Some authors always knew they wanted to write, but for others, like Colin Walsh, the path to a debut novel was a little more meandering. We at The Reading Group Center are certainly glad he found his way! Kala is a devastatingly beautiful thriller about childhood friends reunited after more than twenty years to reckon with the terrifying events of the summer that changed their lives. It’s “a spectacular read for Donna Tartt and Tana French fans,” (Kirkus), and we can’t wait for you to lose yourself in its pages. Read about the epiphany that led Colin to write Kala in the essay below.
Okay, first things first: I’m writing these words one week before the publication of my first novel, Kala, so if the following paragraphs have a hectic, jangled or unhinged note, you’ll have to forgive me. It’s like I’m hovering outside my own body a lot these days, wondering how I got here. This is the quick story of how it happened. It’s a story, because stories were my first love – before I could read, I’d memorize fairytales from cassettes and recite them to drunk adults at my parents’ parties. By the time I started school I was already reading everything I could, inhaling and memorizing books, films, TV episodes, narrative poems, anything. I spent those early schooldays walking up and down our unpaved road, dressed as a Musketeer, waving a toy sword and reciting dialogue to myself (Mam’s brown boots were way too big for me; they reached all the way up my legs and the toes curled back at me like elf shoes. I thought I looked brilliant).
On some level I dreamed of writing stories of my own one day, but that’s all it was: a pure dream. No one in my family was an artist of any kind. My mam was the only person in her family to finish secondary school. I was the first to go to university. We weren’t the sort of people who became artists.
Cut to my twenties, when the economic crisis in Ireland shattered my entire friend group and scattered us all around the world. There was no work, so I spent those years moving between odd jobs, cities, countries, continents. I was playing music, teaching TEFL, hitchhiking, almost getting eaten by coyotes, by bears, by self-doubt. I was also hoovering up books and experience, working up an ability to read, to see, to both have my own point of view and to be deeply suspicious of my own point of view.
Throughout that time, I occasionally thought about writing, and I was really good at that because it involved doing absolutely no writing whatsoever. By now I was mostly reading comparative mythology, religious texts, philosophy, and psychology. There was something frantic and grasping about all of this; on a childlike level, I was still story-obsessed, but now I was wandering unpaved roads of a different sort, searching for an overarching story that would make sense of things and hold the world intact. On a murkier level, I think I was hoping to dissolve life’s irreconcilabilities in some totalizing narrative; my lived experience kept hammering at every brittle certainty I’d grown up believing. I was getting bamboozled by the knotty ambivalences of things. Becoming plural. Without realizing it, in the belly of all those wobbly years, I was cultivating skills I needed to write.
By the time I ended up studying philosophy in Belgium, I hadn’t read any fiction in years. I had no orientation in the world of literature as a reader, and even less so as a writer.
Then it happened. Over Christmas 2015, just after I’d been offered a philosophy PhD in the United States, I was given Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. People pretend that epiphanies only happen in James Joyce short stories, but that novel’s fusion of polyphonic storytelling, psychological sophistication, and cinematic pacing was a revelation. Not only did it reawaken the experience of total immersion that I used to get when reading books as a kid, I also saw how story gave a space to dramatize and explore life’s knottiness and ambivalence, without some totalizing push towards a final resolution and reconciliation. I realized that this could be a way for me to meet the world, eye-to-eye. After years of drifting, I knew that this was what I should be doing with myself. I turned down the PhD, quit philosophy, and started to write my first short story the next day.
Overnight, I had no money and no prospects. I barely got by. I earned 50 euro or less per month, after rent. It was a time of sleepless nights, constant knots in the stomach; a time of checking my bank balance and realizing I couldn’t afford the cup of coffee I needed to get me through the next job. But a part of me deeper than fear knew I was doing the right thing. In all my free time I was teaching myself how to write: if I liked a novel, I’d read interviews with that novel’s author to get insight into their process. Then I’d read every novel and writer that they referenced. I continued like that from book to book, writer to writer, all the time working on my own stories, trying, failing, trying. I joined a writing group and gradually felt my instinct getting sharper, my ability not just to see what did or didn’t work, but also why it did or didn’t work.
A year later, I won my first major short story award in Ireland. I’ll never forget that phone call. My whole body, suddenly made of fireworks. On a deeper level it felt like a quiet nod from life, telling me to keep going.
I didn’t know then that that prize-winning story would set off a massive chain of events, including getting my agent. I didn’t know that Kinlough, the fictional town in which that short story takes place, would be the setting for my novel Kala. I didn’t know I was going to write Kala, or that one day I’d be writing these words, and you’d be reading them. I still don’t know how to describe the feeling of having written an actual book, a story of my own. I’m not sure there’s a word for it. But it’s a feeling I hope to live up to for the rest of my life.