Falkirk high-rise author's long climb to the literary penthouse

Ryan O’Connor’s debut novel The Voids has him earmarked as the new “over night sensation” of the literary world but the Falkirk-born author’s success story began years earlier when fiction became fact and propelled him to greater things.

By James Trimble
Sunday, 8th May 2022, 10:48 am
Updated Monday, 16th May 2022, 7:59 am

Critics and fellow authors having been going mad for The Voids – calling it a “brilliant debut” and a “book that God would like” – but author Ryan (50) thought he was going a little doolally himself around 10 years ago when the fictional living arrangements of a character in one of his earlier unpublished novels weirdly became a fact for the writer.

"I was writing about this character who lived on the 14th floor of a high rise in Glasgow. I was going through a bit of a bad time – my mum was not well and I had a bit of a mini-breakdown.

"I became homeless and applied for a housing association flat. I was offered an unfurnished property on the 14th floor of a high rise in Glasgow. So my real life had mirrored what I had actually written about in the fictional novel.”

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The Voids author Ryan O'Connor

The move to the high rise also led to a change in direction for Ryan, who began writing in a more autobiographical style and the early template of the story that would become The Voids was born.

Ryan himself was born in Falkirk and lived in Grangemouth Road for a number of years, moving to Middlefield and Hallglen, attending St Andrews Primary School and Hallglen Primary School, before moving up to Falkirk High School.

"I was into writing from primary school,” he said. “I wrote poems and short stories in high school and I always thought I would be a writer from the get go. I remember my first year English teacher gave me a row because she didn’t believe I had written a poem I handed in – she thought I copied it from a book.

"I had a passion for it – I wouldn't say I was any good at it, but I always had a book with me and I was always reading.”

The arts is strong in Ryan’s family – his father Eddie Connors, his stage name, was a renowned cabaret singer for years and his brother was also a well kent face in the music scene.

Ryan, who earned himself a Scottish Book Trust Next Chapter Award in 2018 and a Highly Commended in the Bridport Prize short story category, has not just appeared on the Scottish writing scene from nowhere – he has come close to having his novels published on two previous occasions.

Those two moments in his life were decades apart, but they both gave him experiences that would stand him in good stead.

Ryan almost got his first novel published when he was 19, but when that fell through he decided to get himself some life experience and moved to France and other places.

Then a decade or so ago he came close once again.

"I brought 70 pages of this novel to an agent and Penguin really loved it – thought it was amazing. Basically I was told I could write what I liked to finish the novel, because they had liked the first 70 pages so much.

"I was so desperate to get the book published to get some more money and get my life in order I threw everything at it – writing about anything I could think of and the kitchen sink.

"Then they came back to me and said this isn’t the book we thought it was going to be.”

Devastated, Ryan wiped the story from his hard drive and then disposed of all his notes – or so he thought at the time – in a wild moment in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens.

In a scene he drunkenly thought at the time was reminiscent of a great romantic moment from a major feature film, probably starring mid 90s Hugh Grant, he quickly realised all he had just done was create litter.

"I just threw the entire novel away – I thought it would be cathartic. I was drunk at the time. Then I just realised all I had done was make a mess that someone was going to have to clean up.

"The sheets of paper don’t blow away in the wind like they do in the films.”

A couple of years later, however, Ryan discovered 30 pages of notes in a suitcase from the novel he chucked away.

"That became the basis of The Voids,” he said. “It became a very different book. In the first one he lives in the high rise and is desperate to get out of it, but in The Voids he becomes the one who stays in the high rise, as other people leave."

Published by Scribe earlier this year The Voids – a term for a vacant property – tells the story of an unnamed character who lives in a condemned tower block in Glasgow.

The book’s blurb states: “Residents slowly trickle away until a young man is left alone with only the angels and devils in his mind for company. Stumbling from one surreal situation to the next, he encounters others on the margins of society, finding friendship and camaraderie wherever it is offered, grappling with who he is and what shape his future might take.”

Ryan, who lives in Glasgow with his partner and two children, has signed a two-book deal with Scribe and says another novel is already well on the way.

It certainly will not take him as long to write as his first novel.