Interviewed by Sue Leonard
Published in The Irish Examiner 19th June. 2010
John Lynch is instantly recognisable. He ambles into Brooke’s Hotel in Dublin wearing a black jacket and leather cap, and I imagine I’m in the company of a hard republican. During his prolific film career Lynch has portrayed Bobby Sands, Paul Hill, and in Mo, Gerry Adams.
Parts are still pouring in for the 48 year old from Armagh. He recently returned from Morocco, where he portrayed the Angel Gabriel in The Nativity. He has also just published his second novel. Why, when he’s so busy, would he bother?
“With acting, frustration sets in,” he says, holding eye contact. “As someone said to me a few weeks ago, the only power you have as an actor is ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Once you have said ‘yes,’ to something you’ve said ‘yes’ to everything. To the director, the script, the crew – that’s it. So I think writing is a way of trying to empower myself.
“When I was at drama school studying Shakespeare and Chekhov , I was taking language apart, trying to work out how it came to be. And how to translate that into a physical moment. I thought, some day, I will try and create a total world instead of just driving one character’s story.”
Many actors have turned to the pen; but none as effectively as John Lynch. His debut, Torn Water, was an astonishing assured study of a troubled teenage boy making sense of his world. Falling out of Heaven is even more powerful.
It’s a dark book centring round alcoholism, but the writing is so lyrical; the characters so believable, and the observations so astute, that by the end the reader feels uplifted. This is the best book I have read all year.
Gabriel O’Rourke has a loving wife, and a beautiful young son. He excels at teaching, and has a supportive family. So why does he let drink break him, until he becomes homeless and psychotic?
Falling out of Heaven shows Gabriel’s journey through a secure psychiatric unit to ultimate redemption. In that process, he has to confront his past, and face the demons that led him to act in such a reprehensible way. All this impacts on those close to him. Lynch achieves this with flashback, flitting backwards and forwards in time.
Lynch is a recovering alcoholic. He hasn’t touched a drink in eleven years, but is the story autobiographical?
“Not massively. The childhood is not my childhood, the father not my father and the drinking not my drinking. Someone said, ‘we all fall out of heaven but some of us remember the fall.’ I wanted to capture that feeling.
“I do know about alcoholism; it plays brain tricks. You feel withdrawn, you don’t trust anybody, you go missing, and you have huge melancholia. It’s a constant war to keep going, to keep upright and to keep functioning.
“I didn’t fall as far as Gabriel. I rang my doctor and asked him what I could do. He suggested a treatment centre in London. I met a lot of people there who had a lot of problems, and some of their stories were fascinating. For the first time in my life I was actually listening. I used some of their stories for Gabriel, and mixed them with my own.”
The book isn’t just about alcoholism. It shows the continuing tension in the North too. There’s a wonderful anecdote where a shopkeeper outwits a gang of tribal teens.
Does Lynch consider himself a writer first, or an actor?
“In my head I’m a writer, always. Even when I’m acting, I’ll be thinking, how can I put that into words? How can I relate that emotionally, and how describe it? Defining an inner life – that is a form of writing.”
Lynch recounts a scene in a movie he made in London, where he has to beat a young actor, almost to death. He knocked the actor to the floor, then, in a stunt, pounded a body bag which was covered in blood bags.
“I got into a rhythm of energy and violence. I decided to head butt the body bag. That hadn’t been set up, and it looks really sick on the tape. But the character goes into a frenzy. He’s effectively had a breakdown. By the end I was shaking. And when I washed off all the fake blood, I found this massive blood blister on my head.
“I find it easy to jump into a character I’m writing too. I make a quick decision. I think what would underpin this guy? I based Gabriel as a teacher on my own teachers in St Calman’s. I remembered how they carried themselves and how they behaved. It was important, to me, to show Gabriel as a teacher. It showed that he was, basically, a good guy.”
Does Lynch miss drinking?
“It gave me time,” he says. “I was still working as an actor, but there is a lot of time in-between. I thought, what do I do now? I’ve all this activity in my head. That’s why, and when, I started to write.”
Surely, though, drink is part of what actors do?
“Certainly there’s a great romance between drinking and acting. I remember when I started acting there were all these stories about Richard Harris and all these great drinkers. That time has gone. Bad behaviour is tolerated less.
“There does become a time in the evening, for example, at the wrap party in London, a moment where you just know it’s time to go. It’s when a lot of people have left their inhibitions behind.
“And yes, I am sometimes tempted to drink. When the first copy of thi
s book arrived I felt like celebrating. But immediately an image of drinking appears. I don’t know where drink will take me. I become a version of myself I don’t like. I become unreliable. I go missing. I get depressed, and I can’t stop.”
Falling out of Heaven by John Lynch is published by Fourth Estate at 13.99 euro.