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Ir­ish lit­er­ary star Donal Ryan on his stun­ningly pow­er­ful 2018 novel, From A Low And Quiet Sea.


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.”


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.


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