Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Naked nannies and Listowel sleepwalking: an interview with William Ryan

Welcome to the latest issue of 9mm, the long-running author interview series here on Crime Watch. Earlier this year we hit the 150 interviews mark, and I took a moment to reflect on all the authors who have been interviewed thusfar (full list here), and where I could take 9mm in future.

I have some further terrific interviews 'in the can' already, which will be published soon. Among them will be AK Benedict, Marnie Riches, Melanie Raabe and VM Giambanco, so lots to look forward to. If you have a favorite crime writer you'd love to see interviewed as part of the 9mm series, please do let me know, and I'll look to make it happen.

Today, I'm very pleased to welcome the marvellous William Ryan. to Crime Watch. Ryan is an Irishman and former lawyer who pens highly acclaimed historic crime novels set in Russia and Germany around the time of the Second World War.

His debut, THE HOLY THIEF, introduced Captain Alexei Korolev, a Russian investigator who finds his moral and political ideals under threat as he investigates a series of murders as Stalin's Great Terror is beginning. That book catapulted Ryan to attention in the crime writing world, being shortlisted for the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year, Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger, and a Barry Award. The subsequent Koralev novels have been shortlisted for the Irish Crime Novel of the Year (twice) and the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger.

Despite the outstanding response to his Koralev novels, Ryan has taken a different tack with his latest book, THE CONSTANT SOLDIER. The book was inspired by the photo album of Obersturmf├╝hrer Karl Hoecker, adjutant to the Commandant of Auschwitz. Hoecker's album, now housed in the Holocaust Memorial Museum, contains photos taken in the last few months before the camp was liberated. Ryan has commented on the striking ordinariness of the images - showing the death camp's officers relaxing at a nearby hut, preparing for Christmas, joking around with each other. All in the final months before the camp's liberation, at a time the officers may have realised the war was lost, and perhaps feared what was to come for them, given the horrors they'd perpetrated at Auschwitz.

In THE CONSTANT SOLDIER, a German soldier returns from the Eastern Front, only to find his village living under the dark shadow of an SS rest hut - a retreat for those managing the concentration camps, run with the help of female prisoners. The soldier realises he has to access the hut to protect one of the women. Meanwhile the Russian tanks roll ever closer... Early reviews have praised THE CONSTANT SOLDIER as "a gripping story of the struggle for humanity in the last days of the war", and "a brilliant evocation of the price of redemption and the cost of guilt.

Ryan will be appearing on several panels at Iceland Noir next month (check out the programme here), but in he meantime he becomes the latest author to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
A tricky one. Very tricky. In the end, I’ll have to go for Georges Simenon’s Maigret – I like his opaqueness and how he is seldom very passionate about his cases. To him, each investigation is an intellectual exercise. And I like the mysterious Madame Maigret, as well – I’ve half-considered stealing her for a crime novel all of her own. Still waters …

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
I remember reading The Great Dinosaur Robbery by David Forrest when I was quite young. It was made into the film, “One of our Dinosaurs is Missing” (which I also am very fond of). It involves the recovery of a missing skeleton from the Natural History Museum by intrepid British nannies and, if I recall correctly, one of the (naked) nannies leaves a nipple print on a fossil at one stage. There were one or two other scenes that may not have been age appropriate – fond memories.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I’d had a few short stories published and written half a really bad literary novel. Realising the novel was a book I’d never actually read if I came across it in a bookshop was a breakthrough moment. Once I decided to try and write books I really wanted to read, but that hadn’t been written yet – then everything sort of fell into place.

4. Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I have a five year old son but I really like to cycle. I’ve cycled round Iceland, up Vietnam and across the Andes (and back). Once my son’s a bit older I have plans … New Zealand, here we come!

5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
Well, Limerick’s Hunt Museum has a really eclectic collection. It’s based on the personal collection of John and Gertrude Hunt and has everything from Renaissance statues to a purse made out of a walnut.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
The late, great Sid James. If only for his laugh. Seriously, how can anyone answer this one and not seem a bit mental?

7. Of your books, which is your favourite, and why?
My latest, The Constant Soldier, is by far and away my best novel. It was a bastard to write and I offered to give the publisher the advance back at one stage – but out of all that struggle has come something that I really think I can be proud of. Best of all, it’s a bloody good read.

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
The strange thing about being published is that you know it’s going to happen for some time, so when it does happen, it’s a slight anti-climax. Maybe first-time authors expect it to be life-transforming or something, but actually it’s just affirmation that they have a craft that they’re lucky enough to work at which they love. They probably know that already, I think – and being published reminds you that it took a lot of effort to write that one, and now you have to move onto the next. In a way, you’re saying good bye to the book, so it’s tinged with sadness. So you have a beer to celebrate and go back to work the next day.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
I’ve only sleep-walked once and that was at Listowel Writers Week, when The Holy Thief was up for the Irish Fiction Award. For some reason I left my hotel room at 3 in the morning looking for a toilet, and trying every door I came across. I normally sleep naked but, luckily enough, I had underpants on this time and, even more luckily, no one answered their door.

Waking up in the corridor was, well, unsettling. And going back to the room to find my wife screeching with laughter was, well, humbling. Glad to get that one off my chest.

Thank you William, we appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch. 

You can read more about William Ryan and his novels at his website or follow him on Twitter

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