Author Q&A: Eimear Ryan

Holding Her Breath
(Sandycove, £12.99 paperback, £12.98 ebook, £13 audiobook)

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When Beth begins university she also tries to resume the competitive swimming she excelled at as a girl. She finds herself among people who adore the poetry of her grandfather, Benjamin Crowe, who died before she was born. She embarks on a secret relationship – and on a quest to discover the truth about Benjamin and his widow, her beloved grandmother Lydia. The writer, editor and publisher’s debut novel may suggest Sally Rooney’s Normal People but Tipperary-born Ryan has skill and talent all of her own.

The book draws continuously on a fictional body of work written by Beth’s poet grandfather Ben Crowe. Did you have to write the poems themselves before you were able to write about them?
I did! Earlier drafts of the book featured full poems at different intervals. I talked about it with my agent and ultimately we decided to scale them back – partly because I’m not a poet myself, and wouldn’t be able to produce a realistic body of work for a supposedly very important poetic figure. I made up for this by riffing off poets I admire, most obviously Don Paterson. But it was a useful and even necessary exercise to figure out what Crowe’s concerns and themes and frames of reference would be: the Tipperary landscape, the sea, his troubled family history, folk saints, outer space. I had a lot of fun coming up with titles and lines and scattering them throughout the novel as these little glimpses into his work.

Ben believed “we come from water and should be to water returned”. Beth has a more complex relationship with it but it is still an integral part of her life. Why is water such a compelling theme for writers and do you think we will see more watery literature coming through following a surge in interest in natural bodies of water during lockdown?
I’ve been lucky with the timing of the book’s release, because you’re right – so many people have gotten into sea swimming over the past year, at first out of necessity but then getting addicted to it. I can only speak from my own perspective, but I was learning to swim when I began writing the book, so that’s how the watery themes worked their way in. Beth’s roommate Sadie says early on in the book that she never learned to swim because she’s from a landlocked county, and that was my excuse for many years; I was 25 when I finally learned. I’m still not a good swimmer, but I absolutely love the water now.

Beth has a really complex relationship with it – she’s a naturally gifted swimmer but years competing at an elite level killed her love for the sport, and she has a deep suspicion of the sea, partly because her grandfather drowned in it. An important thread throughout the book is Beth trying to figure out how to relate to swimming on her own terms.

Holding her Breath addresses power imbalances in relationships. Is there a difference between Lydia and Ben’s relationship and Justin and Beth’s?
There are definitely parallels between them, not least that they both began in a university setting and involve a staff member (Lydia/Justin) and a student (Ben/Beth). I tend to think of Lydia and Ben as the more loving and committed couple, if co-dependent – they’re creative partners as well as life partners, and Lydia is never the same after Ben’s death. Beth and Justin are attracted to and intrigued by one another, but it’s a much more compromised relationship, I think – not least because Justin already has a long-term partner. Beth and Justin are both trying to get something out of the other, as opposed to building a life together like Ben and Lydia. But yes, I definitely felt as though the two relationships and the two generations were in conversation with each other throughout the book.

Lydia guards Ben’s estate so closely that people can’t quote from his works. Meanwhile he is regarded as a national treasure to the point the whole of Ireland feels as though they have ownership over them. What were you exploring about literary property and what’s your personal take on it?  
I was very much inspired by Janet Malcolm’s brilliant book The Silent Woman, which explores how the limited access to Sylvia Plath’s archives allowed these myths to grow up around her. That’s the case with Ben, too – by restricting access to his archive, Lydia is able to keep controlling the narrative, if you like. She’s doing it out of a misguided attempt to protect his legacy but I think the book makes the argument that repression and secrecy is never a good idea, no matter what the intent.

Sadie jokingly notes that Ireland is always a decade behind the times but another character observes that Lydia’s Catholic upbringing held her back from true personal freedom. Is Ireland’s progress still held back by Catholicism?
I think a lot of what we’re doing at the moment is dealing with the legacy of Catholic Ireland. There’s been a lot of legislative progress in my lifetime – the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993, the introduction of divorce in 1995, marriage equality in 2015 and the
repeal of the eighth amendment in 2018. All of that has just been the gradual and painful unpicking of the church’s morality. So even though
its influence is waning, the church still casts a long shadow – for example, this year there was an official state apology to victims and survivors of Catholic mother and baby homes. We’re only reckoning with these things now.

Ben Crowe wrote about his unconventional marriage in his poems in such a way that even the most learned Crowe scholars never unravelled the truth of it. Holding her Breath is more explicit about relationships outside the heteronormative. Is it the novelist’s job to reflect the wider world while the poet is more intensely personal?
I think it’s down to each individual writer what they want to do with the form – I don’t think poetry is obligated to be personal or that fiction should necessarily have a wider lens. It’s true that we have a tendency to believe that the “I” in poetry is always the poet, but in fiction we have a much more generous interpretation of the first-person perspective. There’s a bit of commentary in the book about not necessarily relating everything in a poem back to the poet’s life story, even though that’s very tempting at times.

Are creative and depressive temperaments linked and should writers guard against romanticising the link?
It’s true that creative people are more prone to depression, but so are other professions – vets, for example – but other groups don’t get romanticised to the extent that creative people do. The idea of the tortured artist is so ingrained in the culture it’s almost a cliché. There’s the danger of internalising that, of starting to believe that suffering is a necessary part of the process. It was a tricky aspect of writing the novel – in order to critique the romanticisation of mental health issues in artists, I had to represent it to an extent. But I hope the reader sees Ben go from a tortured artist cliche to a much more humane, complex figure.

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