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From a Low and Quiet Sea: Donal Ryan on Writing a Novel of the Syrian Crisis

Posted on 28th March 2018 by Waterstones

Longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Spinning Heart, Donal Ryan's writing is known for speaking eloquently to the life of contemporary Ireland. Now, in his new novel, From a Low and Quiet Sea, he imagines a life-changing journey that moves from war-torn Syria to small-town Ireland, connecting three disparate identities. Here, the author describes how a meeting between his father and a Syrian refugee inspired a novel of broken lives brought together by the search for home.

Around two years ago I read a story I wrote called 'Long Puck', set in a Syrian town, to a group of families who had fled the war in that country and had settled in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, twenty miles from where I grew up. Syrian people have a long history of giving refuge to those in need of it, and a tradition of renaming streets in their towns to make exiled and dispossessed people feel welcome, to give them a stake in their new home. I was nervous that night at the Source Arts Centre; my research for the story hadn’t exactly been forensic, but the Syrian people in the audience and the young man and woman who interviewed me on stage and translated my mumblings were very gracious and complimentary.  So I got away with it, promising myself I’d never be so lazy again, or take such liberties with verisimilitude. 

After the event I saw my father in the foyer of the theatre, standing beside a Syrian man of roughly his age. They looked so similar it was startling; their shape and size, the lines of their faces, their bearing, the warmth they both exuded. Dad didn’t speak Arabic and the Syrian man had no English, but they seemed to understand each other, and they had a gently comedic conversation through a series of gestures, smiling, pointing, and laughing. I learned afterwards some of the details of the man’s journey from Syria, the loss he’d experienced, the length and the nature of his and his family’s internment in a camp on the Mediterranean shore. I imagined my father in his place, my kind, peace-loving father, helping to shepherd his children and grandchildren out of danger, across a continent, into a strange land. Leaving a part of his heart behind him, knowing he’d never see his home again. 

A few days later I read a story in the Guardian about a Syrian brain surgeon who had paid his life savings to get across the Mediterranean with his wife and daughter, suffering unimaginable loss on the way. I started to write about an imagined journey of a man called Farouk, drawing on news reports like the one from the Guardian and the little I knew of the lives and journeys of the people I’d met in Thurles. I weaved his story into the stories of two other men who were more familiar but no less tricky and satisfying to write: Lampy, a distracted young care worker and John, a repentant political lobbyist.

I know for sure now, five books in, that I could research until the end of time and still I wouldn’t know for sure how it feels to live someone else’s life, and so fiction will always be a series of guesses, some wild, some highly informed, most of them based on intuition and instinct. I don’t feel quite right about appropriating certain stories for fiction; it’s uncertain, undefined territory morally and philosophically. I enjoy writing so much, I get such a thrill when a story comes together, when a paragraph or a line feels weighted and balanced and to strike at something that feels true, that it feels sometimes like I unbalance my fraction of the universe somehow as I write, that there’ll be a reckoning someday where I have to explain myself, defend my actions. But for now it feels as though I’ve written the stories I needed to write, and that there’s a possibility that some small good might come of this book. 

Except for Lampy’s grandfather, the profanely garrulous Pop, the characters in this novel are mostly silent. Their internal tumults are described in a series of memories: each of them has a broken heart; each of them is disconnected, adrift, fragmented. They move towards a common place, a shared moment in time (a twist of sorts, though it didn’t feel like it as I wrote it). It seemed enough to leave the dovetailed stories there, in that moment of quiet drama, and to allow their new days to break only in the reader’s imagination. 

My father taught me that the single most important thing that a human being can be is kind. He didn’t live to see this novel published but I think he’d approve of it. Dad knew this truth and lived by it: The person walking towards you is your sister or brother, whatever their story, however different they seem. We’re all in this together. 

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