Writer’s Block with Jane Ryan

Sophie Grenham speaks to author JANE RYAN about formative years, lessons learned and her debut novel, 47 Seconds …

Photograph by Donal Moloney

Newcomer Jane Ryan is the author of 47 Seconds, an exciting new crime thriller set in Dublin and Birmingham. The first in a series of books, the story follows fiery Detective Garda Bridget (Bridge to her friends) Harney, who works in the Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau based in Harcourt Square. Bridget is obsessed with the enigmatic Sean Flannery and his organised crime family, to an unhealthy degree. We first meet Bridget and her stable, supportive side-kick Kay Shanahan at Dublin Port, where a frozen human arm is discovered inside a pig carcass.

While 47 Seconds has the typical foundations of its genre, Ryan is a storyteller with natural comic timing, clever turns of phrase, and a strong set of individual characters. The book is told mainly from Bridget’s perspective, but we also have a smattering of chapters that focus on other viewpoints.

The troubled protagonist has the outer shell of a middle-class woman who disappointed her father by trading a promising law career for An Garda Síochána, her Trinity College scarf a constant comfort blanket. Seen as tough and impenetrable, what’s underneath is someone prone to great loneliness, vulnerability and a desire to succeed.

The softer side of 47 Seconds has heart-warming illustrations of friendship, family and the complications of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s. On the harder edge, not only do we have a classic game of cat-and-mouse, but the narrative explores sexism and gender equality in Ireland’s police force, and the impact of drugs and abuse. We get a detailed portrayal of organised crime investigation, thanks to Ryan’s extensive research, and if you look between the lines hard enough, you might just recognise some real life characters in the process.

Jane Ryan grew up in Co Kildare and went to boarding school in Co Wicklow. She studied with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland and spent two decades working in the technology and communications sector. Her short fiction has appeared both online and in print, her most recent contribution was to the anthology, Strange Love Affairs.

47 Seconds (€15.99) is published by Poolbeg Press and available nationwide.

On home

I live in Dun Laoghaire by the sea with my husband Ron and two boys, Adam and Conor, we’ve lived here for nearly twenty years. We bought the house just before we were married. The house was built in 1880. Ron’s mum spotted the house was up for auction, we fell in love with it immediately, complete with cracked roof tiles, single glazed windows and pocked redbrick. The neighbourhood is great with a real sense of community, the People’s Park has a Sunday market where you can buy food or lemony crepes to munch while you browse, we do a lot of that! When the children were smaller we would play in the park and take The Metals walkway home; it’s a short cut of connected lanes for pedestrians and cyclists, lots of chances to stop and look at the Dart rushing by which caused great excitement. Costello Flowers is a regular on my daily walk with the dog, a tiny shop bursting with blooms, I will often call in for a chat. I love fresh coffee and walk through the village after the school drop to J.J. Darboven, the smell of roasting beans enticing me. Unfortunately I am easily enticed and an inveterate cake eater, the White Tea Café does a rich and moist coffee cake, I get a take-out slice and sit outside the Mariners’ Church and enjoy the biting sea air.

On roots

I’m from Rathmore in Kildare. When I was child Rathmore was truly the countryside, a townsland with a single cream and green telephone box to let you know you were near civilisation. It was a farming community with a few blow-ins from Dublin, like my family. I remember drifts of snow in winter and our nearest neighbour driving his Zetor tractor complete with front loader over to dig out our driveway, the stink of the diesel as he revved the engine and the excitement of what seemed like a mountain rescue. In summer it was hay; the dry, sweet smell of it being cut and saved. My brother and I would always lend a hand in our neighbour’s farm, stacking bales and running after the harvester, which was a huge three-man operated machine that threw out square bricks of straw. It was an open, friendly community and it’s where my brother’s love of farming comes from.

On formative years

My formative years were spent in Kildare at home with my parents and brother. My brother was a little older and christened me “Slim Jim” as I was tiny with a home haircut and looked like a boy. I adored living in the countryside and had room to roam, with a field full of horses and trees behind our house. I would spend hours reading in a huge sycamore tree just beyond our garden fence. I have a love of solitude and the effect countryside has on your senses from that time in my life. I also have a very vivid imagination from spending so much time on my own as a child. I had pen pals and adored writing letters. Letter writing gave me a love of telling stories and sharing memories that has stayed with me. I went to boarding school in Our Lady’s School, Clermont for my last couple of years in secondary school. It was run by nuns, glorious and old-fashioned with just a tinge of Derry Girls.

On early reading

My father read to me when I was young – my favourites were Sinead de Valera’s book of Irish fairy tales, it was full of emeralds that blackened when the heroine was in danger and witches who were washed away by underground streams. I loved Fantastic Mr. Fox, but I think my Dad’s favourites were C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. I remember being enthralled and scared in equal measure when he started The Magician’s Nephew. My mother taught me to read when I was three and I was hooked.

I read all the Enid Blyton books; The Famous Five, Mallory Towers, St Clare’s, and Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, then moved onto Agatha Christie, which gave me a love of upending reader expectations. Our house was chock full of books on shelves, by bedsides, in cases and nothing was off-limits. If you could reach it you could read it!

On creating

I write in the study upstairs. It has a front window and three big dormer windows on the other side of the room. It feels like a glass bubble at the top of the house. It’s trimmed with book shelves; my parents’ books, my husband’s books, mine and our children’s books, so in essence those shelves contain my past, present and future. I have photographs of my mum and dad, my grandfather and his ancient varnished desk in this room.

I write at my grandfather’s desk. It gives me a lovely feeling of connection to all my family that are gone. It also keeps me focused, as my grandfather couldn’t abide slackers! If I lean to the left of my front window I can see the sea. Lest I am picturing a wondrous library type room – it’s not. In our house, space is at a premium and in the middle of the room the boys have their table tennis table. When the inspiration isn’t flowing I put up one half of the table and belt a few balls.

If I need a change of scene I go to my local library, the Lexicon in Dun Laoghaire. It’s at the end of my road and is a wonderful light-filled space. From the outside it looks like an old fashioned cruiser, having more the feeling and look of a huge ship docked on the skyline.

On bookshops

I have many favourites, but I’ll keep it to two. The Book Centre in Waterford, which is housed in an old cinema and is just a delight. A more local independent book shop to me  is Raven Books in Blackrock. Louisa was the first person to stock 47 Seconds and tweeted how she’d sold out before lunchtime. It’s a lovely spot where you can browse, ask for recommendations or just stop by for a chat. I almost always meet a friend when I pop in.

On her “To Be Read” pile

Where do I start? I break my TBR pile into three stacks: research, crime/thriller and other. In my research I currently have Garda Powers: Law and Practice by Rebecca Coen. This book compares policing practices between Ireland and England and Wales, with particular understanding of PACE codes of conduct. Similarly, I have Narconomics by Tom Wainwright, it’s a good read and has some useful statistics. In crime fiction, I currently have Snap by Belinda Bauer; I will read anything by Belinda Bauer. Burning Matches from Paul Fitzsimons; I’ve heard great things about this debut. The Healer by Sharon Thompson; her work is complex and intelligent. In other, I have Yuri Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, a book my husband enjoyed, and Echoes of Grace by Carragh Bell – it was described to me as “fabulous and frothy.” After all the crime, I need a little froth.

On escapes

I go to Cahore to escape. It’s a beach in Wexford outside Ballygarret and no matter what season you go to Cahore, rain or shine, that beach dissolves stress. We walk the dog, collect shells, the boys went pier diving in the hazy heat of last summer. You come back to reality rested and more alive. I would highly recommend it. Years ago you could stay in Cahore House, which was beautiful but has sadly fallen into disrepair.

My favourite foreign city is Berlin, it’s crisp and tangy like the sauerkraut soup from the Little Green Rabbit. It’s an active, bustling city with so much going on, from historical walking tours to hidden bars with a speakeasy feel. We keep returning and find something new each time.

On 47 Seconds

I think the seeds were planted years ago when I read fictional detectives and found myself drawn to police procedurals time and again. I love a whodunit or even a whydunit. Simenon’s Maigret is one of my favourite fictional detectives and I love Ian Rankin’s Rebus.

A strong, uncompromising female character, who didn’t care if she was liked had been lurking around in my subconscious for years, when I read in 2015 that a Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau had been established, it piqued my interest and I started to wonder what it might be like to put my character in there.

If Ireland had a Scotland Yard, I believe it would be Harcourt Square, I found researching police forces fascinating; An Garda Síochána, The London Met, West Midlands Constabulary. Their strategies, policing procedures and development plans were all different yet had common threads. The single most rewarding thing I found during the writing process was giving Bridget her voice, letting her take control of the story while in some cases I simply sat back and watched.

One of the challenges in this book was researching the darker aspects of the story. The effects of drugs and abuse on individuals, families and society. Some of the scenes I wrote necessitated in-depth research of real-life situations and even the most dry, legalese account of violence is still violence.

On lessons learned

I’m not as disciplined as I hoped I was. I write like a maniac when it flows, but it doesn’t always flow and I don’t plan ahead enough. When my laptop wasn’t large enough to cope with my brain and the time periods within the story, I tacked sheets of paper to the shelves in my study. I should have started with this as it would have saved so much time!

On what’s next

For me, Bridge’s story isn’t done yet and I’m contracted for another two books. Outside my family, writing is my passion. It energises me, the whole process of research, outlining and the experience of letting my characters lead me. Hopefully there are many more stories in me and readers who want to be transported into Bridge’s world.

@SophieGrenham

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