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Donal Ryan: 'When I became aware of the darkness in the world, I was so shocked'

The Irish author speaks to us on the release of his new novel, Strange Flowers.

Image: Anthony Woods

“I’M STILL an idiot, basically. I never fully shrugged off my childhood innocence.”

Donal Ryan has a wry look on his newly-bearded face as he makes the above admission while we chat over Zoom. In the new era of interviews, it’s rare to get in the same room as an author. But as Ryan prepares to launch his new novel Strange Flowers (which is published today), he might as well be sitting across from me in real life as he thoughtfully reflects on how his awareness of the world has fed into his work.

The 43-year-old Ryan is a man who writes with empathy. It bleeds out of every word of his books. He places his characters – who are so fully-formed you suspect if you turned your head one of them would be strolling through the door into your living room – in the saddest of situations.

But he does this, he says, because he himself grew up with an innocence that made him think that the world is a perfectly happy place. The realisation that it isn’t shook him. 

In Strange Flowers, the Limerick-based, north Tipperary-born novelist brings us the story of a young woman named Moll Gladney. Growing up in rural north Tipperary with her parents, Moll has what appears to be a simple life. But one day, aged 20, she disappears.

The novel doesn’t centre on the question of whether she will reappear. She does. But on her return, she brings with her a whole new set of problems for her shell-shocked and innocent parents to deal with. 

Ryan explores the Ireland of the 1970s through what Moll and her parents Kit and Paddy experience as they work the land owned by rich neighbours. The slim novel belies its size by packing in a whole world of exploration of social class, gender, sexuality, race, parenthood, and religion. For all its scope, nothing is shoehorned in. It’s all naturally and gently explored. 

Dealing with grief

Strange Flowers has a strong seam of parental love running through it. This is something that was very raw for Ryan when he first began working on the book. 

“I started writing it shortly after my father died. He died very suddenly,” says the author. “My memory of the whole time is a bit fuzzy, because I was using it as a way of deflecting the shock of his sudden departure.” The pair were not just father and son, they were ”great pals”, and the elder Ryan’s death was “an awful shock”.

Ryan says he used writing “as a way of just not thinking about him for a few months”, and he wrote the first draft very quickly. “My only really clear memory is of the very last day of writing the first draft and writing the last thing,” he says. When he finished it, he could “feel my father’s presence around me – I could almost feel his approval, you know?” His father was there, reassuring him that he’d got it right. 

Ryan says he does his best writing when he lets the world around him “drop away”, leaving him closely connected to the page. “My worst writing is when I sit down and think and think and consider each sentence carefully and it just comes out stilted and forced, and it happens a lot when I write articles and essays and stuff that I’m asked to write,” he says. His natural world is the fictional one. 

That said, it’s his grip on reality that makes his work so remarkable. His love for his family, his grief over his father’s death, and his learning that life is difficult all come together in Strange Flowers. 

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“I was so shocked at the realisation in my teens that not every family had the same dynamic as mine,” he explains.  “I just assumed… Because, I mean, I went around as a child literally cocooned in a blanket of idiocy. Because I was so positive and so loved. I just thought that the world was this great happy place and everybody was lovely and every family was like mine. Because it seemed that way to me.

I lived in a small village. My friends all seemed happy. My parents always seemed to be laughing and smiling, and so did our neighbours, you know, it just seemed like a lovely place. When I started to become aware of the darkness in the world, I was so shocked … I didn’t think it existed somewhere outside the television.

Being open-hearted, he doesn’t berate himself for this learning. “I think it’s a good place for a writer to be, to be in a state of almost perpetual openness to shock, because it kind of makes you consider things deeply,” he says.

“It still happens to me all the time, I still come across things that people know, that people are familiar with and I’m not and I’m shocked to awareness. And then I think about that thing a lot and try to articulate something about it in fiction. I’m still an idiot, basically. I never fully shrugged off my childhood innocence.”

He says that it doesn’t take “a concerted effort” on his part to be open to other people’s experiences. 

We’re all trying to get through life without being too damaged, or causing damage. Of course things go horribly wrong. And I think that’s fertile ground then for fiction. 

Ryan loves happy books, but can’t write them. “I’m just drawn towards the darkness all the time, and towards sadness, because it exists. Life is full of joy and full of suffering and there’s no point in artists denying suffering.”

He’s been approached by readers at events, and told in very sincere terms how much they connected with his imagined events or characters. One man even wrote a letter saying one of Ryan’s novels had got him through a tough time. 

“Sometimes it really affects me and I really feel gratified, and I really feel almost vindicated that I’ve decided to dedicate my life to writing. Because it can mean so much to people to have a certain story told in a certain way, in a certain voice,” says Ryan.

He found in his own previous job as a labour inspector (he’s now teaching on the Creative Writing MA in University of Limerick) that for people, seeing their own emotional experience articulated “can be a really powerful thing”. 

The rural man

Ryan has written about many kinds of people – male, female, gay, straight, Irish, Syrian – but he particularly excels in writing about the rural Irish man. Often, these characters in his books struggle with their emotions and finding a way to pull them from deep inside themselves. They can be fighting intense battles internally, while wearing a placid expression on the outside.

“It’s kind of a cliché of the repressed rural Irish man,” says Ryan. “And it’s cliché because it’s true. Obviously, it’s kind of a ubiquitous state of being for men in rural Ireland, especially. I mean, you’re not going to go around wailing about your woes and crying at the top of a hat and hugging everybody.”

He laughs, but says there has been somewhat of a sea change in how men perceive themselves, “which is great, but still it is very hard”.

He also says that it is hard “to represent a man today because everyone’s so different”. And if you end up creating an archetype “you’re doing somebody an injustice somewhere, because we’re all so different”.

When I wrote Spinning Heart, all the male characters seem to be very in touch with their emotions but they are only in touch with their emotions internally there. 

The Spinning Heart (2012) was Ryan’s first novel. A chorus of voices from the same Limerick town during the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, it was famously rescued from the Lilliput Press slush pile by Sarah Davis-Goff, now of Tramp Press. Ryan’s story of being almost ignored but saved at the last moment, only to go on to become a national treasure, is motivation for any would-be writer. It tells us that, yes, the good will out. 

Telling people’s stories

Source: Kennys Bookshop/YouTube

Ryan finds much richness in how we all have different experiences. We can step into each other’s shoes, but can’t see through someone else’s eyes.

“That’s the problem with fiction. We only know for sure what happens inside ourselves. We can only guess really and our guesses are more or less informed, depending on the situation,” says Ryan. “So you’re kind of guessing all the time what it’d be like to be somebody else; what it might be like to be a certain person in a certain situation. And you can only hope you’re getting it some way right as the writer.” 

If you’re conjuring up fictional characters, however, you can run into the question of whether you should be telling a person’s story at all.

In Strange Flowers, one of the main characters, Alexander, is a black Londoner. “The whole idea of this guy, this black man from London coming to live in a village in north Tipperary would have been for most people this huge thing,” says Ryan of this character’s journey. In the novel, some of the locals are very suspicious of Alexander, and treat him accordingly.

The book was sent for a sensitivity read by the publishers.

“Because you know when you’re portraying different communities, it’s necessary because you don’t want to upset people,” says Ryan. While he was happy to do this, he’s less happy about the idea that he should only write about the aforementioned rural Irish male, given that it’s a world he knows so well. 

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“There’s a whole movement towards the idea that nobody should write outside of their own experience, which I utterly disagree with,” he says, “because it’s my job as a writer to write outside of my experience. Otherwise, I’d just be writing nonfiction or memoir for my whole career.”

He jokes that nobody would want to read about his married life in a semi-detached house in Limerick, as it would be “very boring”.

So he sees his job as a fiction writer to explore imagined worlds and stories, “and to try to tell those stories with empathy, sympathy and without going too far”.

“The thing is when you write about other people and places where you haven’t been, places where you haven’t lived and when you write about lives you haven’t lived, you need to get it right,” he concedes. “But I suppose no matter what you write, probably chances are somebody somewhere is going to be in disagreement with you, they’re going to say that you’re wrong; they’re going to say that you’re creating in an inaccurate way. It’s impossible to please everybody.”

We all create our own universe, by the way we observe the world around us. And fiction is the act of going beyond that. It’s kind of… it’s an obligation on us really, I think as writers of fiction – to go beyond ourselves and to push onwards into the world.

‘I’ve gained an understanding into being an outsider’

He calls himself a “reluctant traveller”, but Ryan has travelled and met people from all over the world, and this has informed his writing. It has also fed into his depiction of the outsider in his work.

Strange Flowers is populated with outsiders. To some extent, almost all of the main characters feel at some point to be outside of their own community. 

“I think I’ve really gained an understanding into how it is to be a complete outsider, from having a bit of that myself in life,” he says. “You know, feeling like I was a bit of an outsider at times. I can really understand how it would be for a man like Alexander in a place like north Tipperary at that time.” There’s one scene that’s drawn from real life, where Alexander goes to buy bread and a local ‘smartarse’ makes a racist comment about a Trócaire box.

2020 has seen Ireland reckon with many things – not least an ongoing global pandemic – and chief among them is its racism, be it overt or latent. The chilling way Alexander is treated, as though he was some sort of strange alien or animal, serves to highlight the way racist fear in a community can mark a man.

Strange Flowers not only reckons with this, but with the sexism and homophobia inherent in the Ireland of the 1970s. “Ireland still to this day is… we live in a stratified society, even though we had a kind of mobility there for a few years but it turned out to be very illusory,” says Ryan.

“But I mean at that time of the start of the book, the 70s in Ireland, people would have been completely entrenched and the likes of Paddy and Kit would have had their place in the village.” There’s a chilling scene where a younger character shows such contempt for Paddy it would leave a lump in your throat.

Parts of the book are influenced by people close to the author. The gardening scenes, for example, echo his own father’s green-fingered ability. “There’s a huge amount of my own father in Alexander,” says Ryan. “We all imbue our fictional characters with parts of people we love.”

Are there flashes of Donal Ryan in any of his characters? A bit, he admits somewhat sheepishly. “Last time I wrote a character who was close to myself was Lampy from A Low and Quiet Sea. And then I saw people reviewing the book going ‘Lampy is a little shit’; ‘there’s this horrible character called Lampy’. [But] he’s just a young guy who’s confused.”

Overall, it’s Ryan’s father who has left the greatest imprint on this novel, particularly in the parts that show the lengths a parent will go to for their child. As our chat draws to a close, Ryan recalls a moving moment when, on a car journey in the UK, out of the blue the strength of parental love hit home for him. It’s a moment that readers will notice replicated in an unusual fashion in the book.

“[I realised] if I went mad now and got out of this car and went on a bender for a week … and got totally lost somewhere here in rural southern England, and ended up in a ditch, my father would come and find me,” he recalls.

“Even though I’m a grown man in my forties, I felt that very strongly.

“I still have that feeling even though he’s gone. No matter where I am, he’ll come find me.”

Strange Flowers is out now. 

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