Back in 2012 Rónán Hession made a decision that, given the buzz around his debut novel, could well turn out to be pretty momentous.
After several years as a successful songwriter on the independent music scene in Ireland – he released three well-received albums as Mumblin’ Deaf Ro – he decided to quietly step away from it all (“my kids were young and work was busy”). And then he had a bit of a revelation.
“I realised that your creativity is not something you do, it’s part of who you are,” he says over the phone from Dublin. “I found that I had a lot of ideas and nowhere to put them. I was known for writing lyrical, storytelling songs and people often asked me whether I’d ever thought of writing anything more expansive, but I didn’t ever plan to write a novel.”
Seven years down the line, however, Leonard and Hungry Paul is flying off the bookshelves. Published earlier this month by Hebden Bridge-based Bluemoose Books, it has been delighting readers and reviewers – and booksellers – around the country.It is the fastest-selling debut that the Book Corner in Halifax, where the official UK launch takes place next week, has ever had, and it was selected as BBC Radio 2’s Book Club choice a couple of weeks ago.
Hession says he carried around the notion of a story about friendship and the kind of quiet, self-effacing people that don’t get noticed. “I felt vaguely ‘pregnant’ with the character of Leonard in the sense that I knew he was a gentle, thirtysomething guy who was a little bit at odds with the world. I thought I would just write and see what happened.”
He spent the next few weeks doing just that, sitting down at the dining room table following a full day’s work – he has a demanding day job as a senior civil servant – and after putting his children to bed. “I would write between 10pm and midnight six days a week and I completed the first draft in three months.” He then went back over what he’d written, developing the character of Leonard, his friend Hungry Paul and the people close to them, and by spring last year he felt it was finished. “While I was working on the manuscript I had read a book published by Bluemoose and I looked at more on their list. They were the first publisher I thought of as it seemed like we might be a good fit.” He sent off the manuscript and Bluemoose publisher Kevin Duffy obviously felt the same way. “He got back to me pretty quickly to say they would take it on.”
The novel is a beautifully written, joyful celebration of friendship, family and ordinary human decency. “I wanted to pay tribute to the kindness I received growing up,” says Hession. “As the child of a widowed mother I was often included in other families, so it is a homage to happy families too.” He has been overwhelmed by the response to the book so far. “I put a lot of myself into that book and a lot of love, so when you hear people reponding like that it magnifies the feeling of why you write in the first place.” The good news is that Hession is working on two more books with Bluemoose; it’s clearly the beginning of a very special partnership.
The book’s UK launch takes place at the Book Corner, The Piece Hall, Halifax, April 5, 7pm.
Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession
Published by Bluemoose Books, £8.99
Yvette Huddleston 5/5
Rónán Hession’s first novel is an extraordinary debut.
A lovely warm hug of a book, it tells the story of two friends – gentle, thirtysomething bachelors Leonard and Hungry Paul, both slightly at odds with the world – who share a sense of humour, a love of boardgames and the (much-underrated) ability to appreciate the simple things in life.
At the beginning of the novel Leonard, a ghost writer of children’s encyclopaedias, is struggling to come to terms with the recent death of his widowed mother who brought him up single-handedly. Meanwhile part-time postman Hungry Paul, who lives nearby with his retired teacher parents Helen and Peter, is caught up in the preparations for the wedding of his sister Grace.
Not a great deal happens, there is no high drama nor unexpected plot twists but that isn’t the point. This is a celebration of ordinary lives and everyday kindness. Of family connection, friendship and finding a sense of purpose. It’s about love, seizing the moment and recognising the fundamental truths in amongst life’s many complications. Hession’s authorial voice is so distinctive and assured, his writing so effortlessly lyrical, it makes your heart sing. I defy anyone not to fall in love with this book. It is one to treasure, but also one to give to people you care about, because you’ll want them to experience (and love) it too.