The award-winning author made headlines when he went back to his day job in the civil service. He talks about seeing ghosts and almost giving up writing
Donal Ryan made his name with his debut novel The Spinning Heart, a portrait of recession-hit rural Ireland in 21 voices, which won the Guardian first book award in 2013 and was longlisted for the Man Booker prize. Two other novels and a short story collection quickly followed, set around the same fictional village, a composite of various places in Limerick and Tipperary. Ranging from the boom years of the Celtic Tiger to the experience of Irish Travellers, they dug deep into the psyche of Irish communities, with marginal voices summoning the intensity of small-town loves and hates to uncover a complicated history and uncertain present.
His fifth book, From a Low and Quiet Sea, begins with a very different story: that of Farouk, a Syrian doctor who with his wife and daughter flees a country collapsing into war in the hope of safety in the west. They discover too late that the boat they are crammed on to with other desperate families has no captain and no life jackets: and then a storm hits. Ryan took the story, he explains, from a news report about a Syrian doctor who paid what he thought was a high-end smuggler to get him out of the country, then lost his family at sea. “It really happened, the boat went down. What happens in the book happened in real life.” In the novel, the traumatised Farouk drifts through refugee holding camps, unable to process his loss. The real Farouk was employed on one of the Greek islands as a brain surgeon, says Ryan. “There was a line in the report where he says that he spends the time after his shifts looking out across the water, because that’s his family’s grave.”