Author Q&A: Donal Ryan

From A Low And Quiet Sea (Transworld, £8.99)

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Escaping war-torn Syria at considerable personal loss, Farouk, a doctor, begins a new life in Ireland, where Lampy lives. Lampy works for a care home owner and lives with his mother, maternal grandfather and a troublesome temper. Lobbyist John’s cynicism may stem from the childhood death of his beloved brother but propels itself as he successfully bribes bureaucrats for his clients and less successfully bribes his young mistress for her affections. In his Man Booker Prize-longlisted novel from last year, now in paperback, Ryan gives us only as much as we need to know to get a humane grasp of their moral failings and stay enthralled as he dramatically brings their lives together.

Last time we spoke, you told us that the idea for your previous novel came to you through a monologue you’d written three years earlier in the voice of what turned out to be the main character. How was From A Low And Quiet Sea born?
It started with a series of episodes I wrote about Lampy and his cousin Shane (who was cut from the book pretty early) joyriding around in the minibus that Lampy drives for the care home where he works, getting into some scrapes. In those vignettes Lampy’s mum was friends with a doctor from Syria who became Farouk. I took the parts of Farouk’s story from newspaper reports but his voice was informed by my experience in my last job, where I happened to meet people displaced by war on a weekly or sometimes daily basis. I started with an image in my head of the last scene and the confluence of three men’s lives and worked back from it and towards it again.

The book’s title comes from a fictional poem that John remembers hearing in class. What does it signify for him and for readers?
I’d love to say something fancy and profound about that but it was just the opening lines of an awful poem I wrote in school in a desperate effort to impress my English teacher. For some reason those lines stuck in my head, and they chimed eventually with necessity, giving me what I think is quite an apposite title for the book. It’s not a catchy title though. No one ever gets it right. Not even my family. I don’t mind, though. It’s my own fault.

You’ve gone for a distinctive, disciplined structure again, the first three parts each about one of the main characters. But one of them is written from the first person point of view, the other two in the third person. How could you be so lax?
John’s section is a confession and his monologue is contemporaneous with the action of the novel – while he’s speaking about his life and his sins Lampy is going about his day and Farouk is on his way to Florence’s house. People don’t seem to notice anyway. People ask me if I’d ever consider writing a novel in the third person and I point out that The Thing About December is in the third person, as is most of From A Low and Quiet Sea and they just smile and look puzzled. And then I take out one of those books and start pointing at random pages and saying, look, look, see? Third person, see? And they start looking scared and backing slowly away.

Did you have the novel’s outcome in mind when you began it or did the characters propel themselves towards it?
The final scene was in my mind from the start, and the connections between the characters that would be revealed at the close were always clear in my head. I wanted to avoid a forced crescendo, a mad dash at the finish towards a resolution, but I did want the three men to share the same space and to be equal parts of the ending.

Dixie wonders how he’d react if his daughter married Farouk, the Syrian refugee. Does mass immigration work differently in any way in a country like Ireland that has also experienced mass emigration?
It doesn’t seem to, but my experience of how immigration works in other countries is limited. I only leave Ireland when I really have to. I’d happily stay within a five-mile radius of my house forever. But I met a large group of Syrian people in Thurles, near my hometown, a few years ago at an event organised by an immigrant rights organisation and they were just beautiful people. There was a man there who was around my dad’s age and I watched them have this conversation in gestures and smiles and nods and they were just so alike, and got on so famously without knowing a word of each other’s language. I learned that night about the tradition in Syrian towns of changing street names to make displaced people feel at home.

John the lobbyist could be one of Ireland’s “merry band of auctioneers and bankers and movers and shakers and liars and thieves” you told us about two years ago. How are they doing?
I don’t move in their circles but I’m sure they’re doing fine now that we’re on the upswing of another cycle of inflated property prices, skyrocketing rents and neoliberal fucking bullshit. Just today I read about plans to ameliorate the accommodation difficulties faced by “young workers” by allowing the building of large-scale hostel-type developments where groups of people share kitchens and living rooms. It’s started already, actually, and of course there are no rent caps – young workers are being stiffed for €1300 per month to live in tenements. And of course it won’t be exclusively young workers in these hostels; it’ll be the families that currently live in hotels; it’ll be all the people that collectively constitute the housing crisis. We need to build large-scale housing developments on greenfield sites with proper facilities, with schools and hospitals and proper infrastructure, like we were somehow able to do all through the sixties and seventies and eighties when we hadn’t a bean. The best people I know grew up in council estates. But what am I talking about? “The Market” is apparently going to look after our housing crisis, our healthcare, our elder care and deliver us from every evil. As soon as we all start getting up really early.

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