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These Things Are My Embers
An interview with Sebastian Barry

(Issue 9, Summer 2012)

Sebastian Barry’s maternal grandfather wanted him to be a painter like himself. ‘Every Saturday I’d nip around to him and he’d teach me. He’d been taught, oddly enough, on an imperial scholarship to Goldsmiths in London. He was the sort of man who would think Picasso went off after the age of 22. Very conservative. When I was 17 or 18 I grew my hair very long and he couldn’t cope with that. It’s a pity really. He died in 1976, during my third year at university, and I hadn’t really seen him ...’
His paternal grandfather was in the Royal Engineers during the Second World War. ‘Bomb disposal, something like that. I was longing to tell the Queen when she came over, but I didn’t quite get a chance!’ 
Barry’s mother was an actor, his father a poet, and he grew up in Monkstown near Dublin. ‘It was a backwater then. It was where all the old widows went to live out their lives when their rich husbands died. It was a bit like Greystones, where the Anglo-Irish went away for the end of the world. Because they thought if their world was over, like Synge’s mother, then the world was over.’ 
His first poems were written in Kerry in the summer of 1974. ‘I remember wondering what they were, where they came from. I think I felt having written three poems that I had actually achieved everything I needed to achieve. I could stop right there. They’re now in Texas in my so-called archive, which is the contents of my wastepaper basket, languishing somewhere in the Harry Ransom Center. Nevertheless, you don’t forget those first poems. It’s actually the moment maybe when the Phoenix realises he’s sitting on fire – that there’s something wrong with you that’s right. The desire – like the actor – to translate the world and make it live, isolated sun spots, whatever the hell it is.’
‘I was very self-isolating at university. I was, I think, at the centre, very alarmed, but it didn’t express itself as alarm, it expressed itself as distance and arrogance. Arrogance is a sub-branch of stupidity. I think I was quite stupid in those years. But trying to work. Not going to lectures, but reading. I think that’s what university is good for if you’re a writer. You’re like the mechanic at Virgil. You’re looking at Virgil’s engine, you’re looking at his jet plane trying to figure out how that engine works. You don’t even know you’re doing that, but that helps you later.’ 
Soon after university, Sebastian was living on Leeson Street in Dublin and starting to get some of his short stories published. ‘I did apply for a couple of jobs. I applied to Hanna’s Bookshop. They didn’t reply. Then I wrote to a financial services segment of some company, and I remember they wrote back saying something like, “We’re deeply charmed by your letter, but you are the least qualified person ever to apply. We’re very sorry …” So I just went on writing.’ 
He had tried his hand at acting while still at Trinity. ‘Because I had long hair I was cast as Tonto, and a very nice chap played the Lone Ranger. I had nothing to say. All I had to do was sit there smoking.’ But Barry was so terrified that he couldn’t keep his fingers still and the cigarette went flying into the audience. ‘I decided at that point that acting wasn’t for me. It’s so rare to be a good actor. It doesn’t really do to just be an okay actor, it’s too hard a life then. It’s an extraordinary thing that someone imitates a life to such a degree that they represent a version of life more vivid, more lively, than life … I kept away until 1988, when I wrote Boss Grady’s Boys for The Abbey.’ 
That was the first time, since he’d started writing plays in 1977, that Barry was able to pay the rent with the earnings from his writing. ‘It’s nice to be told you’re a good playwright and all the rest, but it’s even nicer to be paid. I wasn’t one of those young fellas who won the Rooney Prize at 22 or anything like that, even though I was working hard. I was like one of those opera singers, probably, whose voice comes quite late. It was 1995 when The Steward of Christendom was put on and it really made a lot of money, you know, which is miraculous. I was forty, but I had been writing full-time since I was twenty-one.’
Since then Barry has written fourteen plays. ‘I always think the gods, whether they’re Greek or Irish or English or whatever the hell they are, you know, they don’t like people who expect things. I wrote for many, many years without anyone paying any heed to me.’ The Steward of Christendom won many awards, including a Critics’ Circle Award for Best New Play and a Writers’ Guild Award. Sebastian Barry himself was awarded the Lloyds Private Banking Playwright of the Year that same year. ‘That felt quite normal actually at the time. An odd thing to say in a way, but it didn’t seem abnormal or unusual. It just seemed part of the weather of those times, where everything was a bit like childhood, where everything was going right. Or the dream of childhood, or the childhood you wish you’d had. Because in life things don’t just usually go right just like that.’ 
Numerous accolades followed, including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and a shortlisting for the Booker in 1995 for A Long Long Way. ‘I was incredibly delighted to win the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, which Evelyn Waugh won in the ’30s.’ During the prizegiving ceremony in Edinburgh a power cut meant that Ian Rankin had to hold a little car torch for Sebastian to read. ‘You know, romance, there was a romance to it. It’s a very odd business writing books. You know the sparrow in the bush doesn’t give a shit about us or even our human concerns. It’s just very, very odd but some things give you a quiet joy. But you know people like Patrick Kavanagh, no one ever said boo to him, no one ever gave him anything. There wasn’t anything to give him.’  
To Barry, novel-writing is less daunting these days than writing plays. ‘Say you might have 10,000 readers, and half of them might hate it, but if half of them have received something from that book then it has a worth. The trouble with the theatre is if only half the people are receiving what you’ve put on in the theatre it’s going to close. You know you’ve got to knock all the critics for six. It’s just very kind of brutal. It’s kind of a traumatic thing, sitting through a first night. I mean, I associate it with childhood, the fear of them, the dread. You feel physically unwell. It’s as if you’ve thrown yourself out of the aeroplane and suddenly remembered you forgot to put the parachute on. It’s not a good feeling. Novel-writing doesn’t have that …’ 
When Barry is not writing, he likes to help his wife Ali in the garden, and busies himself with their children. ‘Bring them to school and bring them home. Shout at the dogs. We do live quite an isolated life. I sally forth to places – you know, if a book’s coming out. And I’ll read an immense amount as a sort of preparation for some other book. In a way you’re reading to corroborate the notion of the book you could have written without reading anything. You’re sort of comforting yourself by reading, by sort of knowing something. Of course knowing something is no use to you writing a book, but anyway you do it because you’re a human being … Part of the discipline of writing is not writing. Not to write too much. For instance, if you have a successful play and someone says, “Do you want to write a musical in New York?” the answer is no. I said yes and wasted two years …’ 
In many ways, Barry’s intriguing family history has been a gift to him. ‘I mean, to me these things are my embers, these are things I can make a fire out of. The big fight for a writer, I think, is to keep everything out of your workroom except your own simplicity and stupidity and love of what you’re doing. Most writers will have seasons of success and celebrity, and seasons of disaster and condemnation. Once it’s in the workroom it’s trying to shout in your ear and it’s very hard to work.’
To this day Sebastian is grateful to his painter grandfather for teaching him technique, teaching him to stick at it. ‘But you know, you have to scare yourself to death. And I’m sure Picasso, as he shoved off the boat of conventional painting, scared himself stupid. The day I left Trinity I went down to the barber in Dun Laoghaire and he cut my hair – for a wig. It was really good hair. Some lady of means in Paris could still be wearing that hair, for all I know. So to forgive the hair, my grandfather needs to go to Paris in his afterlife.’