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An Interview with Kevin Barry

An Interview with Kevin Barry

The author of City of Bohane talks Ireland, Montreal and terrain vague.

Kevin Barry is the author of the short story collections There are Little Kingdoms and Dark Lies the Island. His debut novel City of Bohane won the prestigious 2013 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Populated by well-turned-out thugs and swinging with a calypso rhythm, City of Bohane is an exuberant tale of gangsters set in an imagined future city in the west of Ireland, masterfully told through dark humour and a ribald vernacular.

Based in County Sligo, Ireland, Barry has been in Montreal for the winter term as the artist-in-residence with Concordia University’s Department of English and School for Canadian Irish Studies. On May 4 he will appear on the “Structuring Landscape” roundtable at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival alongside Richard Ford and Josip Novakovich. 

I met with Barry over coffee to discuss writing, place, Montreal, and the lasting impact of growing up in the suburbs, among other things. 

Jeff Miller: I read City of Bohane and also listened to the audio book, which you narrated. It’s quite a performance. The voice of the novel is unique and definitely comes across in your reading. How does the sound of language figure into your writing? Is that something you think about when you’re writing? 

Kevin Barry: It’s fundamental. Bohane is an invented city and you won’t find it on a map, but it very much comes from the way the English language is used and abused in actual small, west of Ireland cities, Limerick and Cork primarily, where I grew up. It’s a fundamental part of the writing process for me to act the stuff out, to do all the voices, and to read it aloud to catch the false notes. Your ear will get them much quicker than your eye will. 

I suppose there are things that will always surprise you in a writing career as you go along. One of the things that surprised me since my first book of short stories, There Are Little Kingdoms, came out was that immediately from doing literary events it became clear that the stuff worked well out loud, that audiences liked to hear it and it had a rhythm to it. So I very quickly began getting involved with small theatre groups and small films in Ireland. A lot of the time now I’m thinking of actors when I sit down to write, which is not something I would have predicted when the first book came out. And Bohane is very much written for the voices in there.   

JM: What was it like doing the audio book? How did you like going from being an author to a voice actor? 

KB: It was actually my first paid acting role, so it was nice. It took place over three days in a recording studio in Dublin. You learn a great deal about your book when you read it start to finish aloud. I recorded it three years after I’d written it, so I found out as I read through what I thought was good and bad about it. My main fault with it was that my favourite characters weren’t in it enough. These were the old lady character Girly Hartnett, and also Jenni Ching. I had great fun whenever those two appeared. When I went to read their bits I found this glee rising in my chest. So if I ever do another Bohane novel I’m sure those ladies will be back.

JM: Many of your short stories are deeply connected to specific places, yet the settings of City of Bohane are invented. What prompted you to invent your own place for the novel?

KB: I suppose there are lots of different influences on it as a novel but really strong would be what I was watching around 2008 and 2009, box sets of Deadwood and The Sopranos and The Wire. From that the notion of doing a little city of my own from top to bottom was very appealing. I knew with an invented place that would be really liberating for me as a writer because I wouldn’t have to do any research. I was halfway through the first chapter before I realized it was set in the future. And again that was doubly liberating because anything goes now because it’s set in the 2050s. I wanted to give the sense that the past in Bohane isn’t necessarily the current present in Ireland, it’s almost like an alternative world. It’s recognizably an Irish-type place because of the voices but this is maybe a city that came out of a whole different world and universe and history.

JM: I really loved the eccentric fashion choices and constant presence of calypso in City of Bohane. Can you tell me about why you chose these elements? 

KM: Well this was part of the fun of the novel, imagining what might persist from our time into the future. And I was listening to lots of dub reggae, old ska and calypso while I was writing it. I was off in a phase, as I often am with that type of music, and miraculously that started to filter onto the pages.

With the clothes I find, especially with young working class men, the look is so important. You’re dealing with scant resources, so how you present yourself to the world is a critical thing. And how you look, how sharply you can turn yourself out, despite your lack of resources is very important for the youth of Bohane. It’s influenced by things like Clockwork Orange as well. 

It increasingly struck me as I wrote the novel was that it was in all essentials a western. It was a kind of west-of-Ireland western. All the characters are western archetypes. You have the fading gunslinger, and his nemesis back in town, and the woman caught between them, and the young guns coming up on the sides, everyone looking for the main chance. But also one of my main ambitions was to have fun with it while I was writing it in the hope that this would project out from the page and infect the reader as well. Doing all the costume design and the camera angles and all this was huge fun. And there are no budget restrictions, which is the great thing for the novel.

It was my first published novel, but it wasn’t my first attempted novel. Like almost all writers I have a couple zombie novels under the bed at home. And those were attempted novels that I hadn’t had a lot of fun working on. Whereas from day one of working on Bohane, I had no doubt that it would be published, absolutely. The critical thing about writing is knowing what should be on your desk at a particular time in your life. That’s almost the most important thing to figure. Very often I think when you’re trying to write a novel, as I was in my early twenties, I was trying to write stuff that I was about two decades away from being capable of. Whereas when I started writing City of Bohane I said “oh yeah, I have this now.” I’ve watched enough Deadwood, I’ve read enough graphic novels, I’ve listened to enough calypso and dub reggae, I have all this stuff and I was brought up in these cities, so I can do it. That seems to be so important, to figure out what exactly is urgent and hot and pressing for you to have on your desk at a given time.

JM: You live in rural County Sligo and several of your stories are set in rural places but deal with contemporary themes. These stories seem to me to subvert some of the romantic myths surrounding rural Ireland. Is this a conscious effort on your part? 

KB: I used to always think that my stories primarily came from the way people speak in Ireland, and obviously that’s very important, but more so now I think that they come very much from their places. Every place, every town you pass through refracts a different kind of feeling and it’s in that odd reverberation that a place gives out that you kind of take the type of stories that are right for that place. 

I like to cycle, so I go out round the west of Ireland in what passes for our summer and go through these little towns and villages. I find that it’s on those trips that I build up a store of material to use. Ireland is an odd little rock, because in some ways it’s really beautiful but then you can pass through ugly little towns and awful new buildings that have gone up since the 60s, 70s or 80s. And it’s a real mix of the two, so there’s definitely a skewed perspective coming through.

JM: How is writing about rural places different or the same as writing about cities?  

KB: I do find that I haven’t written many stories set in Dublin, but when I do set stories there they tend to be satirical in intent. Fundamentally if you’re an Irish person who’s not from Dublin you hate Dublin. It’s a natural response, it’s a response everywhere to capital cities. In the book there’s only one, which is called “Wifey Redux.” It’s very much a satirical take on a Celtic Tiger, prosperous South Dublin family and all of that coming undone and having some fun with that. I spend a lot of time around Dublin now and it has struck me as interesting that I’ve never set a straight-faced story there. Since 2006 we’ve mainly been living in Sligo, but I’ve been up and down to Dublin a great deal so I’ve probably been around there enough that it will be coming into the stories more.

It tends to be about ten or eleven years for me before life experience comes through in the fiction. I find it very difficult to write about what happened to me last year or three years ago. I think as a writer that there’s a kind of shelf back in your subconscious where the stuff has to sit and soak up the brine for a long while before it comes out. Often with stories you can never tell where they’re coming from when you write them, but if I look at them in retrospect I can see that gap between events in my life and when a story was written, ten or eleven years. 

I’m always looking at ways to practice as a writer. I have lots of friends who are visual artists and I find that they’re a lot more engaged than writers are in the way they do their work and investigating their practice. Writers tend to get in a rut, so I’m always interested in seeing if I can mix things up a little. Often enough if I feel slow or I’m not sure what’s going on I try to think about ten or eleven or twelve years ago and try to force that material forward. What was obsessing me? What was the big problem that I had eleven years ago? It almost always looks tiny in retrospect. What was keeping me awake? What was making me bitter and furious ten or eleven years ago? Maybe then you find that there is useful material to work with.

JM: I grew up in the suburbs of Ottawa and was a punk, and you grew up in the suburbs of Limerick City and were a goth. The suburbs definitely fuck with you. I know that growing up in that environment influenced me as a writer. Do you feel the same? Does it leave a trace?

KB: Hugely so. There’s a lovely French expression, terrain vague, which means in-between town and country, just at that cusp place. It’s where you have mysterious vibrations from either side mixing together under sodium light. I love that sense when suburbs are depicted in film, or TV, or in books as kind of eerie and I like that and I absolutely respond to that, be it in John Cheever or in Mad Men. And I also respond to the kind of suburban ennui you feel as an adolescent. 

I went through many phases. I was a mod and a goth and a Cure-head, I was a raver, organizing elicit raves in the early 90s in the west of Ireland. I could never live in a suburb now, but I’m always very interested when I go back and walk around. It always strikes me as amazing in Irish literature the suburbs show up so little, relatively speaking, considering eighty percent of Irish people grow up in suburbs. But our literature always seems to be of the farm or the small town or the city, because that kind of suits the mythologies of Irish literature. The suburbs for some reason don’t fit into that, but I think they’re very interesting places. 

JM: Have you always been drawn to humorous writing? Does it come naturally to you?

KB: I think my natural mode is comedy. Often it’s very black comedy but I’ve written very few stories that don’t have humour in them. It just seems to be the natural human mode. I think we get through life by laughing at the cruelness and misery and everything else. I’m always very interested in Irish funerals. There’s a scene at the dead house where the corpse is viewed the night before the funeral, and always outside there’s this kind of joking session that goes on, this nervous laughter. I love Nabokov’s expression "laughter in the dark" because that’s how we process the really hard stuff, and if I could borrow anything for the description of my work that would be it I think. I rarely come at things straight-faced when I write. I’m also the youngest child of five and the youngest child tends to be a joker as a way of getting attention. Quips and so forth. Because I was the annoying add-on at the end of the family.

JM: In “Beer Trip to Llandudno” and other stories it seems to me that humour is a way to sneak up on some darker truths. Can you talk a bit about the use of humour as a technique in your writing more generally? Does it help you tell certain kinds of stories?

KB:  Sometimes as a story writer you get presented with this gift. It’s odd what can give you a short story. We lived in Liverpool for two years, my wife was at the university there teaching. We had a nice apartment in the city, the heating wasn’t very good and it was a cold winter, so we started to go to this pub quite a lot across the street for the warmth. It was this lovely old Victorian pub that the local Real Ale Society used to meet in. And of course we eavesdropped as all the beer descriptions and the beer talk are all very serious. One night I saw on the bar this little stack of fanzine-type things that was the beer club newsletter, and as a story writer you just look at that and go “that’s a gift.” What an absolute gift because there were reports on recent day trips and outings for the beer society. So that’s the perfect shape for a story, a beer club’s outing to the seaside. It has a beginning, middle, and end, off we go on the train. 

It was about a year after we left the city that I wrote it. I was confident that I could do the Liverpool accent because it’s quite a close relation to an Irish accent because there’s been so much immigration to that part of England over the years. And it was kind of a love letter to the city. Usually a good sign for me that the story’s working is that the characters are very quickly talking a lot and I couldn’t shut them up. Often with the better stories as well, that’s actually one of my favourites, and one of the strongest I think, I don’t remember very much technically about the writing of it. It just seemed to flow very quickly from when I started it. 

JM: There’s this great line in your story “Berlin Arkonaplatz – My Lesbian Summer” where you write that “A constant of hip cities is that much of the conversation centres around the fact the city is not as hip as it once was.” This definitely reminds me of conversations we’re constantly having about Montreal. How has your time here been? 

KB: I’ve loved it. My favourite piece of writing advice, in terms of the best that I’ve ever heard, is from Annie Dillard, the American essayist who said “keep your overheads low.” And it does strike me as the kind of city where it would be possible as a young writer or artist, to live relatively economically. The rent is doable, you wouldn’t have to work at too many other jobs to keep it going, so I think it looks like a good place to be based. 

I really enjoyed the intensity of the winter in a perverse way. Because that would be really weird for us in Ireland, that level of cold. We see snow maybe two days over the winter, and it doesn’t really settle. So to go through that was really odd and I know it was a particularly severe one as well.

With global warming in Ireland and maritime places in Europe, there’s a sense that the year is one long season now, just kind of wet, and a bit kind of humid, and then just a little bit chilly, and it never seems to vary. To have very definite seasons is a positive thing to throw your moods around. It’s nice to get a little feeling of spring fever, with the couple of nice days we’ve had. 

JM: What have you done for fun while you’ve been here?

KB: We’ve eaten! It is a good eating town. We’ve been trying out restaurants in different parts of town. I haven’t yet braved poutine, but I got very close to it when we went to see the Pixies at Metropolis and right on the corner there’s a pretty interesting looking joint. It was very cold and I’d had a few beers so I thought this might be the moment, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I have vowed that before I leave Montreal I will dive in to the poutine.

This conversation has been edited for length.