Home Limerick People Interviews Interview – Donal Ryan

Interview – Donal Ryan

20 min read
When I read Donal Ryan’s The Thing About December I was
profoundly moved by his ability to capture the essence of the book’s
protagonist, Johnsey Cunliffe. An isolated, lonely man trapped in a rural
graveyard of ambition, Cunliffe’s story is one I defy any man not to identify
In some way I expected Ryan to be a larger than life
character, a gregarious storyteller in the true Irish sense. This was not the
case. Upon meeting Donal Ryan I was struck by the sense that the man is a
thinker. His quiet spoken, slightly shy demeanour hides his innate creative skill
that has seen him top bestseller lists, win Irish Book of the Year and see his debut novel longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Donal Ryan doesn’t strike you as the stereotypical
storyteller. If anything his inherent shyness is perhaps reflective of the
struggle with confidence that defined his early writing period. Confidence is
a word that Ryan touches on a number of times throughout the interview. This
issue of confidence, or lack thereof, perhaps can be forgiven when you take in
the fact that his first two novels were between them rejected 47 times before
finally seeing the light of day.
Writing has been a passion for Donal Ryan since early childhood.
Growing up in the rural town of Newtown in North Tipperary Ryan’s home was
one filled with the books that would inspire. An avid reader, Ryan’s inspiration
as writer came from the diversity of styles his parents seemed to curate.
“For some reason my parent’s filled the bookshelves with the
work of mid-twentieth century American writers”, he says. “The novels of Steinbeck,
Bellow and Hemingway captured me. I was particularly taken by the work of
Norman Mailer. At an early age I had a sense that he was a cool dude, a slugger
and someone I wanted to idolize”.
Ryan spent most of the past fifteen years working as a civil
servant. From a writing perspective he describes a lot of false starts down
through the years. That niggling lack of confidence in his own ability and a
fear of others not accepting or liking his work are some of the reasons he
attributes to a relative late arrival on the literary scene.
“This is the dichotomy that tears at the soul of all
writers. Writing is such a personal thing”, he says.
“You can’t allow yourself to be self indulgent. You must
keep part of your mind focused on your reader. The art of writing is intensely
personal. You create your art in a solitary environment and then you put it out into a world in which you have no control as to how it is interpreted, understood
or received. It is so easy for your confidence to just disappear”.
Donal with his wife Anne Marie 
Ryan admits he didn’t take writing seriously until he was in
his early thirties. He gives great credit to his wife Anne-Marie. Her encouragement and advice was what he needed when times were tough. It
was around this time he started to write The Thing About December.
“It was my wife Anne-Marie who kept me going. She liked that
character of Johnsey Cunliffe so much that it gave me the impetus to keep
going. It is her book”, he says.
Ryan’s work on some levels seems to use the death of the
Celtic Tiger, the skeletons it left behind and the mourning of ambition as the
backdrop for his work. However, Ryan denies that these themes are something
that he overly preoccupied by.
“The landscape of my native place is what I use
predominantly in my writing”, he notes. “My writing is set in contemporary
Ireland so themes like these are no doubt going to have some role to play. 
There is no way of avoiding it. It is going to become a theme of its own no
matter what you do. You can approach such themes in various ways. Look at the
work of Julian Gough who has used the theme of economy in his work to hilarious
and powerful effect”.
Julian Gough – an inspiration for Ryan’s work
In fact it is the work of Julian Gough that Ryan credits as
one of the reasons his is who he is today. His short story The Orphan and the
Mob won the biggest short story prize in the world in 2007 and had a profound
effect on Ryan’s output.  
“Gough went to my school in Tipperary”, Donal Ryan
remembers. “He was in the cult rock band Toaster Heretic and I viewed him as a
rock star both from a musical and a literature point of view. The fact that he
existed and could do such amazing things with words was a huge influence for me”.
The discovery of his own unique writer’s voice is something
that Ryan struggled with for many years.
“The whole idea of the writer’s voice is a sort of nebulus,
an ill-defined thing and something I found very hard to pin down”, he says.
“I discovered the landscape, language and lexicon of East
Limerick and North Tipperary were what I knew best. This released a flow to my
writing; gave me a voice. Colum McCann says of writing that you must start with
what you know and then write towards what you don’t know”.
Ryan notes how important it was for him to work with the
familiar. Most of his inspiration comes from listening to the conversations of
others. He sees a uniqueness to the Irish people communicate.
“Our language often is focussed on all the things we don’t
say”, he says. “Every sentence is often loaded. The way we use the English language
is perfect. I hate the phrase Hiberno-English. It is just this academic
confection of a concept. Irish people communicate almost universally in stories”.
‘The Thing about December’ was originally scheduled for
publication before ‘The Spinning Heart’. When Lilliput sold the rights of his
work to Random House they decided to inverse this schedule.
 “In hindsight this
was a good idea”, Ryan says. “There had been a lot of journalistic commentary
about the lack of fiction dealing directly with the economic crash. The
publishers saw a gap in the market with my work”.
Ryan admits a slight bias of affection towards The Thing
about December. It was a book was rejected on numerous occasions before finally
getting the nod for publication.
“The Spinning Heart was created out of a need to keep
momentum going”, he notes. “I felt that if I didn’t keep going I would lose the
impetus. In some ways that initial rejection got to me. I found it so hard to
believe in what I was doing and to see that there was merit to what I was
trying to achieve. The smallest negative thought can have a profound effect on
your dreams”.
The Thing About
is based very loosely on real life stories Ryan has encountered
down through the years. He describes the character of Johnsie Cunliffe as a
distillation of lots of beautiful souls, men whose voice you won’t hear that
“The thing that prevented me from writing for ten years was
the fact that I couldn’t find a story to tell”, Ryan tells me.
“There is something about the infinity of possibilities that
writing fiction offers that constricts your output. The limitlessness offered
by the fictional genre can actually end up causing paralysis for the writer. You
can find infinite stories and find infinite ways of telling those stories.
There is no end to the number of ways you can construct a sentence”.
It is this abundance of possibilities that ironically lead
to a fear of actually putting ink on the page.
“For many years this was what prevented my output”, he
remembers. “I would start telling a story and then question myself. I always
felt there must be a better way of saying something. Trust in myself was so
hard to find”.
Ryan has a deep love for Irish writing and believes solely
reading Irish literature could lead to a lifetime of fulfilment.
“People say there is a new ‘movement’ in Irish writing but I
don’t agree”, he says. “This suggests that contemporary Irish writers are all
working with the same theme which isn’t the case”.
Ryan has recently taken up the position of writer in
residence in the Arts Department of the University of Limerick as part of the
MA in Creative Writing course which is chaired by Joseph O’Connor. The position
has allowed him to encounter new young writers who have challenged his own way
of working.
“The fact that I am based at UL has allowed me to have a
productive structure to my day”, he says.
“I write in the mornings and then spend the afternoon
working with students. This process allows me to disconnect from my work. As I
discuss the writing process with students it allows me to discover flaws in my
own process. My productivity as a writer has trebled since I took up the residency.
I see it as a godsend”.
Despite having his roots in Tipperary, Donal Ryan has very
strong links to Limerick. Creative Limerick writers such as Gerry Stembridge, Kevin
Barry, Paul Lynch and Roisin Meaney are writer who have greatly influenced his
“They are all writers with fascinating stories to tell and
incredible ways of doing it”, he says.
“Frank McCourt is one of the reasons I’m a writer. I often
forget to credit his influence because the effect he had on the way I approach
writing was so profound it has almost become part of my make-up, and not
something I consciously think about”. 
Ryan believes Limerick’s bid for European Capital of Culture
is a unique opportunity for the region.
“For anyone who has an artistic mindset but has yet to
explore it fully I think the opportunity that the bid presents is endless”, he
“So many talented creatives feel the urge to drop their
talent in return for a ‘traditional job’. They feel they need to play safe. The
fact that a place like Limerick, a small city, a scrapper of a city, could win
such a prestigious bid would give such a boost not just to the city but the
vast number of talented creatives the city is now generating”.
Ryan speaks of a deep respect for the likes of theatre
producers such as Bottom Dog Theatre Company, a group who formed in the middle
of the economic downturn.
“They have sailed into stormy waters and stayed afloat. Only
recently we saw them take New York by storm with Myles Breen’s Language
Unbecoming a Lady”, he notes.
Ryan describes what he sees as an artistic sensibility that seems
to rise naturally from Limerick people.
 “There is a performance
in the everyday in Limerick. The smallest little thing can become a fascinating
drama. There is an addictive quality to the way Limerick people tell their stories,
a sense of fearlessness that goes back almost a thousand years. Limerick stood
against so many invaders and was never conquered. It says it all really”.

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  1. noelshine

    16th November 2015 at 10:47 pm

    Great piece Nigel, it is almost reassuring to know that someone as articulate as Donal Ryan has had/has confidence issues with regard to his gift. He is an inspiration to readers and writers alike. Long may he prosper.


  2. Ainna Fawcett-Henesy

    1st December 2016 at 2:10 pm

    Awesome interview, loved it!!


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