Long Road to Russia
By Sue Leonard
Saturday, June 12, 2010
The Holy Thief
Pan MacMillan; €17.15
WILLIAM RYAN’S first novel is set in Russia. The 45-year-old author lives in London and writes at the London Library. There are no Irish characters in his book, yet his roots are firmly in Ireland. He comes from Limerick, went to school in Glenstal Abbey and then on to Trinity College Dublin.
His desire to write started in Ireland. As a schoolboy reading two novels a day, a monk, Fr Patrick Hederman, once remarked that one day he might write a passable novel.
"I filed that away," he says.
There was another influence at Glenstal too. The monks had an extensive collection of icons. Remembering their power, Ryan uses one at the centre of the plot for The Holy Thief. This debut is a powerful tale set in 1930s Russia when Stalin’s reign of terror was gaining ground.
A feisty detective novel, it’s atmospheric, beautifully written and meticulously researched. There’s a high body count, but the reader comes away with a better understanding of communism, and of how it feels to live in a community when you can’t trust anyone.
The road to writing, though, was a rocky one.
"I studied law at Trinity," says Ryan. "It was a random choice. I had the right points for it. If I’d had more I would have done psychology; less, I’d have done English. But it did appeal. Rumpole of the Bailey was on TV at the time and Rumpole looked like a very engaging fellow."
With no hope of employment in Ireland, Ryan emigrated to London. He trained for a year before becoming a pupil at the bar, but he didn’t last there long.
"I hadn’t enough money to carry on not earning, so when I’d borrowed £10,000, I thought I’d better get a proper job."
A friend found him a job in Deutsche Bank where he worked for six years on derivatives contracts. Meanwhile, he tried his hand writing screenplays, and when one was optioned, he left to pursue the writing dream. Having read The Holy Thief, I assumed this screenplay would involve tension and murder, but not so.
"It was a rom com, revolving around a missing lottery ticket." So he has a soft side then? "Absolutely." He loves romantic comedy, and thinks Pride and Prejudice is one of the best books ever written. "The structure is perfect," he says.
Ryan moved to Devon for a while, but after four years of talking to the film guys, his screenplay was dropped.
"There were lots of discussions. They were wondering would I change this character and that scene, and in the end they broke me. After a three or four year process I had no money at all, and there was little left of the original screenplay that everyone had liked."
So it was back to the city of London; back to lucrative employment. But after a couple of years, feeling burnt out, he decided he had to change his life for the better. "I struggled on until 2003, then I headed off to Tuscany with Joanne, who later became my wife. I was writing a travelogue about cycling round Iceland. But I realised writing prose was very different to a screenplay, and I came home thinking of doing a course which would teach me structure."
He found one, spending year at St Andrew’s University.
"There were such fantastic writers on that course. It was loosely structured. You learn as much from the other students and from reading their work in a critical way. I was writing short stories and I can see huge progression from the one I wrote to go on the course and the last one I wrote." That last one was included in a collection in Germany where it garnered some encouraging reviews. And that gave William the confidence to embark on a full-time writing career. But how did he come up with the idea for The Holy Thief?
"I’d started another novel. It was more literary and with loose ideas. I didn’t know how it would end and I realised it wasn’t a book I would want to read. I was reading Alexander Dumas at the time. He is brilliant at finishing chapters and wanting to make you read on.
"I’d read Isaac Babel’s short stories and was working on a screenplay of his life (Babel was executed in Russia’s reign of terror). I found that whole period in Russia fascinating.
"I took a hero – Korolev, working with the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Militia, who is not the brightest. I threw him in this situation and waited to see what would happen. I’m interested in dictatorship; in how ordinary people behave in extraordinary situations.
"You were required to give absolute loyalty in the Stalinist period. They were prepared to do bad things, believing that the end justified the means. Communism was a religion really. It offered paradise on earth and in the near future. The only way they could function was to believe, ‘this must mean something’."
Ryan has been to Russia, but he didn’t return for research. He believes that pictures, memoirs and letters give a better understanding of historical Russia.
He continued to research as he wrote, checking the way people spoke to each other back then. And it reads with utmost authenticity.
Now working on a sequel which takes Korolev to the Ukraine, William has a tight, self-imposed deadline. Joanne, who works as a producer on BBC Radio Four, is expecting a baby in September.
Meanwhile, The Holy Thief has sold to Poland, Serbia, Czechoslovakia, France, Spain, Germany, Italy and to the US.
The book seems a clear winner. Ryan, though, isn’t sitting back. He’s waiting with trepidation for the reviews to arrive.
"My publishers have been encouraging, but putting a novel out is like giving people a pile of stones and saying, ‘throw something’."
This story appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Saturday, June 12, 2010