it ‘the written equivalent of looking at someone else’s frankly not very interesting holiday photographs. […]’

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Sue Leonard, review of Boy in the World, in Books Ireland (Oct. 2007), p.216: ‘[…] It starts in the country Clare where the friendless boy is preparing for his first communion. We learn, at once, that Jay is different; that he doesn’t look like his friends or his grandfather, the master. /Clearly bright, the little boy is obsessed with words. He devours books by Dickens and Robert Louis Stephenson, but can’t make sense of the world around him. And when his grandfather hands on a letter from the boy’s dead mother, his world fragments further. His father, it seems, is still alive. He doesn’t know that he has a son, and, piecing together clues from the letter he initially tried to burn, the boy learns that his father is a dissident Muslim journalist, working for the BBC. The boy feels compelled to find his father to make sense of his own identity and place in the world. / So he sets off for London, but becomes embroiled in a terrorist bomb near Broadcasting House. He’s rescued by Sister Bridget, a nun he’s encountered on the boat from Ireland, and the two of them travel on to Paris, in the belief that they will find Jay’s father there. / It’s a strange partnership. (See full text, in Ricorso Library, Reviews, infra.)

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Quotations
Interview (1) : ‘I used to write poems to girls’, interview by Catherine O’Brien, in “Love Etc.” [column], The Times (16 Feb. 2005), p.11: ‘In the middle-class suburb of Dublin where I grew up, there wasn’t much emphasis on talking aroun the dinner table. My father was a significant man - he ran the electricity company of Ireland - but he was not especially authoritative. He exuded more of a sense of simply getting on with it. He and my mother never criticised each other and I never witnessed a fight. Theirs was a strong, muscular love that had become a force whose primal goal was to usher their children into the world and protect them. / I was the third of four, quiet, shy - the one they worried about. At 14, I fell in love withthe girl next door. I am the sort of person who locks on to an emotional feeling. I was quite capable of being in love with her for two years, even is she never spoke to me. It went nowhere, and neither did anything else through my teens. / To me relationships were intense, sacred, the essence of life. I couldn’t trivialise them the way other boys did. When I met a girl I liked, I woujld compose poems to her. Girls love that, but they also find it overwhelming. I was too much - OK as a special friend, but not as a boyfriend. / At 19, I went to Paris and fell in love with Helene. She was ten years older and had a desire to educate me. She would go to work and say: “List to all the Bach cantatas today.” When you have only ever listened to Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, that feels wonderful. For two years it was fantastic, until the devastating day she said she had to let me go. I didn’t understand then what she did - that we would never make a happily married couple. / Two and a half years later, I met Chris in the university cafe in Dublin. I was doing a masters degree in American literature, she was an American studying Irish literature. I was struck by the sorrowful beauty in her face and knew, very soon, that we would be together. She was more scared. She had lived thorugh her parents’ divorce - the worst kind, and you could see that in her. I was nothing like the American men she knew. She had four brothers - two of them models and one an actor. I was skinny, nervous, half-blind, but if I have any talent, it is for emotional empathy. I felt her hurt. / We began our married life in Westchester County, the affluent New York suburb. I had no money. I couldn’t drive and my education counted for nothing - I still marvel that she stuck with me. I worked in a bookshop and eventually got a job with a publishing house, but all the time I was commuting to Manhattan I was never going to become the writer she thought she had married. So 20 years ago, we took the gamble and moved back to Ireland, where her father owned a delapidated house. It was the turning point in our lives. / Love benefits from shared vision. Ours was to create a place of books, music, gardening, children and beauty. We wrote a journal of our self-sufficient “good life” together which was published and paid for the central heating. Then we discovered we couldn’t have children. It was incredibly sad and isolating and it was then that we learnt about the muscularity of our own love - when life is that desolate, your love has to be tough. / We adopted Deirdre when she was ten weeks old. And four years later, Joseph came to us as a baby as well. As they have grown up, we have made a point of celebrating their adoption days as well as their birthdays. / We feel we have all adopted each other. There is something that brought Deirdre and Joseph, in their journey through the stars, into our kitchen - and there is a huge rightness about it. In the same way, I have an unshakeable feeling that Chris is the person I am meant to be with. The aspects of me that others might see as freakish, she has always understood as central. She makes me feel it is OK to be who I am.’ Bio-note: 46 [in Feb. 2005]; three best-selling novels; lives on Co. Cliare with his wife Christine and their two [adopted] children Deirdre (17) and Joseph (13).

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Interview (2): ‘Reality - with a Spiritual Slant’, in Books Ireland (March 2008), pp.36-37. Gives an account of A Boy in the World (2007), and cites a sequel (A Boy in the World: Boy to Man, 2008), with num. autobiographical remarks including details of the adoption of their children on finding themselves unable to have offspring (‘we’ve always been very open with their children about their adoption and it hasn’t been an issue’); Remarks of his new novel John : ‘I’m not a devout Catholic [..] I suppose I’m some kind of Christian. But I spend a lot of time thinking about what it might mean to believe in something. For no particular reason I began to wonder what John was doing before he wrote the Gospel. I did some reading and research, thinking I could easily find an answer to this question, but it turned out that very little was known about the man. That was an invitation to invent.’ Reflects that West Clare will always be home (‘this house where we live is organica to us. I look at the kitchen extension and think “Four Letters paid for that” […] I can foresee a time when I leave west Clare in the winter, maybe to live in New Zealand.’ See also “First Flush”, Books Ireland (March 2008): the boy, Jay, is raised by his grandfather in a sleepy Irish village; runs away to England in search of his fatehr, a journalist with Al Quaeda [sic] links and an Islamic heritage; becomes involved in terrorist bombings in England; part thriller, part family drama. (p.59.)

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References
The Niall Williams website contains a blog.

Notes
Diaspora: The grandfather of Christine Breen, Williams’s wife, left Co. Clare for America in 1905 - a hundred years before the couple left America to return to Ireland. Christine [Williams] issued So Many Miles to Paradise: From Clare to There (Townhouse 2005), a travel-book about their 2002 journey to Peru, New Zealand and other lands. Jospeph, an adopted son, is a boarder at Glenstal Abbey School. (See ‘Reality - with a Spiritual Slant’, Books Ireland, March 2008 [interview], as supra.)

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