Honest words from Donal Ryan in Zurich

Honest words from Donal Ryan in Zurich

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Imagine a struggling writer standing over his kitchen sink burning page after page of handwritten manuscripts because he doesn’t want any record of “these travesties” to remain on earth.

That’s what’s Donal Ryan did with seven or eight (!) novels and one hundred (!) short stories before he became Ireland’s most successful debut author with the release of The Spinning Heart in 2012. I heard this account from Ryan yesterday evening at a reading in Zurich Literaturhaus. His honesty and Tipperary accent were a tonic.

In fact some of the early work that Ryan destroyed was festering in the hard drives of old computers and it was a case of delete and empty trash rather than burning. But what made him trash the old material and believe in his first published novel so much he submitted it “to every publisher in the English-speaking world”?

Ryan discarded the work he wrote in his twenties because it didn’t ring true. “The voices were too forced and contrived and I had a weird low-level nausea in my stomach when I was writing.”

Then, with The Thing About December, Ryan tuned in to the right station, as he put it, and found his voice. The book, written before The Spinning Heart, was published last year and tells the story of Johnsey, a vulnerable young man in rural Ireland, hopelessly ill equipped to deal with the changes life thrusts upon him after his parents die. The story is written in the close third person and Johnsey’s predicament is told in his own deceptively simple language. The writing is moving and eloquent, and funny when it’s not devastating.

The story is well described in this Irish Times review.

Ryan spoke about love a lot on Monday night and reading between the lines he appears to care deeply about Johnsey and what the character represents. Even his mother became fiercely protective of Johnsey and spoke of him as if he were a real person (rather endearingly, Ryan mentions his family a lot).

Ryan’s compassion is evident when he is talking about his characters. “Johnsey is a distillation of all the men I know who don’t speak. And I know lots. These are men who live alone in totally isolated farmhouses. I wanted to know what the inside of their heads would sound like.”

“All stories are about love, or the absence of love. All stories are based on declensions between those two states.” Ryan repeated this idea, which seems to be his motto.

I’m in the submission doldrums at the moment, that point when a writer begins to doubt their worthiness and the wisdom of committing so much time and passion to the whole enterprise. So of course I asked Ryan how he struck submission gold. He mentioned sheer luck and a scatter-gun approach but perseverance seems to have been the key.

Interestingly Ryan wrote The Spinning Heart (also set in Johnsey’s village but about a decade later, and written in 21 chapters of different first person narratives) swiftly and without a struggle while he was submitting The Thing About December, to take his mind off the rejections.

When he moved on to the submitting stage with The Spinning Heart he clocked up dozens of rejections. He kept print-outs of his email rejections in a folder and once, when asked by a journalist, made a rough count of forty seven, but there were more that didn’t make it into the folder, he said.

Ryan has been described as the best literary chronicler of the Celtic Tiger but in typical unassuming style, he says the fact that his two novels provided bookends for the Irish economic boom was accidental. “It was fortunate for me because it got me published. It was my hook.”

Donal Ryan has a collection of short stories coming out in December, also set in the same fictional village as the novels. He describes it as the best work he’s ever done. Meanwhile, work on his third novel is progressing painfully, he admits.

I left the Literaturhaus with a smile and with the feeling I was fortunate to have spent time listening to a great ambassador for Irish writing. It’s a reminder that whenever things get tough, it’s good to connect with other writers (if only from a distance) for inspiration and encouragement.

I’ll be back in Zurich next month to attend a talk by Siri Hustvedt. Can’t wait!

Children behind the gates – writing about historical abuse

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We know what children need – love, protection, guidance, understanding – and we know what a travesty it is when they are deprived of those basic needs. But is this a recent discovery? Looking back at the treatment of children in the care system in the middle of the last century, you might think so.

The 1990s was the decade of revelations about failings and injustice the Irish system. More recently Switzerland has been going through its decade of revelations of historical abuse. It’s a process that is being repeated all around the world and it’s heart-breaking because there is nothing you can do to help those children. It’s too late.

Did the authorities and caregivers in those times have no concept of children’s welfare and emotional needs? I would argue that they did, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on their own experience of home life. But there were limits to their ability or willingness to provide for those needs. And these factors have to be taken into account when writing about this period. If we turn those involved into evil caricatures, we are incapable of gaining any insight into our own failings as a society today.

So why was it that some children mattered less? What was stopping the authorities and religious orders from doing right by the children in their care? Some of the limits stemmed from prejudice – in particular the prevailing prejudice against ‘illegitimacy’ and against the ‘bad poor’.

The stigma attached to children born outside marriage was so strong, so well enforced by the church and its followers, that people could hardly see the child behind the stigma, if at all. The shame and secrecy let the fathers of these children off the hook and also made it possible for families to reject their ‘sinning’ daughters, even to the point of having them locked up for years.

As for poverty, widespread to an extent that we have so quickly forgotten, there were prejudices at work here too. On the one hand you had the ‘good poor’, hard-working, honest people, scraping by somehow, tipping their caps and not making any trouble. And then there were the ‘bad poor’, parents overwhelmed by the daily struggle to feed and clothe their children, families whose mothers lived on the verge of a nervous breakdown, whose fathers turned to drink or crime, whose children appeared neglected. Sympathy for these families was not forthcoming.

That’s to speak of the willingness to care for children who were unwanted or rejected by society in one way or another. I also mentioned the ability to care for these children.

A well-run children’s home should have enough money to provide a good diet for the children, as well as clothes and play materials. In a cold climate it should be well heated. The staff should be well trained and recruited for their aptitude to provide loving care to children. There should be a compassionate discipline policy in place, with good oversight so that there is no room for abuse of any kind. But what if none of these requirements is met?

Let’s put the cruel sadists aside. They are in a category of their own and nothing excuses their actions. What about the ordinary inadequate carers? Two years ago I attended the presentation of a report into allegations of historical abuse at children’s institutions run by the Swiss Ingenbohl Sisters of Mercy. The worst allegations could not be verified but the authors of the report did find “excessive punishment” doled out by some sisters.

It also described the systemic misery for both adults and children living in the homes – long working hours without free time or holidays, large groups of children to look after with insufficient financial means in crowded living conditions and with insufficient infrastructure.

But the ill-treatment didn’t end at the gates. For my story I spoke to a remarkable man, Roland Begert, the son of a Swiss gypsy (Jenisch) woman who was deserted by her husband. He was given up by his mother as a baby and grew up in the system, first with the nuns and afterwards living with a farming family as an unofficial child labourer.

Roland Begert is forgiving of the tough discipline and lack of affection shown by the nuns in the children’s home where he spend the first twelve years of his life. What hurts him most, looking back, was the attitude of the people in the town to the ‘home children’.

The townspeople warned their children not to have anything to do with the ‘home children’ and the local children obliged by throwing stones at them. Roland’s excitement at being sent out to the town school quickly ended when the teacher started bullying him mercilessly.

So while the townspeople loved and protected their own children and did their best to give them a good start in life, they participated in a horrible double standard. Society was complicit in banishing the ‘home children’ from the mainstream in the first place and the community actively kept that exclusion in place.

Writing about failings in a system that happened fifty years ago does not serve any purpose if it stays in the realm of storytelling, with a cast of wicked witches. We have to try to understand the broader mechanisms of society that caused so much suffering if we have any chance of avoiding the same mistakes.

I think a lot of lessons have been learned. One huge problem was that, until recently, society did not allow for children to be raised by one parent, whether for practical or moral reasons. Marriage breakdown or the death of one parent left children in a precarious position. No access to contraception also made it impossible for parents to limit their family size to a level they could manage.

But there are still children behind the gates in society, for example the children of asylum seekers living in direct provision. Few countries today can claim that they have a best-practice care system in place that guarantees the wellbeing and protection of their most vulnerable children. Even Switzerland, which prides itself on ‘Swiss quality’, still does not have an exemplary system, as I discovered recently when researching an article about foster care.

The stories from the past are important and they have to be told. But they have to be told in a fair way and they should never be used to make us feel complacent about our own problems.

Good things come in twos

My idea of heaven
My idea of heaven

I did say I wouldn’t post again until the novel was finished and I meant it. It’s been a long summer of some discontent, a lot of hard work, and a gradual brightening of the light at the end of the tunnel.

And now I’m here, out the other side. Still reluctant to use the word ‘finished’ in the same sentence as my novel, what I can say is that I have completed the most difficult draft so far. Thanks to wonderful challenging feedback from kind and generous readers, I hope I’ve managed to fix some of the weaknesses that were bogging down this manuscript.

The other good thing I discovered first thing this morning is that my blog has been shortlisted for the Irish Blog Awards, Diaspora category. I’m thrilled to be included in this list and look forward to reading through the other blogs as soon as I finish work today. Thanks again to fellow exile Niall McArdle for nominating me and to the judges for overlooking the fact that I was on a break.

Without the distraction of blogging for the past two months, I have been able to write every day and have harnessed the power of that rhythm.

A three-week holiday in Ireland also helped with the daily time-stealing challenge and the inspiration, as my book is set in Ireland. Anyone who was lucky enough to be in Ireland this summer will tell you that the weather was superb. I wanted the country to be at its best so that my Swiss family would experience the magic of an Irish summer. In fact I wanted them to be enchanted and to develop some of the feelings about the country that I have. For once the weather came up trumps.

The novel is back in the hands of two readers and I’m hoping that only small changes will be required from now on and that I will be able to declare September the month of submitting.

I’ll be posting soon again, about a fascinating meeting in Bern with award-winning Swiss-German writer Pedro Lenz and his Glaswegian translator Donal McLaughlin. Not only is McLaughlin from Glasgow (via Northern Ireland), he also writes in Glaswegian dialect. Can’t wait to review the result of this unique collaboration: Naw Much of a Talker.

Looking forward to connecting with everyone again and catching up with your summer stories.

It’s good to be back.

The smart thing to do

Goodbye Swiss winter, roll on the spring!
Goodbye Swiss winter, roll on the spring!

Is it generally the same type of person who thrives in society, regardless of the social or economic climate? Or are different qualities useful in different systems? I suspect you need to sell a little of your soul to get by anywhere.

I was listening to an ABC documentary recently about the history of adoption in Australia and it made me think (with a shudder) about the winners and the losers in a conservative society with zero tolerance of pregnancy outside marriage.

It was a time of limited opportunities for women when being a married at least guaranteed respect and opened the door to a celebrated occupation – married motherhood. So if you were smart you conformed.

A bit like joining the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.

John McGahern’s memoir of growing up in mid-twentieth century Ireland, apart from being a wonderful book, is an excellent piece of social history. In it he illustrates some of the routes to respectability and a decent living, which required people to cling like limpets to the apparatus of the Church and State.

“The year was 1953. In the 1950s a half-a-million people emigrated from this small country, nearly all of them to Britain, far more than in any other decade in the entire century. These emigrants were young and poorly educated, for the most part, and ill prepared. … The men sold their physical strength, the women their willingness to work long hours.”

And the winners? As McGahern puts it, the State had become a theocracy in all but name.
“The Church controlled nearly all of education, the hospitals, the orphanages, the juvenile prison systems, the parish halls. Church and State worked hand in hand.”

McGahern was offered a place at St Patrick’s teacher training college, full board and tuition paid with guaranteed employment at the end. Needless to say, he accepted it at once. His books were later banned in Ireland and he was dismissed from his teaching job but at this early stage in his life, McGahern had to conform and take what was available.

During the economic boom, those hard old days seemed as real and relevant as a dated movie. Post 2008, the Celtic Tiger is looking pretty dated and unreal too. What was normal then seems unbelievable now.

But even the boom had its losers at the time, lest we forget. There were many who just plodded along looking bewildered during those years. Priced out of the areas they grew up in, paying exorbitant rents to live in flatland, they were there. And something was holding them back.

They were unwilling or unable to follow the new rules. Rule 1: Get on the property ladder. Rule 2: Enjoy your disposable income. If you were smart, you conformed.

How people interact with the rules that surround them is great fodder for fiction. When I sat down to write my novel, it was set at just this time in Ireland’s recent past. And the people I feature and favour in the novel are mainly those who did not naturally flourish in the new climate of prosperity.

Do you ever think about what rules operate in society? And if so, have you played by them to get to where you are today?

Ireland – far away, up close

Time to say goodbye
Time to say goodbye

Some things, like impressionist paintings, are only clear when you take a step back. Not having lived in Ireland for a decade there are certain things I am seeing with fresh eyes. As I near the end of a four-month sabbatical in Dublin and contemplate the return to my life in Switzerland, it’s a good moment to cast an objective eye on the homeland.

Cold comfort: I now understand why we like to live in terraced houes, in the city at least. Huddling together, as penguins know, is the best way to keep warm. I’m not entirely joking when I say that the only thing keeping me here right now is my electric blanket.

Irish houses have chronic insulation issues and heating – what time you turn it on, how big your bills are, how useless storage heaters are – is a big topic of conversation. This issue should be the central plank of any political party manifesto. I think the political leader who makes our homes affordably warm is destined to win the affection of the nation.

Gale force: A note from the second windiest country in Europe (after Scotland). The wind is wreaking untold devastation on the hairstyles of Ireland, a problem that does not get the recognition it deserves. You could have your hair set in iron cladding and it would still get blown to bits. If there was some way we could marry the wind resource with the home heating gap we would be set up for life. Anyone, anyone?

Comfort eating: You have to have something with those endless cups of tea. The Irish are the biggest chocolate, cake and biscuit munchers in Europe and the selection of crisps is second to none. Yes there may be public health implications but it is also worth celebrating the sheer wealth of delicious treats available.

Storytelling: I don’t think Irish people live more dramatic lives but they certainly have the ability to turn life experiences into good stories. This comes across a lot on radio – I’ve often been stopped in my tracks by the voices of people recounting something powerful. Amongst my own friends and family I’ve had evenings here where story after story is told which could provide the plots for several novels. Speaking of which, I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met who are writing novels. The competition is going to be stiff!

Rule bending: Travelling with three children on the bus every day I have experienced plenty of instances of friendliness and kindness from bus drivers which never ceases to amaze me. There have been other situations where the ability to apply common sense or compassion over the rules has made life easier for me. It’s not something you come across as often in Switzerland.

The next twelve days will be all about letting go and saying goodbye again. But that’s OK. The trip has gone really well overall and I think I can say I found what I was looking for.

Getting away from it all

New horizon, old horizon
New horizon, old horizon

There are the restless years. The years of trying out jobs, hairstyles, places to live. That era of cycling home with your shopping bags swinging from the handlebars and spending everything you earn. You get caught in the rain, you never have a decent coat and you laugh a lot.

When you are living lightly, unencumbered by pots or pans, children or a hard-to-replace job, changing location is as simple as walking away. You don’t own anything you can’t carry, you don’t owe anyone anything. You book your flight and you go.

Then before you realise what has happened, the landscape of your life has changed. It takes a team of men a full day to move the furniture you have accumulated. You actually read through the quarterly statement from your pension plan. Gardening magazines find their way into your home and you become concerned about booking holidays early.

Middle age. There’s no getting away from it, that gradual drift towards Sofa, the god of comfort and inertia. Or is there?

One of the great things about my sabbatical visit to Ireland (now three-quarters over, tick tock!) is that feeling of having defied the pull of middle age just a little. Packing up and setting off for new horizons was a part of my life I thought I would never have back again, or at least not until my children were raised. But it has come to pass, and this time, after a decade abroad, I have returned to the original horizon of my youth, Dublin Bay – and it feels good.

Has anyone else found a way to feel free again? I’d love to hear about it.

You’re looking fierce well altogether

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This phrase, which I overheard on the street today in Dun Laoghaire, adds great flourish and emphasis to the standard ‘you’re looking very well’. You can also be fierce upset or fierce busy in Ireland. In my first week back I am feeling fierce well altogether myself.

Maybe it’s the street where we are staying, ten minutes’ walk from my childhood home and from the sea.

Or the morning we spent on the sea shore, climbing the rocks and looking for crabs.

Being there for my little nephew’s birthday.

My membership card for the Irish Writers’ Centre arriving in the post.

Bumping into old friends at the Sunday market in the park.

Sitting out in the back garden with my mother and knowing that for a change we have time on our side.

A tall order for Ireland

Sandcove beckons
Sandcove beckons

Is there any way the next four months in Ireland can match my ridiculously great expectations? How many gallons of tea, Jamaica ginger cakes, meaningful conversations and seafront walks will it take to satisfy me?

Small recap: After ten years in Switzerland I have taken some time off to return to Dublin to write, spend time with friends and family and give my children a chance to be more than just visitors to Ireland.

I am finally going to connect to the everyday rhythm of Irish life again, without the pressured merry-go-round of arrangements and catching up that my shorter visits home have become. At least that’s the hope.

More than one person has warned me that what I am looking for cannot be found. They perceive me as longing for le temps perdu – the way things used to be. Could they be right? I do know it’s not the same country I left ten years ago and that time and circumstances have changed us all but do I really accept that?

So what is it I am looking for? There are concrete things like my mother’s Sunday lunch, family birthdays, a dip in the sea at Sandycove. On the cultural side I’m looking forward to my first book festival in Dun Laoghaire, an evening or two at the theatre, the writing course I’ll be attending at the Irish Writers’ Centre. My children will come home from school, happy I hope, with a few phrases of Irish and a stronger sense of their other identity.

But it is the people I have missed the most. Close friends and family in whose treasured company I passed the first thirty years of my life. People I’ve only managed to have snatched moments with for too long, not only because of the distance but because of the demands of a growing family. A reservoir of unshared stories and experiences has built up behind the dam. It’s in these relationships that the greatest potential disappointment or reward of the trip lies.

Fellow blogger Karen O’Reilly returned to Ireland with her family earlier this month for good after 11 years in France.

http://getrealfrance.blogspot.fr/2013/08/taking-leap-moving-back-to-ireland.html

A lot of the reasons she gave for her decision echo my own but in my case the move is temporary. I hope the time in Ireland will soothe the homesickness I feel and help me commit more fully to my future in Switzerland. Whatever happens I think the regret of not following through on this idea would definitely do more harm in the long run. With just over two weeks to go before we leave Switzerland, any last minute advice or warnings are welcome!

King and queen of fifth class

Competition is healthy, right? The will to win pushes human beings to excel and for those with the right attributes and drive, the reward is the sweet taste of success. But too much emphasis on competition brings out its destructive force. It can distort and poison relationships, even society.

Here is an example of what a regime of competition did to a class of 10 and 11 year olds in Dublin in the 1980s. Our teacher was an old-fashioned disciplinarian who clearly missed the days of corporal punishment. He used to stalk the classroom with a metre stick and bring it crashing down on the desks of chattering children, shouting “watch out” just before he made contact.

The teacher had what Catholics call a “special devotion” to St. Teresa of Avila. Beware of anyone with a special devotion. We heard stories about her wonderful qualities – purity, humility, and obedience – ad nauseum. Enough already we would have shouted only that particular Americanism hadn’t yet reached Irish shores (nor had insubordination in the classroom).

Our school master imposed a system of continuous tests on us. Not a day went by without tests. On the wall he had meticulously put together a detailed chart where he recorded every pupil’s name and score in every single test. On a separate sheet there was a ranking of the running totals. At a glance we could see the order of achievement for all 28 children. There was no escaping it. So what did we do in this oppressive atmosphere? We became very competitive. More than that, we developed our own feudal society based on our rankings.

At the top of the pecking order came the King and Queen – the two brightest children in the class who alternated first and second place between them. The next half-dozen kids on the list were the Knights and their job was to defend the King and Queen whenever the teacher left the room and we all slipped into open animosity, expressed through ruler fights. The rest of the children were Commoners. When the teacher unwittingly seated a Commoner in the Knights’ section, he or she became a slave and had to fetch milk at break time, sharpen pencils, defend the royals and so on. Interestingly all the roles disappeared when we went out into the yard to play at lunchtime.

But inside the classroom, we stuck rigidly to the social order we had spontaneously created. Not quite Lord of the Flies but King and Queen of Fifth Class.