An Interview with Lynn Buckle Author of “What Willow Says”

Zoë Wells

Lynn Buckle is the author of two novels, the latest of which, What Willow Says, was published by epoque press in May 2021. She lives on the Bog of Allen in Rathangen, Ireland, where she is a UNESCO Cities of Literature Writer in Residence. She is the founder of the Irish Writers’ Center’s Climate Writing Group and has benefitted from awards by the John Hewitt Society, Greywood Arts, Kildare Arts & Library Service, and was shortlisted for the Red Line Short Story Award. She is deaf/hard-of-hearing. Bandit‘s review of What Willow Says is available here.

What inspired you to write this particular novel? What was the intention behind it?

I initially wanted to capture the changing beauty of the bogs on which I live and to positively promote sign language, but the novel also evolved into a celebration of love.

Why did you decide to write about a grandmother and granddaughter? In your eyes, is there something special or unique about that particular familial relationship?

The bond could have been selected from any combination of relationships to elicit readers’ feelings. Megan Hunter did that so well in The End We Start From, and Max Porter in Grief is the Thing with Feathers. The readerinvests in one intense relationship, transferring those feelings to their own lives. I particularly wanted to have a strong older protagonist who challenged the usual crone cliché, who was a vibrant woman in her own right and not an adjunct to others.

Which writers would you say are your biggest influences?

I enjoyed studying Thomas Hardy at school. His sense of place and descriptions of rural settings surely filtered through and influenced my recent work. I am also indebted to Dr Suzanne Simard’s research on trees, as were Richard Powers, Peter Wohlleben, and the many other authors who drew upon her work to write about the natural world.

Meanwhile, reading Willie Vlautin reduced me to tears and I really wanted to replicate his ability to touch a reader’s soul, to make them cry a little albeit while smiling.

The scarcity of deaf characters in literary fiction is a driving influence too. If they feature at all, deaf characters are mostly stereotypes, tropes drawn from a hearing person’s vantagepoint of writing the other. Ilya Kaminsky’s verse novel Deaf Republic rectified that, celebrated deafness and gave it power. It was published just as I finished What Willow Says and was the validation needed that there is an audience for this in a hearing world.  

“I give the reader credit for wanting to explore these forms of communication and new terminology. Sometimes that entails pushing language a little.”

Lynn Buckle

We are used to seeing themes of nature appearing in novels, and especially being relegated to a B-plotline or a piece of characterisation – but in What Willow Says, it very much feels like the heart of the book, one of the main plotpoints. How did you approach writing about nature, and writing about it for an audience that may not have much technical knowledge about nature?

Nature is very much in the foreground as catalyst and as a form of communication. I wanted it to drip from every page to create an immersive experience. It helps that I know my surroundings so well from observations as an artist. It was just another step to transfer those images to words, the atmosphere had already been distilled. Research is also important for nature writers, but nothing beats actual experience. Like the characters in my book, I went out every day listening to wind blowing through leaves and branches until I could recognise the trees by sound alone. Ironically, I do not hear everything and depend on hearing aids. But by including the distortions of digital amplification, rather than by ignoring them, I was eventually able to differentiate between trees in all weathers and seasons.

Eventually I had enough information to write a hearing character who describes these sounds to her deaf companion. By default, she is describing them to the reader, sometimes with the added layer of sign language. I am interested in the vocabulary of sign, of nature, English, and as Gaeilge. These forms of communication transmit feelings, regardless of one’s understanding of the language. I give the reader credit for wanting to explore these and new terminology. Sometimes that entails pushing language a little. Ultimately, I can only write the sort of book I would enjoy reading myself and cannot write with an audience in mind, for therein madness lies.  

What was the hardest part of writing this book? And the easiest?

The hardest part was refining the manuscript to bring it from first draft to final edition. Luckily, Sean Campbell of époque press is an amazing editor to work with and those final edits flew past. This is my second publication with him, and we have built a remarkably effective working relationship. By far the easiest part of the process was writing the initial draft, which was completed in a few trance-like months. That was ‘the zone’ which writers speak of, when stuff just appears on the page and you wonder how it ever got there at all, as if someone else is writing it for you. That only comes after much preparation and practise, but when it comes it is a wonderful thing to savour and the most enjoyable part of writing.  

What’s the one thing that you wish I had asked you about the book? The question you practice in the mirror when nobody’s listening.

I never practice questions in the mirror, but my kids say I talk to myself all the time about writing, that I read aloud and remark on form or dialogue. I am talking to them; they are just not interested. So, you could have asked if self-absorption is a pre-requisite for writers, and how much of the book is true? I lay out my response to that on page one, declaring interests. As with all writers my own experience informs some elements of my stories, exploited and shaped into fiction. Then imagination takes over.

What Willow Says was published May 27th, 2021. It is available for purchase from epoque press, as well as WHSmiths, Waterstones, the Book Depository, and more.


About the Contributor

Zoë Wells (she/her) is a Swiss-British writer and poet based in the UK. She is currently studying towards an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester, having previously received her BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Warwick. She is working on a debut historical fiction novel, alongside a poetry pamphlet, and has had her short fiction and nonfiction published in a number of magazines. Find her on twitter at @zwells_writes or visit her website.

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