Getting to the heart of Donal Ryan’s village people
A new short story collection, ‘A Slanting of the Sun’, brings us back to the setting of his novels
Donal Ryan: “I spent 10 years thinking more than writing, and then thinking what I was writing. Deleting every sentence and writing it over and over again . . .” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
How do you know when you’ve made it as a writer? For Donal Ryan, who produced his first two novels, The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December, while he was working as an employment lawyer with the civil service, there was one unmistakable “aha” moment.
“I was in court in Galway, and the judge recognised me,” he recalls. “Which was great – but I was really embarrassed, because she made the whole court applaud me. I was sitting in with the prisoners because there was no room left on the solicitors’ benches. And she goes, ‘This is a Booker-nominated author and he’s number one in the country, and we’ll all give him a round of applause now’. There were criminals in handcuffs, clapping.”
Ryan chuckles at the memory of it. He’s very lucky, he adds. He’s on a three-year career break but if things don’t work out on the literary front, he can go back. “If I do, you know, it’s no tragedy. I loved the job. It was very enjoyable.”
His civil service colleagues probably shouldn’t be holding their breath. Ryan’s debut novel, The Spinning Heart, won the Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards 2012 and was longlisted for the Man Booker and the Guardian First Book awards. His second, The Thing About December, was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year.
Now he has a new book of short stories, A Slanting of the Sun. Why did he go for stories this time around? Was it hard to settle down to another novel with all the kerfuffle and publicity? “No, actually, because I started writing the stories while I was writing the second novel,” he says. “I was in this weird stew where I was writing two novels and short stories at the same time. Ridiculous, really – but it kind of worked for a while, so I stayed going with it, just to stay writing.”
Once he started to concentrate on stories, however, he found they became more difficult to write.
“It’s a sparse landscape out there. I tend to get this mad splurge of paragraphs, and have to rearrange them – rewrite them completely. They’re just more intense to write. In a novel you can wander off on mad tangents and hide behind your own prose at times – and still it can be okay if you leave it in.”
Panic and ‘blind luck’
Another feature of short stories is that they are often written to order – that is, commissioned. “When I’m commissioned to write something,” Ryan says, “I panic for hours and then realise that the only way to stop panicking is to do it and to do it really quickly – get it off my conscience. And when I get the first draft done I feel this intense relief, even though the first draft may bear no resemblance to the final draft.”
A Slanting of the Sun contains stories commissioned by BBC Radio 4, the University of Limerick’s literary journal the Ogham Stone, and – in the case of ‘Hanora Ryan, 1988’ – The Irish Times. “I got the email from Fintan O’Toole when I was in the gym – and I sat in the gym car park on my iPhone and sketched the outline of the story really quickly. I was in such a panic I couldn’t even go home.”
Given that Ryan’s novels have been relatively short – The Thing About December is just over 200 pages – and that The Spinning Heart is narrated by 21 different voices, is there really a huge difference, for him, between the writing of a story and the writing of a novel?
“The Spinning Heart definitely is episodic,” he says. “Everyone’s got their own story and they’re all linked by geography, really. It could be seen as linked short stories as much as a novel, I suppose. Some of them wouldn’t really stand alone, though – there’s be too many non sequiturs still afloat.”
And clearly, he had a lot of work to do to weave all those disparate voices into a coherent whole? “No.” Ryan shakes his head, laughing. “That was blind luck – literally. I said ‘I’m going to do a first draft of this novel, and I’m not going to read it back until it’s finished, and then I’ll go back and I’ll fill up the plot holes’. By pure luck, there weren’t too many.”
The process of turning out two novels and a story collection wasn’t, needless to say, as easy as that sounds. Ryan began his writing life at the kitchen table, with two small children in the house. As writer-in-residence at the University of Limerick, he now has an office on campus. But he still comes home every day, printouts in hand, for his wife Anne Marie to read. “Brandishing them – come on, you have to read these. She’s busy. She hasn’t got time. I say, ‘Please’. I’m like a child.”
Ryan’s literary world is one in which characters stroll on to the pages as if on to a stage or a screen. The dodgy bus driver Paddy Screwballs from The Thing About December returns here – sort of – in Meryl. Does Ryan have a three-dimensional place in his head where all these people live? “It’s a place around the size of Newport in Co Tipperary,” he says. “But it’s not quite Newport. It’s a mix of Newtown, where I’m from, and Portroe, and all those villages and towns of my childhood.”
So he sits in the village to see who comes out their front door, as it were? “Yeah, they tend to come all right – but I don’t tend to sit too long thinking,” he says, wryly. “I spent 10 years thinking more than writing, and then thinking what I was writing. Deleting every sentence and writing it over and over again. So thought was my enemy, really. Luckily they do tend to just start talking.”
They’re still talking in Ryan’s third novel, which he is just finishing off at the moment. “It’s set in the same village again. There’s no point in leaving now – it would be a kind of rash departure, I think. It’s about a teacher who has an affair with a young Traveller she’s teaching to read and write, and she gets pregnant. She and her husband have had a miscarriage in the past.”
The extraordinarily hard-working Ryan has also got a fourth novel on the go. “It’s about a refugee from somewhere like Libya,” he says. “It’s in polyphonic form again - in my notes, and in my head, it’s seven or eight linked stories or novellas.” For this writer, clearly, the story in all its forms still has plenty to say.
In the beginning . . . where do short stories start?
Donal Ryan says almost all his short stories have a seed – however tiny – in reality.
The title piece from his new collection, ‘A Slanting of the Sun’, gets under the surface of one of those violent rural crimes we hear so much about these days. “It occurred to me that if a gang of three or four guys go into a house intent on robbing the people in the house and committing violent acts, they’re not always going to be in the frame of mind to do it,” he says. “One or two of them will be coerced, or don’t feel they should be there.”
Sometimes the source is personal. ‘Tommy Moon’ was inspired by his wife’s uncle, Dan Murphy – “a perfect soul” – while ‘Long Puck’, about a priest under threat from Islamic State, began when he read an item in a newspaper.
The genesis of ‘Sky’ was a long evening outdoors with his father and brother, watching for meteors. “It was really enjoyable. And I remember thinking, ‘Imagine how lonely it would be if I was sitting here looking at the sky and I was an only child whose parents had passed away and I was middle aged and I had no real social outlet’. And then I thought how fond I am of my nephew Christopher, and how that relationship sometimes is underestimated: the grief you might feel for a nephew who has emigrated.”
A Slanting of the Sun is published by Doubleday Ireland