DAY 3: Who’d Be A Writer? Don’t Quit The Day Job – Dalkey Book Fest
It’s normally only on match days and special occasions that you would see Finnegans pub packed with people at 11:30am. But such is the draw of the charming Sharad Paul and the unflinchingly honest Donal Ryan that the people here are sipping on juices and coffee instead of pints in the Dalkey establishment for their talk “Who’d be a Writer? Don’t Quit The Day Job.” They’re joined in conversation by Paula Shields.
As we learn over an hour of conversation as spell-binding as any one of their books, being a writer is a lot of hard work, a lot of determination and a of something that’s a bit undefinable.
Both men are writers who hold other jobs, Donal in the civil service and Dr Sharad as a skin cancer specialist (among other things).
When it came to big success, it wasn’t something Donal Ryan had in mind.
Speaking about his first book, The Spinning Heart, Donal says “I was kind of conditioned to the idea of it selling 2,500 or 3000 copies and fading back into obscurity, and that was fine!” to peals of laugher. ]
“It was a real shock [for it to be so successful]. Unexpected. John Banville said the curse for a writer is to be best known for first book and it’s kicking in a bit now.”
He adds, “I was never thinking this would sustain me for rest of my life… I’m a bit of a coward.”
Donal than confesses he wonders how full time writers make money. “How do you pay for things? I still don’t know.”
Donal has been very honest about the making money as a writer and dissuading the myth that he must be rolling in the moolah because his book has been a critical success.
Looking back now, he regrets a little talking about being quite broke around 2009/10. “My mother said ‘Why on earth would you say that in public? Just ask me for the money and I’ll pay it for you!’. So I thought if I could make 10 or 20 grand out of the book, it would be great.”
For Sharad, writing also came from a place of necessity – a creative one. He used to run a book store and teach creative writing and he thought “Maybe I can write. I think I can write.”
When it comes to the business of getting published, he talks about deciding between taking a book deal or potentially going to a kind of open show in Frankfurt and running the risk as to whether someone would bid on his book or now.
“There’s a South Indian proverb that only the crow thinks it’s baby is beautiful. So I thought this [my book] might be a crow baby.”
“Anyway, so 10 days later, she rang me [his book agent] and she said ‘I think we should go to Frankfurt’ and I said ‘crow baby in hand is worth two in the bush’.” He took the deal.
It turns out that even after you get published, writers don’t feel like they have it all figured out.
“I’m still learning” Sharad replies when Paula asks him about the business of publishing
In terms of monetary success, it’s not a case of a book deal and big cheque going hand in hand. “It depends on where you are in the pecking order” Sharad says. There’s the few at the top, the powerhouses, who’s books are global bestsellers. Then there’s the middle, “where people like us make a bit of money but quite often you need a day job. It’s not fair to kids [to say] I’m a struggling writer and I can’t the pay school fees… [there’s] responsibilities to families.”
Donal explains the business of writing through an Irish context. “In Ireland at certain times of year, 300 books will do it. It’s easy to get into the top 10 in Ireland, it doesn’t take a lot. You need to be in certain genres to have a good shot at making the money.”
For Donal, he thinks the crux of successful writing is “a big central idea… you create a black hole of attractiveness and suck people in.” The reaction he gets to his writing however, isn’t always a riveted one. “When I saw I’m a novelist – a literary novelist – people’s eyes glaze over and they don’t wanna talk about it.”
But he does admit that once you top a bestseller list, there is an assumption that it must mean your book has also been a monetary success. “I was with my brother in law in a van driving over the mountain and he said really seriously ‘Have you got a million euro?’ and I said ‘I don’t even have a thousand euro!'”
The audience roars with laughter before Donal continue on. “I had to get AIB banking on my phone to show him! And he goes, ‘you’re an awful fucking eejit’…”. The audience roars again with laughter.
If a writer manages to break into the UK or US, it’s a game changer. “They’re much bigger and very attractive. But breaking it is very hard” Donals says. “I went to American for 3 weeks [on a book tour] thinking at the end at least I’ll be famous! About 5 people in American know my name.”
Sharad says that generally, he finds it easier to sell his non-fiction books then his fiction ones. He has a friend in publishing and he said the year Twilight took off, it was “all vampires” in the world of publishing. “Then next year, it changed to werewolves. So this year I asked, what is it. Now it’s all sci-fi.”
These trends can go a long way to determining whether a book even makes it onto shelves or not in any given year. But, as the essence of a story, Sharad says “It’s still the same. Two aliens, fighting over another alien…”, to more laughter.
For Sharad, his day job helps implicitly with his writing. “I feel I’m lucky in medicine because you’re exposed to people all the time and they’re always telling you stuff they wouldn’t tell their spouses. Everyday, they come in and there’s another story. How lucky am I?”
He then launches into a story of medical mystery. A woman at 49 presented with hallucinations, insisting she was pregnant by an imaginary Italian lover and the doctors were confounded by it. Sharad then goes on to explain how he diagnosed the woman in a manner Gregory House would’ve been proud of; figuring out that the woman had a tumour on her kidneys that was causing her strange behaviour.
It’s clear that all of Sharad’s experiences and his day job intrinsically affects his writing. He mentions how medicine has become so specialised, many doctors fail to see the big picture. But in Sharad’s writing, all the influences that fit together to create his big picture are apparent.
When Donal took a leave of absence in order to concentrate on writing, he found it an adjustment. “I felt so free” he tells the audience. “From the age of 12 I had never not worked.” In this period though, he said “I didn’t not have a job. I’d been given a fairly substantial amount of money to write a book.” But he adds he did manage to “forget that for two months” as he stayed in his pyjamas and took it easy.
“I said to people ‘I’m being receptive to ideas’ but that the ideas would float away when I started looking at the sky.”
So, in his own words, he started “skulking around UL” and they took him in [he became their writer-in-residence]. “I was writing again, I was relieved. I need a 9-5 job. I find language becoming brittle and dry on me if I don’t use it all the time.”
He did admit it was “great to feel like you have nothing to do”, but it’s a false comfort. “You never have nothing to do. There’s always a mild panic in the back of my head, getting louder and louder.”
Sharad says “I think writers block is laziness to be honest”, which is followed by guaffes and chuckles. “There’s a psychological reason for the laziness – there is a gene and that’s a finely tuned evolutionary adaption” he continues.
“When you know your work is crap, you procrastinate” he says, with a strong ring of truth.
“The other reason is they [the writer] see the end result and where the book is going… and they think the audience won’t like it or it’s not in fashion… but you must write it.”
Sharad takes a rather philosophical approach to writing; something he tries to do everyday between 10pm and 1am after his family has gone to bed. “It’s like tennis. You practice. Some days your better, some days your crap.”
As Sharad begins speaking about switching genres – he writes fiction, non fiction, poetry and medical text – an audience member turns to me and says “He’s a genius.”
He’s not the only one to share the view. A few minutes later, Donal says “If I saw Sharad flying with a cape, I wouldn’t be surprised at all.”
Donal identifies more with the Colm Toíbin process of writing. “He says every novel he writes is a kind of panic, an emergency.”
Donal handed in a new novel about a month ago and his next one us due next Summer. “I have to get back to my old routine of writing from 9pm until midnight!” he says. Sharad’s next novel is about salmon fishing and autism.
Although both men are extremely busy, they both believe it’s important for writers to create time in order to read too.
“You can’t write without reading at all. It’s the whole craft. You have to read and… you have to absorb it. It’s like cells, you observe information and produce something else” Sharad says.
Donal agrees. “I try to always have a novel on the go and read 20 pages a day at least. It is hard. but before I went back to work, I would sit in my office [in UL] everyday and for one half hour read.”
For Donal, the proximity and exposure to language and it’s use is an important part of his writing process. “It’s something you have to be disciplined about.”
When it comes to the pros and cons of the art of writing, they both have set views.
“I think that having pressure of having regular job and not having enough time [is good]… you have to write because you want to write. I actually think having extra pressure is good because it pushes you to do it… if you just knuckle down, the work just comes” Sharad says.
For Donal, he has to “have this comfort of knowing were covered. I can’t take chances in certain ways. I need to have security. I have to have a job. Joseph O’Connor said to me once nobody should be just a writer and most writers tend to be other things too… I think you lose something of yourself if you ‘just’ are a writer.”
As the event draws to a close, it’s clear that writing is and probably always will be a risky profession. It’s a risk to put your work out there, it’s a risk deciding to pursue a professional writing career and it’s a risk on whether future work will be successful. It is one that, while both men have taken, they have not done so to the neglect of all else. Perhaps this is the best path for those who wish to become professional writers; to do so while maintaining another profession.
But the spectre of the road not taken is never far from the mind. Donal shares a story of a MA student he had a few years ago who was a gifted writer. Donal was his teacher and he said to him that he was going to stop in his pursuit of a law degree and focus fully on writing. Donal told him not to.
It’s something he wonders about now; whether he gave him the right advice, whether the young man finds the time to eek out and dedicate it to writing while he maintains a successful law degree.