Bukem Reitmayer (BR): You started writing about Limerick, Dublin, Cork city, eventually you made your own city, Bohane, and then you began to write about County Sligo – what’s next? Where do you go from here? You mentioned before that you are getting closer and closer to home – what do you mean by that?
Kevin Barry (KB): The novel that I have on my desk is set again in the West of Ireland, the actual West, rather than an invented part. With short stories it’s weird, I have noticed that the stories are getting closer and closer to home all the time, closer to my house in County Sligo, which is very interesting. What will happen when they arrive in the door in County Sligo? That’s the big question. It’s funny, often it takes a while maybe to write about a place in your fiction. In my books of stories there are stories set in Cork City in five or six or seven or more years since I left the place. It seems to take that amount of time for me for the material to sit in my murky, self-conscious place and percolate or season.
BR: So you need a level of detachment before you can approach places.
KB: Yeah, I think so. You just need to leave it all to tangle up and get weird in the back of your mind for a long while and see what happens, so patience is really, really critical. Like I always say, it’s so difficult to write about what happened to me or to you last year, or last month, you know, but with a bit more distance and perspective it comes into focus a little bit. But yeah, I mean place is very important obviously to the books, because I write so much with the ear, and write so much in terms of an Irish accent, really, that it is critical. I’m probably not going to suddenly set a story in Minneapolis, you know, so a very important thing in any writing career is where you put yourself, where you live, where you place yourself, because it is going to get into the fiction and color it all sorts of ways.
BR: How long until you could write about Montreal?
KB: You’re not the first to ask me that! I think it will be a while. Of course my biggest kind of impression on my senses from Montreal is a cold winter — not like we’ve had in Ireland. We get wet, just about zero but never really cold, snow maybe two days a year, and it won’t last for very long. So it’s been a very intense kind of sense impression to get through that, really interesting and really kind of dramatic for me to be waiting around in 6 feet of snow for months on end. I’m sure when I do write about something in Montreal, it will be set in winter. I’m sure that will get into it, but it’ll probably be a while. I guess also whatever is on your desk at the moment will get into it in subtle and unexpected ways. It strikes me as a great city to be based in. There’s a lot of ground to be covered here, I’ve really enjoyed it.
BR: I guess I’m caught up in setting because your stories seem to use setting as a character, a protagonist or antagonist. Can you speak to this?
KB: I always think that part of my process as a writer is to kind of find stories that are already there in places, really. You go around and try to pick up the vibrations or reverberations that are coming off of particular places. I do notice when I look in retrospect that, my short stories in particular, they very often come from times when I’ve been physically moving around, when I’ve been on my bicycle on little trips in the West of Ireland, or whatnot, moving from town to town, moving around the coast, moving up hills, very often those processes of movement seem to stir up the creative juices and get me going to some extent. I think it is a difficult balance in a writing career, you need very quiet time close to your desk, and not going very far from it, but you can’t just sit down all the time; you have to go out and into the world, and travel around as much as possible. I’m trying to think if I set much outside of Ireland, I haven’t really, apart from in England and in Scotland, where I’ve lived also, and little bits in the US. It doesn’t particularly daunt me to write about places like that, it’s finding a way into the language and the way people use their language there. So if I write about English cities, it’s Irish people in English cities and so forth. I lived for almost 3 years in Edinburgh, and I’ve never set a world of fiction there because it’s its own thing, the language is so dense and I have no way into that, I’ve lived for less time in Liverpool, but I have no problem writing about that, I can get it really quickly because Liverpool is the great Irish city, it’s where a lot of immigration has come to. Very often in the 1970s a lot of immigrants thought they were in New York when they landed in Liverpool. They said ah this! This is it! This is the big city! That was an easy way in for me, a very close cousin to how we use English in Ireland.
BR: I was reading Bohane this weekend, and I realized how language is a key part of your writing… so I must ask, what is schkelp? A lackeen?
KB: Two interesting ones to pick out, actually, because one is made up and one isn’t – a schkelp is kind of my made up name for a knife, as in you can scalp someone with it. I think there is a word in Gaelic, scalpeen, that would be quite close, so it’s kind of taking sources from actual languages and kind of forcing it and making it up. A lackeen is a young girl in the Ireland slang used by gypsies and travellers. If you have “een” on the end of a word it means little. A cupeen, a little cup. A lack is a girl, it’s a kind of slang term for “my chick”, kind of a thing, so a lackeen would be a little girl. There’s a lot of traveller cant in the book. When I grew up in Limerick and in Cork, our cities were big traveller communities, and you would hear stuff all the time as you go around. Yeah, so English as it is used in un-made-up Irish cities is a very strange creation, with so many influences, that everybody spoke until I guess the 1800s, but it wasn’t the language of the government then, so it went kind of underground essentially. Kind of weird similarities with Quebec and Ireland, with the whole language tension and all of that stuff, with our weird, lovely mangled way of using the English language.
BR: Did you have to do any research for the books?
KB: I don’t do any research, it’s all me. One of the things about a novel in particular is judging what novel should be on your desk at particular parts of your career. The ones I attempted in my 20s, I was decades away from writing. The tendency when you are young and starting out is to go for too much, too quickly. Bohane was the third one I attempted, but first to be published. Though it’s normal, lots of zombie, half-dead efforts lying around with writers. I grew up in Limerick and spent about seven or eight years in Cork. I can do the voices very quickly. As soon as I started writing City of Bohane, I had watched enough Deadwood and the Sopranos and the Wire. It’s a critical thing for a writer to judge what novel will be on your desk at a given time.
BR: In writing about the past there is a surplus of historical information you can delve into, but the future is undocumented. Why is Bohane set 40 years in the future? How did you go about creating this world?
KB: Yeah, I didn’t know it was about the future when I started. All I knew was that I wanted to invent a little Irish city and invent it from the top, know all the different levels of its life and society and I was only half way through the first chapter when I realized, when I found myself writing a line about gangsters having a meeting and saying long gone the discos in Bohane, and I was like well it’s set in the future, great. I could just invent it off the top of my head, no rules to abide by. We don’t know what’s happened that there’s no guns, cars or computers out here – there’s a hint that there was traffic at one point in Bohane, but something catastrophic happened. I just wanted it to be this little alternative universe, and it’s obviously an Irish place by all the voices and all of that, but they are in 2054 and their past isn’t necessarily our present either, and they came out of a whole different type of world and type of situation, similar but different. That saying, if any Canadian would find themselves in Cork or Limerick, they’d find lots familiar in these tormented little cities.
BR: What made Bohane a setting for a novel as opposed to a short story? Can you discuss the relationship between your short stories and your longer prose? It seems to me exciting and beneficial to work in these arenas simultaneously.
KB: Yeah, I guess the scale of the ambition for it was to build a city and a whole place, and there was no way I was going to get that in the confines of a short story. Usually my impulse is to reduce it down and cut it down to work in a small space, because I do love short stories, because it’s nice to get something done relatively quickly and stories often are, and it’s a lovely feeling to have something finished. But no, just the idea naturally lent itself to a novel-size. It also strikes me as a treatment for TV, like a job for HBO or something.
LH: How much of your writing comes from actual experience, if you don’t do research? “Across the Rooftops”, for example, from Dark Lies the Island, seems so real.
KB: Oh sure, I think we all have experienced that kind of situation. I certainly lived in an apartment like that with access to a rooftop. There would have been parties there, and I would have failed to kiss many girls I’m sure. Often a story that works is one that strikes something that everybody knows. That awful moment. I knew as I was writing this that it would work for everyone, and those are lucky moments as a story writer when you get one like that. It was a big question for me, whether to put it as a story in that book, it’s quieter than most of my stories, really. I was worried it would lure my readers into a false sense of security, because then all the madness starts very quickly with Wifey, and then Biblical floods and all this. It’s kind of nice to start in a quiet way then make people relax. I think most readers like me don’t read a story collection perfectly in order.
BR: There’s this idea that if a story is funny then it can’t be serious, and you dispel this. It feels good and right to laugh in these moments. How do you feel humor serves your stories?
KB: Yeah, that definitely exists I think. This idea that if something isn’t very straight-faced along its lines and sentences, it’s not quite literature. I react very strongly against that. It is worth remembering that the Ancient Greeks gave the top prizes to comedies, and tragedies were below that. I often sit down to write a thoughtful story, then suddenly there are talking badgers in the story!
BR: So, what are your stories relationships with darkness, then? Bohane is full of violence.
KB: In City of Bohane, there are graphically violent scenes. It is, along with lots of other things, a big crime and gang story. It is describing a violent story, and I didn’t want to avert the cameras eye, I didn’t want to allude to and not show the visceral violence. It’s very tricky in terms of your tone then, because you’re going along funny funny funny then there’s a vicious scene with blood and guts, and it’s really hard to write violence well, like describing dancing. I guess I was especially influenced in the decision to include violent scenes by somet of the tv shows that really influenced it, like The Wire, or The Sopranos. If you’re going to use violence as a topic or theme, you kind of have to show it as well. I had bad dreams, very violent dreams, when writing the book – like karma or payback, and it’s an interesting topic. The violent scenes in it are kind of quick – they tend to require a lot of drafts actually, to get them any way close or right. I watched a lot of violent TV shows in the name of research.
BR: As a creative writing student at Concordia University, I have to ask what advice you would give to writers just starting out.
KB: Well, I think to do not what I did in terms of reading very narrowly. I was obsessed, with example, with certain Jewish-American novelists like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, and you should read broadly all types of stories from all eras and centuries, and also never feel guilty about the time you spend reading. It’s critical to your training to write all the time and read a lot. Especially writers in their late teens, early twenties, because that’s when all the important influences go in, and this is when you soak in your formative influences, so it’s reading a lot and writing a lot, and not being too upset when stories fail and don’t work out. Finish everything, and even if you know in your heart and soul the story isn’t good or strong, just finish it anyways. It’s really easy to start stuff, but really hard to finish them. You have to write lots of them to get good at them. You can teach yourself how to write by doing it all the time, and you will slowly build up the muscles for what you need. What’s exciting for young writers is that you can have sudden jumps in quality, and you can see it on the page. From 20-22 the quality of what I was writing jut took a huge leap up, and if you are serious about it, it will kick in. You will see these leaps if you are serious and completely committed to it. Literary talent is common, lots of people can write good characters and story and dialogue, but what is rare is the stubborn attitude that keeps you to your desk. Those are the people who become professional writers. It’s easy to do when you’re in the mood, that’s what sort of separates the writers that get through from the others.
Kevin Barry is the author of two short story collections, There Are Little Kingdoms (2007) and Dark Lies The Island (2012), and one novel City Of Bohane, which won the very prestigious International Dublin Literary Award in 2013. He has also won the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Prize, the European Union Prize for Literature, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, and the Authors Club Best First Novel Award. He has been short-listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award and the Costa First Novel Prize. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Best European Fiction, the Granta Book of the Irish Short Storyand many other journals. He also writes screenplays, plays and graphic stories. He lives in County Sligo. This event is free and open to the public.