Interview with William Ryan

William Ryan, author of The Holy Thief, was born in London in 1965 and attended Trinity College, Dublin. He practiced briefly as a barrister before completing his master’s in creative writing at St. Andrews University. His work has appeared in the short story collection “Cool Britannia.” He lives in London with his wife. The Holy Thief is his first novel.

In this blog, I am interested in exploring the phenomenon of detective fiction, of crime novels, of so-called mysteries, and I chose Ryan’s novel, “The Holy Thief,” for my first review because it is a highly complicated and impressive example of the genre—a  “genre-stretcher,” if ever there was one. There is a certain stigma attached to the notion of genre-fiction, and yet genre-fiction is immensely popular with vast numbers of readers. I am grateful to Bill Ryan for giving me the chance in this interview to zero in on his own thoughts about his novel, about where he sees himself on the genre-spectrum, and whether this even matters to him.

DJ.  “The Holy Thief” is your first novel. It might be called a crime novel, a detective novel, a thriller based in a police investigation, a large panoramic historical novel. It is all of these things.  I wonder whether, when you decided to write a novel, you wanted to write a detective/crime/thriller, and chose to set it in Russia in the thirties, or whether, on the other hand, you wanted to write a big novel about Russia in the thirties, and came upon the idea of using the investigation of a particular crime to drive the plot and focus on particular characters?

WR. It was during the thirties that the initial optimism of the Russian Revolution ran into Stalin’s desire to completely control of every part of Soviet life and the result was enormous political oppression, famine and hardship for the peoples of the Soviet Union. It’s a fascinating and tragic period, all the more so because Hitler would invade a few years later, causing tens of millions more Russian deaths.

 The idea of writing a detective novel set against this background came around a little bit by accident, but once I’d had the idea it seemed to me it would  be a book that I’d find interesting to write and that I hoped people would find interesting to read. The more I thought about a detective investigating a murder at a time when the State was murdering millions, the more I thought what a strange job it must have been – particularly given that the Soviet State was also manipulating truth and justice for political ends on an industrial scale. Korolev, as a policeman trying to do the right thing, has a difficult path to follow – he’s aware of what’s going on around him but in order to survive he must adapt himself to this strange reality, not question it. He knows, as we do, that to voice even the mildest concern about the collective insanity that surrounds him is to risk almost certain arrest and worse, so, as a result, he decides to believe what the State requires him to believe and accept the strange truths it requires him to accept, while at the same time having parallel and private views that are quite different. I think that that’s how people cope with totalitarianism of that nature – by essentially having two personalities.

DJ.  Did you have a particular personal interest in Russia in the thirties it that drew you into investing so much time and talent into tackling such an immensely difficult topic? It is obvious from this novel that you have plenty of  talent in writing, in scene-setting, in plotting, in drawing characters, and could as well have written a major novel set, say, in London where you live.  Why then give yourself all these extra hurdles? And for your first novel?

WR. I’ve always been drawn to Russia and Russian literature but the starting point for The Holy Thief was probably reading Isaac Babel’s short stories set in the underworld of Odessa and During the Russian Civil War. At the time I was half-heartedly writing screenplays for a film production company that paid me largely with kind words and I thought that Babel’s very visual fiction might translate well onto the screen.

As it turned out, nothing came of the Babel idea but the research I undertook at the time did spark an interest and one that was fuelled by the fact that there was very little fiction set in the period. Eventually I started writing The Holy Thief but without a very clear idea as to how the novel would develop and Babel somehow ended up in the story, which made a nice circle.

I’m not sure writing a contemporary novel set in London would have been much easier to write – one of the good things about historical fiction is that the research often helps out the plot. For example, a scene at the end where soldiers are carrying an inflatable village in preparation for a march past the Kremlin comes from a photograph of a Red Square parade I came across. Once I saw the balloons, I thought about them being let go and this village floating above Moscow and so I had a nice ending to the book.

If readers of historical fiction are sometimes looking to escape from the world around them for a few hours, maybe the same is true of writers of historical fiction. And it’s certainly true that you can get away with a lot more stylistically when you’re writing in a different time period, which is something I enjoy as well. Writing The Holy Thief was hard work but it was also like stepping into a different world, even if it was a world I’m very glad I never experienced firsthand. I’m not sure I would have found so much to interest me in a period and place I was familiar with on a daily basis.

DJ,  I imagine that you speak Russian, and obviously you must read the language.  I know from my own experience that it is not easy to write an entire novel in English in which the characters are speaking English but ostensibly speaking another language.  The last thing one wants, of course, is to have them speaking some kind of phony English. Still one wants the reader to accept the authenticity of their nationality.  Did you find this a problem?  Your dialogue certainly flows, and we who know no Russian can accept it as “Russian.” Did you think much about this?  What did you do to make it possible? I am talking here more about the language than the content.

WR.  My “Russian” in The Holy Thief is pretty deliberately constructed. I think you have to accept with all historical fiction that 100% accurate dialogue would probably make novels unreadable, particularly historical fiction set in non-English speaking countries. If, for example, Hilary Mantel’s characters in Wolf Hall spoke the English of late Tudor Britain most readers probably wouldn’t get past the first chapter, and the same is probably true for The Holy Thief.

There’s basically a fine balancing act for writers and screenwriters, because the same problem exists in historical films, where we try to create a feeling of authenticity while writing modern, easily comprehensible English. Fortunately for me, most readers will be familiar with how people spoke in the thirties from old movies and I very much had all those great James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart movies at the back of my mind. As I’m Irish, my “Russian” definitely has an Irish twang to it but I use that to create a slightly foreign feel to the dialogue. On top of this I’ve spent the last five years collecting Russian sayings, which I slip in whenever I think I can get away with it. Finally, I tried to follow the Russian conventions when it came to using names. I know my “Russian” occasionally annoys real Russians but, even though The Holy Thief is now being translated into Russian, it wasn’t really written for a Russian audience and compromises had to be made.

DJ.  It will be fascinating to see how Russians react to the novel in Russian, to the characters as drawn and their thoughts as expressed.  Your main character, Korolev, is what some people would call a simple man, a man of the people, not an intellectual in the normal sense of the word, but quite definitely a thinker, and you make us privy to many of his thoughts.  How did you satisfy yourself that this is the way a Russian in his position would have thought and expressed his thought to himself?  Does this in fact matter if his thoughts interest us in themselves–his thoughts about God, about the Party, about his responsibilities to his country? These constituted the moral dilemma at the heart of the story and were to me the most absorbing aspect of the book. Did you find it necessary to seek evidence that a man like him might have thought in this way at that time?

WR. With a complex society that’s so different from the world that most modern readers of The Holy Thief live in, I had to try to create a reality that was sufficiently detailed that they could get a sense of the period, without overloading them with research. The best historical fiction is written as though addressed to a reader from the same time and place as the novel is set, and that means the writer doesn’t need to explain every single little detail. If the writer gets it right, the reader trusts him on that basis. To give an example, a modern author writing a novel set in Victorian London is probably trying to have the same relationship with the readers as a Victorian novelist might have. Modern readers can read Dickens and accept the world he’s reporting and modern writers try to recreate that.

That having been said, there’s very little completely reliable contemporary fiction from that period of Soviet Russia – anything that was published then was required to have a pro-Revolutionary message which means that you have to be very careful when reading it now. There were writers like Mikhail Bulgakov, Andrei Platonov and Lydia Chukovskaya writing novels “for the drawer” that eventually emerged after Stalin’s death, but these are relatively rare. Memoirs and fiction written later by survivors of the Terror such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Victor Shalomov, Evgenia Ginzburg and Nadezhda Mandelstam give insights into life at the time however and modern historians have produced some fascinating non-fictional studies of everyday life from diaries, memories and even NKVD investigations, so I definitely had material to work. All the same there’s often a large element of guesswork involved – after all, almost no-one was being honest at the time. 

Fortunately, I’m writing fiction so I’ve a bit of flexibility – most novels involve a writer taking facts and asking “what if”, which is pretty much what I did. I’m not sure how accurate historically a character Korolev is, because someone in his role would probably have been more involved with political crimes then he is in the books. In order for The Holy Thief to work however it was essential that he’s a simple detective looking for justice in a State that had a very skewed view of that concept.

DJ.  There are real historical characters in the novel alongside the fictional characters, notable among them Isaac Babel. I had some problems with this, but I’m not sure why.  Babel himself, as we know, was himself tortured and executed just a few short years after 1936, the year of your novel.  Why does this make one somewhat uneasy at finding him here in the pages of a piece of fiction?  It would be interesting to know why you chose to put real people into your fictional plot. It certainly works—your Babel is a very lively figure in the novel.  Was your purpose in introducing him to add authenticity to the fiction? Or what?

WR. Babel is the reason I started researching the period in the first place so that’s why he’s in there. I do understand that for some people it’s a little difficult to have a such a tragic figure in the book and I share some of their concerns. Ginzburg, the poet who appears in The Holy Thief is based very closely on the poet Osip Mandelstam who also died in the Gulag system. Likewise the film director Savchenko in my second novel, The Bloody Meadow, is based on Sergei Eisenstein. In both cases I thought it better to change the names and cover my tracks a little.  With Babel, I felt more relaxed about him appearing and I’m not entirely sure why.

DJ.  The only thing that made it difficult for me to read the novel was the detailed description of the torturing of certain human beings.  I do not doubt that this a realistic part of such a story as you tell here. Plenty of torturing went on.  It must surely be difficult for many people to read, however, and I somehow imagine that it must have been difficult for you to write.  Perhaps you could comment on your incorporation of such passages into your novel, one very prominently on the first pages that the reader encounters on opening the book. Did you think about how readers might react? Or did you divorce yourself from such considerations?

WR.  Because it was a debut novel I wanted to have a very strong first chapter. I knew the opening scene was pretty graphic – it’s actually been toned down in the published novel – but I wanted to grab the attention of agents and publishers, even if it meant some of them wouldn’t like it at all.

Writing it was a pretty technical job in many ways, because it had to be jarring and at the same time show the victim’s quiet courage. Because it was such an important part of the book, it was rewritten a great deal and after the first ten rewrites or so, I’m not sure I was too aware of the violence when I was actually writing it. Researching it was more difficult I would say, as torture is deeply, deeply unpleasant but apparently ordinary people seem to do it for various countries around the world, even today, including some not too far from home. That was something I wanted to make clear as well – that sometimes the torturer is a victim as well. 

All in all, I don’t regret the violent scenes In The Holy Thief but I’m probably not going to write anything that graphic again. Aside from anything else, extreme violence can overwhelm a book and I think there’s an element of that with The Holy Thief. Still, torture and violent death were very much part of the reality of that period of history in the Soviet Union and perhaps it’s necessary to remind people of that – sometimes the sheer scale of the Great Terror can obscure the way in which it affected individuals.

DJ.  Yes, I certainly take this last point.  I recently quoted Hans Fallada who wrote along these lines in the Foreword to his 1946 novel set in the Nazi period  which he lived through himself.

But back finally to the genre question: You are about to publish a second novel about Korolev, The Bloody Meadow.  Do you sometimes think that the crime-investigation plot can be a straitjacket?  Did you sometimes wish in your second novel that you could escape certain necessities that such a plot brings with it, and write more freely without it?

WR.  I think a crime novel provides an interesting basis for an investigation into the Soviet world, particularly for the tragic period the Korolev novels are set in. I really dislike the concept of “genre” though, it seems to place literary novels on a  higher level whereas I think many of the best novels being written at the moment are so-called genre novels. At the end of the day, a novel often stands or falls on its ability to hold the attention of the reader – obviously there’s a little more to it but it’s still a good starting point for any novelist. I like that genre novelists are focused on entertaining their readers and having a good, solid plot.

Many thanks to William Ryan for his detailed response and illustrations.  I hope the readers of this blog will have some responses for him. His second  Korolev novel, The  Bloody  Meadow, is scheduled to appear in September of this year. I am looking forward to it with great interest.

Postscript,  July 1: The Holy Thief has just been shortlisted for the 2011, Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of  the Year Award, one of the most prestigious crime-writing prizes in the U.K.

About dorothyjames

Welsh-American writer, German scholar, translator, traveller.
This entry was posted in historical fiction, murder mystery and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Interview with William Ryan

  1. Suzanne Hurst says:

    I found it fascinating what you said about people who are forced to live under totalitarianism surviving by developing 2 personalities. I feel nothing describes or explains my young adult years better, having been suffocated by both my parents, and living at home with them ’til one’s death us did part.

  2. Excellent interview, Dorothy and William. I really appreciate that Dorothy’s questions were not the usual “what are your favorite authors” and “where do you get your ideas?” Those questions are so worn out and tired. Very illuminating piece. Thank you!

  3. dorothyjames says:

    An unexpected comment, Suzanne, but illuminating. I do see the parallel you are suggesting here. Thanks for passing on the idea.

  4. dorothyjames says:

    Thanks, Aaron, I am grateful to Bill Ryan for taking the questions so seriously.

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