The Rumpus Interview with Kevin Barry
It’s been a great couple of years in America for Irish writer Kevin Barry.
In 2012, Barry published his first novel, City of Bohane, a cinematic epic about a gang war in a dystopian Irish city. The novel came out in paperback this June. Then, in September, Graywolf Press released Barry’s new collection, Dark Lies the Island, along with There Are Little Kingdoms, his first collection, originally published in 2007 by the Irish small press Stinging Fly. An uncollected story, “Ox Mountain Death Song,” is also available to subscribers of The New Yorker.
Kevin Barry is a great writer with an impressive range, and Bohane is an entertaining novel, but I would venture to say his story collections show him at his best. Like George Saunders, he is a comic stylist who likes to poke around in darker corners. He writes intensely dramatic stories that are tender and understated, and hilarious stories that strike deep chords. Writing for The New York Times, Rachel Nolan said of Dark Lies the Island: “…by the end of a story, Barry has me in full sympathy with someone I might edge away from on the train.”
I caught up with Barry on his recent visit to Washington, DC, where he held his reading in a small black box theater, the kind of place one expects to see a spare production of a Beckett play. The next afternoon, we met at a downtown coffee shop, where Barry hunched over his beer and spoke with a gentle voice and a mischievous smile. We talked about life in County Sligo, the odd practice of writing fiction, and the summer Barry spent living, Jim Rockford-style, in a camping trailer on a West Cork beach.
The Rumpus: How long have you lived in County Sligo?
Kevin Barry: Just for the last seven years. I always lived in cities, and now I live in the countryside, in a swamp, essentially. I live in a bog. So that was really odd, to move into that. I was really freaked out the first year because it’s so dark at night. There are no street lights. And you hear stuff going on in the bushes, these mystery rustlings, and you think, What the fuck? You know? It took some time to get used to it, but now I love it.
Rumpus: I understand you live in a police station.
Barry: Yeah. It’s an old police station, from the 1840s. Big old lump of a building. It wasn’t in very good condition, so we had a lot of work to do. But it just immediately felt like home.
Rumpus: Does it have any of its original features?
Barry: Bars on the windows! And mysterious looking-out buildings, where I guess a few people had a rough time.
Rumpus: What about ghosts? Are there any ghosts?
Barry: Unfortunately, there’s been no sign of any ghosties yet. I had high hopes. I thought, Surely! But there’s no sign of any. Yet.
I always think the best piece of writing advice I ever heard was from Annie Dillard, who said, “Keep a low overhead.” Because you could have good years and lean years. It’s really cheap living there, in County Sligo, so it’s a good place to be. And there are no distractions at all from the work there. None at all.
Rumpus: Are stories more available in some places than others?
Barry: It’s odd the way some places feed into your work, in fiction, and others just don’t. We spent three years in Liverpool, and I’ve written lots about Liverpool. And we were longer in Edinburgh but I’ve never written a word there. I tried, but for some reason it hasn’t percolated, or seized me.
Rumpus: What was it about Liverpool?
Barry: I guess because it’s a very Irish city. There was always a lot of Irish immigration to Liverpool. It’s where the boat landed. I suppose, to an Irish writer, the speech and the accent are a very close first cousin. Edinburgh is a very dense, Scottish patois, and I can’t get in, you know?
But it just takes time for some places and experiences in your life to percolate. For me, it’s eleven-and-a-half years. That’s the amount of time experience needs to sit at the back of my brain before it starts to come out in fiction.
Rumpus: Eleven-and-a-half years?
Barry: I’ve worked it out precisely.
Rumpus: But it wouldn’t be eleven-and-a-half years for every writer…
Barry: I was just talking to a friend lately, an Irish writer who has lived in Berlin for the past seven years, and has just written his first words of fiction set in Berlin. So it takes him about seven years. But it’s impossible to write about what happened to you last week, or last month, or last year. It just needs that time to stew.
Rumpus: Why do you think that is?
Barry: I don’t know. The longer I’ve spent writing fiction and working on dramas or whatever, I find that what you’re doing, really, is making this odd pact with your subconscious. You’ve only got so much control over it. And you’re just sending material—particular bits of material—back there to this murky part of the brain, and saying, Let’s go to work on that. And it seems, for me, to take quite a long time before the results come out.
It’s odd. As a writer, when you say, “I’m going into work,” what you’re really saying is, “I’m about to go crawl into my nerves.” You’re saying to your subconscious: give me material. Send me stuff and I’ll make myself available to receive it.
Rumpus: Do you find you can puzzle over a problem and give that part of your brain an assignment?
Barry: Yeah, and then walk away from it.
Rumpus: And later it will return an answer.
Barry: I think of all the hoaried, cliché writing advice you hear, the one that’s true is to lock the piece away. Just go away from it for—I find at least six weeks, or two months—and not look at it. And when you come back to it, very often you see very quickly what’s wrong with it, or what’s good.
Often I’ll finish a short story, and think, Eh, not great. Not so much. But then, I’ll go back to it a couple of months later and think, Actually, this is a very good one. And contrariwise, as well. Sometimes I’ll think, This is marvelous, and I’ll come back to it later and think, Uhnnn…
Rumpus: You said last night that the ear is a better tool than the eye for writing. Do you read your work out loud?
Barry: I do, yeah. When it seems like it’s getting toward the finish, I will perform the whole bit. I’ll act it out, and do all the voices, and work it through. Just trying to pick out false notes, really.
I think the false notes in a story, or in any piece of prose fiction, are where you’re trying to be impressive. I always think the really interesting parts of a piece of work are the parts that embarrass me, that make me recoil in horror. I go back and read them and think, Oh god, Jesus. Did I really say that? Those are very often the true bits, where you’re getting at real things.
For that reason, it’s good for me to write first thing in the morning, when I’m still half-asleep, and not afraid to embarrass myself. I’ll just—“Bleh”— blurt, or spew, onto the page, you know? Just get stuff down. And then cut and edit a lot later. It’s trying to get it directly onto the page from that murky bit at the back of the brain, without trying to polish and fluff it too much, and make it sound impressive. At some level, we’re always trying to sound cool, you know? That’s just who we are as people. But I’m always trying to get past that.
I recently read an interview with David Milch, the great TV creator of Deadwood. He talked about trying to get stuff directly from the subconscious onto the page. And he won’t even use a keyboard any more. He just dictates. Even the simple action of the keyboard is too distracting. It’s really interesting, trying to get the material unmediated by your own—if this makes any sense—by your own barriers.
Rumpus: “Fjord of Killary” was one of my favorites in Dark Lies the Island. Can you tell me about that story? Was it inspired by anything in particular?
Barry: Yeah: I like to go around on my bicycle in the summer, because I find that the movement, just the turning of the wheels, will stir things up in my brain. So on one of these trips, I was in an actual old hotel out on the Fjord of Killary, one very wet May evening, listening to the locals arrayed along the bar, talking about distances from one town to another, and how long it would take to travel between them. Just crazy, random stuff. And I was looking out at the rain, and the water in the fjord was seeming to rise, and I thought, What if it just kept coming?
I had the story in an instant, then. It was an apocalyptic story, about the end of the world, with the twist that it would be the apocalypse as viewed from a little Irish bar in a hotel. How would they react and what would they do? It wrote itself very quickly. In a few days.
Rumpus: In a blur, it sounds like.
Barry: I do find that with my favorite stories—and that’s one of them—I remember very little about the day’s process of writing them. They seem to come very naturally.
It’s very hard to explain what makes a good short story, what makes them work. But I think it has to do with the timing in the story. It’s almost impossible to figure out how you’ve done it, when one does work out. It’s a kind of luck, often. But I think it’s just finding the right shape and situation for a story. And that shape—with an evening at a bar, and the world ending horribly outside—was a natural shape and timing for a short story.
Sometimes it doesn’t work out. Sometimes you have a story on the desk, and you can’t make it work, and you realize that the situation isn’t the right shape, or the right size for a short story. You can’t get it in there.
Rumpus: Does writing in a comic mode help a story do its work? Because this guy running this hotel, he’s under so much pressure. We can see who he is, as a character, by how he responds to that escalating pressure.
Barry: Sure, yeah.
Rumpus: The characterization and, I don’t know, other parts of the story can be helped along by—
Barry: —by the situation, yeah. And the fact that he’s pinned by his extremities. Very often in these stories, there are characters who are at a desperate end in their lives, you know? And how are they going to react? How are they going to swivel on their heel and escape from this? That’s what’s interesting, and dramatic: when people are pushed into these situations. I hope the characters are resourceful, and can find their way out.
Rumpus: What would you say “Fjord of Killary” is really about?
Barry: I think “Fjord of Killary” is very noisy on the surface. There’s lots of bells and whistles. The world is ending, and there are floods, and seagulls are eating each other alive. There’s an otter in the kitchen tasting the soup. So it’s very noisy.
But under the surface it’s a very simple—and very quiet—story about this guy growing up and realizing that all that really matters in life is how you carry yourself. How you take what’s dished out to you, or what’s in front of you. But it took me a while to realize that story was as simple as that.
Rumpus: How long did it take?
Barry: I remember reading it two years after I had written it, and suddenly thinking, Fuck, this is just about this guy growing up. But it’s very often the case that you don’t know what your stories are about, really, for a couple of years or so. Writers, I think, are very often extraordinarily dumb about their own work, about what’s going on and what it means. Because you’re just flying by the seat of your pants a lot, trying to put some sort of shape on whatever is given to you.
Rumpus: Can fiction writers avoid revealing themselves in their work?
Barry: Not at all. In fiction, I think, your soul is pinned onto the page in every sentence you write. I think you can hide in an essay. You can hide in a piece of nonfiction. You can put on facades, and so forth. I don’t think you can do that in fiction. I think everything about you, despite all your best efforts, will come out on the page.
Rumpus: You said last night it’s easier to lie in nonfiction.
Barry: I’ve always thought that. Especially with that debate that was current for a while—after the David Shields book Reality Hunger—“Has fiction had its day? Or, “Are we tiring of what seems like a false presentation of supposed realities?” But I think fiction is a truer mode, because it’s so hard to lie there. You have less control in fiction. You can get away with less there. And that’s what makes it magical. That’s what makes it really interesting.
Rumpus: How did you get started writing fiction?
Barry: Well, I guess my usual teenage poetry phase, like most people go through. Teenage Death Poetry, you know? I was a goth kid, with eighteen inches of ginger, backcombed hair, pancake makeup, and lots of eyeliner. We would read poetry and lie around in graveyards in Limerick City.
Then, in my twenties, I was working as a freelance journalist, and doing interesting stuff, a lot of arts stuff—reviews and interviews and so forth—but I knew there were bits of my brain I wanted to use that I wasn’t using.
What you face, really, are very pragmatic difficulties. I had to find time to do it, and I had to get poor for a while. I gave up a lot of freelance commitments and bought a twelve-foot caravan, put it on a beach in West Cork, on the West Coast of Ireland, for a summer, and tried to write a novel. And it was a fuckin’ terrible novel. I knew, even as I was going through it, that it was terrible, and I would never show it to anyone. But I did get 60,000 words or so together in a few months, and I thought, Okay, this is the amount of work that’s needed.
That summer taught me a good deal about discipline. About having to go and sit there every day, even when you don’t feel like doing it. The summer of ’99, it was. Since then, the first thing I’ve done every day is write fiction. I mean, I knew I had ability. I knew I could write great sentences and come up with characters and situations. But that’s not rare. Literary talent is very common. There’s lots of it about. I’ll bet that in this coffee shop there are plenty of people who can write great sentences and good stories. What’s rare is the pragmatic, stubborn nature that will make you do it every single day, even when you don’t want to. I think so much of it is that pragmatic thing of, are you going to do it every day? Just not taking no for an answer.
Rumpus: And you eventually started getting stories published?
Barry: Before my first book came out, in 2007, we’d been living in Edinburgh for a long time, and I was just writing stories, and not even sending them out. I wasn’t sure if they were ready, or finished, or anything. And there is that sense of writing into a void. It can be very hard to keep going in that. Where you are just sort of like, Is this any good?
It took me, actually, getting a story short-listed in one of the competitions. In 2004, “See the Tree, How Big It’s Grown” was short-listed in the Irish Short Story Competition, a big competition with a €20,000 prize. And it led to getting an agent, and some publications in good journals, then. And I was later able to get my first collection together.
But it took a stroke of luck, you know? I often wonder if the original reader hadn’t thought it was as good, if I didn’t get that break, if I would have kept going for another two or three years? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I think I probably would, and then I would have made my luck eventually. I do believe that. If you keep writing, you make your luck, eventually. I think that’s true.
Featured image of Kevin Barry © by Olivia Smith.