The story of Donal Ryan’s struggle to find a publisher for The Spinning Heart has been so often told that Ryan now worries it will overshadow the book itself. The official line is that he approached 47 publishers and each rejected him. In reality, he says, it was well over 60.
Ryan had always wanted to be a writer, but like many before him, he was overwhelmed by the chasm between his efforts and the work of those he admired. His state of mind did not help. He says he used to “vacillate between insane overconfidence and none at all.” As a result, he didn’t try to publish even a short story during his 20s. He thought he was “too good for it” and instead continued to work as a civil servant and write poetry that “you wouldn’t read to a dog.”
At 30, he was “married with children.” His confidence grew. He realized he didn’t have to emulate the masters. His wife, Ann Marie, was his excellent reader. He loved to see her reaction when she liked what she was reading. His had found his voice and in seven months had a finished novel. Then his pursuit of a publisher began.
The Spinning Heart was eventually uncovered by an intern in the slush pile of a small Irish publishing house, Lilliput Press. She liked it but her boss didn’t. A senior partner stepped in. They signed a joint deal with Random House in the U.K. Within the space of a year, it won the Irish National Book Prize, was nominated for the Guardian’s First Book Award (the winner will be announced November 28) and was longlisted for the Booker.
Ryan does not intend to quit his day job as a government labor inspector anytime soon. The idea of being a full-time writer does not appeal; his style might improve but he feels the content would suffer. His job absorbs and inspires him, anyway. It is not lucrative but, he says, he could not go through “the trauma” of looking for a job again, especially given the economic downturn in Ireland. Everyone he knows has been affected by it. Ryan’s household has been “okay,” but they’ve lost a quarter of their income and have used up all their savings.
The collapse of Ireland’s once-booming economy provides the central framework for The Spinning Heart, which will be published in the U.S. in March by Steerforth Press. The book features 21 characters. Each narrates his own story beginning with Bobby, a builder, the son of a tyrannical father. Bobby has just discovered that he and his workmates have been ripped off by their boss, Pokey Burke. Along the way, we hear from the other builders, locals, Pokey’s father and the two inhabitants of the unfinished housing estate, Dorothy and Réaltín, around whom a unifying plot emerges. The story concludes with Triona, Bobby’s wife. “Everyone thinks she is Ann-Marie,” Ryan says.
It might be hard, though, for Ryan’s wife not to read something personal into Bobby’s description of marriage: “Having a wife is great. You can say things to your wife that you never knew you thought. It just comes out of you when the person you’re talking to is like a part of yourself. We went to a play in town one time; I can’t remember the name of it. You wouldn’t do that without a wife. Imagine it being found out, that you went to see a play, on your own!” The Ireland of The Spinning Heart, much like real-life Ireland, is sharply divided along gender lines. Ryan says that feminism is not something he’s intellectualized; “It’s something you live. If you think you’re better than a woman, how are you going to rationalize that at the end of your life?”
The men and women of The Spinning Heart suffer in their estrangement from each other, and yet they goad each other into extremes, as one of the narrators, Kate, describes: “I’d say your man just wanted a job where he wouldn’t have to be near manly men, spitting and farting and talking about their balls and making each other feel shit about themselves. Why do fellas do that? They’re always slagging each other and calling each other queer and trying to outdo each other like fools.” Lily, the prostitute, is perhaps the most poignant example of the abuse that woman can receive in Irish life. “There are rakes of men around here that have called to me, full of hunger when they arrive and full of guilt as they leave. Eyes full of laughter, thinking I’m only a joke; eyes full of tears. I’ve seen eyes full of hate, and I never knew why those men hated me. I’d never blame a man for calling to me.”
Ryan says she is one of the characters he loves best, though he bristles at the suggestion that the warm-hearted prostitute is a cliché. He thinks cliché barely exists anyway—“ubiquity,” he says, “is real.” The legacy of Joyce is likely to intrude on such considerations for Ryan. He believes there must be a purpose to innovation. As a result, little of Ulysses truly “moved” him, though he doesn’t doubt Joyce’s humanity. He cites the passage in “Hades” where Bloom reflects upon suicide rites of the past as an example. “They used to drive a stake of wood through [the suicide’s] heart in the grave. As if it wasn’t broken already.” Instead Ryan admires the beauty of Joyce’s writing. He wrote Ryan’s favorite sentence in literature: “On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.”
Many other writers inspire Ryan too. He says there is “no writer he does not admire.” His father was a poet and there were always books in the house. He used to read a lot of Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow, though Ryan now prefers authors such as David Mitchell and Paul Harding. He thinks Irish writers like Mike McCormack, Kevin Barry, Anne Enright, and Colm Tóibín are “some of the best around.” He greatly enjoyed Toibín’s latest, The Testament of Mary, and finds it hard to believe that its account of Mary’s grief for what has happened to her son is “not true.” Ryan himself is a man of faith who thinks Jesus was “great.” He explains his beliefs by way of a quote popularized by Deepak Chopra: “I was an atheist until I realized I was God,” a reference to the conversation between an atheist and J. Krishnamurti, the Indian spiritual teacher.
The Spinning Heart is a deeply felt book. Ryan’s talent, he feels, is to perceive the sadness in people. His liking for his countrymen is not unconditional. He has no time for the “classic” Irish emigrant who goes abroad, only to sit around drinking and “living a life as small as in a village at home.”
His next book, The Thing About December, deals with an ingenious spirit, Johnsey Cunliffe, who, inevitably, tussles with a disingenuous world. And, he says, it “took a lot” out of him. It was published in Ireland and the U.K. in October and will be published in the U.S. by Steerforth in the fall of 2014. Up to now, Ryan has written about places and people “he knows.” He imagines this will change, and, moving forward, he may write “toward” what he doesn’t know.