Donal Ryan: ‘To be honest, the reason I became a writer was to impress my wife’

The bestselling author admits he is scared of dialogue, that he talks to himself like a nutcase when in character and that every novel is a failure as all art is an attempt

Donal Ryan: I waver between thinking “I’m shit” and “Fuck them all – I’m the greatest!” on a daily basis. Photograph: Anthony Woods

Donal Ryan: I waver between thinking “I’m shit” and “Fuck them all – I’m the greatest!” on a daily basis. Photograph: Anthony Woods

 

In All We Shall Know your protagonist Melody is involved in bullying and betraying her best friend and the repercussions, the shame and penance for this, is the spine of the novel. I heard you speaking at the Cork International Short Story Festival and bullying came up as a theme in your work. You mentioned you felt some guilt in relation to things you’d witnessed as a schoolboy. By exploring this theme in your work are you in some way working through your own penance?

It’s probably a wild extrapolation of my own guilt because I feel a little bit unhappy with myself. Recently, I’ve been having a recurring dream about school and the school itself. I really enjoyed school and most of my teachers were great but I definitely did chicken out at school. But it’s not just my story, it’s Melody’s intense need to expunge this guilt she had and I think what she does with Martin is a way of delving into shame. She knows she would feel ashamed of having an affair with this young lad – she uses him. There’s no sense of her saying “I’ve done this awful thing” more like “I’ve done this awful thing. Now I’ll do another one.”

She’s self-destructive isn’t she?

Yes, definitely.

And that usually stems from self-loathing.

Yes, that’s the reason that she can’t be happy with Pat. I’ve seen that kind of relationship over and over again. People who get together very young and stay together through thick and thin when they shouldn’t. They can’t leave. They love each other intensely but they absolutely hate each other as well. It’s awful.

This is done with great authenticity in the novel. I associate achieving that in a piece of writing with the subject matter being experienced by the writer or observed by them at close quarters. Exorcising personal demons or ventriloquising their trauma. What role do you think autobiography plays in your – or any writer’s – work?

If you look out far enough (maybe it’s because we live in this sphere) but if you look out far enough you end up looking back at yourself. Looking inwards. It goes to – you can never know somebody else for certain. Certitude is an illusion. You can only know yourself and even that’s pretty difficult at times. And you’ll always measure other people against yourself. You be shocked at someone’s behaviour because it’s something you wouldn’t do yourself. Or you can empathise. But writing can be narcissistic. You end up looking into the water all the time and seeing yourself and then metamorphosing yourself into other people.

There needs to be a spark, definitely, of experience, or of someone close to you, to get started. But you know the glib “write what you know”, it’s kind of bullshit because we don’t all of us have many interesting experiences so you can end up just writing the same experiences over and over again.

Which a lot of authors do – some great authors too. I think of actors, similarly, who just play themselves in every film – but we love them. We can love a writer and in fact because they give us that story. I think one of the reasons a reader hits on a writer is that we see ourselves or our experiences in the story. Now, this could say more about me, but the sections I felt of the novel I found the most beautiful and where the prose soared were the ones where Melody remembered the times she felt love for Pat. I found myself wondering, is that because “love” as subject matter deserves/demands beauty or was it because it’s an area where you excel as a writer? Your territory. It looked like someone had let you go, you had let yourself go, in those passages. You were going through this dark and intense experience with this couple and then you just opened a window or released yourself.

That’s exactly how it feels. Melody is emotionally intelligent and she can remember. She knows exactly what went before and why it went wrong but still she can’t make herself behave the ways she should.

I was driving back from somewhere and I had to pull over to the side of the road. Colm Tóibín was on the radio saying something like “Writers should stop being afraid of writing about their granny. They should plunder their family histories.” I definitely did that for Melody. Totally narcissistically, I thought, it refers to me and my own story – earlier, I could hear my granny talking in my right ear about vanity before I read in public.

It happens sometimes that you know you’ve got the feeling right. You’ve evoked it properly. I think that’s what we all aim for as writers. For the moment when you put on paper something that real. To put your own experience into words. And you know that when someone reads it they’ll feel what you felt.

It’s such a ridiculous pursuit in the first place. When people pose the question “What’s the point of fiction?” – it’s so hard to answer. Narrative itself is so natural. On a cellular level we need it. The world is composed of it. But then again it isn’t. Aidan Mathews puts it very well. He says: “Existence is incoherent and ridiculous and senseless but still we feel the need to make it…”

To put order in it.

Yes. I think you’d kind of go mad otherwise.

I love good openings. By the end of the first page, perhaps even the first paragraph, we’re right in the middle of an intense story and much of the story is set up. You mentioned Stephen King and he says it’s all down to the first line. Do you have the first line in your head as a starting point or does it come later in the editing process or is it more of an organic thing?

I love Stephen King – some people turn their nose up but I think he’s a genius. His book, On Writing, is brilliant. Openings come to me, usually when I’m out running. They literally come out of nowhere. I do like to have a strong opening.

There’s a book called The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna which I refer to obliquely in Melody Shee. I loved that book and what I admired most about it was this drip feed. You don’t get a full picture of the main character to the very end – exactly why he is who he is or what’s happened. The story is revealed so slowly and incrementally and there’s such tension in the book. So I thought – I’m going to try have the best of both worlds here. I’m going to set out what’s happened, where Melody’s at in her life, the position she’s in, what’s gone before, and then I’ll slowly reveal why she’s the person she is.

You’re never sure if it works. Every novel is a failure, really. What defines a successful novel? Everything in art is an attempt. That’s why it’s so disheartening when someone says “This novel failed or this novel doesn’t quite work” because no piece of art is perfect.

The dialogue in the novel stands out – what is said and not said. What is the secret to good dialogue?

I’m scared of dialogue. There are people who can write page after page of great dialogue but I have to keep it short. I literally have to hear it, try to remember conversations or one person’s voice because I’m so afraid of getting dialogue wrong.

When I’m writing I get into character. Talk around the house like a nutcase. Acting out. I think particularly in the first person narrative you create/become a character like an actor.

I feel with a first-person narrative that I’m almost cheating people because sometimes it’s so easy. I become so completely the person I’m writing about that I forget I’m myself. It’s really weird. And after it’s like waking from a semi-sleep. Like when you’re half asleep and you jolt awake. Happens to me all the time when I’m writing in the first person. And even with The Thing About December, it’s written in the close third person but it’s practically first person. I felt like that character. And he was horribly bullied.

I know I find myself getting very emotional at times when I was writing.

Do you think is some ways you still are that little boy in the book?

I think we all are that little child. We just get better at hiding it. Little boys in big man clothes. I think, though, that writing in the first person can hinder you too. I find I’m struggling finding the voice for my new work because I’ve written in the first person so much.

Yes, sometimes you think, should every narrator reveal themselves? Like “I’m telling you the story because… this is my connection to it.” I remember David Mitchell talking about The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – he got to the point where he was saying “Who the fuck is this narrator?” He imagined himself wearing a helmet and a series of differently-coloured tubes and each tube was plugged into a character, and the colour of each tube dictated the level of knowledge he allowed himself to have about each character.

I’m writing this book at the moment in the third person and I’m finding it really hard.

Your first novel The Spinning Heart is 21 different voices and now you’ve gone down to one.

Well, it was the first book published but not the first written, that came out after. When I tried the first person in The Spinning Heart I found it just wrote itself. I wasn’t skilful enough to come back to the voices in the novel so I thought “I’ll just write 21 of them and put them in a row and it’ll be grand”. That sounds like a very throwaway thing to say but it just felt right at the time.

So I started writing in the third person and now I’m going back to it.

I read that your first two novels between them were rejected 47 times. Mine was rejected once and I thought “Clearly I’m shit!”, was totally crushed and didn’t write for years. How did you keep the faith?

I waver between thinking “I’m shit” and “Fuck them all – I’m the greatest!” on a daily basis. My parents are real sensitive and they’re beautiful people but they laugh at adversity. Every rejection I got I’d go “Oh no, I’m a terrible writer” and then I’d say “Fuck them”. Then again it was my own fault because I was just sending my work to everyone – every publisher in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. I used the scattergun approach against all advice. I thought “You only live once, you have a short life”. The publishers expect you to send it to them and wait for a rejection before sending it to someone else. I thought “bullshit!”.

Was this about drive and ambition, this reaction to rejection?

It wasn’t ambition; it was stubbornness. I literally haven’t got a shred of ambition. I’d be happy with a regular job I did all day, have a laugh with my mates and get paid. That would do me. I don’t know why I’m a writer, it just seems to be this thing that happened. I used to go for promotions in work and hope I didn’t get it. I love working hard but I love having a clear end to my work.

So you have no idea why you became a writer?

To be honest, the reason I became a writer was to impress my wife. One of the few ambitions I’ve ever had in life was to impress Anne-Marie. She’s not easily impressed you know. I thought “If I write a book and she likes it…” because there was this book we both loved and I remember being really jealous of the author when I’d watch Anne-Marie read it and see the expressions on her face. So I wrote a book and I wrote it a certain way because I knew Anne-Marie would like it.

Now I know why with the love sections that I didn’t read those words, they floated off the page and went straight in here.

All We Shall Know is published by Doubleday, £12.99. Read Roy Foster’s Irish Times review. This is an edited version of a conversation that took place at the Cork International Short Story Festival where Donal Ryan was appearing. Paul McVeigh is the author of The Good Son.

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