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Behind the Fiction, Past
A Fiction Column

Q&A with Donal Ryan author of All We Shall Know

Interviewer: All We Shall Know is your third novel and fourth book of fiction. Your first two novels, The Spinning Heart, which won the Guardian First Book Award among other prizes, and The Thing About December, received great acclaim in Ireland in the UK. It’s safe to say, however, that you’re lesser known here in the US. What should American readers expect picking up All We Shall Know, as it most likely will be their introduction to your writing?

Donal Ryan: They can expect to encounter a very flawed and very self-aware narrator in Melody Shee, and to listen to her description of her atomised marriage, her seduction of a student, her betrayal of a childhood friend and her desperate struggle for redemption. Melody is pregnant by her young lover, and the book charts the weeks of her pregnancy. Melody lives in a small Irish town and the cadence of the characters’ speech, their colloquial concerns, their dark humour, are specific in form but universal in essence. We all live in small groups; we’re all villagers. I’ve seen Melody described by readers and critics as hateful, disgusting, irredeemable – personally, I love her, I think she’s a proper hero. Either way, her story seems to grip people tightly, and leave a strong impression. I try to write books I’d love to read myself, and I love books where the distance between me and the characters is reduced almost to nothing; where, as Marc Bolan so memorably put it in Spaceball Ricochet, “the writer talks to me like a friend.”


Interviewer: Even with all of the critical acclaim you’ve garnered over the last few years, you recently made headlines back home by returning to work full time in the civil service to pay the bills. It sounds romantic in the way that poet Wallace Stevens sold insurance his whole life while writing at night, but your decision seems entirely necessary and a practical. Would you mind talking a bit about the struggles of being a writer?

Donal Ryan: I’m afraid I kicked a big old hornet’s nest when I told a local paper I’d be returning to my job from a three-year sabbatical this coming April and the ‘story’ was picked up by national papers in Ireland and the UK. People seemed to think I was complaining, even though I actually said things like “I couldn’t be luckier”, “my life is great”, “I love my job”. Worse, people very kindly expressed sympathy, when I sought, and am deserving of, none. My point was, even having been paid comparatively large advances, I couldn’t take the risk at this point of resigning my job, as I have two young children and twenty more years of a mortgage to pay. Or maybe I could take the risk but I’m just not brave enough. Maybe next year I’ll sell a million books, maybe I’ll always be a sales-plodder, maybe my next three books will flop completely, maybe I’ll do a huge film deal. Whatever happens, I’ll write on, because I love being a writer. Even on sabbatical I’ve been working as a creative writing teacher in the Frank McCourt School of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick and so I’ve never been that strange and wondrous thing, a full-time writer. Nor can I ever imagine being one. I think I’d go mad. I write in the early morning and re-write in the late evening and that’s the way I’ve always done it. I do get a bit hermit-like and weird for the last-draft-dash: it’s only ever a few weeks but I take temporary leave of work and the world and I lock my office door and I stop answering the phone and I don’t shave and I drink a little too much and I eat junk and then when the book feels finished I emerge, pasty-faced and overweight and hungover, squinting against the light, and I apologise to my family and friends, and I get back to normal, whatever that is.


Interviewer: The journey to signing your first book deal was years in the making. Can you tell us how you first came to be published?

Donal Ryan: My wife did it. First of all she reminded me that I was a writer. A writer who didn’t write very much. A writer who was all talk and no words. When we first met I lived in an old apartment in a quiet suburb, and I was mostly alone except for a ghost who lived there too, and I was an administrator by day, a total walking cliché of frustrated artisthood, and I was excited about fiction and I was idealistic and brimming with ideas, and I had time and space and motivation to write, and every word I put on paper rang discordant in my ear. I burned short stories in the sink. I deleted whole novels. I was so bad, bad, bad at it. All my sentences made me feel physically sick. Then I met Anne Marie and she told me I actually wasn’t that bad at it, I just had to try harder and to look more kindly at my own work. Thank God for her. So I wrote a novel called The Thing About December to impress her and to show her there was more to my artistic pretensions than hot air and big ideas. She fell head over heels in love with the main character, a tongue-tied loner with a beautiful heart called Johnsey Cunliffe. Then she made me write a second novel, so I did—The Spinning Heart, a polyphonic work set in the same village ten years later as our infamous Celtic tiger became roadkill. Then she bought me a thing called The Writers’ and Artist’s Yearbook and insisted that I buy a printer and a wheelbarrow full of stamps and start sending manuscripts to every single agent and publisher listed therein, and I did, and most of them didn’t reply, and the ones that did all said no (except an agent in Indiana called Tracy Brennan) and finally, three years after I started out on my fool’s errand, I got a call from The Lilliput Press, a small but legendary independent press in Dublin, and they offered to publish my two novels, and they sold UK and commonwealth rights to Doubleday and US rights to Steerforth Press and foreign language rights all over the world and Anne Marie and I did not know what had hit us. It was, as Brian from The Spinning Heart would say, unreal craic.


Interviewer: From Jonathan Swift to James Joyce, Oscar Wilde to Samuel Beckett, Ireland has produced some of the most influential and stylistically distinct writers in the history of literature. Which Irish authors have influenced your storytelling?

Donal Ryan: I actually think they all have, inasmuch as we tend to unconsciously distil our reading lives into our writing lives. Not all influences are positive: I revered John McGahern to the point where I thought: there’s no point to this; everything I do has been done, better, by McGahern. I read Joyce’s Ulysses at 16 in an effort to impress my English teacher because I was in love with her, and this sentence has been ringing in my head ever since, and insinuating itself into the position of benchmark for each of my paltry lines: “On his wise shoulders through a checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.” Just look at it. Throwaway. Observational.

Unnecessary to plot (although this is Ulysses, where most things are unnecessary), vaguely sarcastic about the subject, yet breath-taking – literally, it winds me. But you have to do your best to leave your heroes behind and find your own voice. Ineluctable is this simple truth: to be a writer you first must read, and read, and read. Then you have to write and write and write. You have to hear all the other voices before you find your own. Kurt Vonnegut said it takes five years to find your own voice, to write your heroes out of your hand. It took me ten.


Interviewer: Do you admire any American authors—living or dead—who’ve informed your writing?

Donal Ryan: I’ve read every word Stephen King has ever written. I love his style; it seems so easy and conversational, casual, almost, while he’s winding these stories around you, suffocating you, drawing your body and soul into the pages. He is the king. I love Joseph Wambaugh also, especially The Choirboys. Flannery O’Connor and Alice Munro are two of my favourite short story writers. John Irving’s The World According to Garp seems to me to be exactly what a novel ought to be. My parents loved the mid-century Americans and our house was always full of Steinbeck and Hemingway and the later twentieths like Mailer and Bellow and Salinger and Updike. I read Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song far too young. He describes the blood on the laces of Gary Gilmore’s white prison-issue trainers after he’s executed by firing squad. I thought about that image for days; I became obsessed. I was deeply troubled by the image, by the fact of this thing, and intensely interested in idea that this man who lived thousands of miles away had written these words, and these words had formed a picture in my head that I couldn’t shake off, and the experience definitely informed my idea of myself as a writer. And thinking of Mailer I think of someone he punched: Gore Vidal, whose novel Kalki seemed to me to be the cleverest thing in the world, and hilarious.


Interviewer: All We Shall Know is told in the voice of Melody Shee, a reading and writing tutor, who, after an affair with a seventeen-year-old boy, chronicles her shocking pregnancy. Male authors writing in a female voice is often met with skepticism and criticism. But here, you paint a rather strikingly complex portrait of a brave, yet very flawed woman. Irish author Christine Dwyer Hickey praised the book by saying “…at last!—we have a man writing a woman’s point of view in a totally convincing and non-patronizing way.” Why did you decide to tell this particular story from the voice of Melody? What were the challenges in writing in a female voice?

Donal Ryan: When it comes to writing I charge head-first at everything and I never think about risk or the size or nature of the challenge before me. If I thought too much I’d think myself into chickening out. The way I see it, people like my brother John, who’s a policeman, risk their actual lives every working day. People protect their fellow citizens, fight fires, fight in wars, go on rescue missions, travel to the darkest and most dangerous reaches of this earth to help others. I sit in a nice chair hitting keys. I’m an artist in the free world: there’s no real risk for me, except of a bruised ego or a temporarily wounded heart. I feel like a real fraud when people say I was brave to write from a woman’s perspective. People will either feel it’s right or wrong. Fiction is an act of unreasonable empathy; a stretching of the notion of empathy beyond its natural tolerance; it’s also a series of guesses, some informed, some less so, some downright wild. That’s the beauty and the thrill and the (very slight) danger of it. And in a way it’s impossible to be wrong: as my father says, “Human beings are fit for anything.”


Interviewer: The father of Melody’s unborn child is Martin Toppy, a Traveller boy. For those who may be unfamiliar, can you describe Traveller culture and explain why you chose to write about this particular marginalized group?

Donal Ryan: Irish Travellers number around 30,000 in this country, but they have a substantial diaspora. They’re a nomadic people with a distinct language, Shelta, an English-based derivative dialect of which is still in use called Cant. Up until recently, official Ireland has pursued a policy of integration: it was commonly believed that Travellers were ‘set on the road’ during the Great Famine, having been cast from their smallholdings and labourers’ cottages. Recent research shows their origins are pre-Celtic, that they may be ‘the original Irish’ and that they travelled the roads long long before the famine. Unfortunately, we’ve always been afflicted with strict stratification of ‘classes’ in Ireland—we hadn’t the wit or the vision or the strength or the will as a young nation to stamp on the idea, to break the hegemony of so-called ‘middle-class respectability’ propagated and perpetuated by the clergy and ‘the professions’. Travellers came to be seen as a type of underclass, a problem to be solved. Fortunately they’ve very recently been recognised officially as an ethnic minority. Travellers tend to marry young, to have large families, and to be deeply spiritual. Traveller society is riven with strife: their life expectancy is far blow the national median, their suicide rate is terrifyingly high, and their relationship with the settled community is often fractious. Things are changing, though, and conversations are starting, and we’re starting to appreciate them again. My mother tells me how the tinker man was warmly welcomed to her father’s farm, not just because of his expertise as a tinsmith and a horse-whisperer, but because of the invisible cloak of magic that swathed him and his family, their otherworldliness, the presumption that these people were literally of the earth, and could harness its unknowable powers for good or ill. Time and societal change and impaired national memory left the tinker behind and forced him from the road. I based the character of Martin Toppy on a Traveller I worked with in a factory over twenty years ago and the character of Mary Crothery on a Traveller girl I once kind of knew, who told me she’d been cast out from her family: she still lived in their compound in a local halting site, but, she said, “there’s none of them talking to me.” I gathered this had something to do with a broken marriage or engagement, some kind of unrealised collateral, and that she was (figuratively, I hope, though I’m not sure) “after causing murder.”


Interviewer: Although set in present day, All We Shall Know recalls the great tragedies of Shakespeare—the warring factions within the Traveller community brings to mind the Capulets and Montagues in Romeo & Juliet. Do you see All We Shall Know as a tragedy?

Donal Ryan: I suppose it could be put in that literary category, although I’m always a bit suspicious of categories! I suppose it contains some of the elements of a tragedy in the Shakespearian sense: a flawed hero, a downfall – although Melody’s heroic nature isn’t evident until the end and her downfalls have happened before we arrive in the story, so maybe it’s an inverted tragedy. I hadn’t consciously considered the Montagues and Capulets when writing about the warring families, but they must have been somewhere in my mind. I remember reading the play in class, and trying so hard not to cry when Mercutio died. Crying over a play would have been a seriously bad move in my school. It affected me far more intensely than the ending, I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe because he was such a loyal friend to Romeo, and such a joker. I joked my way through school. Mercutio is even a smartass in his terminal moment: “Ask for me tomorrow and you’ll find me a grave man.” Not a great joke, admittedly, but still, what a character.


Interviewer: What do you want people to take away from reading All We Shall Know?

Donal Ryan: One of the core ideas for me that I tried to express when writing that novel was that our actions often belie our natures. At first look Melody is an horrendous human being. She’s wilfully destroyed her husband’s spirit; she’s seduced a boy half her age; she’s betrayed her dearest friend; she’s neglected her loving father. But she’s aware of her faults and the terrible mistakes she’s made, she’s open and insightful and, somehow, very empathetic. She knows how to be good, how easy it is to fail in that endeavour, she knows how love works and she knows too well the fragile mechanics of human connection, how easy it is to let things get broken. She knows that the single most important thing a person can do is be kind.

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