Melody Shee’s husband doesn’t take the news too well that she is pregnant by a 17-year-old Traveller she has been teaching. Neither really does Melody, especially as she’s carrying a dark secret from her youth. The possibility of redemption comes when she meets Mary, a young Traveller woman, in Donal Ryan’s third novel All We Shall Know (Black Swan, £7.99). His first two, The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December, won Irish Book Awards prizes and a Booker Prize longlisting.
How did the idea for All We Shall Know come to you?
I wrote a short monologue in the voice of Melody Shee in early 2012, just as part of the process of keeping my hand in while I waited for the inspiration for a new novel to strike. I write loads of bits and scraps between books to stave off the rust. Melody didn’t appreciate being picked up and left down like that, though, and she kept turning up unexpectedly, like a crazy ex-girlfriend. She wouldn’t leave me alone for nearly three years until I finally saw her for what she was – a proper heroine – and I gave in to her and devoted myself entirely to her, and by then she’d told me her story several times over, only changing small details with each telling, and all I had to do was listen to her final confessions and write them down.
Melody evokes less sympathy than the protagonist of, say, The Thing About December. What are the challenges of writing a character like that?
I had great sympathy for Melody. I was in love with her. I see reviewers all the time calling her irredeemable and disgusting and all sorts of terrible things and I feel outraged on her behalf, my lovely Melody. She’s badly flawed and self-aware and completely honest and she’s made terrible mistakes and I feel like defending her all the time. I can’t think of any part of writing Melody that was more of a challenge than writing Johnsey Cunliffe in The Thing About December or Bobby Mahon in The Spinning Heart or any of the characters in the novel I just finished. Maybe the bits about the physical aspects of pregnancy: weirdly, I could hardly remember a thing about either of Anne Marie’s pregnancies and had to do proper research for a change!
What does the monthly structure of The Thing About December and the weekly structure of All We Shall Know offer you?
They offer a cheat when it comes to pace. I could never pace a novel properly. All through my twenties I composed these unwieldy, unbalanced, opaque things, full of half-sketched plots and over-described characters and laboured scenes and manic temporal shifts and I burned most of them. Then I decided to give myself a very definite structure to act as a straight spine for the ribs of my narrative: the 21 voices of The Spinning Heart; the 12 months of The Thing About December; the weeks of a pregnancy. Allowing the structure to dictate the pace rid me of the worry of it, and it was a huge relief.
Melody is drawn to the Traveller community but few fiction writers have been. What drew you to writing about Traveller people?
Travelling people turn up in literature here and there: Sven Berlin’s memoir Dromengro, Thomas MacDonagh’s poem John-John, Mary Beth Keane’s wonderful novel The Walking People are three works that come straight to mind but I wrote Travellers directly from my own experience. I know the shape and profile and sound of Irish Traveller culture, I know how things go for them and how they go about negotiating this world, I know the tensions that swirl on the nexus. But ultimately I know very little about what it is to be a Traveller, still less about what it is to be a young woman in that society, separated and childless, broken-hearted. Mary Crothery is very vaguely based on a girl I once knew (but didn’t know at all, of course) and Martin Toppy is a distillation of the dozens of young Traveller lads I prepared for their driving tests years ago when I was a driving instructor, and most of what the Travellers say and do in the book is based on things I’ve seen and heard but still I’m only imagining, because what else can a writer do?
Everyone from Sara Baume to you and Sebastian Barry have been winning literary prizes recently. Is it meaningful to talk about an Irish literary movement or are you all just writers from the same country?
I haven’t been winning any prizes recently, or making it onto any shortlists, but if you’re on a judging panel and you see my name, nod, nod, wink, wink… We are all just writers from Ireland. We don’t have meetings where we discuss what we’ll all write or anything, but we do tend to get very drunk and rambunctious at festivals and we all seem to get on very well most of the time. There’s a kind of propulsive energy about the place at the moment that’s giving us all a bit of a push; there’s a real media buzz about the Irish writing scene, which is great. A steady tide of enthusiasm is lifting all of our sorry crafts from the seafloor of redundancy and indifference.
Is Ireland heading into another boom without learning the lessons of the last one?
Yes. Imagine that! But it’s worse, actually, because we did learn from the last one, and learned well. We know exactly what we should and shouldn’t do. But still the red-faced men in suits are back, and we know their song well and we’re letting them sing it: young people, get on the ladder, QUICK! Builders are selling off plan; people are sleeping outside auctioneers’ offices; anyone with a job and a ball of their parents’ money can be gazumped and humped and bled dry and left to die by Ireland’s merry band of auctioneers and bankers and movers and shakers and liars and thieves while citizens die homeless on the streets and childhoods are wasted in hotel bedrooms and landlords are told to charge what they want, the Market will sort it all out. God bless the Market.