Donal Ryan’s latest novel, The Thing About December examines a year in the life of Johnsey Cunliffe, a country boy who inherits the family farm while the Celtic Tiger infects a sense of greed across the Irish countryside. In Ryan’s first novel, The Spinning Heart, he explores the collapse of the Irish economy in a small village. He read both books at Community Boookstore in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and discussed his rise as an author of recession literature.
Ryan says that Bobby, from his first novel, is the guy he would like to be. Bobby is described by the other characters in the novel as laconic. Bobby’s chapter is the longest. The result, Ryan jokes is “either bad editing or stunning use of dramatic irony.” Ultimately, Bobby is an amalgamation of the guys from Ryan’s life who he admires. They all think he wrote a novel about them.
He says that when he writes his characters, he feels deeply for them. He gets himself emotionally involved with each one. “I cry very easily,” he admits.
The Spinning Heart was Booker nominated. At the time, Ryan did an interview where he explained he had been rejected many times — 47 to be exact. It created quite a stir, but Ryan says he dosn’t understand why. Writers are rejected all the time. In fact, he started writing that novel as a way of not thinking about being rejected. He kept himself busy writing.
He says his editor picked the manuscript at random from a pile. Publication was quite a coincidence for him.
Not everyone likes Ryan’s books. One of the early reviewers hated it. The guy hated it so much, he went to bookstores and told people not to buy Ryans book. He hated it so much, he tweeted about harassing bookstore patrons.
Ryan says reviews can bother him, especially those from readers on websites like GoodReads. “I want to review their whole life,” he says, in order to point out the mistakes they have made.
Each chapter of The Thing About December is a month of Jonhsey’s life, a stiff structure Ryan says is necessary to guide him in writing. That structure came to him first. Its important in maintaining pace, he explains, as he sees that is a major challenge. By restraining the narrative to month-long blocks, he has a kind of guide.
It started out as a different kind of novel. Through reworking it, he realized the book was about Johnsey, and he eventually made him the center of it.
The discussion eventually, inevitably it seems, turns to James Joyce. “I think I read Dubliners too early,” Ryan says. He adds that when he read Ulysses, he got to page 48 (in his edition), and had to stop because it was too beautiful. The line he cites begins: “on his wide shoulders through the checker-work of leaves, the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.” To him the image, the language, the sentence, seemed so effortlessly beautiful it would be impossible to match.
“I’d almost advise young writers, if they haven’t read Joyce–don’t.” He sees Joyce as a impossible measure to compare himself to, but having read the author, its impossible not to.
As the Celtic Tiger began to tire, Ryan says he actually became busier. For his day job, he works as a labor inspector. As the economy sputtered, employers began taking greater advantage of their employees, leading for more work for Ryan. That of course made it more difficult to write.
He decided to write a novel about an Irish village because that’s what he knew. The economic troubles arose and he’s become a kind of mascot of recession era literature quite by accident. Its a role he’s fine with having though.
As a writer, Ryan says, you end up working very hard to accomplish something very small.