Young Irish Writers Part 1: Kevin Barry
Three emerging Irish writers offer insight into their lives, their work, and what it’s like to be a writer in Ireland right now.
SL: Your stories are mostly set in the country and in smaller towns and villages (both named and unnamed). How do the many accents in Ireland play a role in how you shape your characters and dialogue?
KB: Lots of my stories are set in smaller places, though I grew up in a city. As the stories in There Are Little Kingdoms started to come together, I was living in the UK, and my experience of Ireland at that time was coming back in the summer and going for bicycle trips in the west, passing through all of these one-horse and three-pub little towns, and I think it was the sheer bleakness of them that appealed to me! I am always struck, in particular, by the sense of entrapment you can see among younger people in such places – there are stories there. Accents are critical for me. I work from the ear, and when the accent changes – as it does every second mile in Ireland – the meaning changes, the humor changes, the soul changes.
SL: What writers made you want to write? How have they influenced you?
KB: The novelist Saul Bellow, for the way he could combine street lowlife and a high-flown literary style and language. The story writer V.S. Pritchett, for his talent in capturing and manipulating so many disparate human voices. The all-round genius Flann O’Brien, for his demented comic vision. I think the trick, for younger writers, is to read as widely and as passionately as possible – the more you read, the more likely your influences will tangle up and fuse into something unique.
SL: What is it like to be a writer in Ireland right now, particularly in light of the economic crisis?
KB: Writers are generally immune to the vagaries of boom-and-bust economics. We never have booms, so busts are the norm. There is little money in writing, and what little there is shrinks with every passing year. But you don’t do it for the money, you do it so that you can breathe. The greatest literary advice ever was this succinct statement from Annie Dillard: keep your overheads low!
SL: Are you going to stay in Ireland?
KB: Yes, but with frequent jailbreaks. I tend to make a headlong dash for brighter climes in the winter, usually to Spain. The simple motion of traveling is good for the work, I find. The physical sensation of movement causes the brain to keep on whirring. Ireland is a little bleak at the moment but on a quiet morning in County Sligo, when I’m cycling my bike around the lake, and the rain looks like it might hold off for a good five or six minutes, it can still seem very heaven.
SL: Can you tell our readers about City of Bohane?
KB: Bohane is an imagined city on the western seaboard of Ireland, and the novel is a look at how things are out there in the middle of the 21st century. It’s about gang fights, and old love affairs, and city politics, and fashion, and lots else besides, but mostly it’s about the language – it’s a projection of what the language might be like in a small tormented Irish city in the 2050s. All similarities to actual Irish cities are entirely intentional. The novel will be published in the U.S. next September.
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