A Conversation with Donal Ryan

Donal Ryan on how his writing has evolved since being published and the inspiration behind his latest novel, All We Shall Know

All your novels and most of your short stories are set in the landscape of your life - North Tipperary, Nenagh, the Limerick area - and the language of your work and your characters are deeply imbued with a sense of place. Do you believe that the universal can be found in the local?

We all live in small groups, in various forms of villages, and the mechanics of human connection are universal. The multitudes of prisms through which we experience existence, like culture, dogma, class, distort things to a degree, but we all of us share common motivations and impulses, to love and be loved, to survive, to propagate, to find meaning for ourselves. These existential struggles vary in quality and difficulty and outcome from human to human and that's where all stories are drawn from, our picking of step, our wrong-footed mishaps, our traumas and accidental joys.

The place I'm from, as well as being very beautiful, is as good and as flawed and as perfect as any place on Earth to set my stories. And while I love learning, I hate doing research for fiction - I get bogged down in it and frustrated by it - so it's easier to rely on the language and lexicon and landscape of my native place for inspiration, for raw material, and verisimilitude.

Your first two novels were written in quick succession before you found a publisher. How different was the experience of writing All We Shall Know, with the acclaim those first novels had received, and of course deadlines to work to? Do you feel that a heavier weight of expectation affected your writing?

I'd never written to a deadline before, or written into expectation. The Thing About December and The Spinning Heart were like kind, understanding friends, full of welcome for me, and warm accommodation. I could leave them and come back to them and make anything I wanted of them.

No one knew about them except my wife, Anne Marie, and she loved them, and that seemed enough. I was only writing them to impress her. I have no real ambition in life outside of impressing Anne Marie. I'm not sure if my changed circumstances affected my approach to the short story collection A Slanting of the Sun or this novel, but myriad forces act on us all the time that we're not necessarily aware of, and we're directed and coaxed and motivated unwittingly, and so maybe they'd have been wildly different works if I'd still been writing for an audience of one. I like to believe otherwise, though.

Donal Ryan Q&A

I was a pregnant, lonely, regretful, sexually frustrated woman for a few hours every day in my office in the University of Limerick

What was it like writing a novel from a female perspective?

It didn't feel any different to writing from Bobby Mahon's perspective, or Johnsey Cunliffe's. It was as easy and as hard. Writing fiction is an act of almost unreasonable empathy, and empathy is always an attempt; no one can be sure if they've successfully felt how another person feels.

I tend to become fully immersed in the characters I write, to become them for the time they're coming to life for me, especially towards the end, and so I was a pregnant, lonely, regretful, sexually frustrated woman for a few hours every day in my office in the University of Limerick while finishing that novel.

Lily from The Spinning Heart is one of my favourite characters. She came to me fully-formed and wrote herself. There was no effort on my part and she's in print exactly as she was written in a few hours on a Saturday morning in the spring of 2010. There's no difference in treatment or approach, no extra care is taken.

My mother explained sexism to me when I was very young. I was appalled. All the women in my life did all the same things that the men did; the distinction seemed only aesthetic. Or, as I remember thinking, stupid.

Much of the novel is set amongst Irish Travellers; were you keen to give a fully rounded portrait of this much-misunderstood community?

I didn't feel any obligation towards Travellers in the sense of having to emphasize their humanity, their importance to our sense of ourselves as a nation, their moral codes, their gloriously unyielding, sometimes mad, worldview. People know what they know, or think they know, and nothing I do or say is going to change that very much.

I'm fascinated by Travellers, the sound and the swagger of them, the outward toughness and the sense of defiance, of struggle to just be allowed to exist as a people. I'm shocked at their terribly disproportionate rate of suicide and accidental death, the struggles some of them face. We're all of us children of one distant mother but still I'm only guessing when I write about them, trying to stretch that unreasonable empathy as far as it'll go.

I've known loads of Travellers and never really known any. But Martin Toppy and Mary Crothery felt real and right, and came easily to the page, and I loved them.

One of the most memorable characters in the novel is the young Traveller Mary Crothery. How significant is she for Melody?

Mary is very vaguely based on a Traveller girl who used to sometimes come over and talk to me and my friends when they rented a house near the halting site where she lived. She never told us much about herself, but she seemed to like our company, and she was, unusually for a young Traveller girl, always alone.

She was in her late teens or early twenties, old to be unattached for a Traveller girl, and she let slip once or twice that she was in disgrace, nobody would talk to her, that she'd done or been part of something terrible. There seemed to have been a broken deal; she was one side of a bargain unkept. I sensed, but maybe I'm totally wrong, that a marriage had been arranged that hadn't gone ahead or hadn't worked out, and she was back at home, living in shame.

She was very pretty, and very funny, and she couldn't understand how we were all in our twenties and none of us were married. After a few months she disappeared and we never saw her again. I hope she's happy, wherever she is, and that whatever shaming decree was cast has been lifted. In the novel, Mary becomes very important very quickly for Melody. She seems to represent a chance at redemption, at a start towards forgiveness of herself for her abandonment of Breedie. She's a way out of loneliness as well, she's colour and life and fun, even in her liminal, straitened existence. Mary Crothery in some ways is the heart of the novel.

Mary also provides much of the book's humour; how important for you is humour in your writing? 

I think it often rises naturally from the way language is used in the places my fiction is set, and the way the people I write about communicate. We retained the syntax and inversions and tendency towards high drama and obfuscation and hyperbole of the Irish language in rural Ireland, and overlaid it to spectacular effect on our English. We speak in stories, and we play and joke and exaggerate and lie in nearly every sentence, and it's beautiful and sometimes frustrating and often unintentionally hilarious way of connecting with other people.

Melody seems to define herself through the past and present relationships - with Mary, her husband Pat, her father, her unborn baby, Martin Toppy, her late mother, her school friend Breedie. Do you think, by the end of the novel, she has broken free of this need, and can finally live on her own terms?

Melody seems at times to have no idea who she is, as trite as that sounds, but to be involved in a kind of ongoing revelatory process. She says at one point, "Oh, me, oh cruel, cruel, me, I never knew myself. Tomorrow, I'll have forgotten myself again."

She needs to experience certain things to get a grasp of her own identity: she forgets the extent of her tenderness towards her father and her ability to subvert her sense of duty until she sees him trying to hide his pain from her; she only remembers the easy pleasure of close friendship when she meets Mary Crothery.

Melody has spent years in a purgatorial state, not allowing herself happiness, wilfully deconstructing her marriage and her life; she's almost triumphant when she finds out about Pat's wrongdoing. She does little to half her slide towards her brief, intense affair with Martin; it's as though she wants to burn in the heat of it.

I think she's allowed herself a measure of peace by the end, having inflicted near-terminal pain on herself. She shouldn't need to do this, but she feels an inexorability about events, that the mad confluence of violence and death and birth was 'Brailed in dots of light against the black' and that she's been offered a chance by the universe to expunge her guilt. I hope it's apparent that this is a happy ending for Melody, a hopeful one, that she's sure of the rightness of her actions, or as sure as anyone can ever be.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more