Eimear Ryan: ‘I thought that there was some trick to writing a novel’

Novelist Eimear Ryan. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

You wait years and years for a book deal, and then two come along at once. Eimear Ryan has been writing in one form or another for over 13 years. There are her award-winning short stories; her sports columns in the Irish Examiner newspaper; an attempt at a “midlands noir” novel in her 20s that was, she says, “not a good novel at all”; a stunning new one, Holding Her Breath, that most definitely is; a non-fiction book for young readers; and now a non-fiction work-in-progress (more on which later). She was only 21 when she had her first story published.

It turns out she has been writing for longer even than that – after we speak, I discover there is an article in The Irish Times “Teen Times” archive with her byline, from 15 years ago.

Since 2015, she’s been an editor and publisher too. She co-founded, co-edits and designs at Banshee Press which publishes the twice-yearly literary journal of the same name, as well as a small list of books. But it is only now, as writer-in-residence at University College Cork, that she feels “I finally have permission to just get up in the morning and start writing straight away which I never really had before. Because I was always working around a day job.”

When a great artist dies, there’s just so many layers, so many repercussions, so many people affected

Holding Her Breath does not feel like a debut novel; it shows the deft assurance of someone who has spent years training for this – immersed in words, building her writing muscle, honing her sentences, paring, refining, crafting. It started life as a collection of notes scrawled in 2013, partly inspired by the deaths of two artists she loved.

Seamus Heaney died on August 30th of that year. At the time, she was working in a bookshop “and everyone kind of stopped for a moment and acknowledged the passing of this giant. Everyone was coming in to buy his work, and everyone was talking about him”. She was struck by the collective experience of it, “this very cathartic moment”.

Just over five months later, American actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a drug overdose at the age of 46. Ryan remembers being hit by the idea “that there’s not going to be any more art from this person. In his 50s, 60s, and 70s is probably when he would have done his greatest work. And that’s not going to happen now.”

She realised she was mourning him as a fan, “and then you have people who knew him as a performer, and they’re mourning the artist, and then you have his family who are mourning on a completely different plane altogether. When a great artist dies, there’s just so many layers, so many repercussions, so many people affected.”

I thought there was some trick to writing a novel; that you had to put in all of these fancy structures and flourishes and things like that. And I realised it’s not really like that

The novel that emerged slowly, and later more certainly, from these notes and observations is a sparsely written, emotionally affecting coming of age story, featuring Beth Crowe, a student in her first year at university, whose life is overshadowed by two huge absences – that of her dead grandfather, the poet Ben Crowe who attracted Heaneyesque levels of devotion among students of his work and Plath-like quantities of speculation and romanticisation.

The second absence is of the ghost of her own swimming career, which saw her almost make it to the Olympics, before she suffered a breakdown.

The first draft was written in a less than a year. But ultimately, the process of drafting and redrafting took several years, a period that Ryan now sees as time well spent.

“I’m quite experienced at writing short stories, and I feel very confident in that form. But novels are still a big, scary beast to me, in some ways. I thought there was some trick to writing a novel; that you had to put in all of these fancy structures and flourishes and things like that. And I realised it’s not really like that. It’s exactly like writing a short story, it’s just a bigger beast, and you have to keep a lot more balls in the air. I was learning how to write a novel as I was writing. And that’s part of why it took a while.”

The setting and story arc are not unfamiliar; a student arrives in college, finds herself surrounded by apparently much more worldly people, and discovers that she has no idea who she is. Through the careful restraint of the writing, the subtlety with which she explores the themes about the public selves and intimate lives of artists, and the deftness with which she keeps those many balls in the air, however, it feels entirely fresh.

Eimear Ryan (fourth from left) as a student camogie player at the launch of the Purcell Cup and Shield 2007 tournaments with (from left) Triona Butler, Niamh Taylor, Linda Gohery, Mairead Dunne and Teresa Buckley. Photograph: Brian Lawless / Sportsfile
Eimear Ryan as a student camogie player in 2007. Photograph: Brian Lawless/Sportsfile

Ryan has represented her home county, Tipperary, in the All-Ireland senior camogie championship and now plays at senior club level with St Finbarr’s in Cork where she lives. Playing, she says, provides some much-needed balance to her day job. “Writing is so much in your head, and camogie is so spontaneous and physical. You’re operating in a much more instinctual space than the repetitive mental work of writing. If I’ve had a terrible day at the desk, and I know I’ve got training that night, I can go out and just let off steam and feel like a different person afterwards. It’s always a tonic.”

As she has grown older, she has appreciated that outlet much more. “I think when I was younger, I felt a lot of the pressures Beth felt. I was definitely at a point when I was around her age where I just had so much on my plate, and so much pressure, that I wasn’t enjoying the sport anymore. I completely fell out of love with it, which is a shame in retrospect, because it had been such a positive thing in my life.

“I took a year off, I went to America for a year after college, I didn’t play camogie and came back [with] a much healthier attitude. It’s play; it’s supposed to be enjoyable. So often we focus on other narratives of sports, and we lose sight of the fact that it’s a ball game.”

She is fascinated by the tension between competitive sport and sport for recreation, and the pressure that can bring to bear on young athletes, something that is topical with Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open, after which the tennis professional was pilloried for trying to protect her mental health by refusing to participate in post-match press conferences.

“You go into sport as a young person because you love it. And suddenly you have all of this pressure, and all of these expectations, and your relationship to the sport itself can kind of becomes very compromised,” says Ryan.

Of Osaka, she says: “My heart goes out to her. For athletes or for writers it’s not necessarily our wheelhouse to be able to kind of go out and be super articulate and interesting.”

I don’t like editing, because you’re just going back over your own sentences. Part of you is kind of proud of them. And part of you is very queasy

One of the things that helped Ryan to keep her own nerve during the period when the novel was slowly coming to life was, I suspect, that she possesses the deep wells of the resilience every athlete needs to develop. Yes, she concedes, writing can be as gruelling as sport. “It just takes so long, and you’re confronted with it day after day. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like editing either, because you’re just going back over your own sentences. Part of you is kind of proud of them. And part of you is very queasy.”

Another thing that gave her a boost of confidence was the publication of several of her short stories and essays, including in The Long Gaze Back edited by Sinéad Gleeson and in Winter Papers, the anthology published by Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith.

The final – not inconsiderable – factor that kept pushing her forward was that second book deal, for a non-fiction collection about camogie, which she landed before this one, as a result of that piece in Winter Papers. “That’s actually going to be my next book with Sandycove [her publisher] – a collection of essays about camogie and growing up as a woman in the GAA.”

Ryan frequently uses the word “lucky” to describe herself, which doesn’t do justice to the hard work and single-minded determination she has put in to getting here. But she really does consider herself fortunate with the timing of both her book deals, and the fact that her novel is coming out just as bookshops reopen. Now she can get to do some signings and outdoor readings, including at the Cork Midsummer Festival today.

“I think it’s all happened as it was meant to, looking back. I feel like I can really appreciate it now, because I have had so many ups and downs.”

Holding her Breath by Eimear Ryan is published by Sandycove