It’s a chance for readers to have some face time with the author, as he talks about his latest novel Strange Flowers, with the conversation to be facilitated by a Festival committee member.
Since publication last year Strange Flowers has proved hugely popular with readers and won glowing reviews from critics, as all Ryan’s earlier novels have.
“It’s always a worry when you put a book into the world, you don’t know what way it’s going to go, but it’s been great, it’s selling well, it was great to win the novel of the year award, it’s a great feeling because it’s voted by readers, so it’s extra special,” says the Tipperary man.
The themes of Strange Flowers include loss, alienation, the redemptive power of love, while it also casts a cold eye on the class structure of 1970s rural life.
The novel begins with the disappearance of 20-year-old Moll Gladney in 1973, which brings terrible pain to her parents Paddy and Ki. However she returns suddenly and unexpectedly five years later, sparking changes to the course of her family’s life.
Following Moll’s return a black man, Alexander, comes after her, and while he is a curiosity at first, he is a warm and pleasant character and is welcomed into the local community.
While the rural Ireland of the past is sometimes presented as unsympathetic, Ryan has no doubt this is not just plausible but exactly what would have happened.
“Oh absolutely. I was really surprised when I heard the book reviewed on radio and the reviewer was saying that was really unrealistic, how that situation was portrayed,” he says, bristling slightly.
“I suppose people make presumptions when they read a book and she was presuming I wouldn’t know about that situation, but I saw something like it at close hand.
“The village I describe in the book is based closely on the village where I grew up and the people’s mentality is based on the people in that village and how warm and welcoming they were, so I know I got it right.”
Ryan undoubtedly has an unerring sense for rural Ireland, describing it with an authenticity that few, if any, other authors have matched and he feels that sometimes there can be a failure to understand the communities and types of people he writes about.
“It’s hard for people to see rural Ireland in all its complexity and nuance. It’s hard for people to see how great it is, a lot of the time, to be honest.”
Criticism of rural class structures and divides is very often to the forefront of his writing, and it is present in Strange Flowers also.
“I wouldn’t be blind to the failings of any subject. If you take on a subject you have to examine it and it’s easy sometimes to write a haigography of a person you admire or to write the equivalent about a place you left. Everywhere has its nuances and complexities and its dark currents.”
He says he grew to adulthood without ever really thinking about class, but he feels it is a possibly inevitable part of society, with people inherently drawn to differentiating themselves.
“I was really, really blind to it growing up. Maybe it was the village I was from, it was a pleasant place to grow up and these things weren’t apparent, and I didn’t really notice them fully until I was in my twenties.
“Not just in Ireland; it’s everywhere in the world. Every society seems to form itself into stratified layers.
I don’t think there’s a socialist, pluralist utopia anywhere in the world. We have this kind of thing that that’s possible in our heads, but maybe that’s not possible for humans, maybe it’s just human nature to divide ourselves into clans and strata.
“Upward mobility will always be met with a degree of derision, we all have an impostor syndrome when we change our situation, I think. You’re always seen as a bit of a blow in if you move geographically or your standing in society.
“But I think in Ireland we’re as close as you can get to a very open, fair, pluralist society, but there is still a fairly rigid structure in place.”
Nowadays homosexuality is a pretty accepted part of life, with far less stigma than when Strange Flowers is set and the novel touches on the repression of the time.
“Of course sexuality is a spectrum, but the statistic is that roughly one in ten people are gay. Imagine how many people had to subvert their sexuality or felt they had to, or weren’t able to be who they were, or live their lives fully. Jesus, it must have been horrific.”
He already has another novel written, albeit one that is not set to be released until 2022.
It will be the story of a man reflecting on the events of his life, and it goes back to the fictional village where all his charcters have lived.
“It’s a character from The Spinning Heart telling his life story and it’s the same village. I can’t see myself ever leaving there to be honest, the next book I have in my head is the same village again. William Faulkner was the same, Alice Munro, John McGahern, lots of writers did it. I do feel happy about staying in the same location, there’s the world of stories to be told in even the smallest place.”
Occasionally there are references in his books to characters from earlier novels, which adds something of a bonus for readers. He first did it after readers had raised concerns with him about how the hero of The Spinning Heart was.
“When the Spinning Heart came out people seemed to be genuinely concerned about Bobby, people would approach me and say Donal, tell me this, how’s Bobby now or where is he.
“I said I better mention Bobby again so the first short story in a book after the Spinning Heart, Bobby was in it as a peripheral character so people knew he was fine!” he laughs.
A former civil servant, who worked in Shannon for some time, he credits two Clare people with having a major impact on his development as a writer.
“I feel as though I kind of became a writer in Clare, because I wrote those two novels and the two first people to read them were Frances Kelly from Ennis and Dermot Dinan, also from Ennis.
“I worked with them and they were great friends, they were the two first people outside my family to read those two books and I remember the boost I got, when they gave me their honest opinion and I knew they honestly loved the two books, it was the greatest thing. I really owe those people an awful lot.”