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Coming up for air: the sport of the novel for Eimear Ryan

UCC's current Arts Council Writer-in-Residence Eimear Ryan talks literary beginnings, her new novel Holding Her Breath, the state of the Irish arts post-COVID, and draws a breath between sport and art. In conversation with Alana Daly Mulligan.

11 Nov 2021

“Childhood passions are so indicative of who you turn out to be,” Eimear Ryan says of her upbringing, as if she was born into the world with a hurley in one hand and a pen in the other. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that Ryan’s debut novel Holding Her Breath celebrates sport and literature in tandem.

Born in a small Tipperary village where GAA was, as Ryan expresses it, “the centre of the universe”, discovering the world of prose offered Ryan a new community to be part of: “As soon as I knew that books were a thing and authors were a thing, and there were these people who got to build their careers just making stuff up, I wanted to play in that sandbox as well.”

Eimear Ryan, author and UCC's current Arts Council Writer-in-Residence

So followed experimentation with storytelling as a child and teenager, from children’s literature to fanfiction. Ryan’s decision to pursue journalism in DCU as the ‘sensible route’ to writing left a hunger for creativity, filled by a semester abroad in Boston where her fondness for the short story was formed, and soon a fate was set in motion through a spring of creativity and submissions to literary magazines. 

Ryan’s rise to award-winning writer and renowned editor has not been smooth, and she’s extremely candid about her literary hardships. “Progress can feel so frustratingly gradual,” she explains. “I published my first story in 2009 and didn't publish my first book until 2021 – that's a huge gap. In that time, I wrote a novel and a collection of short stories that were shopped around to publishers and didn't get picked up, and that was a big confidence knock.”

'From the mystique and unknowability of grandparents, frank discussions about Irish society’s evolving understanding of sexuality, and nuanced conversations around consent and mental health, Ryan has created a novel that challenges us to speak up and not be passive bystanders in our own lives.'

It was at this point Ryan withdrew from writing to focus on sport. She sees similar processes at work in the two disciplines – building resilience and focusing on self-improvement. The fruits of such is Holding Her Breath, a novel that looks at sporting failure. “That was something I struggled with in my own playing career and it was something I wanted to resolve for myself, but I wanted to do it through a different medium,” Ryan explains. The water-bound story follows the once Olympic hopeful Beth Crowe as she navigates the landscape of adulthood, exploring new relationships as well as uncovering old ones left unseen beneath the surface of the water. “I only started swimming in my mid-twenties – I never learned when I was kid,” the Tipp author reveals. “I was just buzzing on swimming. It was all so new to me and so novel that I just wanted to write about swimming pools.”

From the mystique and unknowability of grandparents, frank discussions about Irish society’s evolving understanding of sexuality, and nuanced conversations around consent and mental health, Ryan has created a novel that challenges us to speak up and not be passive bystanders in our own lives. A story about growing up, growing close, and growing apart and how what we don’t express says more than what we do. “All the source of the drama and tension in the novel is through people not being open and people not being able to say ‘I’m struggling’. I think even Beth has accepted by the end, it’s better to be open about things, it’s better to talk about things, give things light and air," Ryan says of what she hopes is the novel’s take-home message.

Strong women are gyrates in the novel, and for Ryan, her reputation as a writer and editor has been very much shaped by her co-founding of the acclaimed literary journal Banshee. While the literary attitudes of recent years have certainly been more welcoming to women, Ryan argues for diversification. “We have done a lot to address gender balance [in Irish literature] but it’s still a very white landscape. We need to create more access points for diverse voices to be heard because it will just stagnate if we don’t open [the scene] up. It’s funny, with Banshee we’ve provided another platform and I think because we are three female editors, people feel quite safe submitting to us.”

Eimear's debut novel, Holding Her Breath, was released in June 2021

Ryan believes the pandemic has led to an evening of the playing field when it comes to diversifying our literary landscape from straight white men of a certain age, and the digital nature of many events has made accessing the creative arts just that bit easier. However, this needs to continue when writing events inevitably move back into more physical spaces.

Next on the agenda for Ryan, alongside an exciting print-run of Holding Her Breath in North America, is a collection of sports essays about her own life. “As personal as the novel was, I think when you’re writing about your own life it just becomes so much more real and you just become so much more conscious of what you’re committing to the page.” Also in the works is novel number two, which, after a healthy amount of Trin-Lit banter, she assures me won’t be a campus narrative. “I think it’s going to be set in America and it’s going to be about an undocumented Irish person. Looking at her through both lenses of her privilege in being a white undocumented person in the States, but also how difficult it is being cut off from home, something I think we’ve all kind of experienced in a very real way the past two years.”

It feels clichéd and understated to say that Eimear Ryan is a once-in-a-generation kind of writer. As the Irish literature market is teeming with powerful female voices, Ryan’s is one that confidently swims to the surface – brave, unapologetic, imaginative, and with a beautiful ability to put a line of fiction through its paces. Ryan does not simply tell a story, but exercises the notion of the novel, of fiction, working in the tradition of whatever the Irish novelist is doomed to emulate, and smashing the retrospective, making a mosaic from the pieces. It is for this reason that this seems like Ryan’s year. Holding Her Breath is not only a novel for our time but revealing of a time that was silently existing. We wait patiently, taking tentative breaths between the lapping page-turns of any of Ryan’s works, as there will most certainly be rewards awaiting us. 


Eimear Ryan’s debut novel Holding Her Breath is now available to purchase from all good bookshops.

Photography: Diane Cusack

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