Wednesday 29 January 2020

Life lessons with Donal Ryan: 'I get really mad if I see a bad review, and I want to go and review that person's whole life'

Award-winning author Donal Ryan. Photograph: Fran Veale
Award-winning author Donal Ryan. Photograph: Fran Veale
Talent: Donal Ryan with Keelan Shanly at the Irish Book Awards last year. Photo: David Conachy.

Donal Ryan is an award-winning author from Nenagh, Co Tipperary. He worked as a civil servant with the Department of Enterprise for many years before his debut novel The Spinning Heart was published in 2011. He is writer in residence at the University of Limerick, and has just published his third novel, All We Shall Know, about a married woman who becomes pregnant after an affair with a 17-year-old Traveller. Donal (40) lives in Castletroy with his wife Anne-Marie and their children, Thomas (8) and Lucy (6).

My aim starting out was to make my writing as true to life as possible. People say it's bleak, but it never feels that way to me, to be honest. It's so weird, because when I write, I actually enjoy it, I have a great laugh and I think it's kind of funny, and then people read it and say: "Jesus Christ, I want to kill myself."

I don't think you ever create a character from scratch, because what would be the point? People always seem to look for themselves in protagonists, and they tend to divest the book of merit completely if they don't identify in some way with the hero, which I don't agree with. You can have these preposterous, horrendous creatures for heroes in books and it can still be a great book.

I was always reading as a child. My parents used to buy boxes and boxes of books, and they encouraged us to read anything we wanted, within reason. I remember reading John McGahern at a young age and being put off writing because of it - it just seemed so perfect.

When you are nominated for a literary prize, you desperately want to win. I think people can downplay their desire to win when they are nominated - I want to win everything, and I want every review to be five-star. I just want to have affirmation after affirmation, non-stop.

I read every review, absolutely everything. I set up Google Alerts, so if anybody mentions me, I get an alert. I'd just be lying if I said I didn't. I get really mad if I see a bad review, and I want to go and review that person's whole life - is that your house? Crap house, one star. Is that your wife? She's very ugly, zero stars. These are scenes in my head.

I feel like kind of an imposter, like I'm lying somehow when I say I'm a writer. I tend to say I work for the Department of Enterprise but I'm on a career break, and they ask what I'm doing and I say I'm writing, so it's a roundabout way. I'm working on my fifth book, so it's a bit ridiculous not to say it.

I don't have any rules about writing - when it stops, it stops. If you force it, it just feels wrong and contrived. In the mornings, I run to get things straight in my head. If I don't, I feel lazy and sluggish. Then I write in the late morning and early afternoon, meet students in the afternoon and edit in the evening. I keep that pattern over time.

Sometimes a story will go in a direction you never dreamed of and feel really right when you're finished. I remember sitting in my old apartment, chewing pencils and thinking: 'OK, what's the next word going to be? What's the next sentence going to look like?' I just let it come now and don't think about it too much. I try to stick to John Boyne's dictum that your unconscious mind should be one step ahead of your conscious mind, so that your sentence is on the page before you've even considered it.

The issues in rural Ireland are the same issues that people anywhere face. Of course, there is isolation and loneliness, and that fascinated me - the idea of somebody being almost completely alone and how they would cope with that. But that happens everywhere, it happens in New York as well as in north Tipperary.

Travellers are hated straight off the bat by a lot of people, a lot of the time. It's an awful thing to hate somebody who you don't know, but people see what they want to see. Writing Travellers was no effort for me at all. There were always Travellers near us in the town where I'm from. There's a halting site near where I live, they're part of the community.

Pretty much every Traveller I've ever met, I've really liked. But I wouldn't be stupid about it, I know the problems that exist in Traveller culture and I know the negative aspects of what it is to be a Traveller in Ireland.

Irish writing is being talked about to death at the moment. I've been asked, what does it mean to be an Irish writer? It means nothing to be an Irish writer, or an Australian writer, or an African writer, except that you're a writer from that place and you might write about the place you're from. What difference does it make really?

I'd be lost without Anne-Marie. We're together 12 years and married nine. She gives out to me for saying this, but if it weren't for her, I wouldn't have written any book, ever. She tends to shape the things I'm writing as well, I could spend a whole day writing and think: 'That's fantastic, I'm a brilliant writer.' And then I go home and I make her read what I've written - I literally make her stop what she's doing, I'm so selfish - and wait for her to react. There's a certain reaction I look for, and if I don't see it, then I know it's not right.

When you become a father, you have to grow up. You become less selfish. I spend a lot of my time in abject terror, just dreaming up ways my children could be harmed and what I'd do to mitigate these risks. It kind of wears off after a few years but it never fully goes away. You have less time to be yourself, which is a good thing really, because if you're too insular, you're going to end up just studying yourself. That would drive me mad.

'All We Shall Know', published by Doubleday Ireland at €16.99, is out now

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