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Irish Times Interview 2010


'The dead don't care and I don't either'

Mon, Apr 05, 2010

Thomas Lynch creates intimate character studies on the big themes of life – and death – but always with wisdom and sharp humour, writes SHANE HEGARTY 

TO START with death is the ultimate cliche of any Thomas Lynch interview. The funeral director and writer has always been a journalist’s delight. It’s a challenge to find one that doesn’t introduce him almost immediately by that label, and this isn’t going to offer up a fresh option. So here goes, because Lynch is upfront with it – literally in the case of his first collection of fiction, Apparations Late Fictions , which begins with a short story about a man bringing his father’s ashes on one last and lasting expedition.

“You know I just never even thought of it,” he says over tea in the National Gallery. “Whenever I open a book of fiction, whenever I open a book of poems, whenever I go to the theatre, usually there are corpses involved and they’re not all undertakers involved in it. Maybe because they think I’m an undertaker and that’s my day job . . . but I see this book as being about fellow pilgrims who try and work their way through a world that includes mortality, d’you know? But it just never occurred to me that these were stories about death, even though most good theatre, most good narrative, most good poetry includes the notion of mortality. Somebody’s got to agree to stop breathing forever.”

Lynch is excellent company, as generous in his Michigan speech as he is in writing, constantly dealing in casual wisdom and sharp humour. His writing, then, is an almost seamless extension. Having established his reputation with poetry and, most notably, personal essays including The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade and Booking Passage: We Irish and Americans , his move into fiction has confirmed his ability to succeed across forms. It was, though, some time coming.

“I’ve always wanted to do fiction. I’ve always wanted to do everything. But fiction has always seemed to me to require more day-to-day attention, at least in my own mind it has, because managing that narrative is, to me, less a la carte work than poetry or essaying.

“If you’re a cafeteria essayist, it’s really good because you’re going from thing to thing and trying to find linkages, whereas once you get a character sort of fleshed out then they are going to do their thing and you need to follow the leads. So it needs to be day-to-day writing, at least for me. So I would take time and say ok I’m going to draft the story this week and work on it another week, but I would take days off in a row.”

His stories are intimate character studies that develop into meditations on the big themes – death, sex, religion. Of course, he says, “I’m borrowing that from every writer who has ever written. Romeo and Juliet is about nothing if not about sex, violence, death and mayhem.

“The book I wanted this book to be closer to is the Book of Job . This sort of comfortless notion that whoever is in charge here is really a double-dealing practical joker who’s making deals on the side. And yet Job keeps coming up with this default position that ‘God is good, blessed be the name of the Lord’. And I think people who can find some apparition, some glimpse of godliness in heartache and disaster and violence and the shit that happens, I think they are the people who probably end up being more grace filled and more faithful people than the people who naturally see God in the sunset and the new baby.”

Lynch describes himself as “devoutly lapsed”. “I’ve a great fondness for people whose life of faith includes the life of doubt. I’m named as a famous doubter. . .” He still spends most of his time in Michigan, but also spends a lot of time in Moveen, Co Clare, an ancestral home he has been visiting for four decades and which has featured heavily in his writing. His creative routine is simple. “I read and I write, that’s my day because, you know, I don’t golf. Reading and writing to me are pretty much the same thing. If I’m not writing something I’m probably reading something in preparation to write. But, I work early in the morning and I’m usually fresh until 3pm or 4pm in the afternoon and then I see whatever happens after that.”

He is working on longer fiction now, “and I have a character who’s up every morning with me and who’s behaving.” And he is still a funeral director, although he “comes and goes as he pleases” knowing that the family business has been passed on to the next generation. “I’m going for the hundred, and I often tell people that there’s a very slight discount if you make a hundred now, which is worth living for.

As for his own arrangements, “I think I’ve written repeatedly that the dead don’t care and I’m fairly convinced that I won’t care either. So, I don’t care. I’ve told them pretty much, play ball where it lies, you’ll know what to do, work away. But I think as a species that the best way to sort of get around all this is to just go through it. If you want to learn how to deal with life, find a living thing and deal with that. Find a baby or an old person who needs their diapers changed or their teeth flossed or a meal cooked. That’ll teach you about life more than sitting under a tree contemplating the great beyond. Do the great here and now and the rest will sort itself out.”

He chuckles. “The same with death: if you want to learn how to handle death, handle a corpse.”

Apparations Late Fictions by Thomas Lynch is published by WW Norton

© 2010 The Irish Times


Utne Reader


Thomas Lynch on Sex, Death, and Poetry

from Willow Springs

It’s hard to imagine two more circuitous paths to renown than the vocations of writer and undertaker, yet Thomas Lynch has somehow staked a successful career on both routes. In fact, his workaday pursuits feed on each other. His experiences as a small-town funeral director in Michigan fuel books that circle around the theme of mortality, such as The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (Norton, 1997) and the poetry collections Still Life in Milford (Norton, 1998) and Grimalkin and Other Poems (Cape Poetry, 1994). His prominence as an award-winning man of letters has in turn made him one of the more famous and oft-quoted undertakers in the land, a dash of celebrity in a sea of black suits.

Lynch is hardly wanting for media attention—he’s been featured on C-SPAN, NPR, MSNBC, you name it—yet he didn’t grab our attention until his elegant voice began appearing on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. Amid the tense bloat and blather of political pundits, here was a writer who was turning around big thoughts with gentle humor and rare reason.

We were attracted to this interview from the literary journal Willow Springs, conducted by Megan Cuilla, Mandy Iverson, and Aaron Weidert, because of Lynch’s sheer erudition on a number of broad matters. “I write sonnets and I embalm, and I’m happy to take questions on any subject in between those two,” he explains. —The Editors

On humor and death:

“I don’t set out to write anything jokey. But I do think that the way things organize themselves, the good laugh and the good cry are fairly close on that continuum. So the ridiculous and the sublime—they’re neighbors. If you’re playing in the end of the pool where really bad shit can happen, then really funny shit can happen, too.”

On sex and death:

“Yeats said to Olivia Shakespeare that the only subjects that should be compelling to a studious mind are sex and death. Those are the bookends. And think of it, what else do we think of, what else is there besides that?

“I think most people drive around all day being vexed by images of mortality and vitality. All they’re wondering about is how they’re going to die and who they’re going to sleep with, or variations on that theme—what job they’re going to have, whether they’re tall enough or skinny enough or short enough or smart enough or fast enough or make enough money, and all of it plays into these two bookends.

“If you’re writing about life, you’re writing about death. If you’re writing about life, you’re writing about love and grief and sex and all that stuff.”

On writing:

“I’m a writer, so I don’t wait for something interesting. I write. Period. And if there’s nothing interesting, I’ll make it interesting.

“For me, writing starts with a line, or some imagination, or some notion, and I just go with it as far as I can. You set yourself afloat on the language. And you think, I’ll see how far it can take me before this little raft I’ve cobbled together falls apart and everybody understands that I’m really just a fraud, or drowning—whichever comes first. But when it’s really working, readers go with you to the most unlikely places. They take big leaps with you.”

On writers engaging with the world:

“The reason poets aren’t read is that we don’t hang any of them anymore. We don’t take them seriously; we don’t think that poetry can move people to do passionate things. But poets did. Poets could change cultures. Before there was so much contest for people’s attention, poets were the ones who literally brought the news from one place to another, walking from town to town, which is how we got everything to be iambic and memorable and rhymed and metered, because the tradition was oral before it was literary.”

On the power of poetry:

“Poetry is as good an ax as a pillow. You should be able to cut with it if you want to. But I do want to avoid hurting people inadvertently. I don’t mind hurting people I intend to hurt—inadvertent damage is the thing I fear. I think all writers are capable of it. You’re dealing with powerful tools, you know; words are powerful business. I’m not saying you should be guided by fear, but I think general kindness is still a better thing. It’s just evolution. We want to be better people.”

On feminism:

“I was a single parent for a long time, which I think, for men, makes them feminists.

“One of the boxes you have to fill in on a death certificate is ‘Usual occupation,’ and for years, I would often have a son or daughter or a surviving husband say, ‘She was just a housewife.’ And I can remember thinking: You do it for a week and come back and tell me ‘just a.’ Because the effort to minimize the hardest work I’ve ever done was offensive. I can only imagine what it would mean to a woman who had done it all her life.

“All the women in my life have been powerful, powerful women with strong medicine—dangerous people. I just don’t see them in any way, shape, or form as having ever traded on victim status.”

On missing bodies:

“Part of my professional life has been marked by the disappearance of corpses in the funeral ceremony. Our culture is the first in a couple generations that attempts to have funerals with no bodies. We just disappear them. If you read the death notices in the paper today, you’ll notice that most of them are going to involve some type of memorial event, sans body, sans corpse. Also, most likely, without the gloomy stuff that comes along with having a corpse in the room. But the way to deal with mortality is by dealing with the mortals. And you deal with death, the big notion, by dealing with the dead thing.

“We’re very good when it comes to cats and dogs. We just don’t have a clue when it comes to our people. We have them disappeared without any rubric or witnesses or anything like that. And then we plan these ‘celebrations of life,’ the operative words du jour. These celebrations are notable for the fact that everybody’s welcome but the dead guy. This, to me, is offensive and I think perilous for our species. There is an intellectual—an artistic and moral—case that can be made for not only fruit and flowers in a bowl on a table, but also a dead body in a box.”

Excerpted from Willow Springs (Spring 2009), a literary journal that publishes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and interviews and “engages its audience in an ongoing discussion of art, ideas, and what it means to be human”;

Interviews and Discussions with Thomas Lynch

NPR : Digging for Hidden Bodies in Michigan

The poet and funeral director Thomas Lynch previews Six Feet Under.

Cremation: How do you want your body cared for when you're gone? Streamed in the Real Audio Format.

WAKE ME WHEN I'M DEAD: A documentary about the poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch. - RealAudio

Rattlebag: Thomas Lynch discusses his memoir 'Booking Passage: We Irish and Americans' - RealAudio

What Makes a Good Funeral?

Slant - An Interview with Thomas Lynch

O'Driscoll and Lynch - An interview with Thomas Lynch (Requires Real Audio)

Presiding Spirits: An interview with Thomas Lynch by Tim Kindberg on the Sonnet

Religion and Ethics: A profile on Thomas Lynch

Lynn Neary Interviews Thomas Lynch and others on Mortality for "The Really Big Question" for American Media on NPR, Nov. 2009

The Boston Phoenix - Dying Words: An Interview with Thomas Lynch by Chris Wright

NPR : Thomas Lynch: Writer, Poet and Funeral Director
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