Donal Ryan, recently shortlisted for the prestigious International Impac Dublin literary award for his debut novel The Spinning Heart, has cemented his reputation as a heavyweight literary contender and ‘one to watch’ on the world literary stage.
Published at the end of 2013, Ryan’s The Spinning Heart has already received acclaim winning both the Guardian First Book Award 2013 and Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards 2012 not to mention being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013. The novel is set in the aftermath of Ireland’s financial collapse and is told uniquely through 21 voices that each bring their own experiences and truth to contemporary Ireland. Ryan’s second novel, The Thing about December, was published earlier this year and has already begun to receive rave reviews. It tells the story of a year in the life of Johnsey Cunliffe, a lonely young man coping with bereavement in a harsh small town setting.
Interestingly The Thing about December was actually Ryan’s first novel written. He sent it to numerous publishers, and received numerous rejections. His second novel, The Spinning Heart – his first to be published – fared little better, until it was discovered in a slush pile by an intern at the Irish publishing house Lilliput Press; both novels have now rightly received both popular and critical acclaim, touching a nerve with readers worldwide.
Donal Ryan talks to TMO about his reaction to his successes, becoming a professional author and how he feels to be labelled an ‘Irish’ writer.
There’s an obvious difference in structure between The Spinning Heart and The Thing about December, in terms of the voices – The Spinning Heart with its 21 different voices vs The Thing About December with its single narrator Johnsey; what were the differences for you in writing the two novels? Was one easier to write than the other?
The Thing About December was far more difficult. Writing Johnsey was a slightly weird, immersive experience. That level of creative intensity was new to me. I’d always thought of myself as a writer but had never written like that before – three straight hours every night for a year. It was draining at times and I went a small bit mad. Some nights I couldn’t stop and Anne Marie would wake at 3 or 4am and call me into bed or come and lead me gently away from my desk by the arm. I started The Spinning Heart the day after I’d finished The Thing About December. I had received more than thirty rejections at that stage and knew if I faltered I’d buckle under the weight of the NOs. I galloped blindly on half in defiance. The Spinning Heart came to the page quickly; the characters lined themselves up and shouted at me until they were written. The village built itself person by person I was just a moving hand.
that’s where all stories are: in the infinity of declensions between love and love’s absence.
If we forced you, at imaginary gunpoint, to choose one word to describe your work, what would it be and why?
True. Right down to my ghost. (I lived in a haunted apartment for years and was on first-name terms with the ghost there so it was no stretch). Both books contain expositions of the contents of people’s souls. They’re articulating the chaos that goes on unseen and mostly unheard inside us all. The situations are all familiar but the stories are told in a confessional style, a heightened type of communication that all seems normal at first glance but turns on closer reading to something deeper: the characters are all admitting to things they wouldn’t normally admit to.
Does the success of both your novels, placed alongside the success of Eimear McBride‘s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, suggest a serious failing in the way mainstream publishing works at the moment – given that both you and McBride received numerous rejections along the way.
I came from nowhere, had no contacts, no background, had never been published anywhere. I fully expected numerous rejections. I gave myself generous odds from the start of 100/1. I’ve put myself in the place of editors and agents who sit beneath an avalanche of manuscripts and proposals and hundreds of thousands of sentences, trying to see merit or potential in the maelstrom and I’m fairly sure I’d have rejected me as well. I don’t know how they do it. Publishing houses are businesses, mostly stretched to their limits, under-capitalised and under-resourced, and they have to read submissions with one part of their minds focused on the question of commercial potential. It’s sad but true: great novels can sink in a sea of mercantile exigency. This reflects not on the state of publishing but on the way society is constructed, the primacy of money.
Both your novels are set in Rural Ireland – how do you feel about the label ‘Irish Writer’ – is it a useful label? Do you feel an affinity to other Irish writers (you’ve been compared to both McGahern and John B. Keane, for example) – or is it a lazy comparison?
I don’t know about useful, because there’s a tendency to mentally homogenise when one hears a label attached to any group, to unfairly ascribe uniform attributes and to create a kind of false expectation. Having said that, John B Keane and John McGahern are two writers I love completely. But there’s a breadth of talent in Ireland today; there are writers pushing boundaries in all directions, creating work that’s startlingly, brilliantly original, who shouldn’t be placed in any kind of tidy category. Irish writing is often seen as, but isn’t, a genre, it’s a massive and wildly variegated body of work with the nationality of its creators in common.
Have you always been a storyteller? Can you remember when you first realised that you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve only ever seen myself as a writer. I used to tell girls at parties all about it. Wow, they’d say, a writer! So, what have you written? And there’d be the death-knell of my chances. Well, I’d mumble, a few bits … Ya, bits of SHIT, the little man inside my head with the screechy, mocking voice would say. And I’d descend into mumbles and redness of face. But still I was always writing, starting things and losing heart. The first short story I can clearly remember writing described a re-match between Barry McGuigan and Steve Cruz. I loved Barry with all my heart and the night he lost his belt in the American desert heat I was inconsolable. My dad hugged me in the Irish early morning and said don’t worry, love, there’ll be a re-match over here and Barry will win it back. It never happened except in my copy-book. Gradually the notion of me as a writer hardened into unassailable fact and became something to be actively ignored and almost resented instead of acted upon. It only ever seemed to cause me pain and to give free reign to that high-pitched little bastard in the middle of my forehead.
You wrote your first two novels while working at a full time job? Does the day job help the art – or to put it another way, do you think too many writers are stuck in their ivory towers?
I just finished in my day-job last week. I loved it, but life was getting too cluttered and crazy. Towards the end I was working sometimes seventeen or eighteen hours a day between everything and it wasn’t fair on anyone. But a few years ago, I had a perfect balance. My job was quite consuming and there was no space in my days for thinking about anything else. This was a good thing: I managed not to over-think my novels, to put myself off. Then I had my quiet three hours of writing from 9pm to midnight, and my routine was set in stone, strictly adhered to. I loved being out in the world or in the office every day, dealing with people, hopefully helping people, straightening things out. I’m still not sure if full-time writing is going to completely suit me, but I’m going to enjoy the finding out. I miss my job already, but there’s a lot more space in my head now.
Let’s talk about the novel as a format – is it something you feel particularly drawn to, or are you also attracted to other forms like short stories / poetry / film? What do you think the novel can do that other art forms, for example film, can’t?
Novelists are in many ways the most free of all artists. The universe is available to us; we are unbound by the strictures, logistical, ergonomic, economic, felt by people creating in other media. All life, human and inhuman, all creatures and things and places are there for our taking and using. Using my sublime talent for inverting the positive, I of course found this vastness of possibilities to be intimidating, a thing to be cowed and put off by. Where would I start? Where would I go? Where would I finish? There are a million words. How many combinations are possible? I tried to work it out on a calculator. I drove myself mad for twenty years until Johnsey came along and, in his gentle voice, began to talk over the screeching little man.
I’ve written poetry but it’s putrid stuff. My father has secreted some of it in the attic at home. God forbid it should ever emerge from the attic. I found it soothing, though, to force myself to write to strict parameters: Iambic pentameter, ABAB rhyming scheme, two four-line stanzas and a rhyming couplet to end. I took more pride in my adherence to strict structure than in my ability to articulate anything in poetry. So I knew I wasn’t a poet.
I’ve started, with Anne Marie’s help and eternal patience, to gain a little confidence in myself as a short-story writer and am working on a collection. But there’s something so special about being immersed in a novel, in living with it day after day after day, in being responsible for the creation of a world; there’s a kind of mad pleasure to be had in feeling at once omnipotent and helpless.
You mention in a previous interview that you felt ‘drama springs from proximity’ in reference to village life – is this something you found was prevalent in your own childhood? Any particular memories spring to mind?
I was very much loved and cosseted. I only ever glimpsed drama as a child. I was thirteen or fourteen before my eyes began to open on the world. I was amazed and horrified at the revelation that not all parents were like mine; not all lives were like mine. The existence of cruelty was a shock to me. I’d read about it, of course, but never really believed it. But all communities are wellsprings of drama: where people are there will be love and hate and all things in between and that’s where all stories are: in the infinity of declensions between love and love’s absence.
In The Thing About December the mother is quite a dominant figure in shaping your character’s behaviour- is nature vs nurture something of particular interest to you? What are your feelings on the debate?
I think about this a lot. I’m not sure. I’ve always been a bit obsessed with the forces that act on a person to bring them to conclusions about themselves. And there’s often a deficit between a person’s self-image and who they actually are. I know fiercely intelligent people who think of themselves as thick, beautiful people who see only ugliness in themselves. It’s a universal tragedy. For me being well-adjusted means having as small a gap as possible between the thought of one’s self and the actuality of one’s self. There probably are things coded in us, printed in our genes, immutable traits. But we’re all surely shaped by experience, by the love given or not given, by the lessons we’re taught. The ratio of influence between nature and nurture is the moot point, I think, and is probably different for everyone.
Both of your novels have been read by many specifically in the light of the Celtic Tiger and the Financial Crash. How do you feel being labelled as a social commentator? Do you think writers have a responsibility to address social issues, or is it a by-product of the stories they tell?
The social commentary is accidental. I’d planned on attempting a novel in the polyphonic form for years. And setting The Spinning Heart in the summer of 2010, which is when I wrote it, and setting it in an Irish village, there was no way of avoiding the theme of economic degradation. I don’t think writers necessarily have a responsibility to address social issues, but to be clear-eyed and compassionate if they happen to do so. I don’t mind being described or seen as a social commentator, but I hope it’s obvious that my main interest lies in the chaos inside us all, in the terrible, beautiful humanity we’re all afflicted with. Recession or no recession, the storms will rage on.
Johnsey has been described by yourself as ‘unworldly aggregation of every bullied person you’ve known’. How important is it, to you, to write from direct experience?
I love Johnsey, maybe a bit too much. I upset myself several times writing him. I so desperately wanted things to be different for him, but he had a job to do and he did it well. My experiences of bullying were mostly oblique; what sears my conscience now is the memory of the times I did nothing, or laughed or sneered along. But it’s redundant and corrosive to carry guilt from childhood into adulthood. As for writing from direct experience, I think it can only work if the writer can properly marshal their own feelings and detach themselves sufficiently from their experiences. It’s almost necessary to float above oneself, to look dispassionately down at events, and to examine what happened with a cold eye. Otherwise emotion can suffuse the writing to too great a degree and begin to blur the narrative.
One word that crops up in your reviews all the time is ‘humanity’ – how necessary a trait is sympathy for a novelist?
For me, there’s no point writing without it. It’d feel barren and hollow. For others it’s something they can do without, and still create compelling works. The kind of fiction I write, and the kind written by most of the writers I know personally, requires empathy as a mechanism without which their creative engines would stutter and stall. That they feel so keenly what others feel makes them the writers they are. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to do, it makes the world a better place, but it’s not always an easy thing to live with.
If you could sit down for a half-an-hour with any writer, living or dead, who would it be, and what would you talk about with them?
John Kennedy Toole. I’d tell him how much I love A Confederacy of Dunces. I’d ask him why he killed himself.
Can you tell us something about your next project – what you’re working on at the moment?
I’m working on a book of short stories. They’re mostly 3-4k words. It’s a struggle, a struggle. I hit a sweet spot now and then that causes a euphoric happiness that sometimes lasts for hours. I worry about my stories. It’s been less than a handful of times, but people have told me they hate all my characters, and I’m sure it’ll happen that people will tell me they hate all my stories. But I’ll be more prepared this time.
And an easy one – what’s your must snack or must do habit whilst writing?
My stomach knots up a bit when I’m writing, and I have no idea why, so I don’t usually snack. My thing I must do is slavishly adhere to a minimum word count of 500. And to constantly seek affirmation from Anne Marie. I’d be sunk without her.