Let Havoc Be Wreaked: An Interview With Kevin Barry
Kevin Barry, who by strategy stays off the social media radar, is surely one of Ireland’s next great writers. His debut novel, City of Bohane, is something of a strange fantasy set on the Emerald Isle. It mixes violence, pop savvy, and a nuanced Irish prosody that reads like a mix of Joyce, Faulkner and McCarthy, with a few extra fucks and arses thrown in for good measure. Anobium recently caught up with Barry to talk about writing, literature, Bohane, and plans for Utter Global Domination.
ANOBIUM: First, who is Kevin Barry?
KEVIN BARRY: I am a writer who lives in an ancient police barracks near a lake in county Sligo in Ireland and if I am often sweet-natured I am also sometimes megalomaniacal.
What does you do to kill dull hours or days?
Days are terrible things, often, and the best thing to do with ’em is to kill ’em. Maybe by cycling around the lake in the rain. But boredom, or its posh cousin, ennui, is interesting, in its way. And it may be the defining feeling of the century.
What is your relationship with boredom, and how do you feel about its posh cousin?
A good writing day, or a good writing day for me, is three hours, max. Or thereabouts. And then there is the fact that I am an ill-slept misfortunate, getting maybe five or six hours a night. So work and sleep, in total, still leave me with about 15 hours a day to kill, and 15 hours is plenty of time to develop an extremely up-close acquaintance with boredom. There is the added complication of living in an Irish swamp where it rains 300 days a year. Where simple, plain old boredom bleeds into ennui is the point, I think, where it becomes a motivating force, and you are forced into maniacal levels of creativity just to survive the dreariness and inanity.
Tell me how long you’ve lived in this swamp. What are its good days? What are its bad days? Anything nasty emerge from it (I mean materially and/or ethereally)?
This will be my sixth summer in the vicinity of Lough Arrow in County Sligo. A good day is something like today – it’s been pretty dry and pretty bright and I’ve got some work done and I’ve just had a run by the lake and it feels like true Maytime. Bad days – the boredom closes in, and I get stir crazy, and sometimes I have to bolt to a city. Nothing especially nasty has crept from the lake in my time here. But it does have one of the highest incidences of UFO sightings in Europe… I watch the skies, hopefully.
Have you lived in Ireland for your whole life? Do you have any desire to live elsewhere? If yes, where? If not, why?
Actually, I’ve moved around a lot. I’ve lived in Ireland but also in English and Scottish cities and I’ve spent long periods in the US and Spain. At one point, I could count something like 15 different addresses in a period of 14 years. But your consciousness tends to fracture a little when you move around so much – you wake up in the morning and you’re not quite sure where you are, it’s as if you’re in the amalgam place of a dream. It’s been good to throw down a root in Sligo, though I still travel quite a bit.
Where did you live when you were living in the US?
I spent six months in Ithaca, in upstate New York, where I was a complete Nabokov fan-boy, tracing all the houses he had lived in during his time in the town. I spent another stretch in the leafy ‘burbs of Atlanta, which was very pleasant and mildly dull. Maybe my most memorable period in the US was spent living in an extremely low-rent motel on State Street, in Santa Barbara, a premises that appeared to be occupied almost exclusively by weirdly sun-tanned alcoholics. Also, there was a Mexican dwarf lady – I hate to sound like a Tom Waits song – who used to sell meth from a pick-up truck in the parking lot, and we’d wink at each other every day; an odd flirtation.
How did it seem Americans reacted when they learned you were Irish? Or, were there any ways you found peculiar the subject and idea of ‘Ireland’ was considered/appropriated in American conversation?
Often a little gleam of light comes into the American eye on learning of your native Irishness and on hearing the dulcet tones of your accent. There is certainly a tendency in America to romanticize Ireland as a misty, sea-blown, antique and magical place. It is critically important as an Irish writer not to play up to this. (I play up to it mercilessly.)
Was Nabokov the sole reason you spent time in upstate NY, or a fringe benefit? And also, what are your favorite Nabokov works, and why?
A fringe benefit – my girlfriend was doing a stint at Cornell, which is what brought us to Ithaca. As regards Nabokov, I sometimes think now that he’s a younger person’s writer – there’s a glint of cruelty in his work that very much appeals when you’re a teen or a twentysomething but less so as you get older. That said, Lolita is of course immortal, as is Pnin. I also like lots of Speak, Memory, and lots of Ada, and chunks of Pale Fire. Nabokov as a character in his own right is also very attractive – the high patrician disdain, the butterfly hunting, the fanatical breadth of his learnedness.
Would you consider him one of your influences, direct or indirect? If not (or if so), who are other people you consider influences on your own work? They don’t need to be writers.
I’m influenced by whoever I’m reading and enjoying at the time – books are made out of books. But they are also made of out of CDs and downloads and DVDs and bits of television and film and comics and whatever. When you’re writing a novel, all your antennae are out, and twitching, and if it’s going well, you’re taking in and using as much of the good stuff as you can find. City of Bohane, for example, was influenced by the Trojan Records box sets of 70s dub reggae I was listening to during its composition, and by the episodes of Deadwood and The Wire and The Sopranos I was watching, and the chunks of James Elroy and Cormac McCarthy and Flann O’Brien I was reading, and by loads of other stuff, too, like old Godfather movies and old Hernandez brothers’ comics. Part of the trick may be knowing when to stop taking in influence and to let the mashed-up elements coalesce into their own form. Nabokov was certainly a sentence-maker I aped (or attempted to ape) in my young and callow days. Probably less so now. But anyone who has ever influenced you remains, at some level, always an influence.
Regarding influences, are there certain things you try to avoid with your writing? Tropes, turns of phrase, blatant homage – that sort of thing? [That is to say, conscious of influence, are there ever things in your own writing you feel you must work to abolish, or withhold, or abstain from?]
Every writer has a cluster-hoard of significant words and phrases that they return to again and again – mine includes the words “forlorn”, “melancholy”, and “malevolent” … You see them coming, after a while, and you try to snip them out. But they are significant to you for a reason, and sometimes they need to be used. In terms of tropes and themes and so forth, after a time writing fiction, you’ll find yourself going over the same ground repeatedly, and obsessively, and that’s no harm – or at least it did Beckett no harm. He ploughed the same bleak furrow for 50 years, essentially. In terms of conscious influence, if a line sounds too obviously borrowed, I would try to lose it, and it is easy enough to recognize, for example, the rolling thunder of a Cormac McCarthy-like sentence as it comes like a ribald satellite of the coming apocalypse out of the blood-red horizon, et cetera et cetera, ad lib to fade.
What has been your genesis (and possibly exodus) as a writer?
I think every writer’s genesis takes form in the same place, which is a place of oddly sweet lonesomeness. If you feel by nature slightly distanced or at a remove from the common swim of things, if you suspect that you feel most alive when you’re on your own, then probably the best (and only) thing you can do is write. Whether it’ll be good or bad depends on talent, luck and discipline. I don’t believe in exodus – as Bob Marley should once have said. I believe the most important thing for a writer is to keep on beginning, to begin again and again and again. Each time you approach the page it should be as nerve-wracking and as exhilarating as the first time.
Let’s talk a little about City of Bohane: When did you start work on it? Did you shop it around much? How have you felt about the ways it has been received so far?
I started on City of Bohane in October ’08 and wrote a draft in 13 weeks. Then I wrote a couple of more drafts, and it was finished inside a year. I knew as soon as I began that it would be published – there was a good, strong feeling that this was the material I needed to be working on at this particular time. It was bought quickly by Jonathan Cape publishers in London, and subsequently by Graywolf for the US. It has had more than its fair share of raves and just a few sniffy reviews here and there. I think it’s a novel with a very strong taste – like mackeral – and certainly it won’t be for everyone. I reckon for every five readers, two go “meh” and the other three become immediately evangelical in Bohane’s cause. But I would always take strong opinions over mild ones.
Don’t usually like to ask writers questions about the decisions they made in their actual work, but I’m curious: with the occasional breaks into first person, who is the narrator in City of Bohane?
It’s a disguised first-person narrative. The narrator is in there to give the story the feeling of a yarn or a saga or a fable – I want it to feel like it’s been whispered into your ear, by the fireside, amid the woodsmoke and the whiskey and bushweed fumes. I suppose it’s me, essentially – the narrator is an authorial intrusion. Technically, the issue was how much or how little this narrator should appear. I decided to keep him just barely palpable at the edges of things – like a feint babble at the edge of a dream.
What are some projects you’re currently working on?
I’ve just started the second draft of a novel. I have, as always, three or four half-alive or undead short stories lying about the workroom – zombie stories, essentially. I’m currently involved, as screenwriter, with three feature film projects, including the adaptation of City of Bohane, so there are various drafts of those about. Also, notes for essays, plans for stage plays and graphic stories and art projects, and general tactical documents relating to my campaign for Utter Global Domination. It’s a neurotically busy desk.
What are a few key policies you plan on instituting when you have achieved Utter Global Domination?
That there should be no policy shall be the only policy – let Havoc be wreaked.
Mackerel is how you spell it…And don’t get me started on feint…