I speak with Booker prize nominated author Donal Ryan about rejection, his “Recession novels” and his life-long romance with North Tipperary.
Upon writing his most famous work, Ulysses, James Joyce would spend hours piecing together an entire sentence in order to find “the perfect order of words”, while this idea may seem extreme, Tipperary-born award-winning author, Donal Ryan can relate to Joyce’s thinking.
“I was at it for years and I’d write words and words, but it was just all drivel really. It took years for me to approach a point where I could feel happy with one sentence”, says Ryan hinting at the complexity of the writing process. “I know it sounds very precious now, but that’s just the way it was. I’d write a short story and feel sick reading it back and put it away for long periods, but I’d always come back again”
Born and bred in North Tipperary, Donal earned a Law degree from the University of Limerick before working in the civil service, yet reading and writing was always a treasured passion of his, a passion he credits his parents for instilling in him.
“It was really as far back as I can remember. I always knew writing was something that I should do. Reading is the only way to become a writer. My parents’ house was always full of books and Christmas presents always consisted partially of books. There’s no other way to become a writer really”
While Donal’s parents planted the initial seeds which spawned his love of reading, it was Donal’s wife who encouraged him to stop talking about writing a book and to actually put pen to paper.
“My wife really could see that I had to write because in a way it was making me miserable not doing it- the fact that I was denying it and putting it away. She said just do it and at least then you can say you’ve done it”
With Donal’s two novel’s The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December, being rejected forty-seven times, Ryan never allowed this rejection to dishearten him, well aware that the world of publishing was a fickle one.
“Not at all. I’d asked all of these people and I’d fully expected the books to be rejected. Funnily enough I actually was accepted by the very first publisher I ever wrote to in Lilliput, it just so happens that there was a three year gap in me writing to Anthony and him reading it. I sent off four or five letters at a time to publishers and I fully expected nearly all of them to say know”
Ryan’s modest character is undoubtedly linked to his humble rural background and North Tipperary roots. These elements of his character shine through when he speaks of his surprise at The Spinning Heart’s success.“I didn’t think it would sell as well as it did. I expected low volume sales and low volume print runs. The fact that it was so well received was very satisfying”
However, it wasn’t just in sales that The Spinning Heart soared way above expectations. In 2013, the novel was placed on the Longlist of the esteemed Man Booker Prize, while also winning Irish Book of the Year and The Guardian First Book Award.
What makes The Spinning Heart such an inviting read is the fact that it is told from the point of view of 21 different characters living in a small rural community during Ireland’s recent recession. Donal’s reasoning behind choosing this narrative formation was more of a means of self-challenge than anything else.
“It had been in my head for years” says Ryan clearly obsessed with the art of writing. “I had this idea to write a novel in the polyphonic form. I wanted to see if I could do it and to see if I could construct a narrative from this device. It was going around in my head for a long time, not the actual subject matter, but the mechanics of it and how you would do it. I said to myself I better keep going because the sickness wasn’t there, the horrible nausea that I used to feel when I wrote wasn’t there, so I thought ok, this is a good place to be for a writer, but I had to still go on”
Both The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December deal with themes of debt, greed and rural society and although Donal didn’t intend for The Spinning Heart to become known as “The Recession Novel”, he says that it made for a nice “hook”. Ryan’s rule for writing novels is based very much on fellow Irish contemporary Colum McCann’s notion of “starting with what you know, but writing about what you don’t know”
“These books deal with people and situations and the speech patterns that I know. There are definitely parts of friends and family in the characters, but I think in some way every fictional character is an imitation of the writer’s experience. But I’ll write about things I don’t know. I don’t know how it feels to have lost a child or to be financially desperate. So it’s set in a village like the one I grew up in, the land I love. I love North Tipp and East Limerick”
For Donal one of the most horrific effects of the Recession on Irish society has been the mass exodus of young people through emigration.“Yeah I hate the thoughts of it to be honest with you but it’s very hard for a country like Ireland to avoid it. I hate to think guys like me- young guys heading off. There was a thing there during the boom where people would head off to America or Australia for a bit of a laugh, but now the tragedy of emigration is back full force and whole families have emigrated” says Ryan in his earthy Tipperary tones.
As our conversation comes to its expiration, Donal returns to the idea of rejection, believing that as long as you are writing you’re on the right track
“The chances are that you will be rejected by most publishers. The chances are is that they’ll say no first-hand. It’s very important to have your manuscript polished and be as good as it can be. My advice is to just write and to not think about it too much because when you aren’t engaged in the act of writing you’re not a writer”