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When Characters Speak: Donal Ryan on All We Shall Know

Writing.ie | Magazine | Literary Fiction

I always get too involved with my characters and end up with this strange kind of love for them, unrequited (obviously, seeing as they don’t exist!) and nameless (I think), and just weird. I shouldn’t care so much about them; there are enough flesh and bone people in my life to whom I’ve an inalienable duty of care and love. But I suppose it’s because every fictional character will be to some degree a distillation of their creator’s experience of people and of life and the things their creator imagines goes on inside the minds of others, and because it’s hard not to plunder bits and pieces from the people closest to you to give form and depth to the people you create from ink and paper.

I fell for Melody, even while she ranted and raved and seduced teenage boys and eviscerated her husband and ignored her father and behaved in  a generally deplorable manner. She took my hand and typed her thoughts for me and I let her off. I thought she was fantastic. I shouldn’t have been shocked when I saw her described as everything from unsympathetic to downright irredeemable. But I was, because I never seem to see a story I write from the outside: I’m incapable of objectivity until it’s forced on me. Anyway, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s good to be immersed while you create and to be blind to the risks you’re taking.

Mary Crothery is very vaguely based on a girl I knew from  a Traveller site near where I once lived and some of the events described are based on what I know from experiences tangential and direct. Stuff I saw, stuff I heard, stuff I imagined might happen. Mary’s voice was as clear in my head as Melody’s and she had the aspect and aphorisms of my old acquaintance and so was easily rendered. The truth of her is absolute for me, but I’m pretty biased, in fairness. Mary Crothery was a joy to write. Martin Toppy was a bit trickier: I knew he was in the same space as Seanie Shaper from The Spinning Heart, in that he projected stoicism and manly strength and was actually close to being broken down completely by the weight of expectation he was burdened with, but it was easier to give Seanie a voice because The Spinning Heart is a series of inner monologues. Martin Toppy is almost fully silent in the novel and when he speaks his words are heavy, primed.

donal_ryan_final_IBA 200Martin Toppy has more to say. I wrote a story called The Dead Martins (Thanks, Helena Enright) narrated by Martin Toppy where he describes two relations of his with the same name, because I wanted to give him a proper voice, just to hear it for myself. And I like to have stories lying around that no one has seen: they give me this strange sense of security, almost, like there’s some small reserve of work extant just in case the writer’s block I experience intermittently ever takes proper hold and shuts me down completely.

Just as Frank Mahon was antimatter to the matter of my own father, Melody’s mother is the exact opposite of mine: she’s cold and undemonstrative and dismissive, where my mother spends her life spreading warmth to her family and buoying us up on her un-ebbing tide of love. But there’s some unarticulated formative trauma lurking in Melody’s mum’s  past that I might get back to again. For the time being she’s a simple doppelganger of a real person I’ve known since my first day on earth. So it’s as effective to use inversions of one’s own experience as it is to ‘write what you know’ – and I always heed Colum McCann’s advice to ‘write towards what you don’t know.’

Breedie Flynn was the most difficult to write, because of what happens to her. There’s nothing new or remarkable or unusual about her story: such tragedies are sickeningly ubiquitous today – bullying has never been better resourced. It’s easy to imagine the complexion of the campaign against her in this world of cyberbullies, where every vitriolic thought can be given instant expression and exponential replication. The tipp-ex on the noticeboard would have been the least of it. Louise O’Neill and Sarah Bannan are two writers who have examined the darkest reaches of this kind of territory forensically and with visceral power and thank God for them. I’m forty, and I’m tough enough, and I’ve been called a few choice things (e.g. c**t, eejit) on the internet and I’ve found it hard. I can just about handle it because I know for a fact those mighty tweeting warriors wouldn’t be so brave if they were looking me in the eye. But if that had happened when I was a teenager, I’d have thought my world had ended. Breedie’s experience is a million times worse than a few throwaway sneers and it was hard to write.

I started All We Shall Know around the time I signed a deal for my first two novels and shelved it until the spring of 2015. Anne Marie liked it and so I knew it was worth finishing. When I took it up again it was as though Melody was angry with me for ignoring her for so long: she took off at a furious pace and I could barely keep up. I finished the drafts in my office in UL that spring and summer and got the story down fully. The Shannon runs through the campus here and I had to take a long walk along the towpath each day to Corbally and back to get a break from her. Even people you love can be too much at times.

(c) Donal Ryan

About All We Shall Know

‘Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He’s seventeen, I’m thirty-three. I was his teacher. I’d have killed myself by now if I was brave enough. I don’t think it would hurt the baby. His little heart would stop with mine. He wouldn’t feel himself leaving one world of darkness for another, his spirit untangling itself from me.’

Melody Shee is alone and in trouble. Her husband doesn’t take her news too well. She doesn’t want to tell her father yet because he’s a good man and this could break him. She’s trying to stay in the moment, but the future is looming – larger by the day – while the past won’t let her go. What she did to Breedie Flynn all those years ago still haunts her.

It’s a good thing that she meets Mary Crothery when she does. Mary is a young Traveller woman, and she knows more about Melody than she lets on. She might just save Melody’s life.
Donal Ryan’s new novel is breathtaking, vivid, moving and redemptive.

All We Shall Know is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!

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