Kevin Barry is the author of the novels Night Boat to Tangier, Beatlebone and City of Bohane and the story collections Dark Lies the Island and There Are Little Kingdoms.
His awards include the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Goldsmiths Prize, the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Prize, the Lannan Foundation Literary Award. He was longlisted for the Booker Prize 2019. His stories and essays appear in the New Yorker, Granta and elsewhere. He also works as a playwright and screenwriter. Kevin lives in County Sligo, Ireland.
I had the enormous pleasure of interviewing him in early October to discuss his body of work, his style and his methodology.
DK: Your short story collections, There are Little Kingdoms and Dark Lies the Island have both won critical acclaim. How do you respond to those such as Irvine Welsh who call you ‘the best Short Story Writer of a generation’?
KB: I don’t know, I think if you see anything written or said about your work that…well, I try to do this but don’t always manage to. But, if you ignore all the good stuff, then that means you can ignore all the bad stuff as well. Like, if you get a rave review and then later get a hatchet job, the best thing is not to think too much about either of them, because, you know, if you believe either of them then you’re in trouble, so I try to maintain some sort of balance. It’s lovely when people say nice things about the work.
What means an awful lot actually is when you meet readers and they tell you they got something from the work, or empathised with the characters, that means a great deal. That is the reason this has been a bollix of a year really, with not getting to do any readings or proper events. It’s a lovely thing to talk to readers who’ve gotten a laugh out of a story, or hopefully have gotten something more out of it.
DK: In the short story The Fjord of Killary, the narrator, a hotel proprietor and struggling poet, describes jotting down the linguistic quirks of his customers as they drink at the hotel bar. Are you a collector of language, do you horde phrases?
KB:I do, yes, I always keep notebooks, or I suppose, more often than not now, it’s tapping a note into the phone, you know. What’s weird actually is how little you look back over the notes, it’s just the idea of doing it, it makes you feel like a professional (laughs). But I do pick up little bits of talk, the way people say things in life without thinking about them or without weighing up words before saying them. You can never make them up as good, so yes, I do rob stuff from real life.
DK: That’s a writer’s stock and trade, is it not?
KB:Yes, it is. Something I do a bit, and a good idea for people who are starting to write stories, is as well as listening to people’s conversations in a bus or a cafe or a train or something is to look at conversations, at the way people are behaving as they talk, often bad dialogue in a story, on the page is all blah blah blah and blah blah blah blah blah and it is never like that, it’s never equal amounts in a conversation, there’s always a talker and there is always a listener, you know? So look out for the balance because often where you find your story is in what is being said under the surface of the talk, what’s not quite being hit on in the conversation, especially with Irish people. Often you will not know what a conversation with an Irish person meant for years. (Laughs)
DK: I’ve often said that it would be worth visiting our own local bar here in Loughshinny and sitting down to record the conversations, the repartee, or the slagging.
KB: (Nodding) Yes indeed. I’ve had friends and acquaintances down through the years and I’ve often thought to myself, could I just slyly turn on record on the phone, (Laughs) because you will never write it as good. And I’m talking here about auld fellas I might know out in the west of Ireland, and it’s just this surreal stream of consciousness, and yet, the awful thing is if you were to transcribe that from life and put it down on the page, it looks shit, it doesn’t look right, art still has to come into it, you still have to shape the dialogue so that it will work on the page. You’ll get great raw material from listening to people, but it is raw and you still have to process it with all the drafts you will do down the line.
DK: Could I ask you about Dark Lies The Island? I found while reading it, that many of the characters where inadequate in one way or another. And while you have written about them with compassion, you never shied away from highlighting their weaknesses.Was that a deliberate decision on your part? To write a book focusing on the weakness that makes us human? And the inability to get past it?
KB:Yeah, it’s funny you know, with collections, all the stories have in common is that they were written around the same time in your life, so I suppose naturally, certain types of themes or preoccupations will come across, but I never really sit down to write a story with a definite idea of what it is going to be about in mind, usually it’s a place, or the idea for a character or two, and when those things combine, you know? A piece of geography and a little bit of a cast combine, there is a sort of click I hear usually. Very often the first spark for me is a place, some feeling or an atmosphere I get of a place, it could be a street in a city, it could be a hill somewhere, or just a walk down a road somewhere, very often it is just that feeling at that particular time that will make me want to write a story about it. I very often get the title very early and write stories around them, it all varies, you know?
DK: It’s interesting to hear you say a title comes first. I’m a fan of John Irving who espouses writing the last line first, so it’s interesting to compare different authors’ processes.
KB. Yeah, well it’s not always the case, but often, quite early on I’ll get a title, and that tells me a lot about the story, but sometimes they’re a divil and they take a long time to come, but when you get it, you know it, and it’s like a tuning fork, the story is there and you kind of hear it.
DK: Do you ever use the short story as a testing grounds for a character / or a plot for a novel?For instance was Dark Lies the Island, a prequel or an inspiration for Beetlebone?
KB: Well yes, in the case of one of these stories, the title story, Dark Lies The Island, there is that, and it was an unusual story for me in that there were no laughs in it at all. It’s about a young girl self harming, and she’s in the west of Ireland and of course, John Lennon’s island is mentioned in it. So I suppose that was the first thing that put that location into my mind, but I had no idea that I would go on to write a novel about it. So, yes, I suppose in that way there are, or can be, early sketches of longer pieces. In the most recent novel, Night Boat to Tangier, the two Cork gangsters in that initially showed up trying to muscle their way into short stories on my desk (laughs) but I finally figured out that they needed something longer to tell their story.
DK: Moving into that Night Boat to Tangier territory, I have to ask you (and I am sure you have heard this question before), are you influenced by, or haunted by Joyce & Beckett. And beyond them, what or who does influence you?
KB: I think every book you’ve loved influences you, and every record you’ve loved, and add to that every film you’ve loved, all of these things feed in, and then if you work hard enough, you develop you own style out of all those thousands of influences.
No doubt, with something like Night Boat to Tangier, where you have two Irish men waiting for something or someone, you can’t not realise that there is a comparison to a quite famous play by a quite famous Irish writer (laughs) and obviously you will think about that, but I was thinking about Harold Pinter more so because of the tone of the piece with its comic menace, which Pinter does really beautifully in his work. But I think it’s very hard to define Irish literature in any sort of narrow way, there are so many streams and currents that have gone through it over hundreds of years and if I belong to any part of it, it is to the kind of mischievous stream, a funny kind of stream that goes back to people like Flan O’Brien and Dermot Healy and all the way back to Laurence Sterne, the kind of stuff that took the piss out of itself a little bit. So I would say they were my influences, certainly I went through a big Flan O’Brien phase in my late teens and early twenties, like a lot of us go do, and that was there for a long time as a big influence for me to feed off.
DK: Another predictable question Kevin, you have won quite a number of awards. The Rooney Prize, for There are Little Kingdoms, the International Dublin Literary Award for City of Bohane, not to mention the Goldsmith Prize and a long-listing for the Booker Prize. You’ve been writing for a long time, but you weren’t exactly early twenties hitting the scene, so how important was that recognition for you?
KB: No, no I was thirty-seven before my first book of stories came out, so not a spring chicken by any means. (Laughs) And in some way, like in my early thirties I was desperate to be published, you know? I wanted it, and yet I kind of knew I wasn’t ready because I wasn’t sending stuff out to publishers, and I had the issue of having to make a living as well, I was writing a lot of journalism so I had limited time for fiction then. But the prizes. Jesus, there is nothing not to love about getting a literary award (laughs) but pragmatically it is money, the impact of a big prize is that it buys you time, a big prize buys you a few years of not having to worry about money coming in. People forget, you know? But writers have no wages, there is no monthly lodgement in the account, so to get a big prize and not have to worry for a few years is fantastic.
I’ve been lucky, I live in the northwest of Ireland which means I don’t have a huge housing cost, you know? Mortgages here are small, and rents are small. It’s a tactic, it means I don’t have to teach, that I can get away with going into my shed and writing fiction every day which is a very lucky position to be in, so yes, I’ve been fortunate with the prizes.
DK: So that is the practical side of the prizes, the money?
KB: Oh certainly, yes, more than any sort of kudos or anything. And of course, there is nothing wrong with that (kudos) either, but pragmatically it means time and space. I think the definition of success for any writer, or any creative really, is just to be able to keep going, and to be able to go onto your next project without having to worry about the wolf arriving up the garden path is great, you know?
DK: You are known for your use of language, The beautifully turned phrase that one reviewer referred to as ‘Unusual and memorable bog-soaked poetry’ yet some find your use of the colloquial and the profane off putting, how do you respond to that kind of criticism?
KB:It’s a common enough criticism, but I am firmly of the belief that you can’t be local enough in your story, the more local you are, the more focused your story is on some tiny field in Limerick or Cork, or some corner of Sligo, the more chance it has of hitting on something universal. In terms of profanity, I write mostly about Irish people, mostly about Irish men, and as for the profanity, well, it’s already there, I am only the messenger.
DK: Criticism I have read comes mostly out of America. Would you ever consider sanitising your work for that market?
KB:No, absolutely, I wouldn’t. I think the most important thing (and it is not something I always succeed at) is to try to keep your attention focused within the peripheries of your desk and to think about the story rather than how it will be received or how people will respond to it, because if you do that, then you are going to start trying to please people and if you do that, it’s the end.
DK: So your role is to serve the story rather than the audience.
KB:Yes, in the first instance. And yes I am aware that some people, mainly Americans, are particularly sensitive to some of the C-words and the F-words, I have had people walk out of readings over it, in America, particularly over the C-Word. It has gotten me in to trouble and I have said, ‘Look, in Ireland we use that word differently, it’s not a gender thing.’ If you call someone a cunt it’s often in a fond way, it is very often your friend you know, it’s not meant to be derogatory. But it’s a very different thing over there, it’s a cultural thing and I understand that but I am not going to write away from it.
DK: As someone who aspires to be an author, (and all editors on The Blue Nib are writers or poets in one form or another) it seems to me that in conceiving The City of Bohane, you went to your bookshelf and picked books from seven diverse genres, tossed them up in the air and then wrote them as they landed. There are influences from thriller, steampunk, dystopian fantasy, western dime and graphic novel even some Animi, and the language ranges from a form of Cant, to Tagalog to Gealic, yet it works wonderfully.
So I am curious about two things, why challenge yourself to that degree, how did you manage to pull it all together?
KB:I think by putting it all in the same register which was working class Limerick or Cork which was the accent and the community I grew up in. And you’re right about all of those things that are in it, that combined with a lot of television stuff that I was watching when I was writing it, like The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood, those great shows of the late 00s.
And it works if you get the register right and the language it is told in. What was exciting about writing it was the realisation that working class Limerick and Cork accents had never really shown up in Irish writing, perhaps because those areas were not producing writers of literary fiction. Maybe some of it did show up in stage stuff but that language had never been used in a fictive way or as a springboard to see where it could take you, you know?
DK: I loved the book (City of Bohane), are there any plans for it to be made into a film?
KB: Yes, there is ongoing talk about it as a television thing, but it’s at an early stage and these things can take a long time, but yes, I am hopeful.
DK: Moving on to Night Boat to Tangier, and we have touched on this already, the way Maurice and Charlie converse with each other, in that mock pathos, the use of quite dramatic language as a shield, is that a distinctly Irish thing?
KB: Yes, they definitely have a very theatrical, heightened way of expression which isn’t all that far off the mark for the average Cork City gentlemen, it’s quite an operatic town, they are similar to Italians, it’s a very expressive place.
Maurice and Charlie first started showing up as this sort of tag team of Cork gangsters with loads of talk and guff going on, they showed up vaguely in my shed, trying to muscle their way into short stories but they were destroying all the stories (laughs) so I decided they needed their own thing. It occurred to me first to try it as a play, but after a couple of weeks of writing, the story kept veering into their past, and I knew it had to be a novel, that was the only way to tell the story.
That is one of the wonderful things about a novel, it can go in any direction, it’s much more difficult with a play where you have to keep a forward motion going. So yeah, quite quickly I knew that it was a novel.
What made the book for me was when the two women characters came into the story, Cynthia and Dilly; with them, the story became a real thing. It was then that you saw the effect of the Charlie and Maurice lifestyle, how destructive that was, so with them, (Cynthia and Dilly) the story became grounded in that reality. I would say with this, and all my novels, I don’t write realism, but here realism was a starting point and the story becomes heightened. City of Bohane couldn’t be taken to be realism about Irish life in the same way as Tangier could, but it is a very heightened take on Cork gangsters. It was about finding that great register that they speak in and seeing what you can build out of that.
DK: The characters, exist, or at least characters that are similar, I have met some of them. Not just in Cork and Limerick, but in Dublin too, the hard-chaw with a great turn of phrase.
KB: Yes, I would say that they are out there, my own contact with that world is slightly outdated, I’m from that 90’s Cork kind of background so a lot of the surface details of the story was fairly handy to me really, I could just reach back for it. It’s great when characters like that come along, they were very vivid to me and I could write them well and write their dialogue quite easily, but at the same time, they were very annoying in that they wouldn’t shut up at all, so I was kind of glad when the book was finished and they were gone out the door, but then of course, I immediately started missing them. (Laughs)
DK: That provides a lovely link to my next question, where are Maurice and Charlie now, have they torn into each other, killed each other or are they living the life in the Costa Del Sol?
KB: I’m always interested in this question when I read work by other authors, what happens after the story? But I never have any idea what happens to my own characters, it’s all just pools of blackness afterwards, my interest is in them in the allotted time and space. I get questions from readers, like, who is the father of the kid, and I have no answer because all of that is outside the edges.
DK: As I read the closing of the book, I had this sense that Dilly had become almost ethereal, that she had slipped so far off the grid that she became invisible to Maurice and Charlie. Was that your intention, because she is present, in the space and yet they can’t or don’t see her, or at least they don’t see the girl they are waiting for?
KB: Yeah, yes, that’s a really nice way of phrasing it. What they’re looking for is a young girl who is so far gone that she’s really a figment of memory or imagination by that stage of the story.
They’re trying to reach back into the past but she has completely moved on. They haven’t seen her in three years and three years in a teenager’s life is an eternity. When you’re nineteen, three years back seems like the ancient past. It’s nothing for guys our age (laughs) but for them it’s a chasm. So she inhabits a different world now and when the two guys show up they are all strangers.
It was the most difficult scene to write, to get it right, that after this long quest, this wait, trying to find her, that they would do nothing when she does show up, that they just let her walk past. Getting away with that took lots of drafts.
DK: I’ve heard rumours of Micheal Fassbender optioning the rights for Night Boat to Tangier, is there any movement on that, what can you tell us?
KB: Yes, it is optioned, but again, it’s at a very early stage so I can’t really comment, all I can say is that like all of these film, telly things, you live in hope, so yes hopefully it will happen.
DK: The latest collection, Old Country Music, when does it land and what can you tell us about it?
KB: Yes, it’s very nearby I think. It was great to get another collection together, it was a surprise to me that it was eight years since Dark Lies The Island so I sort of rooted around to see how many stories I had and found twenty of which I picked eleven stories. That’s the fun part really, like the musician putting an album together. I chose stories that fit together, that hit off the same kind of themes, similar situations so they form a tune or melody of their own. A lot of the stories are set close to where I live up here in the north-west, so Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon, and it was nice to have an opportunity to pull them all together.
I definitely write fewer short stories than I used to; in a frustrating way, they are harder to nail, the short story as opposed to the longer. But I do love the form. As a reader I love the intensity of the short story so I keep going back and kind of chancing my arm at them I think.
DK: And the compulsory final question, what’s next for Kevin Barry?
KB: Well, there’s loads of notions kicking around, I’m writing a lot of scripts for things that will potentially end up on telly or film and I am also very keen to write more plays. There is also a very early, vague shape or outline of a novel that I might get around to sometime next year.
The problem for me is never a shortage of what to write, the problem is more that there are too many ideas, and figuring out which ones are ready to go. I think that’s the trick for many writers, deciding what’s the right story for my desk at this time in my life, you know? Am I ready to write this one?
DK: Thank you for being so generous with your time, we truly appreciate it.
KB: Thank you and my pleasure.