DBF Interviews: Donal Ryan

Author Donal Ryan tells us about his experiences in moving between novels and short stories. Donal will be one of several panellists at our Writing Long & Short event.


Q: After the huge success of your first two novels, The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December (The Lilliput Press), you return with your first collection of short stories, A Slanting of the Sun (The Lilliput Press): what were the factors that prompted this change of form?

I had written some short stories as a break from the slog of editing the novels. They were just there, waiting for something to be done with them, so I decided to use them as a basis for a collection. Doubleday had offered me a new three-book deal and the only tangible thing I had was some stories and two very sketchily outlined novels. My first two novels are short and intense anyway, so it wasn’t a huge departure. When I read Stephen King’s brilliant On Writing years ago I was struck by his assertion that ‘once you get to the 60,000 word mark in a short story you’re heading into novella territory’. That’s a fine size of a full-length novel for me! Anyway, who’s to say what’s what, really? None of these ideas and delineations and divisions matter, a story is a story no matter how long you take to tell it. You have to just make it worth hearing.  

Q: What kind of difficulties did you encounter in moving from the longer to the shorter form? Or was it a freeing experience? Which form are you most naturally suited to?

I’m not sure which form suits me better. I seem to suffer the same agonies and enjoy the same pleasures in both forms. With short stories my wife Anne Marie often has to be my arbiter of merit: drafts she doesn’t like get the bin. Brian Langan at Doubleday is an amazing editor and he sometimes sees what I’m saying more clearly than I do. Paul Lynch and I were reading together a few years ago and I decided to risk giving a short story, Tommy and Moon, a public outing. I was galvanised by Paul’s subsequent encouragement; he’s a fantastic writer and his good opinion means a lot to me. Sarah Davis-Goff had also given me some badly-needed encouragement early on when she was with Lilliput. I’d always been nervous of short stories but realised after some early wobbles and strops that the differences between being a novelist and a short-story writer are mostly minor to the point of insignificance; there’s a different routine, usually, and a quicker arrival at the point of relief when working in the short form – that beautiful moment where you realise the story’s told, where there’s a feeling of resolution, of completion, of calmness. I never stay calm for very long, though. I’m never more than a moment from some quiet calamity, from being assailed by some creeping smiter of confidence, from implosion or explosion. My lovely Anne Marie has a full-time job telling me I’m great and to not mind them and to relax and get back to work.


Q: Who are the short story writers, contemporary or otherwise, that you admire? Why?

One of my favourite collections is Steinbeck’s The Long Valley. I also love Eoghan Ó Tuairisc’s translation of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s The Road to Brightcity. Some stunning collections have been produced in Ireland in recent years, by people like Mary Costello, Kevin Barry, Mike McCormack, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Joseph O’Connor, John Boyne, Alan McMonagle, Tom Morris, Colin Barrett; the list could go on and on. Journals like The Moth and The Stinging Fly are regularly filled with sublime pieces of work. I could talk all day and night just about Irish short stories. My fellow Nenagh man Julian Gough is a master of every creative form he graces, and his story The Orphan and the Mob pushed me back towards the idea of being a writer. Alice Munro and Raymond Carver are in my head as well, and JD Salinger’s For Esme With Love and Squalor is perfect.


Q: I know from our interview last year that you’re writing a third novel – how is that coming along? How has working on the short stories affected how you approach this novel?

I’m just working on the final edits for the third novel. The University of Limerick took me in last year, gave me an office to work in and a huge dose of confidence, and allowed me to finish my short story collection and the novel. The short stories and the novel gestated together and were kind of written together but were always very separate in my consciousness. My fourth novel, as it exists in my head, will be a series of linked novellas or longish short stories, but that could easily change. Writing can be tough, having your writing out in the world can be tough, living off it can be next to impossible; you’re expected to be all sorts of things you never dreamt of being to exist as a writer. It’s important not to compound your complications by allowing your work to clash with itself, to start some kind of intratextual argument that could never be resolved. Every thing you start should be, insofar as it’s possible, from a blank point; you have to forget what you’ve done before, you kind of have to forget yourself.