This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted by David Graham, MLitt Writing Practice and Study student at 2014 Dundee Literary Festival for DURA. The editing was undertaken by Jérôme Cooper; the full interview can be accessed by clicking on the image above.
David Graham: Well, I’m delighted to welcome on behalf of DURA and the University of Dundee and the Dundee Literary Festival, the wonderful Kevin Barry, author of City of Bohane, Dark Lies the Island, and several short story collections. So, Kevin, thanks for coming to Dundee. We’re delighted to have you. So, on a regular writing day, what do you get inspired by the most?
Kevin Barry: Oh, wow, I’ve a very good tip, actually. I tend to finish my writing day mid-sentence, about half-way through a sentence, just to let me get back in easily the next morning. […] I find if I can make the time between bed and the desk really quick, it’s a great help for my writing day. I can get into that murky, subconscious back of the brain place where fiction comes from and try and access that first thing in the morning. Because it’s very close, I think, to the place you are when you’re dreaming That first time thing in the morning is a good space to be in for a writerWhen you’re kind of half asleep, you’re not afraid to embarrass yourself on the page. And that’s when you get the good stuff, when you’re not trying to sound cool and you’re not trying to sound impressive. You can always go back and cut and shape and edit later, which is the fun part. I don’t mind what the prose looks like. I don’t worry about the grammar, the spelling, anything. I just want to get a good body of words down there that I can go back and cut and work with it.
DG: .. you feel this first thing in the morning?
Kevin Barry: I think so. Don Delillo, the great American writer, says you’re still potted in dream melt, which is a really nice way of doing it. You talk to that subconscious world, which is a fundamental place for writers where you need to be to work
DG: If you write something that scares you first thing in the morning, do you leave it in? Do you think, well, that’s the most raw of the …
Kevin Barry: It’s very unpredictable. A good morning’s work, I might get three or four hundred words down on the page and I don’t even try any more to write in the afternoons. […] All the great writing clichés are untrue except for the one about time, about leaving the work in the drawer for a while and figuring out, “Is it any good?” after a few weeks or a few months. That sort of seasoning period is critical. There’s a kind of – I call it a glow of completion – when you finish something . You go, “This is wonderful stuff. I’ve moved the whole short story form forwards”. The longer the better – six or eight weeks is good, I think. And when you come back to it, then you can tell very quickly whether it’s good or bad. You can feel the heat in the story, if it’s there.
DG: When was that moment in your life when you felt writing’s for me? Like a eureka moment in your life, “This is what I’m going to do, this is how it’s all going to pan out?”
Kevin Barry: Like, in my early twenties, mid-twenties, I was writing but I guess in quite an undisciplined way. I was working as a freelance journalist. You’re using a lot of the same muscles but I knew I wasn’t accessing parts of my working sub-consciousness that I wanted to. I wanted to write fiction. But I was undisciplined in my way of going at it. […] Then I became more dedicated to it. I think for almost all writers, there is a moment you can remember where you suddenly got serious and I remember an August day, I think nineteen ninety-nine when I was kind of walking by the sea in the west of Ireland and I remember saying to myself that I’m going to do this. My first experience of attempting a novel that I knew was terrible even before I finished it. But it taught me that I could get a novel-shaped thing together relatively quickly and I thought, “I must stick at this. I’ve got to put in the work that’s necessary.” No matter how much talent you have or ability, the fundamental thing is an enormous amount of work is required. You have to write out all your influences. You have to go through all those great writers you wanted to be. You have to write a novel that sounds like Cormac McCarthy. You’ve got to attempt a novel that sounds like Don DeLillo or whatever. I guess a mistake I madein my twenties was I read very narrowly. Three or four novelists that I loveand you end up aping them and imitating them too much. I think it’s a really good idea to read as broadly as you can, all the different sorts of stuff – comic books, and film scripts, and read plays. Let them all mangle in together and enmesh and maybe you’ll catch your own voice out of a whole mix of things. Books are made out of books, as somebody said once. I think Cormac McCarthy said that. And a fundamental thing, if you’re going to write, is to read a lot. Never feel guilty about time spent reading.
DG: You started going into plays with RTE and you mentioned earlier that you’re also working on a draft as well. Are you using the same writing muscles? Are you learning new ways of expression with new mediums?
Kevin Barry: It’s really, really fascinating how, when you’re writing in one form, it will actually improve you in another place. I read a great thing once that Gore Vidal said, the great American essayist. He was asked where his really enviable essay style came from. And he said, “That comes from writing stage plays in the late sixties. I discovered that the essay was in a sense a kind of dramatic monologue”. That taught me a great deal about how much or how little of a narrative spine you need.So working in one form can improve you in another. I think writers get caught in a rut where they just write science fiction stories or just do historical fiction. You could be the greatest sci-fi writer that ever was and just don’t know it yet because you haven’t tried. You could be a really good social realist story writer, you know – try all sorts of things, mix it up and see what happens.
DG: In City of Bohane there’s a lot of world building going on in there and the language, not only you practically invented your own but you drew on other elements of Ireland and your background. Was it a love of the language, that? Or just the love of creating your own world that drove you on?
Kevin Barry: City of Bohane comes primarily out of growing up in Cork and hearing the English language as it’s wonderfully abused and misused in these places. It’s a really good resource to have as a writer because that kind of working class speech that comes in Cork has never shown up in our literature much in Ireland because those communities weren’t in the way of producing books. So when I started writing City of Bohane, I thought, “God, this is a pretty fresh mode of expression.” I really enjoyed the world-building element of it. I got carried away with building the city and describing the streets but it struck me quickly that the City worked as a place because I started to have dreams set out there, very violent, hard-boiled dreams that I was waking up in a nervous sweat from. I could see the streets and if you were to journey to Bohane, it would feel like you were in a kind of vaguely familiar west of Ireland city but there’d be something slightly odd, something slightly Other. There’s kind of an alternative universe going on alongside ours. So that’s a great liberating thing for a writer to discover, that you’re not doing realism here. You can invent at will. You can make it all up off the top of your head. No research required. Just sit down and go mad on the page.
DG: ..I saw it won the Impact Award from Dublin. Dark Lies the Island won a few awards too. Does it change the way your work is perceived or does it actually spur you on as well when you get these prizes?
Kevin Barry: It definitely gives you confidence, yeah. I think every writer has confidence anyway. […] It’s a great boost and there is cash attached to prizes, all the better. There’s nothing not to love about people giving you money and saying, “Oh, you’re a great writer”. I think what you have to remind yourself all the time is that there are going to be good years and very lean years as a writer. […]It’s important to keep yourself tethered down.
DG: That’s really good advice about grounding yourself and all writers need to have confidence. Were you always confident you’d be where you are now?
Kevin Barry: I always felt I would be published, for sure. As is common with lots of novelists, the first published novel isn’t the first novel you attempted. The City of Bohane, my first published novel, was the fourth I wrote. The first one I mentionedI never let out of the house. And the second one wasn’t very good. The third one came very close to being published and I think I kind of knew I was a pro after that when they said, “Well, let’s see the next thing”. I said, “Okay, I’ll go and do another”. The first morning I sat down and started writing City of Bohane, I knew at once it would be published. It felt like it was the project that should be on my desk. At this particular time, I’ve read enough graphic novels, I’ve seen enough TV shows like Deadwood and The Wire, I’ve read enough Irish literature, I’ve seen enough cowboy movies. All those influences are there and ready to go. And it turns out one of the most fundamental things in your life as a writer is picking the project that should be on your desk at a certain time. Very often, we start off trying to write novels. You’re maybe trying to write a novel that you’re ten, fifteen twenty years away from being able to do. That was certainly the case with me. It’s trying to recognise what’s going on. […]
DG: Fantastic. Lastly, probably the question that every writer gets asked: what advice do you give to new and aspiring writers?
Kevin Barry: Yeah: Finish every story you start. Even if you know as you’re writing it that it’s crap, finish it. Because that gives you a kind of pride in your craft. If you finish the bad ones, it’ll help you finish the good oneswhen those come along. I try loads of short stories,probably ten or twelve a year. And of that, one or two will be shown anywhere. I know myself that they’re not good enough but I finish them all. That’s when you’re being a professional about it. The next novel I have at the moment’s around forty thousand, fifty thousand words – a short novel. I’ve probably written two hundred and twenty thousand words for it. Just cutting and cutting and cutting and cutting. It’s like the sculptor needs a block of stoneto cut out and find the shape that’s in there for the finished piece of art. You’re going to have to write a great deal that you’ll cut and throw away. And that old hoary advice about killing your darlings is also a good idea. That sentence is so beautiful you can’t cut it. Cut it and the weird thing is, as soon as it’s cut, you won’t miss it at all. Read a lot and write a lot and finish everything you started.
DG: Kevin Barry, thank you very much indeed on behalf of the University of Dundee, thank you very much indeed.
Kevin Barry: A pleasure, David, thank you. Cheers.