More often than not, when people start raving about a book, we approach it with bemused chagrin. You have to understand. We don’t like standing outside the restaurant window in the rain. We want to belong, really. But more often than not, when we read books that people get all excited about, we’re all “Seriously? This is what you’re excited about? This?” But then when a book comes along that people seem to like that we like too, well, we get all giddy. Leonard & Hungry Paul is one such book. To paraphrase the Jim Carrey in Dumb & Dumber: we liked it a lot. So, like an economy stalker, we approached those nice people at Bluemoose Books (publishers of Ben Myers, among others) and they put us in touch with Ronan.
So, we began. Tell us about Leonard & Hungry Paul. “Leonard & Hungry Paul is really a novel about gentle people finding their way in the world,” Ronan told us. “People who are uncertain about themselves, uncertain about the world, and who have spent a portion of their lives trying to stay out of trouble and stay out of engaging with the wider world – but then their lives change. Leonard is a ghostwriter of children’s encyclopaedias and when his mother passes away he has to come to terms with his place in the world. Hungry Paul is his best friend who is happily part of a nice family but the family is going through change – his parents are getting older and his sister is getting married and that raises all sorts of questions for him.”
Okay, you might think, doesn’t altogether sound like it’s going to give John Grisham much competition in the old bestseller stakes, and yet it’s generating all kinds of buzz (on Twitter, for example, and in the kinds of places that book buzz is heard, like, say, libraries and book shops and reading groups). We asked if it was all going to Ronan’s head. “It’s been very exciting, I have to say,” Ronan continued. “I mean, it’s very healthy to be entirely sceptical about buzz, it’s a perfectly natural thing for any sincere reader to try and filter out. A lot of the buzz, though, has just been reader reaction, to be honest with you. The marketing budget at Bluemoose just extends to proof copies and circulating them. We don’t have advertising, we don’t have people pushing it from a PR perspective. We just have the level of trust that Bluemoose have built up over the last 10 years with readers and so something seems to have clicked. And so it’s been librarians and book clubs and people who as a writer you really want to connect with. To be on the receiving end of it is really exciting.”
However you cut it, Bluemoose have played a big part in getting Leonard & Hungry Paul to where it is today. We asked Ronan how he came to choose them for his debut. “When I was getting to the end of writing the book,” Ronan explained, “I started asking myself who would publish a book like this? I didn’t have an elevator pitch for it. I didn’t really see books like this appealing to agents and so on. And then I read Man With a Seagull on his Head by Harriet Paige with was published by Bluemoose and I’d seen an interview with her and I read the book and I thought, ooh, this sounds like it’s from the same part of the universe that I’m trying to write in. Then I read a bit more about [Bluemoose] and I liked their whole attitude. So they were the first people I sent it to. I sent three chapters about midnight on a Friday and Kevin at Bluemoose emailed me back at about 7 the next morning and he said he really liked it and to send him the rest. Then two weeks later he tweeted out that he really loved it and he had a quote from the book and he sent me a lovely email while I was on my lunch break in a bookshop offering to publish it and it really was that natural.”
One of the things that struck us here at Bookmunch Towers is that Ronan Hession makes it look easy. You pick up Leonard & Hungry Paul and you make your way through the book like a hit knife through butter. It’s a supremely pleasant experience. We said to Ronan, “There’s nothing worse than someone saying this looks easy, we know…” Ronan replied, “I’d never written anything before and it kind of just came out quite naturally and the fact that it was a story about simplicity fit with the way the story came out. It came out without any grand schemes and without any abstract contrivances, the story came out in a way that suited it. And I take that as a symbol that I was doing it in a natural way, being faithful to the inspiration to the book. You try to have an intuitive sense of what the story asks and what makes the story work and sometimes when you get ahead of yourself the story doesn’t work and so you strip it back to something better. It’s like the original electric charge of inspiration has the instructions in it.”
We couldn’t believe our ears! Was Ronan Hession telling us that he wrote without a plan, that he ascended to the tightrope of writing a novel without a safety matt below? “I just had a sense of Leonard as a person and I was carrying him around and getting flashes of what he was like,” Ronan said. I thought I’ll write something about him every day for a few months… Then after the second day I said sod it I’ll do a novel. That’s more or less what I did. I took the opening sense of melancholy and he didn’t really know and he was emotionally restless and went from there. In the second chapter I mentioned that Hungry Paul has a sister who is getting married and I thought why don’t I make that the focal point and work towards that? The only real plotting I did was to buy a calendar and mark chapters out against the calendar to make sure I got the passage of time correct. The whole process was quite natural and revealed itself as I went. There’d be times where I’d think, if the next plot development doesn’t reveal itself in the next few days I’m going to be stuck but it always did. It always unlocked and moved on. And while stuff is happening, it isn’t like careening towards a particular destination in terms of plot development. it’s about creating a world and letting people just naturally interact in that world.”
We first read Leonard & Hungry Paul while travelling back and forth across the country on various trains and – you should know this before you dabble yourself – the book is “proper funny”. “Proper funny” is an expression used by my kids to denote that which is actually funny from that which is smile funny or polite funny. Travelling about on trains, I have to tell you there were times in my experience of Leonard & Hungry Paul when I laughed out loud and other passengers looked at me in fright as if I was about to reveal other dangerous aspects of my personality. We asked Ronan if he tried out the book on other people, if he roadtested the jokes at all or if he was just making himself laugh. “Most of the book was written late at night,” Ronan said. “Me on my own, my wife and kids in bed and me on my own chuckling at the laptop, entertaining myself. I wasn’t trying to write a funny book as such but the humour came out naturally just in the narrative voice. I like funny books, I like funny writers – not necessarily people who are full of jokes but just I think you have to gamble a little bit when you’re writing and humour is a huge gamble. If someone is reading your book and they don’t laugh, forget about it. There were a few moments in editing when the editor would say I don’t understand this point, is it possibly a joke? You kind of go ok you can take that out, if it’s not clear it’s a joke take it out. I like understated humour, I like the narrator being a bit more pleasant and I like the balance where they can make jokes and they don’t feel like you’re talking down to the characters. When I think of funny writers I think of people like Alan Bennett, Spike Milligan’s war memoirs are really funny, Japanese novelists like Banana Yoshimoto and there’s an American writer based in Edinburgh called Nora Chassler. I’ve read two of her three books and they’re hilarious and very clever. I think it’s good to have the confidence to make a joke and there has to be a balance between the characters being funny and the book being funny but you just have to go for it and hope the humour will make it more human.”
Now, we’re not alone, we’re sure, in thinking that the world is going to hell in a handcart (in point of fact, we’d go as far to say that the handcart seems to have been pimped, with small rockets on the side and a passenger intent on throwing landmines and grenades our way as it shuttles us ever closer to – well, who knows?). Reading Leonard & Hungry Paul offered us a measure of solace as Trump seems to be getting away with Russian collusion, and Theresa May gets away with ignoring at least half the country, and the IRA raise their heads again and – all of that. In point of fact, we’d go as far to say that a book hasn’t struck us with this much warmth since we read George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (which you all know we got worked up about). We asked Ronan if he had any hopes for the book come awards season? He was, as you’d expect, a bit saner than perhaps we are. “I think when it comes to awards, no matter what your policy is on awards, you get a surge of adrenaline when you’re in the mix. The coolest position to be in is to win loads of awards and then afterwards say they don’t mean all that much.” We both laugh.
“For a debut novel on a small indie press just to be listed for any of those that would be amazing. But I recognise that the part of me that reacts to that is not the creative part of me. The creative part of me is the part of me that maybe needs to block some of that out and that includes blocking out some of the nice stuff too. It’s like you have separate hard drives in your brain. Whenever you open up your laptop theres a blank page there completely unimpressed by whatever feedback you got in the past. But if it happened I’d be excited. I don’t know if you ever saw Marco Tardelli when he scored a goal at the World Cup Final, it’d probably be like that.”
Ronan has tweeted about two other books, Panenka, which he hopes to see published in 2021 and Ghost Mountain, which will likely follow in 2023. “I finished Leonard & Hungry Paul in summer 2017 and editing took six or eight months and then Panenka in summer 2018 and I had to park it. It’s hard keeping two books in your head. It can cross over in dialogue and relationships. Panenka is really ready to go, with just a little bit of editing. We’re well ahead of schedule. Ghost Mountain I’ve plotted and depending on my energy and how Panenka goes I’ll start that this summer. These are new ideas, I should say. They weren’t my plan b and plan c if Leonard & Hungry Paul didn’t work out. These are ideas I’ve had since I finished Leonard & Hungry Paul. And that’s what I want to do. I want to spend the rest of my life writing new stories. I want to keep moving and Panenka and Ghost Mountain are both different from Leonard & Hungry Paul and different from each other.”
One thing you should know about Ronan if you don’t follow him on Twitter, he reads a lot. A LOT. So, some implicit advice: if you want good book recommendations, follow Ronan Hession on Twitter. But by way of a stopgap, we asked for some recommendations, some books he’d read recently that thought worth shouting about. Ronan launched in without being asked twice: “I’ve read some really good books lately – Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home. She’s from Belfast. That’s really good, really bright, really lively. I finished a book the other day called Tokyo Ueno Station which is by a Japanese writer I haven’t read before called You Miri, translated by an American translator called Morgan Giles. That is all about one of the main stations in the centre of Tokyo which has a park besides it where homeless people live and it’s really about people who became homeless. You look at homeless people and you think they are poor and unfortunate but they weren’t always that way. Right now I’m 150 pages into a book called Shtetl Love Song by a Lithuanian writer called Grigory Kanovitch. He’s an elder statesman of Lithuanian literature, a holocaust survivor, and he’s been writing novels for years and this time he’s writing about his grandparents. It’s very very funny.”
So there you have it. Our chat with Ronan Hession. His debut novel, Leonard & Hungry Paul, is out now in all good bookshops and it’s published by Bluemoose. And come awards season, when it’s scooping up all the big prizes you can say – well, you can’t say you heard it here first because of all that buzz we mentioned but you can certainly say Bookmunch jumped on the coattails of all that buzz like the Johnny Come Latelys we usually are.