A Conversation with Donal Ryan, author of The Spinning Heart
What is The Spinning Heart about?
I always find it hard to answer the question "What's your novel about?" in a way that makes it sound interesting. "It's about the effects of the recession," I say, and watch as the person's eyes glaze over. "Oh right, that sounds interesting," they invariably lie. "There's a murder - and a kidnap!" I desperately add, but it's usually too late.
Why did you choose such a topic as the recession, then?
I didn't set out to write a recession novel. It was always about the lives of a group of people. It's just that for most of our communities, this is the first topic of conversation. I wanted to write a book about how the way we relate to one another and how the way we perceive ourselves has changed; how the crumbling of our certainties has started to allow us to see more clearly to the core of ourselves. There's a marriage at the centre of The Spinning Heart, and a relationship between a father and son, and they're what I was most concerned with. Human relationships are, to borrow from James Salter, all that is. But a novel described as being about a marriage, or simply as about love, will often be categorized, ascribed a particular color and a particular location. I've never read a good book, from Roald Dahl to James Joyce, that wasn't ultimately about how we relate to one another, that didn't concern itself with the human heart.
And yet, despite the central environment of the recession, the story is still humorous at times.
I'm glad the humor comes through. I was hoping the way the words were being used, the way I tell the story transcends the stories themselves. In Ireland you can express your sorrow in such a glib offhand way. People can say something and you just know there is a horrible sadness in their lives. They can sum up their whole lives by not mentioning directly what they are talking about.
Ireland's cultural history is integral to the mood of the novel. How does the former influence the latter?
We didn't take very well as a nation to prosperity. People were building huge houses and really flaunting the trappings of wealth, but we weren't good at it, we weren't used to it. We were the same people, we were part of the previous history, the same character. That is why people are so upset by it because they think we can't go back to the old way, and the way we thought we were five years ago is completely destroyed now. It is a paradigm.
You've said that you couldn't have written a publishable novel ten years ago. Why is that?
Ten years ago I wastoo arrogant. I thought I was too invincible and with that I had the inverse feeling that I wasn't a good writer. Ten years ago I would write thousands of words and I wouldn't be happy with one phrase. It took me ages to get to a place where I could read back what I wrote and think it was okay.
How did you choose to write The Spinning Heart?
I started to write The Spinning Heart shortly after completing my first novel, The Thing About December, due to be published in the autumn. I didn't know that one would leapfrog the other. I thought I'd better stay going while I had the momentum and discipline: our second child was a few months old and my available time and energy levels were contracting at an alarming rate. I had nothing to lose and so felt really free; rejections for The Thing about December were landing on the mat and appearing in my inbox almost daily. I'll just do it, I thought, and unshackle myself from this burden of ambition. I'll have two novels written and can file them away with the no thank you's and be done with the whole idea of being a published novelist. My wife, Anne Marie, was impressed with me for having done it; that was almost enough. I wonder if it would have been a different book if I'd had a publishing deal when starting. I like to think not, but it's impossible to know for sure. Most influences are subconscious. Anyway, I dived in blind to polyphony, not knowing as each chapter started who the person speaking was or what they had to say for themselves. I'd had the idea for years of writing a novel of multiple viewpoints and loved the idea of stream-of-consciousness monologues but was aware that they could be a bit wearing on the reader if there were too many digressions and tangents. Best to have an array of voices, I thought, to make the chapters short, and try to pack in as much as possible to each line. I started with an apartment block in mind, then a housing estate, and settled on a village. My first novel is set in a village. The same place, as it turned out. So I wrote The Spinning Heart in the evenings with the children sleeping upstairs and Anne Marie close by to keep me from ruining it, and I think it worked out well.
The language, the dialect, is one of the more striking aspects of the novel. Where did you get your inspiration for the language the characters use?
For me the language is everyday, I hear it all the time. All the characters are completely fictional, but it is the way people talk. It is to do with the physical rhythm of language in Ireland. A rural language, as Anne Enright has identified. English was pretty much imposed on Ireland, but we kept the structure of the Irish language. I think the Irish people took a language that was forced upon them and made it beautiful. There are few places on earth, for example, where the verb "to bring" is used in more than one direction: "you can bring that away wit'ya".
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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