THE RYAN LINE IS OPEN
Irish literary star Donal Ryan on his stunningly powerful 2018 novel, From A Low And Quiet Sea.
WAR IN SYRIA
2018 has been a hectic year for Donal. Apart from promoting his latest opus, he has been working full-time as a creative writing lecturer at the University of Limerick). And he has also just finished a new novel.
Those who haven’t been following his movements closely might be surprised. A few years back, Donal Ryan took a sabbatical from his day job in the civil service to focus on writing. He made front-page news in 2017, however, when he mentioned that he needed to go back to the day job to put food on the table.
“To be honest, it got blown out of proportion,” he says. “It was no big deal at all. I was never not going back. I was on a three-year sabbatical from my job at the time. I always was planning to go back. But somebody asked me, why was I going back? And I said, ‘To pay the mortgage’. It’s a kind of euphemism for life in general, for just day-today things. But it turned into a big fucking thing that I was broke or whatever. I was embarrassed really.
“I mean, there’s no way you can make enough money to live, raise two kids, and pay a mortgage from literary fiction – unless you’re very lucky. You need to win the literary lottery to be able to go full-time, I think. Unless you wanted to scrape around and eat free food at book launches and be hungry a lot, to be honest.”
When that furore settled, Donal was offered a lecturing gig at UL. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“I’ll be here until they drag me out of my office,” he jokes. “In my eighties, hopefully.”
As a result, Donal now enjoys the best of both worlds. His work involved thinking about literature. And he is also able to juggle his schedule in such a way that he can find the time to write. He always recommends to his students to try to put-in two or three hours of hard graft a day.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done more than three hours at the very max,” he says. “It’s enough for anyone. I was always pretty disciplined, when it came to writing. I wrote at night between nine and midnight. If you can find any three-hour block at all in the day – whether it’s six am to nine am, or in the evening, or for me now in the middle of the day when I’ve no lectures – I can get my five-hundred to a thousand words written and feel great.”
Increasingly, Donal finds himself going into a transcendent state when writing.
“It’s funny,” he ruminates, “I remember Mike McCormack saying when he wrote Solar Bones: ‘I’ve no memory of writing the book at all!’ I was thinking, ‘How’s that possible to have no memory of writing a book?!’ It’s a big thing to write a book.
“But, to be honest, the last few books I’ve written, I’ve no clear memory of any one day of writing them! They all took around a year really, but that’s including a couple of months of lead-in thinking time, you know? And then maybe eight or nine months of writing 1,000 words a day, or whatever. If I’ve written 500 words, I feel I’ve a done a good day’s work.”
In the achingly brilliant From A Low And Quiet Sea, Donal took on the theme of Syrian refugees. This is the first time he has written about anything other than rural Ireland.
“I came across a lot of them in my work as a labour inspector,” he explains. “In life as well, I met some Syrian families settled here. There’s so many wars around the world, but it got very close, and it became very real, because the coverage of the war in Syria was unremitting and very intense.”
THE IDEA OF THE UN
Speaking to people from Syria, Donal heard about the welcoming attitude that they’d always had towards refugees.
“In Syria, they would accept refugees from wars in countries around them,” he says, “and they’d re-name streets in towns to make their visitors/newcomers feel at home. They had this lovely way of looking at the world.”
That background shaped their expectations when – in the most appalling and tragic circumstances – their turn finally came.
“They had the expectation,” he elaborates, “that when they left Syria, because of the war, there would be no problem – that they’d be welcomed wherever they went, I suppose, because of the history they had of welcoming people.”
Not so, unfortunately. It was a newspaper story that sparked the idea for the novel.
“I read an article about somebody very like the doctor in my story,” he states, “who paid all the money he had, to get his wife and child into a trafficker’s boat. And it turns out that, halfway across, they realised it wasn’t manned! Imagine doing that?! Imagine sending loads of your fellow humans off in a boat, where they’re locked into a hold, off into the sea with no crew on the boat! And you take all the money off them, knowing the chances are that they’re going to die!
“Jesus Christ! It’s unbelievable,” he says, shaking his head at the utter madness of it.
“I got upset with the idea of the UN. What the hell is the UN for, if the UN can’t be a huge, mobilising force, who can actually go to Syria and stop this slaughter going on?
“I had thought that was what the UN was for,” he continues. “But it seems everybody’s got a veto: Putin’s got a veto and the US has a veto – and so nothing gets done. My contribution to it is puny and ridiculous, just to write a story about it – but maybe it’ll do something.”
The 42-year-old’s next novel is scheduled for release late next year.
“I haven’t started the hard slog of editing yet,” he reveals, “but it’s looming very close now. It’s called Strange Flowers.”
Just don’t try to get him to tell you what it’s all about. “No, I’ll say nothing, Jason, because I’ve gotten in deep shit with the publishers before for shooting my mouth off!” he concludes, laughing. “The publishers have given out to me in the past, even for revealing titles too soon. Maybe it’s no harm to actually have it out there. It’s down to come out next September.”
Here at Hot Press, we can’t wait. If it is as eloquent and moving as From A Low And Quiet Sea it is going to be another classic.
“BUT IT SEEMS EVERYBODY’S GOT A VETO: PUTIN’S GOT A VETO AND THE US HAS A VETO – AND SO NOTHING GETS DONE.”