Strolling into the Bord Gais Energy Irish book Awards last night, the first person I happened across was supernaturally gifted storyteller and awards magnet Donal Ryan (who went on to scoop the Writing.ie Short Story Of The Year award for A Slanting Of The Sun). We shook hands and had a good catch-up. Very kindly, he told me that my 2012 Sunday Independent interview was “still” his favourite piece of press. And that, gentle reader, is a bloody nice thing to hear from one of contemporary Irish fiction’s finest writers.
WERE I a rival author, I might consider slapping Donal Ryan on his clean-shaven face right about now. He’s telling me all about scooping the Sunday Independent Best Irish Newcomer gong at the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards and I’m starting to resent his shameless modesty.
“I just said to myself that being on the shortlist is brilliant but I haven’t a prayer of winning it,” he marvels. “I kept thinking that when the award is read out I can finally relax and enjoy the night. Then Madeleine [Keane, Sunday Independent Literary Editor] looked at me and said my name. My first thought was: ‘Jayzus, Madeleine’s said the wrong name! She’s after making an awful mess of it!’”
In a stout north Tipperary accent, Ryan goes on to tell me about his wife shaking him, as if from a dream, saying “Donal, you won, you won!” as he sat there agape. Just in case he wasn’t feeling enough of a fish out of water, he then got lost en route to the stage to collect his award “like an eejit”.
It’s no easier hearing his thoughts on then pipping writers such as, oh, only Edna O’Brien, John Banville and Tana French to the overall Bord Gais Energy Book Of The Year post last weekend. “I was on the awards website on Sunday night. We’d just watched Love/Hate and I checked to see what time they were announcing the Book of the Year. There it was. I just passed my wife the iPhone and said: ‘Will you read that out to me there because I think it says I’ve won but I’m not sure’!”
He can talk-up how much better he reckoned fellow newcomer nominees Mary Costello (“sublime”) or Cathleen McMahon (“brilliant”) were but the fact of the matter is these two awards have gone to a fitting home. His debut novel The Spinning Heart is staggeringly accomplished, both in style (penetrative chapter-by-chapter monologues) and the assuredness of its author’s voice. In dealing with the confessions of a group of villagers amidst the moral snakes and ladders of recession-ravaged middle-Ireland, it’s also soberingly pertinent.
The real culprits behind Ryan’s faltering self-belief, he agrees, are the some 47 publishers who rejected the finished manuscript. “I think I did an OK job of not taking rejection too personally. But every rejection does hurt a little bit. It knocks you a little bit, because for so many writers it never happens.”
It was only when Ryan was ushered into the Dublin offices of Lilliput Press that he really began to see his stars finally align. After a fruitful meeting in which he received glowing praise for the first time from people other than family and close friends, he sat in the car, phoned home and “got a bit emotional”.
There’s an intensity to Ryan. He speaks at a brisk pace, and will frown down at the table when praising Lenny Abrahamson, John Boyne or anyone else he has huge admiration for. Into this category falls the love of his life, Anne Marie, the person who gave him the boot in the backside required to spur him into keyboard-tapping action. “Oh yeah,” he nods sternly. “She said to me: ‘If you’re a writer and you’re writing a book, what are you doing watching television?’ I was shamed into it.”
The pair met in 2005 on a picket line in Limerick, of all places, during industrial strike action. But it was only on their second encounter a while afterwards that he got that old-fashioned feeling that told him they’d be married one day. His hunch was a prescient one, and two years later it came to pass.
Like his parents, who built an extension to their home to house their beloved books, Ryan and his wife are possibly the most bookish couple living in the Limerick suburb of Castleroy. They agree on most literature bar David Mitchell’s time-warping modern classic Cloud Atlas. The couple also co-authored two masterpieces in the form of four-year-old Thomas and three-year-old Lucy. While it’s great and all, parenthood is not for the feint-hearted, he insists.
“It’s all-consuming, really,” he puffs. “It’s a second full-time job when you come home. When Thomas was born, I was about three quarters the way through the first draft. All I could think about was Thomas and different things that could happen to him. Your anxiety can spike for no reason just while you’re sitting at a desk. I had to train myself to tune it out and not think about it.”
Along with his day job as a civil servant, writing is a good distraction from such self-conjured worries and it’s been this way for many years. His father (a driving instructor) always wrote verse, and as a schoolboy Ryan read beyond his level. His primary school years in St Joseph’s CBS, Nenagh saw him became “obsessed” with Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song while his burgeoning enthusiasm was buttressed by two teachers who he still credits to this day.
He picks up my copy of The Spinning Heart and runs a hand tenderly over its matted finish as if it’s fresh off the press. It stays there while he fills me in on his first novel, The Thing About December, due out next year. He meditates over the cover for a few seconds in silence. “I never had an image of myself as being anything except a writer,” he concludes. “Funny that.”