Ryan Dennis is a former Fulbright Scholar in Creative writing, and has taught at several universities. He recently completed a PhD at the National University of Ireland, Galway. His work has been published in a number of journals, including the Cimarron Review, The Threepenny Review, and Fusion. He is also a syndicated columnist in various agricultural journals around the world. His first novel, The Beasts They Turned Away, was published by Époque Press in March 2021, and follows an aging farmer facing adversity as he tries to hold onto both his farm and the young boy he takes care of.
Why did you choose to write about this town, these people, this story? What inspired it?
I grew up on a family dairy farm in Western New York State. From an early age I recognized that, especially in the US, there weren’t many novels or even movies being made about farmers. In the few that were written, the act of farming itself wasn’t accurate, was assigned to only the traditional or pastoral, or only occurred in the background of the book. That didn’t seem fair to a group of people with such intense selfhood and who gave so much of themselves in what they did. In the nineties farming became increasingly difficult in the US, and small farmers like my family struggled. Still, there was no one telling their story.
Living in Ireland gave me the opportunity to write about the same type of people, but in a different context. The experience of small farmers suffering against imposed expansion in the sector is universal across many countries—as are the drivers and consequences of it—but the specific details of the Irish countryside made it an entirely fresh experience for me. And, in the US such a novel would probably be considered a eulogy to family agriculture, while in Ireland there is still the opportunity to support it. In that way I hope the book is timely and perhaps relevant.
There’s a fair amount of technical language surrounding farming and diary in particular within the novel. What was your approach to researching Beasts?
The acts of farming in the novel are not much different than the ones I would have grown up with. We would have milked, fed and carried out fieldwork in much the same way. However, what was especially different is the names of things around the farm. The milk house in the America is called a dairy in Ireland, what we call grain pellets they call nuts, and so on.
Fortunately, I had good readers to be on the lookout for any words that didn’t belong, including my PhD supervisor, who is a farmer’s son, and someone from the Ballyhaise Agricultural College. There was a lot at stake in making sure every agricultural term was correct, because one slip up would mean a loss of authority in the text. I didn’t want to write as an outsider looking at Irish agriculture, but instead attempt an actual accurate Irish novel.
I’m pleased to say that not a single person who read the novel and never heard me speak realized that I wasn’t Irish—which is also a testament to how well vetted it was by the those around me.
Which writers would you say are your biggest influences?
My favourite writers are those who write on the level of the sentence. I want to get the sense that every word was the consequence of sweat and moxie, whatever the resulting style might be. To me, these writers are diverse as Jonathan Williams, Miranda July, Tony Earley and Anna Burns. In my opinion, language isn’t a means to an end, but an imprint of some of the best things that make us human. I like authors who recognize that and put some guts into their prose, and that’s who I’m working towards being as a writer.
I’m an unreconstructed partisan of Cormac McCarthy. It’s not for everyone, but to me, Blood Meridian is the example of what is possible with the English language. There is so much force and licence behind his prose. I try to bring as much of myself to the page as I assume he does, although you probably can’t convince me that he’ll ever be equalled.
Alongside farming, superstition, the tension between rural and urban communities, and other such hard-hitting themes we might expect in a book of this type, music stood out to me as an unexpected but refreshing constant in the story. What role does music have in these types of rural communities in your eyes?
That’s an interesting observation that I haven’t thought of. I think it was part of my unconscious understanding of the Irish rural experience. I always joke that in Upstate New York, where I grew up, people can be gathered and talking until someone mentions the subjects of guns, and then suddenly everyone pulls out a handgun out of nowhere and passes it around. In Ireland it’s similar, but instead of a pistol you turn around and everyone is holding a banjo or guitar that seemingly appeared out of thin air. It’s something I admire about the culture, and as per the novel, I suppose it’s easy to imagine the significance of the music getting extinguished for that rural community.
There’s a strong sense of depersonalisation in the book-an almost eery haziness. Lots of characters are referred to only by monikers, the ‘boy’ character is mute, his face hidden behind a skull, and so on. What prompted you to write the book in this way?
I believe that in the very best fiction novels form should reflect content. Without being too explicit, these choices were made consciously to be in dialogue with the lived experience of those involved in small agriculture and their rural hinterlands in Ireland, as well as much of the western world.
In general, there are two types of agricultural policy: protectionist vs. productivist. The first emphasizes a feasible income and lifestyle for the farmer (Iceland does this well), and the second on making the most food possible, as cheap as possible. At different points and to different degrees in the 20th century the major agricultural communities of the world—Australia, New Zealand, the United States and the European Union—all committed to the latter.
I think form can be a powerful means of communication in fiction—or at least it is often a chance worth taking. The aspects of the novel you mentioned were meant to speak to what is at stake when family agriculture and the rural development, social capital, and often national identity that it offers is valued less than a misguided belief in the free market. In the end, it’s up to the reader to decide if these formal and structural choices worked. I wanted to take the chance, anyway.
What was the hardest part of writing this book? And the easiest?
I tried to write the novel in a specific disjointed and jarring sort of prose. Looking back, the hardest part of the first draft was wondering if it would work, or I had entirely lost my mind and should dig out my science degree. Also, every time I started another draft after a break it would take me several weeks of staring at the prose to get tuned into the novel’s voice again.
The easiest part? Probably most of the farming scenes. I brought those with me to the page, so they were easy to imagine.
What’s the one thing that you wish I had asked you about the book? The question you practice in the mirror when nobody’s listening?
Sometimes I think that if I had to choose one message for the world, one that people would take seriously, what it might be. For me, in this moment anyway, it’s this: That the loss of family farming was not inevitable, but the consequence of identifiable decisions. Although hopefully Beasts is not didactic in anyway, I would wish for it to be a speaker cone for such an idea.
As far back as the nineties and my childhood, I’ve heard over and over again that it’s a shame that family farms went out of business, but that there was nothing that could be done about it. There would be a shoulder shrug and the lament of “That’s just how the world works.” However, economies are manmade. There is this prevalent misnomer that the loss of family agriculture is the result of advancing technology or the symptom of modernity, but neither are true. Family faming has declined around the world because of specific government policies enacted on specific dates. If I could hope for one thing, it’s that The Beasts They Turned Away would bring this idea into discourse.
Learn more about Ryan Dennis and his work at http://penofryandennis.com/. ‘The Beasts They Turn Away’ is available now: https://www.epoquepress.com/online-store/The-Beasts-They-Turned-Away-p250895880.
About the Author
Zoë Wells (she/her) is a Swiss-British writer and poet based in the UK. She is currently studying towards an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester, having previously received her BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Warwick. She is working on a debut historical fiction novel, alongside a poetry pamphlet, and has had her short fiction and nonfiction published in a number of magazines. Find her on twitter at @zwells_writes or visit her website.