Donal Ryan: ‘I’ve got one or two sneering reviews from fellow writers’

Donal Ryan: ‘It’s a very personal book, a kind of oblique confrontation of loss and a celebration of familial love.’ Photograph: Alan Place
The author on his new novel Strange Flowers, belief and kindness, and Ireland’s evolution

With its beautifully observed Tipperary setting and tenderly created characters telling a story of loss and redemption, Strange Flowers is immediately recognisable as a Donal Ryan novel. Less so the author himself, as he looms into view on Zoom, his new lockdown beard giving him the air of a continental football manager.

“It gets wild very quickly, a proper caveman job,” Ryan says, but otherwise he feels he has got off lightly during the pandemic.

“No one close to me has contracted the virus, thankfully. I’ve been very lucky to have been able to continue working from home. We switched over to online teaching at UL with no major trauma and I finished a draft of a novel so I’ve been pretty busy all through it. I’m gutted for the small businesses that have been flattened by it, though, and all the people whose livelihoods have been affected by the halted economy.”

Ryan, however, is all too familiar with grief. It kicked down his door when his father died suddenly three years ago.

The motif that runs through Strange Flowers is the separation of parents and their children and the anguish this causes. The idyllic life of Paddy and Kit Gladney is shattered in 1973 when their 20-year-old daughter Moll disappears. The prodigal’s return five years later brings joy but also repercussions that will transform their lives. A generation later, history will repeat itself when Moll’s son Josh vanishes too.

The novel is also remarkable for its portrayal of a black man making his home in rural 1970s Ireland.

“I wrote the first draft in 2017 after my father’s sudden death in a haze of shock and extreme grief,” Ryan says. “I think I used it as a way of deflecting reality for a while, of holding it at arm’s length. It’s a very personal book, the most personal I’ve written, a kind of oblique confrontation of loss and a celebration of familial love. I’m really happy with it. I owe this book. I was falling hard and it softened my landing.

“I heard the great Mike McCormack once say he had no memory of writing Solar Bones and I couldn’t see how that could be possible, but I see it now. My only clear memory of writing the first draft of Strange Flowers is of being in my office in UL writing the closing scene and of feeling my father’s presence very strongly and feeling his approval, almost physically hearing him say ‘Good man. Do. That’s exactly right.’”

'Writers think they have a finished product on their hands, but good editors see a flawed early draft'

We think of writing a book as a solo effort, but Ryan acknowledges two people for “saving this book with your cool heads and unerring eye”. Did the novel undergo radical changes?

“Part of the book went off on a fairly wild tangent. It was kind of untypical of me, an oblique, abstract expression of grief, but it was like I was writing just for me and might alienate readers. Josh had a wild adventure in England that moved into this phantasmagorical territory. Lemmy from Motorhead was there, stuff like that. It was so enjoyable to write but I was being indulgent. I was a metal fan myself. Josh is very close to me the way I saw the world when I was that age. That’s why the book is set then as Josh is the same age as me.”

This also explains an unusual, not to say unlikely, aspect to Josh’s appearance, which gives the novel its title: “the perfect, unblemished whiteness of this strange flower”.

“I always give Anne Marie the credit for pushing me to be a ‘proper’ writer – whatever that is! –and for saving me from my own hubris. She usually reads as I write, and I judge from her reaction whether it’s up to scratch or not. She loved the first draft, which was, in part, radically different to the published book. But my editor, Brian Langan, and my publisher, Fiona Murphy, weren’t as enthusiastic, and they very gently and tactfully suggested a rethink. Which I did, and I redrafted, and it’s a far better book for their interventions.

“This happens all the time. Writers think they have a finished product on their hands, but good editors see a flawed early draft.”

Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea featured Farouk, a Syrian refugee, and he foregrounded Travellers in All We Shall Know. Strange Flowers features another outsider who faces discrimination, Alex, a black Englishman. Ryan avoids the N-word but other hurtful terms of abuse are included. Was it a dilemma how to portray racism both realistically and sensitively?

“You have to be careful and respect other people’s feelings,” says Ryan, “but I don’t think we should shy away from portraying racist people. I think it is important for us to recognise it, just as Hans Fallada depicted Nazis in Alone in Berlin.”

His publisher commissioned a sensitivity reader, and certain changes were made as a result. Alex is undoubtedly an attractive character, whose career as a landscape gardener is surely symbolic, an immigrant literally reimagining, improving and embellishing our native land.

'This book was a pleasure to write. Even though those months spent writing the first draft are a blur, my impression is of being comforted daily by the unfolding story'

“I tried very hard to imagine what it might have been like for a black Englishman to come and live in a cottage on a hillside in north Tipperary in the 1970s and, because this novel’s milieu comprises for the most part the kinds of people that I know and love, I’m happy that I’ve got it as right as I can get it.

“I know from years of meeting and speaking to people from different backgrounds, and from my own life experience and that of friends and acquaintances, how ‘casual’ racism would have been present in the life of a man like Alex, and how he might have confronted it, or not. There’s a scene in the local bar and shop when he’s buying bread that’s based closely on a scene from real life.

“The village I base my fictional village on is the place I was born and reared, and a place I love: the people in it are for the most part composed of kindness and generosity and Alexander would definitely have been talked about, wondered about, joked about, but ultimately accepted and loved for the man that he was.”

Ryan’s work is very grounded in realism – he is a disciple of John McGahern – but there are powerful flights of characters’ imaginations too: Paddy dreaming of driving the car to Galway and on into the ocean; also of Christ on the cross talking to him; Kit imagining Moll’s homecoming. Were these a particular pleasure? A way of illuminating characters’ inner lives?

“This book was a pleasure to write. Even though those months spent writing the first draft are a blur, my impression is of being comforted daily by the unfolding story and the people in it. Paddy and Alexander and Barney are composites of my own father; Kit and Moll and Ellen definitely contain parts of people I love.”

Ryan has enjoyed a remarkable rise since his debut, The Spinning Heart, was plucked from the slush pile after countless rejections and won the Irish Book of the Year and Guardian First Book awards. Each subsequent book has featured on numerous prize lists, his most recent longlisted for the Booker and shortlisted for the Costa. The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December were successfully adapted for the stage, a sure sign that work is becoming canonical. December has now been adapted as an Irish-language film, Foscadh (Shelter), which is due for release later this year.

Donal Ryan: ‘Fiction has wonder as its propellant and sustenant; religion has strict unyielding belief.’ Photograph: Alan Place
Donal Ryan: ‘Fiction has wonder as its propellant and sustenant; religion has strict unyielding belief.’ Photograph: Alan Place

Writers who apparently have it all, literary acclaim and commercial success, are not universally appreciated. Ryan has been hurt by what he feels is uncalled-for criticism, while emphasising that other Irish writers’ support has boosted his career enormously.

“I mind my own writing business like all writers should. I never, ever throw shade at anyone else’s efforts. Life’s too short, the world’s too small. I’ve got one or two sneering reviews from fellow writers where it was obvious that they’d barely skimmed the books but were bitter about what they saw as my ‘success’. If only they knew. But what can you do? I try my best to get from one bit of life to the next without harming anyone. I know how blessed I am and it’d be a betrayal of my blessings if I was to go about denigrating anyone else’s work.”

There is a strong emotional streak in Ryan’s writing, similar to that of Sebastian Barry and Niall Williams. Anne Enright, praising his “unnoticeably beautiful” paragraphs and devastating social accuracy, says “his heart is always on show”. His character Alex lived his childhood “suffused in love”. Love permeates Ryan’s work too.

'Organised religion has caused too much suffering and devastation to be allowed to offer anyone templates for living'

“It was very nice of Anne to say that,” says the author. “I am emotional, yes. I’m usually good at keeping a rein on my emotions, though. Things spill over sometimes. I find myself getting upset now and then out of the blue, always when I’m alone, and usually while travelling. I had a bit of a cry in O’Hare airport in Chicago once, at the end of a book tour. I was really shocked at myself – I’m not a crier at all.

“I ducked into a Krispy Kreme or Donut Shack and this lady behind the counter said ‘You okay, honey?’ And I said I was fine, I had hay-fever. She looked at me and smiled and said ‘You don’t got no hay-fever, honey. Why don’t you sit down and I’ll bring you some breakfast.’ And she brought me over coffee and doughnuts and said nothing except ‘You’ll be okay.’ She was like an angel.”

Religion plays a big role in Strange Flowers, whose chapters are named after books in the Bible. Moll’s parents and Alex’s are both very religious. Josh takes a Bible story and makes it his own. Moll is the prodigal daughter and it is also acutely observed that Jesus was Mary’s prodigal Son of God. Ryan’s late father was a daily communicant and the author calls himself a semi-observant Catholic, who rejects the “mumbo-jumbo” but believes that the core of it is kindness.

“Organised religion has caused too much suffering and devastation to be allowed to offer anyone templates for living,” says Ryan. “But I consider myself a Christian in that I was raised in a Christian tradition and was told early on that the core tenet of Christianity was kindness. Love your neighbour and forgive, and you need do nothing else in order to call yourself a Christian. Jesus Christ had nothing to say about any of the things that the people who wield power and wealth in his name have obsessed about for two millennia.

“I’m all for secularism. Politics should never be informed by religious beliefs. I’ve never received anything but kindness from the church but I know the terrible damage that has been inflicted on people.”

Strange Flowers is like looking through a stained glass window at our puritanical past. “Moll Gladney was either pregnant or dead and it was hard to know which one of those was worse.” Paddy imagines his daughter at the altar on her wedding day “fat with sin”. There is also a powerful depiction of class distinctions in rural Ireland where Paddy is spoken down to by the son of the farmer he works for, treated like a herded, cowed animal. Ryan says that Ireland is belatedly waking up to what it means to be a proper republic.

“I often think of the Ireland we might have had if men like James Connolly had survived to lead us. Greed for power and wealth and control mightn’t have proliferated so readily and choked the potential for true greatness from our young country.

“I love the way Roddy Doyle confronted this in The Last Roundup trilogy: the church and the landowners closing ranks on the poor and sliding comfortably into the seat vacated by the empire. Henry Smart, the young rebel, is thanked for his service by a member of the new elite and told to basically f**k off back to the slum. We’re getting out from under that stratified system now, at last, but slowly.”

Ryan likens himself to the character in Michel Houellebecq’s Submission who says he is as political as a bath towel. If so, he uses it as a scourge to lash the rampant neoliberalism which he feels is destroying the country and society.

'Being told what to believe hobbles and ultimately kills the imagination. Fiction has wonder as its propellant and sustenant; religion has strict unyielding belief'

Creative fiction is an unnatural act, Ryan says, an attempt to impose narrative on senseless things. Is there an obvious parallel to organised religions and their origin stories and another in the notion of fiction’s point being an extension of empathy?

“I think a lot about the obvious syntheses between religion and storytelling,” Ryan says, “how religion is in its essence narrative, all the major belief systems being rooted in epic stories of creation and destruction, sin and redemption. But the attempt in fiction to feel what others feel, to describe the experience of another person, sets it above and apart from didactic tracts, prescriptive and proscriptive lists of how to behave and what to believe.

“Being told what to believe hobbles and ultimately kills the imagination. Fiction has wonder as its propellant and sustenant; religion has strict unyielding belief. Art can be anything its creator and its witness want it to be, but dogma narrows its adherents’ focus down to a singularity of blind obedience with the ultimate aim of having a happy afterlife. Live, live, while you can.”

Ryan’s next novel, based on a conversation in Crete with “an extremely unreliable source”, features the return of Mickey Briars from The Spinning Heart as a modern-day pirate in the Aegean Sea, ramming the boats of “the undeservedly wealthy” to rob them. Its title is taken from Anne-Marie’s affectionate nickname for Donal, The Nearly Man, on account of him having nearly won so many awards and being nearly six foot tall.

Ryan may not get any taller, but his reputation keeps growing.

Strange Flowers is published by Doubleday