I feel very strongly about this book. The characters moved me, the ideas and events resonated and I found myself haunted by the places and style long after I put the book down. It’s rare to find a book that is as engaging as it is lyrical, but this one definitely delivers on both those counts. Clár Ní Chonghaile’s book Rain Falls On Everyone is a gorgeous read.
We follow Theo, an orphan from the Rwandan genocide who grew up in Dublin with foster parents. He is desperate to get away from a tragic event, only we don’t know why. We also meet Deidre, a woman who is suffering at the hands of her husband and trying to do the best for her children. They form a friendship and find a way to help each other make sense of their past and hope for their future.
A memorial to those who were killed in 1994 at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda (2019)
I wanted to find out how two such difficult national struggles formed the backdrop to her book, and how such beautiful writing comes about. Read on to find out more.
Your story combines two national struggles – one in Rwanda through the character of Theo and one in Ireland through the character of Deirdre. How did you get the idea to combine these two situations and where did the characters come from?
Thank you, Sarah. When the Rwandan genocide took place in April 1994, I was working as a reporter for Reuters in Spain. I had never been to Africa and had no idea that I ever would but the tragedy gripped me. I remember wondering how on earth a people could veer into murderous hatred so quickly, so comprehensively. Now, having read a lot of books on the subject, I realise the hate was carefully nurtured; the tragedy did not unfold overnight. The roots of this hellish descent ran deep.
Later, when I worked in Africa, I met several journalists who had covered the genocide and listened to their stories of what they saw. I have always been fascinated by humanity’s duelling capacities for love and hate, for empathy and indifference, for self-sacrifice and obliteration of the other. What happened in Rwanda offered compelling examples of this duality and the idea of writing about this must have been simmering in my subconscious for several years.
Clár reporting in Bangui, in the Central African Republic in 2016
When Theo snuck into my mind as a character, I had just finished writing my first novel, Fractured, and I was living in Kenya. The first image that popped into my head was of Theo cycling across Ireland, fleeing the scene of a crime. I hadn’t made a conscious decision to set the story in Ireland but as Theo took up residence in my mind, whispering snippets of poetry in his Dublin accent, the story developed. And Deirdre came along with her own buried trauma and I knew these two people could help each other.
In his wonderful book On Writing, Stephen King says: “There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky; two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun.”
One thing that really struck me with your writing was the way you combine unusual things to create metaphors and descriptions. Is this something you consciously strive for in your writing or is it something that comes naturally to you?
It’s definitely something I consciously strive for and that’s because I love the evocative power of the perfect combination of words. If you get it right, you can remake the world for your readers. It’s also something I admire in others – I love a good page-turning story but the books I really adore combine a compelling plot with original, vivacious language. I recently read Tiffany McDaniel’s novel Betty and it blew me away. The way she sees the world is truly magical and the precision of her prose left me breathless, in awe at a world reborn on the page.
But recreating the world doesn’t come easy! I’ll often write something and know it’s flat, know that the words are not conveying what’s in my head. Then I’ll sit back and take that phrase and study it from different angles. Like holding a piece of glass up to the light, turning and twisting until the light refracts in a new way. If I’ve gone for something very visual, I might try to think of how to add sound. Or smell. Or touch. I’m always seeking that magical moment of fusion when disparate, perhaps unusual, elements fizz together, creating something new and true.
I guess this is why Theo too loves words (thus proving that fiction is always, to some degree, autobiographical, at least in its emotional resonance). Perhaps I put it most accurately in Rain Falls on Everyone:
‘Theo had always loved words because of what they showed and what they hid, and how they could, by their very existence, create new worlds, new thoughts, new possibilities. Of course, he knew only too well the flip side of this power. Words could also obliterate.’
Identity and belonging are both very important themes in your book. Why do you think you chose to focus on those in your writing?
I’ve been very lucky to be able to travel a lot because of my job as a journalist, and because my husband, David, is also a journalist. But it wasn’t always that way. I was born in London to Irish parents and we moved back to County Galway in Ireland when I was about three. Although both my parents were originally from Galway, and we eventually ended up living in my father’s village, for a while we were seen as the English family, or as the saying goes, blow-ins.
We were also pretty poor, so in that sense we were on the margins of society too. My father was unemployed, there were (eventually) seven children in the house, and I got a strong sense as I grew up that society did not welcome our kind. It certainly didn’t value us. So I suppose these early experiences made me acutely aware of the importance of a sense of belonging, and how what people perceive as your identity can shape their treatment of you.
The pier and beach in An Spidéal, where Clár grew up
I left home when I was 19, after getting a university degree in English and French, to join Reuters as a graduate trainee in London and after a relatively sheltered childhood (we did not have foreign holidays, of course), I was suddenly exposed to this kaleidoscopic wider world. Again, I felt like a fish out of water. I was the youngest person on the course, I was Irish, my accent was difficult to understand, and my name was unpronounceable. I was also very lonely at times and this led me to ponder the lives of others on the margins. And I don’t mean that to sound maudlin. It’s not a bad thing to be lonely and a little isolated in your youth. It certainly made me more observant and empathetic, I think.
When I write fiction, I like to peel back the layers of a person’s identity, to see the source of their self-image. And what I’ve learned is this: underneath everything – underneath our skin colour, behind our professional masks, beyond the labels ascribed to us by society – we are all the same. The emotional core is the source of our shared humanity.
You create two very distinct voices when we move from the young Theo and the middle-aged Deidre. How did you create two such distinctive identities in your book?
You’ve cleverly hit on the hardest part of writing a novel from multiple perspectives. It is very challenging and yet in both my first novel, Fractured, and in Rain Falls on Everyone, the stories are told from several points of view. I enjoy the freedom offered by this method. It allows me to expand the borders of the imaginary landscape I am creating. It also allows the author to hide events from the characters, to increase the jeopardy.
But there is no doubt it is a tricky thing to pull off, particularly at first. To succeed, you must have a complete and comprehensive vision of each of your characters. You must know them intimately so their voice can resonate with authenticity on the page. There are tricks too. You can give one character a regional accent, a particular turn of phrase, or a particular obsession or passion that can bring their dialogue to life.
Another view of the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda (2019)
As with most elements of writing, much of the work must be done before your fingers hit the keyboard, in the corners of your subconscious where stories first start to take shape. It helps to practise too. Sometimes, I’ll go through my friends and acquaintances and try to work out for myself what makes their voice distinctive; what is it about the way they speak that makes me know it is them? Or you can think about your own way of speaking, your own catchphrases. The great thing about being an author is that the whole world is a training lab. The very act of living life, mindfully and with curiosity, offers insights to the craft every single day.
What advice would you give to writers at the start of their career?
Read a lot, write a lot, live a lot and don’t give up, even when it feels like you have to drag every word kicking and screaming from the very darkest recesses of your brain. Even simple words like ‘the’. Always remember: perfection is the enemy of the good. Anything you write is something to work on. No words, no canvas. So just do it: do it badly, do it wildly, do it with enthusiasm, or with angst or with anger, do it out of despair but get it done because without words on the page, you are not a writer.
I would also strongly recommend reading Stephen King’s On Writing for practical inspiration and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life. She perhaps puts it best: ‘I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work; you don’t give up.’
Writing is really, really tough. It’s quite a lonely occupation and at times, it can feel soul-destroying. Those feelings must be endured and overcome. Because writing is also incredibly rewarding. The magic of creation, those moments of almost transcendental awe when you realise that you got a word, or a sentence, or a paragraph exactly as you wanted. It’s more than worth it. In those moments, you realise how lucky you are to have this need to write, this desire to understand, this boundless imaginary landscape to create and explore.
Clár Ní Chonghaile is an Irish author and journalist. She has published three novels with Legend Press: Fractured,Rain Falls on Everyone and The Reckoning. Born in London to Irish parents, Clár grew up in An Spidéal, Co. Galway in Ireland. In 1992, she headed back to London to work for Reuters, crying all the way. It was the start of a great adventure (although she still can’t listen to The Sawdoctors singing N17 without dissolving into tears). Clár has since lived and worked in Spain, France, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Kenya. Somewhat unexpectedly, she now lives in St Albans in England with her equally bemused husband, two teenage daughters and a gluttonous golden retriever. She is working on her fourth novel.
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