Donal Ryan

Posted by Sue Leonard on Sunday 17th June 2018

Donal Ryan has absolutely no ambitions. Having studied as an engineer, then a lawyer, he became a civil servant. Happy in his job for twenty years, he only sought promotion twice, gaining it, and moving up a level, just once. And although he’s one of Ireland’s most highly acclaimed writers, he swears it’s reward enough to be simply writing good books.

“If my next book deal was for a run of 500 for each book, that would be fine,” he says. “Just as long as I could write the book I wanted to write.”

And since the overwhelming success of his 2013 debut – the Man Booker longlisted, The Spinning Heart, he has always been given that freedom.

He’s in Dublin to discuss his fourth novel, From a Low and Quiet Sea. Comprising four sections, it centres on three characters who, scarred by all they have lost, reach a kind of reckoning. Whilst the novel is set, mainly, in the rural Ireland that Donal is famous for portraying, the opening novella takes us to Syria.

A doctor, Farouk, realising he must take his wife and daughter to safety, pays over the odds, believing that excess money will ensure a safe crossing. But he discovers, too late, that the boat has no crew, and that the navigation equipment is chained to the ship’s wheel. Donal’s account of the journey – and of Farouk’s grief when his wife and daughter are lost at sea –  brings the reality of the refugee crisis more poignantly alive than any documentary or newspaper account.

It’s an astonishing piece of writing, and was sparked by a true account. But did it feel like a risk, taking on a subject so far outside his own experience?

“It’s really important to challenge yourself,” he says. “I’d hate to think I didn’t push myself to write – that I lazily wrote or stayed in a groove that was comfortable to me.

“Conflict was on my mind a lot. I was thinking how unnecessary they all are. My dad taught me to be kind and never to hurt anyone. He lived by it, and I am trying to live by that. It’s a kind of religion to me, a Christianity.

“I met a lot of Syrians in my old job, and people from that part of the world. They had fled conflicts and were trying to barely exist over here. And I met Syrians in Thurles when I read a story there.

“The town where these people were mostly from had a tradition of changing street names to make people from overseas feel at home. There was a real expectation that when they left Syria they’d be welcome everywhere. It’s what they had done. There was no question in their minds. I felt, through my writing, there was something I could do.”

The author returns to more familiar ground with his other two lead characters. We empathise with the young Lampy, a bus driver whose heart is clearly in the right place, but John, an old man who used his power as a lobbyist to destroy people is not in the least likeable. That section is written as a confession, in the first person.

“John flowed. There were no days when I felt I was writing against the grain, and I had those days with Farouk and Lampy.”

Whilst in general, Donal receives glowing reviews for his books – there have been some that he feels were unfair. And he finds himself getting hurt when they seem to be judging him, rather than his books.

He was more than a little bemused by all the press attention when he returned to work after a career break.

“I was never not going back,” he says, and goes on to describe a sabbatical he took between, finally, leaving the civil service to take up his post teaching creative writing on the MA programme at University College, Limerick.

“I had three months with nothing to do but write, and I couldn’t write at all. I lay down on my back in the garden and looked at the sky for hours every day. And I went running. It was beautiful, but then I was panicking. I thought, Jesus! I’ve been paid an advance for a book and I haven’t started. What is wrong with me?

“Then, when I got an office and had something to do outside my writing I felt this enormous relief. The nine to midnight slot was so ingrained. It was part of my life.”

He adores teaching, finding that talking to someone else about writing makes him consider things that he wouldn’t consciously consider.

“And when you start to talk about what they are and start to think of ways they can improve them, it definitely improves you as a writer. I love it! There is a huge spread of endeavour and genre and you have to put your own project aside so completely.”

It’s great talking to Donal – because there’s no pretence there – he says it like it is. He’s emotional, and his love for his wife Anne Marie comes shining through. He writes for her, and says that without her amazing editorial skills, he’d be lost.

“Anne Marie is great! I walk home with maybe 7 or 8 pages for her to read every evening. She diligently reads them, and advises me, and will say, ‘No, no, no! That is wrong.’ She has a great eye and a great heart and understands completely what I’m trying to say.”

Admitting that his dependence on her might not be fair, he recounts an anecdote about a writer who had an affair. His wife forgave him but refused to read his books anymore. The look of horror on Donal’s face at the thought of this ever happening to him is almost comical. Anne Marie, I suggest, has a lot of power.

He laughs.

“She has really. But it’s not like she wields it, or anything.”

Donal has always been praised for the authenticity of his language. And this is nowhere more present than the scenes showing Lampy’s grandfather Pop, as he practises anecdotes that will be used to tease and amuse people in the pub.

“The language was just there. It’s where I’m from. In every part of my life from school and my friends and my parents and my relations, all the encounters added to my sense of language being used in a very joyful way.

“There were stories being told in a way that made you weak with laughter, and very serious things being said in a jocular kind of teasing way. Every part of life was sold and couched in humour.”

Not everyone admires Donal’s language. He has, on occasion, been attacked by people who dislike the way he uses the c and f words.

“People worry too much about profanity and don’t worry enough about apostrophes and plurals. Language is in trouble. I saw a sign in a village recently and the sign said, ‘Your been watched.’ And this was a sign near a school.

“I felt like spending time with my screwdriver, taking the sign down and going to whoever wrote the sign to smash them over the head with it. There are kids reading the fucking sign,” he says, holding his head in his hands with despair. “Oh, God!”

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan is published by Doubleday: €13.99  Kindle: €9.11.

Published in The Irish Examiner on 26th May

© Sue Leonard. 2018

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