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'It felt like it was whispered to me every day': Donal Ryan on the unexpected genesis of his latest novel

The author’s sixth novel is about the life of four generations of a Tipperary family.

Donal Ryan
Donal Ryan
Image: Anne Marie Ryan

DONAL RYAN MIGHT be one of the country’s most beloved contemporary writers, but when it came to promoting his new novel The Queen of Dirt Island he needed a dose of sisterly advice. 

When The Journal asked him this week how it feels to have his latest work out in the world, he told us: “My sister said: ‘When you go on the radio talking about your books, you’re always slightly negative about them; it always sounds like you don’t quite like the book, you know? Just don’t do it this time, because I know you love this book’,” he laughs, as we sit under the gaze of a painting of Samuel Beckett in the back of Dublin’s Bestseller café (yes, you can guess the theme).

“I do actually [love it],” the Booker Prize-nominated author acknowledged of his sixth novel. “I feel real affection for it, because I wrote it fairly quick in a bit of a bind, because I had gone past deadline.”

It turned out that the Tipperary native had experienced something that’s not uncommon among authors – he had written a different novel, but realised at the end of the process that it just wasn’t working.

Part of the irony was that the book that didn’t work out was his longest yet. He doesn’t seem too bothered by what happened, or obsessed with all those hours and words potentially wasted. Because when he really stopped to listen, he heard the whisperings of The Queen of Dirt Island.

It’s advice he gives to his students in the University of Limerick (UL), where he’s a Creative Writing lecturer: listen. “And really, really listen out to your physiological response to what you’re doing. If what you’re doing doesn’t feel right, your body will tell you. Literally, it will manifest in your viscera, it will be literally visceral,” he said, pointing to his solar plexus.

I think that was happening to me. But I was pushing it away – no it’s not happening, it’s not happening.

He’s faced roadblocks before. Famously, he received 47 rejections before his debut novel The Spinning Heart was published in 2012 after being wrenched from the Lilliput Press slush pile. (He’d actually written The Thing About December first, which was published the year after and was recently adapted into the Irish language film Foscadh).

Ryan had already had it in his head to write a follow-up to the story of Josh and Honey, characters in his previous novel, Strange Flowers. The whisper started to tell him to go in that direction, but he didn’t end up making the pair (a young couple) the main characters.

Instead, an image appeared in his mind of his childhood home, a small bungalow in a Nenagh housing estate where the family lived until he was nine. “I just saw three women inside of it,” he said, “and eventually, four women.”

Dirt Island

Those fierce women became the focus of The Queen of Dirt Island: grandmother Mary Aylward (Nana), mother Eileen, daughter Saoirse and eventual granddaughter Pearl. The reader gets to spend almost the entire book in their company. We get to sit at the kitchen table with them as the smoke from Eileen’s cigarettes gathers above her and Nana, her mother-in-law, as they squabble and chat. We get to discover what Dirt Island is, and what it means to Eileen and her fractured family. Saoirse guides us through many of the chapters; we suffer losses when she does, our hearts swell and break when hers does.

The writing process was a quick one, partly out of necessity, partly because it just flowed. Ryan’s wife Anne Marie would tell him every evening, “Go on Donie – go upstairs, do your few pages”, a gentle way of impressing on him the urgency of it all. (Anne Marie, her husband’s first reader, felt the “rightness” of the book as much he did.)

“It almost felt like it was whispered to me every day,” is how Ryan describes the experience. It was as if the family took turns to speak into his ear. 

There was no huge drama involved, no huge toil. “It sounds silly, but it did feel as though it was gifted to me somehow,” said Ryan.

The Queen of Dirt Island_Jacket

He didn’t think to himself, “I’ll write a book about women”, but The Queen of Dirt Island does centre mainly on women. There are echoes of women he knows and loves in real life across it. “They are definitely a distillation of people I know and love,” he said of the characters.

In one scene, Saoirse looks through the door of the bookies where her mother works, witnessing how people in that situation saw her – strong and foreboding, owning her space. 

“I remember doing exactly that when my mother worked in a bookies when I was a kid, and seeing this whole new side to her, where she just seemed so different. She was wearing glasses, she had a fag in her hand, she was putting something up on a chalkboard. She was giving someone an order, and I could see men looking at her going, ‘okay Ann, we’ll just wait over here…’,” he laughs. “It was lovely. The book’s dedicated to my mum and there’s a lot of similarities between her and Eileen, but she’s definitely a fictional character as well.”

Vignettes from life

Most readers will recognise that the chapters are vignettes, distinct capturings of moments in the family’s life. What some might not realise is that each chapter has a one-word title and then 499 words of prose, making each vignette 500 words in total. The restraint helped keep Ryan on track, he said, giving him guardrails to work within. The modular approach was in part driven too by the urgency, but meant he couldn’t go off on tangents.

This approach was inspired by his students at UL, who are asked to write a flash fiction piece at the start of the college year (such pieces have very small word counts). He tried the technique, and it worked. Reading the book, it isn’t very apparent when Ryan had to pad something out, or add in an extra word – his writing style is not like the spare prose of someone like Sally Rooney; it’s full and lush like the emotions he imbues his narratives with. 

Ryan isn’t trying to make a statement about novel writing in taking this approach – it was just something he tried, and it worked. He feels more of an obligation towards language now because he is a lecturer, spending time educating students about proper sentence construction, and the “sacredness of language”.

Early on as a writer, he wrote by the seat of his pants, but diving deeper into the study of writing has made him deconstruct his own process, and this has helped his writing as a whole. It motivates him, makes him think more clearly. 

A few years ago, Ryan made headlines over returning to his civil service job after leaving it to write full time. He said afterwards that he was returning after a career break, but had realised during the break that the romanticisation of writing full-time just didn’t stack up to reality. There was a mortgage and bills to be paid, and for him the numbers didn’t add up.

It taught me I need a steady income, just for security. Some people thrive on that self-motivation of not having any idea of what will happen next month or whatever, but I just can’t do it.

He’d worked in part- or full-time jobs since he was 14, and not doing that felt “weird”. He knew too that he couldn’t always rely on the income from novel writing – what if the next novel didn’t go so well?

He became writer in residence at UL, and then went for a Creative Writing lecturer role when it came up. Author Joseph O’Connor, who is the chair of the course in UL, recognised that Ryan was nervous when he first entered the classroom (Ryan has a law degree but had never taught before). Gently, he started to nudge Ryan into the classroom, and he found himself teaching more and more. Now he teaches Masters students, including a course called the principles of storytelling. 

Whether lecturers should get involved in discussing themes, politics, the issues of the day – or just the cold, mechanics of the language – is something Ryan thinks about. “We walk a fine line, where we have to engage but then it can kind of take over because these things can become completely overbearing, people can be upset, debate can break out – and all of a sudden the writing is gone,” he said.

‘You have to escape yourself’

Ryan, Donal c. Anthony Woods (1)

He understands how discussion around literature can be heightened, how schisms seemed to have opened up between people in the scene. The topic of appropriation in literature, and who can write about certain experiences, is one that comes up when people discuss Ryan’s work as he has written characters from a variety of backgrounds that are different to his. He has written about a Syrian refugee, a Traveller youth, and an Eastern European labourer, for example. 

“A novelist’s fundamental job is to try to describe something about the world that will illuminate that thing, you know. You necessarily have to look out beyond yourself,” he told The Journal. “I suppose everything you write will be informed somehow by your own experience, your own prejudices, or your own hopes or ambitions or desires, or your own worldview.

“But still, you have to try to escape yourself for the time that you’re creating fiction I think. And you have to try and imagine what it’s like to be somebody else. And if you want to call it appropriation, that’s fine. But the word appropriation, it almost now has a stigma attached to it, that it’s automatically wrong. Sure what are you going to do? I’m a writer, of fiction.”

He recognises that some appropriation in literature can be “horrible”, and referenced Kit de Waal’s article for the Irish Times where she quoted another author saying “do not dip your pen in somebody else’s blood”.

“What she was saying was you have to have a deep respect for your fellow humans. If you’re telling a story that isn’t your story you have to have a deep respect for the person whose story it is or whose story it might be,” said Ryan. Years ago, he made a comment that he regrets when he described himself as a ‘lazy researcher’. It comes up again and again, he said, but what he didn’t mean was he doesn’t take the time to look into the situations of those he writes about. 

“What I meant was that I have to make myself, I have to force myself to be assiduous and to be thorough about it. To be sure I’m getting it right. You have to have respect.”

Danger makes the story compelling

The themes in The Queen of Dirt Island aren’t wildly dissimilar to those spread across his other works: family, love, shame, societal pressures (particularly on women), sexuality, Irishness and repression.

Ryan believes that nearly everybody is fundamentally decent, but that there can be an instinctual response that’s taught or nurtured because of where we come from historically. So it was no great reach to imagine how the women in the book would have been treated when they stepped outside of society’s boundaries. 

The family do experience some highs and very low lows across the course of the book. 

“Even though I know that nearly everybody is decent and kind, I tend to alight on the moments of meanness, because they generate that kind of excitement that you need, that frisson and edge, that bit of danger that makes the story compelling,” said Ryan.

He did ask himself – would all of these things happen to the family? Across the span of a book, the family can look like it’s had an out-of-scale experience of disasters. But over 30 years, he felt it worked. 

Ryan finds power in the ordinary, the human. Not quite the mundane, but the everyday experiences that make life an experience that can feel by turns invigorating and humbling. He writes characters that are down on their knees with shame, or who fight their way back after deep loss, or families who feel as real as our neighbours next door. 

But he knows there are many other stories out there too, not ones that need to be told by him, but the people who are living through them. He praises the independent publishing press Skein Press for its work in publishing excellent books by Melatu Uche Okorie, a Nigerian-born Irish writer who lived in Direct Provision for almost nine years, and Rosaleen McDonagh, a Traveller writer and playwright whose book Unsettled was a deeply felt exploration of her life and culture. 

During his previous job as a labour inspector for the Department of Enterprise, he witnessed parts of Ireland that others might not even know about: the people who are undocumented, the people in bonded labour.

“Imagine the stories that are there,” he said, reflecting on the voices we’re not currently hearing in Irish society. “I’m not saying fiction is going to be the big panacea of all this, but somehow we’ll hear those stories, someday we’ll hear these stories properly… But we won’t hear most of it.”

Ryan can’t talk too much about his next novel, but work has started on it already. He describes himself as having a “terminal lack of ambition”, but it feels like he’s undermining a bit where he is. When he talks about being so happy to “tick over and trundle along” during our chat, he’s referring to a significant body of critically and commercially well received books, many awards and a significant fan base.

But for Ryan, it’s all about the basics, about taking it book by book. And not even book by book.

“It really goes sentence by sentence,” he said. “If you look too far beyond the next paragraph, you’ll second guess yourself.”

The Queen of Dirt Island is published by Doubleday and is in bookshops now. 

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