Author Donal Ryan on his new novel, 'The Thing About December'

Irish author Donal Ryan’s new novel follows the trials of a bullied farmer

Donal Ryan seems like a nice guy. When the waiter at the central London café where we meet clears my coffee cup before I’ve finished drinking from it, Ryan says: “Do you want me to go after him?” When I say I hope he isn’t knackered after flying in from Limerick at the crack of dawn, he replies: “My son jumps on me every morning at 5 am, so I’m used to early starts.”

More than once he apologises: “Sorry if my answers are garbled.” They aren’t, but perhaps, by falling for his charm, I’m being what Johnsey Cunliffe, the unworldly young farmer at the centre of Ryan’s new novel is often labelled: a bit of a gom.

“A gom is a harmless, naive person, an eejit,” Ryan explains, when I ask about the term. The reason for my scepticism, however, is that journalists are anything but harmless in his fiction. They whip up hysteria in his Man Booker Prize-longlisted debut, The Spinning Heart (2013), and try to pressurise Johnsey into selling land he’s inherited from his recently deceased parents in The Thing About December. “Every journalist I meet turns out to be really nice,” Ryan says. “But I’ve seen things written in broadsheets that I know to be untrue. I hate lies even if they’re accidental. Even when I have to bluff I feel sick.” Isn’t a novelist’s job to invent stories? “Yes, but a novel is explicit about its dishonesty. The writer Paul Lynch told me: ‘When you’re writing a novel all that matters is beauty and truth.’”

Ryan wrote The Thing About December before The Spinning Heart. In that novel, he used multiple narrators to express a community’s passions and anxieties after Ireland’s economic crash, while Johnsey’s singular story is set in the same village, a decade earlier, as the Celtic Tiger is starting to rear up. Did he intend to confront the state of his nation? “No. I hate the phrase ‘recession lit’. I was writing a novel about a lawyer and a Russian gangster. Johnsey was a peripheral character whose voice opened up in my head and got very loud.”

Still, for an author, he’s well-informed about economics: “That stuff has become common knowledge in Ireland. Tragedy has reattached itself to emigration with people going abroad for work. There are ghost estates where companies sold houses then folded. When we had storms recently, fences started flying around, because they’d just been placed between crooked concrete posts and left.”

Born in Tipperary in 1976, he grew up reading Americans – Saul Bellow, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck – then, in his twenties, discovered the Irish authors John McGahern, Patrick McCabe and Roddy Doyle. When I mention the late Dennis O’Driscoll who, like Ryan, combined writing with a civil service career, he says: “Every poem of his nearly makes me cry.”

Did he always want to write? “There’s a box of unfinished crap in my parents’ attic which I can’t get because I’m scared of the spiders up there. When my wife was pregnant in 2008, I decided: ‘I can’t be this guy who claims to be a writer but never finishes anything.’ It was the prosaic notion of not wanting to set my child a bad example, wanting to be able to tell them in years to come: ‘I wrote a novel.’ Even then my wife had to drag me through it. I kept saying: ‘I’m not a writer, I can’t do it.’”

Johnsey is hard on himself too but his biggest problem is that he stands out. “I was surprised to see somebody describe him as ‘mentally deficient’,” says Ryan. “He’s just a really unworldly aggregation of every bullied person I’ve known. Things happen to Johnsey that I witnessed, especially in school. People got such a hard time there, your heart breaks to think about it.” The reader’s affection for Johnsey grows as we follow him, but Ryan’s commitment to exploring the ways that circumstances shape individuals means that, even when Johnsey is savagely beaten by four young “yahoos”, they’re clearly the product of a deprived, macho culture: “I have fond memories of the village where I grew up but there was all this madness and oppression. Lots of men play along with an idea of what a man should be, which makes them unhappy. Violence is an extreme form of that.”

Johnsey’s recuperation in hospital is the novel’s turning point. The first half of The Thing About December portrays his unhappy youth but the second contains laugh-out-loud moments, even as his neighbours try to force him to sell the farm to developers. “I try to have levity there all the time, although Dave’s comedy is more overt,” says Ryan. Mumbly Dave is Johnsey’s fellow patient, his brash brother in temporary blindness, and the pair tease their young nurse, Siobhan, aka The Lovely Voice. Both characters befriend Johnsey, and he must decide whether to trust them, but the depiction of sharp, gutsy Siobhan is refreshing. “I write women the way I know them,” says Ryan. “We’re seeing women on exactly same plain as men for the first time and nearly all the women characters in my books have inner strength. That’s probably to do with my mother who’s funny and forthright.”

Ryan admires his contemporary and compatriot Eimear McBride, whose prize-winning debut, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, was another surprise success last year, although he resists my attempt to place the two at the forefront of a renaissance in Celtic stream-of-consciousness fiction: “Eimear is in the avant-garde and I wouldn’t see myself in that.” Their work offers separate visions of religion because, whereas Catholicism compounds misery in McBride’s novel, Ryan’s characters conjure acerbic responses to its teachings. “I know the church inflicted suffering, and I’ve seen people use religion as a stick to beat others,” he says, “but my experience of the Church of Ireland is largely positive. In the gospels, you find tales of people’s struggle to be heard. I honestly think all Jesus was saying  was: ‘Love your neighbour.’ Going to Mass with my parents was a nice thing and not really to be taken too seriously.”

Does he take literary success seriously? “My work and family routine are the same as ever but it’s the most amazing thing and my writing career has changed no end. I can’t believe it’s happened. I keep expecting to wake up.” He was excited to receive a congratulatory email from fellow Booker nominee Colm Tóibín, so the rave reviews, which The Thing About December has been garnering from senior Irish novelists, will mean a lot.

After a phenomenal 18 months, when The Spinning Heart won Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards and the Guardian First Book Award, what’s he hoping to achieve in 2014? “I probably need to take time off from the civil service to finish my third novel. I’d like to be a full-time writer. I’d love to drop the kids at school, knowing I had eight hours of writing ahead of me.”

There are plans to adapt The Spinning Heart for the stage, Ryan has written eight stories, which might form a collection, and he’s working on a novel about a pregnant woman. All three projects are in their infancy, however, so let’s end with something he says when conversation circles back to the recession which, I think, encapsulates the spirit of his work: “The crash stripped away the film that was over our eyes. We started to see each other as we really are.”

Extract: "The Thing About December" by Donal Ryan, (Doubleday Ireland, £12.99)

‘Eugene Penrose and his pals were sitting on the low wall in front of the IRA memorial again. Isn’t it a fright to God to say a man can’t walk home without being tormented by yahoos every single day? A few times lately Eugene had clipped Johnsey’s heel as he walked past them and he had stumbled and nearly fallen. How could they be always there anyway?’

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?