Lee Morrissey Interviews Kevin Barry: Award-winning Irish Author

April 26, 2018

Kevin Barry, Irish native and award-winning author

LM: I wanted to talk about Beatlebone in particular. We met first in Georgia but then three times on an island off the coast of Ireland, at the Inish Festival, on Inish Bofin, Co. Galway, 2015, 2016, and 2017, and that informed my reading of Beatlebone.  That first year I made a presentation at Inish Festival, while you were out bike riding, about the topic, “Is Ireland an island?”  In the Constitution of 1937, they make a distinction between Ireland and its islands.  And so I argued that Ireland is not an island.  England is an island.  Ireland is not an island, because it’s so well connected with the rest of the world, and is okay with it in a way that the English apparently aren’t–and that was before Brexit.  And also it was before I had read Beatlebone.  I had heard you read the “Fjord of Killary.”  You’ve also talked about how a story takes a while to develop for you.  And I wonder if “Fjord of Killary” is part of a change in your own writing, how you’re moving west, from a Western to the west of Ireland, as it goes from City of Bohane to Beatlebone.  So that’s the general topic I wanted to cover, and to situate
John Lennon in that.

KB: Very interesting you brought up bike riding as a means of escaping your presentation when we were on Inish Bofin.   Bike riding is actually fundamental lately to my process as a writer. Getting out of the house and cycling around the west of Ireland in County Sligo and in Mayo.   Almost all of the material I’ve been writing up for the last few years has started on my bicycle, which sounds very Flann O’Brien-esque of course.  Interestingly I grew up in Limerick City, lived for a long time in Cork, and then abroad.  Limerick City is part of the west of Ireland, but kind of distinct from it in a weird way.  Always disowned I would say, and quite rightly so, by the west of Ireland.  It never fitted into the peasant mythic self-image that the rest of the west of Ireland had.  It was a very urban space.  I would say it’s the only truly urban space on the west of Ireland.  City of Bohane could only have been written by a young man who had grown up in the city of Limerick.  I went on to live in Cork city, and the Cork accent comes into it very much as well. I have found at this point that the material events of my life and the feelings and the emotions and the locales I draw on for my work take a while to filter through.  Ten or eleven, twelve, years of a lag period typically before the events of my life begin to show up in the fiction, on the page.  I moved to Co. Sligo in 2007, just literally a week after my first book of fiction came out.  It’s only in the last four or five years that the immediate environs have started to creep into the stories and the voices of the place. It takes a while to tune your ear in, and Ireland is a small island geographically, but it’s very distinct from zone to zone and parish to parish.  The humor and the speech in Limerick for example is a hundred miles an hour. And really quick and really fast and a hundred mile an hour on down the line like that so.  And we speak a real nutty sense of humor.  In the northwest where I live now, it’s very slow, quiet talk. There seems to be almost no humor, but it’s all deadpan, and delivered with a straight, dry face, and it takes a while as a writer to tune into that.  I’d been in my Sligo home about three or four years when I started taking long cycles in the summer, out around Clew Bay in Co. Mayo.  And each time I went out there, you know I should have [shoulda] been in a good mood; it was kind of [kinda] summer, or what passes for our summer.  I was out on my bike, Clew Bay–anyone who knows Clew Bay knows it’s an infinitely beautiful place.  But every time I got there, I came to experience a kind of, well, I’d start to think about what Saul Bellow used to call “your significant dead.”  Any time I was cycling about Clew Bay, I’d start thinking about family members I had lost, or friends who had died.  And this kind of atmosphere.

LM: The narrator here mentions a dead mother.

KB: Yeah, and I came to call it, in the novel Beatlebone I came to call it, a kind of “death hauntedness” that I got around the vicinity of Clew Bay.  And I knew it was the atmosphere of a novel.  I knew it was the aura or the atmosphere of a novel.  At this point I had no idea that John Lennon was going to be in novel.  The only thing I had about Clew Bay was this little pop cultural factoid trapped at the back of my brain: John Lennon of The Beatles had bought a tiny island out there in the late 1960s, and it was irresistible to try and do something with that.  I knew from the start this was an absolutely terrible idea for a novel because you’re giving yourself such an obstacle.  You’re taking not just an iconic figure, a super iconic figure, so so many readers are going to [gonna] open the first page and they’re going to, in their minds, know how this character should sound.  So, that’s a big problem.  And that’s a lot of heavy lifting you’re giving yourself at the start.  It involved a lot of Youtube on my part, literally transcribing his speech, sentence by sentence.

LM: Which is also mentioned in the second part, where the narrator shows up, or maybe you show up, talking about the process.

KB: I show up in the middle of the book, which led to delightful conversations with my editors on both side of the Atlantic.  The heart of the book is an essay, in the middle of it, in which I write essentially about why I’m telling this story, and why I’m writing this story, in which I figure out in the course of writing that essay that it’s a portrait of an artist, and to make a portrait of an artist you have to bring everything you have from your own life to it.  What could I share, with an iconic figure like John Lennon?  We both had dead mother stories.  You know, we both had lost a mother young.  And that’s something I felt I could bring to tune into his sensibility. It kind of [kinda] began by accident, that essay section.  I had lots of notes for Beatlebone, written on the backs of envelopes and the backs of beer mats very often and in different notebooks that I one day decided to buy.   I was in London; I bought a fancy new moleskin notebook and saying I got to bring all these notes into the same place.  And I started writing down the essential actual facts of the story, like Lennon buys this island in 1968, this is what he pays for it, this is when he goes out there the first time.  And as I wrote this kind of non-fiction material, I found very effortless paragraphs and sentences starting to form.  Now, nothing up to this point had been effortless in this project and when the hand is suddenly moving smoothly across the page you pay attention.  You go, ‘okay, why is this going right?’  And then for the first time directly in my writing career, I started to write about my mother’s death when I was ten and I started to pay super close attention.  And something told me this is the heart of this book, and it’s very important that this essay isn’t placed as a kind of an afterword for the book, that it’s at the center of it, that the fiction feeds into it, and then radiates out from it once we’ve gone through the essay.

LM:  There’s a line in that section in that 6th part, where you say “wherever it is that you’re most scared of surfacing in your work, you can be sure it’s nearby.”

KB:  Yeah.  And sentimentality is my great fear in my work.

LM:  And that’s the next paragraph. And the one after that, that is “as a ten year old what I seem to find most distressing about the fact of a dead mother.”

KB:  And what was the sentimental nature of the pathos surrounding it.  You know, I think both this novel and the previous novel, The City of Bohane, they’re both very distinct books, but what they do have in common is a sense of characters not being able to walk out of the shadow of their own skin essentially, not being able to get past the basic biographical facts and the situation you come out of.

LM: You trace in here that there’s basically either an orphaned child or a missing parent in every generation in Lennon’s family going back to 1848.

KB: This repeating story that repeats down the generations, and it’s something that crops up again and again in my work.  I’m just looking before me at a printout of the story “Ox Mountain Death Song,” set in Co. Sligo, which again has a sense of these families just repeating their kind of tunes and their mistakes and their hopeless kind of rhythms generation after generation after generation. And you always think you’re the one who’s going to break this rhythm and break this stride and yet never quite are.

LM: Do you see that as your role as a writer, in spotting those patterns?

KB: Ah, Jesus, my role as a writer is a tricky one.

LM: Well, let’s first say, what about the spotting of the patterns?

KB: Absolutely, yeah.  To delineate in some way or to make sense.  I mean my role as a writer is to console, I think.  Life is often tricky and miserable and cruel and senseless and seems to lack any kind of meaning and the longer you sit through it less meaning seems to appear.  And my role as a writer is to try and just say “Yeah, me too. This is how I feel too.”  This is why I write comedy so much. Comedy is the great consolation.  Comedy is the most natural human form.  We get through life by laughing at it, by laughing at the misery and the fucking depth of hopelessness we often fall into.  So I naturally tend to a comic mode or tone.

LM: In this one, you talk about how The Beatles tried to buy an island in Greece, but that falls through, which leaves John looking it turns out in the end either coincidentally or for whatever reason at an island on the west coast of Ireland.  I’m interested in that move because it situates Lennon in a line that goes back to Synge.  It situates you in a line that goes back to Synge.

KB: It interests me.  One of the key texts if you like for this book was the first half of Anthony Burgess’s biography called Little Wilson and Big God, which is about growing up in a Catholic Irish Manchester family in the 1920s.  And I’m really interested in what happens when Irish pathos and sentimentality and singing in pubs and all that kind of stuff, what happens when you relocate that to the cold cities of the north of England. What do you get out of that?  What you get out of that is you get The Beatles.  And you get The Smiths and you get that whole sort of music hall kind of tradition coming through with all its kind of comedy and emotion and pathos.

LM: He refers to Julia, his deceased mother, as “ocean child,” and it seems to me that’s part of what you’re talking about.  In this particular case, you’re talking about moving across the Irish Sea, to Liverpool or to Manchester, but the same point would apply to Lennon. He actually leaves one island, Manhattan, to get to Ireland, another island, to get to a third island, Dor Inish.

KB: Well, what appeals to my I guess comedian’s eye in the Lennon and Clew Bay story is the fact that there are hundreds of little islands out there, so the joke that I can have is he doesn’t know which island is his, which can operate on all sorts of levels then, if you want it to.  And of course at some point his sidekick, who’s kind of the heart of the novel, his sidekick Cornelius O’Grady, his Irish spiritual guide and minder, kind of says to him, “John, does it fucking [fuckin] matter which island we set you down on, ultimately, you know?”  I did actually make it to Dor Inish island as part of my research for the book.

LM: And that’s the one night mentioned here.

KB: I claimed in the book to have spent a night out there.  I lasted about an hour and a half and threw it.  Seemed to be enough.  I had a look around.  I did a little bit of primal screaming, because that was part of the story of the book, that he’s gone out there to scream, and I tried to do some primal screaming when I was out there on it.  Solved everything.

LM:  I’ve got three formal questions, one about each section of the book.  The first one is such a book of dialogue.  I know that you went on to write a play or two after this.  Could you talk about why dialogue, why dialogue for this story?  Again, my interest in or my issue or what I find interesting about it is that this seems like the Synge line.  This is Peig Sayers, this is Twenty Years A Growing, this is off-Ireland island literature that tends to be oral and transcribed.

KB: I guess for me and as I look back through my work I can see that it is peppered with double acts.  In the peculiar instance of this book, I began to hear John’s voice clearly when I put it in relief against another, when I gave him this Irish character, Cornelius O’Grady, who’s his driver and his kind of minder as they fall into various adventures and misadventures around Co. Mayo.  Cornelius’s is a voice I can do at will.  I have known many Cornelius’s with dodgy vans in my time in the west of Ireland, and as soon as I had him talking to John, John could be heard on the edges of that.  I am by nature—and this is something that surprised me actually about my own career because you can be so dumb about your own kind of projection or trajectory, you know—I think I am essentially a dramatist.  I think eventually I’ll be writing plays, and that’ll be about the size of it, with dipping in and out of other things.  It’s the way it’s going.  When I finished Beatlebone, which took about four years, I had a great surge of–I expected to feel exhausted, and I actually felt ecstatic at the end of it—I had a great surge of energy, and I wrote three plays in six months, on the kind of energy that was left over from it.  Then I was exhausted, after that.

LM: If I go from the beginning, where I’ve got the dialogue, and the voices, and the contrasting voices, which leads for you into the playwriting that follows, the story ends, or more or less ends, with this lost Beatlebone tape, which is to say a writing about a recording of a voice in a novel that had begun ostensibly claiming to record the voices.

KB: And I think that at some fundamental level, I write stories for the ear.  I write stories that are to be heard, I think.  It became evident really very quickly when I published the first book of stories with a small press in Dublin in 2007 that people liked to hear this stuff.  They like to hear me read it, and to do the accents and to do the voices.  I am a kind of a frustrated ham actor at some level, and I think there is something about where we are now in 2018 and the way we function when we come across a story. Because we spend so much of our time online and dealing with texts online and that fashion, our brains are moving at such a pace and we process texts so quickly, and it gives it kind of a flitty impatient feel to our reading.  It’s hard for people to slow down to the pace of a novel now.  I think the one that can still slow us down is the human voice.  People are still [[15:31]] essentially children at heart and want to be told stories.  This explains the rise of podcasts and all that.  People still love to hear and to tune into something primordial in just being sat down and just being told a story.  I would say it’s definitely the case that I often write prose fiction with the notion of performing it myself in mind.  When I was writing that lost Beatlebone tape I was thinking “This is going to be such fucking fun to perform and to do,” and I knew it was kind of a version of Krapp’s Last Tape or something as well that I was ripping off but it was a chance to cut into that north of England beautiful Liverpool dialect and just go wild with it.  The fact I lived in Liverpool for three years in the mid-zeros is one of the things that gave me the confidence to try this book I think.

LM: Two more questions, one about the middle section.  It reminded me of Sebald.

KB: Yeah, Sebald with jokes, I described it to my editor as.  He’s one of those writers you come through, and he’s a very dangerous influence because it’s such wonderful material you can’t help but imitate it at some level.  I came across him at a particularly dangerous time in my late twenties.  I read Rings of Saturn and then very quickly everything else that I could get my hands on and of course you start then on the page as a young emerging writer.  At 28 or 29 I was trying to be Sebald.  I managed to get past that, I think, but I occasionally write an essay.  I find them incredibly hard work, harder than writing fiction or drama, but when I do he’s still one of those guiding voices you have in the back of your mind.  I think I managed to get more jokes in and more punchlines than Sebald possibly manages but he’s a writer I go back to a lot, and one of the two great spirit guides I think for writing who have emerged in the last twenty years would be Sebald and Roberto Bolaño as the really important kind of guides who show you what you can do now and what you don’t have to do anymore as a fiction writer.

LM: And what don’t we have to do anymore?

KB: I think it’s almost taken the novel-y-ness out of the novel if that makes any sense, that the novel can be absolutely anything under the sun.  It doesn’t have to be the novel I was trying to write in my twenties, you know?  I tried to write that great Irish novel or whatever, but it can be a very different thing. It can be anything.  I think at this point if the reader is having a good time page to page, I’m happy.  And I think if they’re having a good time page to page they’ll go anywhere with you. You can take them anywhere at all.  It’s almost a weird thing to say, but literature was invented to entertain us.  It’s an entertainment first and foremost.  It’s there to get us through the long hard nights. That’s what it’s for.  It can educate us and make us wise and make us empathetic and all those things but it’s there to entertain us, you know?  And if you look back at Tristram Shandy, or any book like that, it’s a piece of fun, first and foremost.  That’s why it’s there.

LM: Probably the last question.  Maybe there’s one follow-up, but when we went over selections from Beatlebone in class, one of the students said, “It was very confusing; the Beatlebone tape is just one sentence.”  Now, I don’t know whether it is one sentence, but I said, “You think that’s tough?  Mike McCormack’s book, Solar Bones, is a single fragment.” And then I realized they’ve both got “bone” in the title.  Have you been talking to Mike?  Are you guys having a conversation with each other through these two books?

KB: Both set in Mayo as well, yeah. Mike is one of the Irish writers I really have admired most I must say over the last ten or twenty years.  I’m delighted that Solar Bones has given him the breakthrough that he has long deserved.  I would say about Solar Bones, it’s an incredibly easy read.  It’s clear as a bell.  People get a bit sort of dismayed, “Oh God, it’s one sentence?  I’m going to have to follow all that?”  But it’s so clear, the ear is so in tune with it.  Writing prose fiction I always think of as a kind of a musical form. A novel or a story if it’s going to work out has an inherent tune or melody that you’re just trying to follow, line by line.  I think Mike absolutely tuned in to the tune, the melody of Solar Bones and got it from the start.  And it goes right the way through.  It’s a fantastic achievement.

LM: That does lead to what I thought would be the follow-up and final question.  You put yourself in the studio with Lennon, which is an ambitious move.  I know there’s a claim in there.  It’s a claim I think about this ocean child and about Ireland and where is it and about stories and meaning because that tape is so much about all those questions.  But of course you’ve put yourself in the studio with John Lennon after The Beatles and you happen to have “found” the lost tape, where there isn’t instrumentation.  It’s just speaking.  Could you talk a little about that?  You’re interested in music, but there’s no music in the recording.

KB: Part of the fun of it was actually imagining this parallel world where Lennon takes a different direction.  If you look at his actual career, which the book follows for a while, like he was genuinely blocked for a while in the mid 70s, because he thought he was too happy, but then what he went on to record in the last years of his life was his most kind of mainstream straightforward, warm, melodic kind of material. I imagined him going in a different direction, going in a kind of direction somebody like Scott Walker went in when they went into the avant-garde, the kind of world that maybe Yoko Ono was more tuned into as an artist than Lennon would have been.  If he had gone down that road, what would have happened?  What kind of material would he have made?  There’s no doubt, and I’m not the first one to say it, that Lennon is very much a literary persona.  He comes out of Spike Milligan, going back to Dylan Thomas, going back to James Joyce.  You know that’s very much in his lineage, in his blood. We know that he wrote books of fictions.  So in some way, I was trying to write a novel John Lennon might have attempted in his kind of wilder moments, and what would he have done.  It was very important to me.  About a year in, I had the voice, I had Cornelius’s voice alongside it, and I became aware that this was a very dangerous moment.  I thought, “I could write a standard buddy movie, bio-pic version of this story now and it would be fine.”  But I thought the spirit of this book has to be true to its subject, and he was a fuckin[[g]] wild artist, and he tried things and he went out on a limb, and I thought the book has to be true to that in its nature.