It’s a tale to warm the heart of every aspiring writer who has suffered the ignominy of being repeatedly ignored by publishers and agents. After 47 rejections, Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart was finally accepted when Lilliput Press picked up the manuscript and catapulted the unassuming Tipperary man to literary stardom. Written in 21 voices around a fractured post-Celtic Tiger Irish community, it was voted Irish Book of the Year in 2012, won the 2013 Guardian First Book Award, was longlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize and is currently shortlisted for the 2014 Dublin IMPAC Award. His second novel, The Thing About December is shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2014. Donal lives in Limerick with his wife and two children.
JG You’ve had quite a whirlwind couple of years since the publication of The Spinning Heart in 2012. You appear very grounded however. To what do you attribute that?
DR I’ve tried a few times to lose the run of myself, with no success. Anne Marie and my parents and family and friends keep my feet firmly on the ground. I think it’d be a betrayal of their pride in me if I started to get a big head. I have a friend who rings me regularly late at night and asks me to read him something I’ve written to send him to sleep.
JG You studied civil engineering at Limerick Institute of Technology and later completed a law degree at the University of Limerick through a night course. Were you always thinking at the back of your mind that you really wanted to be a writer?
DR Yes. It’s always been there, for as long as I can remember. I’ve only ever seen myself as a writer. Even though I burnt nearly everything I wrote because it was just so bad. I used it as a chat-up line in my younger days. It never really worked, funnily enough. I was always writing, starting things and losing heart. The first short story I can clearly remember writing described a re-match between Barry McGuigan and Steve Cruz. I loved Barry with all my heart and the night he lost his belt in the American desert heat I was inconsolable. My dad hugged me in the Irish early morning and said, “Don’t worry, love, there’ll be a re-match over here and Barry’ll win it back.” It never happened except in my copy-book. Gradually the notion of myself as a writer hardened into unassailable fact and became something to be actively ignored and almost resented instead of acted upon.
JG Who were your literary influences growing up?
DR It started with Roald Dahl. That perfect way of telling a story, of making you think it was just you he was talking to, of making your heart beat faster and your head spin with excitement. Danny, Champion of the World is the first book I fell in love with. In my teens I read everything: the classics, the Russians, the great Irish novelists and playwrights. I loved Roddy Doyle, Stephen King, Joseph Wambaugh, Irvine Welsh, Martin Amis, Iain Banks, with or without the M, pretty much everything that came my way. Our house was always crammed with books. Mid-century Americans abounded: Steinbeck, Bellow, Salinger, Mailer. Then I fell for the Irish poets and thought I was one. I read and read and read Yeats’ An Irish Airman Foresees his Death. The power and beauty of it. ‘The years to come seemed waste of breath/A waste of breath the years behind.’ I was a bit obsessed with it. The courage, the strangely compelling nihilism, the defiance. ‘My country is Kiltartan Cross/My countrymen Kitartan’s poor.’ I tried to write something like that and, of course, only caused myself despair.
JG The Thing About December’s main protagonist, Johnsey Cunliffe, is “a bit of a gom” by his own admission. He’s naive and unworldly and is bullied mercilessly by the “yahoos.” Was bullying a big problem when you were growing up in Tipperary? Did you get bullied?
DR I think everyone is bullied at some point, but I managed to mostly sidestep it as a child and as a teenager and to laugh my way out of things. I saw bullying first-hand, though, as every schoolboy does. I regret all the times I watched, or laughed, or did nothing to help. I’ve carried guilt about it for years. I’ve come across bullies in workplaces but I’ve always been well able for them. I like to think I can’t be bullied now at all, but then certain situations arise where pressure is ratcheted up and up and I’m not so sure.
I love Johnsey because he had a job to do and he did it well. I badly wanted things to be different for him, but there was no way to veer from his path. He represents all the silent men who struggle in this world, ignored, living without love. Every single sentence of the novel comes from Johnsey, even though it’s a third-person narrative. I dispensed completely with any stylistic notions in favour of raw, naked truth; an exposition of the soul of a lonely man. There are loads of Johnseys in fiction, but my guy is special. To me, at least. And my family!
JG Your prose makes wonderful use of metaphor and simile and has a poetic quality to it. Here’s a quote from The Thing About December: “Loneliness covers the earth like a blanket. It flows in the stream down through the Callows to the lake. It’s in the muck in the yard and the briars in the haggard and the empty outbuildings are bursting with it. It runs down the walls inside of the house like tears and grows on the walls outside like a poisonous choking weed[…] The air is thick with it[…] It has a smell, like the inside of a saucepan: scraped metal, cold and sharp. When it hits you, it feels like the rap of a hurl across your knuckles on a frosty winter’s morning in PE: sharp, shocking pain…” Have you written any poetry or do you read poetry? If so, which poet/s do you most admire?
DR I wrote poetry all through my teens and early twenties that really wasn’t fit for human consumption. It was awful, contrived, derivative stuff. My dad has secreted some of it in a box in their attic. It’s lying there, guarded by spiders. Or hopefully chewed by mice or disintegrated in dampness. God forbid it should ever escape into the world. I look at what people like Colm Keegan (Don’t Go There, Salmon Poetry) do and I’m filled with wonder and admiration. Colm’s poetry is just so suffused with compassion and beauty; people’s worlds and lives given perfectly formed expression. And when he performs his work it takes on a new, heightened form. I loved Kavanagh growing up, and Kinsella and Yeats. I allow myself the vanity of a feeling of a kind of kinship with people like Michael Hartnett and Denis O’Driscoll. Shane McGowan’s lyrics had a serious effect on me as well.
JG The book also has some great comic moments, especially when Johnsey ends up in hospital and meets fellow patients Mumbly Dave and nurse Siobhán, (aka The Lovely Voice) who lift Johnsey out of his loneliness when they befriend him. I found myself really warming to Mumbly Dave, but again he’s a tragic character. There’s something dark about Siobhán however. Where did her character come from?
DR Straight out of my head. I wanted Siobhán and Dave and Johnsey to represent a confluence of lonely souls. Even though she’s a bit wicked, I think Siobhán seems vulnerable; she feels threatened by Dave’s obvious love for Johnsey – she’s in her element when she’s fully in control. She plays them like marionettes when they’re blind and helpless and becomes angry with Dave when she starts to see him as a usurper of Johnsey’s affections. There’s a lot of ambiguity about Siobhán, her motivations and her true feelings for Johnsey: I wanted her to seem as lonely as the boys, as desperate for friendship, but feeling increasingly isolated and angry as they draw closer to one another.
JG Do you spend much time editing and re-drafting or are you one of those fortunate writers where the narrative just flows?
DR Things seem to flow most of the time. When it’s a terrible, painful grind I tend to give up, to drift inexorably toward the Internet. Some days I write up to 3,000 words. Mostly, though, I tend to write around 500-1000 words in a few hours and spend an hour or so editing that, so it’s unlikely any sentence is ever published as first written. Except Lily’s chapter in The Spinning Heart: Lily shouted at me from the ether and I just took it down.
JG I believe The Spinning Heart might be adapted for the stage? How is that progressing?
DR It’s not. The first read-through of my adaptation went really well but at the second read-through things fell apart for some reason. I wasn’t there so I can’t say exactly what happened. Company Pictures, who made Downton Abbey and Shameless have optioned the TV rights so hopefully that’ll go ahead.
JG What other projects are you currently working on?
DR I’m working on a short-story collection and have two novels to tackle once that’s finished. They’re all fairly clear in my head, thank God, so it’s just a matter of sitting down and writing.
JG Are you are still working full-time for the Civil Service. Do you think you will devote yourself to writing full-time anytime soon?
DR I just finished in my day-job a couple of weeks ago. I loved it, but life was getting too cluttered and crazy. Towards the end I was working sometimes 17 or 18 hours a day between everything and it wasn’t fair on anyone. But a few years ago, I had a perfect balance. My job was quite consuming and there was no space in my days for thinking about anything else. This was a good thing: I managed not to over-think my novels, to put myself off. Then I had my quiet three hours of writing from 9pm to midnight, and my routine was set in stone, strictly adhered to. I loved being out in the world or in the office every day, dealing with people, hopefully helping people, straightening things out. I’m still not sure if full-time writing is going to completely suit me, but I’m going to enjoy the finding out. I miss my job already, but there’s a lot more space in my head now.
JG I read somewhere about how you came up with the title for The Spinning Heart and how the memory plays tricks. Can you recall for us what it was?
DR My parents and my sister and I were having a picnic in a place called Urra, near Puckane in Tipperary. Mam sent us to the door of a cottage to ask for water for our kettle to boil with our camping stove. There was a gate there exactly as I describe in the book: a little heart at its centre was spinning in the breeze. I’ve been told that the arrangement wouldn’t work, that ‘skewered on a rotating hinge’ makes no engineering sense! Mary doesn’t recall the gate, but Mam says she does. I don’t know. I’m sure I saw it anyway. Memories are malleable, constantly morphing things, though.
JG What’s the best piece of advice you would give to our emerging writers at Listowel Writers’ Week?
DR Consider yourself a writer. Don’t denigrate your own efforts. Don’t say things like ‘I’m not really a writer.’ As soon as you sit down to write, you’re a writer. Be objective about your own work, be tough on yourself, but also be kind to yourself. Read as much as you can when you’re not writing. When you are writing, read only newspapers, if anything. Give yourself a minimum word count for each sitting, but if the reaching of it is causing you too much pain, stop. Some days aren’t for writing.
Donal Ryan will be in action alongside Billy Keane on Saturday 31st May 2014, 1.30pm at The Arms Hotel Ballroom. For more information or to book, please click here