‘It is the characters who really take over’

The Spinning Heart author Donal Ryan on writing

ONE OF the most keenly anticipated readings at next month’s Cúirt International Festival of Literature is sure be that of Tipperary born author Donal Ryan.

Ryan’s two novels, The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December, have been showered with praise and awards, establishing him as one of the most impressive new voices in Irish fiction. His sudden literary fame has not altered his life except, ironically, in impeding his writing time, as he tells me over a lunchtime conversation.

“Nothing outside the books changed my life, I do the same job [Ryan works in the civil service], I live in the same place and do pretty much the same things every day,” he tells me. “I just have no time now really, I get invited to a lot of places and I hate to say no. I enjoy doing readings and going to festivals but my writing time is constricted so I’ll have to change something but I hate changing anything! I never imagined The Spinning Heart would take off so much. I never thought being a writer would take up this much time without actually writing.”

The Spinning Heart famously encountered 47 rejections from various publishers before finally being accepted and Ryan endured that cascade of ‘nays’ stoically.

“I fully expected to be rejected,” he says. “I was sending out manuscripts all over the place. Other writers get hundreds of rejections. You’ll try lots of agents and publishers and most of them will say no. Most books now are commissioned so I had no expectations at all. Therefore there was no huge disappointment involved.

“No-one was really saying it wasn’t good enough, they were just saying it was due to market forces. Commercial companies are obviously risk averse, they don’t want to lay out money publishing a book that might not succeed, it’s very hard selling a book.”

The Spinning Heart

Ryan’s love of literature started early, growing up in a bookish household where his parents often read to him.

“Roald Dahl was the first writer I loved,” he recalls. “I remember when my dad read Danny, Champion of the World to me over four nights I was completely drawn into it, I thought it was the greatest thing ever written. I still think it is one of the greatest children’s books ever, it makes you feel like part of a team, you and Danny and his dad, it’s amazing. Every sentence Roald Dahl wrote had magic in it. These days, I love reading to my own kids, it’s one of life’s great pleasures.”

The Spinning Heart features 21 voices describing the ruinous impact of the Celtic Tiger’s crash on a village community in Ryan’s native Tipperary. The characters are all vivid, believable, and moving, none more so than Bobby Mahon, a builder who has lost his job and is desperately trying to keep his life and marriage together.

“I had a jumble of characters in my head,” Ryan tells me of the book’s genesis. “I’d had the idea for years of writing a polyphonic novel, way back to the 1990s. It’s been described as a recession novel but it isn’t. I didn’t set out to chronicle the recession or the effects of it. I started off with the idea of setting a book in an apartment block, thinking it was an original idea but polyphony is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Bobby is an aggregation of all the decent men I know. He’s a strong, laconic guy, he’s almost a Christ-like figure in ways, he suffers.”

“I didn’t think much at all about the sequence of voices,” he continues. “I just really got lucky. For years I was trying to write a novel and it didn’t work because I was trying to over-think everything, I wrote and re-wrote every sentence and wore myself out. So this time around I decided I was just going to write it straight, with no planning at all, so I wrote the characters as they occurred to me.”

The immediacy of the voices and characters in The Spinning Heart made me think it could transfer successfully to the stage and Ryan reveals steps have been made in that direction.

“Noel Pearson asked me to adapt it for stage and I did so,” he says. “I reduced the cast to eight characters and changed some of the monologues to dialogues. I did a lot of work on it, we did a reading which went very well but I have had no contact since. These things take time. The TV rights have also been signed by Company Pictures, who made Downton Abbey, who are interested in making a four-part series.”

...December and beyond

Ryan’s second novel centres on the hapless yet compelling character of Johnsey Cunliffe, a self-confessed ‘gom’ who struggles through life in the face of bullying and belittlement from those around him.

“Johnsey was a peripheral character in a novel I wrote, it was a comedy but Johnsey was a sad character.” Ryan explains. “I set out to re-write that novel as a more serious work and I quickly realised Johnsey’s voice was so loud, and I could see him so clearly, that the book had to be about him. He took over my life for a year while I was writing it. I felt so strongly about that book that bad reviews pierced me, I worked so hard at it, it was the first thing I was ever happy with.”

Both of Ryan’s novels are set in the same small Tipperary village and he envisages that this will also be the location of his next works. “The next two novels in my head are both set in the same place. But it is the characters who really take over,” he says.

Speaking of new books, when might we hope to see a new Donal Ryan tome? “I literally have no time for writing at all, I’m grabbing an hour here or there so I am not that far ahead on my next novel,” he admits ruefully. “I’m making inroads on the drafts of two novels. I have written nine short stories that I am kind of happy with though they need to be edited really. I have agreed to have a short story collection ready for October so I will need to get down to serious work for the next few months.”

While waiting for October and his new short story collection, Galway audiences can look forward to seeing Donal Ryan at Cúirt. He reads, along with Anakana Schofield, on Friday April 11 at 6.30pm in the Town Hall Theatre.

Tickets are available from

the Town Hall on 091 - 569777

and www.tht.ie

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