‘Inspiration is often a distant, shapeless feeling that strengthens gradually to impulse rather than a flashbulb, eureka moment.’
In this Man Booker 2018 longlist interview Donal Ryan tells us how From a Low and Quiet Sea was inspired by actual events and how the prize was important in his household when he was growing up.
What’s it like making the longlist again?
It’s an unbelievable thrill. I was slightly more prepared this time for the media interest and managed to say fewer ridiculous things to journalists but it’s difficult to articulate the excitement and joy of getting a Man Booker nod. The prize was always a big deal in my house growing up and my parents would do their best to buy the books each year. They were overjoyed when Roddy Doyle won in 1993, for the brilliant Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, and I clearly remember imagining how it might feel to ring them someday to tell them that I’ve been nominated for the Man Booker Prize. It’s still a little hard to believe that a daydream so wild and beautiful has become reality twice over and I feel a lovely burn in my stomach every time I think about it.
What inspired the novel?
Actual events, like most of my novels. But inspiration is often a distant, shapeless feeling that strengthens gradually to impulse rather than a flashbulb, eureka moment. The earliest notes I have for this novel date back to 2013 and that was such a hectic year that it exists now in my memory as a blur of furious activity. It started as three stories told in sequential paragraphs switching constantly - a terribly confusing mess - but the closing scene was clear in my head from the start, and Farouk, Lampy and John were vivid in my mind, with Pop, Florence and Mrs Coyne more ghostly in the background.
With a story like this that involves different people and places from other countries than your own, how much research do you do?
The research that informed my writing of Farouk’s chapter happened over the best part of a decade, and it was unplanned, unfocused and very incremental. I worked in a job from 2007 that involved regular contact with migrants, many of whom were refugees. I met dozens of people from Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, most of them incredibly warm and generous, and I was gradually given clear ideas of the places they had left, the lives they’d lived there, and the journeys they’d made. A few years ago I discussed a story I wrote called Long Puck, set in Homs in 2012, with a group of Syrian families who had settled in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, twenty miles from where I grew up. One of the group explained to me that Syrian people often changed street names in their towns to make migrants feel more at home. The events in Farouk’s story were prompted by a newspaper story, one among thousands, that struck me very hard, because of the images it contained of a crewless ship being wrecked in a violent storm, and a man surviving but suffering unimaginable loss. These things together allowed me to finish that part of the book with some hope that I had at least approached a sense of the truth of that kind of experience.
Favourite Man Booker-winning novel?
DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little always comes straight to mind when I think about Man Booker winners. I just loved it, and remember feeling real happiness while I read it.
What are you working on next?
I just sent a draft of a novel to my editor, Brian Langan, and await his wisdom and guidance. There’s another novel forming itself very slowly in my mind. I have an opening scene worked out and a list of characters, but they’re mostly quite hazy at the moment. I know what’s going to happen, though, and that’s the main thing.