‘I have spent the last several years contemplating what it might be like to be dead’
The narrator of The Middle Place by Kealan Ryan is dead, killed by a single punch, so at last he can be himself
Kealan Ryan: Almost daily I receive messages from people dealing with loss or pain, be it through similar circumstances in the book or otherwise.
Saturday night in Dublin and two men meet for the first and only time. There is an argument, a single punch is thrown which leaves one of them dead and the other’s life in ruins. It is an occurrence which is all too common in this country. Our empathy naturally falls on the people left behind to deal with the tragedy. But what of the dead man? What if he still had a voice? What would he say, think and feel? And what actually happens when we die?
At the age of 35, Chris had the best years of his life ahead of him. He had a wife he loved and a two-year-old son who gave him a purpose. That was all taken away from him in an instant; all that he had and all that could ever be. Now he’s stuck in a middle place trying to figure out the point of his own existence. He wants revenge on his killer but doesn’t know how to get it. He’s heartbroken, he’s lost. He’s also got the worst case of FOMO imaginable.
I have spent the last several years contemplating what it might be like to be dead. Which is strange because I’m a pretty optimistic guy; I’d want to be because I wrote a book thinking that one day it would get published. Thankfully the latter happened and not the former. Optimism paid off, even in the mind of a dead man.
Getting your first novel published is a strange and wonderful thing. When you start off writing you need to be naïve about the chances of your work ever seeing the light of day – otherwise you’d never start writing in the first place because for an unknown writer it’s virtually impossible to get published. At least it can feel that way. I love the quote by American novelist Richard Bach who said, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” For me that couldn’t be closer to the truth. Every successful writer, be it Ernest Hemingway or Stephen King, has had to deal with rejection letters. I’m sure even Shakespeare experienced that sinking feeling once or twice. It’s like a rite of passage which becomes completely worth it when the opposite call comes in.
For me that call came when I was driving a truck from Cork to Dublin. It wasn’t a cool truck, not one of those 18-wheelers which I always found so impressive because that’s what my Granddad drove for 30 years around America. He had said to me when I was a child that he loved Mondays because he could not wait to get in to work. I didn’t understand at the time that his reason for this was that he came from a generation in Ireland who could not gain employment. It is why he uprooted his young family to New York in the ’50s and why he never took for granted the blessing of a hard day’s work. As a youngster looking up at his monster machine, I thought he loved Mondays because he got to drive the most badass thing ever.
So, when a truck driving job presented itself for me, I took it. Even though mine was just a baby truck, I still felt like I was fulfilling something of a lifelong dream to follow in his footsteps. Only problem was, I still hated Mondays. That is until the Monday I received a phone call from Mercier Press. I pulled into the side of the motorway and listened to the people who had discovered a hero of mine, John B Keane, tell me that they wanted to publish my novel, The Middle Place. If it wasn’t for all the coffee in my system keeping me awake for the journey, I would have thought I was dreaming.
I packed in the truck driving shortly after that but I understand my Granddad more since; that idea of loving your work. He loved his because a job is all he wanted. I love mine because writing is all I want to do. I’m from a more privileged generation; we have the opportunity to pursue vocations. Now after decades of hating them, I love Mondays too. I’m writing this piece on a Monday and I’m smiling, that’s my name up above, printed in The Irish Times. If you told me a couple of years ago that this would happen it would have seemed unrealistic. Since being published, however, the unrealistic keeps occurring. I have Joeseph O’Connor endorsing my novel on its cover. I saw my book on the shelves for the first time sitting right beside Roddy Doyle’s. It’s like I’m hanging out in a room full of legends and nobody seems to be asking me to leave.
Sure, there are struggles which comes with this type of life. But who hasn’t got them? If you have a loving family then you are lucky. Chris had that; he was like me. He was like you. He was an everyday person doing his best to get by. When I first started writing about Chris, he was a way for me to explore the male psyche without any facade. Chris could be completely honest because he is dead. He has no reason to project any false version of himself so has taken off the different masks we wear and speaks his truth.
One reviewer said that The Middle Place is a heavy book disguised as a light-hearted one. If I was to be truthful to you now, I wrote it to be a source of entertainment, any weight behind it was accidental. Chris deals with his dire circumstance the same way I believe most Irish people handle theirs: with a sense of humour. Funerals can be great craic, even with the veil of pain which hangs over everything. It’s the Irish way; to laugh in the face of sorrow.
So, whether originally intended or not, given the subject matter perhaps it was inevitable that the story would go to some darker places and I’m glad it has. It’s led to perhaps the most rewarding aspects for me since this book has hit the shelves.
Almost daily I receive messages from people dealing with loss or pain, be it through similar circumstances in the book or otherwise. When writing the book, it never crossed my mind that this might happen but it’s a nice feeling when someone reaches out. Sometimes I’m not sure I say the right thing. I do know, however, that their contacting me shows that it’s good to talk about grief and all that comes with it. Chris does a lot of that. He didn’t stop to smell the roses enough when he had the chance – he should have.
Life is an open road with endless possibilities but often we are just focused on what’s ahead of us. Sometimes it’s nice to pull into the side of the motorway and live in the present. It can be pretty sweet. It may not always be as obvious a thing as a call from your dream publisher but it will be something good. So enjoy it, because tomorrow it could all be over.
The Middle Place by Kealan Ryan is published by Mercier