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Born in the village of Newtown in Tipperary, Donal Ryan studied civil engineering at the University of Limerick before becoming a civil servant. He later completed a law degree. His first novel, The Spinning Heart, won the 2012 Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards and the 2013 Guardian First Book Award, and was longlisted for the Man Booker prize 2013. He lives with his family just outside Limerick.

Who is your perfect reader?

My wife. I love the way she reacts to books she loves. It spurred me on to write seriously.

Which book changed your life?

I’d say The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. There seemed to be something so important in it, he was telling a story that had not been told before. Heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time.

When did you know you were going to be a writer?

I always knew from childhood. The only image I ever had of myself was as a writer.

What is your daily writing routine?

I work 40-60 hours a week [as an inspector for the National Employment Rights Authority] so I normally write between 9pm and midnight. It’s fine because the kids are in bed. I wouldn’t be happy if I hadn’t got at least 500 words down each night.

Where do you write best?

At the kitchen table. When I was writing The Thing About December [written before The Spinning Heart] we didn’t have children so I worked in the spare room but I felt sequestered. It wasn’t for me.

Which literary character most resembles you?

Ignatius J Reilly in [John Kennedy Toole’s] A Confederacy of Dunces. He’s so pompous and sure of his own genius. That was me when I was younger.

Who are your literary influences?

I grew up reading postwar US novelists such as Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and Ernest Hemingway. My parents had them all in the house. Later it was John McGahern, Roddy Doyle and Kevin Barry.

How do you relax?

I run and watch TV.

What is the best piece of advice a parent gave you?

My parents give me advice nearly every day. My dad always says, “Be yourself”, which is prosaic but the best advice you can give. My mum always says, “Don’t worry what people think of you”, which is nearly impossible to do, especially as a writer getting reviews.

What book do you wish you’d written?

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. It’s just amazing and not at all the kind of book I’d ever go about writing. It’s so ambitious. It makes you believe there really is immortality in words, redemption even.

How would you earn your living if you had to give up writing?

I’d practise law as I have a law degree. I’m not sure I’d make much money though; I’d do too much pro bono work.

Can you remember the first novel you read?

Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. It was the first book I read that was a proper novel. I must have been four or five. It is just so compelling. The story is so touching.

Donal Ryan’s ‘The Thing About December’ will be published by Doubleday Ireland on January 2

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