Frontlist | Jaipur Literature Festival 2021: Kevin Barry books, and what makes Ireland a nation of authors

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The very best of the lot was saved for the last.

In a session that far outmatched any other “attended” by yours truly at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, Kevin Barry hit it out of the park on the final day of the marathon 10-day-long digital gatherings.

The Irish author — whose works include the novels City of BohaneBeatlebone and Night Boat to Tangier, and short stories collections There are Little KingdomsDark Lies the Island and his latest, Old Country Music — was dialling in from his home in Ballinafad, Co Sligo, in conversation with author Cauvery Madhavan.

With a cap partially covering his scruffy hair, accompanied by a beard, a collected demeanour, and wired (yes, this calls for special shout-out) white earbuds, the 51-year-old could have easily passed for a hip-hop producer.

Barry began by briefly talking about Night Boat to Tangier, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019. Set in the port city of Algeciras, the book follows gangsters Charlie Redmond and Maurice Hearne (now past their prime) as they wait for Maurice’s estranged daughter, Dilly, to either arrive on a boat coming from Tangier or depart on one heading there. But it was what followed that set the stage for the next 40-odd minutes – a jaw-dropping god-tier reading of the first page of the book. We are talking narrate-my-life-level of skills laid out with such casual ease, he might as well be having breakfast.

At a later point in the conversation, he would mention how he realised people loved listening to his work, as much as they did reading it. No shit.

Shaken, and stirred; while Barry, one not to linger in a conversation, was already talking about how his native country has shaped his writing. According to the author, what makes Ireland a nation of writers, among other things, is the weather and being on the edge of the Atlantic. There is an air of anxiety which lends to writing. He also pointed to how although the Irish talk a lot — in their wonderfully twisted, maligned, and irony-rich version of English (another great resource for a writer) — they say very little. It is what underneath all these exchanges that is of value, says the author, known for his dialogue-lush stories.

Where a writer decides to live, according to Barry, in an important decision. Looking out his window, he says he can see a lake and wheat fields beyond. His house in Sligo used to be a police station in the 1940s. Back when he bought the place, it was the only one he and his wife could afford, away from the cities. There is a quiet, beautiful and melancholic feel to it, says the author, who has lived in many a places through his life, including a caravan in the 1990s. Ireland might be a small island, but it changes a lot in small distances, says Barry, with humour taking on different characteristics in different places (deadpan, where he lives now) — a great place for a writer.

One of the consolations of growing old for the author, who not too long ago passed the 50 mark, is how the past becomes a treasure chest to draw inspiration from. Barry says ‘past’ is in fact the common thread running through his work, often seen with characters who can’t seem to step out of the shadow of the time gone by. Their efforts though, he points out, are always comical.

Having published his first book when he was 37, Barry says going ahead he wants to write for actors. According to him, the two – writing and acting – are closely related. He describes himself as a frustrated actor, who used to think of himself as the “next great American Jewish writer” in his head [laughs].

Barry is of the opinion that people with good writing skills are not rare, what is rare is the pragmatic mindset to write day in and day out. According to him, one needs a combination of both, to commit oneself fully, in order to be a good writer. He says, although he wanted to be a writer for some time, it was only when he approached his 30s, that he decided to go all in.

So, what advice does he now have for others? Books are made out of books, says Barry, suggesting one reads broadly. Read everything – high and low, even the back of a cornflakes box, he adds. Another bit of advice is to write at the same time of the day, every day. The author describes writing as something close to the state of dreaming, and following a schedule trains the subconscious to be in that particular state. His own daily writing routine, then? Feeling like he didn’t work hard in his 20s, Barry does so now. On a typical day, he goes out to a shed behind his house to write, starting at nine in the morning and working till about noon. He says he might end up writing just for 20 minutes, but it is important that he is present there for all the hours. The first half an hour is most crucial, he says, when he is still not quite awake and sort of in the previously mentioned dream state. For this stretch, he writes in longhand and going online is a no-no.

Barry, who is not on any forms of social media, says he has mixed feelings about the platforms. While on one hand, he understands that they at times help writers promote their works, the element of accompanying distraction is too much. As for the research, the best source is the working life and one’s daily experiences, says Barry, whose first job was as a cub reporter.

Asked about his recommendations for the Irish readathon (March), the author had two picks — Dermot Healy’s A Goat’s Song (1994) and Danielle McLaughlin’s The Art of Falling (2021). Barry, a self-professed fan of American writing, himself has just finished William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. The author described reading, above all for him, as a mode of transporting oneself to a different world, something we could all use a bit more of in these times. With the pandemic, he says, people were reminded of the solace books offered, and he was happy to see book sales go up.

And what has the COVID year been like for himself? Barry admits he felt a bit disoriented in the beginning, and his writing reflected that. But over time, he has settled into it. Life has been somewhat “normal” for novelists, he says, often used to staying put.

Here the session transitioned into a short Q&A segment, and I should take a second to mention a job well done by Madhavan (not a given by a long shot), and the absence of any technical glitches (almost unheard of at this moment). Neat.

His most memorable childhood book? His sister’s copy of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, which he read while being stuck at home sick. Barry descries it as his “first serious book” and the feeling of being transported that accompanied it. He still visits sections of the book every now and then.

How different is it to work on a short-story, as compared to a novel? When it comes to short stories, Barry explains, one needs to get the reader in half a page, making the endeavour much more difficult. One also need to get the timings right. As a general rule of thumb, the author suggests one writes a lot of short-stories in order to get a few good ones.

And what is he working on at the moment? Adapting Night Boat to Tangier into a screenplay.

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