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PI Interview: Between Publishers? Donal Ryan

Donal Ryan is the author of widely-celebrated The Spinning Heart for which he won the Bord Gáis Energy Book of the Year Award at the end of last year. Donal has been promoted by some of Ireland’s most well-known and acclaimed writers such as John Boyne and Jennifer Johnson- both of whom have endorsed Donal’s style as fresh and original. Donal took time out from working on his new book, The Thing About December, which is in fact, a prequel to The Spinnig Heart to talk to Publishing Ireland about the art of getting published, promotion and the intense relationship between author and publisher.

PI    First of all, congratulations again on winning the Bord Gáis Energy Book of the Year Award. How has life been treating you since then?

DR    Thanks, Stephanie. Life hasn’t really changed much. I’m still in the same routine with work and the children and trying to squeeze in some writing. I’m not complaining, though – I’d stay in this routine forever if I could!

PI    The last time we spoke was at the Dublin Book Festival back in November, 2012 where you appeared in two events- one for the Sunday Independent Newcomer of The Year Award panel and the other for an event run in association with the Dublin Writers Festival in which emerging authors were introduced on the panel by a more established author who felt strongly about their work. In your case, noted author John Boyne spoke for you. How important was it for you to have such sponsorship? Do you feel that platforms such as this one should happen more often?

DR    Do you remember my semi-coherent story about finding out about John Boyne’s endorsement of The Spinning Heart and re-reading it several times, and not really believing it until Antony Farrell confirmed it? And my Dad being convinced it was ‘a different fella with the same name’? I still get that feeling of disbelief when I look at the back of the book and see his and Jennifer’s quotes. It was some thrill to have John introducing me to the audience at the Dublin Book Festival. I still have that ‘imposter feeling’ that Colm Keegan (Don’t Go There, published by Salmon Poetry – brilliant and beautiful, everyone should read it) talked about, but John Boyne’s generosity has really started to make a dent in it. I was so lucky to be given that platform and that opportunity, and would love to see everyone in my position getting the same chance.

PI    You have also been heavily plugged by one of the country’s most esteemed writers, Jennifer Johnson. With such accolades and high praise did you feel that there was a responsibility laid on you to, in effect,deliver?

DR    I spent a weekend in Jennifer Johnston’s company at the Kate O’Brien weekend in Limerick, and enjoyed every minute of it.  And it made me nervous. She mentioned me during her interview in the Limetree Theatre on Sunday and spoke about what I’d do in the future. It was a great feeling, but I was going aaaaahhhhh inside my head! I can’t be sure I’ll do anything worthwhile in the next five minutes, let alone in years to come. Jennifer is fantastic; she’s so straight and encouraging and, having published seventeen brilliant novels, maintains an unflagging work rate. I was hanging around with her and Christine Dwyer Hickey and Colum McCann and David Park (listen to the namedropping!) and thinking of them all the time as ‘the real writers’ and of myself, again, as a bit of an imposter. Definitely there’s a feeling of having a lot to live up to, a fear that I’ll let people down if I mess up. But I have to try to ignore it: fear of failure will stop me trying.

PI    The Spinning Heart is jointly published by Lilliput Press and the Transworld imprint, Doubleday Ireland- a slightly left of centre move. Did you have any initial misgivings about working between two publishers in this way? Were you afraid of conflicting voices?

DR    I had no misgivings at all. From the first moment I walked through the door of The Lilliput Press I had a great feeling about them. Looking at their books that day, they were works of art, they were so well designed and bound, and it was obvious that they loved what they did. And Sarah Davis-Goff and Daniel Caffrey had both read The Thing About December and really got it; they genuinely had the same affection for it that I did. I called in home that night on the way back to Limerick and Dad just said go with them, Do. And he’s never put me wrong yet. I had dealt a little bit with Brian Langan from Transworld even before meeting Lilliput and knew he was a good guy. There haven’t been any conflicting voices yet, (unless they’re all having mad rows behind my back and not telling me!) It seems to work really well. I was over in Transworld UK in January and it was a great experience. We’ve all managed to avoid conflict pretty easily so far anyway.

PI    Anyone who has heard you speak about the process of getting published knows that you clearly have a very good rapport with your publishers. How exactly did this relationship work in terms of two publishing voices. Did you ever find yourself drifting more toward one then the other? Who had the final say over your content?

DR    Haha! You might as well ask which of my children I prefer! There’s no way I’d say I have more time for one or the other. You’ve been in Stoneybatter, though, so you know there’s kind of an aura about that place. It feels like home to me. They gave me one of the best days of my life just by sitting down and telling me what they liked about my writing and making it clear they wanted to publish my books. It was the end of years of rejections, unanswered letters, returned manuscripts plopping miserably onto the mat. Then the co-publishing deal with Transworld as the launch title for the Doubleday Ireland imprint opened up a world of opportunity, and Brian and Eoin seemed to feel the same way about my books as the guys at Lilliput. I don’t know who has final say, but it feels so far as though I have. I mean, there were no edits I didn’t agree with. I might have been on a bit of a high horse once or twice, but Sarah and Daniel talked me down with consummate ease.

PI    The recent success of self-published authors like Helen Seymour for her novel Beautiful Noise (launched by Bono himself no less) has highlighted an increasingly prevalent issue:Is it better to retain full editorial control over your own work? Seymour turned down a five-figure publishing deal with HarperCollins to do just that. How do you respond this and were you ever tempted to go down this route yourself?

DR    I’ve heard Helen on the radio talking about this. You have to really admire her. I hope I’d have said no to a mainstream deal too, if they wanted to deconstruct my novel and put it together again as something different. As Jennifer Johnston said to me at the weekend, if someone has big ideas for changing your book, tell them to go write their own.  I don’t know if it’s possible to retain full editorial control where a company is investing in you and your work and taking all the risk, there has to be some give. If you have something crazy in your book, something that detracts from the overall work, that’s going to do damage, you can’t expect publishers to just go with it. I heard a story once about JD Salinger throwing a fit over a copy-editor adding a comma to one of his sentences. That’s a level of preciousness I think I can safely say I’ll never experience, but it does smart a little now and again when you have to take out a phrase or sentence that you were initially happy with. You build your novel word by word. But you have to look through the editor’s eyes and try to be objective and professional. I’ve been very lucky, though – I have great editors.

I don’t know if I’d have self-published, because I’m not sure I’d have had the skills or the heart for it. Some people do it incredibly well. A friend of mine published a great vampire novel recently; it was really well-written and edited, and she did her own artwork – she did the whole thing brilliantly. Not everyone has the skills required to do it well. Helen Seymour gave the sagest advice of all to people going down that road: Get your edit right. Don’t just go throwing any old thing up on Amazon.

PI    How much editorial control does an author need? When should they step in an override an editor’s opinion? Should they ever override an editor’s opinion.

DR    God, it’s hard to say. When does confidence in your work become arrogance or worse, hubris? If something strikes at the heart of what you were trying to say, and you just know it needs to stay, stand your ground. Cormac McCarthy pauperised himself for principles. But always listen, and try to empathise. Again, objectivity is so important, while also being almost impossible at times. You’re immersed in your own words and ideas when you’re writing and editing a book. It’s a cliché, but no less true: sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees.

PI    Promoting your book can be a fairly daunting and exhausting task. How much of this did you have to take on yourself in terms of PR administration? How big a role did Lilliput/Doubleday  play with this?

DR    Sometimes I feel really guilty about this, thinking I should have just abandoned myself to it, hit the road and signed every single book in every single bookshop, sold it copy by copy. And I’d have loved to – ten years ago I’d have taken six months off work and lived on Tayto sandwiches and tap water, fluoride or no fluoride. But my job and everyday life are consuming and sometimes it’s like trying to force a litre into a pint bottle. But again I’ve been very lucky, the guys at Lilliput are old hands, as are the Transworld guys, and Gill Hess, the PR company, have been brilliant.

PI    What advice would you give to emerging publishers out there who are just starting out in terms of courting and nurturing their authors?

DR    I couldn’t give advice to emerging publishers, not any that would be of use to them anyway. I’m not even fully emerged myself yet! I don’t know about nurturing authors – do you just give someone space, or creative direction, or just motivation and encouragement? I suppose everyone’s different. You certainly need to be dynamic and adaptable and ready to grab every chance that arises, while maintaining discernment.

PI    I know that you are currently working on your next book, which was in fact your first book- a kind of prequel to your current novel. How has the process of publishing The Spinning Heart affected the one which preceded it? Has it?

DR    I always think of The Thing About December as the book I wrote for Anne Marie. I wouldn’t have started it without her, and having started wouldn’t have persevered without her. And she pretty much edited it over my shoulder as I wrote. So, just for her, it’s great to think that it’ll have the springboard of The Spinning Heart having done well and been well-received. I want that book to be read. I feel real affection for it, the first novel I properly finished, the first thing I ever wrote that I was some way happy with. When it was decided to publish The Spinning Heart first I was not happy. I felt as though Johnsey, the main character, was being slighted somehow, shoved to the back, and was actually upset for him, and for Anne Marie, because she loved him. But I soon came around.

PI    If you could single out any one negative of the publishing process, what would it be for you?

DR    It’s necessarily slow-moving, and that can be frustrating. But getting things right takes time.

PI    What would you like to see more of from Irish publishers in terms of how they can help their authors?

DR    My experience has been so positive that I can’t really speak from experience when it comes to publishers’ deficiencies. But I think that anyone involved in a creative process needs reassurance and space, and for people to realise that it can be a hard road. Sometimes the words don’t fit, ideas get mangled on the way to the page; the whole endeavour seems impossible, or worse, pointless. Empathy then is the key thing, I think.

PI    What does an author need most from their publisher?

DR    I think I’d give pretty much the same answer as I’ve given above. And also, I think authors need to feel they’re central to the publishing process, and not an ancillary part. We only earn a tiny fraction of the cover price of a book – it sometimes seems inversely proportional to the level of effort on our part, but that’s the price of being published.


The Spinning Heart is Donal Ryan’s first novel published by Doubleday Ireland and Lilliput Press., 

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