The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
Tipperary born Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart is a first novel that has not only stunned critics, and launched the new Doubleday Ireland imprint in a unique collaboration with The Lilliput Press, but won Sunday Independent Best Irish Newcomer of the Year at the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards 2012.
On the eve of the Awards, Writing.ie spoke to Donal Ryan to find out more about The Spinning Heart. Described by Jennifer Johnston as “Most beautifully written and plotted. What a writer! It is amazing to read about such grief and pain and yet end up elevated by the quality of the writing. A wonderful book,” The Spinning Heart is set in a small Irish town where the fallout of Ireland’s financial collapse provokes dangerous tensions. As the consequences of greed affect an entire community, a drama of kidnap and murder unfolds. Through a chorus of unique voices, each struggling with their own version of truth, a single authentic tale emerges.
But how did Donal come to write such a powerful story with such a blend of points of view? He explained, “I started to write The Spinning Heart on a wave of momentum I’d built up writing my first novel, The Thing About December, (which is due out next year). The Thing About December is set in 2001; The Spinning Heart is set in the same village in 2010, and so it’ll serve as kind of a prequel. That momentum carried me through to the end of a first draft of The Spinning Heart; I didn’t really waver at any point.”
With so many voices, surely it was hard to keep track of the plot? Donal said, “I did write a chapter that deviated from the spirit of the book a little too much, but luckily my wife, Anne Marie, who has a sharp editorial eye for what works and takes a completely objective approach to my writing, talked me out of including it. I sulked for a while before realising that she was completely right. And having been told that the book was a little short by my publishers, I added two more chapters, one of which consisted of an imperfect rendering of a person I knew, and included an imaginary conversation with God. I thought it was very clever, of course, and very beautiful. In reality it was over-wrought and sentimental to the point of mawkishness. Luckily the fantastic editors who worked on the book, Daniel Caffrey and Sarah Davis-Goff, diplomatically talked me down from my high horse.”
“I didn’t think out the plot or context of The Spinning Heart too much. And I kind of let the characters speak for themselves. I wasn’t exactly channeling some metaphysical force, Georgie Hyde-Lee style, but I wrote most of the first draft at the kitchen table between 9pm and midnight, over about seven months, with the partition doors to the living room open, maintaining sporadic conversations with Anne Marie and letting the television flicker and buzz at the edge of my consciousness. I had sequestered myself in an upstairs room for most of the writing of The Thing About December and I think the experience drove me a bit mad, temporarily.”
Donal has been praised for his courage in dispensing with a traditional narrative arc in The Spinning Heart. He explained, “It’s very nice to hear but makes me feel a bit of a fraud: I thought I was giving myself a very easy time structure-wise. Gone was the need to ensure consistency of voice while also developing characters properly, and the pace of the novel was kept in a regular rhythm by the use of multiple narratives of roughly equal length, like a drummer keeping time for me. Rock guitarist instead of classical violinist: the beat was given to me.
‘This may also, thinking about it now, have been an unconscious reaction to my experience of writing my first novel. I got very involved mentally with the main character. I think I almost loved him, or did love him, or at least invested just a little too much of myself in him. He made Anne Marie cry a few times, and my mother, Anne, and sister, Mary, my second and third readers. They all fell for him, and not in a romantic way. I knew I was on a winner then. Hopefully this won’t seem as mad to you when (or if!) you read the book. I don’t agree with Hemingway’s famous assertion that you haven’t written a book if there’s anything left in you at the end of it, but there’s always an element of suffering in the creation of anything worthwhile, whether you’re building a house or sculpting a statue or writing a poem or whatever. I spared myself some of that with The Spinning Heart: none of the characters were around long enough for me to get too deeply involved with them. But I think it really, really works. And I have a real affection for those characters now.
‘I left it up to the reader to decide why these people are telling their stories. I had the impression myself, vaguely, of the confessional, or at least of people speaking in strict confidence, their faces obscured to the eye, yet revealing the bare flesh of themselves, and at times the raw insides. People are wounded; even without a recession, if we had the world’s most stable economy, people would be wounded by life, by experience, by love or hate or loneliness or doubt or indifference or some creeping or sudden circumstance. We’re all shaped by life, by our families and friendships and loves and hates and everything else that makes up a life, and this shaping necessarily marks us. The characters in The Spinning Heart are everymen, typical of any place and time. I hope they ring true; I think they do.”
We have to agree! But with this caste of disparate characters, and innovative narrative structure, what was Donal’s biggest challenge?
“The biggest challenge I faced writing The Spinning Heart was maintaining belief in whether it was worth it. I thought of myself, a little arrogantly I know, as a good writer. But as I was writing it I was receiving a steady trickle of rejections for The Thing About December and, later, for the opening chapters of The Spinning Heart itself. And, possibly more woundingly, publishers and agents were ignoring me who I really believed, for various reasons, would be interested. Some I re-queried, even in the absence of any initial response. One I apologised to, for not following her list of rules for querying her, and will always regret that email. What was I apologising for? Anyway, query and apology were both unacknowledged. But I soon realised the awful toll that taking it personally would take. I learned quickly to be objective about and accepting of rejection; I had over thirty piled chronologically in a brown folder before Brian Langan emailed from Transworld to express interest in The Spinning Heart and Daniel Caffrey rang me shortly afterwards from The Lilliput Press to tell me that Sarah Davis-Goff had found my manuscript of The Thing About December in their mountain of hard-copy submissions and they both loved it. Johnsey had crept into their affections the way he had into mine. I met them the next week with The Spinning Heart under my oxter, Antony Farrell rang me the next day to offer me a two-book deal, and that was that.”
He makes it sound simple!
The Spinning Heart is a wonderful and bold book, one that breaks the mould and triumphs for both the cast of characters, and their creator, a new and talented voice whom we can expect to hear more from. Watch this space.