Fear and loathing of an author: Donal Ryan and Julian Gough discuss their craft

Duo discuss crisis of masculinity and the joys and torments of being a writer

Fear and loathing of an author: Donal Ryan and Julian Gough discuss their craft

Donal Ryan now happy to be an ‘adopted Limerickman’ having lived here since he was 17 Picture: Adrian Butler

A THREE-way literary intersection in Tipperary some decades ago is continuing to produce a bounty for Limerick, as the paths of authors Donal Ryan, Julian Gough and Michael Durack weave their own narrative.

Ryan, the acclaimed author of All We Shall Know, will soon vacate his post as writer-in-residence under the University of Limerick’s MA in creative writing, and return to his former day job in the civil service.

He will be replaced by Gough, who is currently packing up 10 years’ of possessions in Berlin as he prepares to make the move.

And then there’s Durack, another esteemed author, who taught them both in Nenagh CBS, when they dreamed of literary stardom and were “embarrassed” to put voice to their aspirations.

All three will appear on stage in the Belltable on O’Connell Street on Thursday, January 26, to discuss their respective work and the bonds that have formed them.

From the outset, there are staggering similarities, not least confined to attending the same school, or having the same teacher, or being from the same Tipperary literary backwater, which heretofore hasn’t produced many notable writers.

Gough said that he was laughed at by his guidance counsellor in school when he revealed his plans to be in both a band and write novels.

“She wouldn’t take it seriously or give me any advice, because she didn’t think that was real. You would literally be laughed at for saying you wanted to write a book by your teachers who were meant to be there to help you. There was no encouragement,” he told the Limerick Leader.

He has achieved both, though he laughed that he “couldn’t retire” off his one top 10 hit with the indie underground band Toasted Heretic.

“I was writing a terrible book, and word got out. People pointed at me on the street in Nenagh and said ‘There’s the fellow writing the book.’

“At that time no one in Nenagh had ever written a book. The only book I had ever heard of coming out of Tipperary was Knocknagow [published in 1879, and written by Charles Kickham]. We did have a really repressed culture. But you can’t keep repressing your emotions and not let it out somehow.”

Ryan too told this newspaper that there was “a fear, an element of embarrassment to it,” in coming out, so to speak, as a writer, after a decade of tearing up his own work in torment. 

“Maybe it's the Irish thing of ‘say nothing, give nothing away’, but for an Irish man of a certain age there is a fear of exposing something of yourself, through your work,” he told the Leader.

“No matter what you write, people will think it's your own story. People will say to [my wife] Anne-Marie 'Poor Donie got an awful time off the father when he was young, didn't he?’”

His work, from his collected short stories, to The Thing About December, and The Spinning Heart, and the most recent All We Shall Know, has been set in a no man’s land mindset somewhere between Limerick and Tipperary.

“The town I imagine in my head is kind of on the border with east Limerick and north Tipp, somewhere there before Castleconnell, but totally made up. There’s bits of Newport and Nenagh in it too, but it's closer to Limerick now,” he says of his forthcoming fifth work, due out in the Spring of 2018.

The nuances and complexities of the characters, coupled with the loneliness of rural life, is achingly familiar to anyone who grew up in a small village, outside of city life.

“I’m fascinated and horrified when I meet people who are sometimes completely alone,” says Ryan, 40, before he flew out to Paris this week to launch the French language version of The Thing about December.

“I wonder how does that work? What are the emotional mechanics of that situation, to be alone every single day? People almost embroider a world around themselves sometimes.”

Intrinsic to the imagery in his work are the people he meets, “living off down boreens; a pair of brothers who never married, one dies, one is left on their own, and never a woman involved.”

Ryan has, and Gough will too be at pains to point out to the small cohort of 12 in the MA in creative writing that it’s certainly not a lucrative profession.

Nor do award-winners suddenly see a string of extra zeros added to their bank balance overnight.

“​God, no,” says Ryan. “It’s hard to make a life-long living from writing.

“People say to me ‘Have you got a million euros now?' with really straight faces, and I'm there thinking of my overdraft. I can see how someone would think that, because you see these articles about the best-selling books in Ireland, but you could be number one by selling 500 books.”

Gough, who began writing before he was 15, says likewise.

“Writing is a slow-burner. You could be winning awards, and still be not able to pay the rent. You might get a lump sum for winning an award but it goes towards paying the over-draft, or credit card from going into debt writing the piece.

“It is a great life, but you make choices. I love writing and don’t want to do anything else, so I do it, and take the consequences, which often are, you’ll live in a small flat, and have very little money, but you have your freedom, so it’s a trade-off.

“To be a writer you have to have a high tolerance for insecurity and being broke. There’s a sliding scale in writing between freedom and security, and money and time. And it can be a bit of a monastic life.”

His break from this monk-like existence can be frequently observed on Twitter.

His advice to students and aspiring authors before he takes up the post is to exploit these 140-character exchanges, and network to make connections with publishers and agents by striking up conversations of note due to the forum’s “flat hierarchy”.

“If you’re a nice, sane person with something intelligent to say you can make very good connections before you even start out as a writer.

“Agents and publishers keep an eye on Twitter for new talents. It is something of an early warning system [of people to watch out for]. These people are just a tweet away, even if writers are living far from the publishing hubs of Dublin and London. JK Rowling may not tweet you back given that she has about nine million followers, but her agent might.”

It took him eight years to get his first work published, which may not have been the case now in the era of social-networking, where easy introductions can be made with a bit of good grace.

Ryan too suffered “years in the wilderness” with his own writing, berating himself perhaps to a greater degree than any of his initial 47 rejections, or any critic possibly could.

“I thought that the 47 rejections was nothing to be honest. You have to ask everybody really, because agents could take a year to get back to you. And you have to send out simultaneous submissions. Are you meant to wait a year between submissions? I say to the students send your novel to everybody, everywhere.”

“​I used to agonise over every sentence I wrote but I had to stop. I spent 10 years literally doing that, which was ridiculous, which is why I think courses we have in UL are great.

“I don't think there was any MA in creative writing 15 years ago. It definitely would have given me that kick [I needed], having someone to say you have to have this much written in a week. I would have done it. For years, I'd rewrite and rewrite the same sentence over again, and I'd just feel sick. I got over it. 

“I would have compressed my 10 years in the writing wilderness into an MA if I had the opportunity. I wrote and wrote and tore up novels.”

He credits his wife Anne-Marie with saving his work, and potentially saving him from his own mental torment and angst.

“When you're inside in the middle of the woods you literally can't see the trees - you can't see typos, or plot holes, or where you're rambling,” he says.

He got sick of rereading his work, and turned to his biggest and yet kindest critic and fan to help him navigate out of the woods.

The response he has always wanted to elicit is the make someone laugh or cry through his work.

That’s the barometer for him, of whether something is good; something powerful enough to hit home.

“I shouldn't have said it to her as she'll be conscious of it, but there's a certain expression I need to see. She read a book, One Big Damn Puzzler by John Harding, and we both loved it, and she said 'Oh my god, this is the best book I've ever read', and she had this expression when she read it, and I remember thinking I'd love to write a book that would give her the same expression on her face, so I watch for that now.

“I need to stand at an oblique angle to watch her [expression] and hopefully she forgets I'm watching her. I let on to be doing the washing up, but I'm watching her all the time.” 

Gough advises that everyone is a “terrible writer when they start. The key to being a good writer is to not stop before you come good, and be easy on yourself at the start.”

The Irish Times’ columnist Michael Harding is now “teaching men how to cry”, he believes, through his beautifully composed prose, again seen through a lens of the banality of Midlands life, where ordinary moments can become extraordinary in the right writer’s hands.

“There is a crisis of masculinity,” he explained, “but it’s not necessarily a bad thing, if you come out the other end of it, because how do you learn other than through trial, and conflict and suffering? I think it’s a change that’s going to be for the better. The way we were brought up was a catastrophe for men. Men need to be able to open up without feeling you are going to be punished for it, because traditionally if you cried you were mocked.”

Gough will also read in the Belltable from his new work, a children’s book, entitled Rabbit & Bear - The Pest in the Nest.

It’s a genre he has become particularly passionate about, having won a string of prestigious awards for his adult fiction.

“There is not a lot of critical attention paid to them. In a way, it’s the most important literature there is, because those are the stories that build the minds of children. I hate some of the processed children's books you get that tie into toys or TV shows – it's like giving them cigarettes for their minds.”

Ryan advises that “no matter what you write, there are three main consumptions when it comes to any type of art.

“There are people who will just sneer at everything they hear and see, and they pick some esoteric group of artists or writers to worship, and say if it's not this, it's just sh**. And then there are people who will love what you do, but mostly the market is indifferent.”

All We Shall Know focuses on a woman who becomes pregnant by a young Traveller whom she is teaching to read.

“Someone wrote ‘This isn't Donal Ryan's story to tell’, which is bullshit really. Am I just meant to write about middle-aged white Christians who live in Limerick?”

The Spinning Heart has now been translated into 20 languages, while The Thing about December has been printed in 12 languages.

“They take an Irish vernacular that has to be very alien to them and translate it - I don't know how it's possible. I get pages of queries from the German translator, and very few from the Japanese.”

He credits Limerick’s only Pulitzer Prize winning author with inspiring him to pick up his pen, after the publication of Angela’s Ashes in 1996.

“If it wasn't for Frank McCourt I wouldn't be a writer actually to be honest. It was like a love poem to his childhood in Limerick; it was amazing.”

Awards, he says “are great, but you have to not think about them really.

“When you're shortlisted you really want to win, and when you don't, it's gone after 15 seconds. There’s always a feeling a guilt if you win and there's a shortlist of five, because it could be anyone.”

Even he gets his “fair share” of bad reviews, and deliberately avoids signing up to Twitter for this very reason, though he says he reads everything about himself.

“You're told from the start, ‘If you get a bad review, just take it, take it, take it,' and don't mention it if you meet the reviewer.”

“One fellow said 'Donal Ryan has had an easy ride through life’. I've never met his guy. I take it really badly. Five books in I should be used to it, but I can't. It's my life.”

- Tickets for A Literary Evening with Gough, Ryan and Durack on January 26, in a collaboration with the Limerick Writers' Centre, in the Belltable are on sale now, priced at €12/10

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