Kevin Barry lives with his wife in a a former barracks in Co. Sligo. The old garda station gates are still on the outhouses. ‘They were the cells. They left the bars on the windows. Dark stories to tell …’
Originally from Limerick, he left an arts degree course there to work as an old-fashioned cub reporter on a local newspaper. ‘A job in Ireland in the late ’80s was news in itself. It was great getting a real sense of how a small city operates, getting threatened outside the courthouse: “Put that in the fuckin’ paper and I’ll bust ya.” One of the things I love about small Irish cities is the sense that the rest of the world is really just a rumour. Everything that happens on O’Connell St. in Limerick is just absolutely of world-shattering import. I think a lot of City of Bohane (Barry’s 2011 debut novel) came out of those early days. It’s a funny little enclosed universe. And I often tend to write in these little enclosed worlds. I think what I’m looking for always in what I write is intensity, to make it a really intense experience for the reader.’
After years of working as a freelance journalist in Limerick and Cork, where he met his wife Olivia, Barry was growing frustrated. ‘So I bought a caravan for like three hundred quid and put it in a field in west Cork and sat in it for the summer and wrote a really appalling novel. I knew when I was writing it it was fucking dreadful. But it taught me a huge amount.’
He and Olivia moved to Edinburgh in 2001, where she was completing a PhD, and from there to Liverpool, eventually returning to Ireland in 2006. ‘We moved to the UK on 12 September 2001. I felt very nervous on the plane …’ That same year his first piece of fiction had been published in an anthology of short stories put together by David Marcus. Barry had started to write stories purely because there was a market for them – in literary journals and online – and it was the Irish literary journal The Stinging Fly that eventually published his first collection, There are Little Kingdoms, which won a Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 2007.
For the past three or four years most of Barry’s income has been coming from scriptwriting, and he’s currently working on a draft script of City of Bohane, which is optioned for film by Parallel Productions. ‘It sounds like a really glamorous thing but it’s very boring – moving the characters around from scene to scene and getting them places. You’re limited in what muscles you can use. But in lots of ways City of Bohane is a book that’s very easy to make a film of because it’s so influenced by film – by telly really. Things like The Wire and old Godfather movies.’
He is also working on a new novel. ‘With the novels I try to get a first draft down very quickly. So three or four months, just to have something to chip away at. And there’s always three or four short stories on the desk as well, and various plans, so it’s a busy desk, to the point of neurosis. Norman Mailer said once that it’s a very good idea for writers to rotate the crops, not just writing novel after novel after novel or not just writing short stories. If you stick to the same kind of area all the time you’re not challenging yourself. And it’s really interesting the way working in one area will feed into another. I’m very disciplined now. You try not to forget that it’s a privilege to be able to spend your days going into a room making up little worlds and odd little characters.
‘I think a lot of people are struggling with novels, and not reading as many as they used to. There are so many competing things, you know. In a weird kind of way it creates a moment for things like the short story.’ For Barry, success as a writer is if you can keep going. ‘And I’ve managed to do that since 2007. That for me is grand, that’s fine. In a way I would have hated to have published a first novel in my early twenties. I think you can struggle then. I was 37 when my first book of stories came out. The good thing about writing is that you’re still called a young writer even when you enter your forties!
‘I kind of approach making the stories almost like an actor approaches a role, as in hearing it and trying to inhabit that place as deeply as I can. Bohane started for me with the working-class language in Limerick and Cork, which is a ripe area for exploration for writers because it’s never really appeared in books. It seems to be my burden that I’m going to be writing in an Irish accent. It’s very important not to overplay it. Irish writers are, generally speaking, writing for export. The publishing centres are London and New York. So that puts your work through a kind of filter. I think it’s so important that you’re not either playing up the Irishry of it or trying to explain too much, so we are a peculiar case in that regard …
‘It’s hard to write about home. You circle around it a long time before you can really get in there. If you think of a young Dubln writer, it’s really hard. Fucking Joyce. How do you bring something new and fresh to that? A lot of the interesting work that’s done in Ireland is done in genres like crime fiction. Those writers seem really engaged with the present moment in a way that literary writers maybe aren’t so much. But I think it’s changing. Hopefully. It’ll be really interesting to see what immigrant writers – who came from Eastern Europe or Africa or whatever – write.
‘The really hard thing about writing and the really wonderful thing is that it’s a lifelong craft that you’ll never master, you know, there’s always more to learn.’
For Kevin, as a writer of fiction, there are places that have an odd sort of hauntedness about them. ‘Around the river in Limerick always had a sort of resonance for me, and a dark one. The first line in City of Bohane is “Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river”.’ On both occasions when Barry was visiting the famous gorge in Rhonda in Spain he felt ill at ease, only to find out afterwards that it was one of the scenes of the greatest atrocities during the Spanish Civil War. ‘Franco’s boys lined up several hundred prisoners at the edge of the gorge and forced them to jump to their deaths at gunpoint. I’m convinced something of that feeling lingers there, you know. I had a similar feeling before by a lakeshore in Co. Clare. It turned out it was the scene of an atrocious mass death during the famine …’
Barry writes in the morning, and then spends his afternoons rambling around the countryside, ‘getting wet, you know. Getting very wet. In November, December I leg it out of here. We only got central heating in this year. Before that it was like 4 o’clock you were at the stove and that was it for the day.’
He obviously takes great delight in rural life, particularly as he admits to being a ‘secret twitcher’. ‘I love the swallows out in our sheds at the back. One of my favourite moments of the year is when you see the mam teaching the young ones how to fly. It’s unbelievable here when you get some good weather. You just wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. But there’s very few days really that are completely dry. Every cloud from the Atlantic breaks on Ballinafad.’
For the time being he has a lot to keep him busy, but he suspects that he’ll be drawn back to the City of Bohane at some point in the future. ‘When I’m feeling brave enough I’ll venture out there again.’ It is to Emily Brontë’ s Wuthering Heights that he returns for inspiration. ‘I’ve always liked books where the story is framed by somebody telling the tale, and that was the first piece of literature that really blew me to the wall, when I was about ten. Suddenly I’m on this Yorkshire moor. Wind-blasted, you know. I still marvel at it because you can’t see how it’s done.
‘I think a really critical phase for all writers and artists is the late teens and early twenties. At that age I was looking at David Lynch films and Twin Peaks on TV, and I started reading an awful lot of American stuff as well. Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, that kind of mad comic intensity, and lots of American crime fiction, and people like James Elroy … It seems to me increasingly that a fundamental part of what I do in the future will involve writing for actors. I think I’m kind of a frustrated actor myself. I love to read the work and perform it. Some writers can’t collaborate, but I think I’ve just about enough humility to hang my ego on the door outside as I come in.’