20th May2013

Interview with William Ryan

by Lloyd Paige


William Ryan is the Irish author of the acclaimed books, The Holy Thief, The Bloody Meadow, and his latest The Twelfth Department, which follows the adventures of Alexei Korolev in 1930’s Russia. I caught up with William to get an insight into his passion for Russia and unique writing mind.

1. Hi William, you once worked as a lawyer in the city what made you change career path to become an author?

I’ve always written in my spare time and after having been a lawyer for fifteen years I was getting a bit bored. I thought writing was something I could do as a career, probably wrongly at that stage, and decided it was then or never. I’d have to say, the more I think about the decision in retrospect the more it seems – well – a bit naive. I’d no idea of the sheer grunt and self-discipline it takes to finish a draft of a novel, let alone turning it into something that’s readable. I now know I was very lucky to get published and, while I’m glad I did it, perhaps if I’d known what I was getting myself into at the time I might have hesitated…

2. What gave you the idea for your first book The Holy Thief?

The story didn’t come about instantaneously but developed over the course of the research and the writing. I knew I wanted to set something in 1930s Russia because I’d once tried to adapt Isaac Babel’s short stories for film, which are set around then. Nothing came of the project but, along the way, I became fascinated by the extremely strange place that the Soviet Union was during that period. Crime novels are, by their nature, often about personal morality – and the Soviet Union was a place where morality was often turned on its head for political reasons and truth and justice were concepts that could change overnight depending on what the State decided. I thought having a police detective as my protagonist would be an interesting way to approach writing about what it was like then – in that his job is to discover the truth and facilitate justice. Once I’d decided that, the plot developed and changed as I discovered more about Korolev and more about his surroundings.

3. Did you ever suffer from the normal pressures that many aspiring writers go through when trying to secure the first book deal, and was the process of signing with an agent, the rewrites, and then finding a publisher, turn out as you expected?

I certainly learned a few lessons as I went along. The first one came when I made the classic mistake of sending a few chapters out to an agent I’d met who’d seemed encouraging, and got no response whatsoever. After that I kept my powder dry until I’d finished The Holy Thief and was pretty happy with it. I was lucky enough to have a friend who worked in publishing and who, half-heartedly it has to be said, agreed to read a couple of chapters and tell me whether I needed to go back to the day job. She liked it, fortunately, and was happy recommended it to Andrew Gordon at David Higham Associates who, as an ex-editor, was just what I was looking for in an agent and he worked with me to polish a bit more before we sent it out.

It took about three years from when I’d originally thought it was finished until it was published which was a surprise, although now I know that’s not too unusual – most publishers probably have a good portion of their 2014 and 2015 list already organised. It’s an interesting process though. First you do your own rewriting, then there’s the structural edit, the line edit, the copy edit and finally the proof reading – and at each stage it becomes harder to change anything you have second thoughts about. I’m not sure I’ve got the hang of it even after three books – it’s a little remorseless.

4. The story takes place during the time of Stalin’s reign, were you more comfortable writing an historical crime story as opposed to a contemporary one?

I have to admit I find the world we live in a little bewildering these days and sometimes looking at history can be a way of understanding the present or thinking about it in a different way. There are some very curious parallels between the Soviet Union in the thirties and what’s happening today. For example, I think propaganda hasn’t really changed that much over the years, it’s just become less visible – which is a worry, to be honest.

5. Does writing an historical crime story grant you greater freedoms, for example being able to bypass modern advancements in forensic technology?

I’m not sure – I have a 1928 manual of forensic medicine which I follow very carefully so it still has to be right, whenever the novel is set. At least with fiction you can change things to suit the story and I quite often play around with locations to make a point. The crucial thing is to be consistent and to create a believable historical environment for the reader and, once you have that, you can be pretty flexible in how you use it. With contemporary novels you reflect an existing environment which most of their readers know well – but if you look at contemporary writers I don’t think they feel restricted in what they write by facts and what’s likely. And I think readers are also happy to suspend their disbelief provided it’s a good story.

6. Historical fiction requires a great deal of research, how do you approach research and is it something you enjoy?

Researching the Soviet Union isn’t necessarily enjoyable but it’s certainly interesting. I read a lot and look at photographs, many of which I put up on my website, and that’s very revealing. Even propaganda photographs often have more to say than is immediately apparent. The curious thing about the thirties is that much of what was written at the time is biased, in one way or another, so researching it requires a kind of double vision to work out what’s really going on. I tried to recreate an environment a 1930s Muscovite would recognise which was maybe a bit ambitious. Luckily, to judge from the emails and letters I’ve had from Russian and Eastern European readers, it seems I got it more or less right

7. You included real life people in the story such as Isaac Babel and the poet Osip Mandelstam, portrayed as Ginzburg. Was there a responsibility to portray them exactly as they once were or did you decide to use a little of your creative licence in order to slot them into the story?

Well, the reason I changed Mandlestam’s name is because I wasn’t very comfortable with having such a tragic figure appear in the novel. Both Babel and Mandelstam died during the Terror – Babel was executed and Mandelstam died in the camps. I’ve seen the arrest photographs of both men and they are haunting images – I don’t think either of them had any doubt as to what their fate was by that stage. I kept Babel’s name for some good reasons, not least of which because he was writing a novel about the Terror when he was arrested that no one has ever seen – and that may form part of a future plot. With both of them, I tried to be very respectful – they both have close relatives still living – but I also wanted to give them a little bit of an afterlife. One of the many tragedies of the Soviet Union is that we’ll never read what they might have written if they hadn’t fallen foul of Stalin and his henchmen.

8. How have Russian audiences reacted to the book?

Surprisingly well – one blogger compared it to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which was flattering to say the least. Mind you, the Russians have a dark sense of humour so I’m not taking that entirely at face value.

9. The Bloody Meadow has been re-titled The Darkening Field for North American audiences, what are such decisions based on and how much of a difference does it really make?

The curious thing about the internet is that the English speaking world is now a very small place so it can be a mistake to rename books for particular markets, given that bloggers and readers communicate across the Atlantic so frequently and easily. I think the US publishers had good reasons for renaming the book there but, in hindsight, I think it would have been better to work out a compromise title that suited everyone. Another lesson learned.

10. Looking back, are you pleased about how much the books have sold and how they’ve been received, and are there things that you wish could have been done differently?

I’m pretty happy with how things have gone – it would be lovely to have Lee Child’s or Dan Brown’s sales but I’m doing a lot better than I’d any right to expect when I started out and that will do me for the moment.

11. Do you think authors should write what they know or write what they’d like to read themselves, and what do you want readers to remember most after reading one of your books?

This “write what you know” thing is a bit of a nonsense when you think about it for more than two seconds. Most of Shakespeare’s plays wouldn’t have been written if this advice was followed, nor would any science or historical fiction – indeed most crime writers have little direct experience of crime. This came up in a review of The Holy Thief written by an American writer who described themselves as an “old Moscow hand” and helpfully passed on this nugget with that in mind. I was amused to discover he’d written a novel set in World War 2 Amsterdam on the sole basis of having read Anne Frank’s diary – at least as far as I could work out. So if he can’t be bothered to follow his own advice, I don’t know why anyone else should.

The only advice I’d give an aspiring writer would be to write the unwritten book that you’d love to read so that at least if no one else reads it you’ll have enjoyed writing it. Of course, as part of that you’ll have to create a believable fictional world that you’ll know or have to research – but don’t restrict yourself. Rules in fiction are made to be broken – very carefully of course.

12. Finally, tell us briefly about your latest book.

It’s The Twelfth Department – the third in the Korolev series and, I think (crossing my fingers) it’s the best so far. It takes place during a hot Moscow summer, which makes a change from the traditional snow-bound winter setting.


Moscow, 1937. Captain Korolev, a police investigator, is enjoying a long-overdue visit from his young son Yuri when an eminent scientist is shot dead within sight of the Kremlin and Korolev is ordered to find the killer.

It soon emerges that the victim, a man who it appears would stop at nothing to fulfil his ambitions, was engaged in research of great interest to those at the very top ranks of Soviet power. When another scientist is brutally murdered, and evidence of the professors’ dark experiments is hastily removed, Korolev begins to realise that, along with having a difficult case to solve, he’s caught in a dangerous battle between two warring factions of the NKVD. And then his son Yuri goes missing . . .


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