by Alan Ryan
At fifty-four, I have just published my debut novel Magpie.
It still surprises me when I think of it. As far as I remember, I never scribbled prose under the blankets by torchlight or kept a diary. I had not written my first book by age six and I cannot claim to ever having more than a normal interest in ‘words’ – except for the rude ones, which did occasionally get chalked on the footpath outside our house. The fact they were spelt incorrectly may have explained how the culprit was always apprehended so easily. I grew up in a house full of books, but when not running feral outside, instead of reading I chose to immerse myself in every episode of the Six Million Dollar Man or Starsky and Hutch. Along with not having studied any of the prescribed texts, my poor spelling may have contributed to my failing English in the Leaving Certificate. An inability to learn to spell and my dodgy grammar followed me into adulthood.
At twenty-one, I built a treehouse in the Australian bush and searched for gold. Inspired by the experience and disappointed at not finding gold, at twenty-nine I graduated from university with a degree in geology. The college lecturers were more concerned that I got the science right and overlooked my spelling and grammatical shortcomings. As exams were passed, my confidence grew, but writing anything remained a chore. I took no pleasure in it. Headaches and cold sweats would precede any written assignment. Many years have passed since I last walked through Trinity’s Front Square, but guilty boxes of unfinished postgraduate research still occupy space in my attic. A fear of having to write it up is partly responsible for why it is gathering dust in the attic and not gathering dust on a shelf in Trinity.
At thirty-nine I did an Ironman Triathlon. At forty-two, I set an Irish Ironman record and stood on the podium at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. A curious inclusion you may think in an account of my circuitous journey to writing a novel. But, more than anything else, long distance triathlon taught me that with patience and perseverance, anything is possible. Racing took me around the world. It is an expensive business. To attract sponsors, I forced myself to write race reports and a blog. Much to my surprise, these were well received and even more surprisingly, I enjoyed writing them. Something had changed.
Injury and illness put a pause on my ironman training and freed up time. I painted more - something I occasionally do. I found myself painting predominantly Australian scenes, paintings of places encountered when working in the Australian mining industry years previously. Every long-lost memory retrieved, revealed another, and a sort of chain reaction began. A story that had germinated for decades, began to grow large in my mind. I can’t say exactly why, or what made me open the laptop and start to write the story of the broken-hearted Irish backpacker. Maybe turning fifty prompted a period of introspection and reflection. Maybe it was just the right time. I was in a good place. A first sentence grew into a paragraph and then slowly into pages of crisp formatted text – my new favourite thing.
Magpie came to me in pictures. I suspect I write more with the eye of an artist as opposed to being a writer. I regret not having read as a youngster. I should read more now. Discovering writing has been the most liberating and challenging experience. For four years, every available minute was spent plotting, writing, and editing my story. I would find myself typing furiously outside my daughter’s ballet class, or outside the swimming pool during my kids’ lessons. Coffee shops and trains were amongst my preferred writing spaces. Long meditative swims were, I found, the best way to tease out problems with the plot.
It has taken many years of full days and countless rewrites to get my novel to a place where I am happy to publish it. It has been a most wonderful and exciting journey.