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Growing up in a kitchen full of women inspired Donal Ryan's new book


Donal Ryan's novel "The Queen Of Dirt Island" is a love story. Now, I do not mean in the traditional romantic sense. Rather, it's about the love that for generations of women in the Aylward family feel for one another. Beginning in 1982, the novel chronicles the lives of these four women in County Tipperary, Ireland - Mary, Eileen, Saoirse and Pearl. We glimpse their struggles, their knock-the-walls down fights both with outsiders and amongst themselves. We glimpse their commitment to one another. Well, Donal Ryan joins me now from Limerick, Ireland. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DONAL RYAN: Thank you, Mary Louise. It's such a pleasure to be here.

KELLY: I want you to begin where the book begins - with the birth of Saoirse, who becomes the narrator. Who is she? And just give us a glimpse of how she comes to be the fulcrum around which this family pivots.

RYAN: Sure. Saoirse is the daughter of Eileen Aylward, who is pretty much the titular queen of Dirt Island, who's based loosely but quite faithfully, in a way, on my own mother.

KELLY: Oh, really?

RYAN: And - yeah. And it worked out to be a novel that centers women but not quite by design. I didn't explicitly plan this. I didn't say to myself, OK, you know, the men here will be peripheral and attendant, and the women will take center stage. It just kind of happened. It sounds a bit silly, but it was almost a magical process because I wrote the novel very quickly. And Saoirse's voice and what Saoirse witnesses was all very clear to me and came very easily. It was probably the easiest book I've written in my shortish career.

KELLY: And when you say, yes, this is a novel that centers women, but I didn't start out planning that; it just magically came to be, give me a little more detail.

RYAN: When you say it, it just sounds - it sounds crazy. Yeah.

KELLY: Is it just women are at the center of everything? Or how did this come about?

RYAN: Well, I guess so. That's the way it's always seemed to me from a young age because in the '70s and '80s in rural Ireland, in most houses, the dads went to work. And most houses I knew of, mom stayed at home. Now, my own mom worked in a betting office part time when I was a child. But for the most part, I was among women because I had a sister and mother and a grandmother who often stayed with us. And it seemed that all of the neighborhood women would congregate in my mom's kitchen during the day. That's the way it felt. And, you know, I really drew on the humor and spirit and strength of those women when I was writing this book. Eileen strode through my imagination and kind of gave the orders and told me what to do.

KELLY: You also imagine all kinds of horrible things happening to your characters, starting with the death of the man who is the husband of one and the son of one and the father of the third of your main female characters. And I'm curious what that was like, imagining taking - it sounds like a place inspired by this very safe, central place in your own life and then imagining, well, what if everything had spun out in all kinds of...

RYAN: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Different directions?

RYAN: Exactly. I mean, I made a pact with myself years ago when I started to write seriously. I decided I was going to try to narrow the distance between the reader and what they were reading as much as possible. I was going to try to draw on the best and worst parts and all of the variations between of life. And so I wasn't going to shy away from the darkness, from the awful things that befall people because life is so fragile.

KELLY: Yeah.

RYAN: And I thought, you know, I'm going to try to have something in here that bends towards that lovely kind of dark, scathing Irish humor in every chapter, if possible. And I think it comes through mostly, I think, from Nana, to be honest. She's kind of...

KELLY: The grandma.

RYAN: ...A raucous character. Yeah. I love her.

KELLY: She seems like she might have been the most fun to write.

RYAN: Oh, absolutely. I have to say, I mean, I do love the character of Nana. And, you know, for me, she encompasses the whole book. And when I think of the book, I think pretty much of Nana's face and her voice. And what you're saying - she became so real while I wrote. And I wrote an article recently that was published on Lit Hub. And I talked about how it seemed as though there was a ghostly, disembodied voice whispering inspiration in my ear for the whole 12 weeks of the writing of the first draft. And I think that voice was Nana's for sure.

KELLY: Twelve weeks. And this book is - the version I'm looking at is pushing 250 pages. That's an extraordinarily fast writing pace.

RYAN: Yeah, I was kind of in a panic. You know, I didn't - I wasn't panicking during the act of writing. But I had spent the previous two years - I had spent all of my writing time composing a much longer and much darker novel that spanned a man's lifetime. And I described it as a hellscape because he is coming to terms with some awful acts he's committed. And so it's a series of confessions. But I was genuinely convinced during the writing of it that this was the best thing I'd ever written. But I was very gently and kindly disabused of that notion by my publisher and editor when I sent a manuscript in.

KELLY: (Laughter).

RYAN: But they did say that they would publish it, but it would have to be radically changed. And I hadn't - I genuinely did not have the heart to go near that book again. And I thought, you know, I could write another book. And I said at my desk thinking, but I don't have an idea. I've got nothing. All I've got is the residue and the dim, dark echo of this long novel.

KELLY: Yeah.

RYAN: And literally it felt as though - I looked up through the skylight, and it felt as though a voice came from heaven and said, what about a house full of women?

KELLY: Wow. You also - if I can just touch briefly on the structure of the book, it's very short chapters. I don't think there's a single chapter that's more than two pages. They're all, like, a page and a half, one-word titles to each of the chapters. I'm curious why you wrote it that way. It felt to me almost like you were giving me a family photo album. You weren't going to tell me what happened every single day, every single minute, but you would give me these snapshots. And each chapter felt just like, poof. There goes the flash. Here's what you see now. And it allowed me to fill in what might be happening in between. Was that intentional?

RYAN: Oh, that's a lovely way of putting it, Mary Louise. Thank you. And it was - I mean, the main reason for the - each chapter is actually exactly 500 words - no more, no less.

KELLY: Literally each chapter is exactly 500 words.

RYAN: Yeah, yeah. And I know it sounds arbitrary, but it started to make sense because the first few vignettes I wrote worked out at around 500, and I thought, just for tidiness here, I'll clip these back to exactly 500 so I can keep a very, very close eye on the construction of it. I can keep - you know, I can use a very - if I used a very strict modular approach, I thought, I won't veer off track. I won't digress too much, and I can keep a real control on the pacing of it. And it really worked.

But really, I thought as well, it's natural. This is a natural thing because every day is one revolution of the Earth. It's the exact same length. And some days are just ordinary days where you go to work and not much happens. It's a nice, pleasant day. And other days, there's a day that one of your parents dies or you lose somebody you love or you get married or, you know, you meet the love of your life. Your child is born. Some days are huge, and some days seem tiny, but every day is the exact same length. And so to have these vignettes that sometimes contain a lot of action and sometimes contain just somebody thinking something - it seemed natural and right.

KELLY: I love that. And I can't let you go without asking. What happened to the giant, dark hellscape novel?

RYAN: It's still here in my harddrive. Actually, I printed out a copy for my mom not too long ago, and she actually really likes it. I think she prefers it to "The Queen Of Dirt Island," actually.


KELLY: Well, Donal Ryan, thank you for coming and sharing this novel, which I'm so glad you wrote and put out in the world. And thanks for coming and talking to us about it.

RYAN: My pleasure. Thank you so much, Mary Louise.

KELLY: His new novel is "The Queen Of Dirt Island."


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.