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Rónán Hession: ‘I’m at the stage where I’ve lost loads of people... everyone is different, so every grief is different’

As his new book Ghost Mountain is about to hit the shelves, the senior civil servant, acclaimed musician and author isn’t dreaming of quitting his day job

On a grey Dublin weekday of squally April weather, it is a balm to meet Rónán Hession in the clean, bright space of the Solomon gallery on Balfe Street. We’re here because the cover of his new novel, Ghost Mountain, features a painting by the Irish artist Tom Climent. Entitled Presence, it’s an arresting image of a mountain in vibrant colour that complements the impressionistic style of the novel and its central theme of the passage of time.

Hession has had input into the covers of each of his three novels with the independent publisher Bluemoose Books. The 48-year-old chose the Climent painting in this instance because he wanted an image that wasn’t symbolic or representative. “A refrain in the book is that ‘Ghost Mountain is Ghost Mountain,’ so I was searching for a painting with that same sui generis authority,” Hession says. “When I looked at Tom’s mountain paintings, it felt like they were being poured into me. My reaction was intuitive, a sort of mutual recognition. It wasn’t analytical or wordy.”

This level of care and interest in the more peripheral aspects of writing a book seems typical of Hession as a whole. Someone who juggles several different roles – husband, father, senior civil servant, acclaimed musician and author – he comes across as engaged, knowledgeable and diligent, able to distil grand ideas, whether about his own work or society at large, into coherent soundbites.

At Ennis Book Club Festival in March this year, Hession spoke with remarkable fluency to a packed theatre, giving succinct and often humorous summaries of his book recommendations without the need for notes. His career in the Civil Service has offered good training in public speaking.


“I used to work in corporation tax where a lot of the time I’d be addressing a room of 100-200 people and I would have to talk for the guts of an hour without notes,” Hession says. “Preparation is a huge part of it. You think about how you’re going to communicate; you do the work.

“There are two ways of being able to deliver in a fluent style. One is you’re a complete narcissist, you think the whole thing is about you, and the other is to not make it about yourself at all. You’re not distracted by what people are thinking about you. Your whole attention is just available. And I believe in the books as well.”

Hession grew up in Artane in north Dublin, the seventh of eight children. His father died when he was seven and his mother went to work in the former Jervis Street hospital as a cleaner to support the family, which perhaps gives some clue as to the origin of his own diligence. “She would put us to bed, go to work at night, come back in the morning and get us up. That was what she did. I had a happy childhood though, we all turned out pretty normal,” he smiles, “or as normal as we were ever going to turn out.”

After a degree in economics and politics at Trinity College Dublin, Hession worked as a proofreader and a casual postman before joining the Civil Service in 1997, where he is currently assistant secretary general in the Department of Social Protection. Despite the success of his debut novel Leonard and Hungry Paul (2019), which has sold 180,000 copies to date and was chosen for One Dublin One Book in 2021, Hession loves his day-job and doesn’t dream of writing full-time.

“There’s an image of a civil servant being in a very quiet office with a loud clock ticking and just dreaming of quitting time so they can go home and do their real passion. But I really enjoy my career and I plan to continue with it until I retire,” Hession says.

“I get a lot out of it. I mostly work on policy and that means you’re interested in society and individuals in society. You’re continually thinking, ‘how does this affect a particular person, and also, how does this work for everybody,’ so from a novelist’s point of view that’s pretty similar to the way you shift your perspective from individual characters into a broader story.”

Ghost Mountain, an innovative and insightful novel, is a departure from his previous books both in terms of the writing process and the notable shift in tone away from the optimistic fiction he is known for. He wrote his first two novels from 10pm to midnight at the kitchen table when his kids were in bed, six nights a week, three months on, one month off, until the books were finished.

“I completely changed for Ghost Mountain,” he says. “I decided to ration myself to just two or three writing slots a week, normally Saturday and Sunday morning. I’d write a bit, an hour, starting and finishing a chapter in that time. Then I’d do one evening and maybe a bit of fiddling around.”

Writing a short story during Covid for The Irish Times, he discovered he was interested in very short chapters that captured the essence of a subject or world and decided to use the same approach for his new novel. But Covid also brought about a bigger, and one might argue, slightly bonkers change in style.

“Because I was working from home during the pandemic, my eyes would get quite tired because I do a lot of reading for my job and was reading on screen,” Hession says. “I started using the Read Aloud function on Microsoft Word. It’s like karaoke where it jumps from word to word. One of the voices is Junior, who is like a 10-year-old, slightly fragile American boy and he became the narrative voice of Ghost Mountain. I was writing for him the whole time. The rhythm of the writing and the style were completely to match Junior.”

Hession does an impression of the voice, which is nasal, endearing and oddly mesmerising in a kind of robotic way. He plans to bring a recording of Junior with him to literary events to let audiences hear the voice.

The first reader of his writing is his wife Sinéad, who he met in the Civil Service. “A tea-club romance,” he laughs. With Ghost Mountain, which took 15 months to write, he would read each chapter to his wife. “She’s not in the writing world at all but she’s a very perceptive person. She just has a good instinct for what works and doesn’t work.”

The couple have two teenage sons, Thomas and Jacob. The latter often accompanies his father to festivals. “We make a playlist on the way down, rap in the car, go for dinner. He gets to meet interesting people and then we usually do something like play basketball or go for a walk,” Hession says. These are very Cool Dad vibes he’s giving off. “One of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me was Jacob saying that our chats were like a podcast.”

With his broad interest in the arts, politics and society, you could easily imagine Hession hosting a podcast. The question of what it means to be alive, to live well and authentically, features prominently in his new book. Death, a frequent occurrence, is often downplayed or happening offstage.

“I feel that grief has become the dominant theme in contemporary fiction,” he says. “But I wanted to write about death differently, not as a dramatic event, a plot development, just a part of life. The person dies. It’s a fact. One thing I was trying to write about was death without poignancy. I feel poignancy is real added sugar to a story.”

So he wanted to normalise death? “I’m at the stage of life where I’ve lost loads of people. My parents are dead, we had a miscarriage, I’ve lost friends, relatives. My father was one of 15 and there’s only one left. And everyone is different, so every grief is different. But I didn’t want to write about death as this kind of precious moment. It is special, but you don’t have to make it special.

We need humour. It can be a risky thing for a writer because you can be taken less seriously, but I think you need to have it

“Death is part of life reshaping itself all the time. The deaths in the book are not traumatic events, they’re an inevitable part of it, like the changing of the seasons, leaves dying and renewal, the constant churning.”

If this makes Ghost Mountain sound dark or depressing, fans of Hession can be reassured that there are plenty of funny moments too. Known for his benign humour in his fiction and on social media, he thinks there’s nothing wrong with dad jokes, likes making people laugh and writes primarily for the enjoyment it gives him.

“In music particularly there are all these morose songs about not being able to go on, being so down all the time, yet I know people who’ve had really difficult lives and none of them are monotonously humourless,” he says. “We need humour. It can be a risky thing for a writer because you can be taken less seriously, but I think you need to have it.”

Ghost Mountain is published by Bluemoose Books on May 23rd

Tom Climent’s solo exhibition is at the Solomon Gallery from May 2nd to 25th